God may belong to all of mankind, but in many cases the divine experience does not come for free. Packaged tours to spiritual sites where young gurus are pilgrimage guides. Bespoke pilgrimages promise life-changing experiences. Customised 24-item kits for Haj. Get temple prasad and funeral services online. And holy hair spawns a multi-crore business—being sold at hefty sums to cosmetic companies to manufacture wigs, hair extensions and other fashion accessories. Call it Faith Dividend. India’s spirituality industry was never so innovative and rewarding for the faithful and the facilitator. With 1.2 billion people, 330 million gods and goddesses, and more than 12 lakh big and small temples, spiritual marketing in India is growing by leaps and bounds, estimated at Rs. 1.8 lakh crore. From temples, gurus to entrepreneurs, many are tapping this opportunity. Some, like the Art of Living (AOL) movement, also run massive charitable initiatives. The AOL, which has been in the forefront of social transformation and change, conducts programmes for free in slums, rural areas and prisons. Some like Swami Nithyananda, the guru who attracted millions and was then jailed for sexual misconduct before being ousted from the 1,500-year-old Madurai Adheenam in a coup, have perfected the art of marketing religion. While his discourses are popular, it is the inner awakening (IA) programme that has been “most rewarding” for participants.
The aim of this 21-day IA course, which costs Rs. 3,00,000 per head, is to find a solution—for couples who wish for a child to those aspiring for health and wealth.
A recent such programme was in Varanasi. What was it about? “It is the transformation of a person, whose mind is totally blocked, who carries within him a lot of garbage, collected over the years—worry, greed, need for attention, love, fear. We carry all these emotions inside us, stored in our subconscious mind, which in turn impacts our relationships. With IA, we are able to cast away all unwanted garbage. We stop blaming others for our problems, for the problem is in our mind. We achieve completion, a state in which we are carrying a beautiful space inside ourselves, holding no grudge towards anybody,” says disciple Ashwini Deshpande aka HR Nithya Sarva Bhaktini.
For all 21 days, Swami Nityananda was present from dawn to dusk, giving discourses and a life-changing experience to his followers.
Similar promise the Kailas Yatra, organised every year by Kerala-based Swami Sandeepananda Giri, holds for the spiritual soul. “The trip changes you,” Swami Sandeepananda claims, “Our egocentricity and arrogance recedes once you climb the most difficult Dolma Pass.”
The Kailas Yatra has, of late, undergone a transformation of sorts in terms of logistics. “There was a time when the pilgrims had to cross the mighty Brahmaputra in a raft,” says Swami Sandeepananda, who has been organising the yatra for the past 16 years.
“Now the pilgrims can take a flight to Delhi and from there a flight to Kathmandu. The Tibetan border can be reached in a luxury bus. After immigration, they can take a luxury bus managed by China to the destination. The bus will have kitchen facilities also. Hence arranging food is hardly an issue,” adds the swami.
Small tents have given way to swanky guest houses. While it took 20 days to complete the journey in the past, it is only 13 days now. However, this spiritual journey carries a price tag of Rs. 1.5 lakh, including visa. “Money has never been a huge hurdle. When the rich take a flight, the poor come by train to Kathmandu,” Swami Sandeepananda says.
CELEBRATION OF LIFE
For a lesson in strategic spirituality, visit the Osho ashram in Pune. What started as one of modern India’s first exports of spirituality to the world, the enterprise surrounding controversial guru late Osho Rajneesh is now a brand to reckon with for seekers. The 1-lakh sqft ashram, called Osho International Meditation Resort, where spirituality comes in luxe settings, mostly attracts people from abroad. The brand which sells ‘happiness’ makes money through a variety of ventures—a tour of the ashram with a meal is not cheap—besides a gamut of merchandises like chappals, CDs and books.
Cough up an entry fee of Rs. 1,900 if you want to take a tour of the ashram for the first time. This includes registration, HIV/AIDS test and gate pass.
