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Profitable mantra for India's guru entrepreneurs

Customers in Bangalore chat outside an Art of Living outlet featuring products from guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's businesses.

NEW DELHI -- Once known for their punishingly ascetic lifestyles, India's spiritual gurus are now leveraging their high public profiles and the ancient alternative medicine tradition of ayurveda to straddle multi-million dollar business empires.

     Leading the pack is the controversial yoga guru Baba Ramdev, founder of Patanjali Yogpeeth, an organization that started by promoting yoga and spirituality in 2006, but now peddles more than 350 products ranging from condominiums to toothpaste and noodles.

     When Ramdev announced his entry into the fast-moving consumer goods and herbal retail markets with a homegrown line of Patanjali products in 2012, few realized that the wiry and saffron-robed baba was launching what would become one of India's most redoubtable brands. Patanjali went on to achieve a turnover of $307 million in 2015, with projections for 2016 hovering around $750 million.

     The venture's spectacular growth is already giving established consumer brands sleepless nights. The recently launched "Patanjali Atta Noodles" -- which hit 1 million stores in November 2015 -- are offering stiff competition to multinationals such as Nestle and Unilever, which offer similar products in the Indian market.

     Also faring well are Patanjali's ayurvedic medicines and products, manufactured at a 150-acre facility near the northern holy city of Haridwar. They are sold through a chain of stores and franchises. According to Acharya Balkrishna, managing director of Patanjali Ayurved, there are three prime reasons why the products resonate with consumers. "Our products have ayurveda as their base, their quality is excellent and our prices are very competitive. We offer a win-win for the consumers," Balkrishna said.

     Customers have their own reasons for endorsing Patanjali's products. "I'm a great believer in ayurveda, and these products, which I've been using for three years, have no side effects," said Anjali Bhatnagar, a New Delhi housewife. "They are also much more affordable than the expensive foreign products flooding the markets."

Guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's line of 40 some personal care products, including Ayurveda-based treatments, are featured in an Art of Living shop in Banglaore.

     Patanjali's business operations, which are divided among four trusts, are run with corporate efficiency by more than 90,000 employees and volunteers. The organization also runs a 100-bed hospital, an ayurveda college, a university, a real estate business and a mini hospitality industry at its Haridwar campus.

     Ramdev's ultimate aim, he told the Economic Times earlier this year, is to compete with the multinationals. "In five years," he said, "I will take swadeshi products of Patanjali to such great heights that foreign companies will dwarf in front of them." Swadeshi implies goods made in India from local materials.

     Ramdev's ambition may not be misplaced. The entrepreneur-cum-guru has charted an aggressive roadmap for the group's expansion and diversification into childcare, cosmetics products, health supplements, hair care and oral care products, sports apparel, a breakfast range and a health tonic over the next few months.

Personal charisma

If savvy marketing has helped power Ramdev's businesses, southern India-based Art of Living, founded in 1981 by spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, has successfully capitalized on the personal charisma of its guru, whose appeal cuts across India's corporate giants and top politicians, as well as extending to westerners. This has helped Art of Living morph into a gargantuan humanitarian movement across 150 countries, hawking stress management and other spiritual initiatives.

     Shankar's trump card, however, remains popularizing Sudarshan Kriya, a yoga breathing technique designed to eliminate stress and negativity, over which he has a copyright. A three-day course in Art of Living's most popular program for total wellness at its ashram -- a place of religious retreat -- in the southern city of Bangalore costs between $60 and $100, the organization said.

     Art of Living's other programs include Sri Sri Yoga courses designed by the spiritual leader to address the body, mind and spirit; these are pegged at between $45 and $100. The company also sells apparel, wellness and personal care products, organic food, handicrafts and ayurvedic products through its online portal Sattva. Overall, Art of Living offers a personal care range of 40-plus items with its health care line consisting of classical and proprietary ayurveda medicines, most of which are manufactured in the company's own units to maintain quality control.

