In October 2020, the Indian spiritual leader who calls himself Sadhguru posted a video to his Instagram account that seemed to cement his celebrity status in the West.
In it, Will Smith reveals that he’s been following Sadhguru for a while and praises his New York Times bestselling self-help book, Inner Engineering. The actor is now welcoming one of India’s most powerful gurus into his home so that his family can also be inspired by his spirituality. The video then turns to Sadhguru, who has pulled up on the driveway on a motorcycle. He’s dressed in a long tan-colored kurta, black salwar trousers, and white high-top shoes, his white beard fluffed out like Santa Claus. Like other celebrity gurus before him, he seems both foreign and familiar as he translates what often sounds like timeless teachings for our modern era. As Jagadish “Jaggi” Vasudev — the man popularly known as Sadhguru — asserts that the most successful people are the most miserable people and that we perpetuate our own suffering, Smith and his daughter, Willow, hang on his every word. “You’re a bad director of your own drama!” Sadhguru jokes with Smith over the dinner table discussion.
So it was no wonder that when Smith was spotted in Mumbai in late April, in his first public outing since he slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars, rumor had it that he intended to meet with Sadhguru. That was not true, however, because Vasudev has been preoccupied with his own affairs.
The self-proclaimed mystic is the founder of the Isha Foundation, a nonprofit spiritual center that houses a yoga center and claims over 300 offshoots around the world. He also has a radio show and a popular YouTube channel, and, earlier this year, stopped by Trevor Noah’s show and Joe Rogan’s podcast to discuss his latest environmental crusade, “Save Soil.” On June 21, he finished a 100-day motorcycle journey intended to continue to rally support for his environmental cause, which took him across Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East.
He has now recently arrived in the United States, according to an Isha volunteer who offered answers to questions for this story over email, where he is continuing to promote his “Save Soil” movement and conduct yoga-related programs throughout the month of July. The volunteer, who did not give a name and simply signed the email with “Isha Volunteer,” added they were coordinating more events in the US and Latin America.
In addition to his volunteers and celebrities like Matthew McConaughey and Andrea Bocelli, Vasudev has found a receptive audience among world leaders. At home, he’s welcomed accolades from India’s right-wing Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, and just this month he tweeted a photo with former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. He has also spoken at Google, Microsoft India, the World Bank, World Economic Forum, and in May addressed the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.
When he’s not appealing to the world’s most powerful, he’s among the biggest influencers of internet culture: Vasudev sat down with YouTuber Logan Paul and a group of Paul’s friends to discuss relationship problems and life’s meaning, wearing overalls, sunglasses, and a cowboy hat. Paul introduced Sadhguru as “one of the most prominent, most-viewed spiritual gurus in the world,” and left Vasudev chuckling when he insisted this means Sadhguru has the answers to everything. Even as his professed expertise spans from yoga to the climate crisis, Vasudev maintains that he knows nothing. He acknowledges he has never consulted any ancient scriptures. He says his name, Sadhguru, is a description of an “uneducated guru” — although those who know Sanskrit might gather that Sadhguru, as his name’s meaning suggests, is the “true guru.”
With this persona, Vasudev has attracted 8.3 million Instagram followers and 3.9 million Twitter followers, making him more popular on these platforms than motivational coach Tony Robbins or self-help writer and former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. His TikTok account, obviously intended for his fans outside of India, where the platform is banned, showcases how he transitions between different identities: preaching sage wisdom while wearing robes and a turban; strolling through farmers markets in cargo pants and sunglasses; riding his motorcycle through a sandstorm, beard flapping in the wind.
It seems only fitting, in an era of creator culture, distrust of authority, climate anxiety, and a highly individualized approach to spirituality, that an articulate leader who acts like a rebel among gurus would attract a global following. Still, spiritual gurus have always attracted suspicion, and Vasudev is no exception. His critics argue that Vasudev is merely pulling publicity stunts for his own self-promotion, and, as an ally of Modi, who has endorsed highly controversial policies against Muslims, peddling Hindu nationalism under the guise of a Western Orientalist fantasy.
