Jaggi Vasudev aka Sadhguru has occupied my Facebook timeline for weeks. It started with a couple of friends posting videos which I happened to view. Then, the algorithm took over, serving up a string of sponsored sermons. Whether from masochism or a desire to break habit, I watched the videos instead of ignoring or blocking them, and sought out further material on YouTube and Vasudev’s Isha Foundation website.
I expected a few green shoots of insight amidst a desert of tiresome platitudes. I got those, but also irrationalism, superstition, and Hindutva philosophy hiding under a cloak of reasonableness.
Vasudev constantly invokes science, but displays little knowledge of its fundamentals. His paraphrase of Charles Darwin’s ideas (after the obligatory monkey jokes) goes like this: “Nature is catering for a chimpanzee to become a human being. I am just catering to the human longing to evolve into something else. It is life’s idea that everything should evolve… Darwin tried to explain it in his own way, which became the theory of evolution, but essentially what he is telling you is if you look at the whole thing – from a single-celled animal to yourself – as one large life process, it is longing to get somewhere.”
Vasudev’s description fits evolution as understood by Charles Darwin’s precursors, his grandfather Erasmus and the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Darwin himself emphasised the purposelessness of the process, and took pains to undermine the notion that life was driven by “a longing to get somewhere”. To misinterpret Darwin as Vasudev does is to misconstrue the foundational concept of modern biology.
The Darwin story has a Hindutva twist as well. Adopting the dogma established by Dayanand Saraswati that India’s ancient civilisation mastered every technology and comprehended every scientific idea, the guru declares, “The evolutionary theory is not Darwin’s, Adiyogi propounded this fifteen thousand years ago.”
Life after death
Vasudev tends to regurgitate popular myths and urban legends in explicating Hindu religious practices. He holds that rites related to death last as long as they do because the body is actually partly alive throughout that period. In his words, “After a person dies, up to 11 days for sure, most of the time up to 14 days, fingernails grow, hair grows… Because death is happening slowly.”
Actually, the growth of fingernails and hair ceases soon after the heart stops, and only appears to continue because other parts of the body shrink and pull back through dehydration.
Based on this false physical evidence, Vasudev recasts Hindu rituals as ways of helping the body die faster, because, “dying slowly can be torturous”. “If you do not tie the toes together”, he says, “from the lower end of the body it will start imbibing life… Because all the cells in the body are not dead.”
It’s true some cells in the body stay vital for relatively long periods after clinical death, but none remain alive for over a week, and none survive cremation. Given that bodies are usually consigned to fire within a day after death, the two-week period of rituals can only be concerned with the soul and not with bodily life.
Vasudev takes the idea of persistent life even further, into a magical realm. He would have us believe that Tantric “scientists” can revive the dead because they are not fully dead. He illustrates this idea of revivification by telling a story that introduces the Hindutva element in the form of an evil Muslim king (unnamed, of course) who tried to force a tantric to bring the king’s dead son back to life, and indulged in a bit of idol smashing for good measure.
I have no objections to religious ceremonies. It is the prerogative of believers to conduct them. What I protest against is Vasudev’s interpretation of those rites, and his extension of that misguided premise to entirely unfounded claims about raising the dead.
Eclipses and solar time
Vasudev’s rationalisations cover not just religious rituals but also straightforward superstitions such as the taboo against eating during an eclipse. A lunar eclipse is, we know, merely the shadow of the earth falling on the moon. According to Vasudev, though, “There is a distinct change in the way cooked food is before and after the eclipse. What was nourishing food turns into poison… In terms of energy, the earth’s energy is mistaking this eclipse as a full cycle of the moon.”
It is unclear why only cooked food behaves as if a full cycle of the moon has passed. Cooking was invented pretty recently in evolutionary history and it is strange that the “earth’s energy” messes with it while having no deleterious impact on the rest of nature, at least none that conventional instruments can measure.
Vasudev isn’t interested in conventional instruments, of course. He possesses a device of his own, which he employs to assess energy of the mystical variety. “Energy” is a favourite word among new-age gurus, for it allows scientific connotations to be evoked even while being employed for processes beyond the ken of physics. The guru’s tool is a rudraksha mala which he holds over sambhar rice during an eclipse to demonstrate his theory.
The string of prayer beads moves more or less clockwise at first, goes still after a lapse of time, before rotating the other way, apparently proving the dish has grown unfit for consumption. A neutral observer might perceive Vasudev’s fingers and wrist coaxing the string of prayer beads in the desired direction, since he doesn’t possess the sleight of hand of a guru like Sathya Sai Baba, who conjured ashes or chains out of thin air. (Though it’s wise not to attempt such miracles in the age of ubiquitous video.)
