This Climate Guru Is a Celebrity in the US. In India, He’s Accused of Destroying a Forest.

Sadhguru, who was seen with Will Smith in 2020 and most recently with Trevor Noah, has been accused of illegal construction in a protected forest.

Recurring reports of wild elephants attacking people near a UNESCO World Heritage site, in the outskirts of a southern Indian city, piqued the interest of a young journalist. 

The attacks happened close to the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, one of the world's eight biodiversity hotspots and India’s largest protected forest – home to one of the world’s largest Asian elephant populations.

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It was 2012, and the journalist M Siva’s first instinct was to talk to local forest officials in Coimbatore city. They divulged nothing. Then he ventured into the forest by himself for eight months, trying to figure out why elephants were wandering out of their habitat. He witnessed over 50 elephants leave. Some attacked humans, many died in accidents. 

Finally, a Right to Information petition and its released official records – accessed and reviewed by VICE World News – led him to the truth. “The documents showed around 30 institutions built near and on forest lands without any approval, disturbing the critical elephant habitat,” Siva told VICE World News. “One of the biggest violators was Isha Foundation.”

If Isha Foundation doesn’t ring a bell, the man behind it will. Jagadish Vasudev, popularly known as Sadhguru, has 10 million subscribers on YouTube, 8 million followers on Instagram, and has been described as a “rock star guru”, a “modern-day mystic”, a visionary and an environmentalist.

Sadhguru visited Will Smith's home in Los Angeles in 2020. Photo: Sadhguru/Facebook

In March 2022, Trevor Noah hosted him in his talk show for his global #SaveSoil campaign, followed by a 2-hour interview by Joe Rogan. In 2020, Will Smith invited him to his Los Angeles residence, and the interaction went viral. 

The man with a flowing white beard, Indian attire and a turban on his head fits the Indian guru look perfectly, and jet sets across the world campaigning to save the Earth’s soil and imparting “spiritual” wisdom. He’s a regular face at global climate change events hosted by organisations like the U.N. and World Economic Forum. 

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In India, though, an army of environmentalists, activists and indigenous communities paint a contrasting – and problematic – picture of the world-famous yoga guru. 

“He’s not a guru, he’s a businessman,” said Siva, who is a member of Velliangiri Hill Tribals Protection Society. The VHTPS is an indigenous land and forest rights movement made up of hundreds of indigenous people and activists fighting against what they call “illegal encroachment” by Sadhguru on forest and tribal lands, and destroying a critical ecological hotspot.

Sadhguru jet sets across the world campaigning to save the Earth’s soil and imparting “spiritual” wisdom. In India, environmentalists, activists and indigenous communities paint a contrasting picture of the world-famous yoga guru.

His proximity to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), particularly Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, elicits closer scrutiny as his influence continues to grow and his “non-political” statements get more political. 

“The scale of his activities is nothing short of criminal,” said Siva, who claims he survived four attacks for  “investigating Sadhguru”. “Many tribal people are facing various kinds of intimidation for speaking up,” said Siva.

In recent years, many in India saw cracks on the otherwise calm and collected facade of Sadhguru’s much-publicised international appearances. These cracks deepen especially when he is asked about allegations of misconduct in India. Earlier this month, Sadhguru ordered his team to cut a BBC Tamil interview when the journalist asked him if his foundation violated laws. 

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In 2018, Sadhguru told a student who questioned him about these allegations,“If I want, I can file a hundred cases against you. It’s up to you if you want to spend the next 20 years in [courts],” he said. “This is the country you are living in, I want you to know.” 

Not much is known about Sadhguru’s personal life before he rose to global fame, except glimpses through his website where personal anecdotes are mixed with spiritual messaging. One of the earliest allegations against Sadhguru goes back to 1997, when his wife, Vijaykumari, mysteriously died. Sadhguru described it as a spiritual departure, but a news report cited her father’s allegations of foul play. The case was closed soon after. 

VICE World News repeatedly requested an interview with Sadhguru over a span of three months, but most of our queries went unanswered, while others were met with requests for “more patience.” 

A 2021 investigative report traced the beginnings of his stardom to prominence in local media in Tamil Nadu, which paved the way for his political connections. His proximity to India’s political elite grew especially when the current BJP government came to power.The BJP espouses the Hindu nationalist ideology, which believes in Hindu rule in the world’s largest democracy. Over time, Sadhguru’s speeches reflected the ideology and rising Islamophobia in the country. 

Angshuman Choudhury, a New Delhi-based researcher, noted a pattern of Sadhguru’s public statements over the years. 

