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Indians turning to cable channels for spiritual sustenance

Rely on daily dose of Hindu wisdom against urban angst

NEW DELHI -- In the plush, heavily marbled living room of his 8,000-square-foot mansion, the wealthy industrialist sat raptly in front of the television at 7 a.m., a cup of tea in his hand and a smile of contentment on his face.


On the screen in front of him, Yashpal Sudhanshu, one of India's best-known gurus, chanted a prayer in Sanskrit before launching into a soothing, feel-good lecture on how to cope with stress. "Begin each day with a pure thought," he advised. "When you do breathing exercises, when you control your anger, when you laugh, you're actually prolonging your life."

The industrialist, Rajiv Malhotra, said he was deeply grateful for such guidance. Listening to a guru each morning helps him "get peace out of this mechanical life," he said. "People have become very conscious about material things."

Malhotra, 44, is not alone. As Indians move to the cities and leave behind traditional, village-level forms of Hindu worship, they increasingly are turning to the airwaves in search of spiritual sustenance. As a result, religious programming is booming, making celebrities out of gurus whose satellite-assisted reach now extends to many parts of the globe.

"Spirituality was always part of the Indian psyche, but now it has just found a new vehicle, 24-hour television," said Madhav Kant Mishra, executive director of the seven-month-old Sadhna religious channel. "Indians had started disbelieving their own traditional knowledge systems. The TV channels aim to reestablish that system with modern analysis and in a modern context."

The audience for such programs cuts across social classes in India, where cable television costs as little as $1.50 a month and cable and satellite services reach an estimated 42 million of the 191 million households nationwide. By all accounts, however, some of the most ardent viewers are educated middle-class and wealthy Indians, who tend to live in larger towns and cities and rely on their daily dose of Hindu folk wisdom, prayers, and counseling as a powerful antidote for urban angst.

"You walk through any neighborhood in Delhi at 6 or 7 a.m. and you will hear the sound of religious TV coming out of most homes," Mishra said. "People have gotten addicted to it."

Hinduism is deeply embedded in the fabric of everyday life in India, where tens of thousands travel the roads on yearly pilgrimages and makeshift shrines grace the corners of the even the humblest dirt-floor homes.

But the pressures of economic growth and modernization -- manifest in a steady flow of people from the countryside to the cities -- have taken their toll on religious tradition as observed by Hindus as well as the country's Muslim and Christian minorities.

"Indian religions are very locality-specific," said Ashis Nandy, one of India's leading social scientists. "You have family priests, family gurus, personal gods, village gods and goddesses -- this is what living Hinduism is -- and that is truly in decline in urban areas. Therefore, you begin to search for substitutes."

One consequence, he said, is a more homogenized and generic form of Hinduism. Another is the rise of Hindu nationalism, whose politicians have made enormous gains over the last decade in part by trying to "exploit this sense of void" among the increasingly transient urban masses, Nandy said.

But most of India's best-known gurus are determinedly apolitical -- cultivating followers in secular parties as well as the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party at the head of India's governing coalition.

The trend has set off fierce competition for airtime among gurus who regard television as key to enhancing their profile -- and bringing in the financial contributions that sustain their ashrams and lifestyles. Some of the programming can be found on mainstream, India-based cable channels such as Zee TV, which claims a worldwide audience of 225 million, and Star Plus of the Murdoch media empire. But the trend is most visible in the emergence since 2000 of four 24-hour cable channels whose content consists largely of gurus singing prayer songs or delivering sermons. "The religious business in India is very lucrative," said an executive of a religious channel who asked not to be identified. So fierce is the competition for media exposure, the executive added, that lesser-known gurus typically pay religious channels for airtime; some have been known to record their sermons in private, "then insert shots of a crowd from elsewhere and send us the tapes. Some of them are such novices that they need teleprompters and written scripts to give discourses. It's a big commercial game."

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