Inside the app and social playbooks of Indian godmen

Nilesh Christopher February 4, 2019 14 min

When I landed at the Art of Living ashram on the outskirts of Bengaluru to interview their technology team, I never would have guessed that I’d be spending the rest of my evening with volunteers who had left behind top-notch careers for their guru.

An ex-Yahoo engineer Janakiram Koka, a former software consultant with the US Federal Reserve’s IT department Sushil Nachnani, and an erstwhile investment actuary at Xerox in the US Arjun Singh, are a few of the big kahunas of the Art of Living digital team who enable everything technology for the ashram. From online payments to ecommerce, mobile application development to digital content and social media management.

I spent close to three hours quizzing them on their philosophy, work culture and the technology work they have done for the ashram over the past decade. What caught my attention was their latest social-media project – Elyments.

Today, “India doesn’t have its own social media presence at the global stage. Like a WhatsApp, Facebook or Instagram. We wanted to have something that would boost our economy and put us up on the world map, up there with others,” said Neha Mrig, one of the core-team members behind the creation of Elyments. “The idea is to consolidate all of (social media) and enable peer-to-peer UPI payments on the platform.”

Yes, you heard that right: a world-beating, super app built from the Art of Living digs on Kanakapura Road, some 25 km southeast of central Bengaluru.

The AOL digital team is currently beta-testing its WeChat-like superapp, Elyments, to rival the hegemony of the western social-media giants. It is scheduled for release to the public in March.

Distributed tech chops (from left): Janakiram Koka, Arjun Singh, Neha Mrig, Sushil Nachnani, and Mantas Karanauskas (from Lithuania).

The ashram has a newly released ‘Art of Living’ mobile app as well, the first subscription-based spiritual app in the country. The one-stop-shop for paying devotees to get Ganesh Sharanam lyrics, knowledge talks by the guru, chants, videos and ebooks that users can access for free for a week from the date of subscription.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the supremo of the $200-million Art of Living (AoL), is only the latest spiritual leader to have platform ambitions. Isha Foundation’s Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev and yoga guru Baba Ramdev, too, have their own digital platforms and social media omnipresence promoting both their ideologies as well as their spiritual offerings and products.

The popularity of the Big Three varies drastically across different social media platforms. Ravi Shankar has one of the biggest online followings on Twitter with over 4 million followers, twice that of Vasudev. The Isha guru has the largest following among the three on YouTube (over 2 million) and Instagram (nearly a million). Ramdev has about 10 million followers on Facebook, twice as much as Ravi Shankar and Vasudev.

Social media apart, godmen all over are focused on consolidating their outreach efforts on apps, often combining ecommerce and spirituality in an approach somewhat resembling the double bottom line philosophy of social impact startups. Even Pope Francis, head of the Catholic church, introduced an app in January, ‘Click To Pray’ that allows users to post prayer intentions, view other prayer requests and track how many Catholics around the world have prayed for their request.

Social media gurus

The influence of spiritual gurus and self-styled godmen over Indian society is well-known. Their sphere of influence often extends beyond their ashrams, sometimes even to the upper echelons of the government, judiciary and parliament. While some quarters of society argue this to be an unhealthy obsession, what is undeniably evident is the clout enjoyed by these sages of the modern age.

With the rise of handheld devices and the pervasiveness of the internet, these tech-savvy yogis are investing in establishing their clout online. This has resulted in the creation of in-house technology, social media and creative design teams with scores of employees working full-time at these ashrams.

Vasudev’s Isha Foundation has amassed millions of followers online across websites, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, mobile apps, and even a voice skill on the virtual assistant Amazon Alexa. The Foundation has over a 100-member e-media team of volunteers, both full-time and part-time, that carefully curates and shares content across platforms.

This is the same team that developed four mobile applications for the foundation. Their names are meant to appeal to the audience to whom Vasudev sells his brand of yoga-based living as ‘inner engineering.’ Besides the Sadhguru app, the other apps are Yoga Tools from Sadhguru, Isha Chants, and Mystic Quotes.

The Sadhguru app has over 1 million downloads and offers videos, posts and podcasts for followers to consume. The app that was first released in 2012 also has regular updates on the various programs offered at Isha with detailed descriptions of the different kinds of ‘inner engineering’ courses offered. Users register and pay for programs like Guru Pooja, Shoonya and Samyanma through the app.

“This is so cool, having all the guided meditations right at my finger tips. I especially enjoy it on my way to and from my work… LoI, I used to dread that time soooo much, just sitting bored for 40min. don’t remember sticking to ANYTHING for this long regularly,” Dr. Urbanczik commented in the review section on the Android app store.

FactorDaily reached out to the communications team of Isha Foundation, but could not interview the tech team as they were busy with Mahashivratri preparation.

While reaching out to larger audiences is a universal ambition, the game gets more interesting when gurus move a step ahead and try to build their own technology products.

