Gurus, Celebrities and the New Cultures of Faith
University of Hyderabad, India
In this paper I investigate how the internet reconfigures the 'sacred' in particular ways, reinforcing it as something unique – in its etymological sense of being set apart from the ordinary – and at once also rendering it infinitely and indefinitely iterable for popular consumption. I argue that the sacral in the virtual domain is not a new, separate condition but an augmentation of the already existing one of spirituality, faith, belief and cults. The cyberworld and its rituals cannot be treated as a wholly new distinct sphere but one that is embedded in the real, material and concrete world and, therefore, carrying all the marks, biases and problems of the real one (Nayar, 2010, p.29). Digital sacrality does substitute for the real in some ways, but I see it as an augmentation, an extension of the sacral into a new medium, dimension, form that has greater possibilities of access and dissemination. The fact that the sacral still manifests, even on websites, as products to be sold in the material world with real money and supposedly transforming real lives indicates this embeddedness of the 'virtual' in the 'real'.
I explore the nature of the 'sacred' in cybercultures by using as case studies the web-presence of two very popular Indian spiritual celebrity-gurus who have attained global fame and recognition: Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Deepak Chopra. I argue that these new age gurus offer to their followers a set of principles that helps organize them into a new, delocalized, decentralized 'sacred' order – one that continually cuts across barriers of space, time and activity. The celebrity and the sacrality of these gurus, I argue, are rooted in discourses of the human 'self' as a category that is the subject of constant reinvention and re-presentation, as a repository of (supposed) merit, as a means and a principle of organizing other 'selves' into a (holy) 'whole', and as a 'sign' that can be endlessly multiplied to perpetuate their popular appeal and thereby also construct communities of believers/followers. The sacral partakes of the celebrity culture of the new media age as well. Celebrification and sacralization, I demonstrate, have both taken to the digital world in a big way, and share media rituals and processes in the new media. I look at how the 'presence' of these gurus on the internet contributes to (a) the creation of the idea of the 'sacred' self through biographical information, (b) the construction and popularization of a 'brand' of the 'sacred' by means of transforming the guru into a 'sign', and (c) the organization of followers as members of a 'community' based on a shared corpus of knowledge about and faith in the guru.
A couple of working definitions are in order here. The 'sacred', in Emile Durkheim’s classic definition, is fundamental to all unified systems of belief and is based on practices relating to things set aside or forbidden, as opposed to those relating to the 'profane' order of mundane individual concerns (1995 , p.32). Obviously, this dichotomy between the 'sacred' and the 'profane' is neither stable nor universal, but the totemic value that the 'sacred' assumes (as Durkheim points out) is what makes it significant as a collective organizational principle. Thus, it is useful to look at the processes that invest certain persons, ideas, objects or phenomena with a symbolic significance in the popular imagination of a community. It is not necessarily the intrinsic worth of a 'subject' that automatically renders it 'sacred': it is the recognition of that subject as representing a certain set of values for a community that constitutes the process of 'sacralization'. Sacralization therefore, in the case of cybercultures, simultaneously sets the guru apart but also makes the guru accessible, adjacent and everyday.
Similarly, a celebrity is a person/object/phenomenon that is a 'subject' attributed with 'uniqueness' not by virtue of possessing some essential 'special' quality but as a result of systematic representation of certain meanings – which are seen as valuable and desirable –through various media. Following recent celebrity studies work (Marshall, 1997; Rojek, 2001; Turner, 2004; Nayar 2009a), I define contemporary celebrity culture as a system that involves the mediated representation, circulation and consumption of certain public personae (that could belong not just to a person but even an object, place or fictional character) by means of generating constant public discourses about them. The system of celebrity is firmly rooted in material (often capitalist) conditions and results in the accretion of economic as well as cultural value and power to the celebrity-figure, but it also creates and sustains communitarian bonds by offering symbols of collective interests, aspirations and anxieties and thereby spills over into non-material contexts. It is this symbolic aspect of the roles that both the 'sacred' and the 'celebrity' perform in the life of a community that allows the conflation of the attributes of both in contemporary global culture. Both the 'sacred' and the 'celebrity' are categories that enjoy their currency and popularity because of their symbolic value and their power to bring together people as members of a community based on the principle of shared affiliation to the subject of sacralization/celebritization. Both are discursive constructs, not only in the sense of being created through 'narratives' but also in the sense of moving from one point to another in a process of endless signification. Both are also dependent on acceptance and recognition by a group of people who keep the process of signification going. Therefore, it is at the intersection of discourses of the 'sacred' and the workings of celebrity culture that I locate the two aforementioned celeb-gurus, insofar as their virtual 'presence' is a necessary outcome of contemporary global culture as well as an addition to their activities offline.
