COIMBATORE, Tamil Nadu — For the people of Coimbatore city, Poondi village was once a quiet, scenic base camp enroute to the annual trek to the ancient Arulmigu Velliangiri Andavar Temple high up in the Western Ghats. On Shivratri, the Tamil Nadu forest department would issue special passes for a limited number of pilgrims to scale the hills and pray to Andavar, an incarnation of the Hindu god Siva.
Vellingiri Hill and Poondi lie in a fragile corner of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve (NBR). The region is the source of the Noyyal river, which feeds into the Cauvery, and a crucial linkage between the Boluvampatti and Attappady elephant corridors of the Western Ghats.
But the region, local say, has been shattered by the Isha Foundation set up by Jagdeesh Vasudev, a controversial “godman” who calls himself Sadhguru.
Now aged 62, Vasudev, who has millions of followers around the world, attracted the ire of many when he released a video justifying the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 2019. The act, passed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), makes religion a basis for acquiring Indian citizenship and deliberately excludes Muslims. Its passage has sparked protests around the country, as millions of demonstrators contend the new citizenship law violates the secular nature of India’s constitution.
In his video, which was retweeted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Vasudev urged protestors to read the text of the CAA — even as he admitted that he hadn’t read it himself. Many questioned why a so-called godman had been tasked with justifying a blatantly discriminatory law that the government was struggling to defend.
The answers, residents and activists allege, can be found in places like Poondi — where Vasudev’s political connections have allowed him to get away with violating environmental laws. In February 2017, for instance, Modi visited Velliangiri to inaugurate a 112 foot statue of Adiyogi, a Siva incarnation, despite vociferous protests by environmentalists and tribal rights activists who said the statue had caused irreparable damage to the region’s delicate ecology.
“Jaggi’s spiritual empire has come up in an ecologically sensitive pocket by devouring streams and lakes and destroying the elephant corridor. In that process, they have encroached and damaged our forest livelihood system too,’’ said M. Siva, convener of Velliangiri Hills Tribals Protection Society.
Vasudev’s seemingly symbiotic relationship with the Modi government offers an insight into how the BJP has tirelessly relied on influential voices — from Bollywood to cricketers, to social media celebrities — to whitewash the regime’s authoritarian right-wing agenda.
Vasudev’s comments on the CAA, these activists argue, have little to do with his views on citizenship and much to do with his sprawling spiritual empire in the once-pristine hills above Coimbatore.
“Jaggi is controlling the whole region using his clout over the BJP government at the centre and AIADMK government in the state,’’ said Advocate K. Kalaiyarasan, a civil rights activist based in Coimbatore.
A spokesperson for the Isha foundation has denied these allegations.
“In the case of CAA, Sadhguru has taken a stance for the unity and well-being of the nation and it was not at the behest of any particular political party,” the spokesperson said. “There’s nothing remotely political about what Sadhguru has said Needless to add, Sadhguru’s stance will remain unchanged regardless of which political party is in power in India.”
Enlightenment and Environmentalism
Jagdish Vasudev was born in Mysore in Karnataka, the son of an ophthalmologist. According to the Isha foundation, the so-called Sadhguru experienced enlightenment at the age of 25, while on a motorcycle trip to Chamundi, a mountain region located close to Mysore city. At 26, he started his Yoga classes and got married at 27. Sadhguru established the Isha Yoga Center near Coimbatore at the age of 36. In 1997, he began teaching Yoga in the US. The same year, his wife died under what his father-in-law said were mysterious circumstances.
The Isha Foundation spokesperson told HuffPost India that Vasudev has already stated his innocence over the allegations, maintaining his wife had attained Mahasamadhi (the act of a yogi intentionally leaving her body).
By 2000, his fast growing influence meant he attended the World Economic Forum to speak on inter-faith dialogue. In 2017, the same year that Modi inaugurated the controversial Adiyogi statue, the Indian government conferred the Padma Vibhushan on Vasudev.