Looking at Vasudev from a historical context, though, it’s clear that he has brought guruship into the 21st century, says Tulasi Srinivas, a professor of anthropology, religion, and transnational studies at Emerson College and the author of Winged Faith, a book on how gurus go global. Whereas previous celebrity gurus often struggled between professing asceticism yet embracing materialism, Vasudev’s spiritual philosophy evades this classical problem by pivoting away from it. “You can be surrounded by everything, and you can be a real spiritual seeker,” is his mode of thinking, says Srinivas. “He’s a neoliberal guru for neoliberal times.”
Born in 1957 to an affluent Telugu-speaking family in the South Indian city of Mysore, Vasudev follows a line of famous gurus who entered the global scene in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They emerged from a South Asian context, and often a Hindu cultural context, but that didn’t necessarily mean their theologies were Hindu, says Amanda Lucia, a professor at UC Riverside who studies gurus. “Oftentimes, they have created their own theologies that are unique and personalized, sometimes established in opposition to brahminical Hinduism,” she says. “It was a job opportunity that arose through empire in the West.”
Two of the most well-known gurus of that era were Swami Vivekananda and Paramhansa Yogananda, both of whom were reformers responding to Christian and colonial pejorative understandings of Hinduism as “heathenism.” Both subsequently developed followings and centers in the US. But other gurus, especially during the period between World War I and World War II, were also capitalizing on the curiosity, naivete, and sometimes Orientalist thirst in the West for the spiritual teachings of India.
They operated on a spectrum, says Philip Deslippe, a PhD candidate in religious studies at UC Santa Barbara. Some had sincere backgrounds and came to spread their faith while others boasted fake credentials and exploited the power they had over their believers to earn a white-collar salary. “The gurus from 100 years ago, the ones that became most popular, they had an infrastructure,” Deslippe says. “Yogananda had a tour manager. Yogi Hari Rama, who was a really popular one in the late ’20s, had an agent.”
Vasudev is no different: During his nearly three-hour interview with Rogan in March, he said his Isha Foundation is run entirely by 5,600 full-time volunteers and over 16 million part-time volunteers. They also operate its various social media accounts and are behind his appearances around the world; as Rogan noted, Vasudev’s team reached out to his podcast.
Like his predecessors, Vasudev supplies answers to seekers while actively cultivating followers. In the 1960s and ’70s, as interest in Eastern spirituality became enmeshed in the American counterculture movement and Westerners flocked to India to figure out the meaning of life, gurus who had significant followings within India jumped to become global gurus, says Srinivas. After US immigration policy opened in 1965, they traveled to the US, matching their ideas and philosophies to the mood of the moment.
Among them were men like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who developed Transcendental Meditation and famously attracted the following of the Beatles; Prabhupada, who founded what is commonly known as the Hare Krishna movement; Muktananda, who established Siddha Yoga ashram and meditation centers; Amrit Desai, who founded the Kripalu Yoga and I AM yoga brands; and Rajneesh, whose notorious commune in Oregon became the source for the Netflix series Wild Wild Country.
A string of scandals involving sexual abuse, financial impropriety, murder, and even bioterrorism followed them. Critics became disillusioned by the nefariousness and allegations associated with gurus as others argued such criticisms perpetuated stereotypes about the “oversexed Oriental man.” These views continue to haunt the figure of the guru.
In India, gurus have amassed devotees for centuries, if not millennia. Not all are celebrity gurus, not all are charlatans, and not all are men. But murkiness around sexual power dynamics and money often surrounds them, as well as the belief that modernity has corrupted the traditional guru-disciple model and replaced it with business and politics. To this day, gurus and politicians typically have a symbiotic relationship — gurus for the access and benefits they might obtain from politicians, and politicians for the influence gurus can exert over potential voters, according to Srinivas. “Most of them were self-professed gurus, but they had some demonstrable power by which audiences were converted to devotion,” she says. In modern times, some of them have even proclaimed themselves to be actual gods on earth.