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In 2019, nationwide protests broke out across India after the BJP government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, which many human rights experts called anti-Muslim. Sadhguru launched a campaign to support Modi and said the protesters didn’t read the law before protesting. The same year, he called a Muslim student at the London School of Economics a “Talibani” during a talk. Responding to outrage, Sadhguru clarified he was referring to the Arabic translation of the word, which means “ardent student”, claiming it’s common usage in India. It is not. 

Sadhguru meeting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a Save Soil programme in New Delhi early this month. Photo: Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

“In many ways, his ascendance to popularity went hand-in-hand with the BJP's rise to power,” Choudhury told VICE World News. “The regime benefits from him, and he benefits from the regime.” 

Modi is often the chief guest in Sadhguru’s environmental campaigns. In one interview, Sadhguru described him as “a bigger superstar than even filmstars.”  

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“Sadhguru plays a unique kind of role within the Hindu nationalist ideology, which is to broaden the base or public constituency of Hindu Nationalism in India,” said Choudhury. 

“Sadhguru plays a unique kind of role within the Hindu nationalist ideology, which is to broaden the base or public constituency of Hindu Nationalism in India.”

Modi’s BJP have won two consecutive terms – a first in independent Indian history – by a landslide majority. Early this month,  Sadhguru met Modi and told a state media outlet that religious intolerance is exaggerated on TV news channels, and that India has been “free” of major communal violence for the last decade.

“When this kind of messaging comes from a ‘guru’ or ‘saint’, that thought tends to cut across the political spectrum,” added Choudhury. 

Isha Foundation is ground zero of Sadhguru’s activities. In Tamil Nadu, this sprawling 150-acre empire is next to the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, just on the foothills of Velliangiri mountain. Siva describes it as a region that was once unique, where elephants thrived, the vegetation was rich and diverse, and the water pristine. 

On its foothills now stand several structures built by the organisation.

An aerial view of Isha Foundation construction from 2012 (left), and a view of the significantly larger campus right now (right). Image courtesy: Google Maps

Isha Foundation is registered in India and the U.S. as a non-profit with programs ranging from yoga and self-improvement to conscious-living residential sanctuaries and global environmental projects. But there are no public records of the foundation’s revenue and expenses in India. Its U.S. chapter reported $25 million in annual revenue, with expenses close to $17 million in 2019. 

The organisation has 300 centres across the world, from the U.S. and UK to Israel, to Singapore and Australia. In the U.S. and Canada, there are nearly 80 centers, some in spectacular locations. In Tennessee, the stunning Isha Institute of Inner-Sciences is described as a “mountain retreat,” where programmes such as yoga, hiking and other wellness packages are priced up to $1,790.

The organisation, on their website, says their centers are “supported” by 11 million “volunteers,” and that their programmes have helped over 200 million people.

The organisation has a product line that globally sells yoga mats, ayurvedic personal care products, “conscious gifts,” clothes and accessories. Their website states that profits go to its medical and welfare programmes in rural India. Isha Foundation’s net worth isn’t in the public domain in India, but its U.S. chapter released its 2019 financials under law. It showed the largest sources of revenue were made from Sadhguru’s premium “inner engineering” and Isha Yoga programmes. It's unclear what his “business leadership” insights program which costs $6,500 per person comes under, but participants from the U.S. fly into India’s Coimbatore city to attend it at his facility close to the tiger reserve. 

Indian records show the foundation’s “outreach” entity has received funding from UNICEF and state agricultural budgets. In 2017-2018, they received nearly $8,000.

Sadhguru’s current net worth isn’t public either, but his expensive tastes have been observed. An Indian investigative news report showed allegations of tax evasion at the foundation in India, where people who paid for items like saplings or services like yoga sessions were given receipts of donation. Most recently, the foundation came under Indian government scrutiny for allegations that they profited off their environmental campaign. 

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Siva said that the expansion of Isha Foundation is directly correlated with a fast degradation of indigenous life around it. Legal documents accessed by VICE World News show repeated notices by forest officials in 2012, stating unauthorised constructions on elephant habitats. In 2018, the Comptroller Auditor General of India tabled a report in the state assembly listing how the foundation flouted norms, which the foundation denied, saying they got all clearances. But officials told Indian media  that the foundation built structures first, and then applied for approval.

Local communities and activists protest against alleged tribal land encroachment by Isha Foundation, along with the controversial Adiyogi statue in Coimbatore in 2017. The 112-foot statue is accused of obstructing a catchment area of Noyyal river and impacting biodiversity. Photo: M Siva

On their website, the foundation lists the “truth” behind two decades of allegations. “Isha does not disturb wildlife nor would we ever want to,” it states. “We live in harmony with nature.” 

