Jul 26, 2018

The Billionaire Yogi Behind Modi's Rise

Ramdev with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, left, and BJP President Amit Shah in New Delhi, India during a preview of Ramdev’s show on February 10, 2018.CreditRaj K Raj/Hindustan Times/Getty Images
Ramdev with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley
Baba Ramdev built a business empire out of mass yoga camps and ayurvedic products. But is his pious traditionalism a mask for darker forces?

Robert F. Worth
New York Times Magazine
July 26, 2018

On a hazy day in early February, some of the most powerful men in India’s government gathered at Chhatrasal Stadium in New Delhi, an arena famous for its boisterous wrestling bouts. The men had come for a different kind of spectacle — a biographical film epic, whose initial episodes (out of 57 total) would be shown for the first time that evening. At the center of a makeshift stage, surrounded by smiling politicians and cabinet members, was the person whose life was being celebrated: a slender figure in saffron robes with a long, dark beard, his chest-length hair tied in a bun. He needed no introduction. This was Baba Ramdev, one of the most famous men in India.

Ramdev took the microphone and introduced the phalanx of several hundred Hindu religious students, known as brahmacharis, sitting in neat rows on the field. Everyone repeat after me: “Bharat mata ki jai!” he shouted. The crowd raised their arms and pumped their fists as they chanted the words — “India my motherland is great” — that have become a defining slogan of the Hindu nationalist movement.

One by one, the dignitaries rose to recount Ramdev’s extraordinary career: how he brought physical fitness to the Indian middle class with his mass yoga camps and television empire; how he built his medicine-and-consumer-goods company, Patanjali Ayurved, into a multibillion-dollar colossus. “Swamiji has changed the direction of the world, the thinking of the world,” one speaker shouted, referring to Ramdev with an affectionate honorific. “That is how great he is. Swamiji has changed India, which was going toward the West — its dress and food and culture — and has changed its direction to yoga!”

At last silence fell, and the 50-foot screen flickered to life. For the next hour, India’s political elite watched in humble silence as Ramdev’s life unfolded, from his birth in a remote rural village to his early days as a lissome yogi (the remaining episodes had been condensed into trailer form). As a film, it was a shambolic melodrama that seemed to treat Ramdev almost as a divine messenger. But as an expression of the Indian public’s feelings, it wasn’t far off the mark.

Ramdev has been compared to Billy Graham, the Southern Baptist firebrand who advised several American presidents and energized the Christian right. The parallel makes some sense: Ramdev has been a prominent voice on the Hindu right, and his tacit endorsement during the landmark 2014 campaign helped bring Prime Minister Narendra Modi to power. He appeared alongside Modi on several occasions, singing the leader’s praises and urging Indians to turn out for him. Ramdev has called Modi “a close friend,” and the prime minister publicly lauds Patanjali’s array of ayurvedic products — medicines, cosmetics and foodstuffs. Although Modi campaigned heavily on promises to reform India’s economy and fight corruption, there were frequent dog whistles to the Hindu nationalist base, some of them coordinated with Ramdev. A month before Modi’s landslide victory, a trust controlled by Ramdev released a video in which senior leaders of Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.), including the current ministers of foreign affairs, internal security, finance and transportation, appeared alongside him with a signed document setting out nine pledges. These included the protection of cows — animals held sacred in Hinduism — and a broad call for Hindu nationalist reforms of the government, the courts, cultural institutions and education. After Modi won, Ramdev claimed to have “prepared the ground for the big political changes that occurred.”

But Ramdev is far more than a useful holy man. Even beyond his political patrons, Ramdev is the perfect messenger for a rising middle class that is hungry for religious assertion and fed up with the socialist, rationalist legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first post-independence leader. Ramdev has led vastly popular campaigns against corruption, donning the mantle of swadeshi, or Indian economic nationalism, to cast foreign companies as neocolonial villains. In a sense, Ramdev has changed Hinduism itself. His blend of patriotic fervor, health and religious piety flows seamlessly into the harder versions of Hindu nationalism, which are often openly hostile to India’s 172 million Muslims. Although Ramdev prefers to speak of Indian solidarity, his B.J.P. allies routinely invoke an Islamic threat and rally crowds with vows to build temples on the sites of medieval mosques.

In his own way, Ramdev is India’s answer to Donald Trump, and there is much speculation that he may run for prime minister himself. Like Trump, he heads a multibillion-dollar empire. And like Trump, he is a bombastic TV personality whose relationship with truth is elastic; he cannot resist a branding opportunity — his name and face are everywhere in India. In May, he announced plans to add swadeshi SIM cards to his ever-growing list of products: packaged noodles, herbal constipation remedies, floor cleaner made with cow urine. He has a gift for W.W.E.-style publicity stunts: Last year he “won” a televised bout with an Olympic wrestler from Ukraine.