My choice of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Deepak Chopra for this study is determined by the fact that these gurus are among the most tech-savvy: they not only make use of the internet as a means of self-narrativization and a publicity-tool, but are also representative of how the internet itself becomes a 'site' where the practices that constitute 'sacrality' and 'celebrity' are being increasingly enacted. Also, though they are neither officially affiliated nor institutionally sanctioned by any particular religious order, they offer a version of the 'sacred' that can be propagated to and assimilated by diverse audiences irrespective of their social, cultural, geographical and religious location. Therefore, the web-presence of these two gurus can serve as a useful key to understanding the nature of the 'sacred' on the internet, which is a domain that diffuses the traditional, institutionalized boundaries of culture, region and religion. As critics like Michael York (2001) and Sophie Gilliat-Ray (2005) have pointed out, the digital revolution is leading us towards a condition in which formal, hierarchical religious institutions are being supplemented by more democratically organized, de-territorialized, non-dogmatic and self-mediated forms of spirituality. The internet seems to present a new-age version of the Indian 'guru-shishya' tradition by bringing together followers under the 'sign' of the spiritual leader, while simultaneously also responding to the requirements of contemporary global popular culture in the 'networked' society by making that 'sign' available to constant reiteration and reinvention for audiences across the world. The internet creates a sense of proximity between the guru and his followers, as well as between the followers themselves, by organizing them all into a 'community' under the 'sign' of the guru (the spiritual leader), and encourages the online shishyas (the disciples) to propagate this 'sign' by partaking of and adding to its sacrality through its constant iterative circulation. Current scholarship on online religious networks deals with the tensions, anxieties and challenges posed by virtual communities to traditional notions of religious order and practice (Campbell, 2004), the 'glocalization' of religious experience and practices (Scheifinger, 2009), as well as the secularization (Aupers & Houtman, 2006) and commodification (York, 2001) of the spiritual in new age free markets. I propose to demonstrate the confluence of the process of sacralization with the workings of contemporary celebrity culture. My aim here is to discuss the virtual presence of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Deepak Chopra as instances of how the construction of sacred-celebrity personae depends on discourses of the 'self' and its circulation as a 'sign' that symbolizes a 'brand' that attracts followers to define and belong to it. The paper is divided into three major sections: (a) Guru Biography: The Online Self, (b) Guru Brand: The Sign of the Guru, and (c) Fans/Shishyas: Creating the Follower.
Guru Biography: The Online Self
In this section, I demonstrate how information about the life and the work of these gurus on their official websites is narrativized to reinforce their claim to sacrality/celebrity by locating them in a unique personal history, as well as to propel that claim by constantly evolving and expanding the domain of their offline avatars. The official websites maintained by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Deepak Chopra do not merely supply information about them but also function as biographies that constantly reinvent, for public consumption, the life-stories of these gurus. A biography is essentially the narrativization of the facts of an individual’s life that assumes as well as constructs the extraordinariness of that life. These narratives of the self, therefore, construct a persona that is suitable for both sacralization and celebritization, as they remove their subjects from the humdrum and the ordinary but simultaneously also makes them the objects of popular admiration and attention. The websites maintained by these celeb gurus are not only instruments of popularizing their presence across geographical barriers but also databases of information that constantly feed into the narrative of their life and work. It is the careful selection and organization of mere facts or information into a plot or narrative, the shift from the database to the narrative, that constitutes the process of 'virtual' life-writing. Of course, the offline popularity of these gurus is antecedent to an interest in their websites in most cases, but once the 'virtual' link between the guru and a follower is established, the website becomes a means of constantly reconstructing and supplementing the 'biography' of both the spiritual guru and the movement he leads. Since the internet offers an almost infinite potential for revising and updating content, these websites serve as palimpsests where the life-story of the guru is continually scripted. This is amply evidenced by the fact that both Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Deepak Chopra’s websites have daily updates on the respective guru’s latest achievements, public appearances, social initiatives, and so on. In a way, these websites function somewhat like online diaries of these celeb gurus. As Sorapure points out: “The insistent present-ness of the Web, the imperative to keep websites updated, parallels the diary’s non-retrospective autobiographical form: a series of entries, each one dated and rooted firmly in its present moment” (2003, p.2). This aspect of currency, of the possibility of constant 're-vision' of the guru’s life, makes it possible for him to assume meanings that are relevant to both his sacrality and celebrity. His real-life celeb-status is increasingly enabled by a persuasive web-presence.
The websites also mimic the structure of the bildungsroman in the sense that they represent the guru’s life and work as a progressive series of significant events/achievements. This is amply borne out by the 'biography' of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar which has a link called 'Timeline' that charts his career as a spiritual guru/social worker through what must be considered crucial junctures in his life (http://srisriravishankar.org/biography/timeline). It is literally a time-line as it offers a progressive, linear, though not continuous history of the life of the guru by leaping from one significant achievement to another, without tracing the factors/events that led up to these crucial 'moments' in the narrative of his life. For instance, the period between 1973, when he finished his formal education in Vedic literature and modern science, and 1977, when he started traveling and giving discourses, is elided over; from 1982 onwards, when he established the Art of Living Foundation in Bangalore, the 'timeline' only moves along a trajectory of his achievements in the public realm – the Indian President’s award for 'Yoga Shiromani' (1986), the launching of a rehabilitation program for prisoners (1995) and of a youth empowerment seminar (1998), and so on. Such a narrative may be described as a schematic bildungsroman since it is essentially a plot consisting only of points that build up the success story of the guru. The points of failure or deviation from this seemingly straight and ascendant path to public prominence, if any, do not find a mention in this 'biography'. (For instance, the fact that in the early 1990s the guru himself added the honorific 'Sri Sri' to his name after objections from the eponymous famous sitar player, to the effect that the former was capitalizing on the fame of the latter (http://www.yogajournal.com/lifestyle/738?page=3) is not mentioned in the 'timeline'). Nor do any details from the personal life of the guru figure in this 'story' of his life. Rather, anecdotes from his childhood that anticipate and establish his uniqueness are highlighted, such as his recitation of verses from Bhagvad Gita at the age of 4, or his declaration at the age of 10 that he would visit people all over the world one day (http://www.srisri.org/biography/timeline). It is stating the obvious that all narratives of the self are selective, but by distancing the guru’s life and achievements from the realm of the everyday and the ordinary such a narrative renders him suitable for the twin processes of sacralization and celebrification. In addition, this 'timeline' also directs the user to locate the guru in a particular linear history within the context of the possible (and potentially infinite) random trajectories that he may follow, thereby suggesting an order in which the story of the evolution of the 'self' is to be 'read'.
