The Penniless Yogi Who Controls A Billion-Dollar Corporation
(Bloomberg Businessweek)--Twenty-three years ago, when he was a poor young yoga instructor living at the foot of the Himalayas, Baba Ramdev pledged to spend the rest of his life as a sanyasi—a Hindu ascetic. He forswore possessions and renounced the material world.
But today he can be found in the most material of places. Turn on an Indian TV, and there’s Ramdev, a supple yoga megastar in saffron robes, demonstrating poses on one of the two stations he oversees. Flip the channel, and there’s Ramdev in commercials selling shampoo and dish soap. Walk any city on the subcontinent, and there’s his face in stores selling the wares of Patanjali Ayurved Ltd., the multibillion-dollar corporation he controls.
Ramdev has said his goal is to sell an ayurvedic item, based on India’s ancient medical traditions, for every household need: toothpaste made from cloves, neem, and turmeric; hand soap made from almonds, saffron, and tea tree oil; floor cleaner made from the “natural disinfectant” cow urine. Since 2012, Patanjali’s revenue has climbed twentyfold, from $69 million to $1.6 billion. It’s the fastest-growing company in Indian consumer goods, and Ramdev predicts he will overtake the subsidiaries of multinational giants such as Nestlé SA and Unilever NV as soon as next year. “The ‘gate’ in Colgate will shut,” he once gloated. “Pantene will wet its pants, the lever of Unilever will break down, and the little Nestlé bird will fly away.”
It might seem like an impossible arrangement—observing an oath of poverty while also being one of India’s top entrepreneurs. But Ramdev is a master of contortion. Patanjali is an omnipresent brand in India, and though everyone refers to it as Ramdev’s company, he’s not technically its owner or chief executive officer. It would be scandalous for a sanyasi to profit from a corporation, and Ramdev neither owns shares nor takes a salary. He says his net worth is zero. The company calls him merely its “brand ambassador,” a title that belies his power.
“If you had to choose the top five living extraordinary Indians, people who have changed the landscape,” says Chiki Sarkar, publisher of New Delhi’s Juggernaut Books, “Ramdev would make the list.” Other modern yogis have large, loyal, and lucrative followings, but Ramdev is the only one to build a sprawling for-profit enterprise in his image. On a three-axis chart of holiness, capitalism, and lumbar flexibility, he occupies a point beyond anyone else on Earth.
Despite his success, Ramdev’s life has gone strangely unexamined. No one even knows the year he was born. (He’s probably in his early 50s.) “He’s so visible, and yet so little understood,” said Priyanka Pathak-Narain, a Mumbai journalist whom Juggernaut hired in 2016 to write his biography. She sees him as “a perfect lens through which you can examine India today,” sitting as he does at “the nexus of business, religion, and politics.” Patanjali’s ayurvedic brand has soared in the climate of Hindu nationalism that lifted India’s ruling party, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, to victory in 2014. Ads for the cow-urine floor cleaner, for example, urge consumers to “save the country from the economic exploitation of foreign companies” and “join the movement to save the cow, our holy mother.”
Ramdev says his worldview is “scientific, secular, and universal”—but he also claims yoga can “cure” homosexuality and has openly fantasized about beheading people who refuse to chant nationalist slogans. He courts attention with publicity stunts, such as televised wrestling matches, while also fighting scrutiny. When he heard last summer that Pathak-Narain’s book, Godman to Tycoon, contained unflattering details, he sued and had its distribution blocked in court. (I spoke with the author once, by phone, before a judge issued a gag order.)
Ramdev objected, in particular, to what Pathak-Narain calls three “mysteries” involving the deaths or disappearances of close associates over the course of his career. Ramdev was never named as a suspect in any of the investigations, and he didn’t want to comment when I asked him about the book. “Such people have only one motivation,” he said, “and that is publicity through maligning others.” He offered a much simpler story of his success—a myth more than a biography, which is what you might expect for a person who “is worshiped as a Godman,” as his court filings against Pathak-Narain claim. “This earth, sun, and all of nature are doing their jobs without any expectation,” Ramdev said, burping midway through the sentence. “So I am doing my job.”