On the surface, Ramdev’s blissful demeanor is worlds away from Trump’s growls and sneers. But his namastes provide cover for a reactionary campaign to transform the country. When challenged on his evasions and slurs, Ramdev — like the White House’s current occupant — tends to respond by pointing a finger at “corrupt” figures in the secular elite. It seems to work. Last year an Indian judge banned a critical biography of Ramdev before it was released and then put a gag order on its author, barring her from even mentioning the book on social media. In a sense, Ramdev is more powerful than any prime minister. He may be a wholly new breed: a populist tycoon, protected from critics (and even, to some extent, from the law) by a vast following and a claim to holy purpose.

The center of Ramdev’s empire is in Haridwar, a small city on the Ganges near the foothills of the Himalayas, about a four-hour drive northeast of Delhi. It is a sacred place in Hindu legend, and thousands of pilgrims gather there by the riverbanks every day. Not far away is the town of Rishikesh, where the Beatles famously visited Maharashi Mahesh Yogi in the late 1960s. But Ramdev’s operation is a far cry from the ascetic ashrams of yesteryear. Patanjali’s main office complex looks like an airport, with an odd, pagodalike gate separating it from the rest of town. Inside, there are vast parking lots, a cavernous employee cafeteria, lawns and fountains. You might think you were in Silicon Valley if not for the jerseys reading “Dept. of Yoga Science” that the University of Patanjali students wear. I found myself staring at a statue of a bony, bearded sage seated in the lotus position: It was Patanjali, the company’s namesake, who some two millenniums ago is said to have compiled the verses that are the foundation of modern yoga practice.

Ramdev lives a few blocks away, behind another huge gate manned by armed guards. (After Modi’s election, his government granted Ramdev the second-highest level of state security while withdrawing it from some leaders of the rival Congress party.) The guards waved us through, and suddenly I found myself in a quiet enclave of lush gardens. The heat and dust of India seemed far away. We strolled along a brick path to a small bungalow, and there was Ramdev, seated on a beautifully carved wooden swing, laughing and chatting with a guest. He rose and greeted me with a hug. I was struck by his slight stature; his bushy black beard, gray at the fringes, seemed more substantial than his thin frame. He emanated a loose-jointed warmth, like someone who has just run a long distance. Apart from his thin saffron robes — one wrapped around his chest and one at the waist — he wore only padukas, the traditional platform wooden clogs with a metal post for the toes to grip.

“This is my basic and ultimate mission,” he said, speaking in strongly accented English. “I want a healthy, wealthy, prosperous and peaceful person, society, nation.” He looked into my eyes and touched my forearm as he spoke. The left side of his face was paralyzed by a childhood illness, and the resulting squint gives him a look of cockeyed intensity. “Health and happiness, without yoga you cannot achieve,” he went on. “Yoga is my basic work.” Ramdev practices and teaches yoga every day from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m., in a hangarlike auditorium with hundreds of students and TV cameras rolling, and then again (when he can) in the afternoon and evening from 5 until 7:30. In between, he told me, he oversees Patanjali and its associated trusts and charitable activities. He interspersed his earnest yoga talk with playful banter, tossing his head back in giddy fits of giggling. When I asked him if I could follow him around for a day or two, he seemed delighted. “Of course! You can stay with me,” he said, gesturing at the house behind us, where he sleeps on a pallet on the floor. “I’m not married. But don’t worry, I’m not homosexual!” He burst into raucous laughter and added, “I’m against homosexuality!” The laughter got even louder, and he added under his breath, “Just kidding.”

I was baffled for a moment, and then found myself marveling at his legerdemain. As a Hindu monk, Ramdev has repeatedly declared his disapproval of homosexuality, calling it “immoral and unnatural.” He says it can be cured by yoga. But he has the politician’s gift for charming his audience. In a single, East-meets-West moment, he had both deferred to tradition and hinted to me that he was a closet liberal. (He was also kidding about the offer to sleep on his floor, as it turned out.)

Ramdev’s informality and practical bent set him apart from most other gurus. Indian religious celebrities are known popularly as godmen, a word that suggests stardom but also adds a hint of derision. They are heirs to an ancient tradition of humble, loincloth-clad wisdom seekers, but opportunism seems to come with the territory as well. Some godmen have become immensely rich and built cults of personality that stretched around the globe. They tend to surround themselves with fawning followers, and many claim to perform miracles, like Sathya Sai Baba, who became notorious in the 1960s for conjuring Omega watches out of thin air. Ramdev is not the first one to gain influence in politics; in the 1970s Indira Gandhi often sought advice from her own yoga teacher, who became known as the “Rasputin of Delhi.” But Ramdev rarely clouds the air with talk about enlightenment and religion. “My yoga is very simple,” he told me. “No critical postures. No philosophy or ideology. All yoga practices are based on benefit. Instant benefit.”