Further, the sacrality/celebrity of the 'self' is read not only in terms of its (supposed) uniqueness but also in terms of the impact that it creates in the 'ordinary' world. Thus, it is not just the quality of change that the teachings of gurus like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Deepak Chopra have brought about in the lives of their followers that finds mention in the introductory write-ups on these websites: it is also the global nature of their impact that is highlighted. Thus, the link to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s 'biography' proudly proclaims that his “appeal transcends class, race, religion and nationality”, that the Art of Living Foundation is now operative in over 140 countries, that his prison programs have “helped transform the lives of an estimated 150,000 inmates around the world”, that his sustainable development programs have reached more than 30,000 rural communities. Clearly, such statistics do not merely showcase the range of social activities that the guru is involved in, but also serve the necessary function of celebritizing him in terms of the extent or reach of his agency as a public figure. Celebrity is not just about the 'special' appeal of a person but about the magnitude of that appeal (Nayar, 2009a, p.113), which becomes a focal point in the marketing of the celebrity to as wide a target audience as possible. Also, the fact that such information appears in what is called a 'short biography' of the guru suggests the unique capacity of one human being to touch the lives of so many others.
Similarly, the biographical note of Deepak Chopra available on his official website highlights the specific achievements of this new-age guru. Chopra’s impressive credentials as a trained doctor (medical degree from AIIMS, internship in Muhlenberg Hospital at Plainfield, New Jersey, work experience in Boston Regional Medical Centre, fellowship in the American College of Physicians, and so the list goes on) are put in conjunction with his immense popularity as “a world-renowned authority in the field of mind-body healing” as well as a best-selling author of over 55 books translated in more than 85 languages (http://www.chopra.com/aboutdeepak). His oeuvre is described as consisting of books on “mind-body health, quantum mechanics, spirituality, and peace”. Evidently, Chopra is firmly located within the discourses of medical science as well as of popular reading culture, the former presupposing a degree of personal talent and dedication to a rigorous discipline, the latter indicating the ability of the gifted and trained individual to reach out to larger (untrained) audiences. It is also to be noted that the mention of Chopra’s background in the study of medicine naturally locates him in the context of health-care, which is based on (supposed) ideals of nurture and selfless service to the society. This association between the 'curative' aspect of his learning and the ideology of 'caring' that informs it sacralizes the training/knowledge acquired by Chopra as an individual by locating it in its social context. Significantly, the write-up mentions at the very beginning that Deepak Chopra has been hailed by Time as the “poet-prophet of alternative medicine”. The mysticism that is traditionally associated with poetic/prophetic figures is thus called upon to inform the decidedly scientific slant that the rest of the narrative bears. The underlying suggestion seems to be that over and above the (formidable) professional training that Chopra has acquired, he possesses a certain wisdom that enables him to filter his knowledge down to his followers/customers. The 'self' is thus constructed as being worthy of celebration first and foremost in terms of its ability to effect a positive change in society. If the guru is supposed to be the repository of 'sacred' knowledge ('sacred' by virtue of being gifted to or acquired by, and consequently restricted to a single person and not uniformly accessible to everyone) then he is also presented as the medium through which such sacredness is made available to the general public. The irony must be noted: the guru is the medium through which the sacred is made available, but the digital is the medium through which the guru is at once 'abstracted' and made real for his followers through a simultaneous process of distanciation and proximity.
It is in this context that the representation of these gurus’ itineraries becomes significant. Both Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Deepak Chopra are international celebrities in their own right, constantly on the move, delivering lectures, organizing conferences and workshops, appearing on chat shows and so on. They are, in a sense, new-age versions of the itinerant Vaishnava and Sufi spiritual gurus of the past, who used to go around from one place to another spreading their message and addressing different audiences as they went along. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Deepak Chopra represent a group of spiritual leaders whose itineraries are always known beforehand to their followers (as well as would-be followers) through the latest updates on the home pages of their respective websites. Such updates do not merely represent the ease with which information can now be made accessible to a large, dispersed body of internet-users; they also serve as a means of projecting these gurus as celebrities as well as an index of their celebrity-hood in terms of their global (media) presence. One of the chief features of the contemporary celebrity is his dispersed 'presence' across various media, which makes him accessible to audiences across a wide geographical and cultural spectrum. The internet effects the dispersal of the guru's sacred 'presence' by employing and augmenting his celebrity status through constant updates on his activities. Thus, as his official website indicates, it is possible to 'follow' Deepak Chopra on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin. This is a strategy of making the sacred popular by bringing the guru closer, if only in a virtual realm, to his followers, through 'signs' of his presence (recorded words and images) in the real world. In fact, in both cases the websites update the video recordings or the transcripts of the latest interview/speech the guru has given.