When I got to Delhi in the fall, I dropped my bags and set out for a Patanjali shop I’d seen from the airport taxi. I was intercepted, however, by a young man named Kumar Rishi, who had a tattoo of Bob Marley on one biceps and Jack Sparrow on the other. “Baba Ramdev is my hero,” he said when I told him where I was going. He offered to take me to another, better Patanjali shop, and though I knew not to trust touts, I went along and purchased a tube of toothpaste for 40 rupees (60¢). Several hours later (after Rishi took me to a temple, a restaurant, a war memorial, the prime minister’s residence, and, finally, a travel agency, where a likely accomplice tried to bully me into a trip to Kashmir), I was back at my hotel to give it a try.
The label of Patanjali’s signature toothpaste, Dant Kanti, lists 13 different herbs. I squeezed some onto my toothbrush and was surprised that it was brown. It was the color of dirt and decay, the very things I wanted to keep out of my mouth. The flavor, however, was pleasing and unlike any toothpaste I’d tasted in the West: spicy with clove, bright with spearmint, and a little bit bitter with neem. I soon got used to the color and found myself happily spitting brown foam into my hotel sink every morning.
As an American reporter, I expected it would be difficult to arrange an interview with Ramdev, given the controversy over the book and the frequent speeches he gives railing against the West. But after just a few emails, his press officer invited me north, to Haridwar, a holy city along the Ganges where Patanjali has its corporate headquarters, as well as an ayurvedic hospital, a yoga school, factories, and a research lab.
Hindus believe Lord Vishnu once left a footprint on a wall in Haridwar, and thousands of pilgrims assemble daily by the water for festivities and prayer. On the riverbanks, I saw dozens of gaunt men in saffron loincloths, with wild hair and windsock beards, seeking alms: sanyasis, like Ramdev. They are figures of great respect and moral authority in Hindu culture, and while many Indians agree sanyasis can’t accumulate wealth or property, there’s no official set of rules governing their conduct.
Ramdev’s home is on the outskirts of the city—in a walled garden he shares with bees, butterflies, and armed security guards. I entered the estate through two huge gates with golden lion-head door knockers, and drove down a brick path toward a complex of tidy white buildings. Ramdev received me in a comfortable parlor, with an ample porch and several couches and armchairs. “Nowhere in our religious books and scriptures is it written that a sanyasi should be a mendicant,” he said, referring to the kind of beggars I’d seen along the Ganges.
Ramdev clopped around on strapless wooden sandals called khadau, which must be gripped by knobs between the toes. He wore a tangerine-colored cloth around his waist and another around his shoulders. His black beard mushroomed from his face, and his ponytail was so tight it tugged the corners of his eyes. Our interview began in English, but he soon switched to Hindi and had his spokesman translate. “Yogis in Indian culture have always been guiding society in the right direction and devoting their life for the welfare of society,” he said. “And that’s why, being a yogi, I also run an enterprise. Because that is my solemn duty to this country.”
Ramdev said he runs Patanjali not as a CEO runs a corporation, but rather as a guru runs an ashram. “This is not a corporate house,” he said. “Patanjali is basically a spiritual organization.” It’s a workplace like few others. A Hindu guru is often a figure of absolute authority to his followers, and Patanjali employees treat Ramdev as such. He forbids them to eat meat or drink alcohol. He tells them their labor is a form of sewa, or spiritual service, and expects some to accept lower salaries as a result. When he arrived at our interview, his spokesman rushed to touch his feet—a sign of respect for a godman.
This loyalty allows Ramdev to control Patanjali despite his lack of official corporate power. The person most often identified as the company’s CEO—even though his personal website gives his title as “managing director”—is Acharya Balkrishna, a longtime associate and Ramdev disciple. On paper, Balkrishna owns 98.6 percent of the company. According to Forbes, he’s the 19th-richest man in India, with a net worth of $6.1 billion.
“The biggest goal is to bring prestige to India … . And that journey begins from yoga, from ayurveda”
Ramdev met Balkrishna around 1990, when they were both students at a traditional religious school in the north of India. Ramdev became a teacher, but, according to an authorized biography, he left his job in remorse after an incident in which he savagely beat a student.
He reunited with his old schoolmate in Haridwar in the early part of the decade. Balkrishna had become close to a yoga teacher called Karamveer Maharaj, who accepted Ramdev as a protégé on two conditions: that he remain celibate and never accept money if he began to give lessons himself. The three men journeyed to the Himalayas, where they meditated in caves. In 1995 they took over the operation of an ashram in Haridwar, and Ramdev made his renunciation. Balkrishna ran the ayurvedic pharmacy, while Ramdev and Karamveer continued to teach yoga.
