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FTR #‘s 1018, 1019 Baba Ramdev and Hindutva Fascism, Parts 1 and 2

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FTR #1018: Baba Ramdev and Hin­dut­va Fas­cism, Part I  This broad­cast was record­ed in one, 60-minute seg­ment.

FTR #1019: Baba Ramdev and Hin­dut­va Fas­cism, Part II  This broad­cast was record­ed in one, 60-minute seg­ment.

Baba Ramdev work­ing the crowd

Intro­duc­tion: The pri­ma­ry focal point of these two pro­grams and sup­ple­men­tal dis­cus­sion in the pro­gram to fol­low is the polit­i­cal and com­mer­cial career of Baba Ramdev. A major sup­port­er of Naren­dra Modi, his BJP and the Hin­dut­va fas­cist RSS, for which the BJP is a polit­i­cal front, Ramdev runs a high­ly suc­cess­ful busi­ness career cen­tered on the teach­ing of yoga and the mar­ket­ing of “ayurvedic” foods, cos­met­ics and med­i­cines. In turn, his busi­ness inter­ests are inex­tri­ca­bly linked with Modi, the BJP and the RSS.

(In FTR #‘s 795, 988 and 989990, 991, 992, and 1015, we detailed the Hin­dut­va fas­cism of Naren­dra Modi, his BJP Par­ty and sup­port­ive ele­ments, trac­ing the evo­lu­tion of Hin­dut­va fas­cism through the assas­si­na­tion of Mahat­ma Gand­hi to the present time.)

With Modi and the BJP run­ning India, Ramde­v’s Patan­jali food busi­ness has also dove­tailed direct­ly with Indi­a’s mil­i­tary devel­op­ment and poten­tial strate­gic inter­ests. A thought-pro­vok­ing and pos­si­bly valid com­par­i­son might be seen between Ramde­v’s oper­a­tions and the oper­a­tions of the Uni­fi­ca­tion Church of Sun Myung Moon. In FTR #970, among oth­er pro­grams, we exam­ined the Moon oper­a­tion as an exten­sion around the world and down the decades of the Patri­ot­ic and Ultra­na­tion­al­ist Soci­eties of Japan. A reli­gious, com­mer­cial and fas­cist polit­i­cal enti­ty, the Uni­fi­ca­tion Church bears many strik­ing ide­o­log­i­cal and oper­a­tional sim­i­lar­i­ties to the Ramdev orga­ni­za­tion.

Key points of dis­cus­sion and analy­sis of Ramdev and his polit­i­cal and com­mer­cial under­tak­ings include:

  1. Ramde­v’s ide­o­log­i­cal res­o­nance with the Hin­dut­va fas­cist invo­ca­tion of an ide­al­ized mys­ti­cal past: ” . . . . [BJP head and mur­der sus­pect] Amit Shah told the crowd that the B.J.P. want­ed Ramdev to join them in reform­ing the Indi­an edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem. One of the party’s new pri­or­i­ties is an ambi­tious effort to rewrite Indi­an school text­books to assert Hin­du pri­ma­cy. Mahesh Shar­ma, India’s cul­ture min­is­ter and an avowed fol­low­er of the RSS, has said he hopes to rewrite the con­ven­tion­al nar­ra­tive about India as a mul­ti­cul­tur­al tapes­try, and to incul­cate the belief that the ancient Hin­du scrip­tures are his­tor­i­cal facts, not leg­ends. ‘There is a lot of work to be done in edu­ca­tion,’ Shah said on the sta­di­um floor, just after the pre­miere of Ramdev’s biopic. ‘Because of our saints and our heroes — all this needs to be brought into our edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem.’ . . . Ramdev walked to the lectern, smil­ing gra­cious­ly at the gag­gle of B.J.P. lumi­nar­ies onstage. He pledged his sup­port to Modi and Shah, and their efforts to trans­form India. . . . ‘I ded­i­cate my time and ener­gy to the cul­tur­al and spir­i­tu­al edu­ca­tion of the coun­try, to bring our coun­try the great knowl­edge of the Vedas.’ . . .  ‘We will see an Indi­an edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy in this coun­try . . .  Before step­ping down, he pumped his fist once again in a chant of ‘India my moth­er­land is great.’ The crowd roared. . . .”
  2. Ramde­v’s fre­quent invok­ing of the “fascis”–the “bun­dle” of accolytes and his work­ing of the crowd in Fuhrer/­Duce-like fash­ion: ” . . . . Ramdev took the micro­phone and intro­duced the pha­lanx of sev­er­al hun­dred Hin­du reli­gious stu­dents, known as brah­macharis, sit­ting in neat rows on the field. Every­one repeat after me: ‘Bharat mata ki jai!’ he shout­ed. The crowd raised their arms and pumped their fists as they chant­ed the words — ‘India my moth­er­land is great’ — that have become a defin­ing slo­gan of the Hin­du nation­al­ist move­ment. . . .”
  3. The fus­ing of Ramde­v’s polit­i­cal endeav­ors on behalf of Modi and the RSS with his com­mer­cial activ­i­ties: ” . . . . Ramdev has been a promi­nent voice on the Hin­du right, and his tac­it endorse­ment dur­ing the land­mark 2014 cam­paign helped bring Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi to pow­er. He appeared along­side Modi on sev­er­al occa­sions, singing the leader’s prais­es and urg­ing Indi­ans to turn out for him. Ramdev has called Modi ‘a close friend,’ and the prime min­is­ter pub­licly lauds Patanjali’s array of ayurvedic prod­ucts — med­i­cines, cos­met­ics and food­stuffs. . . . ”
  4. The favored treat­ment afford­ed Ramdev and his Patan­jali busi­ness by the Modi regime: ” . . . . One thing is cer­tain: Ramdev has received extra­or­di­nary favors from the Indi­an gov­ern­ment since Modi was elect­ed. Soon after the 2014 elec­tion, B.J.P.-led state gov­ern­ments across India began facil­i­tat­ing steep dis­counts on land pur­chas­es for Patan­jali. . . . In the largest of these deals, Patan­jali was giv­en a 1,200-acre par­cel of land in the east­ern state of Assam at no cost. Accord­ing to state leg­is­la­ture doc­u­ments I was shown by a local aca­d­e­m­ic, the deal was made by an agency con­trolled by the Bodoland People’s Front, a par­ty aligned with the B.J.P. Last year a Reuters inves­ti­ga­tion doc­u­ment­ed sev­er­al dis­count­ed land sales and leas­es in three oth­er Indi­an states that saved the com­pa­ny a total of $46 mil­lion. . . .”
  5. Ramdev, the  B.J.P. as vehi­cles to erad­i­cate Com­mu­nist influ­ence in parts of India: ” . . . . The RSS has become more vis­i­ble since Modi’s 2014 vic­to­ry. The group and its affil­i­ates have built hun­dreds of schools and job-train­ing cen­ters in Assam and oth­er north­east­ern states in recent years. I vis­it­ed sev­er­al and saw unmis­tak­able signs of the RSS ide­o­log­i­cal pro­gram. . . . All this hard indoc­tri­na­tion work has paid off. In 2016, the B.J.P. won con­trol of Assam’s state gov­ern­ment in leg­isla­tive elec­tions. And in March of this year, the par­ty won stun­ning elec­toral upsets in two adja­cent north­east­ern states, where left­ist par­ties had dom­i­nat­ed for decades. There was talk of a ‘saf­fron wave’ that might spread to the south Indi­an regions, includ­ing Com­mu­nist-dom­i­nat­ed Ker­ala, that have long resist­ed the advance of Hin­du nation­al­ism. Many Indi­an polit­i­cal ana­lysts said the RSS’s grass-roots work was essen­tial to the recent elec­toral vic­to­ries. But one RSS vol­un­teer in Assam, a con­struc­tion con­trac­tor, told me Ramdev’s pres­ence and his yoga pro­mo­tion had been very influ­en­tial, too. . . .”
  6. The dove­tail­ing of Modi/B.J.P. assist­ed Patan­jali oper­a­tions with the Indi­an military–specifically, the Indi­an Air Force:  “. . . . After admir­ing the cook­ie plant and its 300-foot oven, we drove across a deli­cious­ly smooth, medi­an-free stretch of pave­ment that resem­bled a run­way. In fact, it is a run­way, built in con­sul­ta­tion with the Indi­an Air Force so that jet fight­ers can take off and land on it, Singh told me. ‘We will ded­i­cate this to the nation in case there is need for an extra airstrip,’ he said, and then added with a know­ing look, ‘We are near Chi­na.’ Patan­jali seems almost to view itself as an exten­sion of the state — or rather, an illus­tra­tion of what has become a ‘state-tem­ple-cor­po­rate com­plex,’ in the apt phrase of the Indi­an author Meera Nan­da. . . .”
  7. Evi­dent sim­i­lar­i­ties between Ramde­v’s “swadeshi”–“economic nationalism”–with Mus­solin­i’s con­cept of the Cor­po­rate State and Hitler’s Nation­al Social­ism: ” . . . . Ramdev has led vast­ly pop­u­lar cam­paigns against cor­rup­tion, don­ning the man­tle of swadeshi, or Indi­an eco­nom­ic nation­al­ism, to cast for­eign com­pa­nies as neo­colo­nial vil­lains. In a sense, Ramdev has changed Hin­duism itself. . . .”
  8. Evi­dent sim­i­lar­i­ties between the “eco­nom­ic xeno­pho­bia” pro­pelling Don­ald Trump’s tar­iffs and trade wars and the swadeshi/economic nation­al­ism of Ramdev and com­pa­ny: ” . . . . When it comes to mar­ket­ing against for­eign com­peti­tors, they wield their holi­ness like a club. One Patan­jali ad runs: ‘As East India Com­pa­ny plun­dered our coun­try for 200 years like­wise these multi­na­tion­als are exploit­ing our coun­try by sell­ing their harm­ful and dan­ger­ous chem­i­cal prod­ucts. Beware!’ . . . .”
  9. Ramde­v’s seam­less meld­ing with the anti-Mus­lim ide­ol­o­gy of the RSS, man­i­fest­ing the strate­gic and tac­ti­cal demo­niza­tion of the “malev­o­lent oth­er” that char­ac­ter­izes so many iter­a­tions of fas­cism: ” . . . . Ramdev has changed Hin­duism itself. His blend of patri­ot­ic fer­vor, health and reli­gious piety flows seam­less­ly into the hard­er ver­sions of Hin­du nation­al­ism, which are often open­ly hos­tile to India’s 172 mil­lion Mus­lims. Although Ramdev prefers to speak of Indi­an sol­i­dar­i­ty, his B.J.P. allies rou­tine­ly invoke an Islam­ic threat and ral­ly crowds with vows to build tem­ples on the sites of medieval mosques. . . . .”
  10. Ramde­v’s atavis­tic pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the myth­i­cal­ly ide­al­ized past anti-Mus­lim fer­vor at times bor­ders on incite­ment to vio­lence: ” . . . . And the nation, in Ramdev’s telling, is sub­tly twinned with a his­to­ry and cul­ture that is dis­tinct­ly Hin­du: yoga, ayurvedic med­i­cine and the ancient Vedic scrip­tures from which they are said to have emerged. Some­times the hints are not so sub­tle. Two years ago, when a Mus­lim politi­cian refused to chant a nation­al­ist slo­gan, Ramdev laid into him at a right-wing ral­ly, say­ing that were it not for his respect for the law, “we would behead hun­dreds of thou­sands” of such peo­ple. A court lat­er issued a war­rant for Ramdev’s arrest, though the mat­ter appears to have been dropped. . . .”
  11. Sim­i­lar­i­ties between Ramdev and Trump: ” . . . . In his own way, Ramdev is India’s answer to Don­ald Trump, and there is much spec­u­la­tion that he may run for prime min­is­ter him­self. Like Trump, he heads a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar empire. And like Trump, he is a bom­bas­tic TV per­son­al­i­ty whose rela­tion­ship with truth is elas­tic; he can­not resist a brand­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty — his name and face are every­where in India. . . .”
  12. Ramde­v’s manip­u­la­tion of the actu­al his­to­ry of Yoga to fit into his “Ancient Vedic” the­o­log­i­cal pol­i­tics: ” . . . . This nar­ra­tive about yoga’s ancient roots has become a sacra­ment for Hin­du nation­al­ists, and it is echoed in the West. But it is most­ly myth, an ide­al­ized ori­gin sto­ry of the kind so many would-be nation-builders. . . . The old­est Hin­du scrip­tures con­tain almost no men­tion of phys­i­cal pos­tures. Even the Yoga Sutras, the so-called bible of yoga, include only a few short vers­es sug­gest­ing com­fort­able pos­tures for sit­ting. Many of the pos­tures prac­ticed in yoga today appear to have emerged in the 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­turies. Dozens of mod­ern ash­tan­ga yoga pos­tures are sim­i­lar or iden­ti­cal to those found in a gym­nas­tic rou­tine intro­duced to India by the British in the first decades of the 20th cen­tu­ry and orig­i­nal­ly devel­oped by a Dan­ish fit­ness instruc­tor named Niels Bukh, who lat­er became noto­ri­ous for his pro-Nazi sym­pa­thies. [The asso­ci­a­tion between Nazism and yoga will be high­light­ed lat­er on in the discussion–D.E.] . . .”
  13. A miss­ing and very pos­si­bly impor­tant chap­ter in Ramde­v’s per­son­al his­to­ry: miss­ing years in his young adult­hood, rais­ing the ques­tion of where he was and what was he doing? We won­der, in that same con­text, who put up the ven­ture cap­i­tal to launch Ramde­v’s yoga and ayurvedic prod­ucts busi­ness­es: ” . . . . He was born to a poor farm fam­i­ly in north-cen­tral India, prob­a­bly in 1965 (he has always been vague about his age) and giv­en the name Ram Kisan Yadav. . . .  As a teenag­er, he left home for a gurukul. The years that fol­lowed are curi­ous­ly blank; Ramdev has said very lit­tle about them, some­times claim­ing he doesn’t remem­ber. What is clear is that in 1995 he became a monk and assumed his cur­rent name after a rev­e­la­tion . . . .”
  14. Ramdev has been accused of some dark acts, includ­ing foul play: ” . . . . One for­mer high-lev­el exec­u­tive at Patan­jali, who worked at the com­pa­ny for sev­er­al years, spoke to me on con­di­tion of anonymi­ty, say­ing he feared retal­i­a­tion. When I asked him why he left, he said of Ramdev: ‘Because he’s a crook. Because he’s a hyp­ocrite.’ He rat­tled off a sheaf of shock­ing claims about fraud and employ­ee abuse. . . . . One sto­ry involved Ramdev’s broth­er, Ram Bharat, who was arrest­ed in 2013 and accused of kid­nap­ping and impris­on­ing a work­er sus­pect­ed of theft (the charges were lat­er dropped). Anoth­er for­mer Patan­jali exec­u­tive told me sim­i­lar sto­ries and added that he began receiv­ing threat­en­ing phone calls after he refused to facil­i­tate what he saw as kick­back schemes. He com­plained to Balkr­ish­na, he said, but the calls con­tin­ued and — feel­ing his life might be in dan­ger — he resigned. . . .”
  15. Ramde­v’s grav­i­tas has spawned fear in crit­ics: ” . . . . One Assamese uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor, who asked not to be named because he feared for his safe­ty, told me that Ramdev had abet­ted the RSS’s efforts to ‘ques­tion all oth­er reli­gions here, any­thing non-Hin­du.’ He also said Patan­jali — embold­ened by its ties to the Modi gov­ern­ment — had run roughshod over laws reg­u­lat­ing the har­vest of med­i­c­i­nal plants. . . .”
  16. Ramdev has been sus­pect­ed of foul play: ” . . . . In 2007, Ramdev’s own guru, a man named Shankar Dev, dis­ap­peared with­out a trace after falling into pover­ty and ill­ness, and ques­tions were raised about Ramdev’s neglect of him. (Because Dev ini­ti­at­ed Ramdev into monk­hood, Ramdev would have been expect­ed to treat him like a par­ent.) In 2010, Rajeev Dix­it, one of Ramdev’s clos­est advis­ers, who taught him about swadeshi eco­nom­ics and helped make Patan­jali a nation­al brand, died sud­den­ly. Some of his friends believe that Ramdev resent­ed Dixit’s own ris­ing celebri­ty, and they pub­licly spec­u­lat­ed about foul play. . . .”
  17. Sim­i­lar­i­ties between the RSS/Ramdev polit­i­cal agen­da and ide­ol­o­gy and Hitler’s hail­ing of Nation­al Social­ism as cre­at­ing a “new man.” ” . . . . Patan­jali ran more than 380 work­shops for prospec­tive employ­ees, where it taught a ‘val­ue sys­tem.’ Assam’s peo­ple, he explained, had ‘bad habits,’ includ­ing eat­ing non­veg­e­tar­i­an food and a lack of prop­er respect for the nation. ‘They’ve been lis­ten­ing to cor­rupt pol­i­tics from cor­rupt peo­ple for too long,’ he said. ‘We take what our sages said thou­sands of years ago and put it to use. We didn’t invent it. We took what’s avail­able in our scrip­tures and put it in a mod­ern for­mat.’ In oth­er words, they incul­cate Hin­dut­va. . . .”
  18. Review of the links between the RSS and Euro­pean fas­cism: ” . . . . In an effort to over­come these inter­nal fis­sures, the ear­ly Hin­du nation­al­ists built a reg­i­ment­ed anti­colo­nial social move­ment in the 1920s, which lat­er formed links with Ital­ian and Ger­man fas­cism; the main branch was known as the RSS, from the Hin­du words for ‘nation­al orga­ni­za­tion of vol­un­teers.’ . . .”