The alluring ashram’s sophisticated canteen will make you poorer by `500-700 if you want to eat. Now, calculate the earnings from only these two sources when the number of soul-searchers every month touches 40,000.
BREATHE EASY, BE HAPPY
You can make life a celebration at an AOL centre, which claims to have been making it happen for the past 33 years across 152 countries, touching 370 million people. The concept of art of living is being propagated by the AOL, founded by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, through ‘a series of wellness and de-stressing programmes’ that has caught worldwide attention.
“The contribution for a programme varies from Rs. 100 to Rs. 2,500, depending on logistics,” says Sreekumar Nair, Deputy Coordinator-States, AOL Bureau of Communication, Bangalore. People who have attended AOL’s courses say the course fees range between Rs. 1,200-Rs. 3,000. Rani from Bangalore, who attended a beginner’s course, says the price is reasonable for a three-day course as she had to pay Rs. 1,200 for a basic stint. The advanced course, comprising chakra and meditation, costs Rs. 2,700 for four to five days. Most courses focus on yoga, meditation and even learning how to practice sandhya vandhana, upanayana and other rituals, she adds.
For foreign nationals, the standard fee for AOL Part 1 course is $350 with many teachers offering discounts up to $175, says an ex-student. Being one of the most popular ashrams in India, tourists, spiritual seekers and weary travellers visit the sylvan 33-acre hilly complex at Udaypura, on the outskirts of Bangalore, and accommodation is provided at a ‘nominal’ rate while food is free.
Like many others of its ilk, AOL has put in place an efficient business model through its website and call centres to market its herbal and organic products. Through its digital shop, AOL sells lifestyle and wellness products, Sri Sri wisdom books, devotional and meditation CDs.
Another yoga guru, Baba Ramdev, is a case study for budding entrepreneurs. He has successfully transformed his teachings of yoga and spirituality into a Rs. 1,100-crore empire (by his own admission in 2011) whose interests range from ayurvedic medicines, herbal products, healthcare, education to real estate. However, the yoga guru’s aides claim that a large part of the earnings come from donations.
Best known for popularising yoga through his camps and TV shows, the ‘non-profit’ operations under the yoga guru are divided among various trusts such as Divya Yog Mandir, Patanjali Yogapeeth, Patanjali Gramodyog and Bharat Swabhiman.
The medicines are manufactured at a 150-acre facility near Hardwar with a three-pronged distribution channel. And the products are priced almost at par with the other top brands.
The Patanjali Ayurveda College that offers Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medical Sciences charges Rs. 1,28,500 from a student per year which includes lodging and boarding. Under a unique real estate plan, the organisation has introduced flats for the elderly.
In Kerala, Fr John Sankarathil, a priest of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, believes seeing places narrated in the Bible strengthens faith of followers.
He has made more than 60 trips taking pilgrims to Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Egypt to follow the life of Jesus Christ. “This is another way of following the teachings of Christ,” he says.
Fr. Sankarathil, from Kottayam, decided to shepherd the faithful to holy lands in 2003 which later became a mission for him. So far, he has guided more than 5,000 people, including bishops, priests, sisters and the laity to the holy lands.
An average group consists of 80-100 members and takes 10 days to travel through four nations. The holy trip costs Rs. 80,000 per person. And on his 25th trip to Israel, the Tourism Ministry of the country honoured Fr. Sankarathil as an ambassador.
CASHING IN ON HAIR
While believers don’t mind spending lakhs on spiritual tourism for a life-changing or once-in-a-lifetime experience, devotees at Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh let the management of Lord Venkateswara temple spawn a multi-crore business. Thousands visit the world’s richest temple every year to offer their hair to the Lord. And their offering fetches more than Rs. 200 crore every year for the Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanams (TTD), from sale of human hair alone. Leave apart laddoos that fetch the TTD Rs. 25 lakh each day—more than 1.40 lakh laddoos are prepared daily at the temple kitchen and the number doubles during major religious events like Brahmotsavams.
