By Kaushik Deka:
It was in 2001. A devotional channel called Sanskar started airing Ramdev’s yoga programme at 6:45 in the morning. The 22-minute-long programme soon became the most popular show of the channel. The programme, in fact, created a kind of health revolution in the country. Pranayama became the buzzword for everyone. And the followers were not just fitness enthusiasts or health freaks. From corporate bosses to housewives to students, everyone wanted to practise the yoga packaged by Ramdev – it was easy, short and promised quick results. It stressed on the health benefits of eating vegetables, fruits and herbs regularly. It instilled a sense of pride in the Indian medicinal system. Many liked his prescription. It was not about getting a set of lab tests done by spending huge sums of money. They did not have to buy expensive medicines. Most of the ingredients were easily available and they came cheap. For yoga, they did not have to make big changes in lifestyle. All they needed to do was some exercise and take care of their food quality.
But purists were not amused. Revered yoga guru BKS Iyengar told India Today in 2006, “You cannot have a crash course on yoga. This is not instant coffee. You need years and years of training and religious dedication.”
Soon Ramdev was poached by Astha channel and his popularity kept soaring. In 2002, he held a camp in Delhi with over 10,000 people. By then, his glory had reached the power centres and because of the philosophy he preached, the BJP leadership was naturally drawn towards him. The Delhi camp was attended by the then Delhi chief minister (CM) Sahib Singh Verma and the then Union HRD Minister Murli Manohar Joshi. In the same camp, he released the monthly magazine Divya Yoga Sangbad.
The same year he took Divya Pharmacy to four new places – Delhi, Surat, Ahmedabad and Patna. “The size of the camps kept increasing. I could see a crowd of over 50,000. Wherever I went, I caused traffic jams. I realized I needed to reach out to people. They saw me on TV but they could not get the medicines through TV. So I decided to set up centres at various places where medicines and primary treatment is easily available. Today, we have 5,000 chikitsalayas and 10,000 sub-centres where medicine and other products are available,” says Ramdev.
From 2004, Astha started telecasting his daily yoga sessions in Haridwar and also the live footage of his camps, and expectedly the public response was massive. From that moment, there was no looking back. The brand of Baba Ramdev was firmly established. Here was a guru who taught yoga, offered Ayurveda cure and came live on TV. He never talked about God or religion; instead he talked about good health. He did not sit on a chair and preach. He did not show instant magic. He did not predict future. Instead, he demonstrated what he preached. He did not advise people to feed pigeons for good fortune, but told them to eat healthy. His medicines were not magical water or secret churna – he came upfront about what he used to make them. “Before me, yoga gurus like Mahesh Yogi and Rajneesh concentrated on dhyan (meditation) and asanas (yogic postures), which can be difficult to practise. I found pranayama to be the simplest for an average person pressed for time,” said Ramdev in 2006.
What started out as a 22-minute yoga capsule on Sanskar channel culminated with Ramdev setting up his own media empire called Vedic Broadcasting, which runs five TV channels that have become Ramdev’s medium for reaching out to a vast audience to extol yoga and ayurveda. He was a baba whom India had never seen before – a hairy, barechested man perfecting impossible stunts on stage. He not only smiled but also laughed uproariously. He spoke the common man’s language; he was a yogi who was aware of the pains of a family life.
India got its first celebrity yoga guru for the masses.
Excerpted with the permission of Rupa Publications India from the book “The Baba Ramdev Phenomenon: From Moksha to Market” by Kaushik Deka.