At the time, yoga was becoming trendy in the West, but in India it was still considered an elite activity. Ramdev and Karamveer offered free workshops that attracted the lower and middle classes. Ramdev learned to wow audiences by standing on his head or deploying his mesmerizing “belly roll.” He’d suck in his breath so his abdominals contracted into a lump of muscle around his navel and then ripple the lump from side to side, as if it were trying to escape from under his skin.
His instruction was bracingly straightforward. He stripped yoga of arcane spirituality: no need to read the sutras or meditate for hours. He simplified the poses so almost anyone could do them safely, and he often said individual poses could be used to treat specific maladies. His yoga was both a religious pursuit and a tool to master one’s health—a powerful message in a country with poor public-health services and crises of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
In 2002, when a religious TV station announced a new yoga program, Ramdev auditioned to be the host. The producers passed, but Ramdev was determined to get on the air. He bought 20 minutes on a rival channel, drew huge ratings (and enough donations to recoup his costs), and was hired to lead a morning show. His timing was fortuitous: From 2001 to 2017, the number of Indian households with TVs doubled. Many millions of lower- and middle-class Indians, who’d never had the time or money to practice yoga, started to follow Ramdev in their homes. Credited with launching a yoga revival in India, he’s sometimes compared by Westerners to Richard Simmons or Jane Fonda. But his impact is more substantive. Stuart Ray Sarbacker, a professor of comparative religion at Oregon State University who’s studied Ramdev’s career, calls him “the most prominent face of yoga in the entire nation.”
Ramdev’s yoga was also political—a way to stoke Indian patriotism. “Joining every person with the yoga tradition also has hidden national benefits,” he once said. He saw himself as the successor to anticolonial leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, who’d argued that economic self-sufficiency was a vital precursor to independence. “Freedom does not only mean independence from the Britishers,” Ramdev said, “but it also means freedom from an unhealthy body.”
In speeches and on TV, the yogi blamed India’s unhealthy bodies on foreign products, which he called “poison.” The nation suffered from “self-confusion,” and he promised to restore it to strength through the “traditional sciences practiced by our great hermits.” An India where everyone practiced his yoga would be an India without disease or sin. He told his followers that yoga could treat HIV and cancer. He extolled an India redeemed from historical humiliations and returned to power by its own traditions. “The biggest goal is to bring prestige to India and Indian identity within the country and the world,” Ramdev said in 2014. “And that journey begins from yoga, from ayurveda.” From simple beginnings, the sales pitch would become extraordinarily lucrative.
In the early days of the ashram, Balkrishna and Ramdev biked through fields and forests, collecting ingredients for the pharmacy. Balkrishna would send ayurvedic doctors to Ramdev’s yoga camps, where they’d offer free checkups but charge attendees for medicine. As Ramdev’s fame grew, so did Balkrishna’s revenue. By 2005, Balkrishna was raking in so much money—and handling it so loosely—that Indian authorities raided the pharmacy as part of a tax-evasion investigation. But a local official, Jitender Rana, told Pathak-Narain that he was ordered by his superiors to desist. “Too many people in power were protecting Ramdev,” the book quotes him as saying. “I came to my senses and left.” (Patanjali declined to comment, and attempts to reach Rana were unsuccessful. The Indian magazine Tehelka offered a similar account to Pathak-Narain’s in 2012.)
Ramdev’s behavior also started to trouble Karamveer, his fellow yoga instructor. “Idealism is easy when you have nothing,” Karamveer told Pathak-Narain. “It’s what you do when you have fame, money, or power that matters.” He left the ashram in 2005. Ramdev had promised he would teach yoga for free, but he began charging people to sit closer to the stage, according to Bhakti Mehta, a TV executive. She traveled with Ramdev to Britain in 2006, where, she said, he required an £11,000 (then $20,000) donation for a home visit and stood on a cloth that could be rolled up to easily collect the money people threw at his feet. “We saw how power-hungry he really was,” she told Pathak-Narain. (A Patanjali spokesman declined to discuss this or other aspects of the book.)
Around this time, an early business partner, an ayurvedic doctor who’d let Ramdev and Balkrishna run their pharmacy under his license, was murdered. This was Pathak-Narain’s first “mystery,” and while the case remains unsolved, there’s no indication Ramdev or Balkrishna were involved.
