In India, perhaps the biggest news story of 2011 was a high-profile campaign that mobilized thousands to protest against corruption.
What made it distinctly Indian was one of the figures at the center of the protest: a bare-chested yoga guru named Baba Ramdev who undertook a public fast. The other central figure was – and remains – the social activist Anna Hazare.
These days stories from India tend to be about the country’s technology-driven charge into the 21st century, powered by an army of web gurus.
In contrast, the notion of spiritual gurus conjures images of hermits living in the mountains, or bearded sages from the 60s living in remote ashrams.
How did they become some of India’s most powerful figures?
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is one of India’s most visible gurus. He displays all the hallmarks of the Indian guru: He’s childlike, he giggles; there’s flowing hair and simple robes.
Don’t confuse Sri Sri Ravi Shankar with Ravi Shankar the sitar player. Sri Sri leads an international non-profit organization called The Art of Living: it aims to create a world free from violence by eliminating stress.
But the guru said he’s also obliged to speak out on Indian politics, for instance corruption.
“Spiritual leaders cannot sit back and say this is not my area," he said. "They have to take action. They have the role of reformers, not rulers, but they will have to have a say.”
They already do have a say.
When Baba Ramdev arrived for his anti-corruption fast in Delhi, Indian government ministers met him at the airport. That provoked a degree of soul-searching in the Indian media.
On Indian TV, commentators wondered if the likes of Baba Ramdev were more like politicians than gurus. Why should he be weighing in on complicated national issues, such as corruption, they asked.
The consensus is that spiritual leaders like Ramdev and Shankar have managed to do what India’s political leaders have not: capture the hearts and minds of many in India’s growing middle-class.
Ramnath Narayanswamy, a professor of management at a Bangalore business college, teaches a course called ‘Spirituality for Global Managers’.
“I think India’s unique contribution to world civilization is precisely what we call in Sanskrit a ‘guru shishya parampara,’ the relationship between a master and his disciple” he said.
That master-disciple relationship still resonates throughout Indian society – from the office to the school to the ashram. Pair a genuine teacher with a committed student and knowledge will flow.
Narayanswamy met his own guru on July 28th, 2007.
“It was an enormous outpouring of love,” he remembered.
Narayanswamy said his guru has spiritual powers beyond rational understanding.
“As soon as I approached he seemed to know everything about me," he said. "In about three minutes he told me my whole life. He knew everything. If there’s a scratch on your body, he’d know about it. And he’s never wrong."
But millions of Indians – especially young Indians – aren’t comfortable with that belief.
Young professionals like Nandini Rao are members of the secular global community. She’s a brand manager for an IT company in Bangalore. But she’s also Indian.
“At one level we feel very educated, all of us are traveling across the globe,” she said. “But at the same time there is a conflict. How much of a connection should I have to my Indian roots?”
As India’s middle class has grown, its Indian roots have become harder to grasp. In a city like Bangalore, people don’t know their neighbors any more. They’re unhappy with their careers, or their appearance. They’re money-conscious and time-poor.
Therapy’s out, said Sumit Acharya, another IT worker.
“If somebody wants to go and talk to a psychologist it will be considered a negative in the society,” he said. “But if somebody goes and meets the gurus, [it] will be considered a very positive step forward.”
So you’ve got a growing Indian middle class that’s feeling cut off from its roots. And you’ve got this cultural ideal of the master-disciple relationship. Put the two together and there is fertile soil for an enterprising guru.
A bearded sage by the name of Sadhguru appears on giant billboards throughout Bangalore. He’s developed a philosophy designed to appeal to tech-savvy Indians. It’s called ‘Inner Engineering’.
“Where is the manufacturing unit for all the human misery that’s happening on this planet? Where is it? It’s in your mind, isn’t it?” Sadhguru said.
Sadhguru is a kind of life coach as much as anything else.
“Engineering fundamentally means to create situations the way we want it. But our inner situations are not the way we want it,” he said.
He sells DVDs and self-help books alongside his Inner Engineering course. The profits, his foundation said, help fund charitable projects in rural India.
But even if the motives of Sadhguru and others are humanitarian, the sheer scale of their operations makes others uneasy, like Ramachandra Guha, a well-known author and columnist.
“Historically and traditionally, spirituality has been associated with solitude, with a retreat from the world,” he said. “It’s rather difficult for someone like me to think of such a guru who’s interested in brand strategy and brand marketing and expanding his empire. But that’s how many Indian gurus are today.”
Some say many of today’s gurus are something else: corrupt. Sathya Sai Baba, who died earlier this year, was one of India’s most powerful and revered spiritual leaders.
He built schools, hospitals, and transformed his own village into a thriving city. But over the years, he was also publicly accused of money-laundering, fraud and sexual abuse – charges he always denied. After his death, large amounts of cash, gold and silver were found in his private quarters.
For Ranji David, an IT training manager, he was one of many gurus who haven’t lived up to their billing.
“What makes it frustrating for the urban youth is that every time these babajis come, it’s good work and packaged really well. But somewhere down the line they get exposed,” David said.
How Indians tell the difference between the fraud and the teacher is an important question, not just for India’s spiritual life, but for its political future too.
One straightforward answer came from, as it happened, another guru – a clean-shaven man named Eswaran. He lives with his wife in a small apartment near the center of Bangalore.
“When it comes to the teaching of the master, you [must] go extremely critical,” he said. “You’ve got to be doubting, doubting, questioning, questioning, questioning.”
In other words, don’t forget to use your brain.
“God has given intellect to human being[s], right. For what? To think,” he said.
Good advice in any age.