Jag Venugopal's Blog

March 7, 2010

How To Be A Successful Swami

Filed under: India — Jag @ 8:29 pm

Of late, I have developed an interest in godmen from India. I’ve strived to understand the common traits they share, how they attract devotees, and build themselves positions of power and prestige. I call these common traits “the Swami business”.

The Swami business is a lucrative one. It does not require much by way of an education; in fact, the less the better, because you could weave a story claiming that were busy reading ancient texts and could not get a secular education. It does not require much infrastructure, and whatever is needed can be procured through donations. Finally, this is a business with a wide moat, in Warren Buffett’s terms. Indians have a huge and defensible monopoly on the Swami business — so there is no risk of the Chinese, Brazilians or East Europeans providing any competition. Every nook and corner of India is populated with Swamis who have large numbers of Western European and American devotees, willing to shower money and other earthly favors on them, in their search for salvation.

In my study of the Swami business, I have discerned quite a few patterns that are common to successful latter-day swamis, in search of fame, power, money, and the earthly things that come with these three. I have distilled them into 11 “best practices” for aspiring Swamis.

  1. Always build on an existing franchise: When a Swami bases his practice on an existing Swami or godman’s business, he can tap into the goodwill already existing for his spiritual “parent”. Even if the Swami whom you’re claiming spiritual descent from doesn’t quite see things your way, there’s nothing much he can do, due to the lack of intellectual property protection. There are quite a few examples of Swamis that have built their empires on someone who came before them:
    • One of the oldest and most successful in the Swami business, Sathya Sai Baba started off by claiming that he was the reincarnation of the original Shirdi Sai Baba. This gave him instant name recognition among the masses, and saved him enormous amounts of money in building his own brand. As time passed, his own brand equity exceeded that of his supposed previous incarnation.
    • Another example of a Swami laying claim to the Shirdi Sai Baba heritage is Kaleshwar. While he claims to be a mere disciple of the Shirdi Baba, he does not hesitate to mention and indeed, draw parallels to Shirdi Baba frequently.
    • A recent Swami who came to my attention is the grandly named Nithyananda Paramahamsa, who claims to descend from the spiritual lineage of Sri Ramakrishna and Mother Sharada. His attire is strikingly similar to Swami Vivekananda’s.
    • Of all the Swamis who appropriate established brand names, none is better than Gopal Baba, who uses both Shirdi Sai Baba and Sathya Sai Baba, claiming to be their devotee, and placing both of them prominently in the pantheon, with him as the third member. Why leverage the equity of only one brand when you can do two?
  2. Create a mythology surrounding your birth and early years: A Swami of ordinary birth is really no Swami. To enhance your prestige, your birth must have been a supernatural event — some Swamis claim to have fed this or that deity when they were growing up. Other Swamis claim that were very late talkers, and survived on air and water. Yet other young Swamis perfect the art of materialising candy from thin air. Whatever your personal story is, it must be compelling, and set you apart from the hoi polloi. At a very minimum, it must contain some sort of divine manifestation or revelation that attests to your holiness and work.
  3. Be attired suitably: Saffron robes and a turban are the preferred gear. They provide an aura of authenticity. Also, try to imitate your franchisor — witness Nithyananda Paramahamsa wearing a Vivekananda-style turban and robes. Gopal Baba wears both Shirdi Sai Baba style whites, replete with the latter’s unique headgear, and Sathya Sai Baba style saffrons. Kaleshwar disappoints here with a white pyjama-kurta. How un-Swami-like! Under no circumstances should the Swami appear in any attire other than those mentioned above. Such robes are primarily suited for a tropical country such as India, but even when traveling abroad to where the rich donors live, the Swami must sacrifice his comfort temporarily, for the achievement of higher goals.
  4. Build relationships with celebrities and the political class: A visit from a famous cricketer or film star is sure to get the Swami respectability and free advertising in the choicest of India’s magazines. Celebrity worship in india being what it is, the Swami can also count on the celebrity’s fans becoming ardent devotees. A special class to cultivate is the political. The clever Swami builds a network of politicians among all parties, so that no matter who is in power, the Swami’s interests are protected. Politicians are especially useful in making land grants for ashrams, and getting the Swami out of a bind, should they get caught indulging in un-Swami-like activities. In return, politicians obviously want blessings for success at the ballot box. Cultivating politicians from a wide spectrum ensures that no matter what, there are atleast some devotees of the Swami who are victorious and can deliver the goods. Befriending an IPS (Indian Police Service) officer or two is also helpful, in case the Swami gets entangled in a police case when the inevitable rivalries and palace intrigues emerge. Similarly with the Judiciary.
