Wednesday, April 06, 2016

When Indian spirituality turns into a shopping mall

by Ratnakar Tripathy

It is customary for a large number of Indians to feel proud of their spirituality. It is not clear if it is mostly the Indians themselves who believe they are innately spiritual by nature or it is a common presumption shared by a large part of the humanity. According to this view the world sees us walking in the air, elevated beyond the common dirt of material attachment, not to mention gravity. Spirituality is by definition mysterious and you can spend a lifetime investigating the mirage till it’s time to meet your maker. In India, the spirituality may reside in a stone, a figurine, a guru, even a bottle of massage oil applied thickly amidst the backwaters of Kerala sending you into ecstatic raptures associated with orgiastic or religious excess. Or you can just sit cross-legged and feel one with the universe. In brief, if Indian spirituality is omnipresent, there is no point trying to pin it down with your vulgarian hands as if it was something tangible. Even those who spend a lifetime in full fascination with the Indian brand of spirituality will refrain from making judgements – after all, what can you say about the ultimate unsayable. But this entire paragraph is pure concept, begging us to descend to reality from our spiritual stratosphere.

Thankfully these days there is a thing or two you may say about Indian spirituality without being labelled as grossly earthbound. When you descend into the reality of Indian spiritualism in 2016, you walk into an FMCG store full of soaps, detergents, juices, herbal shampoos, jams, noodles and preserves. Or else you may go online and order. All that is tangible enough! Soap is soap, whether spiritual or material or even profane. But wait, listen to what Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has to offer:
'All Sri Sri Ayurveda employee meditate daily to ensure that our products are developed in the most positive and energic[sic] atmosphere ever’, claims the website offering his spiritual goods. These products may seem as trivially useful as any other but they carry a special spiritual charge that puts you in a special state every time you rub the lather on your skin. The soap reaches your inner being and cleanses your soul in a way that no commercial product can. How will a Unilever or a Nestle ever cope with a market colossus like this? Or for that matter how could a Philip Kotler ever deal with a Himalayan mirage like this? My guess is these worldly companies will either retreat to the non-spiritual consumer or just wait if they have the patience for the scales to fall from the billion eyes.

Patanajali, the company owned by Baba Ramdeo is far less esoteric in comparison. Its chief slogan is ‘Prakriti ka Ashirwad’ or ‘blessings from nature’, which hardly sounds spiritual or religious when the label ‘organic’ is so much in vogue. But here lies an interesting slogan – ‘prefer country made products with great zest and zeal to make the country strong’. The slogan is very much in keeping with the acrobatic nationalism promoted by the guru. It is thus not clear if the Patanjali shampoo penetrates as far as the human soul but it definitely nourishes deeply the roots of patriotism, making India stronger by the day. Purity and Indianness thus work the magic to keep you safe from baldness. In the process India becomes strong. The more you buy from the Patanjali store the stronger India becomes! As we are reminded, ‘Patanjali is estimated to have more than doubled its sales to about Rs.5,000 crore in the current fiscal year. These are big numbers and the firm’s growth trajectory is reported to be spreading nervousness in some boardrooms as well. It is also one of the biggest advertisers on Indian television’. In fact Baba recently claimed “Colgate will be below Patanjali by this year, and in three years, we will overtake Unilever”. To surpass Colgate thus seems to be the new spiritual goal these days! 

While Sri Sri may be seen as a high class English-spouting, highfalutin guru, Baba Ramdeo is a downright man of the masses who connects with the common Indian phobia over adulteration. This reminds me of an experience of trying to buy ghee in the market – I found that there was just ghee [meant to burn in rituals], then pure ghee, premium ghee [which gave a faint ghee-like smell], and double premium ghee, reminding me of the grading for olive oil. But unlike olive oil categories, the ghee market was openly admitting to adulteration and impurity, rather than quality or type per se. Pure ghee, I was told is an impossible ideal to attain in the corrupt age of Kali. No wonder an ad for Baba Ram Rahim’s line of products begins by showing him at a banquet where he stuns the host’s family by telling them their food is poisoned. He means the pesticides of course. Yes, the newest entry in the mall is Baba Ram Rahim who takes the Ramdeo vernacular to further extremes, if that is possible. Baba Ram Rahim’s spirituality brings us to a convergence between cultural streams as disparate as Bollywood, Gemini circus, Buffalo Bill, and the hoary tradition of Indian spiritualism. This is as subaltern or folkish as you can get and makes Ramdeo look like a suave Oxbridge badge wearer.

With these three battleships on the waves, the so-called multinationals are understandably nervous. Despite the endless ads served for decades, the consumer product companies could never add the spiritual halo that these three gurus have leant to the very ordinary objects of daily use. I have a theory on all this which may sound as bizarre as the Indian spiritual goods market. I feel that these consumer product companies are tangible and concrete expressions of the spiritual capital earned by the gurus. Thus what remained intangible and unspeakable as spiritual capital gets valorised through these companies, turning an unearthly substance into solid material goods you may buy, touch and feel. This is not unlike a process of conversion of energy from one form to another or transmogrification of various substances into gold in the manner of esoteric alchemy. However abstruse I may sound here, the fact is such transubstantiation is not uncommon in our times at all. Look at the state of politics and religion in our time. What people insist on calling religion these days has actually already been turned into politics. I am reminded here of cases of ISIS volunteers from Europe who bought ‘Islam for Dummies’ on their flights towards Syria for a crash course on a religion that took thousands of years to form into a religion but takes a few weeks to translate into mortar shells and Kalashnikovs. Similarly in our own country, religion is slipping out of its skin and turning into fulltime politics without a hiccup or a snag.  From all this I conclude, we are lucky to see the great mysteries of eons of Indian spiritualism for all it amounts to in our times, unveiled in shopping malls. So we may now take a walk along the aisles and load our worldly trolleys with the spiritual Indian goodies, thanks to the aforementioned Babas.  

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