The truth I learnt about Ramdev and Patanjali
[Book extract] Within a decade, the young boy reduced his 'permanent disability' to a temporary aberration. He could walk again.
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I found Ayurvedic medicines from Ramdev’s pharmacy in almost every household I visited around that time. Being the sceptic that I’m, I used to ask: "What religion does this guru preach? What are the rituals you have to follow before taking his medicine? Do you have to feed cows and pigeons?" The answer used to be a resounding "no". He never talked religion. It was all about health. I was impressed. For a change, here was a guru who did not sell gods. He sold health. That’s actually a nice thing to do.
My next encounter with Ramdev happened at the India Today Conclave in 2010. On stage, the then editor of the magazine, Prabhu Chawla, was interviewing him. For the most part, the yoga guru was witty and looked relaxed. He had the audience in splits.
As usual, there was the question about his views on homosexuality. I liked the way he answered (of course I did not take any answer seriously) - "Koi haath teda karke khana khaaye, toh main kya karu." (What do I do if someone wants to eat with his hands twisted?)
Certainly many were offended, but I never take any comment seriously because I believe in freedom of speech. Problems start when someone tries to enforce his or her views on others.
I saw him once again when he came to the conclave for the second time in 2012. Popular author Chetan Bhagat was moderating the session and this was one occasion where the yoga guru was on the backfoot. It’s not because he did not have all the answers but I found Bhagat mercilessly nasty at some points.
But the session was one of the best shows of the conclave. What I liked about Baba was that he did not lose his cool. Most gurus don’t like being challenged or mocked at. Ramdev did not care much. In the green room, he was quite cordial with Bhagat. That’s the first time I noticed that here was one baba who was ready to make fun of himself. He knew how to take jokes and cracked a few at himself as well.
Since then, I had almost forgotten about him till February 2016, when India Today executive editor S Sahaya Ranjit asked me to interview Baba Ramdev for our high and mighty issue. I must confess I was reluctant, but saying no to Ranjit is next to impossible.
So I placed a request with Baba’s PR team for an interview and waited for them to get back. After some 20 calls to the PR head, one evening at around 6 pm, I got a call from Haridwar on my cellphone. Baba was on the line. He greeted me with an "om" instead of saying hello, and I, to my surprise, managed to say "namaste".
I’m extremely bad with north Indian greetings and pleasantries, but that day I somehow managed well. The interview began as I introduced my journalistic background and explained to him the intent of the interview. Ramdev was chatty and forthright with his answers.
In the middle of the interview, he interrupted my question and asked for my mobile number. I told him that he had called on my number so he should probably have it. But he wanted the number himself and jotted it down on a paper as I spelt it out. "I’m calling you back from my private number," he said and snapped the call.
Within the next 30 seconds my phone rang again and the interview ran for almost an hour. He was laughing uproariously, was explaining me his mission and as it happens with me, the discussion veered towards my home state Assam. He extended me an invitation to visit his ashram.
He was also keen to talk about his work in the field of education. I realised he was quite professional in giving phone interviews as he took pauses long enough for me to take notes without missing anything. He wanted to know his rank in the high and mighty list, but when I said I could not reveal it, he did not insist.
Three days after this interview, at 6.30 in the morning, his private number flashed on my mobile screen. I thought I was hallucinating. He greeted me with loads of warmth. I thought he must have called me to find out his rank. But it was my turn to get shocked.
"I want to seek your opinion on an issue," he said very politely.
"Please ask," I said, though my mind was heavy with anticipation. "What could it be?"
I cannot reveal what he asked me, as it would be breach of trust. But as he finished his question, I asked him, "Why are you asking me this question? You don’t know me enough. Why do you think I could give you the correct advice? There are thousands of knowledgeable people in your network."
His answer was even more astonishing – "we are sanyasi people. We can figure out a person when we speak to him or her. You are an unbiased person. I could sense your santulit (balanced) mind the other day."
I will be lying if I say I was not flattered. But I was shocked too because I’m genuinely a person with no opinion in life. I don’t believe in forming an opinion without knowing in-depth about a subject, person or event and I know little of anything. So I’m always the know-nothing person. But why did Baba feel otherwise? The guru must be super smart or I’m exceptionally dumb.