Ramdev is also the first godman to earn his millions as a businessman instead of just siphoning donations from wealthy followers. Patanjali has vaulted in just over a decade from a tiny operation into an economic powerhouse, with $1.6 billion in sales in the current fiscal year. Turn on a TV or glance at a billboard almost anywhere in India, and you are likely to see Ramdev advertising one of its products. During our talk, Ramdev boasted of Patanjali’s success, detailing his plans for expansion and saying he aimed to reach about $15 billion in annual sales by 2025, a figure that would make Patanjali one of India’s biggest companies. But he also insisted that Patanjali is not a business at all; it is “a service for humanity, for the nation.” He maintains that neither he nor the company’s C.E.O., Acharya Balkrishna, takes a salary. Ramdev says he doesn’t even have a bank account (he abides by the monk’s vow of austerity and chastity, though the company seems to more than take care of his needs). All profits, he said, are plowed back into research and charity, and the company’s low costs allow it to undersell competitors. Most of Patanjali’s employees are paid much less than they would receive elsewhere; asking for a raise is taboo. (A company spokesman denies this.) They are forbidden to drink alcohol or eat nonvegetarian food. “Penance in individual life, prosperity for others,” Ramdev told me with a smile. This blend of fierce capitalism and monkish renunciation is aimed at making India a “world economic power and world spiritual power by 2050.”

Ramdev told me his nationalist vision embraces all religions and castes, but he added a revealing caveat. “Country first,” he said. “This is a must. Not, ‘I’m great, my caste is great,’ but my country is great. Unlike Muslim leaders — they say Islam is great. I say, No: The nation is great, the citizen is great.” And the nation, in Ramdev’s telling, is subtly twinned with a history and culture that is distinctly Hindu: yoga, ayurvedic medicine and the ancient Vedic scriptures from which they are said to have emerged. Sometimes the hints are not so subtle. Two years ago, when a Muslim politician refused to chant a nationalist slogan, Ramdev laid into him at a right-wing rally, saying that were it not for his respect for the law, “we would behead hundreds of thousands” of such people. A court later issued a warrant for Ramdev’s arrest, though the matter appears to have been dropped.

Hindu nationalism rarely made headlines in the West until the 1990s, when images of communal riots and chanting B.J.P. supporters introduced many Americans to the idea that there was another, different kind of fundamentalism to worry about in South Asia. But as a political force, Hindu nationalism predates India’s independence in 1947 and reflects centuries of resentment among the subcontinent’s Hindu majority. Hindus submitted reluctantly to waves of Muslim conquest from the north starting almost a thousand years ago, and then to almost 300 years of British domination. After World War I, when the British Empire started to crack, some Hindu ideologues saw an opportunity to regain the upper hand. They began calling for an explicitly Hindu state and society, in which Muslims (and other minorities) would be tolerated only if they respected the majority culture. In one respect, it was an effort to counter political Islam, which was already gaining adherents in India and elsewhere in the early 1920s. But building a cohesive movement was not easy. Classical Hinduism is more a conglomeration of sects than a single religion; it has many ancient scriptures but no single, foundational text, like the Bible or the Quran. Its ancient caste hierarchy perpetuated divisions and did not translate easily into the unifying slogans of modern mass politics.

In an effort to overcome these internal fissures, the early Hindu nationalists built a regimented anticolonial social movement in the 1920s, which later formed links with Italian and German fascism; the main branch was known as the RSS, from the Hindu words for “national organization of volunteers.” In place of black shirts and armbands, they wore khaki shorts and carried bamboo sticks. This association tainted them in the decades that followed, especially after so many British and Indian soldiers died fighting the Axis powers in World War II. Another serious blow came in 1948, when a Hindu nationalist zealot assassinated Mohandas Gandhi, modern India’s saintly father figure. Afterward, Nehru, Gandhi’s political heir, suppressed Hindu nationalist organizations and fostered his own countervailing conception of India as a pluralist, secular state. Although he was a Brahmin, Nehru was a passionate cosmopolitan who saw Hindu identity as narrow and tribal. He wanted India to be defined by its diversity, not by any one faith. It was an idea shaped in part by his British education at Harrow, Cambridge and the Inns of Court in London, and one shared by many of his peers. For decades after independence, India’s ruling class was mostly a “thin layer of brown Englishmen,” in the phrase of an Indian friend of mine who heard it from his grandfather, a friend of Nehru’s. They were patrician figures who rebelled successfully against the British but absorbed many of their ideas about how the country should be governed.