1.   “Baba Ramdev’s Holy War” by Robert F. Worth; The New York Times Mag­a­zine; 7/29/2017.

On a hazy day in ear­ly Feb­ru­ary, some of the most pow­er­ful men in India’s gov­ern­ment gath­ered at Chha­trasal Sta­di­um in New Del­hi, an are­na famous for its bois­ter­ous wrestling bouts. The men had come for a dif­fer­ent kind of spec­ta­cle — a bio­graph­i­cal film epic, whose ini­tial episodes (out of 57 total) would be shown for the first time that evening. At the cen­ter of a makeshift stage, sur­round­ed by smil­ing politi­cians and cab­i­net mem­bers, was the per­son whose life was being cel­e­brat­ed: a slen­der fig­ure in saf­fron robes with a long, dark beard, his chest-length hair tied in a bun. He need­ed no intro­duc­tion. This was Baba Ramdev, one of the most famous men in India.

Ramdev took the micro­phone and intro­duced the pha­lanx of sev­er­al hun­dred Hin­du reli­gious stu­dents, known as brah­macharis, sit­ting in neat rows on the field. Every­one repeat after me: “Bharat mata ki jai!” he shout­ed. The crowd raised their arms and pumped their fists as they chant­ed the words — “India my moth­er­land is great” — that have become a defin­ing slo­gan of the Hin­du nation­al­ist move­ment.

One by one, the dig­ni­taries rose to recount Ramdev’s extra­or­di­nary career: how he brought phys­i­cal fit­ness to the Indi­an mid­dle class with his mass yoga camps and tele­vi­sion empire; how he built his med­i­cine-and-con­sumer-goods com­pa­ny, Patan­jali Ayurved, into a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar colos­sus. “Swami­ji has changed the direc­tion of the world, the think­ing of the world,” one speak­er shout­ed, refer­ring to Ramdev with an affec­tion­ate hon­orif­ic. “That is how great he is. Swami­ji has changed India, which was going toward the West — its dress and food and cul­ture — and has changed its direc­tion to yoga!”

At last silence fell, and the 50-foot screen flick­ered to life. For the next hour, India’s polit­i­cal elite watched in hum­ble silence as Ramdev’s life unfold­ed, from his birth in a remote rur­al vil­lage to his ear­ly days as a lis­some yogi (the remain­ing episodes had been con­densed into trail­er form). As a film, it was a sham­bol­ic melo­dra­ma that seemed to treat Ramdev almost as a divine mes­sen­ger. But as an expres­sion of the Indi­an public’s feel­ings, it wasn’t far off the mark.

Ramdev has been com­pared to Bil­ly Gra­ham, the South­ern Bap­tist fire­brand who advised sev­er­al Amer­i­can pres­i­dents and ener­gized the Chris­t­ian right. The par­al­lel makes some sense: Ramdev has been a promi­nent voice on the Hin­du right, and his tac­it endorse­ment dur­ing the land­mark 2014 cam­paign helped bring Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi to pow­er. He appeared along­side Modi on sev­er­al occa­sions, singing the leader’s prais­es and urg­ing Indi­ans to turn out for him. Ramdev has called Modi “a close friend,” and the prime min­is­ter pub­licly lauds Patanjali’s array of ayurvedic prod­ucts — med­i­cines, cos­met­ics and food­stuffs. Although Modi cam­paigned heav­i­ly on promis­es to reform India’s econ­o­my and fight cor­rup­tion, there were fre­quent dog whis­tles to the Hin­du nation­al­ist base, some of them coor­di­nat­ed with Ramdev. A month before Modi’s land­slide vic­to­ry, a trust con­trolled by Ramdev released a video in which senior lead­ers of Modi’s par­ty, the Bharatiya Jana­ta Par­ty (B.J.P.), includ­ing the cur­rent min­is­ters of for­eign affairs, inter­nal secu­ri­ty, finance and trans­porta­tion, appeared along­side him with a signed doc­u­ment set­ting out nine pledges. These includ­ed the pro­tec­tion of cows — ani­mals held sacred in Hin­duism — and a broad call for Hin­du nation­al­ist reforms of the gov­ern­ment, the courts, cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions and edu­ca­tion. After Modi won, Ramdev claimed to have “pre­pared the ground for the big polit­i­cal changes that occurred.” [Mod­i’s finance min­is­ter is Jayant Sin­ha, the for­mer direc­tor of Omid­yar Net­work, Pierre Omid­yar’s “char­i­ta­ble” under­tak­ings in India–D.E.]

But Ramdev is far more than a use­ful holy man. Even beyond his polit­i­cal patrons, Ramdev is the per­fect mes­sen­ger for a ris­ing mid­dle class that is hun­gry for reli­gious asser­tion and fed up with the social­ist, ratio­nal­ist lega­cy of Jawa­har­lal Nehru, India’s first post-inde­pen­dence leader. Ramdev has led vast­ly pop­u­lar cam­paigns against cor­rup­tion, don­ning the man­tle of swadeshi, or Indi­an eco­nom­ic nation­al­ism, to cast for­eign com­pa­nies as neo­colo­nial vil­lains. In a sense, Ramdev has changed Hin­duism itself. His blend of patri­ot­ic fer­vor, health and reli­gious piety flows seam­less­ly into the hard­er ver­sions of Hin­du nation­al­ism, which are often open­ly hos­tile to India’s 172 mil­lion Mus­lims. Although Ramdev prefers to speak of Indi­an sol­i­dar­i­ty, his B.J.P. allies rou­tine­ly invoke an Islam­ic threat and ral­ly crowds with vows to build tem­ples on the sites of medieval mosques.

In his own way, Ramdev is India’s answer to Don­ald Trump, and there is much spec­u­la­tion that he may run for prime min­is­ter him­self. Like Trump, he heads a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar empire. And like Trump, he is a bom­bas­tic TV per­son­al­i­ty whose rela­tion­ship with truth is elas­tic; he can­not resist a brand­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty — his name and face are every­where in India. In May, he announced plans to add swadeshi SIM cards to his ever-grow­ing list of prod­ucts: pack­aged noo­dles, herbal con­sti­pa­tion reme­dies, floor clean­er made with cow urine. He has a gift for W.W.E.-style pub­lic­i­ty stunts: Last year he “won” a tele­vised bout with an Olympic wrestler from Ukraine.

On the sur­face, Ramdev’s bliss­ful demeanor is worlds away from Trump’s growls and sneers. But his namastes pro­vide cov­er for a reac­tionary cam­paign to trans­form the coun­try. When chal­lenged on his eva­sions and slurs, Ramdev — like the White House’s cur­rent occu­pant — tends to respond by point­ing a fin­ger at “cor­rupt” fig­ures in the sec­u­lar elite. It seems to work. Last year an Indi­an judge banned a crit­i­cal biog­ra­phy of Ramdev before it was released and then put a gag order on its author, bar­ring her from even men­tion­ing the book on social media. In a sense, Ramdev is more pow­er­ful than any prime min­is­ter. He may be a whol­ly new breed: a pop­ulist tycoon, pro­tect­ed from crit­ics (and even, to some extent, from the law) by a vast fol­low­ing and a claim to holy pur­pose.

Baba Ramdev: Handy to have around.

The cen­ter of Ramdev’s empire is in Harid­war, a small city on the Ganges near the foothills of the Himalayas, about a four-hour dri­ve north­east of Del­hi. It is a sacred place in Hin­du leg­end, and thou­sands of pil­grims gath­er there by the river­banks every day. Not far away is the town of Rishikesh, where the Bea­t­les famous­ly vis­it­ed Maha­rashi Mahesh Yogi in the late 1960s. But Ramdev’s oper­a­tion is a far cry from the ascetic ashrams of yes­ter­year. Patanjali’s main office com­plex looks like an air­port, with an odd, pago­da­like gate sep­a­rat­ing it from the rest of town. Inside, there are vast park­ing lots, a cav­ernous employ­ee cafe­te­ria, lawns and foun­tains. You might think you were in Sil­i­con Val­ley if not for the jer­seys read­ing “Dept. of Yoga Sci­ence” that the Uni­ver­si­ty of Patan­jali stu­dents wear. I found myself star­ing at a stat­ue of a bony, beard­ed sage seat­ed in the lotus posi­tion: It was Patan­jali, the company’s name­sake, who some two mil­len­ni­ums ago is said to have com­piled the vers­es that are the foun­da­tion of mod­ern yoga prac­tice. [The “ancient” ori­gins of Yoga will be sub­stan­tive­ly dis­put­ed lat­er in this article–D.E.]