It’s from this context that Vasudev emerged to become Sadhguru — and every guru has their origin story and particularities. According to the book Sadhguru, More Than a Life — which is not a biography but “a subjective account of one man’s life journey,” its author Arundhathi Subramaniam warns — Vasudev was hardly spiritual or religious growing up. He avoided going to temples and instead consumed National Geographic magazines and English-language films.
He started practicing yoga when he was 13, after he says he saw an old man leap into a well over 150 feet deep and scramble out faster than any child could, thanks to yoga. Yoga for Vasudev remained a physical practice. As he grew older, his physical instincts extended to motorcycling, and he passed his time running around with fellow motorcycle fanatics. After he earned a degree in English literature from Mysore University, he worked on a poultry farm. It was around this time, according to Vasudev, that he started meditating.
A turning point in his life occurred when he was 25, he has said. He rode his motorcycle up a hill in Mysore and was resting when something came over him: “Suddenly, I did not know what was me and what was not me. I was spread all over the place. Every cell in my body was bursting with a new, indescribable level of ecstasy,” he wrote. “I thought this madness lasted for five to 10 minutes but when I came back to my normal way of being, four and a half hours had passed.” Never much of a crier, he started weeping. It was, Vasudev now asserts, his enlightenment.
Over the next six weeks, the same thing happened again and again, he claims, even lasting as long as 13 days. He then withdrew for a year. Afterward, he has said, he began teaching yoga to share what was transpiring within him. He started garnering a following, and a decade after his declared awakening, in 1992, he established the Isha Yoga Foundation.
As Sadhguru, Vasudev espouses a New Age kind of philosophy that reads as wisdom for surviving on the terms of a neoliberal, capitalist world. Its emphasis on individual responsibility without much regard for the systems one is a part of isn’t uncommon; self-help is often perceived as the polar opposite of social change. In focusing on how to actualize your life and potential, his teachings also resonate with manifesting culture. “Destiny is what you create for yourself. Fate is when you fail to create your own destiny,” Vasudev says.
Urban and English-speaking Indians who might consider themselves secular are among his core audience. And in targeting today’s global seekers, he speaks frequently about ego and incorporates the language of Silicon Valley and technology. He says karma is just an “unconscious software” we’ve written ourselves, for example. “Inner Engineering” is not only the name of one of his books but also the moniker of his foundation’s flagship yoga program.
Vasudev’s embrace of the media helped launch his popularity, according to reporting in the Indian watchdog news outlet Newslaundry; he quickly went from penning a spiritual column in a Tamil weekly to launching his own magazine to hosting a half-hour talk show with celebrities in his ashram’s headquarters. The show evolved into an in-house production for the Isha Foundation, whose famed guests further surged Vasudev’s notoriety; journalist Barkha Dutt and filmmaker Shekhar Kapur were among them.
At the same time, his appearances abroad — including speaking at a United Nations convention of religious and spiritual leaders in 2000 and giving interviews on the links between spirituality and economics at Davos in 2006 — helped grow his reputation outside of India. By 2006, the Isha Foundation had established a North American branch based in Tennessee. A dozen years later, Loyola Marymount University even bestowed upon Vasudev an award for being a “bridge-builder” between cultures.
Fans were intrigued by this suave, striking, English-speaking and motorcycle-riding guru whose rhetoric seemed to capture the cultural zeitgeist. Controversies and conspiracy theories have surrounded Vasudev, too. The Isha volunteer who responded to Vox’s questions on specific allegations denied or disputed them all.
Among them are accusations that his style of yoga was “taken” from his own guru, Rishi Prabhakar, and that the 1997 death of his wife, Vijji, was suspicious. (Her father even filed a police complaint questioning whether she was poisoned; the complaint indicates that a doctor certified that Vijji died of a heart attack. Vasudev maintains that Vijji died of “mahasamadhi,” a yoga state wherein a person chooses to consciously leave their body).
