Spirituality today is both a booming business and balm for the soul, as growing numbers of people seek out educated leaders to show them the way.
The spiritualism of the past is passé. Current trends show that orange-robed holy men with ash-smeared foreheads are being edged out by a new brand of highly educated millennials like Dushyanth Sridhar, Swami Mukundananda, Dandapani and Mahatria Ra, whose followers not only run into millions, but are only increasing with time.
As the scope and demand remain massive — religion and spirituality in India is understood to be an approximately `2.5 lakh crore market (roughly $40 billion) — there are few explanations for the growth. According to the leaders, the business of wellness — yoga, meditation and mindfulness — is continuing to gain ground. And since spiritualism forms the backbone of these practices, it is consequently becoming more relevant.
While a couple of generations ago, people would accept religion and rituals without questioning them, in today’s world, people are keen to understand the science behind them, in a language that they speak. Amidst a slew of traditional gurus fighting off accusations of murder and sexual assaults, it is easy to see why the slow yet clear shift towards educated spiritual leaders is happening. The new-age gurus are able to speckle ancient wisdom with modern nuances to those longing for things less corporeal in a seamless fashion.
Swami Mukundananda is an IIM graduate from Kolkata, who left his successful career and joined the order of sanyas. After studying the Vedas, Indian and Western philosophy and Bhakti Yog, he is now the founder of Jagadguru Kripaluji Yog, a non-profit organisation in Dallas, Texas.
Similarly, Dushyanth, a BITS Pilani graduate, is now a public speaker who gives discourses on Hinduism and spirituality around the world. And while Mahatria Ra, a former software businessman has founded Infinitheism, an organisation that provides a platform for people’s transformation on material, emotional and spiritual pursuits, Dandapani, a former electrical engineer from Australia, is now a Hindu priest, international speaker and entrepreneur.
Their combined followers run into millions worldwide. Dushyanth Sridhar calls himself an Upanyaskar — a public speaker who narrates or elucidates on topics related to Sanatana Dharma around the world. He sometimes delivers his talks through harikatha — peppering storytelling with music or kathanrityam, incorporating dance. His aim is simple — to make his talks relatable, comprehensible and enjoyable.
Dushyanth is also a writer and has acted, written and assisted in Vedanta Desika, a movie on the life of Guru Swami Sri Vedanta (1268-1369). However, he explains why he does not refer to himself as a spiritual leader. “People do refer to me as such but I can’t do it. Spirituality is above discourses. I need more time to realise the spiritual potential in me,” he states.
There are a number of factors contributing to the growth of spirituality. The 33-year-old explains, “From time immemorial, people have been interested in philosophy and God but the path to it needs contemplation and meditation and an inordinate amount of time devoted to it. No one is ready to invest the time required. People want simple and quick answers.” He adds, “Today, things have become more accessible because of the Internet and social media. There is more awareness. For example, if there is a discourse at an ashram in India, a person can attend the session and interact via live chat from anywhere in the world.”
Dushyanth, who has learnt scriptures like Sri Bhashyam, Gita Bhashyam, Rahasya-traya Saram and Bhagavad Vishayam, adds that families earning a double income — which has seen a growth in the last 50-70 years — are also contributing to the trend.
“Problems are inevitable but humans have forgotten that if you are born human, you are bound to suffer. There is no human devoid of suffering. If someone has to get rid of job issues, and get rid of it quickly, they are advised to go to a certain temple, mosque or church and families today have the disposable income to spend on it,” he explains.
Also, when spirituality and religion are simplified, people begin connecting to it. Dushyanth shares, “We have spiritual gurus performing havans in Sanskrit but it is important to articulate the importance of such rituals. I have seen a lot of young people ready to follow rituals as long as the reasoning behind them is explained. If I can explain the rituals with reason, and in a reasonable way, people are willing to accept it.”
Swami Mukundananda on the other hand, has not only formulated Jagadguru Kripaluji Yog, which is in practise in the US and India, but also lectures at Fortune 500 companies and major universities throughout the world.
Speaking of his popularity, Swami Mukundananda says, “There are two current trends. While materialism has increased in the world, more professionals are also leaning towards spirituality and talks on divine wisdom. Westerners are deeply passionate about spiritualism but their understanding of yoga can be shallow. They see it as a beauty aid and a weight loss programme. But when some people want to go deeper, it becomes a launching pad for their spiritual journey, which is yoga for body, mind and soul.”
He adds, “Indians, on the other hand, are more practical. They want to know what is in it for them. How can they benefit from the Vedas? When I present the knowledge in the right manner, they can learn how to grow their wisdom.”
While the 60s and 70s saw a counter culture with a hippie revolution in full swing and moving away from social norms, people have since then gone back to their jobs and life in a normalised society. Swami Mukundananda explains, “That trend is no longer present. People now want knowledge to help them in their social, professional and family life. What is therefore necessary is for us to take the wisdom of our ancient scriptures and make it relevant in current times.” Dandapani, on the other hand, is a Hindu priest and an entrepreneur who speaks about self development. Of Sri Lankan ancestry, he grew up in Australia and after graduating university with a degree in Electrical Engineering, he left it all behind to become a Hindu monk under the guidance of spiritual leader Sivaya Subramuniya swami for ten years. After living a life of serious personal discipline and training at his guru’s monastery in Hawaii, he ventured out into the world on his own after his vows expired seven years ago.
