NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s government suffered a fresh blow in containing growing anger over corruption from million of voters as Swami Ramdev, the country’s most famous yoga guru, gained the support of a leading civil activist for his “fast-until-death” against graft.
Anna Hazare lent his support on Thursday for Ramdev’s hunger strike from Saturday to protest against corruption in Asia’s third-largest economy and has called on his legions of followers to join him.
Here are some facts about Ramdev:
Ramdev, who is always seen in a saffron robe slung across his bare chest with wooden sandals, sports a jet black ponytail and a large black beard. He does not disclose his age.
He works 18-20 hours a day, waking up at 3 a.m every morning to begin his exercises, fuelled by a diet of milk, green vegetables and seasonal fruit. He says he has never eaten an egg, nor drank alcohol.
Ramdev, who successfully brought yoga to the masses through live telecasts, is revered in a country that places great emphasis on spirituality and health.
His yoga demonstrations and performances to thousands of followers regularly include postures like a headstand or making his belly dance inside his ribcage, a popular trademark.
The yoga guru claims to have a follower in every household in India, and at least 30 million people tune in every day to his yoga programme that describes methods and teachings for treating anything from diabetes to high blood pressure.
“Television has made me a hundred times more powerful,” Ramdev, who was born to illiterate parents in a poor farming family, told Reuters last year.
He is mobbed by supporters and the media wherever he travels across the country, and his pledge to go on a hunger strike this month prompted the government to send four senior ministers to welcome him at the New Delhi airport.
While Ramdev is not a spiritual leader, yoga’s cultural resonance in India, where Hindu gods are often depicted in yoga poses, means his followers show a devotion similar to religious gurus such as Sai Baba, who died in April.
Ramdev’s main yoga centre in Haridwar, in Uttarakhand, can hold 6,000 people, and is the heartbeat of a global business spread across three trusts with a turnover of $40 million every year.
His assets include a Scottish island now renamed “Peace Island”, a two-campus university dedicated to yoga teaching and a pharmaceutical company producing ayurvedic medicine and herbal products.
Ramdev’s trust runs courses and workshops in Britain, the United States, Canada, Mauritius and Nepal, and a book and CD business with a monthly turnover of around $500,000. He is scheduled to travel to Russia in late July for a series of workshops and lectures.
Ramdev has promised to form a national political party to challenge the ruling Congress party at the 2014 general elections, and contest all 543 seats across India.
He has pledged to “cleanse” the world’s largest democracy of greed and foreign influences, overhaul political, legal and education systems which he says are hangovers from colonial rule, and set up fast-track courts to pass sentences for capital crimes including corruption.
But critics have attacked him for his links to the Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.
Ramdev has claimed that homosexuality is a mental disease, and that mentally stable people do not become homosexuals.
When the Delhi High Court decriminalised homosexuality in 2009, local media reported Ramdev said: “The verdict will encourage criminality and sick mentality. This kind of thing is shameful and insulting.”
Ramdev was also sent a cease and desist order by India’s health ministry after he said that sex education in schools should be replaced by yoga education to combat the spread of HIV and AIDS.
Editing by Paul de Bendern and Sugita Katyal