The Spiritual Supermarket

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The gurus invade Indian shop shelves
The main entrance to Patanjali Yogpeeth on the Delhi-Haridwar highway leads to Sadbhavna Bhawan, a huge courtyard with a raised platform that stands on four pillars. On the platform, behind a small metal gate, is a grey sofa that is unoccupied. This is the seat of the much-loved yoga guru Baba Ramdev, who is now on a whirlwind tour of the Northeast. In his absence, the ashram is quiet, serene. We are greeted with Oms and pranams as we make our way to Acharya Balkrishna’s office. Ramdev’s companion since the 1990s, Balkrishna is also managing director of Patanjali Ayurved Ltd—he holds 92 per cent of the company’s shares; an NRI couple from Scotland hold the rest. He is busy, juggling business meetings and supervising paperwork. Around him, the atmosphere of spirituality gradually melts into the frenzy of entrepreneurship. Men in kurta pyjama pull out files to discuss the revamp of a defunct gaushala in Amravati, Maharashtra. From deciding the size of sheds for different breeds of cows to setting up a genomic lab to test their DNA, nothing is left to chance. For there is a lot at stake. Patanjali recently began making ghee from cow’s milk. It is now researching ways to use cow urine in its medicinal products.

Patanjali Ayurved, in which Ramdev has no financial stake, is the fastest growing player in the Indian Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCGs) industry today. It sells 600-odd consumer products and medicines and expects revenues of over Rs 5,000 crore in 2015-16. No wonder then that the unlisted company is now on the radar of brokerage firms. In 2014, Patanjali Ayurved clocked Rs 1,200 crore in revenues. Brand equity experts say it is only a matter of time before its empire rivals those of Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) and Dabur, the latter being a hallowed Indian brand that pioneered modern Ayurveda. Patanjali’s disruptive potential is evident from the fact that it has reportedly garnered a 4 per cent share of the country’s toothpaste market, parachuting into a space where the leader, Colgate-Palmolive, is seeing a drop in market share.

How did a baba who routinely inspires atrocious WhatsApp memes manage to capture the imagination of the modern Indian consumer? Divya Sethi, 34, a Delhi-based school teacher and mother of two, wasn’t a champion of Ayurveda until a couple of years ago, when she first sampled Patanjali Chyawanprash upon her parents’ suggestion. “My younger daughter, at five, was anaemic, so we started buying Patanjali’s Chyawanprash. Baba Ramdev’s is a trustworthy name,” she says. There are no tangible results to justify her choice, but she feels safe in the belief that Ayurvedic products come sans side-effects. She promptly switched to Patanjali noodles soon after its launch, much to the disappointment of her children. “They don’t like the taste of the atta noodles and they rarely ask for noodles anymore. Either way, it’s a win-win,” she chuckles. Picking up two tubes of Patanjali Dant Kanti from the toothpaste aisle of a Big Bazaar superstore in south Delhi, Sethi admits she has gone all Ayurvedic with her household shopping. “We use neem soap, herbal shampoo and aloe vera cream in winter. It has been a year since we switched to Ayurvedic products,” she says.

In an age when potentially harmful chemicals have invaded every walk of life, urban Indians aspire to switch to organic, all-natural products. As these remain expensive, affordable products laced with Ayurveda-inspired ingredients are an obvious upgrade. They are not chemical-free, but backed by the spiritual muscle of popular gurus and offered at prices that are often lower than those of entrenched brands, they have been rendered desirable to large swathes of consumers— even those who did not buy into the Dabur-HUL Ayurveda wave. Ramdev, who established Patanjali Yogpeeth in 2006 and claims a following of 200 million today, is not the only guru to leverage his popularity. The Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda leader MSG (‘Messenger of God’) Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan recently diversified into FMCG products, and Art of Living guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is expanding his Ayurvedic product line and retail network.

“We thought of setting up Patanjali when we were in a gurukul together in Haryana in 1995,” reminisces Balkrishna, seated under a portrait of Ramdev. He recounts the story behind one of their first successful products, amla (gooseberry) juice. “In 2003, we found that amla farmers around Haridwar were burning their trees. There were no buyers for amla. Babaji decided to buy all their amla and we brought truckloads to the factory here,” he says. “When we thought about what to do with all the amla, Babaji decided to extract the juice and to promote it on his satsangs on Aastha channel. By the next season, the demand doubled.”