I gave him a detailed answer explaining my logic behind every advice. He sounded happy and in agreement with me. I thought he was trying to sense the public mood, as I was a journalist who would have information. Honestly, I could not believe I was the only person he had consulted for the topic.
A week later, he called me again in the morning to tell me that he had taken my advice. I did not know how to react. He has not met me ever. "Why is he trusting me so much?" But this behaviour of his also helped me understand him a little better.
Despite all his success, business acumen and political connections, he is still childlike in his enthusiasm and probably opens up too early to strangers. He is still the village boy at heart. He is emotionally charged and gets carried away, often inviting trouble. As time passed, I witnessed more of this later.
From the very next day, life changed for Ram Kishen. Like a possessed soul, he began practicing the yogic asanas prescribed in the book, a near impossible task for his paralysed body. His rebellious left side did not cooperate at all, the right side writhed in pain and the body bore several bruises often caused by fall because he lost his balance.
When he was not going through these self-imposed gruelling sessions, he was scouting for new literature on yoga. Books kept piling on and Ram Kishen’s obsession with yoga scaled new peaks, and it was not without reason.
The rebellion from his left side considerably weakened - something the allopathic doctors did not anticipate. He was feeling stronger physically and mentally. Help also came from a local "pehelwan" in the village akhara, who taught him a few tricks of wrestling.
(The training has remained with him throughout his journey, as the young boy grew up to become one of the world’s most popular yoga gurus. Whether it’s Bollywood star Ranveer Singh in an Aaj Tak event or an anchor of a dance show on television, they were at the receiving end of a trademark hand-to-hand combat performance by Ramdev who was once wrestling with paralysis.)
A disobedient body was being disciplined and decorated through a rigorous but determined regime. It was a miracle for the ignorant and the uninitiated as, within a decade, the young boy reduced his "permanent disability" to a temporary aberration in life. He could walk again. Barring the squint in his left eye, Ramdev conquered a paralytic attack.
The Baba Ramdev Phenomenon by Kaushik Deka; Publisher: Rupa; Price: Rs 295.
The rebellion of the left was destroyed forever with the power of yoga. That’s also one irony in Ramdev’s life - before he popularised yoga as an instant 30 minute drill to cure multiple ailments, he had to wait patiently for over a decade to see results.
But the victory over his left body was not the end of the battle. The boy was now prepared to wage a war against every rebellious body in the world. It was a war against ill health and sick minds. And he had found the brahmashtra - yoga.
But then he was not yet done with the village library. There was another book waiting for him. It was Satyarth Prakash, a Hindi book written in 1875 by Maharishi Dayanand Saraswati, the renowned religious and social reformer and the founder of the Arya Samaj.
If yoga is the physical embodiment of Ramdev, this book formed the intellectual core and social, political and economic philosophy of the guru. It was a book primarily explaining the true tenets of Hinduism, making an appeal for one uniformed religion based on the principles of the Vedas.
It extolled the greatness of Indian civilisation and sought to instil a sense of pride in Swadeshi existence. The seed of Ramdev’s Patanjali Ayurved’s Swadeshi motto was first sown in the village library. While greeting someone over phone, Ramdev never says hello. Instead he chants "om".
The first chapter of Dayanand Saraswati’s book explains the etymology and signicance of om.
"This book was a revelation to me. It awakened my inner-self, gave me a sense of purpose in life. It introduced me to the wisdom of our ancestors. I wanted to follow the path shown by the ancient sages," says Ramdev. The path of ancient sages (rishis) also meant practice of celibacy. So he took a vow - to never marry.
Satyarth Prakash not only changed Ram Kishen’s life, but also gave it direction and purpose. He was so moved by the writings of Dayanand Saraswati that he quit the government school where "the curriculum was a leftover of the education policy" introduced by British politician Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59), who was instrumental in the introduction of English as the medium of instruction for higher education in India.
He knew his parents would never agree to his decision of quitting regular school, where he was doing exceptionally well, so one day he fled from home and enrolled himself in a Gurukul, a traditional educational institute based on Vedic principles, at Khanpur in Haryana.