  5. Keep your theology vague: At some point, each Swami needs to form a theology. However, the more vague your theology is, the better. If people don’t understand what the Swami says, they respect him more because it must obviously be divine teaching that they can’t yet understand. In such situations, they pay to buy books, tapes, and attend lectures by the Swami. Important words are vibrations, energy, universe, cosmos, self, etc.
  6. Be secular: You’re going to be a Hindu swami, for sure. Otherwise you don’t have the cachet of authenticity (who would come all the way to listen to a Christian from India?). Additionally, make sure that you drop approving noises about all other religions. You don’t know where your clientele (a.k.a. devotees) are going to come from; why foreclose your options by disapproving of the religion they were born into? Especially make good noises about Christianity, stating what a good “teacher” Jesus was, and how his teachings are being twisted by this material world. The next point discusses why this is so important. It is important to acknowledge Jesus, but not the Bible, because verses such as John 14:6 get in the way of your claims to divinity.
  7. Build a large base of Caucasian European/American devotees: Making approving noises of Jesus Christ will ensure that you don’t frighten off your best paymasters: the liberal, white Europeans or Americans. While getting a good supply of local Hindus is all well and good, it is the westerners who will donate the large sums of money you need to build those grand ashrams, dispensaries, and colleges. Besides, remember that India until 1947 was a British colony. There are yet many Indians who associate significant superiority with pale skin. If you’re good for the Caucasians, the Indians will automatically fall for you. While some may argue that the slums of India, and virtually any part of Africa are where the need for service is utmost, don’t make that mistake – there is no money to be made among the slum-dwellers of India, or the poor Africans. To reiterate, Europe and America are the happening places.
  8. Pay close attention to Corporate Social Responsibility: Nowhere is CSR more important than in the Swami business. Spend some of your money in feeding the poor (thank heavens that India won’t run out of them anytime soon). Also, start with eye camps or other mobile dispensaries that will get you honorable mention in the Indian press. Your web site must be liberally sprinkled with pictures of doctors wielding stethoscopes and tongue depressors, to show the service you are providing humanity. As your empire grows, branch out into high schools, degree colleges, and finally, Engineering and Medical Colleges that carry your name. The demand for education being what it is, not only will you make more money from hawking admissions, but such colleges provide plenty of free advertising. They also allow you to dispense admission favors to the high and mighty, thus pulling them into your network. Having your own network of hospitals and educational institutions will provide a significant boost to your brand, while ultimately being no-cost to you (rich donors will build everything).
  9. Speak pidgin English: A swami who speaks clearly in English is immediately suspect. Where did he learn it? Did he go to school like the rest of us? On the other hand, a Swami who can hardly string together a coherent English sentence will have the masses straining to parse his every utterance. “Clearly, he was in the forests, studying texts written on ancient palm leaves. How would he have the time to study English”? Acquiring a smattering of Sanskrit wouldn’t hurt. Sanskrit sounds very Swami-ish to virtually anyone. Besides, if your Sanskrit is bad, no one would know unless they were a teacher of Sanskrit. It has no native speakers!
  10. Expand internationally: Visit your highest paying customers in their countries. Travel to Europe and America in the summer and fall is particularly pleasant. Leave the tropical countries such as Malaysia and South Africa for the winter months. Poorer countries, such as those in Africa and for that matter, Latin America are not worth visiting. Foreign visits enhance your prestige in the eyes of the Indian masses, and may help you land the odd industrialist in your list of devotees. You know you’re especially skilled when you count foreign heads of government among your devotees.
  11. Beware of the video recorder: The video recorder has been the nemesis of many an unsuspecting Swami. Notice, for example this controversy; and this. You need a security outfit similar to the US Secret Service to help you unmask sting operations. Sure it costs money, but your empire is at stake — don’t skimp on this. A security team in charge of each ashram will ensure that defecting devotees do not cause you damage, and no pesky Internet videos will destroy the enterprise you have so carefully built.


