As the film star Rajinikanth announced his entry into “spiritual politics” on Sunday, the background of the stage that he spoke from was dominated by a symbolic hand gesture, the mudra. It would be familiar to anyone who has watched the actor’s 2002 film Baba, a flop that landed him in financial trouble.

The mudra, and the philosophy it represents, is apparently so central to Rajinikanth’s worldview, he seems to have decided to make it his party’s emblem – his written statement on Monday urging fans to join his new party online carried the mudra prominently on the top.

How this mudra came to be is explained in a hugely popular “spiritual book” titled Autobiography of a Yogi. It was written by Paramahamsa Yogananda, who earned fame as a “spiritual guru” by taking the concept of kriya yoga to the United States in early 20th century. The book has sold close to five million copies worldwide and has been translated into 45 languages.

Yogananda’s guru was a Bengali man named Lahiri Mahasaya, who claimed to have been trained by Mahavatar Babaji, a saint the kriya yoga tradition holds was born around 203 CE and still lives in the Himalayas. There are hardly any authoritative historical accounts of this figure. Most stories about Babaji come from his “disciples”, people he supposedly presented himself to on occasion to impart the knowledge of kriya yoga. In the Autobiography of a Yogi, Yogananda claims that Babaji appeared to him in person and told him to take kriya yoga to the West.

Padmapriya Bhaskaran, who runs the blog Aalayam Kanden, which documents temples in South India and the stories behind them, said much of what is told about Babaji comes from people who claimed to have met him in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “It was Paramahamsa Yogananda’s book which made this personality hugely popular,” she added.

It also introduced Babaji to Rajinikanth.

A sculpture depicting Mahavatar Babaji at a temple dedicated to him in Parangipettai, Tamil Nadu. Photo credit: Padmapriya Bhaskaran/Aalayam Kanden
A sculpture depicting Mahavatar Babaji at a temple dedicated to him in Parangipettai, Tamil Nadu. Photo credit: Padmapriya Bhaskaran/Aalayam Kanden

Babaji’s disciple

About a year ago, the actor told a public meeting how he came to know of Babaji. He had known about the Autobiography of a Yogi since 1978, when he first saw it in an airport bookshop. “Something drew me to it,” Rajinikanth said. He bought the book but did not get to read it for decades. This, he said, was because his English was poor.

After the success of his 1999 film Padaiyappa, Rajinikanth claimed, he wanted to retire from cinema. He spoke to Satchidananda Saraswati, a yoga guru in the US, who changed his mind. He then went to Saraswati’s ashram for a “spiritual retreat”, and there he finally read the book.

Deeply touched, he decided to portray Babaji on screen to introduce him to a wider audience. Later, while reading the book in his apartment in Bengaluru, Rajinikanth claimed, a “light spark” emanated from Babaji’s picture in it. He apparently felt as though someone was instructing him to lie down in a particular position. He did and the “light spark” went inside him. The next evening, he claimed, he imagined the script for the movie Baba as though someone was explaining every scene to him.

In Baba, which flopped so badly that distributors demanded compensation from the actor for their huge loses, Rajinikanth gets to meet Babaji in the Himalayas. In this particular sequence, Rajinikanth’s character makes some fantastic claims, including that Jesus Christ had met Babaji in the Himalayas. This claim was originally made by Yogananda in his book The Second coming of Christ. In fact, the actor once claimed Krishna and Jesus Christ were the first in the lineage of his gurus.

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The mudra Rajinikanth is using as an on his letterhead as an emblem for his fan club is what Babaji supposedly appeared with before select disciples over the years. In yoga literature, it is called apana mudra, signifying detoxification of the body and the spirit. The mudra in the emblem is encircled by a snake, like the one in the emblem of the Ramakrishna Mutt order designed by Swami Vivekananda. The serpent represents yoga and awakened kundalini, or primal energy.

But this story about the mudra is not backed by historical evidence, just like most accounts of Babaji’s life.

The temple dedicated to Mahavatar Babaji in Parangipettai.
The temple dedicated to Mahavatar Babaji in Parangipettai.

Who was Babaji?

The figure of Babaji seems to have roots in Tamil Nadu. The legend has it that he was born in Parangipettai in Cuddalore. Bhaskaran said there still exists a house in Parangipettai which is claimed to be Babaji’s.

According to the story visitors to the house are told, Babaji, named Nagarajan by his parents, was kidnapped during a temple festival when he was less than seven years old and sold as a slave in Kolkata. He was released by his master a few years later and joined a group of sanyasis.

Nagarajan later went to Sri Lanka and became a disciple of one Bhogarnathar, who facilitated his meeting with sage Agastiyar. He also got a vision of Muruga, who in Hindu mythology is the son of Shiva. After returning from Sri Lanka, Bhaskaran said the priests at the Parangipettai temple claim, Babaji went to Rishikesh where he practised kriya yoga for years before attaining gnana or self-realisation.