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Yoga Guru Creates Retail Empire Amid Wave Of Hindu Nationalism


The wellness craze is a big business here in the U.S. Well, in India, there is a Hindu wellness craze - food and cosmetics based on ancient Hindu medicine. It's become a multibillion-dollar industry under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He's running for a second term, and he's campaigning as a Hindu nationalist who wants the country's majority faith to play a bigger role in politics, public life and even supermarkets. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from Mumbai.


LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: At a dairy farm north of Mumbai, Umesh Soni is sourcing ingredients for his line of cosmetics.

So this is, like, a jerrycan.

UMESH SONI: We store this cow urine. You can smell this.

FRAYER: Oh, yeah, yeah.

SONI: Yeah.

FRAYER: Yeah, it's cow urine.

SONI: It smells. Cow urine - yeah.

FRAYER: Yes, cow urine - cows are sacred to Hindus, and many believe their excrement has healing powers.

SONI: This is a special soap.

FRAYER: At Soni's cosmetics shop in Mumbai, the shelves are laden with special soap, shampoo, face wash, even eye gel.

So that's lip balm with cow urine in it.

SONI: Yes, cow urine, cow dung, milk.

FRAYER: And you've got wild berry flavored, chocolate flavor, guava.

This is a fast-growing retail market in India. Soni says his profits have multiplied by six since he started this business in 2012. India's economy is booming, and there's a burgeoning new middle class.

SONI: This is a modern India. People are wealthy. They are earning good. They want to associate with brands.

FRAYER: Brands that are also home-grown and distinctly Hindu.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in foreign language).

FRAYER: An ad for a popular Indian toothpaste pokes fun at Western brands. The message is, embrace traditional Hindu remedies instead like yoga.


PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: "Yoga is part of India's ancient heritage," Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in 2014 at the United Nations, which then declared an International Day of Yoga, June 21. While Modi has pushed yoga as part of India's soft power abroad, someone else has long been doing that inside India.

PRIYANKA PATHAK: Baba Ramdev is India's most famous yoga guru. So he is the saffron-clad; long, flowing, black beard...

FRAYER: His biographer Priyanka Pathak describes how a Hindu monk named Baba Ramdev started teaching yoga on TV in the early 2000s and has since expanded into selling everything from instant noodles to aloe vera gel, all based on ancient Hindu healing called Ayurveda. While Modi has put Hinduism into politics, Baba Ramdev has put it in your shopping cart. You'd be hard pressed to find a market in India where they don't sell his products. His face is on billboards everywhere. By 2017, his company Patanjali had bypassed giants like Nestle India. In the past six years, its revenues have multiplied more than 10 times.

PATHAK: It's like a Walmart on drugs.

FRAYER: Pathak thinks the popularity of Ayurveda has something to do with globalization. India's economy has opened quickly to the world, and that can be bewildering, she says.

PATHAK: Quite similar to Make America Great Again, you feel that you've gone very far away from your roots or you've lost your country or you've lost your culture; you lost your civilizational roots. What is the one tangible thing that I can do to reassert my identity?

FRAYER: Buy products that embody that Hindu culture you don't want to lose. That's also Prime Minister Modi's message - that the Hindu faith is being diluted either by globalization, secularism or by immigrants, and thus we must protect it, cling to it, elevate it. Anthropologist Bhuvi Gupta says Modi and Baba Ramdev are both charismatic leaders who have managed to bring together religion, politics and commerce under a single banner of Hindu nationalism. Both are self-made from humble roots.

BHUVI GUPTA: Both of them, I think, are able to talk to a constituency that nobody has been able to speak to so far - not doctors, not companies, not traditional politicians. They are able to tap in to these sort of feelings of being left out by Indian modernity.

FRAYER: And they're also really good friends. Baba Ramdev campaigned for Modi when he first ran for prime minister in 2014. Once in power, Modi created a government ministry to promote Ayurveda. It gives loans to entrepreneurs and wellness centers and claims to have boosted the number of Ayurveda patients in India buy as much as 20 percent. But some scientists are a bit concerned because this isn't just lip gloss. It's also homeopathic medicine.

MEERA NANDA: The problem comes when you are actually suffering from diabetes or AIDS and then you're told that - stop taking insulin, and take our product. That is where the real problem comes in.

FRAYER: Meera Nanda is a microbiologist who's examined the efficacy of this. She says the Ayurvedic ministry has lax standards and not enough clinical testing. She wants government resources put toward conventional medicine for all.

NANDA: If middle classes feel comfortable with using their cow dung soap, it's their money. Given the sad state of health in India and complete lack of access to proper medical care, that's the best we can do for them. You know, that just - that breaks my heart - really does.


FRAYER: Browsing those shelves of cow dung soap in Mumbai is 60-year-old Geeta Jogi. She's a cancer patient filling her shopping bag with cow urine cosmetics.

GEETA JOGI: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: She believes these products are pure and hygienic, good for her health and also good for cows, who are kept in shelters, having their urine collected rather than going to the slaughter. It's like fair trade Hindu style. Jogi says these products make her feel good, and they make her feel Indian. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.