This is how brand Patanjali became what it is today, says N Chandramoulli, CEO of Trust Research Agency and author of ‘The Brand Trust Study (2011-15)’, which features Patanjali among the seven most trusted Ayurvedic brands in India, alongside Dabur, Emami and Himalaya. “Having Baba Ramdev as the brand ambassador is a great headstart,” he says. Patanjali recently roped in advertising companies like DDB Mudra and McCann and emerged as the third most advertised brand on television after Cadbury and HUL’s Fair and Lovely (its brand ambassadors include wrestler Sushil Kumar and actor and BJP MP Hema Malini). But it was word-of-mouth that helped knock Colgate out of many Indian bathrooms, says Chandramoulli. “Almost every household in India has at least one member who uses a Patanjali product. This is mainly due to the credibility that Ramdev enjoys,” he says. The brand’s products now retail at Big Bazaar superstores and online supermarkets, apart from franchise outlets that have sprouted in great numbers across urban India, expanding the brand’s reach enormously. According to Seshu Kumar, national head of merchandising at, an online grocery shopping portal, sales of Patanjali products on the platform have tripled in the past year. Bigbasket sells consumer care products by Patanjali, Himalaya and Sri Sri Ayurveda, which together comprise 2 per cent of its total sales. “We have a huge range of Ayurvedic products in the personal care category, but Patanjali ghee, which was launched only last year, is the most popular,” Kumar says.

Reports of worms in Patanjali’s instant noodles are lies spread by ‘jealous MNCs’ out to tarnish the image of Baba Ramdev, claims Balkrishna, an ascetic from Nepal. The noodles were launched last November, when Nestlé’s Maggi came under the scanner for its additives. According to Balkrishna, the baba, who he says had never had instant noodles before, ate them every day for a week before the launch. “Our noodles are made of atta and not maida. It is not junk food. Atta toh healthy hota hai,” he says. The tastemaker, he says, contains rice oil, which is relatively healthy too. It is manufactured at the state-of-the art laboratory in the Patanjali food park, located 32 km off the Haridwar-Delhi highway. This is where other health food such as aloe vera juice and amla juice is made. Run by professionals who have worked with rival companies like Dabur, it employs about 10,000 workers. Raw materials are sourced directly from farmers in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The company is now reportedly looking at hiring professionals from B-schools.

If Ramdev has used mass appeal and savvy marketing to his advantage, the Bengaluru-based Art of Living Foundation is banking on the personal charisma of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, well regarded by corporates and Western followers, to popularise Ayurveda as a way of life. Sri Sri Ayurveda was established in Bengaluru way back in 2003, but it is only over the past two years that it has seen a lot of traction, says Tej Katpitia, chief marketing officer, Sri Sri Ayurveda, while refusing to discuss numbers. The profits are funnelled into other Art of Living projects such as free schools for underprivileged children. “The changing perception towards natural remedies is responsible for this growth,” he says. “Ayurveda is not just for old people anymore.” From a range of classical concoctions like triphala and proprietary medicines for cough, immunity, weight loss and other health conditions, Sri Sri Ayurveda has diversified into FMCG products—about 60 so far, including shampoo, face wash, sunscreen, rose water and health drinks. Ojasvita, a health drink with seven herbs that comes in five flavours, and Sudanta, a non-flouride toothpaste, are especially popular. “The marketplace is just awakening. There is a long way to go,” Katpitia says. With manufacturing facilities in Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Kotdwar, Sri Sri Ayurveda retails across 500-plus stores and several websites. It is also actively exploring tie-ups with supermarkets and other modern retail channels, Katpitia says. “We want to reach a wider audience across metros and small towns.”

The classical and proprietary range of medicines, meanwhile, still accounts for 65 per cent of sales. “We are looking at launching a number of personal care products, like gels and creams, besides health drinks for women, diabetics and children,” Katpitia says. “There are several products in the research phase.”