The biographer’s second mystery occurred in 2007. The ashram’s figurehead at the time was an elderly guru named Shankar Dev, and on a day that Ramdev was out of the country, he disappeared. Dev left only a note that said, “I have taken some loan from you for this trust but cannot repay it. Please forgive me. I am leaving.” Dev was never seen again. (After seven years, Indian authorities ruled out foul play.)
“Whatever he produces, nobody thought that it is shit. They thought it is a god-given product”
Discontent was curdling among the pharmacy’s 400 workers. In spring 2005 a quarter of the staff went on strike to demand pay in line with the minimum wage. Ramdev and Balkrishna laid off the strikers, who then alleged that the ashram’s medicines contained unlisted ingredients, including crushed human skulls. A lab test found human DNA.
Ramdev turned his yoga philosophy into a defense. His name was almost synonymous with yoga in India, and he said an attack on him was an attack on tradition. He accused “powerful interests” of tampering with the samples: “It is a conspiracy to stop my experiment to promote a science that is India’s glory.” Politicians rushed to his defense, and the strikers were forced to clarify that their campaign was not against ayurveda or yoga. A retesting of the samples gave Ramdev a clean slate.
Victory seemed to stoke his ambition. He and Balkrishna saw a future for the pharmacy well beyond medicine. He imagined a line of ordinary household products that could help a person “connect with the soul” and “move toward divinity.” The two had always managed the ashram and their businesses through trusts, but in 2006, Ramdev registered Patanjali as a corporation.
As the company began to develop commercial products, Ramdev’s fervor took a brief, meteoric, and disastrous detour into politics. The ruling party, the Indian National Congress, was beset by scandal, and voters were looking for change. Ramdev, with a huge public profile, was the kind of outsider who could shake up the system. In 2010 he launched his own party and said he would field candidates in every district nationwide in the next election. “We must have a total revolution!” he declared.
Ramdev accused foreign companies and wealthy individuals of robbing India of its wealth, and he demanded extreme solutions, such as the death penalty for corruption. His closest political ally was an activist named Rajiv Dixit. As more Indian voters warmed to their message, however, Dixit’s star threatened to eclipse Ramdev’s own. On Nov. 30, 2010, at age 43, Dixit dropped dead from a heart attack. (This is the third mystery in Pathak-Narain’s book.) Dixit’s death was never investigated by police, but rumors of wrongdoing quickly attached to Ramdev. He eventually denounced them, and at the time, they didn’t slow his rise.
On June 4, 2011, channeling Gandhi, Ramdev began a hunger strike in Delhi to protest corruption. Forty thousand people showed up, spooking the government, which ordered police to raid the gathering. In the melee, one person died, and Ramdev tried to escape by disguising himself in women’s clothes.
Images of Ramdev in his getup—his beard as bushy as ever—spread widely, to much snickering. Many voters found it hard to imagine him as the nation’s leader, and his movement fizzled. He returned his attention to Patanjali, whose line was expanding beyond medicine and beauty into juices, grains, and spices. He hired a food-processing veteran named S.K. Patra to be the president of Patanjali’s comestible operations and the CEO of Patanjali Ayurved. “Baba Ramdev simply embraced me and asked when I can join,” Patra says of their first meeting. “He said that God has sent me to Patanjali to serve humanity.”
Patra began emulating the multinational corporations that Ramdev so despised. He hired foreign consultants to unknot the dozens of enterprises and organizations that fell under the Patanjali umbrella. He standardized plant procedures, created committees to oversee fundamental tasks such as quality control, and overhauled Patanjali’s distribution network.
From 2011 to 2014 the company’s revenue quadrupled, to $188 million, and the number of products grew from 50 to 500, including ghee and honey. Ramdev insisted the company pump profits back into the business to lower prices and create new products. “Baba was very sharp, with robust common sense and business acumen,” Patra says. (It’s grudging praise. Patra, who left the company in 2014, also says Ramdev paid him only half what he was owed.) When Nestlé had to recall its popular Maggi Instant Noodles in 2015 over lead concerns, for example, Ramdev quickly unveiled Patanjali Instant Noodles.