Figure 1. Sri Sri Tour Scheudle.
Figure 2. Sri Sri Website Homepage.
Figure 3. Deepak Chopra Website Homepage.
Figure 4. Deepak Chopra Website Homepage
Such 'mediated spectacles' construct the celebrity by distancing him socially (and in this case spatially too) from his audiences but simultaneously assuring them of his 'reality' (Nayar, 2009a, p.151). In addition, by advertising the (anticipated, physical) presence of the guru at a certain place and time, such updates give him publicity, which is another precondition for contemporary celebrity (Nayar, 2009a, p.6). It also follows from this that in order to enjoy the kind of popularity that they do, these celeb gurus can never really be away from public view: it would not be feasible for them, for instance, to go away to the mountains to mediate for a few months and then make a comeback. Being constantly 'present' in the public eye is the essential quality of contemporary celebrity (Nayar, 2009a, p.92), a condition which such updates fulfill adequately by making the guru virtually locatable even when he is physically away. In other words, it is the virtual presence, itinerary, programme that becomes instantiated, anticipated, concretized as/in the physical presence of the guru’s meetings, addresses in real-time.
Thus, the official websites of these gurus ensure that the 'facts' of their lives and the nature and extent of their achievements constitute an endlessly unfolding 'virtual' narrative that keeps their subjects constantly 'visible' in the public domain, and thereby remind their followers of their 'real' existence. The 'absence' of the guru in actual physical terms at a particular place and time is compensated for by a constant, but constantly shifting, 'presence' created/simulated through the incessant flow of information. This 'presence-in-absence' points to the way in which the guru functions not only as a sacral/celebrity persona but also as a 'sign' that circulates and proliferates across various contexts and domains.
Guru Brand: The Sign of the Guru
In this section I demonstrate how these websites substitute the actual physical presence of the guru with 'signs' that stand for him, and how these 'signs' always point back recursively to the 'real' existence of the guru. Thus, these 'signs', I argue, proliferate continually to fill in the gaps left by the guru and thereby create a 'brand' that derives its value from, as well as adds to the value of, the sacrality/celebrity of the guru. A good point to begin from is the 'home' pages of these websites. Though the 'home' pages of these websites aim at giving a comprehensive and current view of the guru’s life and work – locating him, as it were, in a particular background and in the context of his various achievements – they also constantly expand the territory of that 'home' by proclaiming the guru to be always 'away', always on the move, literally in the sense of visiting different places, as well as in the more figurative sense of crossing the borders of various domains of activities and public interests, such as medicine and health, war and terrorism, women’s issues, environmental crises, and so on. In a sense, the guru, rather, the 'sign' of the guru is to be found everywhere and nowhere, as the meaning(s) of that 'sign' is always deferred to and contingent on the next context in which it is used. It is the currency of the guru both as a personality and as a 'sign' that transforms him into an instantly recognizable and reusable 'brand' name (Frow, 2002, p.71) and facilitates his entry into distinct domains. The investment of certain presupposed values in the 'sign' of the guru makes it feasible for him to attract and organize his followers into a community. The 'sign' has the same function as it does for the celebrity: iterable and recognizable.
The marketing of the 'brand' of the guru often involves a combination of different registers under the bracket of sacrality/celebrity. A good instance would be the intersection of the concerns of commercial profit and the discourse of philanthropy on the websites of Deepak Chopra and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. These features are common to Chopra’s website and the 'Art of Living' website of Ravi Shankar, in which the commodification of the spiritual as a 'brand' becomes evident from the range of merchandise – all acting as 'signs' of the guru (audio and videos talks, books, photographs, music) – available for purchase (http://store.artofliving.org/default.aspx, https://store.artofliving.org/in/catalog.aspx?guid=4605eb58-c816-4269-9703-ea143bb1c780.