With New York city as his home, Dandapani works with individuals, companies and organisations around the world, conducting training through workshops, retreats and exclusive coaching circles. Approachable, practical and funny, he, like Dushyanth, seeks to simplify the understanding of the mind and make spiritual tools practically applicable in everyday life. Dandapani says he speaks on a variety of subjects surrounding the topic of self-development. “Each of the topics comes with simple, practical tools that are applicable in every aspect of daily life and when practiced consistently, bring about change that can be sustained,” he explains. The interest in his talks is apparent — he already has a packed calendar, panning across Canada, Germany, United Kingdom, Germany and the US in 2019 — where he will share his insights and practical spiritual tools with top entrepreneurs and businesses.
In times of stress and anxiety in a modern world, terms such as meditation and mindfulness are rampant and Dandapani not only explains such terms but makes them relatable to his audiences while drawing from Hindu scriptures.
For example, while he speaks on awareness and consciousness, investing energy and overcoming anxiety, he also speaks of the four stages of man according to Hinduism. Some of his more popular topics include meditation and mindfulness, the 50-year-plan and life’s purpose.
“To create what you want in your life, learn first that there is a separation between awareness and the mind. Then, learn to consciously move awareness within the mind. When you can direct awareness, you can begin to direct energy, and when you can direct energy, you can manifest what you want in your life,” says Dandapani. Like Dushyanth and Dandapani, Mahatria Ra, born in 1965, is also a spiritual leader, aiming to better the lives of his followers through spiritualism.
Known as Mahatria by his followers, he has founded an organisation called Infinitheism, which seeks to help a person’s transformation on material, emotional and spiritual pursuits.
His site says that his method seeks to blend spiritual seeking with materialistic ambition to change the way spirituality is experienced. “His way of teaching which is experiential, contemporary and carefully woven with humour and wit inspires breakthroughs regardless of age, social strata or geographic boundaries,” say his followers, who include industrialists and entrepreneurs on the Forbes lists, opinion makers, award-winning musicians, sports persons, educationalists and students.
For more than 20 years, he has been enabling people to “embrace abundance in all aspects of life — personal, material and spiritual” through live events, public programmes, outreach initiatives, digital webcasts, books and videos. Mahatria has also published a number of bestseller books and as with the others, is known for his simplistic and yet powerful ways of communicating the highest wisdom to the regular man. His weekly webcasts that go live on every Sunday from 7 am to 9 am IST, is viewed by several thousands of people across countries.
His site further states, “His ability to expound in the simplest mode the most complicated aspects of life and his eloquence and finesse to spontaneously answer questions from any sphere of life on any forum — be it psychology, relationships, success, management or spirituality make him an awe-inspiring communicator. He is uniting a world that has been divided in the name of God and religion, through faith and love. Endowed with a deep connectivity to existence and enormous spiritual strength, he guides people to discover and deepen their faith.”
It further adds, “He has brought meditation to the common man, and in his presence, thousands have experienced the depths of silence. Mahatria is a constant revelation unto himself as well as life. He is a path breaker and thus a path finder.” Speaking of the rise of such stalwarts within spiritualism, Dushyanth explains why he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I wouldn’t wish it away as the education system is not robust in its value system. Schools and colleges are not able to instil the need for love and affection for one’s society. People like Rajat Kumar Gupta, who was the managing director of management consultancy firm McKinsey and Company was convicted for insider trading. He received an MBA from Harvard Business School and graduated with distinction but was still caught committing fraud. He is a prime example that questions the education system and the values they instil. On the other hand, if an uneducated grandmother tells a child how to behave with fellow humans, she has done her job well. So, yes, spirituality can help a person imbibe the right kind of values in a person.”
Dushyanth himself was born in a traditional Tamil household, with grandparents who were pious, learned and modern in their approach. Growing up, he learnt Tamil and Sanskrit as also read the ancient Hindu scriptures. He says, “I came from a typical Tamil Brahman family where the need to learn music and languages was a package. I always had an interest in public speaking and participated in mock parliaments and elocution during my school days, with the encouragement of my parents and grandparents.” The Vice-chancellor at BITS Pilani further fired his passion for public speaking by giving him the opportunity to speak on ancient Hindu scriptures at the institution. After graduating, Dushyanth started working at an MNC, while delivering lectures on spiritualism as a hobby. But as the demand rose, the number of hours spent delivering lectures surpassed the time spent at his job till it became difficult to keep both occupations going. Six years later, he quit his job at the multinational firm.
“There was barely anyone in India giving religious lectures. Today, my profession is continuing to keep me busy, peaceful and happy,” he says contentedly.
Defining the term spiritualism, Dushyanth says it is closely associated with the philosophy one affiliates with. In other words, it is a belief system that one associates with in oneself, and spirituality is the product. He also differentiates it from religion. “Spirituality does not show an external expression of one’s beliefs whereas religion does. One can say he wouldn’t want to be religious, but would like to be spiritual. I am of the opinion that spiritualism at some point should marry certain aspects of religion,” he explains. “This is because philosophy in itself is so open and vast, you would not know which aspects you can relate to. So religion steps in and helps you realise and probably reach the destination faster. Religion when followed sincerely, without hurting others can make things more peaceful and lead to harmony in oneself and society,” he adds.
Not surprisingly, Dushyanth’s YouTube videos have more than ten million views with content running into a thousand hours. He also organises religious tours to ancient Vishnu temples in association with a travel agent and they have together taken 2000 people to 200 temples spanning five countries in a five -year period. Says Dushyanth, “There is a need for spiritualism in urban areas and the numbers are likely to grow in the years to come.”