By the 1990s, Nehru's Congress party had become almost synonymous with the Indian state, but his tolerant, worldly vision was starting to fray. The Hindu nationalist movement anointed the B.J.P. as its political vehicle, and the party slowly gained strength, fueled by perceptions of corruption and entitlement in the secular political elite. In 1998, the B.J.P. was able to sustain a majority coalition in India’s Parliament for the first time. But in early 2002, bloody communal riots broke out in the western state of Gujarat, reviving the party’s old demons. It started when a train carrying some Hindu pilgrims caught fire. Revenge mobs quickly formed. In the ensuing violence, more than a thousand people were killed, most of them Muslims, and there was widespread looting. Ramdev’s future friend Narendra Modi was Gujarat’s chief minister at the time, and evidence soon emerged suggesting that he and other top B.J.P. officials had stoked the violence, or at least given a green light. (A court-appointed investigation cleared Modi of wrongdoing in 2012, but many scholars and analysts who have examined the evidence disagree.) Many Indian Muslims still consider the riots a state-sanctioned pogrom, and see Modi — who has never apologized for his role — as a criminal. But even among Hindus, the B.J.P. suffered from its reputation as a party led by Brahmins and other upper-caste Hindus. It had trouble winning votes from Dalits (untouchables) and others at the lower end of India’s caste hierarchy.

Ramdev was just the kind of unifying figure the B.J.P. needed. At the time of the Gujarat riots, he was emerging as a celebrity, crisscrossing India to preside over mass yoga camps and pitch his home remedies. He tapped into a hunger for spirituality and health among India’s growing middle class and quickly became a symbol of Hinduism at its most benign, a ready-made package of rituals and foods that were fun, affordable and good for you. As his fame spread, a stream of politicians and celebrities made their way to Haridwar, eager to donate to his cause and seek his endorsement; he was becoming what Indians call a “vote bank.” In 2011, he embraced the nationwide anti-corruption movement, led by the independent social activist Anna Hazare, which swept India that year. In June, he started a hunger strike against corruption, and 40,000 of his followers rallied in his support in Delhi. The police showed up with tear gas, and in the ensuing melee, Ramdev shed his saffron robes under a stage and tried to escape disguised as an injured woman, only to be detained and exposed on video, bushy beard and all. The Indian press mocked him for days.


But nothing seems to taint Ramdev for long. Three years later, his reputation as a crusader against corruption — a frequent B.J.P. talking point — made him even more valuable in the elections that swept the Hindu nationalists to power. He turned his yoga-camp meetings, which often had tens of thousands of people in attendance, into unofficial rallies. Two weeks before the elections started, he welcomed Modi onstage at a huge outdoor gathering in New Delhi. “You’ll make other people understand, won’t you?” Ramdev said to the microphone, as Modi sat next to him, grinning. “You won’t sit at home, will you?” The audience roared back: “No!”

Ramdev founded a short-lived political party in 2010, and has since been rumored to be weighing a political career himself. When I brought up the question, he smilingly batted it away, saying that he’d become a “nonpolitical person” and that the triumph of the B.J.P. had obviated any need for him to run for office. “Modi is an honest prime minister,” he told me. “He is a visionary and a missionary. He will win the next term (in the 2019 elections). He will build a strong foundation for India.”

But the B.J.P.’s ambitions go well beyond 2019. Unlike the Congress party, the B.J.P. doesn’t just want to govern; it wants to transform the country, politically and culturally. The Indian state and its business allies have become increasingly enmeshed in Hindu religious education and promotion, funding ashrams, gurukuls (where students apprentice themselves to a guru and study Sanskrit) and priest education. Modi’s government has also helped empower figures like Yogi Adityanath, a right-wing Hindu firebrand who has said he wants to install statues of Hindu gods in every mosque, and who last year became chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.

Many Indian Muslims say they have begun to feel like strangers in their own land. The B.J.P. has proposed a number of laws with a troublingly sectarian cast. One of them would allow immigrants from nearby countries who are Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh or Christian to apply for citizenship but would explicitly exclude Muslims. Even worse, some Muslims say, is the government’s winking attitude toward communal violence. In 2015, a Hindu mob in a village near Delhi beat a Muslim to death on suspicion of having eaten beef. When one of the accused killers later died of an unrelated illness, a B.J.P. politician attended his funeral; the coffin was draped in the Indian flag. Episodes like this have multiplied since Modi’s victory in 2014.

Ramdev’s success at rebranding yoga — and popular Hinduism — may owe something to the inspirational power of his oft-told life story. He was born to a poor farm family in north-central India, probably in 1965 (he has always been vague about his age) and given the name Ram Kisan Yadav. As a child, he worked in the fields and suffered a series of illnesses and accidents. When I met him in Haridwar, he showed me a horizontal scar on his forehead, the legacy of a fall when he was 3 or 4. Later he fell into the village pond and nearly drowned. After the illness that paralyzed the left side of his face, other children mocked him for his squint. He read about yoga in a book, he told me, and began practicing it in order to fortify his weak body. As a teenager, he left home for a gurukul. The years that followed are curiously blank; Ramdev has said very little about them, sometimes claiming he doesn’t remember. What is clear is that in 1995 he became a monk and assumed his current name after a revelation he described to me like this: “No personal choice, no personal desires, no wealth, no respect or disrespect. My whole skill, whole existence, this whole existence for all.”