  1. Very accurate analysis! Hats off to you. Nithyananda used this model very well. Except that he used the ability to speak good English to his advantage and hooked NRIs like me who were attracted by his message and ability to communicate “Vedic” wisdom to Westerners and well educated people such as myself.

    Comment by Former Nithyananda Disciple — March 8, 2010 @ 12:11 am | Reply

  2. Nicely written , good read , Thanks

    Comment by Parthi — March 8, 2010 @ 6:20 am | Reply

  3. Excellent article. This must be required reading for those trying to get a break in this business.

    Comment by Amu — March 8, 2010 @ 9:21 am | Reply

  4. Well done.

    I would suggest a corollary to (7) — Donate money to the poor.
    This will allow disciples to justify your enrichment. When a concerned
    relative asks “how can you give so much money to this person?”, they can
    reply, “look how much public service he does”.

    Comment by raj — March 8, 2010 @ 4:46 pm | Reply

  5. Also would like to add another one may be titled as ‘Hand-Craft an Effective Resume’

    Swami should use fairy-tale or miracle stories to embellish the spiritual path he had undertaken. Stories like 360-degree vision, healing broken ankle with the energy field from ownpalm, entering into an challenge with an idol of Lord Ganesh (for example) saying, unless you eat my offering I will not eat or drink. Here imagination is a very needed skill of an aspiring Swami.

    Comment by soundar — March 8, 2010 @ 7:29 pm | Reply

  6. Suggestion(s) as to how to maintain good gross and net margins in the swami business would complete the recommendation, and set the stage for a stock offering (of the said business).

    Comment by K Ramesh Babu — March 10, 2010 @ 5:30 pm | Reply

  7. An important omission in the discussion is whether a (male) Swami should grow a beard or not. The answer is not simple. If a flowing beard, really flows, nothing like it. But what if the beard is just a straggly nest? What happens when the beard starts graying? How can a beard or lack of one be maintained when traveling? Should the disciples be required to grow a beard? Should they be required to shave? Or should they be given no instruction on the question? Does the answer depend on whether the Swami himself grows a beard or not? If the beard is to be trimmed or shaved off, who determines the date and time?

    Comment by turanga — March 10, 2010 @ 8:19 pm | Reply

    • You bring up a very important point. A Swami just ain’t a Swami without the proper amount of hair on the crown and chin.

      Comment by Jag — March 10, 2010 @ 8:30 pm | Reply

  8. Very well written! Hilarious and true.

    Comment by RS — March 11, 2010 @ 8:19 pm | Reply

  9. Build a membership drive (coin a suitable word – like shisyas etc) with clear targets for states/countries.
    Carefully recruit free manpower called shisyas/volunteers.
    If possible grab the properties of shisyas before they are admitted and make them
    penniless so that they get struck to your gang.
    Carefully brand them with unique robes and color schemes.
    Build barriers and hierarchy of failed seekers – who in turn will ensure new recruits are kept in the dark with few darshans. (thanks Dilbert)
    Plant people in meetings to send questions which will never get straight answers.
    Use phrases like “True but not true” “beyond reason” “uncomprehensible to rational mind” “ying yang” “Tao Zen Buddha etc”
    When you look at the free labour they get, billions amassed, free publicity, free travel and stay, Infinite earnings per share invested, schools of management from Harvard etc should start a course on Swamijiship (also known as CONJOB)

    Comment by prasadpn — March 19, 2010 @ 7:29 pm | Reply

  10. Oh, great…. there is only statement i can make of the author of the article… clever but too damn naive to understand reality…. if it feels good to write a few lines of analysis and gloat on people’s comments.. well.. you have it…god luck

    Comment by Kumar — May 29, 2010 @ 6:01 am | Reply

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