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Deep breathing, deep churning
As dawn breaks over Haridwar, the yogshala at the Patanjali Yogpeeth resembles a scene straight out of Aastha channel. To the soulful accompaniment of a flute, a lean swami in saffron on the stage goes into trademark Baba Ramdev yoga opera. "Ab ham pranayam karenge (now we will do pranayam), " he says to the gathering of around 200 practitioners of what can only be called Ramdev yoga. This consists of long spells of preaching about the meaning of life, interspersed with fleeting minutes of breathing exercises and occasionally some basic stretches. There is a riveting stomach-churning demo by the swami in the manner patented by Ramdev. This, he says, is how subservient your stomach should be to your mind. The entire capsule is designed as payback time for those who have, as the swami indulgently puts it, not watched what they have been tucking into at the dinner table.
The crowd itself is thoroughly enjoying being chided for its worldly ways, nodding at the swami's wisdom and looking shamefaced about the excesses committed at home. But interestingly, scattered around the grounds are also serious practitioners of yogic austerity. There is a sadhu with matted locks who sits unspeaking in vajrasan through the day even as a merciless sun peaks over the compound. There are others seriously in dhyan, unmoved by goings on inside. And a reed thin yoga enthusiast is trying unsuccessfully to teach a sangh volunteer how to go into a headstand.
But there is a difference today. The affable bodymind banter of the swami on the stage is interspersed with nationalistic sermons. "Swamiji can withstand any amount of fasting and police brutality because he practises yoga. We should also strengthen ourselves to be able to participate in his struggle against corruption, " he says.
Ramdev has been exempt from the morning satsang. He is on a fast and can't deal with the arduous stage routine. The day before he had taken the dawn session but limited himself to small spells of pranayam and mostly lectured his followers. But he arrives soon enough and the swami scrambles off the stage to make place for his guru.
The crowd erupts into loud cheers and yoga is replaced with calls for a revolution. Ramdev announces his call to arms to avenge the very public humiliation of his supporters last Saturday. The baba himself does not see any distinction between his yoga, his ayurvedic businesses and his activism, between his students, customers and his supporters.
Till last Sunday, the yogshala was not really the busiest hub at the snazzy, sprawling yogpeeth. It was the OPD where people came with the hope that babaji's TV promises of instant recovery with easy breathing exercises and his pills and powders would actually work. But that was only till Baba Ramdev was a messiah of alternate health.
Now that he has fashioned himself as an ascetic revolutionary out of Anand Math - and pretty much pushed into Haridwar by government action - the ashram has become the headquarters of his "revolution". The notices calling the patriotic to join his Bharat Swabhiman Trust almost nudge out the ones instructing patients.
If you look around, however, it becomes quite clear that the baba never really saw himself as just a healer. He is a man with a message, many messages in fact, scribbled around the walls of the ashram - from instructions on abjuring water after meals to the virtues of buttermilk. The icons around the ashram show him with inspirations ranging from Lal Bahadur Shastri to Veer Savarkar, Patanjali to BR Ambedkar. Tan samarpan, man samarpan, jeevan ka har kshan samarpan (my body, my life, every moment of my life is a sacrifice), claim the posters.
"He is a paropkari (a do-gooder). And when a man like him becomes the voice of the masses, then they speak up for him too. You can see a lot of sadhus around but what is the dharma of the true sadhu? It is the welfare of humanity, through healing or activism," says Dharambharati, an Arya Samaj activist from Rajasthan who is rallying around the swami's cause at the agitation.
Even in the days when he was a mere TV yogi with a side business in ayurvedic medicines, Ramdev held radical views. He famously exhorted his followers to use colas to wash their toilets - they were that corrosive, he maintained. "See how well they clean your toilets and now imagine what they could do to your innards, " he said. Drink lauki juice, instead, he would order. And instantly the price of the humble lauki would go up.
Did any of his claims work? Can you really drop kilos with his brand of pranayam? Will high blood pressure or kidney ailment really vamoose with his ayurvedic concoctions? His shivirs (camps) usually had a handful of followers claiming miracle recovery from chronic diseases brought about by following his methods. How genuine were these claims? While most yoga gurus gnashed their teeth at his quick-fix remedies, no one could really prove or disprove them. And it didn't matter because people believed in him totally.
Slowly, Ramdev's homemade wisdoms became a rage and traditional yogacharyas watched in dismay as he more or less became synonymous with the ancient science. Pranayam is rarely taught as preliminary yoga by masters. Ramdev claimed that this is because they zealously guarded their knowledge - he was democratising the practise by teaching it to all.
Today, Ramdev may have become something of a political hot potato, but in 2006 when the sprawling yoga complex was inaugurated, leaders of every political hue had blessed the venture - from Nitish Kumar to Laloo Yadav, from Narender Modi to Sheila Dixit. Their names are listed proudly on a plaque: reminders of a time when he could do no wrong and had the clout to establish an empire over large tracts of land around Haridwar.
The yogpeeth is now a landmark in the holy city. There are crowds thronging it all the time with or without the drama of a satyagraha. Then there is the steady stream of walk-in patients and yoga practitioners.
Between the OPD and the yogshala where the swami sits on a hunger strike, there is a steady flow of people. In fact, patients and yoga students feed his agitation in a big way. Ramdev has astutely used his mass appeal among his TV fans and followers to drum up enthusiasm for his stir.
The saffron surge around the stage is unmistakeable but the baba is at pains to point out the secular nature of his agitation. "Why can't Sadhvi Ritambhara be on the stage with me? Didn't others share the stage with me once?" he asks, belligerent at having suddenly become Public Enemy No. 1 for the UPA dispensation.
The Ramdev brand of populism has always worked wonders. He has a remarkable knack for sussing out the mood of the audience and today he has decided to turn more aggressive. The crowds have been getting restless with the inaction - the swami has been on a fast in Haridwar that is not quite getting the kind of TRP ratings a protest in the Capital would, and his new-found aggression finds favour.
He lists the number of things the nation could buy itself with the black money banked abroad: roads, food, power, even more parmanu bams (nuclear bombs) to outdo China and the USA. Tomorrow, he promises them, he will furnish papers to show exactly how and where the crores have been squirreled away.
Even if he claims to have forsaken materialism, the baba's own business empire is by no means humble. By his own admission, it is now worth Rs 1,100 crore. He has moved from being a manufacturer of pills and potions to a purveyor of alternate lifestyle products - at his pharmacy/sales outlet you can find tetrapacked apple juice, biscuits, agarbatti, soaps, aphrodisiacs, candies;he has moved on to organic fabric as well. There are sizeable crowds to buy all this, and the throng of satyagrahis herded out of Delhi is using the opportunity to stock up on brand Ramdev including his very popular VCDs and DVDs.
Even if Ramdev is on a fast, Annapurna, the eatery at the complex, is doing roaring business. The food, says the company to which the business has been outsourced, is organic. From chat to jalebi to sumptuous thalis, you can find some hearty, nonsatvik fare here. There are patients, relatives, satyagrahis who have broken their fasts or are exempt tucking into the fare.
Ramdev himself gave up anna (grains) 15 years ago. "What can giving up fruits possibly do to me? I may lose four or five kilos. Don't worry," he says. Having sat through the blazing afternoon listening to an endless chain of speeches by supporters, the swami leaves the yogshala.
As the sun sets over Haridwar, the stage is once again taken by a yogi. "Aise hi na baithe rahein, chaliye sandhya upasana karte hain (don't sit around doing nothing, let us do evening meditation ), " he commands the restless crowds. The cry of aum rends the air. Another troubled day has come to an end at the ashram.
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