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Baba Ramdev: Can a yogi turn Indian politics on its head?

Baba Ramdev is a Hindu yoga guru-turned-anticorruption campaigner. He's the latest incarnation of the spiritual political reformer, an archetype running throughout Indian history.

By Rebecca ByerlyCorrespondent / October 17, 2012

Indian yoga guru Baba Ramdev gestures while addressing a press conference in New Delhi last month.

Mustafa Quraishi/AP

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Haridwar, India

It’s not yet 5 a.m, but hundreds of Indians are quietly shuffling into a football-field-sized yoga hall.

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A sea of people in white and saffron orange – gangling aging men in loincloths, young angelic-looking women in pajamas, and wide-eyed children – sit cross-legged on yoga mats. On the stage before them sits their full-bearded and bare-chested guru, Baba Ramdev.

Through the windows behind him the sun rises, a deep red. His followers wait for him to begin what will be a four-hour session: He’ll move through a series of acrobatic postures that range from walking upside down on his hands to blowing hard, hissing breaths out his nose. But Ramdev’s yoga is not just about the body, the breath, or the mind.

 It is also about politics.

He ends his session with a fiery political speech about the corruption facing India’s Congress Party-led government and his disdain for foreign influences in the country. His voice grows angry. He hollers and rails against the corruption and graft. The tranquility of the morning is shattered. His followers join the frenzy, jumping to their feet and wildly clapping their hands. Some pull Indian flags out from under their mats and whirl them above their heads.

“Hindustan! Hindustan! Hindustan!” They shout the popular name for the Indian subcontinent, capping the end of a spectacle televised every morning to tens of millions of Indian homes.

Baba Ramdev (born Ramkrishana Yadev) is the latest incarnation of the spiritual political reformer, an archetype familiar to Indian history. Whether expressed by the ancient emperor Ashoka who embraced nonviolent Buddhism, or Mohandas Gandhi who upended the British Raj in the 20th century, or Anna Hazare who is rivaling Ramdev for mastery of the anticorruption moment in India, the message is similar: Inward purification is the way to cure a body politic that's fallen ill.

Reforms that have brought new wealth to a growing middle class have also introduced new temptations like fast food and an array of international products from Western movies to Levi’s jeans. Ramdev is credited with helping reintroduce yoga and good health to a country undergoing massive social change.

In the seven years since he began airing his yoga sessions, his popularity has exploded. Some 30 million Indians watch his show each morning.

Along the way, the yoga guru has amassed a personal fortune and numerous critics who view him as a charlatan or a stooge of right-wing Hindu parties. Still, millions of his followers believe the guru has his finger on the disgruntled pulse of Indian society.

Many share his views that the government has been blackened by corruption and Indian society tainted by the invasion of foreign goods. His solutions echo Gandhian concepts of swaraj, or self-rule, which starts with self-purification, and swadeshi, or self-sufficiency, which includes rejecting dependence on imports and foreign ways.  

Folk healer

For many, despite the loud criticism against him, Ramdev's shift from promoting a personal health campaign to encouraging a call for national wellness seems natural. 

His folksy reputation, which includes his belief that homosexuality can be healed through yoga, has made him an overnight success. Many believe Ramdev has healed them from ailments such as Hepatitis B and now devote their lives to following him. 

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