Figure 5. Sri Sri Online Store
The 'overview' of the Deepak Chopra Centre reads like a promotional tourist brochure of a luxury resort:
The official home of co-founders, Deepak Chopra and David Simon, the Chopra Center is located on the grounds of La Costa Resort & Spa, a lush coastal setting we fondly refer to as the “sweet spot of the universe”. Throughout the year, guests at the centre enjoy the gentle warmth, fresh coastal breezes, and sunshine of southern California” (http://www.chopra.com/ccoverview)
Evidently, the mind-body healing that the centre offers its customers is not a therapeutic process in the strict medical sense: rather, it draws upon the popularity of luxury tourism and entertainment in contemporary society. Thus, the 'official home' of the founders/leaders is not a domain that is set apart from the followers; rather, it is marketed as “the sweet spot of the universe” where 'guests' are invited to enjoy the natural pleasures of freshness, greenery and sunshine at an undisclosed price. The kind of 'healing' experience that is offered here is akin to high-end luxury items that are marketed in popular media without their prices being disclosed ('price on request' is the common expression used in the advertisements for such products). This creates a new 'brand' of the sacred here, one that the customer is expected to recognize as being so valuable that its (monetary) price is not what deserves attention (or even mention): it is the exclusive 'experience' that the customer is urged to indulge in. The relationship between the (presumably) ailing 'guest' and the healer 'host' is encoded also in terms of customer and service-provider, and incorporates (commercial) elements of leisure and entertainment into the discourse of well being. The write-up goes on to describe that this is “the only wellness program in the world that combines a renowned medical staff, the time-honored panchakarma detoxification process, and daily foundational teachings in meditation, yoga and ayurveda”. There seems to be a combination of the suggestion of a level of modern scientific efficiency with the trappings of traditional wisdom.
The process of 'branding' the guru also consists in marketing strategies that involve the osmosis and mutual dependence (as happens with celebrities, with their 'double role' in financial and cultural economies) of the 'sacred' value of the guru’s knowledge into his commercial enterprises. Again, Chopra’s website is a case in point. The website not only provides 'authentic' information about the guru, but also functions as a virtual shop where one can make purchases ranging from books written by Chopra and David Simon and instructional videos about yogic exercises, ayurvedic and herbal supplements, aromatic bath and body oils, to more ingenious products like apparel ('Chopra wear'), ayurvedic jewelry ('Om Namah Shivaya' bracelets, sterling silver 'Om' earrings, sandalwood wrist mala, and suchlike), home décor articles (paintings, fragrant candles, wall hangings). (http://store.chopra.com/showitems.asp?deptcode1=678)
Figure 6. Deepak Chopra Online Store
Figure 7. Deepak Chopra Online Store
In fact, the site also offers 'package deals' and sales on particular items for customers who want to get a good bargain. It may be argued here that each of these articles exists in relation to the other in the form of a chain of 'signifiers' that derive their value from the (supposed) 'signified', which is the sacredness of the guru’s knowledge. The 'sign' of the guru is thus determined by these articles insofar as they are perceived to embody as well as symbolize the brand value of the guru. It is also interesting to observe that it is not strictly any inherent 'lack' in the life of the customer that these articles propose to fill up; rather, most of these objects simply promise to 'enhance' the quality of the customer’s life (though they also imply and make us 'aware' of a certain 'lack'). This implies a degree of excess that is nevertheless considered fulfilling by those who want to experience the brand of 'wellness' Chopra offers completely. It is therefore also a brand of spirituality that is targets to enhance/supplement the lifestyle of a community of followers/customers, thereby aligning it closer to the mechanics of contemporary consumer cultures.
The dynamics of consumer culture involve not only the customer’s role in consumption but also her active participation in the processes of marketing and advertizing. This is evidenced by the fact that one may even create an account with the online store on the website and then e-mail a 'Friend Appreciation Gift Coupon' to five persons and thereby be entitled to a 25% rebate on future purchases. Such marketing and advertising strategies involving customers as active agents rather than passive targets are not unfamiliar to us in the age of retail consumerism. Besides being a standard marketing strategy, this is also a process of the co-creation and popularization of the sacrality/celebrity of the guru himself through the transaction of merchandise branded under his 'sign'. Interestingly, the scheme is called 'Share and Save' (http://store.chopra.com/taf.asp), framing the transaction within the discourses of charity and thrift, and thereby inscribing into such commodities a symbolic significance over and above their economic value. The suggestion here is that the act of purchasing such merchandise is not merely aimed at individual gratification; rather, it is encoded in terms of communal welfare. This is a strategy that makes consumers enjoy 'agency' by giving them the choice of 'sharing' some of the 'sacred' value of the brand with others while simultaneously also employing them as (free) agents of circulating the 'sign' of that brand. Another interesting instance of how the 'sign' of the guru is circulated and assimilated into the lives of his followers is the 'Dosha quiz' on Chopra’s website that users are invited to participate in. The quiz is basically a series of questions meant to determine the body/mind type a person belongs to according to the balance of the body fluids, 'kapha', 'pitta' and 'vata'. Not only does this quiz slot all users as suffering from some imbalance or the other, it also gives them tips to rectify the (supposed) imbalance and shop for medicines that would help them achieve perfect mind-body balance (http://store.chopra.com/content.asp?id=22). Here is an instance of how the discourse of self-help, and by extension self-medication, feeds into the concerns of economic profit via the route of social welfare/well being. The quiz (and the sale of the merchandise based on its results) draws upon the 'culture of care and cure' that consists in packaging (and selling) notions of health and wellness by means of creating a heightened awareness of one’s own body (Nayar, 2009b, pp. 2-3).
Figure 8. Deepak Chopra Online Store
The 'brand' of the guru is, in this case, one that can be appropriated by the customer/follower into her life based on a set of given principles that categorize every 'body' as requiring treatment by means that have both commercial and symbolic value. Clearly, notions of the material body are being determined and influenced by the guru’s virtual writings as well.