Ramdev lives a few blocks away, behind anoth­er huge gate manned by armed guards. (After Modi’s elec­tion, his gov­ern­ment grant­ed Ramdev the sec­ond-high­est lev­el of state secu­ri­ty while with­draw­ing it from some lead­ers of the rival Con­gress par­ty.) The guards waved us through, and sud­den­ly I found myself in a qui­et enclave of lush gar­dens. The heat and dust of India seemed far away. We strolled along a brick path to a small bun­ga­low, and there was Ramdev, seat­ed on a beau­ti­ful­ly carved wood­en swing, laugh­ing and chat­ting with a guest. He rose and greet­ed me with a hug. I was struck by his slight stature; his bushy black beard, gray at the fringes, seemed more sub­stan­tial than his thin frame. He emanat­ed a loose-joint­ed warmth, like some­one who has just run a long dis­tance. Apart from his thin saf­fron robes — one wrapped around his chest and one at the waist — he wore only padukas, the tra­di­tion­al plat­form wood­en clogs with a met­al post for the toes to grip.

“This is my basic and ulti­mate mis­sion,” he said, speak­ing in strong­ly accent­ed Eng­lish. “I want a healthy, wealthy, pros­per­ous and peace­ful per­son, soci­ety, nation.” He looked into my eyes and touched my fore­arm as he spoke. The left side of his face was par­a­lyzed by a child­hood ill­ness, and the result­ing squint gives him a look of cock­eyed inten­si­ty. “Health and hap­pi­ness, with­out yoga you can­not achieve,” he went on. “Yoga is my basic work.” Ramdev prac­tices and teach­es yoga every day from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m., in a hangar­like audi­to­ri­um with hun­dreds of stu­dents and TV cam­eras rolling, and then again (when he can) in the after­noon and evening from 5 until 7:30. In between, he told me, he over­sees Patan­jali and its asso­ci­at­ed trusts and char­i­ta­ble activ­i­ties. He inter­spersed his earnest yoga talk with play­ful ban­ter, toss­ing his head back in gid­dy fits of gig­gling. When I asked him if I could fol­low him around for a day or two, he seemed delight­ed. “Of course! You can stay with me,” he said, ges­tur­ing at the house behind us, where he sleeps on a pal­let on the floor. “I’m not mar­ried. But don’t wor­ry, I’m not homo­sex­u­al!” He burst into rau­cous laugh­ter and added, “I’m against homo­sex­u­al­i­ty!” The laugh­ter got even loud­er, and he added under his breath, “Just kid­ding.”

I was baf­fled for a moment, and then found myself mar­veling at his leg­erde­main. As a Hin­du monk, Ramdev has repeat­ed­ly declared his dis­ap­proval of homo­sex­u­al­i­ty, call­ing it “immoral and unnat­ur­al.” He says it can be cured by yoga. But he has the politician’s gift for charm­ing his audi­ence. In a sin­gle, East-meets-West moment, he had both deferred to tra­di­tion and hint­ed to me that he was a clos­et lib­er­al. (He was also kid­ding about the offer to sleep on his floor, as it turned out.)

Ramdev’s infor­mal­i­ty and prac­ti­cal bent set him apart from most oth­er gurus. Indi­an reli­gious celebri­ties are known pop­u­lar­ly as god­men, a word that sug­gests star­dom but also adds a hint of deri­sion. They are heirs to an ancient tra­di­tion of hum­ble, loin­cloth-clad wis­dom seek­ers, but  seems to come with the ter­ri­to­ry as well. Some god­men have become immense­ly rich and built cults of per­son­al­i­ty that stretched around the globe. They tend to sur­round them­selves with fawn­ing fol­low­ers, and many claim to per­form mir­a­cles, like Sathya Sai Baba, who became noto­ri­ous in the 1960s for con­jur­ing Omega watch­es out of thin air. Ramdev is not the first one to gain influ­ence in pol­i­tics; in the 1970s Indi­ra Gand­hi often sought advice from her own yoga teacher, who became known as the “Rasputin of Del­hi.” But Ramdev rarely clouds the air with talk about enlight­en­ment and reli­gion. “My yoga is very sim­ple,” he told me. “No crit­i­cal pos­tures. No phi­los­o­phy or ide­ol­o­gy. All yoga prac­tices are based on ben­e­fit. Instant ben­e­fit.”

Ramdev is also the first god­man to earn his mil­lions as a busi­ness­man instead of just siphon­ing dona­tions from wealthy fol­low­ers. Patan­jali has vault­ed in just over a decade from a tiny oper­a­tion into an eco­nom­ic pow­er­house, with $1.6 bil­lion in sales in the cur­rent fis­cal year. Turn on a TV or glance at a bill­board almost any­where in India, and you are like­ly to see Ramdev adver­tis­ing one of its prod­ucts. Dur­ing our talk, Ramdev boast­ed of Patanjali’s suc­cess, detail­ing his plans for expan­sion and say­ing he aimed to reach about $15 bil­lion in annu­al sales by 2025, a fig­ure that would make Patan­jali one of India’s biggest com­pa­nies. But he also insist­ed that Patan­jali is not a busi­ness at all; it is “a ser­vice for human­i­ty, for the nation.” He main­tains that nei­ther he nor the company’s C.E.O., Acharya Balkr­ish­na, takes a salary. Ramdev says he doesn’t even have a bank account (he abides by the monk’s vow of aus­ter­i­ty and chasti­ty, though the com­pa­ny seems to more than take care of his needs). All prof­its, he said, are plowed back into research and char­i­ty, and the company’s low costs allow it to under­sell com­peti­tors. Most of Patanjali’s employ­ees are paid much less than they would receive else­where; ask­ing for a raise is taboo. (A com­pa­ny spokesman denies this.) They are for­bid­den to drink alco­hol or eat non­veg­e­tar­i­an food. “Penance in indi­vid­ual life, pros­per­i­ty for oth­ers,” Ramdev told me with a smile. This blend of fierce cap­i­tal­ism and monk­ish renun­ci­a­tion is aimed at mak­ing India a “world eco­nom­ic pow­er and world spir­i­tu­al pow­er by 2050.”

Ramdev told me his nation­al­ist vision embraces all reli­gions and castes, but he added a reveal­ing caveat. “Coun­try first,” he said. “This is a must. Not, ‘I’m great, my caste is great,’ but my coun­try is great. Unlike Mus­lim lead­ers — they say Islam is great. I say, No: The nation is great, the cit­i­zen is great.”And the nation, in Ramdev’s telling, is sub­tly twinned with a his­to­ry and cul­ture that is dis­tinct­ly Hin­du: yoga, ayurvedic med­i­cine and the ancient Vedic scrip­tures from which they are said to have emerged. Some­times the hints are not so sub­tle. Two years ago, when a Mus­lim politi­cian refused to chant a nation­al­ist slo­gan, Ramdev laid into him at a right-wing ral­ly, say­ing that were it not for his respect for the law, “we would behead hun­dreds of thou­sands” of such peo­ple. A court lat­er issued a war­rant for Ramdev’s arrest, though the mat­ter appears to have been dropped.

Hin­du nation­al­ism rarely made head­lines in the West until the 1990s, when images of com­mu­nal riots and chant­i­ng B.J.P. sup­port­ers intro­duced many Amer­i­cans to the idea that there was anoth­er, dif­fer­ent kind of fun­da­men­tal­ism to wor­ry about in South Asia. But as a polit­i­cal force, Hin­du nation­al­ism pre­dates India’s inde­pen­dence in 1947 and reflects cen­turies of resent­ment among the subcontinent’s Hin­du major­i­ty. Hin­dus sub­mit­ted reluc­tant­ly to waves of Mus­lim con­quest from the north start­ing almost a thou­sand years ago, and then to almost 300 years of British dom­i­na­tion. After World War I, when the British Empire start­ed to crack, some Hin­du ide­o­logues saw an oppor­tu­ni­ty to regain the upper hand. They began call­ing for an explic­it­ly Hin­du state and soci­ety, in which Mus­lims (and oth­er minori­ties) would be tol­er­at­ed only if they respect­ed the major­i­ty cul­ture. In one respect, it was an effort to counter polit­i­cal Islam, which was already gain­ing adher­ents in India and else­where in the ear­ly 1920s. But build­ing a cohe­sive move­ment was not easy. Clas­si­cal Hin­duism is more a con­glom­er­a­tion of sects than a sin­gle reli­gion; it has many ancient scrip­tures but no sin­gle, foun­da­tion­al text, like the Bible or the Quran. Its ancient caste hier­ar­chy per­pet­u­at­ed divi­sions and did not trans­late eas­i­ly into the uni­fy­ing slo­gans of mod­ern mass pol­i­tics.