Under Guru Pradyumna, he learnt Panini’s aadhyayi, the most authentic treatise on Sanskrit grammar, Upanishads, Ayurveda and the Vedas. "Dayanandji made me realise the value of the treasure trove hidden in Vedic education. It’s a progressive approach based on tark (logic), tathya (facts), yukti (argument) and praman (evidence). The goal of the British education system was to enslave our mind and curb free and logical thinking," says Ramdev. "This is what Gandhiji called Swadeshi talim."
It is here in this Khanpur Gurukul in 1987 that he met for the first time his life-long associate Balkrishna, son of a Brahmin family originally hailing from Nepal. It did not take long for the duo to strike a friendship - both had intense interest in the Vedas, yoga and Ayurveda.
"He was outgoing but I was reserved. But an eagerness to learn and discover new facts brought us together and we often spent hours debating and discussing life’s purpose. We were always intrigued by the power of herbs which eventually took us to Ayurveda," says Balkrishna. These discussions ended in both wondering - why am I in this world? What is the purpose of my life?
The answers to Ram Kishen’s questions - why am I in this world? What is the purpose of my life? -could not be found in the texts, nor could they come from the gurus. He moved to another Gurukul, located in Kalwa in Haryana for further learning. This is where he was given the name Ramdev.
"Guruji (Acharya Baldev) said my name had both Ram and Krishna. I needed to keep one God in my name. After a lot of thought, I chose Ram because he was the maryada purushottam. He was the epitome of sanskar. This is how I became Ramdev," he says.
He may have got a new name but several questions still did not have convincing answers. A young and restless Ram Kishen was desperate to do "something significant". Inspired by Dayanand Saraswati, he was seeking a role for himself in the larger scheme of things. When the answer did not come from anywhere, one day, he set out for the Himalayas in search of moksha. "I was around 25 years old then," says Baba.
He spent three years in the Himalayas, near Gangotri, meditating, studying herbs and practising yoga. He saw hundreds of other sadhus in the Himalayas, lost in mediation - living a life which depends on alms for survival.
"I was puzzled. Someone was there for years, lying naked. Someone did not eat for years. But I did not know what they achieved. What was the purpose of gaining knowledge? How were these sadhus contributing to mankind? How did others gain from their knowledge?" said Ramdev, firmly ensconced in the revolving chair in the office of one of his factories.
"The purpose of a sadhu is not to be nikamma and sit idle, rather he has to accomplish bigger tasks for the greater good," he continues, “So I came back from the Himalayas because I realised my knowledge will be fruitful only when it’s of any use to the people."
This actually reveals the primary driving force behind Ramdev’s empire. Deep inside, he is hurt by a perceptual approach - sadhus can do nothing. They live on others. They are just parasites. He had to show the world what a yogi could do. He had to unleash the power of yoga, the power of spirituality. His journey to the Himalayas was not because he wanted to escape from the world or because he did not have the ability to take care of his social responsibilities. His abilities knew no limits.
"Before going to the Himalayas, my thoughts were concentrated on swayam (self). I wanted nirvana (state of constant happiness) for myself. In the Himalayas, my focus shifted to samashti (group). Collective good became my goal. But the more significant realisation was that nirvana is not achieved by just sitting in a jungle."
He achieved his nirvana. He achieved a higher level of conscience, which taught him that this nirvana was meaningful only when it could result in the welfare of others.
"It was an emotional stage for me. I was experiencing mukti, which is to get rid of desires resulting from ego and ignorance. But this mukti was for me and not for all. I was jeevan-mukt but then why was I living? How can others benefit from my mukti?"
Ramdev found his answer in yoga and spiritualism, what he calls the roots of our ancient civilisation. As the roots spread, the journey began and over the years several branches came out in the form of Ayurveda, Swadeshi movement, organic farming, gau-seva, educational institutes, research and social and political movements. It was time for the yogi to reach out to his people. He was coming to cure them, enlighten them and show them the Indian way of living.
"All these originate from the same source - the wisdom of our ancestors, which we had forgotten. This was a natural progression. Whatever I do, it will always have a spiritual connect," he says.