It is also interesting to note that the latest offers and arrivals at the Chopra store can be followed on Twitter. Not only does this ensure an expansion of the community of (potential) customers but it also typifies the 'networked' nature of online transactions in contemporary times. If Deepak Chopra is a brand name, of which the merchandise sold on the website is a component, then its presence of Twitter is both an index of its popularity and a means of achieving it. The brand, like the celebrity, uses its hypervisibility as a claim to as well as an outcome of its popular currency in contemporary global culture. In fact, the 'global' nature of these gurus’ presence is both an inducement for and an effect of their web-presence. As it becomes easier for these gurus to tour continents and expand the network of their activities, new technologies like the internet make it possible for followers to participate in this network and connect to the gurus (in the absence of direct face-to-face interaction with them) by means of information relating to them.
The celeb/sacral 'sign' of the guru, like all signs, must be iterable, but iterable across contexts and cultures (consumer, spiritual, conservative, theological, medical). It is in the iteration that a sign accrues value. The 'guru' is this sign who occurs across contexts, but whose sign must be repeated for efficacy (not unlike a mantra). This is the supplementarity of the guru-sign (I use the term “supplement” in the Derridean sense of both necessity and excess). Repetition is at once needed to reinforce the sacral-celeb, but is also excessive when it occurs across media. Digital sacrality’s web-presence is
1. necessary because it constantly reiterates and reinforces the fact of the guru’s 'real' presence by means of 'signs' of his physical existence (details of their tour schedules, pictures and videos of their public addresses and private interviews, direct quotations and words of advice from them),
2. supplemental because it keeps on adding to what is already known about the gurus not just in terms of their work and achievements but also of details about the less public aspects of their personae.
Thus, the guru’s sacrality/celebrity gets packaged and circulated as a 'brand' that derives its value from his offline existence but generates additional value for him by expanding the domain of the meanings and applicability of his 'sign'. The consumption of these 'signs' by the followers/customers is the third crucial aspect of the guru’s online existence, which I shall discuss in the next section.
Fans or Shishyas: Creating the Follower
In this section, I shall demonstrate how fans/followers constantly circulate and exchange information about these celeb-gurus on social networking sites as well as through the updates on their official websites, and how such acts of communication define/identify them as members of a community while simultaneously also reinstating the sacrality/celebrity of the guru by using his words and work as their organizing principle. The large number of fan sites maintained voluntarily by the followers of these celeb gurus on social networking sites like Facebook and Orkut bear testimony to the process whereby they are appropriated as popular 'signs' by those who 'know' enough about these gurus, not necessarily through personal contact with them but on the basis of having access to information about them. Being active participants in the exchange and discussion of information about the guru becomes crucial for their online followers to establish and validate their identity as followers. It is possible, therefore, to look at the processes of updating and commenting upon the latest 'news' about the guru as symbolizing the followers’ affiliation to him and their assertion of his worth as a leader whose 'signs' can function as an integrating principle for them in the virtual world. The cyber-presence of these gurus can therefore be said to be based on informational rituals that contribute to as well as partly constitute their celebrity and sacrality. These are rituals because it is the act rather than the content of the information thus exchanged (which may already be common knowledge in many cases) that constitutes the process of community formation in the age of digital technologies (Miller, 2008). Also, the act of sharing the personal experience of the guru’s teachings on one’s own life becomes a means of connecting with others who have similar experiences to share. Thus, such communication in itself becomes a means of reinforcing faith in the guru and of sharing a part of his sacrality.
In fact, there seems to be a general move towards fostering a kind of mediated proximity between the guru and the follower even in the absence of spatial and temporal contiguity on the official websites as well. Though the notion of the 'sacred' is closely related to keeping an object/person/phenomenon at least partially “secret” (the two are etymologically related), these gurus are made increasingly 'knowable' by means of proliferation of information about their life and work through their websites. While there has traditionally been a direct correlation between the (at least occasional) reclusiveness of the guru and the mysticism surrounding him, there now seems to be a need to make the guru, or at least the 'sign' of the guru, present everywhere, all the time through various media. There seems to be a tension between the necessity to maintain the exclusivity of the guru’s teachings for them to be of any value, and the demands of celebrity culture that constantly requires additional information about its subject.
The virtual 'presence' of these gurus makes them accessible to their followers in a way that was not possible earlier: anyone can now post a question to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar or Deepak Chopra (http://www.deepakchopra.com//blog/category/15/ask_deepak) on their website and get a direct response from them. Such a 'correspondence' takes away the element of immediacy and synchronicity from the communication between the two that has been the characteristic feature of traditional face-to-face interaction between the spiritual master and the follower. Yet, it makes the master 'available' to the follower at all times, merely through the click of a mouse. It is spirituality delivered at your doorstep: one does not have to go seeking help to a temple courtyard or under a banyan tree; the guru is ever-present at the virtual 'site' to respond to your queries. This also implies that the necessity for followers to congregate at a particular place and time to get a 'darshan' (interview/meeting) of the guru is now overruled by the facility of accessing them through their websites. Instead of the public appearance of the guru that earlier occasioned a gathering of a set of followers as members of a community, we now have a virtual forum where the guru (or at least the 'sign' of the guru) is made available to the individual follower (or even an occasional visitor) in a private audience on the screen of a personal computer. (This is not to suggest that these gurus do not have an active, devoted body of followers who attend their off-line sermons/talks but merely that their presence is no longer restricted to such 'meetings'. They can now be 'met' anywhere, any hour of the day by anyone who has an internet connection.) The 'sign' of the guru, being freed of the constraints of space and time on the web, is now dispersed across a 'community' of internet users.