In an effort to over­come these inter­nal fis­sures, the ear­ly Hin­du nation­al­ists built a reg­i­ment­ed anti­colo­nial social move­ment in the 1920s, which lat­er formed links with Ital­ian and Ger­man fas­cism; the main branch was known as the RSS, from the Hin­du words for “nation­al orga­ni­za­tion of vol­un­teers.” In place of black shirts and arm­bands, they wore kha­ki shorts and car­ried bam­boo sticks. This asso­ci­a­tion taint­ed them in the decades that fol­lowed, espe­cial­ly after so many British and Indi­an sol­diers died fight­ing the Axis pow­ers in World War II. Anoth­er seri­ous blow came in 1948, when a Hin­du nation­al­ist zealot assas­si­nat­ed Mohan­das Gand­hi, mod­ern India’s saint­ly father fig­ure. After­ward, Nehru, Gandhi’s polit­i­cal heir, sup­pressed Hin­du nation­al­ist orga­ni­za­tions and fos­tered his own coun­ter­vail­ing con­cep­tion of India as a plu­ral­ist, sec­u­lar state. Although he was a Brah­min, Nehru was a pas­sion­ate cos­mopoli­tan who saw Hin­du iden­ti­ty as nar­row and trib­al. He want­ed India to be defined by its diver­si­ty, not by any one faith. It was an idea shaped in part by his British edu­ca­tion at Har­row, Cam­bridge and the Inns of Court in Lon­don, and one shared by many of his peers. For decades after inde­pen­dence, India’s rul­ing class was most­ly a “thin lay­er of brown Eng­lish­men,” in the phrase of an Indi­an friend of mine who heard it from his grand­fa­ther, a friend of Nehru’s. They were patri­cian fig­ures who rebelled suc­cess­ful­ly against the British but absorbed many of their ideas about how the coun­try should be gov­erned.

By the 1990s, Nehru’s Con­gress par­ty had become almost syn­ony­mous with the Indi­an state, but his tol­er­ant, world­ly vision was start­ing to fray. The Hin­du nation­al­ist move­ment anoint­ed the B.J.P. as its polit­i­cal vehi­cle, and the par­ty slow­ly gained strength, fueled by per­cep­tions of cor­rup­tion and enti­tle­ment in the sec­u­lar polit­i­cal elite. In 1998, the B.J.P. was able to sus­tain a major­i­ty coali­tion in India’s Par­lia­ment for the first time. But in ear­ly 2002, bloody com­mu­nal riots broke out in the west­ern state of Gujarat, reviv­ing the party’s old demons. It start­ed when a train car­ry­ing some Hin­du pil­grims caught fire. Revenge mobs quick­ly formed. In the ensu­ing vio­lence, more than a thou­sand peo­ple were killed, most of them Mus­lims, and there was wide­spread loot­ing. Ramdev’s future friend Naren­dra Modi was Gujarat’s chief min­is­ter at the time, and evi­dence soon emerged sug­gest­ing that he and oth­er top B.J.P. offi­cials had stoked the vio­lence, or at least giv­en a green light. (A court-appoint­ed inves­ti­ga­tion cleared Modi of wrong­do­ing in 2012, but many schol­ars and ana­lysts who have exam­ined the evi­dence dis­agree.) Many Indi­an Mus­lims still con­sid­er the riots a state-sanc­tioned pogrom, and see Modi — who has nev­er apol­o­gized for his role — as a crim­i­nal. But even among Hin­dus, the B.J.P. suf­fered from its rep­u­ta­tion as a par­ty led by Brah­mins and oth­er upper-caste Hin­dus. It had trou­ble win­ning votes from Dal­its (untouch­ables) and oth­ers at the low­er end of India’s caste hier­ar­chy.

Ramdev was just the kind of uni­fy­ing fig­ure the B.J.P. need­ed. [This is sim­i­lar, in cer­tain respects, to Hitler, who was cast as an “every­man” who rep­re­sent­ed the “aver­age German”–D.E.] At the time of the Gujarat riots, he was emerg­ing as a celebri­ty, criss­cross­ing India to pre­side over mass yoga camps and pitch his home reme­dies. He tapped into a hunger for spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and health among India’s grow­ing mid­dle class and quick­ly became a sym­bol of Hin­duism at its most benign, a ready-made pack­age of rit­u­als and foods that were fun, afford­able and good for you. As his fame spread, a stream of politi­cians and celebri­ties made their way to Harid­war, eager to donate to his cause and seek his endorse­ment; he was becom­ing what Indi­ans call a “vote bank.” In 2011, he embraced the nation­wide anti-cor­rup­tion move­ment, led by the inde­pen­dent social activist Anna Haz­are, which swept India that year. In June, he start­ed a hunger strike against cor­rup­tion, and 40,000 of his fol­low­ers ral­lied in his sup­port in Del­hi. The police showed up with tear gas, and in the ensu­ing melee, Ramdev shed his saf­fron robes under a stage and tried to escape dis­guised as an injured woman, only to be detained and exposed on video, bushy beard and all. The Indi­an press mocked him for days.

But noth­ing seems to taint Ramdev for long. Three years lat­er, his rep­u­ta­tion as a cru­sad­er against cor­rup­tion — a fre­quent B.J.P. talk­ing point — made him even more valu­able in the elec­tions that swept the Hin­du nation­al­ists to pow­er. He turned his yoga-camp meet­ings, which often had tens of thou­sands of peo­ple in atten­dance, into unof­fi­cial ral­lies. Two weeks before the elec­tions start­ed, he wel­comed Modi onstage at a huge out­door gath­er­ing in New Del­hi. “You’ll make oth­er peo­ple under­stand, won’t you?” Ramdev said to the micro­phone, as Modi sat next to him, grin­ning. “You won’t sit at home, will you?” The audi­ence roared back: “No!”

Ramdev found­ed a short-lived polit­i­cal par­ty in 2010, and has since been rumored to be weigh­ing a polit­i­cal career him­self. When I brought up the ques­tion, he smil­ing­ly bat­ted it away, say­ing that he’d become a “non­po­lit­i­cal per­son” and that the tri­umph of the B.J.P. had obvi­at­ed any need for him to run for office. “Modi is an hon­est prime min­is­ter,” he told me. “He is a vision­ary and a mis­sion­ary. He will win the next term (in the 2019 elec­tions). He will build a strong foun­da­tion for India.”

But the B.J.P.’s ambi­tions go well beyond 2019. Unlike the Con­gress par­ty, the B.J.P. doesn’t just want to gov­ern; it wants to trans­form the coun­try, polit­i­cal­ly and cul­tur­al­ly. The Indi­an state and its busi­ness allies have become increas­ing­ly enmeshed in Hin­du reli­gious edu­ca­tion and pro­mo­tion, fund­ing ashrams, gurukuls (where stu­dents appren­tice them­selves to a guru and study San­skrit) and priest edu­ca­tion. Modi’s gov­ern­ment has also helped empow­er fig­ures like Yogi Adityanath, a right-wing Hin­du fire­brand who has said he wants to install stat­ues of Hin­du gods in every mosque, and who last year became chief min­is­ter of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most pop­u­lous state.

Many Indi­an Mus­lims say they have begun to feel like strangers in their own land. The B.J.P. has pro­posed a num­ber of laws with a trou­bling­ly sec­tar­i­an cast. One of them would allow immi­grants from near­by coun­tries who are Hin­du, Bud­dhist, Sikh or Chris­t­ian to apply for cit­i­zen­ship but would explic­it­ly exclude Mus­lims.Even worse, some Mus­lims say, is the government’s wink­ing atti­tude toward com­mu­nal vio­lence. In 2015, a Hin­du mob in a vil­lage near Del­hi beat a Mus­lim to death on sus­pi­cion of hav­ing eat­en beef. When one of the accused killers lat­er died of an unre­lat­ed ill­ness, a B.J.P. politi­cian attend­ed his funer­al; the cof­fin was draped in the Indi­an flag. Episodes like this have mul­ti­plied since Modi’s vic­to­ry in 2014.

Ramdev’s suc­cess at rebrand­ing yoga — and pop­u­lar Hin­duism — may owe some­thing to the inspi­ra­tional pow­er of his oft-told life sto­ry. He was born to a poor farm fam­i­ly in north-cen­tral India, prob­a­bly in 1965 (he has always been vague about his age) and giv­en the name Ram Kisan Yadav. As a child, he worked in the fields and suf­fered a series of ill­ness­es and acci­dents. When I met him in Harid­war, he showed me a hor­i­zon­tal scar on his fore­head, the lega­cy of a fall when he was 3 or 4. Lat­er he fell into the vil­lage pond and near­ly drowned. After the ill­ness that par­a­lyzed the left side of his face, oth­er chil­dren mocked him for his squint. He read about yoga in a book, he told me, and began prac­tic­ing it in order to for­ti­fy his weak body. As a teenag­er, he left home for a gurukul. The years that fol­lowed are curi­ous­ly blank; Ramdev has said very lit­tle about them, some­times claim­ing he doesn’t remem­ber. What is clear is that in 1995 he became a monk and assumed his cur­rent name after a rev­e­la­tion he described to me like this: “No per­son­al choice, no per­son­al desires, no wealth, no respect or dis­re­spect. My whole skill, whole exis­tence, this whole exis­tence for all.”