Critics also accuse Vasudev of misogyny for his commentary on gender roles, such as saying that women are “unfortunately” trying to be like men in the name of feminism, and for promoting pseudoscience and superstitions. His proclamation that a Hindu festival was not religious but coincided with the “astronomical phase of the planet,” for example, attracted the ire of the Astronomical Society of India, which said such a thing didn’t even exist and warned its followers on Twitter not to believe Vasudev’s pseudoscience. Similar to other new religious movements, including gurus, some parents also allege their children have been “brainwashed” and “held captive” by the Isha Foundation. The Isha Foundation has denied these accusations.
The foundation’s 150-acre campus, which includes dozens of structures and an artificial lake in the foothills of Tamil Nadu’s Velliangiri Hills, has also attracted suspicion. Vasudev’s mission is largely about the preservation of soil and the environment, but a 2021 investigation in Newslaundry alleges he built his foundation in an ecologically protected forest, where it’s said the crush of devotees has forced native elephants to reroute their migration paths.
Despite legal scrutiny and court battles activists and environmentalists have levied against Isha, in 2017, Indian Prime Minister Modi inaugurated a 112-foot statue of Lord Shiva at the Isha Foundation. By 2020, records indicate forest authorities who had previously acknowledged man-animal conflict due to the illegal construction suddenly changed their description of the area so that it was no longer designated protected land — thereby making what was once illegal legal for Vasudev.
In India, where such corruption is common, the situation seemed “neither normal nor abnormal,” says Prateek Goyal, who reported the Newslaundry investigation. What’s more damning is that the popular foundation’s finances are mostly a mystery. According to a recent article in Vice, however, Indian records indicate that from 2015 to 2018, “Isha Education” received $1.74 million from Tamil Nadu’s education department, and that from 2014 to 2017 “Isha outreach” received over $38,000 from Tamil Nadu’s department of agriculture. Between 2016 to 2018, Isha outreach also received over $16,000 from UNICEF. The Isha volunteer who responded to Vox’s questions says “small donations from a large number of individuals who have benefited from the programs” account for much of its revenue. But some people who have purchased spiritual retreats and yoga packages allege Isha tries to write off receipts as “donations” to evade taxes, based on their own experience of receiving such receipts. The Isha Foundation has denied this as well as other allegations it says are slanderous and due to “fake news, paid media and social media.”
In the US, Isha Foundation Inc. is a registered nonprofit whose total revenues were $25.4 million in 2019. There are no publicly available tax records for 2020 and 2021. In response to questions about the missing tax records and Isha’s financial structure and revenues in the US, the Isha volunteer wrote: “I don’t have that information since is handled by another team within the organization, but I can certainly share that during the pandemic the US Center (Isha Institute of Inner-Sciences) was closed due to Health and Safety measurements taken by the foundation.”
Vasudev’s environmental initiatives, including his current movement to draw attention to soil degradation with “Save Soil,” are another source of contention. He previously ran a campaign to save the 500-mile endangered Kaveri (also sometimes spelled Cauvery) river between the southern Indian states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, which is a frequent source of water disputes. Scientists and environmental groups in India criticized the campaign as vague and overly simplistic for its focus on tree planting and failure to address the root causes of river degradation. Some scientists also argued tree planting would worsen the situation since certain trees soak up massive amounts of water. At one point, Leonardo DiCaprio endorsed the campaign; over 90 environmental and rights groups subsequently wrote him an open letter warning him his support was ill-advised.
A similar criticism hovers over Vasudev’s soil movement. Prakash Kashwan, an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut who focuses on politics and the environment, says it amounts to a celebrity photo opportunity disjointed from the reality of implementing policy on the ground. “You sort of take eyes off of what is needed to do environmental regulations under the present circumstances, especially in large and complex societies such as India and many other Global South countries,” he says. “A lot of people don’t get this because the underlying assumption is that the environment is being destroyed because of ignorance. But ignorance is not the problem.”
