Sunday, July 09, 2006

Indian businesses turn spiritual

By Marianne BrayCNN

Monday, September 26, 2005; Posted: 8:52 p.m. EDT (00:52 GMT)

MUMBAI, India (CNN) -- Dressed in a white "kurta," guru Mukesh Jodhani addressed nearly 30 followers sitting cross-legged on the floor of an apartment in the upper-class central Mumbai neighborhood of Villa Parle East.
Formerly a chemistry teacher at a Mumbai college, he now takes classes at the Art of Living Foundation, a non-profit organization that is one of India's most sophisticated spiritual groups.
That balmy August evening he had just finished teaching "Sudarshan Kriya," a lesson of "healing through breathing" to release toxins and clear the mind.
"Where you feel silence inside, can you feel the silence outside?" he asked, after some of his pupils described seeing elephants and faces they didn't recognize before finding peace as they inhaled to the sounds of "soooooo" and exhaled to "hummmmmmm."
As parts of India's economy boom, and competition becomes more intense at work and at school, more and more businesses and corporate workers are turning to spirituality to find their peace.
The business has become so big in India it's rare to escape from it as the "Old Age" wisdom of yogis and gurus has morphed into a less religious but more universal "New Age" movement of yoga and meditation for the masses.
Businesses now send their workers to spiritual gurus, newspapers write articles on how to find inner peace, clients book in for Ayurveda massages, celebrities consult personal gurus and hospitals offer alternative therapies.
"People are stressed out in their day-to-day life," Jodhani said, after his followers had left.
"There are lots of desires, lots of expectations of others and goals to achieve."
In 1991, cable and satellite television arrived in India. The nation of more than one billion people became increasingly exposed to lifestyles from every part of the world.
"Before then salaries were very low, goods and services were very limited, people didn't aspire very much to money, there was not much upward mobility. If you were born into the middle class you were reconciled to the middle class," says Suma Varughese, editor of the spiritual magazine Life Positive.
"Now there is tremendous mobility, the middle class have a real chance of becoming rich, there's an amazing amount of foreign goods, while the poor have fallen out of the whole thing."
Wealth once was considered less appealing in India than simple living and high thinking. Today, however, a new materialistic edge has seeped into India and with it a growing consumerism, experts in the field say. While the materialism is in some ways facing off against the spiritualism, it is also creating a wealth that allows the leaders of the economic boom to pay for their peace and guidance.
'I can handle it'
Ajay Bagga, 37, was among the first generation of stressed-out Indians leading the way into the 21st century.
At 27, he says, he was among the youngest vice presidents of Citibank, and ran India's biggest branch. But, he says, he was not pleasant to work with.
"I would chew everyone up in sight," says the Mumbai-based Bagga, who is now starting up a mutual fund with the government of Singapore.
"I was aggressively demanding and would lose my temper at small things."
After attending a course where he learned how to use his breathing, he says he is much more balanced and reflective, and in a country where the rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer are rising, his blood pressure has returned to normal.
Every day he gets up at dawn to practice 20 minutes of breathing and when things heat up at the office he watches his breath and thinks: "This too will pass, I can handle it."
The Art of Living Foundation says it is running more courses to cater to people who work for companies such as GE, Citibank, Hewlett Packard, and Tata, teaching them "serene dynamism," a centered and focused state of being they say is more productive than being stressed.
In the commercial capital of Mumbai, the number of corporate classes has jumped from around 70 per year since they started in 2000, to 100 last year, according to Balvinder Chandiok, an Art of Living Foundation course teacher.
Top managers are charged $360, while workers on the lower rungs of the ladder pay $180, with the money going to fund the group's charitable works.
Global software company Flextronics is just one of many companies now sending their workers to gurus for enlightenment.
Personnel manager Aadesh Goyal has worked in the field for 20 years, taken nearly 100 different training programs, but he rates The Art of Living's corporate course as the "most powerful."
During four years, 2,000 workers have completed the three-day program, and most rate it 4.5, he says, adding he finds people are calmer and easier to work with afterwards.
"We are in a 24/7 environment with lots of customers in the U.S. and Western Europe, working the graveyard shift," Goyal says.
"People say don't worry, you'll deal with it, but we never learn how to deal with stress, how to get out of it, how to become happy."
With such a demand to revive those who are burned out, or to fill a vacuum in the psyche of India's people, experts say there is much scope for exploitation.
Internet users can download a dose of spirituality online, longevity doctors tout the latest technique, stores sell spiritual foods, clothes, tapes and books, and Western-style televangelists preach into the comfort of living rooms.
"Because of the peculiarity of the times and the unprecedented surge in materialistic ambitions, even the people who are moving into spirituality are not completely pure," Varughese says.
"Many of them have converted into marketing and market driven activities, charging quite heavily for their programs, which or may not be appropriate. This whole movement is tinged by the times we're living in."
But that, she says, should not detract from searching for a higher way of being in times of contradiction and conflict.

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