On an average, more than 25,000 devotees offer their hair daily. The hair is segregated and preserved safely in an air-conditioned godown. It is then graded according to colour and length—the first variety ranges between Rs. 16,800 and Rs. 21,000 per kg while the last, considered tukku (scrap), fetches `400 a kg. Grey hair sells for Rs. 9,000 a kg. More than 638 barbers and 889 Srivari Sevaks (free service) are engaged in the tonsuring process.
The hair haul at Tirupati has spawned several successful entrepreneurships too. One is Kochi-based Waves Hair, which Mallika Streekumar set up in 2006. She got the idea from her brother Arjun who was doing the same business in Brazil. The source of most of the hair is from Tirupati. They sell according to length. “The average is 10 to 30 inches,” she says. Ten-inch hair costs anywhere between Rs. 9,500 and Rs. 30,000 per kg.
Waves Hair, which gets the raw hair in gunny bags and then processes it, makes four kinds of products—glue tip extensions, machine weft extension and clip-in extension and wigs. “We mainly export to Africa, the US and Europe,” she says. She even does coloured extensions. “There are 14 to 18 colours we do. Sometimes, there are orders for strands of violet, pink and green.”
AGE OF E-SEEKERS
The opportunity created by faith has led to a slew of online ventures. TTD uses online services to sell tickets of arjitha sevas, though on a very minimal scale. Darshan tickets are also sold online besides Mahaprasadam.
E-commerce sites make almost everything available for the devout. Vedicvaani.com is one such one-stop shop. “From gur to gobar,” says Mayank Goyal, one of its founders, the online shop has everything that is required for any religious activity.
“We have 2,000 products, which we plan to extend to 10,000. These include books, gems, idols, rudrakshas, yantras, agarbattis and many more,” adds Goyal.
Software engineer Goyal along with partners Ashish Gandhi, Kalpesh Gandhi and Vikram, launched the site in June 2013 to promote Hinduism and its sub-religions of Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism.
“There are many who are often duped by impostors with far from genuine things. There are others abroad who do not get access to several things. So, we decided to make their work easy by providing them things at their doorstep,” says Goyal.
Apart from providing detailed information on origin, conduct and significance of rituals, gods and goddesses, Vedicvaani also offers online puja services by priests under the categories of basic pujas, daan dakshinas, dosh nirvana puja, puja services in temples, sacred rituals for cows and sanskara.
The site also supplies religious merchandise to ashrams and temples. “We have distributors in about 10 countries who buy products from us and sell it at their own price,” says Goyal.
Saumya Vardhan, founder and CEO of Shubhpuja.com, decided to work on a concept wherein one could book religious services with the click of a button, looking at the plight of her friend’s mother, when her father passed away. Even in her moment of despair, the lady couldn’t afford a quiet moment—running from pillar to post, calling pujaris, informing relatives, getting the pandals set up, and looking into a gazillion of other needs.
Thus, in 2013, was born Shubhpuja.com, an online portal for astrological, occult and numerological consultations, religious ceremonies, yagyas, homas and various other pujas. “These days, there are many preachers who take advantage of gullible people, especially those who neither have the right knowledge nor the time to learn about religious and spiritual sciences. Thus, I wanted to create a platform with pandits/astrologers who had the right education, skills and experience and who didn’t take devotees for a ride,” says Delhi-based Saumya, who once worked for KPMG and E&Y in London.
LORD OF WEALTH
Yes, it is faith that runs most of the human race and makes money for their survival too. Jagannath Temple in Odisha’s Puri is letting servitors, cooks and even artists profit out of people’s faith in god. The profitability is helped by the fact that the shrine is swarmed by lakhs every day.
The most organised form of business here is Mahaprasad which is treated by devotees as Anna Brahma. Comprising Chhappan Bhog, this is sold in Anand Bazaar, apparently the biggest open-air eatery in the world where thousands purchase the prasad and eat together. There are over 100 outlets inside the bazaar, also being operated by Suaras (members of a non-servitor clan) that sell Mahaprasad.
