Somebody with a lot of imagination put Baba Ramdev on the cover of a national news magazine performing the Prasarita Padottanasana, or wide-legged forward bend of yoga, and the Twitterati has not stopped taking unkind digs at him since then. The magazine justifies its cover with a story inside that describes how Baba Ramdev turned spirituality on its head to emerge as a political, economic and cultural super-brand. I am not his follower. I don't know how far this is true. But I like Baba Ramdev.
Ten years ago, before Patanjali Ayurveda took off and all he dreamed about was yoga, I interviewed Baba Ramdev in Mumbai. He was already a jet-setting swami who with the clever use of Aastha TV had taken yoga beyond the legendary BKS Iyengar, who was one of its foremost teachers in the world. That year he was to fly to the United Nations HQ in New York at the invitation of secretary general Kofi Annan to deliver a lecture on poverty alleviation, which was the theme of a UN conference. Before that, Baba Ramdev chose to spend a week in Mumbai conducting a six-day yoga camp at Bandra.
You want to know whether I read books, watch movies, listen to music? No, I don't... I can drive a car, very fast, but have not learned driving...
He was staying at some benefactor's high-rise in Pali Hill. I remember the lady of the house telling me, "Baba's needs are simple. He sleeps on the floor, he won't have tea or coffee, and he only eats fruits and drinks milk. We feed him as if he is God and I have soaked some badam in kesar for him tonight." Downstairs, a red carpet welcome awaited Baba Ramdev. It was past 10pm, and the plush apartment block was decorated with flowers and streamers and illuminated by fairy lights in his honour. A night cricket match was being played under lights to keep the residents awake. The women of the building waited in various states of nightdress with cell phones out to take Baba Ramdev's picture. I don't think we had discovered the selfie then. His flight to Mumbai was late.
When he finally arrived, Baba Ramdev clip-clopped into the room, delicately balanced on wooden khadavs, dressed in orange; a lithe and energetic man untired by the delayed flight and late hour. Ignoring the meal laid out for him, he came straight to me. In those days, it was said that Baba Ramdev charged ₹5 lakh for a personal consultation. I struggled to do the math: how much might my interview with him cost? But he was humble. He apologized for making me wait. "I couldn't make the plane fly faster," he joked. I discovered that he likes to laugh. And he does so heartily, throwing back his head, and running his fingers through his long hair and flowing beard.
[I possess] nothing but four sets of clothes, a kettle to warm water, two sets of khadavs, and a clock because I am always conscious of time...
Baba Ramdev struck the yoga note right away. "I treat my work like worship of god," he said, "and my yoga is 90% pranayam or breathing and 10% physical exercises. The pranayam is our body's software, and exercise is the hardware. This is the age of software. I don't work on a body's symptoms --the illness, aches and pains -- but on the body's systems -- the nervous, digestive, reproductive, skeletal and muscular systems. If I balance the systems with holistic treatment, the symptoms get taken care of."
"Is it safe for you to teach yoga on TV?" I asked. "Why not?" Baba Ramdev said spiritedly. "There are two types of knowledge. That which we get directly from the source, and that which we pick up indirectly. Don't you surf the internet for information and knowledge?"
I changed the subject. "What do you do when you're not teaching yoga?" I asked. Baba Ramdev considered the question shrewdly, head tilted to one side, the left eye squinting at me. "I have no time," he finally said, adding with a smile, "but you want to know whether I read books, watch movies, listen to music? No, I don't. The last movie I saw was Gandhi, My Father. And that too because a disciple had organized a show in South Africa. I didn't understand what was happening in the movie! I listen to music when driving. But religious and patriotic songs. Do you know I have many music albums of my own but have not had a single day's training in singing?" I didn't know. "And do you know," Baba Ramdev continued, in full flow now, "that I can drive a car, very fast, but have not learned driving?" I didn't know that, too, but I asked, "What about a driving license, do you have one?" Baba Ramdev dodged the question by saying, "I think I lost it!"
You want to ask if I have a mobile phone, na? No, I don't keep one. You can check my bag!
His devotees had crowded the Pali Hill residence and were waiting restlessly on the fringes, ready to dive for his feet. It was midnight. But Baba Ramdev hadn't finished with me. "Will you give the nation a message from me?" he asked. I looked at him uncertainly. "This country is a superpower," he plunged blithely ahead, "and the youth is our strength. If the country utilizes this strength properly and does not let it dissipate, India can go places. Yoga needs to be introduced in school. And there has to be spirituality in education. That is the need of the hour." He sprang to his feet then. I looked at him and asked, "Do you possess anything else besides your knowledge of yoga?" And Baba Ramdev answered with a wicked grin, "Nothing but four sets of clothes, a kettle to warm water, two sets of khadavs, and a clock because I am always conscious of time. You want to ask if I have a mobile phone, na? No, I don't keep one. You can check my bag!"