Ramdev start­ed teach­ing yoga soon after­ward. He also teamed up with Balkr­ish­na, whom he met at a gurukul, and the two men began ped­dling their home­made herbal pills and unguents from a mod­est clin­ic that would even­tu­al­ly grow into Patan­jali. An ear­ly break­through came in 2002, when a reli­gious TV chan­nel called Aastha offered to broad­cast Ramdev’s yoga class­es. He quick­ly became a star, charm­ing audi­ences with his mobile eye­brows, his gig­gles, his trade­mark undu­lat­ing stom­ach-mus­cle rou­tine (a tra­di­tion­al asana adapt­ed for TV audi­ences). At the time, rel­a­tive­ly few Indi­ans prac­ticed yoga, even as mil­lions of Amer­i­cans were doing sun salu­ta­tions and inton­ing their namastes. It was con­sid­ered an aus­tere dis­ci­pline linked to ancient texts, too com­plex and rig­or­ous for ordi­nary peo­ple. Ramdev changed that. He is a low­er-caste Hin­du who speaks in a play­ful, down-to-earth lan­guage. He sim­pli­fied the breath­ing exer­cis­es and pos­tures, mak­ing them acces­si­ble to any­one. Yet he also urged his lis­ten­ers to be proud of yoga, call­ing it a quin­tes­sen­tial expres­sion of the wis­dom con­tained in the sacred Hin­du texts.

This nar­ra­tive about yoga’s ancient roots has become a sacra­ment for Hin­du nation­al­ists, and it is echoed in the West. But it is most­ly myth, an ide­al­ized ori­gin sto­ry of the kind so many would-be nation-builders, from ancient Rome to the Zion­ists, have fos­tered about them­selves. The old­est Hin­du scrip­tures con­tain almost no men­tion of phys­i­cal pos­tures. Even the Yoga Sutras, the so-called bible of yoga, include only a few short vers­es sug­gest­ing com­fort­able pos­tures for sit­ting. Many of the pos­tures prac­ticed in yoga today appear to have emerged in the 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­turies. Dozens of mod­ern ash­tan­ga yoga pos­tures are sim­i­lar or iden­ti­cal to those found in a gym­nas­tic rou­tine intro­duced to India by the British in the first decades of the 20th cen­tu­ry and orig­i­nal­ly devel­oped by a Dan­ish fit­ness instruc­tor named Niels Bukh, who lat­er became noto­ri­ous for his pro-Nazi sym­pa­thies. Bukh, need­less to say, has been con­ve­nient­ly for­got­ten by both Indi­ans and the yoga-lov­ing celebri­ties of Hol­ly­wood.

Yoga is only half of Ramdev’s work. He and Balkr­ish­na also use their tele­vi­sion empire to tout the heal­ing virtues of Patanjali’s ayurvedic med­i­cines and health foods, root­ed in the sup­pos­ed­ly cura­tive pow­ers of herbal and min­er­al com­pounds. West­ern sci­en­tists view ayurve­da (the “sci­ence of life”) with skep­ti­cism, and stud­ies have found that some ayurvedic prod­ucts con­tain tox­ic lev­els of heavy met­als, usu­al­ly from soil or ash, in the mix. But in India they have become a boom­ing busi­ness, thanks in part to Ramde­v’s mar­ket­ing efforts. Balkr­ish­na gave me a tour of Patanjali’s med­ical research insti­tute, in a gleam­ing new build­ing that was inau­gu­rat­ed last year by Modi him­self (“Swa­mi Ramdev’s herbs help you over­come all prob­lems,” the prime min­is­ter told the crowds gath­ered for the event).

If Ramdev is Patanjali’s flam­boy­ant mas­cot, Balkr­ish­na is his foil, a num­ber-crunch­ing intro­vert with buck­teeth and a high, soft voice. He led me upstairs to a lab­o­ra­to­ry where white-coat­ed tech­ni­cians were dry­ing mass­es of swampy green spir­uli­na, a form of algae, to be packed into pills. “It is high in pro­tein and vit­a­mins,” one of the men told me. In his spare time, Balkr­ish­na said, he wan­ders the forests of the Himalayas look­ing for med­i­c­i­nal herbs. Some can be found grow­ing in a gar­den behind the research cen­ter, adjoin­ing a Dis­ney-style reli­gious theme park, with life-size sculpt­ed fig­ures enact­ing scenes from the Vedas inside man-made caves.

It looked like Hin­du kitsch to me. But for Ramdev and Balkr­ish­na, all this herbal wis­dom is seri­ous busi­ness. When it comes to mar­ket­ing against for­eign com­peti­tors, they wield their holi­ness like a club. One Patan­jali ad runs: “As East India Com­pa­ny plun­dered our coun­try for 200 years like­wise these multi­na­tion­als are exploit­ing our coun­try by sell­ing their harm­ful and dan­ger­ous chem­i­cal prod­ucts. Beware!” Ramdev’s com­peti­tors have sued Patan­jali repeat­ed­ly, but the slurs per­sist.

The swadeshi cam­paign has served Ramdev very well. Eco­nom­ic nation­al­ism is not just an effec­tive sales pitch; it has also allowed Ramdev to neat­ly side­step attacks on his own busi­ness prac­tices. Those attacks began as ear­ly as 2005, when a quar­ter of Patanjali’s work­ers went on strike, claim­ing they’d been under­paid. Ramdev and Balkr­ish­na prompt­ly fired them, but some of the work­ers kept sam­ples of the firm’s med­i­cines and said they con­tained unlist­ed ingre­di­ents includ­ing crushed human skulls (pre­sum­ably residue from soil or ash). A gov­ern­ment lab test found human and ani­mal DNA. In response, Ramdev accused “pow­er­ful inter­ests” of tam­per­ing with the sam­ples. (A lat­er test of new sam­ples found noth­ing amiss.) His fans came to his defense, as did politi­cians in the B.J.P.

Over the years, this way of fend­ing off crit­i­cism has become a pat­tern; nonethe­less, Patan­jali has faced at least half a dozen legal actions over its prod­ucts. In Octo­ber 2016, the food and drug admin­is­tra­tion of Haryana State found Patanjali’s cow ghee (clar­i­fied but­ter) to be “sub­stan­dard and unsafe.” Last April, the Indi­an mil­i­tary stopped sell­ing a pop­u­lar Patan­jali juice to sol­diers after a gov­ern­ment agency test­ed sam­ples and found them “unfit for con­sump­tion.” (Patan­jali coun­tered that the juice was med­i­cine and thus the wrong test had been per­formed.) In the banned biog­ra­phy of Ramdev pub­lished last year, the jour­nal­ist Priyan­ka Pathak-Narain wrote that Patanjali’s cow ghee — adver­tised as the purest on the mar­ket — was made from white but­ter sourced from hun­dreds of thou­sands of small pro­duc­ers, blend­ing cow, buf­fa­lo and goat milk. In India, where pure ghee is required for reli­gious pur­pos­es, such things mat­ter.

Some for­mer employ­ees say Ramdev is guilty of more than safe­ty vio­la­tions. One for­mer high-lev­el exec­u­tive at Patan­jali, who worked at the com­pa­ny for sev­er­al years, spoke to me on con­di­tion of anonymi­ty, say­ing he feared retal­i­a­tion. When I asked him why he left, he said of Ramdev: “Because he’s a crook. Because he’s a hyp­ocrite.” He rat­tled off a sheaf of shock­ing claims about fraud and employ­ee abuse. (These have been writ­ten about in the Indi­an press, but none appear to have been sub­stan­ti­at­ed in court.) One sto­ry involved Ramdev’s broth­er, Ram Bharat, who was arrest­ed in 2013 and accused of kid­nap­ping and impris­on­ing a work­er sus­pect­ed of theft (the charges were lat­er dropped). Anoth­er for­mer Patan­jali exec­u­tive told me sim­i­lar sto­ries and added that he began receiv­ing threat­en­ing phone calls after he refused to facil­i­tate what he saw as kick­back schemes. He com­plained to Balkr­ish­na, he said, but the calls con­tin­ued and — feel­ing his life might be in dan­ger — he resigned. A Patan­jali spokesman cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly denied that any of these events took place.

Despite his pop­u­lar­i­ty, Ramdev has long been trailed by even dark­er spec­u­la­tions, cen­tered on the deaths of two close asso­ciates. In 2007, Ramdev’s own guru, a man named Shankar Dev, dis­ap­peared with­out a trace after falling into pover­ty and ill­ness, and ques­tions were raised about Ramdev’s neglect of him. (Because Dev ini­ti­at­ed Ramdev into monk­hood, Ramdev would have been expect­ed to treat him like a par­ent.) In 2010, Rajeev Dix­it, one of Ramdev’s clos­est advis­ers, who taught him about swadeshi eco­nom­ics and helped make Patan­jali a nation­al brand, died sud­den­ly. Some of his friends believe that Ramdev resent­ed Dixit’s own ris­ing celebri­ty, and they pub­licly spec­u­lat­ed about foul play. But car­diac arrest was cit­ed as the cause of death, and Ramdev has dis­missed efforts to impli­cate him as a con­spir­a­cy by his polit­i­cal ene­mies. When I asked him about this and oth­er insin­u­a­tions, he cast them all aside with a smile and a wave of his hand. “It’s not true,” he told me. “I am a very sim­ple and hum­ble and com­pas­sion­ate per­son.”

