Nearly 6,000 UAE residents paid up to Dh800 to hear him speak about how to “manage your energy” for four hours at an arena in Dubai recently.
That was over three dirhams for every minute of his speech and long pauses. Not much, some would say, considering the top dollars expatriates spend on expensive tables and backstage experiences at rock concerts.
At his Isha foundation centre in Coimbatore, India, a 21-week yoga teacher’s training programme can cost up to $10,000 and followers spend a significant sum to learn about “inner engineering” in the picturesque retreat.
TripAdvisor describes his US retreat in McMinnville, Oregon, as “a breathtaking Upper Cumberland retreat offering stress-relief, wellness retreats and outdoor recreation…”
The 60-year-old mystic, Jaggi Vasudev, popularly known as Sadhguru, founded his non-religious Isha Foundation in 1993.
“The foothills of the Velliangiri mountains, 40 km from the city of Coimbatore in south India, serve as home for the Isha Yoga Centre. The centre is dedicated to fostering inner transformation and creating an established state of well-being in individuals.
"The large residential facility houses an active international community of brahmacharis [celibate], full-time volunteers and visitors,” says the foundation website.
Last year, the centre courted controversy when it raised a 112-ft Lord Shiva statue, a structure local communities said was built without approvals, an allegation denied by the foundation.
In 2016, the foundation responded to criticism that it was encroaching upon the elephant corridor in the forests.
Last September, Sadhguru launched an ambitious ‘Rally for Rivers’, driving thousands of kilometres in a green colour, expensive, imported SUV to create awareness about the depletion of Indian rivers, a programme that was criticised by environmentalist as a “shallow solution” for a complex problem.
Controversies notwithstanding, Sadhguru has a massive following on social media, is widely regarded as an influential speaker, has authored over 30 books, including a New York Times bestseller Inner Engineering: A Yogi’s Guide to Joy and is a recipient of India’s second highest civilian honour of Padma Vibhushan.
In an exclusive interview recently, he spoke to Weekend Review on a wide range of issues.
How do you describe yourself? Who are you?
The word Sadhguru is not a title, it is a description by itself. When I say it’s a description, it is like … you have some problem with an eye you will go to the ophthalmogist, not to the orthopaedic, or if you have a problem with your teeth you go to a dentist not to a gynaecologist. Similarly, you go to your Sadhguru… when we say Sadhguru it means … you don’t go to him to discuss any scripture, any tradition or ritual or culture. Because the only thing that he knows is his own nature. I know this piece of line — from his origin to his ultimate — I don’t know any other scripture or tradition or anything. So you don’t go to him if you want to learn a scripture, you don’t go to him to debate a religion.
If you want to know something about the nature of your life, you go to him [Incidentally, his website isha.sadhguru.org describes Sadhguru as an uneducated guru].
You have visited the UAE twice. What do you think about this country?
What we call as nation, societies, communities are just organisations of individual human beings.
Some people might have come together for religious purposes, some have for economic purposes, some have come together for social reasons.
We can culture them in so many different ways but fundamentally, human beings experience something wonderful only when their inner experience is really good.
Maybe creating external comfort, external well-being is important… but ultimately human beings are only looking for human well-being, individual well-being, in turn social well-being, in turn the global well-being.
But essentially, it is the individual well-being. Human beings have the same aspirations, it is cultures and other things which would have cultivated them in a certain way.
But if you go deep enough, every human being has the same concern, every human being wants the same thing.
My work is to address that dimension of the human being. Their cultures, their castes, their religion don’t mean anything to me.
As a nation what is your opinion about the UAE?
I think Dubai is a miracle… in the middle of a desert what is being done is truly genius and in a place like this where there is no great natural resource.. still they made this place prosper is something that the world has to learn.
You can make this happen, I think this is just the result of certain level of openness and a judicious openness not just wild openness that has brought benefit… everybody wants to come here.
It is a fantastic example that in any part of the world if the leaders have the necessary vision and commitment and openness to address the world in a certain way, we can make this happen.
Tell us about your programme to revitalise the rivers of India.
Due to excessive exploitation and to some extent blatant mismanagement, Indian rivers in the last 50 years have depleted over 44 per cent on an average.
Major rivers like Narmada, Krishna, Godavari, have depleted over 60 per cent.
This is happening because of explosion of population and agriculture — 84 per cent of water resources are used in agriculture and we are still doing agriculture as it was done thousands of years ago.
We have a long history of agriculture. Southern India has 8,000 to 12,000 years of agricultural history. Because of that people have not changed their traditions, just hung on and we have had long periods of occupation.
These are forest-fed rivers — fortunately, only four per cent of rivers are glacier fed.
Fortunately, because we cannot increase the rate of snowfall, it is not in our hands. But 96 per cent of the water is forest-fed. On an average, monsoon across the country is somewhere between 40 to 45 days.
This 45 days of rain [water] we have to hold it in the land and let it flow as rivers for 365 days. This was happening for all these thousands of years because the land is forested.