Perhaps most vexing about Vasudev to his critics, though, is his politics. Some people in India charge he’s the face of “soft Hindutva,” the ideology underpinning Hindu nationalism, and is the “spiritual henchman” of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party, the BJP. The Isha Foundation regularly releases content that addresses these concerns, including videos like “Does Sadhguru support BJP?” and “I am more leftist than you think.”
While Vasudev insists he’s not a fan of any leader or political party, he has praised Modi’s work ethic and says he supports India’s ruling party insofar as it’s the government in power. He has endorsed a number of BJP initiatives, including Modi’s 2019 stripping of Kashmir’s autonomy (in fact, he insisted Modi do so months before it happened), and the citizenship amendment act that excluded Muslim refugees in India from a fast-track path toward citizenship (when hundreds of thousands of Indians were protesting it, Modi tweeted Sadhguru’s support, which Sadhguru admitted he gave without even reading the act). From wishing each other happy birthday on Twitter to appearing in photo opportunities and lauding each other’s work, they exemplify the strategic alliance between gurus and politicians. Vasudev has also welcomed support from hardline Hindu nationalist leader Yogi Adityanath, who has praised his soil movement.
Following in the rhetoric of nationalists, Vasudev similarly rejects the concept of “Hinduism” and uses the words Hindutva and Hinduism interchangeably. His incitement of nationalism at times nudges at Hindu insecurity. When asked his opinion about a conference last fall on dismantling global Hindutva that aroused the fury of the Hindu right, for example, Sadhguru laughed at why people were so concerned about what professors at American universities were thinking and argued they should be paying more attention to how “dismantling Hindutva” is happening in their own towns and villages in India. If Hindus worked on eliminating discrimination based on caste and creed, Sadhguru continued, then more people would be attracted to the Hindu framework, and it would never be dismantled.
Yet compared to other modern-day figures who have posed as spiritual leaders — including those who have been convicted of rape and murder; were found upon their death to have hoarded stashes of gold, silver, and cash; and whose spiritual and retail capital seem even more inextricable from Hindu nationalism — Vasudev may seem relatively less corrupt. As a global guru whose Hollywood followers turn their eyes away from such controversies and politics, Vasudev benefits from the way they prop him up in their quest for a spiritual home. The fact that he is a persona that has appeared in the US time and again makes him familiar enough to be acceptable, yet different enough to be alluring. However, that he can create and put on various identities — including ones where he is arguably self-Orientalizing — perhaps says more about the way Westerners seem to want to continue to grasp spirituality.
“In my mind, it is remarkable that the same kind of persona continues to work for an American audience the way that it does for well over 100 years,” says Deslippe. “Indian man with a head covering and flowing robes is the vessel for timeless wisdom. And it still works. It’s kind of astonishing.”
Even if Vasudev is operating within the well-worn grooves of guru engagement, we would all be wiser to investigate the lines between the man and the myth instead of welcoming Sadhguru, or any guru, with blind faith, says Pranay Somayajula, a spokesperson for the progressive Hindu organization Hindus for Human Rights. “We don’t have control over the fact that the West loves to have a sort of Orientalist romanticized image of Indian spirituality, whatever that means. But what we can control is which sort of voices and narratives we’re uplifting when the media is catering to that.”
Vasudev, it seems, plans to stay in the public eye. As the volunteer put it, “Sadhguru never stops, he truly just keeps going in the most graceful way.” And so we’ll likely see more and more of him — promoting questionable environmental actions on podcasts and TV shows, talking about self-reliance at conferences and summits and fashion weeks, popping up on panels and red carpets — as powerful global circles welcome and accept him as a guru.
This story was originally published on July 18, 2022, on Vox.com.