I first saw Baba Ramdev and noticed his flair for drama on a blistering September evening in 2008. Surrounded by fawning, adoring fans, he was standing tall, rock-star like, on a floodlit boat on the Ganga in Kanpur. Ramdev – who incidentally also had deep links with the Congress – was kicking off the VHP’s Ganga Raksha Andolan with a fiery speech.
I trailed Ramdev when he retired that evening to a government guesthouse in the city. A masterful strategist and public speaker, Ramdev, guarded by private security supplied by businessman Subrata Sahara, now in the dock for a Rs 17,000 crore Ponzi scheme, was taking questions from journalists. He laughed and chortled, at himself and at us reporters. I found it impossible to keep journalistic distance from this yoga guru turned swadeshi business tycoon turned politician. I found myself fascinated, enraptured. Ramdev wanted you to like him. And you did.
Every time I met Ramdev thereafter, he was charming, earthy and self-deprecating. A gifted storyteller, Ramdev, like many good politicians, has a remarkable ability to project proximity and familiarity while remaining closely guarded and calculating. No matter how much time I spent with him, I never felt like I was able to scratch beyond the surface. So, many years later when I decided to write a book on Ramdev I knew that in order to tell his complete story, warts and all, I’d have to tell it not in his words but in the words of the people who witnessed and were part of his spectacular rise.
I began at the beginning. I spoke to members of Ramdev’s family: his mother Gulabo Devi, brother Devdutt Yadav and uncle Jagdeesh Yadav. I spoke to his friends: from his junior at the gurukul he attended in his early twenties, Acharya Abhaydev, to his lifelong deputy, Acharya Balkrishna. I interviewed long-time Haridwar residents who have known Ramdev since his early days conducting yoga camps for a few dozen people there. I met people who had worked for Ramdev at different points of time – from Vipin Pradhan, an aide of Ramdev’s between 2002 and 2005, before Patanjali Ayurveda Ltd was even established, to SK Patra, the CEO who helped lay the foundations for Patanjali’s phenomenal growth. All in all, I spoke to fifty-two people to unravel Ramdev’s story.
I fully expected to find disgruntlement and a fair share of unhappy acquaintances – after all, fame always comes with backbiters and naysayers. But when I stepped back to admire the arc of Ramdev’s life, a troubling pattern emerged: the likeable and warm Ramdev has in his wake a trail of dramatic falling-outs and tragedies.
Ramdev’s first serious falling out was with Karamveer Maharaj, his first mentor, the man who taught him how to teach yoga.
In their early days they would travel across the country together holding yoga camps, and making chawanprash in rented utensils and selling it on bicycles in Haridwar. Eventually they set up the Divya Yog Mandir Trust, of which Karamveer was founding vice-president, and under whose aegis they conducted yoga camps and established an Ayurvedic pharmacy. Karamveer had a bitter parting with Ramdev. One day in March 2005, he just left without telling anyone, never to return.
The idealistic Karamveer couldn’t brook, he says, the gradual commercialisation of a trust established for charitable purposes or the inroads that he felt Ramdev’s family were making in their establishment. He says, “Idealism is easy when you have nothing. It’s what you do when you have fame, money or power that matters. Unfortunately, I saw it changing them [Ramdev and Bakrishna].”
The spat with Karamveer seemed to be the beginning of a trend. In 2009 Ramdev fell out with Kirit Mehta, one of the founders of Aastha TV, the channel that propelled Ramdev into a league of unimaginable celebrity, after he took over the channel. And then again, in 2013, Ramdev had a sour altercation with his most pivotal CEO, SK Patra. They had differences over how the company was run – Ramdev sees working for Patanjali, Patra claims, as service, to the nation and for swadeshi. Patra, on the other hand, has a more orthodox view: he worked for compensation and recoiled against the culture of enforced reverence in the company.
But Ramdev’s life story is also dotted by a mysterious murder, an odd disappearance, and a death under curious circumstances.
Each one of these instances is on the public record. First is the murder of Swami Yogananda, an Ayurveda doctor and friend who allowed Ramdev’s Divya Yog Mandir Trust to use his licence for their Ayurvedic medicine manufacturing unit when they set it up in 1995. After eight years of operating under Yogananda’s licence, the alliance was dropped in 2003. Over a year after the Divya Pharmacy stopped using Yogananda’s licence, in December 2004, he was found dead in a pool of his own blood in his home in Haridwar. The case was closed unsolved in October 2005.
Then in July 2007 Ramdev’s 77-year old guru, Shankar Dev, who gifted Ramdev his ashram and its lands, enabling him to establish the Divya Yog Mandir Trust, disappeared. Shankar Dev, who lived austerely to the end, even after the success of his disciple’s venture, went for a morning walk and never returned. He left a cryptic, garbled note about a loan he had taken and was unable to repay. At the time of the disappearance, Ramdev was on a yoga tour in the US and UK and did not return home till the following month. When asked at a press conference why he did not cut short his trip, Ramdev said, “If I knew he was alive, I would have.”
The CBI opened an investigation into Shankar Dev’s disappearance in 2012. From the agency’s reply to an RTI filed by me, it is clear that the case is still open.
Then in 2010, Rajeev Dixit, Ramdev’s second mentor, and from whom Ramdev learnt his swadeshi messaging, died suddenly. After making a speech in Bemetara canvassing for the political party that they had founded together, Dixit collapsed in the bathroom, evidently due to a cardiac arrest. He died that night aged 43. The following day, Dixit’s colleagues noticed his face “was unrecognisable...a strange purple and blue. His skin was peeling strangely”. They demanded a post-mortem but Ramdev, eyewitnesses claim, refused to allow it citing scriptural prohibition and had Dixit’s body cremated instead.
When I started researching Ramdev’s life, I anticipated a spectacular rags-to-riches tale. Ramdev was born to a poor farmer and is now at the helm of an empire with over $3.6 billion! And, of course, I did find that story. But I found so much more. There is no evidence linking Ramdev to these deaths, and he has consistently denied any involvement in the cases. Yet tragedy just seems to follow Ramdev everywhere he goes.
Priyanka Pathak-Narain is the author of the forthcoming From Godman to Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev, Juggernaut.