But due to agricultural exploitation, we have removed the trees in a huge way and our ability to hold the water has gone.
Perennial rivers have become seasonal rivers… because of this we are exploiting the ground water in a huge way. In southern India, bore wells go up to 1,200 feet [deep].
So, you mean by simply planting the trees you can revive the rivers?
It is not just along the rivers. Twenty-five per cent of the land is still in the hands of the government.
Except for earmarking next 50 years of development, all the government land should be under tree cover.
Along the riverbed, instead of going crop-based agriculture you have to go for tree-based agriculture, more food has to come from the trees.
India always had an extraordinary level of fruit consumption but in today’s generation, only four per cent of our diet is fruit for which we are paying a huge price in terms of lifestyle ailments.
Sixty per cent of the fruits grown in the country go waste because there is no proper transportation, no cold storage, no value addition. We are looking at … how to make this into a process where … because being a tropical nation, we have the latitude of between 8 to 9 degrees to 36-37 degrees.
So we have a range of climates, we can grow just about anything you want. Sixty-five per cent of India’s population has agriculture knowledge and experience, they know how to work the land … if we exploit this properly, India can become the bread basket of the world.
Hindus always revered rivers, mountains, trees… do you think what has happened to the environment is due to the erosion of India’s value systems?
These value systems have been there and have done some good. But it is not good enough to change or to fix the damage that has been caused in pursuit of economic well-being. You cannot reverse it with just value systems.
Right now what I am proposing is an economic plan — how everybody can benefit, at the same time we can save our ecology.
Protecting our ecology is not against our economy and only if we have ecological well-being, there will be long term economic well-being.
We are trying to bring farmers together, make them understand how they can earn manifold over if they adopt a certain level of agriculture practices …where we can easily bring down water consumption.
What do you say about last year’s event organised by Sri Sri Ravishankar’s Art of Living Foundation that allegedly destroyed the Yamuna riverbed?
I don’t wish to talk about a specific event but there is so much happening which is negative to the environment — some by ignorance, some by recklessness.
It is time we awaken the nation that unless all of us act and above all the administration acts… the real solution will come only when there is a policy.
India has a huge diversity — religious, geographical and linguistic. What do you think an ideal India should be? Please don’t give a philosophical answer.
What makes you think I will give a philosophical answer? Not at all. This is a nation with 1.3 billion people where nearly 60 per cent of the population have not eaten properly from their childhood… their skeletal system has not grown to full size.
In other words, we are busy producing underdeveloped humanity, body doesn’t grow means your brain doesn’t grow. If we don’t fix this one thing, I don’t think we can call ourselves a nation.
The basic things are nourishment, health, education and ecology. I am not interested in India becoming a superpower, I am interested in India exhibiting the wisdom that it always had.
Everybody looked East, always… we have to regain that position of a soft power, not that of a superpower. We are not cut out for a superpower and we don’t need a superpower in this world. We want nations which live well, we want humans living well on this planet.
...and also that India should be compassionate towards all those who live within its boundaries. People are talking about intolerance, attack on diversity…on how people should get married, what they should eat, etc.
As you in the very beginning mentioned, generally, most nations are made on the sameness of language, religion, race.
But India never looked for sameness. We always pursued diversity. It’s not that were are diverse — we pursued diversity. If you walk into any family, if there are four or five people — five people are worshipping five different gods in the same house and they have no issue.
All right, so diversity is not even an ideology for us. Diversity is our nature because we have always been a land of seekers, not a land of believers. We have always been seekers of truth and liberation.
Our highest value has been ‘mukti’ (salvation), not something else. So having said that, how the nation should be run, what happens to political dynamics and social dynamics are passing phases that happened at different times.
At one time, we almost became communist; another time we became something else; another time we are confused; another time we are like this.
This is different complexions that a nation like this will go through. This doesn’t mean anything is permanently going to become this or that because essentially Indians are incapable of becoming fanatical.
So you do believe that this phase shall…
No, no, that’s why I am telling you: We don’t believe anything — that’s being Indian. We are seekers. When we say we are seekers, we are people who have consciously admitted that we don’t know and we are seeking.
Everybody else believes. Belief is something that is made up by somebody and all of us adhere to it.
Such a thing never existed in the country, always we have been seekers. This is why you cannot make every Indian agree. We are the most argumentative population on the planet.
And you, as a Sadhguru, cannot appreciate what is happening in...
See, what is happening, not happening. I’m in mass contact with people. I don’t see any intolerance anywhere.
Intolerance is only in the TV news studio, only English television newsrooms, generally. So, this intolerance, these things they build it up sometimes and then again they drop it and they talk something else. This is different.
I’m in touch with people on the ground on a massive scale. I don’t see any such thing in the ground. I don’t see any such thing in the villages and towns of India wherever I travel.
You take one or two incidents. In such a big country, we must understand there is no such thing as law enforcement in India. For 1.3 billion people, we don’t have enough policemen... we just manage ourselves.
So here and there incidents will happen. If you just want to take once incident and make it like it’s happening all over the country, this is unfortunate, you know.