     Sri Sri Ayurveda, part of the Art of Living group, also recently announced major expansion plans in the brick-and-mortar format as well as through e-commerce. "We opened over 400 outlets this quarter since the launch of a franchise model in close to 80 cities. A minimum of 2,500 franchise stores are expected by early 2017," Tej Katpitia, Sri Sri Ayurveda's chief marketing officer, said in a Dec. 15 interview. "However," he added, "the organization has a strong focus on contributing towards social causes which is supported by product sales."

     Experts ascribe the popularity of spiritual programs and ayurvedic products among Indians to a clever mix of salesmanship and spirituality by the gurus. "Yoga and ayurveda are great magnets, especially in a country like India with its love for the exotic and centuries-old spiritual tradition. Basically, what these gurus are doing is selling consumption camouflaged in spiritualism," said Abha Rohatgi, a sociologist and former professor at Delhi University, who is currently working on a book -- Baba and the Brand -- about yogis launching businesses.

     An alchemy of spirituality and salesmanship is also what drives Auroville -- a sprawling township launched by Sri Aurobindo near the southern city of Puducherry. Thronged by thousands of westerners and Indians, the 20-square kilometer settlement surrounded by forests and beaches offers yoga and spiritual sessions for a fee that volunteers say is used for "charitable purposes." The same goes for the proceeds from sales of more than 2,500 products sold online.

Soft power

Most gurus seek to enhance their soft power by venturing into areas that touch the lives of as many people as possible. Education remains a favorite for many. Apart from Ramdev, Amrita Life, associated with the globetrotting Mata Amritanandamayi, based in the southern state of Kerala, runs pre-primary and high schools across India.

     It also owns and manages Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, a five-campus university, the Amrita Institute of Medical Science, and a regional television channel with primarily entertainment and news content. To oversee her growing spirituality business, Amritanandamayi has appointed a board of female directors at the group's ashram -- Amritanandamayi Math.

     The legacy of some gurus is so entrenched that business continues to flourish years after their deaths. Godman Osho is one such example. More than 25 years after the Godman's death, and despite media claims of fraud and sexual misconduct at his ashrams, the Osho movement continues to rule the spirituality market.

     Indians and foreigners crowd the 40-acre Osho International Meditation Resort in Pune, in the southern state of Maharashtra, which is accoutered with bamboo trees, Buddha statues, swimming pools, spas and luxurious cottages. Along with five-star facilities come higher prices. A tour of the ashram costs about $20, while first-time visitors are required to pay $25 for registration, which includes a compulsory HIV/Aids test, a gate pass with a digital photograph, and participation in the morning prayer. Sales of popular merchandise such as Osho shoes, CDs and books by the guru are also encouraged on campus, visitors said.

     Not everybody experiences bliss at the ashram. John D'Cruz, an entrepreneur from Colombia who visited the Osho resort last year, said that though he had heard a lot about the place, he was disenchanted when he visited it. "All I could see was a mammoth spiritual bazaar focused on peddling sundry merchandize," he said.

     Nevertheless, spiritual gurus continue to hold sway over people's minds. The Indian corporate sector is particularly enamored, and Art of Living's customized leadership development programs and yoga workshops are very popular among business leaders. The organization started conducting corporate training 14 years ago and today offers more than 200 such programs a year to a client list that reads like an Indian business directory, including Google, Larsen & Toubro, Accenture, Tata Motors and Barclays.

     Also active in the corporate training business is the Isha foundation of Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, which has a global footprint with centers across the U.S. and U.K. The organization conducts weeklong programs that focus on leadership skills through yoga. Yogi Ashwini of Dhyan foundation, which has been training managers for 15 years, is another workshop specialist that focuses on "helping employees de-stress, eliminate negativity and bolster productivity," according to its own description.

     With an astute mix of publicity and planning driving their businesses, it seems the Indian gurus have hit upon the perfect mantra to earn profits as well as influence people's minds.

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