Ramdev started teaching yoga soon afterward. He also teamed up with Balkrishna, whom he met at a gurukul, and the two men began peddling their homemade herbal pills and unguents from a modest clinic that would eventually grow into Patanjali. An early breakthrough came in 2002, when a religious TV channel called Aastha offered to broadcast Ramdev’s yoga classes. He quickly became a star, charming audiences with his mobile eyebrows, his giggles, his trademark undulating stomach-muscle routine (a traditional asana adapted for TV audiences). At the time, relatively few Indians practiced yoga, even as millions of Americans were doing sun salutations and intoning their namastes. It was considered an austere discipline linked to ancient texts, too complex and rigorous for ordinary people. Ramdev changed that. He is a lower-caste Hindu who speaks in a playful, down-to-earth language. He simplified the breathing exercises and postures, making them accessible to anyone. Yet he also urged his listeners to be proud of yoga, calling it a quintessential expression of the wisdom contained in the sacred Hindu texts.

This narrative about yoga’s ancient roots has become a sacrament for Hindu nationalists, and it is echoed in the West. But it is mostly myth, an idealized origin story of the kind so many would-be nation-builders, from ancient Rome to the Zionists, have fostered about themselves. The oldest Hindu scriptures contain almost no mention of physical postures. Even the Yoga Sutras, the so-called bible of yoga, include only a few short verses suggesting comfortable postures for sitting. Many of the postures practiced in yoga today appear to have emerged in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Dozens of modern ashtanga yoga postures are similar or identical to those found in a gymnastic routine introduced to India by the British in the first decades of the 20th century and originally developed by a Danish fitness instructor named Niels Bukh, who later became notorious for his pro-Nazi sympathies. Bukh, needless to say, has been conveniently forgotten by both Indians and the yoga-loving celebrities of Hollywood.

Yoga is only half of Ramdev’s work. He and Balkrishna also use their television empire to tout the healing virtues of Patanjali’s ayurvedic medicines and health foods, rooted in the supposedly curative powers of herbal and mineral compounds. Western scientists view ayurveda (the “science of life”) with skepticism, and studies have found that some ayurvedic products contain toxic levels of heavy metals, usually from soil or ash, in the mix. But in India they have become a booming business, thanks in part to Ramdev's marketing efforts. Balkrishna gave me a tour of Patanjali’s medical research institute, in a gleaming new building that was inaugurated last year by Modi himself (“Swami Ramdev’s herbs help you overcome all problems,” the prime minister told the crowds gathered for the event).

If Ramdev is Patanjali’s flamboyant mascot, Balkrishna is his foil, a number-crunching introvert with buckteeth and a high, soft voice. He led me upstairs to a laboratory where white-coated technicians were drying masses of swampy green spirulina, a form of algae, to be packed into pills. “It is high in protein and vitamins,” one of the men told me. In his spare time, Balkrishna said, he wanders the forests of the Himalayas looking for medicinal herbs. Some can be found growing in a garden behind the research center, adjoining a Disney-style religious theme park, with life-size sculpted figures enacting scenes from the Vedas inside man-made caves.

It looked like Hindu kitsch to me. But for Ramdev and Balkrishna, all this herbal wisdom is serious business. When it comes to marketing against foreign competitors, they wield their holiness like a club. One Patanjali ad runs: “As East India Company plundered our country for 200 years likewise these multinationals are exploiting our country by selling their harmful and dangerous chemical products. Beware!” Ramdev’s competitors have sued Patanjali repeatedly, but the slurs persist.

The swadeshi campaign has served Ramdev very well. Economic nationalism is not just an effective sales pitch; it has also allowed Ramdev to neatly sidestep attacks on his own business practices. Those attacks began as early as 2005, when a quarter of Patanjali’s workers went on strike, claiming they’d been underpaid. Ramdev and Balkrishna promptly fired them, but some of the workers kept samples of the firm’s medicines and said they contained unlisted ingredients including crushed human skulls (presumably residue from soil or ash). A government lab test found human and animal DNA. In response, Ramdev accused “powerful interests” of tampering with the samples. (A later test of new samples found nothing amiss.) His fans came to his defense, as did politicians in the B.J.P.

Over the years, this way of fending off criticism has become a pattern; nonetheless, Patanjali has faced at least half a dozen legal actions over its products. In October 2016, the food and drug administration of Haryana State found Patanjali’s cow ghee (clarified butter) to be “substandard and unsafe.” Last April, the Indian military stopped selling a popular Patanjali juice to soldiers after a government agency tested samples and found them “unfit for consumption.” (Patanjali countered that the juice was medicine and thus the wrong test had been performed.) In the banned biography of Ramdev published last year, the journalist Priyanka Pathak-Narain wrote that Patanjali’s cow ghee — advertised as the purest on the market — was made from white butter sourced from hundreds of thousands of small producers, blending cow, buffalo and goat milk. In India, where pure ghee is required for religious purposes, such things matter.

