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India: Doubts over spiritual Yogi's environmental mission

Shabnam Surita
March 29, 2022

Jaggi Vasudev, the Indian spiritual Yogi also known as "Sadhguru," is riding a motorbike thousands of kilometers to raise awareness about soil degradation. But questions are being asked over the campaign's effectiveness.

Jaggi Vasudev, also known as Sadhguru, during a press conference on his book titled Inner Engineering: A Yogi's Guide to Joy
Vasudev's ride is part of his Save Soil movementImage: Vladimir Gerdo/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

Riding 30,000 kilometers (18,640 miles) on a BMW K1600 GT across 26 countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, Indian spiritual leader Jaggi Vasudev is on a mission.

Known as "Sadhguru" to his followers, Vasudev's ride is part of his "Save Soil" movement, which aims to spread awareness about soil degradation.

Over the past two decades, Vasudev's activities have received global attention and given him the status of a new age ecological influencer.

Vasudev's flagship platform, Isha Foundation receives support from the Dalai Lama, Leonardo DiCaprio, Deepak Chopra and Will Smith, all of whom help spread the word about his campaigns.

Environmentalists question Vasudev's impact

According to the Isha Foundation, Vasudev's awareness-raising approach is based on the idea of "ecology married with economy."

In a statement sent to DW, Isha said that Vasudev's journey to raise awareness about soil extinction will "engage with opinion leaders, government officials and policy makers."

"Marrying economy and ecology is about creating conditions where market-driven economic drivers end up helping ecological development rather than hampering it," the statement said.

However, critics of Vasudev's campaign say that it doesn't go far enough to engage with institutions or markets to enact change and is too focused on public image.

Prakash Kashwan, a professor who specializes in environmental governance, told DW "the campaigns that Sadhguru and celebrities run can contribute positively only if they are tied to institutional arrangements that hold public and private institutions accountable."

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In India, there were at least two instances when the state acknowledged Vasudev's campaign and announced policy measures.

However, Kashwan contends these measures seldom get materialized.

Indian environmentalist Leo Saldanha, who did critical research on a tree planting drive, told DW that a review of the public records of the financials of Isha Outreach showed that the foundation "spent nothing at all on planting trees from the millions they have raised abroad."

Isha disputed this claim, saying its volunteers planted "millions of trees" over the last two years with the "Cauvery Calling" project.

On engaging with institutions, Isha said that it is in "direct contact with governments and scientific experts to accelerate policy change."

It also cited several Caribbean nations that have signaled partnerships with Isha on soil protection plans.

The Save Soil campaign said aims to make "at least 3.5 billion people" or "60% of the global electorate" aware of the cause.

"Raising people's awareness and working with governments are tasks that complement each other, because without a groundswell of public support it is difficult for any government to implement policy changes on the ground," Isha said in a statement.

But the impact of these awareness campaigns on the environment is open to question. 

According to Saldanha, "to build soil health we need to build biomass. Which can only happen if we were to return to agroecological practices suited to particular agroecological zones." 

Agroecology is defined by the UN as a "holistic and integrated approach that simultaneously applies ecological and social concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agriculture and food systems."

This cannot happen as the Indian soil is "acutely carbon deficit," says Saldanha.

Vasudev's followers remain loyal

Australian neuroscientist Sumaiya Shaikh's interest in Vasudev was piqued when videos of him solidifying mercury went viral.  

Shaikh is the founder of AltNews Science, which debunks many popular myths shared online. She quickly refuted Vasudev's claims of having solidified mercury at room temperature.

However, criticism of Vasudev, no matter how densely packed with scientific explanation, doesn't seem to diminish the faith among his followers. "It really doesn't affect [me]," said Durba, a follower of Vasudev's. "Absolutely nothing."

Volunteer Kaninika is "overwhelmed and humbled to hear the success stories, achievements and fulfillment of the ecological projects undertaken by Isha Foundation" and said she doesn't have time for the critical stances of others.

Being on the beat with bees

This connection that Vasudev has managed to create with his ardent fans helps with long-term popular support of the ecological activities he promotes, irrespective of the critique. 

Sociologist Radhika Chopra, who studies South Asian masculinities, told DW that Vasudev had "inherited a lineage of someone who can restore lost spirituality and connections with the spiritual inner self."

"This lineage harks back to people like Mahesh Yogi and Osho. [But] he has also moved significantly away from this lineage and intertwined the discourse of recovered spiritual selves with the restoration of ecology," Chopra said.

Vasudev's public image takes precedence? 

Vasudev's image of an eco-influencer works in favor of his outreach model, which is becoming more active on social media. 

"There are some who use media with the genuine intent of promoting ecological wisdom and the precisely necessary environmental responses," Saldanha said.

And, given the unshakable faith that Vasudev's followers have in him, he could be on the brink of being one of the biggest influencers today.

Vasudev's biographer Arundhathi Subramaniam told DW that it is the "mix of the irreverent and the sacred" that 'Sadhguru' offers to his followers in a nonhierarchical manner that sets him apart from others.

Fact-checker Shaikh told DW that "there has to be meaningful will on his part to be active on the ecological front. And that could be a way of legitimizing all the other stuff that he is doing in India," Shaikh said.

By "other stuff," Shaikh refers to the accusations of illegal land-grabbing, kidnapping and murder that surround the public image of Vasudev in India.

As social media open up to environmental activism, this seems to work in the favor of his outreach model, which critics say further distracts from the responsibilities of interacting with institutions to enact change. 

The movement is a "dangerous distraction" from from the climate-saving work being done by other grassroots activists, environmentalist Kashwan said.

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Edited by: John Silk, Wesley Rahn 

Editor's note: This article has been amended to include comments from the Isha Foundation shared with DW after initial publication. The model of motorcycle was also corrected from Ducati to BMW.

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