Vasudev’s peculiar ideas about time extend beyond eclipses to daily life. “It doesn’t matter where I am, till today, between 3.30 to 3.40 I always come awake,” he says. “There is something happening in nature between 3.30 to 3.40. It’s called Brahma Muhurta in yoga… It happens to everybody, but they don’t notice it.” In another discourse he elaborates, “Once your biology adjusts itself to the planet’s biology, every morning, you will wake up by yourself between 3.20 and 3.40.”
The 3.30 am of today, however, bears only a vague connection to planetary “biology” or solar time. India recognises only one time zone, while solar times differ considerably across the nation. Today’s Indian Standard Time is Co-ordinated Universal Time (UTC) plus 5.30, while a century ago, Bombay Time was UTC+04:51, Madras Time was UTC+05:21, and Calcutta Time UTC+05:54. Even those time zones were fairly broad, standardised in order to co-ordinate train arrivals and departures.
To wake at 3.30 am no matter where you are says nothing about the body’s interaction with planetary time, it only signals an inexplicable affiliation with the modern invention called standard time.
Yoga and research
The basic yogic technique the Isha Foundation propounds is called Shambhavi Mahamudra, and Vasudev claims that, “A study by the University of California found that those who did the Shambhavi Mahamudra have 241% higher than normal neuronal regeneration in the brain.” He has touted this University of California study repeatedly over the years, as you can see here, here and here. A result of this sort would be a magnificent vindication, advancing complementary treatments for a number of diseases. One would expect a link to the paper to be prominently displayed on the Isha Foundation’s website, but I could find none. Nor did a keyword search reveal any matching document online.
What research on the Shambhavi Mahamudra is available appears to have been conducted by Vasudev’s disciples, or sympathisers like Deepak Chopra.
Hinduism and Hindutva
“I do not wish to take a political stance because I have never associated myself with any political ideology”, Vasudev avers, but his sermons make clear his sympathies with every aspect of Hindutva. Here he is, finding what he calls a Shiva lingam on the grounds of the Archaeological Museum in Konya, Turkey, (the rudraksha mala is brought out again) and affirming that, as far back as 4,700 years ago, “All of Europe was full of temples.”
That’s exactly the sort of thing Raving Loony Hindutva History would have us believe, though there is no archaeological evidence for it whatsoever.
On the issue of cow slaughter, he blames the lynching of Muslims and Dalits on a lack of timely implementation of the law, though such crimes have occurred precisely where bans on cow slaughter are most strictly enforced by authorities. He believes cows have emotions like humans and even cry from grief, which makes killing a cow, “like killing a human being, it’s murder or it’s cannibalism”.
A veterinarian would tell you that many mammals have tear glands to keep their corneas from drying out, but only humans shed sad tears. To attribute emotions to animal tears is to succumb to the anthropomorphic fallacy, and gurus are obviously not immune to it.
Vasudev is as slippery when it comes to defining his faith as he is in defining his politics. “This is a godless culture, there has never been an idea of god in this culture”, he argues, and yet contends, contradictorily, that the Hindu god Rudra is the original creator of the universe. A massive sculpture of Shiva is the visual focus of his ashram, and of the annual Maha-Shivratri celebration there, underlining the Hindu-ness of his belief system. His faith-based veneration of cows and Hindu deities is accompanied by a view of India as a once-pristine society devoted to an inner search which was ruptured by marauding Muslims.
Like all Hindutvavadis, he ignores the positive contributions of Christian and Islamic culture, as well as crucial developments in Hinduism over the last millennium such as the spread of bhakti. He views India’s medieval history as centuries of oppressive occupation, not only equating the invasions of Muslim kings with British colonialism, but suggesting they were worse because the British were more open to a multi-religious society.
In one lecture, he argues that Tibetan Buddhism flourished as a consequence of Islamic invasions: “The reason why you see so much of a certain form of yogic practice in the name of Tibetan Buddhism today is because when the invasions happened… they all went into the mountains… crossed over and settled on the plateau, what you call as Tibet today”.
In actuality, Buddhism was established as the official religion by a Tibetan monarch as early as the 8th century CE, and a second wave of inputs from India followed in the 10th and 11th centuries, long before the establishment of the Delhi sultanate. Vasudev’s understanding of history is as faulty as his comprehension of astronomy, archaeology, biology, and zoology.
On the construction of a Ram temple on a disputed site in Ayodhya, as in the case of every issue outlined above, he aligns with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. He has tied himself even more closely to Narendra Modi (who was chief guest at the unveiling of the giant Adiyogi statue on the Isha Yoga campus) by applauding non-religious initiatives such as the Balakot strikes and the introduction of a Goods and Services Tax.
It is easy to understand why the BJP regime honoured Jaggi Vasudev with the Padma Vibhushan, the nation’s second-highest civilian honour. He has perfected a dish that is a mix of religious politics and blind faith and yet tastes surprisingly like a blend of rationality and ecumenism. It’s a recipe palatable to middle-class and affluent Indians who might be put off by the crass bigotry of “Yogi” Adityanath and “Sadhvi” Pragya but are sympathetic to a softer version of a Hindu Rashtra.