“Mahaprasad has great significance as there is a belief that only people who are fortunate can have it,” says Binayak Das Mohapatra, assistant secretary of Daitapati Nijoga, the association of servitors. Behind the belief works a strong economy. As devotees seldom question the price tag, each shop in Anand Bazaar makes a profit of Rs. 40,000 to Rs. 50,000 daily which rises to over Rs. 1 lakh during festivals.
The Sri Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) last year decided to market the attractive portions of chariots prepared during Rath Yatra like wheels, artefacts engraved on the chariots, handicrafts and side deities to devotees. “This is not only aimed at generating revenue, but also popularising Jagannath culture,” says chief administrator of temple Arvind Padhee. Till recently, the SJTA had sold Rs. 15 lakh worth of chariot parts.
The deities find place in handicrafts too. In fact, the roots of many of Odisha handicrafts are in a way or the other inter-wined with the rituals and traditions of Lord Jagannath. The Odisha government’s Handloom, Textiles & Handicrafts Department markets them well. It organises buyer-seller meets for handicrafts that are related to Jagannath culture.
There is an online market as well. Craftsville.com, for instance, every month procures Lord Jagannath-related crafts in silver filigree from Cuttack, appliqué work from Pipili and Pattachitra from Raghurajpur. Cow dung masks and wooden idols from Raghurajpur also sell like hot cakes among visitors.
Biswanath Swain, secretary of Parampara, a Puri-based NGO working in handicraft sector, says every month 250 artisans in Raghurajpur sell Rs. 6-10 lakh worth of Pattachitras on Lord Jagannath and Puri temple, a majority of buyers being foreign tourists.
HELPING HAND FOR HAJ
Going on a pilgrimage was never easy till the launch of Proudummah.com. Every Muslim hopes to go for Hajj and Umrah at least once in their lifetime. But there are many who need help on how to perform the pilgrimage. Proudummah.com comes to the aid of Muslims providing products and services that helps in making the pilgrimage easy.
Conceptualised by engineer Abid Ali Khan, Proudummah was started as a platform to understand how to plan the Haj. Created in 2012 after much research, the former Google and Pressman employee’s site has got the specialised travel kit which is a must-have while on the pilgrimage.
Mohammed Hussain, a partner, says, “We came up with 24 items that would make it easier for someone undertaking the pilgrimage. It includes the ehram (an unstitched garment), maps to Medina, Mecca, Arafat and Mina besides ayath books (prayer books). You can either create your own kit or buy it from us.”
Proudummah, which got the ‘Best Startup Award’ at the Startup City 2012 in Bangalore, has picked up quite the client base, but mostly outside the country. Within India, the website has received a mixed response.
India’s spiritual industry is here to stay. Whether it will raise the spirit of the seeker is a question the Almighty can only answer. With bureau inputs
THE APP OF FAITH
For those who turned up at Sunday mass and always forgot their Bible and inwardly groaned at their tardiness, Ethic Coders has an app that lets them access the text anywhere, anytime. Touted as the first Malayalam app of the POC Bible, it is not only highly rated, but also handy. Branching out into other languages, the app is available in Hindi, Telugu and Konkani (Kannada script) that run on both Android and iOS.
Crafted by Shibu Devasia, Albert Dominic from Hyderabad and Prakash George from Thiruvananthapuram, the initiative started in 2012. “People no longer need to carry the Bible. Also it gives them access to the text in places the print version might not otherwise be able to,” says Devasia. The team caters to global clients from the US and Singapore, St Thomas Diocese of Chicago being one of their international clients.
Despite their services catering specifically to the “religiously inclined”, Ethic Coders is more than just about Christianity, or even religion for that matter. Their philosophy is that of giving back to the society.
“Our goal is to provide free services to the public and we work for any individual who approaches with a potential offer,” says Devasia referring to a client that approached them for a yoga app.