Some former employees say Ramdev is guilty of more than safety violations. One former high-level executive at Patanjali, who worked at the company for several years, spoke to me on condition of anonymity, saying he feared retaliation. When I asked him why he left, he said of Ramdev: “Because he’s a crook. Because he’s a hypocrite.” He rattled off a sheaf of shocking claims about fraud and employee abuse. (These have been written about in the Indian press, but none appear to have been substantiated in court.) One story involved Ramdev’s brother, Ram Bharat, who was arrested in 2013 and accused of kidnapping and imprisoning a worker suspected of theft (the charges were later dropped). Another former Patanjali executive told me similar stories and added that he began receiving threatening phone calls after he refused to facilitate what he saw as kickback schemes. He complained to Balkrishna, he said, but the calls continued and — feeling his life might be in danger — he resigned. A Patanjali spokesman categorically denied that any of these events took place.

Despite his popularity, Ramdev has long been trailed by even darker speculations, centered on the deaths of two close associates. In 2007, Ramdev’s own guru, a man named Shankar Dev, disappeared without a trace after falling into poverty and illness, and questions were raised about Ramdev’s neglect of him. (Because Dev initiated Ramdev into monkhood, Ramdev would have been expected to treat him like a parent.) In 2010, Rajeev Dixit, one of Ramdev’s closest advisers, who taught him about swadeshi economics and helped make Patanjali a national brand, died suddenly. Some of his friends believe that Ramdev resented Dixit’s own rising celebrity, and they publicly speculated about foul play. But cardiac arrest was cited as the cause of death, and Ramdev has dismissed efforts to implicate him as a conspiracy by his political enemies. When I asked him about this and other insinuations, he cast them all aside with a smile and a wave of his hand. “It’s not true,” he told me. “I am a very simple and humble and compassionate person.”

For Ramdev’s critics, the skeletons in his closet are tied to a broader concern that his political value to the B.J.P. may have placed him above the law. I heard wealthy businesspeople in Delhi speak of him with audible fear in their voices, as if he could damage them at will. One thing is certain: Ramdev has received extraordinary favors from the Indian government since Modi was elected. Soon after the 2014 election, B.J.P.-led state governments across India began facilitating steep discounts on land purchases for Patanjali. There is some precedent for nonprofits or religious organizations to receive such favors, but the deals Patanjali got were very unusual. In the largest of these deals, Patanjali was given a 1,200-acre parcel of land in the eastern state of Assam at no cost. According to state legislature documents I was shown by a local academic, the deal was made by an agency controlled by the Bodoland People’s Front, a party aligned with the B.J.P. Last year a Reuters investigation documented several discounted land sales and leases in three other Indian states that saved the company a total of $46 million. Critics say these deals were partly payback for the boost Ramdev provided to the B.J.P. in the elections. But by spreading Patanjali’s presence into outlying areas where it needed support, the party was also sowing the seeds of future electoral victories.

The state of Assam is about two and a half hours east of Delhi by plane, a sprawling strip of lush jungle and floodplain squeezed between the mountain kingdom of Bhutan to the north and watery Bangladesh to the south. Urbane Indians speak of Assam as a frontier zone, known for its wild rhinos and tigers, its indigenous “tribal” populations and its history of insurgencies. Distrust of the central government runs deep, thanks to a long history of neglect and exploitation of Assam’s rich natural resources — rubber, silk, timber, tea and crude oil. There is also widespread resentment of the Bangladeshi refugees, many of them Muslim, who have fled across the border in recent decades. For the B.J.P. and its allies, Assam seemed fertile ground for Hindutva, or Hindu ideology.

Not long after the party’s 2014 victory, Patanjali secured two large tracts in Assam and began work on a vast production facility. I reached the plant after a bumpy eight-hour journey through endless tea plantations and was greeted by the site manager, an ebullient man with bushy eyebrows named S.B. Singh. His newly built office was empty apart from a large picture of Ramdev on the wall. Through the windows we could see earth-moving machines and construction crews and big piles of muddy, ocher-hued soil.

“There was jungle where we’re sitting,” Singh told me. “Elephants.” Patanjali got the factory up and running in only 132 days, he told me, razing the jungle and clearing out a total of 88 elephants before building a complex of warehouses on the 155-acre site. (The elephants were guided gently to a patch of forest nearby, Singh told me.) He unleashed a blizzard of statistics — 4,000 workers, 1.2 million bags of cement, a 20-person management team — his eyes sparkling with pride at the achievement. The plant remained unfinished and was still running at partial capacity. But already hundreds of workers were busy making cookies and cosmetics. Thousands more were being trained, and not just in job skills.

“We are mentally conditioning them,” Singh said. Patanjali ran more than 380 workshops for prospective employees, where it taught a “value system.” Assam’s people, he explained, had “bad habits,” including eating nonvegetarian food and a lack of proper respect for the nation. “They’ve been listening to corrupt politics from corrupt people for too long,” he said. “We take what our sages said thousands of years ago and put it to use. We didn’t invent it. We took what’s available in our scriptures and put it in a modern format.” In other words, they inculcate Hindutva.