Years of resistance from activists and the indigenous community says otherwise. In 2016, 40 indigenous women near Vellingiri hills accused the foundation of land grabbing, although the same protest saw counter-arguments by another set of locals who said the foundation provides them jobs and other benefits. The foundation denies it on their website too. 

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Siva, however, differs from that version, adding that the foundation didn’t just grab land, but also fenced off chunks of the forest, thereby cutting off a major source of the locals’ livelihood and leaving them at the mercy of the foundation. Those employed, he added, are “like slaves.” “These tribes crossed so many hurdles to survive in nature for centuries,” he said. “Now their next generation will be labourers.” 

Legal documents accessed by VICE World News show repeated notices by forest officials in 2012, stating unauthorised constructions on elephant habitats. The foundation has always denied those accusations.

Nityanand Jayaraman, environmentalist and journalist, said Sadhguru’s famous environmental campaigns rarely feature the wisdom of the indigenous people he claims to protect. “Environmental solutions should not exclude the poor and the marginalised who are already paying the heaviest price of environmental degradation,” he said. “But Isha Foundation's campaigns uncritically promote UN initiatives that create exclusive zones where local communities are alienated and their use of land is criminalised in the name of saving the earth.”

“If we’re not able to equalise society in our path to achieve sustainability, then that kind of saved Earth is not worth it,” he added. 

Sadhguru’s environmental campaigns, which often find international support, are always in the radar of Indian environmentalists. 

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Abroad, Sadhguru is seen at platforms such as the World Economic Forum and United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. In India, scientists say that  his campaigns “do not solve the real issues and may even cause new problems.” His list of supporters for the #SaveSoil campaign includes political leaders such as the Dalai Lama, UN experts, Hollywood stars such as Mark Wahlberg and singers like will.I.am.

Sadhguru's yoga and spiritual programmes are immensely popular in the U.S. In this photo, he is seen at an elevnt called "Visionary Women, Consciousness: The Ultimate Intelligence. An Evening With Sadhguru" in California, U.S in 2018. Photo: Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Visionary Women/AFP

Chris Lang, the founder of environmental watchdog Redd Monitor, published a report on Sadhguru’s ongoing “Save Soil” campaign. Apart from citing incomplete data and a simplistic solution, Lang said Sadhguru fails to hold big corporations – blamed for majority of the world’s greenhouse emissions – accountable for fossil fuels. 

“For the last 30 years, government leaders, experts and international celebrities like Sadhguru have turned up for meetings like this. A vast majority of these meetings don’t address the root cause of climate crisis,” said Lang. “Sadhguru perfectly fits in this global greenwashing movement.”

“Sadhguru perfectly fits in the global greenwashing movement.”

The West, however, is taken by his public image, he added. “He looks so good in such a setting. There's a long history of gurus being popular in the west,” Lang said. “But when you remove this image, everything he says falls to pieces. It’s guru mumbo-jumbo. And that’s very revealing.” Sadhguru’s statements have often been flagged by Indian commentators as making little to no sense. 

Currently, Sadhguru is on a 100-day motorbike mission, covering 30,000 kms on a BMW K1600 GT. Last year, BMW was fined nearly $400 million for illegally limiting the effectiveness of their emissions technology, leading to higher levels of diesel pollution. A similar faux pas was committed by Isha Foundation in  2010, when one of their environmental campaign events was sponsored by Dow Chemicals. Dow Chemicals is the multinational chemical corporation allegedly responsible for one of the worst industrial tragedies in the world that killed over 2,000 people and continues to impact generations in the Indian city of Bhopal. The foundation cancelled the campaign after activists raised concerns. 

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Jayaraman disagrees with Sadhguru's environmental approach, and calls them “flashy, corporatised, privatised and capitalist.” He adds that his campaigns are “sexy platitudes” with no real environmental agenda. “We need to change business models that are at odds with sustainability and social justice,” said Jayaraman. “But Sadhguru entrenches this inherently exploitative and unjust economic setup through his campaigns. It’s haute couture environmentalism.”

Back in Tamil Nadu, as Siva and indigenous people plan another protest this month to coincide with Sadhguru’s return to his city, he fears a complete erasure of the region’s indigenous identity in the future.

“In 10 years, Velliangiri will be wiped off the map. It will be called Isha Foundation.”

Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.

Tagged:

US, India, yoga, Celebrity, Will Smith, south asia, Greenwashing, godman, worldnews

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