AoL’s yet to be released social-media app, Elyments, aspires to be the one-stop-shop for all the social media needs of its users. “You can share images, you can chat, you can do online banking, share disappearing images, and stay connected. You can do everything on one app,” said Mrig. Think of it as a superapp with Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Facebook, your bank’s app… everything rolled into one.

God’s own app

This begs the question on the motivation for a spiritual entity like AoL to create such a superapp.

The idea is “to have an India-based social media app that will operate in India and store all user data inside India,” Mrig said, adding, “We are very strict about data privacy and data security. There is no leaking of data to third-party.”

She was alluding to the 2018 Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal. The social media giant was pulled up by the US Congress for the illegal harvesting of the personal information of more than 50 million Facebook users by data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica for political purposes.

The risk of having American organisations handle the personal information of millions of Indians, and the gaping lack of trust in these firms to protect user data, is what birthed the idea of Elyments. “One of the main motivating factors for creating the app is all the controversy around Facebook,” Mrig said.

Elyments is seen as the fix. “Like how China has Wechat, we wanted to have our own superapp for India,” said Mrig. Besides, AOL already had its own internal social media platform ‘soulbook’ that they wanted to expand and reach out to the world, she added.

The Elyments website listing its features and inviting users to sign up for beta
The Elyments website listing its features and inviting users to sign up for beta

Not long ago, an outspoken critic of western capitalism, Rishikesh-based guru Baba Ramdev who sees his business competitors as moral enemies, introduced a swadeshi messaging service, Kimbho last year in May. The app pitted as the ‘WhatsApp-killer’ raked up close to 150,000 downloads almost immediately after it went live, but was proven to be a security disaster with researchers being able to read and access messages of all users. The app was taken down from Google Play store after this incident.

Ramdev built a Rs 10,000 crore fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) business Patanjali with the marketing badge of nationalism. The ‘swadesh’ alternative to the ‘videsh’ products of HUL, Coalgate, Unilever and Nestle worked in FMCG. But, in the first round of the apps game, Patanjali failed.

To be sure, Ravi Shankar’s and Vasudev’s apps are not the only show in town. Self-styled godman Paramashivam Nithyananda has had a resurgence in the recent past through his series of viral videos the most popular being the one where he tries to, well, stunt Albert Einstein and prove that E is not equal to MC square. “I just multiplied myself to 7 bn to assist each one of you the way you want. That is NLighten app,” he is seen saying in this video.

Three months ago, the guru launched his NLighten mobile application which has an eclectic mix of videos on parenting, health, relationships, integrity and the like. The app also has indicative videos on his secrets of opening the third eye, and multiple scanning techniques like blindfolded body scanning, blood group scanning, family scanning and such. The app allows users to register and pay for sevas and workshops that are priced between Rs.5000 and Rs. 70,000, with the most expensive ‘Sarvajna Peeta’ service priced at $200,000.

NLighten and NLighten app for kids by Nithyananda Sangha

“Please be alive for next three years, don’t die that’s all. I will reach you wherever you are through the NLighten App,” Nithyananda proclaimed during the release of the app. Most of the content on the app links to videos of Nithyananda.

Devotee Chaaya Bharadwaaj is an instant signee to Nithyananda’s app, though she said she used to watch his ‘oneness capsules’ on YouTube and Facebook. “I connect with Swamiji… I use YouTube content, other than specific problem-solution content,” she told FactorDaily. She picked out Nithyananda’s ‘Living Enlightened’ book as “the best management, lifestyle answers to all questions”. The app “is going to help me access what I do, more easily!”

The foundation also has a kids version of the NLighten app known as ‘NLighten for kids’ which has topics like mind reading, clairvoyance, remote view, body scan etc with videos of children doing different yoga poses. The app catering towards kids has a ‘daily integrity report with Paramashiva’ where users can submit a checklist of things done for the day. Swamiji Leela video watched, Pramana for manifestation of powers chanted and such. FactorDaily reached out to Nithyananda University for an interview, but in vain.

The spirituality playbook

The reason to get into new-age platforms and invest in technology is for two reasons “diversification and propaganda” said Goonjan Mall, founder of onlineprasad.com, which offers and home delivers prasad from 50 plus temples around the country.

There are two kinds of babas in Mall’s opinion. “One, the Ramdev Baba kind of a person who is a yogi-entrepreneur. He is trying to diversify a bunch. His major focus is Patanjali. His primary media outlet is the internet. The objective of Baba Ramdev is to maximise media and sell Patanjali,” Mall said.

The baba who shot to fame revolving his stomach on Sanskar TV has the Patanjali app selling ayurvedic medicine, natural food products, herbal home care, and such. Ramdev through Vedic Broadcasting Ltd owns Aastha TV and other key media channels.

Ramdev’s positioning of the mobile application which has 500,000 downloads, is differentiated from the likes of Ravi Shankar and Vasudev. Patanjali is an out-and-out e-commerce product discovery app with no spiritual content. Whereas, “If you look at Babas like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Sadhguru, the key objective is connecting with a wider mass audience (through their teaching),” Mall says.