According to former DU professor and sociologist Abha Rohatgi, Indian godmen are selling consumerism camouflaged in spirituality. “Yoga and Ayurveda are huge magnets in India and this is working in their favour,” says Rohatgi, who is working on a book on babas and their businesses. It is also incredibly easy to pass off just about any FMCG product as an Ayurvedic formulation. “There is no licence required to sell Ayurvedic products and the intellectual property rights around Ayurveda are very fuzzy as they come under the umbrella of traditional medicine,” says a former employee of Dabur India who does not wish to be named.

To be sure, Patanjali and other Ayurvedic product companies have got a fillip from the BJP Government, which has promoted yoga and set up a ministry called Ayush dedicated to traditional medicine and knowledge. Patanjali recently netted a DRDO project to extract Leh-berry juice in Ladakh, which some attribute to Ramdev’s proximity to India’s ruling party.

But a godman’s clout is only as good as the number of his followers. So when Gurmeet Ram Rahim decided to launch a line of products under the brand MSG on 31 January this year, he did so in areas of Haryana and Punjab, where his fan base lies. The road to the Shah Satnam Ji Dham ashram in Sirsa is long and arduous. There are no local signboards for it, but passersby helpfully point you to two ashrams, and suggest you visit the bigger one, where the guru is conducting a satsang. Tens of thousands of followers are present at the venue to listen to him dispense such wisdom as “Samaaj mein rehne kaa dhang aana chahiye (One should learn how to live in society)” and “Raasta tayy karo, manzil apne aap mil jaaegi (Decide the route and you will find your way).” These utterances seem to impress his followers, who chant “MSG! MSG! MSG!” over and over.

“There is nothing Pitaji cannot do,” says a follower who calls herself Suman Insan. (Ram Rahim encourages his disciples to adopt ‘Insan’ as their last name in place of family names with caste undertones.) She was in school when she first heard about MSG’s ashram in 1989, and has been a follower since. She claims to have been cured of cancer just by serving here. Originally from Khanori, Punjab, Suman moved to Sirsa with her husband and children a year-and-a-half ago. Her children study in a college and a school run by the guru. “I married into a family that also follows Guruji,” she says.

MSG is no less than a messiah for his tribe of followers, who are spread out across Haryana, Punjab, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and even Karnataka, where he has an ashram in Mysore. The controversial guru doesn’t have time to meet us as he rushes to his next engagement, a shoot for one of his upcoming movies, MSG :The Warrior. They are but propaganda films, starring the self-styled rockstar guru as a swashbuckling do-gooder astride a bike or playing rugby. But they could prove useful in advertising his line of products.

The atmosphere at the satsang, which begins at noon and goes on for two hours, is manic. Women and men are seated separately, and have to go through elaborate security checks before they are allowed to enter the grounds. Mobile phones and electronic devices are not allowed. The satsang is followed by a question-answer session where people ask if they can drink black tea, praise MSG, and thank him for the MSG shampoo and oil that claim to solve all hair-related problems. “Right now, the smell of the shampoo is too strong,” says the guru. “We are trying to do something about it, without using any sort of chemical.”

The MSG store outside Gate No 4 of the ashram bears the brand logo. It is a mini supermarket, where you can find everything to stock up your kitchen. A litre of MSG desi ghee sells for Rs 425, one of the top-selling items here. However, the sell-out items are MSG’s 7-7 shampoo at Rs 130 for a 200-ml bottle and 9 Bar 9 oil at Rs 250 for 100 ml. At the media cell of the ashram, we are served MSG tea and biscuits. Next door, a grocer sells the ashram’s farm produce. According to Ajay Dhamija, spokesperson for MSG All India Trading International Pvt Ltd, the brand soon expects to retail at 200 franchise stores in north India. It has also tied up with 500 retailers. The only problem, claims Dhamija, is meeting the demand from MSG’s fan base. Asked about the broad objective of this enterprise, he says, “Guruji does not have any business plans. He only wants to bring the youth on the right track.”

“We first began with spices and biscuits, then moved to aloe vera gel, drinking water, and so on,” says Pavan Insan, the ashram spokesperson. He began working at the ashram as a canteen help in 1993 and rose to his current position. For much of the conversation, he gushes about the guru’s magical aura, which he insists is capable of repelling evil and attracting all forms of life, including a peacock who is a regular visitor at the ashram. Such faith, we realise, cannot be wished away. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan may love to court controversy, but with 150 products and a growing following, he means business.