In Velliangiri, locals say, Vasudev’s stratospheric rise has been accompanied by the ecological devastation of the surrounding hills.
“He may be a champion of environmentalism outside. But for us the natives of Coimbatore, he is the major reason for the large scale environmental destruction happening on the crucial Boluvampatti-Vellingiri region of Western Ghats,” said K Ramakrishnan, lead of Tamil nationalist organisation Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam. “Hitherto apolitical to win confidence of oligarchs, he is now emerging as a champion of resurgent Hindutva. In that process, he is even outsmarting Baba Ramdev.”
“He is pretending to be the champion of the environment only to divert public attention from the degradation caused by his own Isha Foundation,” said environmentalist Osai Kalidasan. “Inside the yoga centre campus, it has unlicensed constructions spread in over 13 lakh sq feet and they involve covered buildings, playgrounds and parking spaces. Paddy wetlands worth 4.29 acres were cleared for establishing the Adi Yogi statue alone.’’
The Isha Foundation’s yoga centre has countered these allegations saying all of its facilities have come up on private land and no forest land was encroached.
Kalidasan, the environmentalist, says the built-up and paved or hard surfaces in the Isha Yoga Centre (IYC) have replaced soft paddy wetland soil, negatively affecting the hydrology of the sensitive region affecting the flow of the Noyyal river.
“While building the statue and the rest of buildings, mandatory permission from the Hill Area Conservation Authority under Tamil Nadu Government had not been obtained,” Kalidasan said. “The IYC is spread over 150 acres of thick vegetation with waterfalls and rivulets which were earlier support systems of the environment.’’
In September 2019, the Isha Foundation announced Cauvery Calling, an initiative to rejuvenate the Cauvery river by planting 242 crore (approximately 2.4 billion) trees in the river’s watershed. The campaign, which asked for volunteers to donate Rs 42 to plant a tree, was endorsed by Hollywood star Leonardo Dicaprio. A subsequent petition, signed by 95 NGOs, urged Dicaprio to withdraw his endorsement.
Environmentalists have questioned the rationale behind the project, while others smell a rat.
“The Cauvery Calling initiative is a clear case of hoodwinking the people. As far as forestation for river revitalisation is concerned, a monocultural approach is the wrong thing to do and it is totally unscientific,” said environmentalist K Mohanraj. “He is adopting an unscientific way and the governments are simply following him.”
Mohanraj said that planting trees alone would not revive the river. “Grasses, shrubs and aquatic vegetation too have roles. This move involves little science and lots of publicity.”
One of the biggest setbacks to the campaign has been the withdrawal of the water rights activist Rajendra Singh, who initially appeared to back the project in a video produced by the foundation.
“I have rejuvenated nine rivers in my lifetime. I haven’t seen any of them rejuvenate with a missed call,” Singh said at a public rally in Coimbatore, criticising the campaign, which urged people to support the cause by leaving a missed call on 80009 80009.
“I can say this now after three months — this ‘Rally for Rivers’, is not for rivers. It is for the land, for money, for power, for fame and for name. What can they get out of this rally – that’s what this is about,” Singh said.
On January 7 2019, the Karnataka High Court directed Isha Foundation to disclose how much money it had collected for initiative.
“Creating awareness about river rejuvenation is a good cause, but it should not be done at the cost of forcing people to pay money. Under what authority are you collecting money from farmers?” asked the division bench led by Chief Justice Abhay Oka in response to a petition filed against Isha Foundation for collecting money from farmers to fund the initiative. “Where is the affidavit stating that you have not forced people to pay money?”
“Even spiritual matters have to be bound by law. In the name of spirituality, what all are you doing?” the court said, observing that the Cauvery Calling was not a registered society and was not authorised by the state or the Centre to collect funds. “Don’t be under the impression that if you are a spiritual organisation, you are not bound by law.”