The Patanjali ecommerce app with its product catalogue
The Patanjali ecommerce app with its product catalogue

The company has another, lesser know namesake for yoga-related content. FactorDaily reached out to Bluelupin Technologies, which created the content-only app for Patanjali.

“Both are official apps. One is informative app and other is e-commerce app. Bluelupin works as a technology partner with the Patanjali and has its own team,” said Ashish Srivatsava, chief executive of Bluelupin. “All the separate apps will be consolidated into one universal app (and is working on it).”

Patanjali has its in-house tech team, but “all the major platforms (including Kimbho) were developed by external companies like Bluelupin Tech. Social media is also external,” Srivatsava added.

The strategy at Isha is centred firmly around a youthful Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev. For instance, Vasudev’s mobile app has inspirational articles, videos, updates on his travel, links to his twitter feed showcasing his ‘wisdom nuggets’ and even pictures of him playing golf. It also has a list of click-baity videos with headlines like ‘Is time travel possible?’, ‘How to be ON all the time?’, ‘Is homosexuality against religion?’, ‘Why are youth drinking more today?’ and the list goes on.

Vasudev with over 1 million followers on Instagram has a very uninhibited, casual online persona sharing pictures of hugging a dog, riding his Ducati in the mountains, and sharing Instagram stories of his upcoming live interaction with Bollywood actor Kajal Aggarwal.

The Sadhguru app
The Sadhguru app

In Mall’s view, Vasudev is targeting the young. “If you see the kind of posts he is making on social media, it is for a very young generation. He is on a Ducati bike, he is talking openly about sex and the like. The idea is that he wants to connect with a wider audience base in their 20s, which is the Sadhguru space,” he said.

Ravi Shankar’s target audience is people in their 30s and 40s, insisted Mall. “You’d never see a Sri Sri in shorts or talking freely about sex,” said Mall. Ravi Shankar has over 350,000 followers on Instagram and posts less frequently than Vasudev.

Distributed, yet tight networks

How heavily are the gurus invested in tech? “They have been discussing for a long time about investing in a chat app and stuff. From 2015-16, both Isha and Sri Sri have been trying to enter the app space,” Mall said, but is unaware of the progress.

“In the front end it might look like ‘hey we are building an app company’…. from my interaction with spiritual gurus, the objective is to connect with their target audience. They are trying to create all the new age media where the current population is,” said Mall.

Resident tech smarts at AOL Foundation may give Elyments a stab at success. In the past, the foundation has been successful in creating a volunteer-run, for-profit technology organisation, and has made it into a success: Sumeru Software.

The company started in 2001 by Harish Ramachandran does software, security and banking solutions for clients such as Aditya Birla Finance, Axis Bank India and other MNCs. Ramachandran who is an AOL volunteer and a graduate from IIT-Bombay got together with few other AOL volunteers who decided they would “do exceptional work, make profits, fund the social projects run by Art of Living”, it says on its website.

“The idea is the company is not just for profits. Of course, the company has to self-sustain itself, but it is also for a cause, as well,” said Arjun Singh, head of design and marketing at Art of Living Digital, whose team built the recently released ‘Art of Living’ mobile app. The profits from Sumeru Software are directed towards service projects at AOL like river rejuvenation, teaching programs, environmental conservation etc.

The Art of Living subscription app

In fact, the technology arm of AOL, known as the Art of Living Digital is a part of the larger Sumeru Software team of 200 employees. AOL Digital has a 45-member team of software engineers, business analysts, testers, website operations, content, analytics, and the like who take care of the Ashram’s tech assets.

Another secret sauce for success is the access to experts for free with their volunteer network: From hosting servers in China to publishing content in India, AOL is run via a global network of full and part-time volunteers. This, they say, is their stronghold.

“We have so many people from so many different walks of life as volunteers, (which is an asset)” Nachnani, the ex-Fed Reserve consultant, said. For example, when AOL wanted to get into content delivery networks, Nachnani had people from Akamai come in and tell them what to do.

“Having access to all of that for free is great,” the ex-Yahoo engineer Koka said, adding, “AOL has volunteers from Google, Facebook, etc. who come in and tell the technology team about the latest trends. That is why we are able to have a small team and still able to make things happen.”

According to marketing consultant Karthik Srinivasan, it will be incorrect to see the current push by the gurus as segueing into technology. “Their primary objective is to reach large number of people. Ramdev having Aastha TV in early 2000s, you really can’t say they entered the television business. They just entered the most optimal way to reach large crowds,” he explained.

With the kind of attention people are giving to chat apps and Instagram today, it makes sense to build on these communication tools, Srinivasan added. “In the next few years, if moving to create a mobile game like PUBG will help them reach a larger people, I wouldn’t be surprised if they do.”


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