However, an interesting aspect of such computer-mediated communication is that one can never be quite sure if the answers to their queries come directly from the guru himself or from some of his associates. Interestingly, the website of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar allows queries to be posted not on an open blog but as e-mails to be directed to the guru only after verification through an alphanumeric code-identifying test to determine if you are really a person or a computer generating a standard question (http://srisriravishankar.org/contact).1 On the other hand, there is no way of determining if the response you find in your mailbox is really one that comes from the guru or a computer-generated one. This indeterminacy regarding the authenticity of the entire communication brings us back to the question of presence and absence. Whereas in a verbal, face-to-face conversation, a person needs to remember the word of the guru’s mouth and preserve it in memory, in an online environment it is possible to store or archive the written word (ostensibly the guru’s own) for future reference. (The archives on these websites perform precisely this function of recording the gurus’ earlier speeches/quotations/interviews: each of which acts as an iterable 'sign' that can be repeatedly revisited by the user/follower. In this sense, the 'performance' of being the guru depends as much on the technology that makes possible such archiving and the user who keeps the 'signs' of the guru in circulation by referring to the archives, as it does on the guru’s own words and actions.2 In the former case, there is the guarantee of the fact that it is truly the word of the guru one gets to hear; in the latter, there is the assurance that one can go back to the word, written in the name of the guru, whenever and as many times as one wishes to. The principle of 'presence' underlies both experiences, but in different forms: in the former case, being able to see the guru in person renders the experience 'authentic', while in the second case, it is the name (or the 'sign') of the guru that lends to the written word its authenticity. This notion of 'authenticity' is crucial to the construction and maintenance of the relation between the 'sign' of the guru and the concept of sacrality that is associated with him.
Another means by which the currency (both in the sense of present relevance and of popular evaluation) of the 'sign' of the guru is established is through the involvement of the follower in the process of its signification. We have already discussed the parallels between these gurus’ online biographies with the diary as well as the bildungsroman. However, these websites differ in a significant way from both of these distinct genres in that they involve an element of interactivity, whereby the audience’s responses to the latest news updates share a common space with the 'authoritative' voice of the guru. This is especially evident in the case of Deepak Chopra’s website, which provides a link to the guru’s own blog. Anyone can access this blog, and post comments in response to whatever the guru writes if they are registered subscribers. The blog entries are also categorized thematically into 'healthy living', 'relationships', 'planet', 'spirit' and 'success' (http://www.intent.com/deepakchopra/profile), thus offering the user the agency to access whichever part of the body of the guru’s views s/he finds relevant to their present search. The interpretation of the guru’s mind therefore becomes a collaborative process in which the follower can select, comment upon and even seek responses (not only from the guru but from other followers) to specific aspects of the guru’s philosophy. Of course, the degree of accessibility to the guru is somewhat restricted by the fact that only registered subscribers can play an active role on the blog, but the possibility of an entirely anonymous group of people interacting with a very well known public personality as members of a community makes the 'personality' of the guru a site of perpetual discussion and marks a move towards the democratization of the sacral/celebrity. The guru’s responses to queries posed by followers do offer an 'authoritative' voice, but one that is open to discussion and analysis. This does not dilute the aura of sacrality around the guru; rather, by feeding into the popular desire for knowing the 'inner self' of a public personality through his opinions, it contributes to his popularization and celebritization.
Interestingly, Deepak Chopra’s website makes shrewd use of the potential of the role that the followers of a guru can play in the construction of the guru’s identity. An interesting feature of the Chopra center is that anyone can register for a certified course in what is called the 'Teacher’s Path' (http://www.chopra.com/teacherspath) with specialization in mediation, ayurveda or yoga, for a fee, and then teach the same to others on a voluntary, contractual basis. The Center also promises to support such 'volunteers' with “marketing, suggestions, some advertising, and access to [its] international referral service” (http://www.chopra.com/phtt). The unmistakable commercial aspect of the program is thinly veiled under the discourses of social service and altruism:
Once you have embraced the timeless tools and techniques to bring about healing,
balance and transformation in your own life, you may have the desire to share these gifts with others…. Certification also offers you the opportunity to share this valuable knowledge with your local community, your workplace and your family
Thus, what is essentially a hierarchical structure through which the “timeless tools and techniques” of well being can be accessed is given a semblance of a democratic, philanthropic arrangement; the special knowledge acquired through expensive training and institutionalized by means of formal certification is described as an object of sharing and gifting. The corporate and the commercial are thus encoded here as the communal and the humanitarian. The website also offers users a link to find a teacher according to a location of their choice (http://www.choprateachers.com), thereby expanding the network of the program globally but simultaneously also guaranteeing the (prospective) follower accessibility to its benefits locally. The follower/learner is herself encouraged to become an active participant and agent in the process of disseminating and popularizing the knowledge that she acquires, thereby volunteering to become a component of the 'brand Deepak Chopra'. This seems like a new-age version of the Indian 'guru-shishya' tradition, in which the spiritual teacher/leader passed on his knowledge to his students/followers, and they were in turn expected to propagate to others what they had learnt. Such a dispersal of knowledge does not imply its devaluation: rather, it is a necessary marketing strategy that makes the brand of 'well being' represented by Deepak Chopra more lucrative in terms of its saleability across the globe. More importantly, it is through the involvement of more and more followers that the 'brand' of the guru expands and perpetuates its hold over certain popularly accepted meanings. Therefore, it is possible to argue that it is not so much the guru as an individual who possesses 'sacred' knowledge but the acquirable, replicable and transmissible sign of the guru that bestows sacrality on such knowledge.
