Having heard so much about Isha foundation and 'Sadguru', my wife and I decided to enrol for their Inner Engineering course. Normally, it is structured as a week of three-hour sessions, but this one was different. We attended three days of three-hour sessions, which was followed by, gasp, a full day with the man himself!
Sadguru Is due to visit Bangalore on that Sunday, so his vast organization of unpaid volunteers gets to work months in advance. The course we attended was just one among several such courses held across Bangalore for the two months previous to his visit. A vast network of pipes leading to the big day – on which day, about 6000 people land up in a stadium on the outskirts of Bangalore, ready to climax.
But first, about the course itself. One of their authorized 'teachers' was the course leader. A young man in his twenties, he was sufficiently indoctrinated to act mindlessly on a series of mechanical instructions which, I am sure, every course leader everywhere follows to the T. Is he going to say anything at all? No, all he has to do is to play selected snippets of the great Guru's videos, and ask all the people to gaze adoringly at the screen in a position of meditative reverence while the Guru is talking. No notebooks allowed, no notes to be taken. No questions can be asked, since the course leaders are not allowed to answer them – after all, only the Sadguru knows all the answers, mere mortals, however licensed by him, cannot be allowed to answer anything.
Our course leader had imbibed his lessons well. Every time the video was played, the adoration on his face was worth watching – I envied his ability to reach a state of ecstatic bliss so easily. His diction and mannerisms also in many ways resembled the Guru's, though of course a poor imitation of it. There were at least two other volunteers ensuring that no one in this small group of 20-odd people wrote down even a single word from his videos. Why such insecurity, I wondered?
Spirituality is like a drug – with a charismatic guru rolling off catch spiritual phrases off the tongue, it lulls the audience into a state of semi-hypnotic zombieness (if there is such a word). Writing any of that stuff and reading it in the light of the outside day would spoil that effect. Also, as our course leader let slip, the Guru is afraid that someone would copy him and start his own course. Talking of the Guru, he calls himself 'Sadguru'. By whom and how that title was conferred is unclear – but he ensures in every single video snippet of his to use that term while referring to himself, thus reinforcing the usurpation of that title by him.
There are quite a few video snippets of his floating around nowadays on Whatsapp. All of them are expertly edited versions of one of his talks – and he does not allow anyone to even take a picture or a recording, forget a video in any of his highly curated events. It is his own official photographer who takes the videos, all to be expertly edited later, and circulated in calculated snippets. Nothing about the Guru is spontaneous, everything is carefully scripted, curated, edited, and circulated, to increase his personal brand that is growing by the day.
He talks sense. He is quite well read. And he talks well. How he has packaged all these into a successful global enterprise, with a veritable army of unpaid acolytes, who think he is doing them a favour by allowing them to work for him free, is a miracle in marketing – Kotler and his ilk are children in front of such a genius.
Anyway, back to the course. We duly finish the three days and head to the Stadium on a Sunday. The first thing that strikes you is the number of volunteers, volunteers everywhere. And the meticulous organization, and minute planning, event management to the last detail. Some 6000 people file in early in the morning, and are made to sit in sections, those who paid more of course have the privilege of sitting closer to his August presence.
There is long ramp running down the length of the great hall, just like those in fashion shows. There is one single sofa on the stage. There is a live orchestra with top-class musicians in attendance. The man goes for quality – the musicians were really good, and the music sublime. The peaks and crescendos of the music were of course timed perfectly to his arrival and departure.
His videographer is ready. The audience has been assembled. All phones have been silenced, all notebooks banned. Any pen if seen outside is immediately pounced upon by one of the couple of hundred volunteers who are maintaining a close vigil with eagle eyes. The music builds up to a crescendo. The atmosphere is surcharged. Everyone's breath is bated. The stage is set for the grand entrance. And he walks in.
And he starts talking. It is quite an experience to hear him talk. Undoubtedly charismatic. There is something about him that can hold people spellbound for hours, and then emerge from the reverie confused about what they heard, but convinced that they just had an out-of-the-world experience.
His videographer is recording the whole thing. The big event of the day is supposed to be the unveiling of the Sambhavi Mudra, the Guru's own secret to emancipation, which he is going to reveal. There is a build-up to the revelation through the day. Finally when it arrives, it is totally disappointing. It is nothing but a couple of elementary asanas, and a couple of elementary pranayamas, packaged in a nice way with the names changed and a lot of mystique attached. Practice this daily, you are told, and you are sure to attain – actually, I am not sure what I am sure to attain, I was in a daze myself.
Once in a while, in a carefully choreographed sequence of events, coinciding with carefully orchestrated crescendos from the live band, the Guru walks down the ramp. There are four bodyguards on each side walking alongside, crouching double, almost on their knees, so that only the Guru is visible to the camera. The audience of course responds enthusiastically. They wave, cheer and clap. The video pans around. That is when it struck me. As part of the audience of 6000 I too am an unpaid extra in this great movie being filmed about the Guru's life.
Anyway, it was an eventful day. It is always wonderful to watch such people at work. Their personal charisma is awesome, their ability to make people to work free for them enviable, and their ability to attract acolytes, mysterious. Somewhere on the way home, undoubtedly with the help of the vicious Bangalore traffic, I snapped out of my daze.
And I wondered – what was that show all about? I was a willing participant to a day of orchestrated vacuity, whose sole purpose was the promotion of one man and his brand.
And I marvelled. Mentally saluted the great man. Anyone who can do this has something going for him which we, more mortals, cannot emulate, however much we try.
Glory be to the Guru! Amen.
10 October, 2017