For Ramdev’s crit­ics, the skele­tons in his clos­et are tied to a broad­er con­cern that his polit­i­cal val­ue to the B.J.P. may have placed him above the law. I heard wealthy busi­ness­peo­ple in Del­hi speak of him with audi­ble fear in their voic­es, as if he could dam­age them at will. One thing is cer­tain: Ramdev has received extra­or­di­nary favors from the Indi­an gov­ern­ment since Modi was elect­ed. Soon after the 2014 elec­tion, B.J.P.-led state gov­ern­ments across India began facil­i­tat­ing steep dis­counts on land pur­chas­es for Patan­jali. There is some prece­dent for non­prof­its or reli­gious orga­ni­za­tions to receive such favors, but the deals Patan­jali got were very unusu­al. In the largest of these deals, Patan­jali was giv­en a 1,200-acre par­cel of land in the east­ern state of Assam at no cost. Accord­ing to state leg­is­la­ture doc­u­ments I was shown by a local aca­d­e­m­ic, the deal was made by an agency con­trolled by the Bodoland People’s Front, a par­ty aligned with the B.J.P. Last year a Reuters inves­ti­ga­tion doc­u­ment­ed sev­er­al dis­count­ed land sales and leas­es in three oth­er Indi­an states that saved the com­pa­ny a total of $46 mil­lion. Crit­ics say these deals were part­ly pay­back for the boost Ramdev pro­vid­ed to the B.J.P. in the elec­tions. But by spread­ing Patanjali’s pres­ence into out­ly­ing areas where it need­ed sup­port, the par­ty was also sow­ing the seeds of future elec­toral vic­to­ries.

The state of Assam is about two and a half hours east of Del­hi by plane, a sprawl­ing strip of lush jun­gle and flood­plain squeezed between the moun­tain king­dom of Bhutan to the north and watery Bangladesh to the south. Urbane Indi­ans speak of Assam as a fron­tier zone, known for its wild rhi­nos and tigers, its indige­nous “trib­al” pop­u­la­tions and its his­to­ry of insur­gen­cies. Dis­trust of the cen­tral gov­ern­ment runs deep, thanks to a long his­to­ry of neglect and exploita­tion of Assam’s rich nat­ur­al resources — rub­ber, silk, tim­ber, tea and crude oil. There is also wide­spread resent­ment of the Bangladeshi refugees, many of them Mus­lim, who have fled across the bor­der in recent decades. For the B.J.P. and its allies, Assam seemed fer­tile ground for Hin­dut­va, or Hin­du ide­ol­o­gy.

Not long after the party’s 2014 vic­to­ry, Patan­jali secured two large tracts in Assam and began work on a vast pro­duc­tion facil­i­ty. I reached the plant after a bumpy eight-hour jour­ney through end­less tea plan­ta­tions and was greet­ed by the site man­ag­er, an ebul­lient man with bushy eye­brows named S.B. Singh. His new­ly built office was emp­ty apart from a large pic­ture of Ramdev on the wall. Through the win­dows we could see earth-mov­ing machines and con­struc­tion crews and big piles of mud­dy, ocher-hued soil.

“There was jun­gle where we’re sit­ting,” Singh told me. “Ele­phants.” Patan­jali got the fac­to­ry up and run­ning in only 132 days, he told me, raz­ing the jun­gle and clear­ing out a total of 88 ele­phants before build­ing a com­plex of ware­hous­es on the 155-acre site. (The ele­phants were guid­ed gen­tly to a patch of for­est near­by, Singh told me.) He unleashed a bliz­zard of sta­tis­tics — 4,000 work­ers, 1.2 mil­lion bags of cement, a 20-per­son man­age­ment team — his eyes sparkling with pride at the achieve­ment. The plant remained unfin­ished and was still run­ning at par­tial capac­i­ty. But already hun­dreds of work­ers were busy mak­ing cook­ies and cos­met­ics. Thou­sands more were being trained, and not just in job skills.

“We are men­tal­ly con­di­tion­ing them,” Singh said. Patan­jali ran more than 380 work­shops for prospec­tive employ­ees, where it taught a “val­ue sys­tem.” Assam’s peo­ple, he explained, had “bad habits,” includ­ing eat­ing non­veg­e­tar­i­an food and a lack of prop­er respect for the nation. “They’ve been lis­ten­ing to cor­rupt pol­i­tics from cor­rupt peo­ple for too long,” he said. “We take what our sages said thou­sands of years ago and put it to use. We didn’t invent it. We took what’s avail­able in our scrip­tures and put it in a mod­ern for­mat.” In oth­er words, they incul­cate Hin­dut­va. [Again, atavism–a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with, and desire to return to, the past. This is char­ac­ter­is­tic of fas­cism in many of its iterations–D.E.]

Singh took me on a tour of the pro­duc­tion com­plex in an elec­tric golf cart. After admir­ing the cook­ie plant and its 300-foot oven, we drove across a deli­cious­ly smooth, medi­an-free stretch of pave­ment that resem­bled a run­way. In fact, it is a run­way, built in con­sul­ta­tion with the Indi­an Air Force so that jet fight­ers can take off and land on it, Singh told me. “We will ded­i­cate this to the nation in case there is need for an extra airstrip,” he said, and then added with a know­ing look, “We are near Chi­na.” Patan­jali seems almost to view itself as an exten­sion of the state — or rather, an illus­tra­tion of what has become a “state-tem­ple-cor­po­rate com­plex,” in the apt phrase of the Indi­an author Meera Nan­da.

Patanjali’s work in Assam has ben­e­fit­ed from longer-term efforts by the RSS. Found­ed in 1925, the group was briefly banned sev­er­al times in the wake of com­mu­nal riots, most recent­ly in 1992. It peri­od­i­cal­ly went under­ground, doing grass-roots orga­niz­ing and form­ing dozens of affil­i­ate orga­ni­za­tions that often hide their links with the RSS. Most of the B.J.P.’s top lead­ers, includ­ing Modi, emerged from the RSS and pro­fess loy­al­ty to it. Yet for all its vast influ­ence, there is some­thing curi­ous­ly slip­pery about the RSS. Its ide­o­logues insist that it is larg­er than Hin­duism or any sin­gle reli­gion, and they speak of a mys­ti­cal con­nec­tion with the Indi­an sub­con­ti­nent and the saf­fron flag, the group’s sym­bol. They aspire to change India at both the col­lec­tive and the indi­vid­ual lev­el. “It is a man-mak­ing mis­sion,” I was told by Shiv Shak­ti Bak­shi, an RSS vet­er­an who now runs the B.J.P.’s Eng­lish-lan­guage pub­li­ca­tions. “To make a man who can work for the soci­ety, a self­less work­er for the soci­ety.” This focus on per­son­al change mesh­es per­fect­ly with Ramdev’s pro­mo­tion of phys­i­cal fit­ness and health, and Bak­shi spoke about the guru in glow­ing terms. “His mes­sages are tak­en seri­ous­ly by peo­ple,” he said. “In elec­tions, opin­ion build­ing is impor­tant.”

The RSS has become more vis­i­ble since Modi’s 2014 vic­to­ry. The group and its affil­i­ates have built hun­dreds of schools and job-train­ing cen­ters in Assam and oth­er north­east­ern states in recent years. I vis­it­ed sev­er­al and saw unmis­tak­able signs of the RSS ide­o­log­i­cal pro­gram. At one school, young chil­dren — some of whom had been raised Chris­t­ian — recit­ed Hin­du prayers and sang songs to Lord Ram before start­ing their lessons, which include San­skrit instruc­tion.

All this hard indoc­tri­na­tion work has paid off. In 2016, the B.J.P. won con­trol of Assam’s state gov­ern­ment in leg­isla­tive elec­tions. And in March of this year, the par­ty won stun­ning elec­toral upsets in two adja­cent north­east­ern states, where left­ist par­ties had dom­i­nat­ed for decades. There was talk of a “saf­fron wave” that might spread to the south Indi­an regions, includ­ing Com­mu­nist-dom­i­nat­ed Ker­ala, that have long resist­ed the advance of Hin­du nation­al­ism. Many Indi­an polit­i­cal ana­lysts said the RSS’s grass-roots work was essen­tial to the recent elec­toral vic­to­ries. But one RSS vol­un­teer in Assam, a con­struc­tion con­trac­tor, told me Ramdev’s pres­ence and his yoga pro­mo­tion had been very influ­en­tial, too. The con­trac­tor said he’d helped to arrange the pur­chase of cement and oth­er sup­plies for the new Assam fac­to­ry site I toured. But even­tu­al­ly he soured on Patan­jali, which he saw as too focused on the bot­tom line. “Even we are not hap­py with the way the gov­ern­ment helps Ramdev so much,” the con­trac­tor told me.