Singh took me on a tour of the production complex in an electric golf cart. After admiring the cookie plant and its 300-foot oven, we drove across a deliciously smooth, median-free stretch of pavement that resembled a runway. In fact, it is a runway, built in consultation with the Indian Air Force so that jet fighters can take off and land on it, Singh told me. “We will dedicate this to the nation in case there is need for an extra airstrip,” he said, and then added with a knowing look, “We are near China.” Patanjali seems almost to view itself as an extension of the state — or rather, an illustration of what has become a “state-temple-corporate complex,” in the apt phrase of the Indian author Meera Nanda.

Patanjali’s work in Assam has benefited from longer-term efforts by the RSS. Founded in 1925, the group was briefly banned several times in the wake of communal riots, most recently in 1992. It periodically went underground, doing grass-roots organizing and forming dozens of affiliate organizations that often hide their links with the RSS. Most of the B.J.P.’s top leaders, including Modi, emerged from the RSS and profess loyalty to it. Yet for all its vast influence, there is something curiously slippery about the RSS. Its ideologues insist that it is larger than Hinduism or any single religion, and they speak of a mystical connection with the Indian subcontinent and the saffron flag, the group’s symbol. They aspire to change India at both the collective and the individual level. “It is a man-making mission,” I was told by Shiv Shakti Bakshi, an RSS veteran who now runs the B.J.P.’s English-language publications. “To make a man who can work for the society, a selfless worker for the society.” This focus on personal change meshes perfectly with Ramdev’s promotion of physical fitness and health, and Bakshi spoke about the guru in glowing terms. “His messages are taken seriously by people,” he said. “In elections, opinion building is important.”

The RSS has become more visible since Modi’s 2014 victory. The group and its affiliates have built hundreds of schools and job-training centers in Assam and other northeastern states in recent years. I visited several and saw unmistakable signs of the RSS ideological program. At one school, young children — some of whom had been raised Christian — recited Hindu prayers and sang songs to Lord Ram before starting their lessons, which include Sanskrit instruction.

All this hard indoctrination work has paid off. In 2016, the B.J.P. won control of Assam’s state government in legislative elections. And in March of this year, the party won stunning electoral upsets in two adjacent northeastern states, where leftist parties had dominated for decades. There was talk of a “saffron wave” that might spread to the south Indian regions, including Communist-dominated Kerala, that have long resisted the advance of Hindu nationalism. Many Indian political analysts said the RSS’s grass-roots work was essential to the recent electoral victories. But one RSS volunteer in Assam, a construction contractor, told me Ramdev’s presence and his yoga promotion had been very influential, too. The contractor said he'd helped to arrange the purchase of cement and other supplies for the new Assam factory site I toured. But eventually he soured on Patanjali, which he saw as too focused on the bottom line. “Even we are not happy with the way the government helps Ramdev so much,” the contractor told me.

The latest wave of B.J.P. victories has been attended by angry criticism of the way the party feeds communal resentments, and Ramdev has not been spared. Assam’s B.J.P.-led state government is compiling a citizenship registry that could cause millions of residents, mostly Muslims, to be declared stateless and expelled, in an eerie echo of the disfranchisement that preceded the mass murder of Rohingya people in nearby Myanmar. One Assamese university professor, who asked not to be named because he feared for his safety, told me that Ramdev had abetted the RSS’s efforts to “question all other religions here, anything non-Hindu.” He also said Patanjali — emboldened by its ties to the Modi government — had run roughshod over laws regulating the harvest of medicinal plants.

The same qualities that have fueled Patanjali’s meteoric rise — its evangelistic fervor, its dependence on Ramdev’s popularity and political connections — have also made it vulnerable. A surprising number of employees told me they saw the company as a high-wire act that might not last. “Conceptually, it’s still not an organization,” Singh, the manager of the new plant in Assam, told me. “It’s an ashram, on a large scale. And what happens on an ashram? What the guru says, you do.” Patanjali’s sales have grown with extraordinary speed, and Singh told me it worried him. “When you stretch something, a vacuum opens up in the middle,” he said, pulling his hands apart as if tearing a lump of pizza dough. In Haridwar, one young employee named Prashad told me he’d been so inspired by Ramdev that he left his corporate job and took a huge pay cut to join Patanjali. But now he worried about the company’s future. “I don’t see it — how they’d continue paying low salaries and maintain quality,” he said. He added that he would leave the company when he married and needed more income.

Retention has been a persistent problem for Ramdev. Applicants flock to the company, despite the fact that Patanjali reportedly pays 25 to 50 percent less than its competitors. Many leave after a year or less, I was told by executives at Patanjali and other companies. “Autonomy is very low,” said one executive at a competing company who asked not to be named, saying (like many other people I spoke to) that he feared retaliation. “Ramdev is very hands-on. There’s no doubt who’s in charge. He’s a micromanager.” Behind his laughing public persona, Ramdev is said by some to be an autocratic boss, capable of lashing out furiously when he’s thwarted.