It was a shrewd move for a businessman, but questionable for a yogi claiming to look after people’s health. Ramdev said his noodles were healthy, but India’s Food Safety and Drugs Administration found they had an ash content triple the legal limit. Customers didn’t much care. “Whatever he produces, nobody thought that it is shit,” Patra says. “They thought it is a god-given product.”
“We have had no quality cases or quality problems,” Ramdev told me. But Patanjali products have been dogged by such concerns. In April, the Indian Armed Forces stopped selling a popular Patanjali juice to soldiers after it failed lab tests. The next month, the Hindustan Times reported that a Patanjali health product, shivlingi seeds, had also failed tests. In June, Nepal forced the recall of six products over microbial concerns.
In our conversation, Ramdev dismissed these reports as the work of “Western interests.” He also waved off negative stories about working conditions at Patanjali. “We have never broken any law, and we have never done any wrong to anyone, and violence is out of the question,” he said. It was a “conspiracy” to defame him, he said, when police issued a warrant in 2013 for the arrest of his brother Ram Bharat, whom the Economic Times has called Patanjali’s “informal CEO,” over the alleged kidnapping and imprisonment of a watchman suspected of theft.
The case against Bharat was dropped after witnesses recanted. But he ran into trouble with the law again in May 2015, when Patanjali security forces brawled with truck drivers at the company’s food-processing complex, leaving one trucker dead. After video emerged of Bharat appearing to encourage the guards, he was arrested and held in jail for 14 days, though he was never charged.
The controversies haven’t harmed sales. Revenue surpassed $1 billion for the first time in the company’s 2017 fiscal year. Other gurus moved to copy Patanjali’s success and start their own product lines; the New York Times named the trend India’s “Baba cool” movement and called Ramdev its “king.”
The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry, an Indian trade organization, has called Patanjali “the most disruptive force in the fast-moving consumer goods market.” In 2016, Credit Suisse Group downgraded its rating for Colgate-Palmolive (India) Ltd. based solely on the success of Patanjali’s Dant Kanti. A few months later, Colgate started selling its own herbal toothpaste. Hindustan-Unilever Ltd. hired local doctors the same year to revamp its ayurvedic brand, Ayush, with products such as turmeric anti-pimple wash.
“This earth, sun, and all of nature are doing their jobs without any expectation. So I am doing my job”
Ramdev has floated plans for business lines in clothing, private security, animal feed, solar power, and restaurants. He also wants to export Patanjali products to the U.S., U.K., and around the globe. While he no longer speaks of directly entering politics, he enjoys greater influence in India than ever.
After his hunger strike destroyed his relationship with the incumbent government, he found an ally in the ascendant BJP. In 2014 he campaigned alongside the party’s conservative politicians. (At one rally, he was caught on camera rebuking a candidate who’d asked him about fundraising. “Are you a fool for asking and talking about money when cameras are on?” he asked, seething.) After the BJP won, and Narendra Modi became prime minister, Ramdev claimed to have “prepared the ground for the big political changes that occurred.”
Modi realized yoga and ayurveda could be valuable in stoking religious and nationalist sentiment. He elevated the government department promoting yoga and ayurveda (and which regulates Patanjali products) to a cabinet ministry; lobbied the United Nations to start an International Yoga Day; and exempted yoga-focused charitable trusts from some taxes.
Ramdev has called Modi a “close friend” but maintains that Patanjali hasn’t benefited from the friendship. “We do not take or want any favors from the government,” he told me. But a 2017 report by Reuters found that since Modi came to power, Patanjali has received more than $46 million in discounts on land deals in states governed by the BJP. The company has acquired almost 2,000 acres, which it says it will use to build new factories and cultivate herbs. The state of Haryana also offered Ramdev “all perks of a cabinet minister, including cars, bungalows, staff and security from the state,” a government spokesperson told the local Telegraph newspaper, but Ramdev said that, as a sanyasi, he had to decline.
Last year, Modi presided over the opening of the Patanjali Research Institute in Haridwar. The jewel of its corporate empire, the facility is described as a place for ayurvedic medicines to be researched and tested with the same rigor as pharmaceuticals in the West. “Swami Ramdev’s herbs help you overcome all problems,” Modi told the crowd, as Ramdev smiled beside him in his saffron. The prime minister then directly addressed Ramdev: “I have greater faith in the power of your blessings, and those of the people, than I have in myself.” The material world went unmentioned. The sanyasi had reached a higher plane.