The lat­est wave of B.J.P. vic­to­ries has been attend­ed by angry crit­i­cism of the way the par­ty feeds com­mu­nal resent­ments, and Ramdev has not been spared. Assam’s B.J.P.-led state gov­ern­ment is com­pil­ing a cit­i­zen­ship reg­istry that could cause mil­lions of res­i­dents, most­ly Mus­lims, to be declared state­less and expelled, in an eerie echo of the dis­fran­chise­ment that pre­ced­ed the mass mur­der of Rohingya peo­ple in near­by Myan­mar. One Assamese uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor, who asked not to be named because he feared for his safe­ty, told me that Ramdev had abet­ted the RSS’s efforts to “ques­tion all oth­er reli­gions here, any­thing non-Hin­du.” He also said Patan­jali — embold­ened by its ties to the Modi gov­ern­ment — had run roughshod over laws reg­u­lat­ing the har­vest of med­i­c­i­nal plants.

The same qual­i­ties that have fueled Patanjali’s mete­oric rise — its evan­ge­lis­tic fer­vor, its depen­dence on Ramdev’s pop­u­lar­i­ty and polit­i­cal con­nec­tions — have also made it vul­ner­a­ble. A sur­pris­ing num­ber of employ­ees told me they saw the com­pa­ny as a high-wire act that might not last. “Con­cep­tu­al­ly, it’s still not an orga­ni­za­tion,” Singh, the man­ag­er of the new plant in Assam, told me. “It’s an ashram, on a large scale. And what hap­pens on an ashram? What the guru says, you do.” Patanjali’s sales have grown with extra­or­di­nary speed, and Singh told me it wor­ried him. “When you stretch some­thing, a vac­u­um opens up in the mid­dle,” he said, pulling his hands apart as if tear­ing a lump of piz­za dough. In Harid­war, one young employ­ee named Prashad told me he’d been so inspired by Ramdev that he left his cor­po­rate job and took a huge pay cut to join Patan­jali. But now he wor­ried about the company’s future. “I don’t see it — how they’d con­tin­ue pay­ing low salaries and main­tain qual­i­ty,” he said. He added that he would leave the com­pa­ny when he mar­ried and need­ed more income.

Reten­tion has been a per­sis­tent prob­lem for Ramdev. Appli­cants flock to the com­pa­ny, despite the fact that Patan­jali report­ed­ly pays 25 to 50 per­cent less than its com­peti­tors. Many leave after a year or less, I was told by exec­u­tives at Patan­jali and oth­er com­pa­nies. “Auton­o­my is very low,” said one exec­u­tive at a com­pet­ing com­pa­ny who asked not to be named, say­ing (like many oth­er peo­ple I spoke to) that he feared retal­i­a­tion. “Ramdev is very hands-on. There’s no doubt who’s in charge. He’s a micro­man­ag­er.” Behind his laugh­ing pub­lic per­sona, Ramdev is said by some to be an auto­crat­ic boss, capa­ble of lash­ing out furi­ous­ly when he’s thwart­ed.

I got a glimpse of Ramdev’s ashram-style man­age­ment at Harid­war, where he allowed me to observe him one after­noon. On the sec­ond floor of the company’s main cor­po­rate office, the hall­way was clogged with fol­low­ers who had come for a glimpse of the guru. One group told me they had come all the way from Tamil Nadu, in the far south. Even­tu­al­ly one of Ramdev’s han­dlers escort­ed me past the guards and into a wood-pan­eled office, and there was Ramdev, a splash of saf­fron col­or among but­ton-down oxford shirts and gray flan­nel pants. He was sit­ting lan­guid­ly on a couch, a wood­en san­dal dan­gling from his toe, inter­view­ing can­di­dates for jobs in sales and mar­ket­ing. The appli­cants seemed as much in awe of Ramdev as the fol­low­ers out­side: as they entered, each of them touched Ramdev’s feet rev­er­ent­ly, then sat down. He asked them to say what they could con­tribute to Patan­jali. A senior exec­u­tive sat near­by tak­ing notes, but Ramdev presided over the inter­view like a king on a throne. He is involved in even the small­est details: deci­sions about hir­ing, ads and prod­uct devel­op­ment. If any­thing were to punc­ture his aura — some scan­dal worse than those he has weath­ered in the past — it’s hard to imag­ine that Patan­jali would last a day.

Ramdev would not be the first god­man to crash and burn. At least a half-dozen oth­er pow­er­ful gurus have been arrest­ed and charged with seri­ous crimes in the past 20 years. The most recent and per­haps the most flam­boy­ant was Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, a pot­bel­lied and chub­by-cheeked fig­ure who cast him­self as a super­hero in sev­er­al bizarre self-made action movies with titles like “MSG: Mes­sen­ger of God.” Singh, who claimed 60 mil­lion fol­low­ers around the world, was con­vict­ed of rape last August and sen­tenced to 20 years in prison. (He has also been for­mal­ly accused of cas­trat­ing about 400 of his dis­ci­ples, a charge he denies.) After the ver­dict was issued, his fol­low­ers riot­ed, smash­ing cars, set­ting fire to build­ings and attack­ing police offi­cers; at least 38 peo­ple were killed and more than 250 injured.

But Ramdev is big­ger and bet­ter pro­tect­ed than his pre­de­ces­sors. Patan­jali has vast­ly expand­ed the mar­ket for ayurvedic prod­ucts, and in late 2014 Modi cre­at­ed an entire new gov­ern­ment min­istry to pro­mote yoga and ayurve­da, ele­vat­ing what had been an obscure gov­ern­ment office. Ramdev has made him­self a sym­bol of Indi­an eco­nom­ic inde­pen­dence, and no one wants to ques­tion that, not even his ene­mies. One Indi­an C.E.O. who has accused Patan­jali of false adver­tis­ing told me he was grate­ful to Ramdev — despite his many sins — for attract­ing a new cus­tomer base in ways that ben­e­fit­ed every­one. “The worst thing for us would be if he implodes — with god­men you nev­er know,” he said. “That would impact the whole ayurvedic mar­ket.”

Ramdev appears to have a sec­ond lay­er of insur­ance: The clouds that hang over him also hang over his polit­i­cal patrons. Modi is regard­ed by much of the sec­u­lar elite as a crim­i­nal because of his sup­posed role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. His close ally Amit Shah, the leader of the B.J.P. and by most accounts the sec­ond-most-pow­er­ful man in India, was arrest­ed in 2010 and charged with arrang­ing the mur­der of an under­world cou­ple in police cus­tody and mak­ing it look as if they were killed dur­ing a shootout. The case was ulti­mate­ly dropped, but sus­pi­cions about Shah’s role linger, fueled by a recent series of inves­tiga­tive sto­ries in the Indi­an press. Modi and Shah respond to their accusers in exact­ly the same way Ramdev does, by lam­bast­ing the sec­u­lar elite. Their shared feel­ings of unjust per­se­cu­tion appear to thick­en their bond with Ramdev. And they see no need to change their stance; by all avail­able mea­sures, the Indi­an pub­lic is as sup­port­ive of Ramdev as ever. In ear­ly May, a wide­ly watched busi­ness sur­vey report­ed that Patan­jali was the most trust­ed brand in the coun­try, beat­ing about 1,000 oth­er com­pa­nies in its sec­tor, includ­ing multi­na­tion­als.

If the Modi gov­ern­ment gets its way, Ramdev’s star will rise even high­er. At the Chha­trasal sta­di­um event in Feb­ru­ary, Amit Shah told the crowd that the B.J.P. want­ed Ramdev to join them in reform­ing the Indi­an edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem. One of the party’s new pri­or­i­ties is an ambi­tious effort to rewrite Indi­an school text­books to assert Hin­du pri­ma­cy. Mahesh Shar­ma, India’s cul­ture min­is­ter and an avowed fol­low­er of the RSS, has said he hopes to rewrite the con­ven­tion­al nar­ra­tive about India as a mul­ti­cul­tur­al tapes­try, and to incul­cate the belief that the ancient Hin­du scrip­tures are his­tor­i­cal facts, not leg­ends.

“There is a lot of work to be done in edu­ca­tion,” Shah said on the sta­di­um floor, just after the pre­miere of Ramdev’s biopic. “Because of our saints and our heroes — all this needs to be brought into our edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem.”

When his turn came to speak, Ramdev walked to the lectern, smil­ing gra­cious­ly at the gag­gle of B.J.P. lumi­nar­ies onstage. He pledged his sup­port to Modi and Shah, and their efforts to trans­form India. “If the first 50 years of my life were a strug­gle,” he said, “my next 50 years I ded­i­cate my time and ener­gy to the cul­tur­al and spir­i­tu­al edu­ca­tion of the coun­try, to bring our coun­try the great knowl­edge of the Vedas.” He went on: “We will see an Indi­an edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy in this coun­try instead of the edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy giv­en us by Lord Macaulay.” Before step­ping down, he pumped his fist once again in a chant of “India my moth­er­land is great.” The crowd roared.

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