Assimilation and appropriation by fans/followers into popular discourses fulfills the condition of the scared/celebrity 'sign' of the guru as an organizational principle in virtual environments. It represents a process of the diffusion, but not of dilution of the 'sacred' within a community that is essentially embedded in the material world. It takes the processes of sacralization into another domain without necessarily fragmenting it. And since much of the real life today – romance, health, eroticism, adventure, family ties, national identity, shopping, leisure – is partly lived out in electronic space, it is but natural that the sacral would also shift into the new medium.
This essay has examined how cyberspace offers itself as a medium and a domain to new-age spiritual gurus that they fruitfully employ to construct and popularize their public personae as discursive fields where popular notions of the sacred and the celebrity can be negotiated. The processes of both sacralization and celebrification are symptomatic of society’s need to maintain cohesive bonds between its members by investing, through shared beliefs and practices, certain individuals, objects or phenomena with a symbolic, abstract value over and above their material existence. The sacral/celebrity represents to a community an order that is higher than the ordinary and the everyday, yet it also informs the lived experience of the members of that community by means of its insertion into popular discourses as indefinitely iterable and replicable 'signs'. The construction, circulation and consumption of such signs of the sacred/celebrity is achieved through (mass-)mediated narratives that create and perpetuate in the popular imagination the idea of a 'unique' self whose (attributed) value is transferable and inexhaustibly reproducible, enabling it to be marketed and appropriated as a 'brand' across diverse audiences. Cyberspace extends and enhances the meanings and values of the sacred/celebrity 'brand' these gurus represent by de-territorializing their 'signs' and facilitating their access into the lives of diverse audiences unified as networked communities in contemporary global culture. Thus, the 'virtual' world, as an extension as well as an augmentation of the 'real', feeds recursively into the value of the sacral/celebrity, effecting its constant reiteration and reinvention. More significantly, it makes the sacred-celebrity figure/brand of the guru an integral part of the lived experience of followers by making everyday, seemingly personal, encounters with the guru possible. The virtual avatars of these gurus offer themselves as sites where the practices and rituals that constitute the performance of the sacred in everyday life are played out. While this essay studies how notions of the sacred and the celebrity are negotiated and appropriated in and through new media, it is necessarily limited by its scope and methodology in its exploration of how audiences/followers incorporate the sacral-celeb signs of these gurus into their lives at a personal and a communal level. While this essay focuses on the 'official' representational and discursive strategies at work in the construction and popularization of the sacred image(s) of these new-age celebrity gurus, it points to further research into the domain of the consumption of these images at a more 'vernacular' level.
1. This sort of 'identificatory' ritual is not unfamiliar to those who engage in online commercial transactions. As a means of verifying one’s individual identity, such codes and passwords seem to assert the 'sacredness' of the 'human' vis-à-vis the mechanical/technological. Thus, though the communication between the guru and the follower is, in such cases, made possible/mediated only through technology, the attempt here is to highlight the interaction between the guru and the individual follower by placing a premium on the 'human' aspect of the communication. Also, in spite of the fact that these websites are essentially public fora open to anyone who has access to the internet, the strategy of making the guru (seemingly) accessible to each follower on an individual basis introduces an element of intimacy to the interaction between the two that mimics the structure of a private audience between them.
2. The 'word' has epiphanic connotations when it comes to spiritual leaders. In revealing the 'word'/mantra to the disciple, the guru shares with him some of his own sacrality (the ritual of 'diksha' in many religious sects is a case in point), and in repeating it the follower invokes the guru even in his absence as well as partakes of and perpetuates his sacrality. In online environments, sharing 'quotations' of the guru may be said to have a similar significance.
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Saradindu Bhattacharya is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the Department of English, University of Hyderabad, India. He is working towards a doctoral thesis on contemporary representations of the Holocaust across various genres and media. He has recently published an essay on 9/11 memorial websites in the Journal of Creative Communications and one on the nature of villainous celebrity in the Harry Potter books in The Looking Glass: New Perspectives on Children's Literature. His research interests are new media, trauma studies, popular culture and children's literature.