I got a glimpse of Ramdev’s ashram-style management at Haridwar, where he allowed me to observe him one afternoon. On the second floor of the company’s main corporate office, the hallway was clogged with followers who had come for a glimpse of the guru. One group told me they had come all the way from Tamil Nadu, in the far south. Eventually one of Ramdev’s handlers escorted me past the guards and into a wood-paneled office, and there was Ramdev, a splash of saffron color among button-down oxford shirts and gray flannel pants. He was sitting languidly on a couch, a wooden sandal dangling from his toe, interviewing candidates for jobs in sales and marketing. The applicants seemed as much in awe of Ramdev as the followers outside: as they entered, each of them touched Ramdev’s feet reverently, then sat down. He asked them to say what they could contribute to Patanjali. A senior executive sat nearby taking notes, but Ramdev presided over the interview like a king on a throne. He is involved in even the smallest details: decisions about hiring, ads and product development. If anything were to puncture his aura — some scandal worse than those he has weathered in the past — it’s hard to imagine that Patanjali would last a day.

Ramdev would not be the first godman to crash and burn. At least a half-dozen other powerful gurus have been arrested and charged with serious crimes in the past 20 years. The most recent and perhaps the most flamboyant was Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, a potbellied and chubby-cheeked figure who cast himself as a superhero in several bizarre self-made action movies with titles like “MSG: Messenger of God.” Singh, who claimed 60 million followers around the world, was convicted of rape last August and sentenced to 20 years in prison. (He has also been formally accused of castrating about 400 of his disciples, a charge he denies.) After the verdict was issued, his followers rioted, smashing cars, setting fire to buildings and attacking police officers; at least 38 people were killed and more than 250 injured.

But Ramdev is bigger and better protected than his predecessors. Patanjali has vastly expanded the market for ayurvedic products, and in late 2014 Modi created an entire new government ministry to promote yoga and ayurveda, elevating what had been an obscure government office. Ramdev has made himself a symbol of Indian economic independence, and no one wants to question that, not even his enemies. One Indian C.E.O. who has accused Patanjali of false advertising told me he was grateful to Ramdev — despite his many sins — for attracting a new customer base in ways that benefited everyone. “The worst thing for us would be if he implodes — with godmen you never know,” he said. “That would impact the whole ayurvedic market.”

Ramdev appears to have a second layer of insurance: The clouds that hang over him also hang over his political patrons. Modi is regarded by much of the secular elite as a criminal because of his supposed role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. His close ally Amit Shah, the leader of the B.J.P. and by most accounts the second-most-powerful man in India, was arrested in 2010 and charged with arranging the murder of an underworld couple in police custody and making it look as if they were killed during a shootout. The case was ultimately dropped, but suspicions about Shah’s role linger, fueled by a recent series of investigative stories in the Indian press. Modi and Shah respond to their accusers in exactly the same way Ramdev does, by lambasting the secular elite. Their shared feelings of unjust persecution appear to thicken their bond with Ramdev. And they see no need to change their stance; by all available measures, the Indian public is as supportive of Ramdev as ever. In early May, a widely watched business survey reported that Patanjali was the most trusted brand in the country, beating about 1,000 other companies in its sector, including multinationals.

If the Modi government gets its way, Ramdev’s star will rise even higher. At the Chhatrasal stadium event in February, Amit Shah told the crowd that the B.J.P. wanted Ramdev to join them in reforming the Indian educational system. One of the party’s new priorities is an ambitious effort to rewrite Indian school textbooks to assert Hindu primacy. Mahesh Sharma, India’s culture minister and an avowed follower of the RSS, has said he hopes to rewrite the conventional narrative about India as a multicultural tapestry, and to inculcate the belief that the ancient Hindu scriptures are historical facts, not legends.

“There is a lot of work to be done in education,” Shah said on the stadium floor, just after the premiere of Ramdev’s biopic. “Because of our saints and our heroes — all this needs to be brought into our educational system.”

When his turn came to speak, Ramdev walked to the lectern, smiling graciously at the gaggle of B.J.P. luminaries onstage. He pledged his support to Modi and Shah, and their efforts to transform India. “If the first 50 years of my life were a struggle,” he said, “my next 50 years I dedicate my time and energy to the cultural and spiritual education of the country, to bring our country the great knowledge of the Vedas.” He went on: “We will see an Indian education policy in this country instead of the education policy given us by Lord Macaulay.” Before stepping down, he pumped his fist once again in a chant of “India my motherland is great.” The crowd roared.

Robert F. Worth is a contributing writer for the magazine. His book on the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, “A Rage for Order,” won the 2017 Lionel Gelber Prize. He last wrote for the magazine about the secretary of defense, Jim Mattis.


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