Why you should care
Because even a strongly atheist, anti-religious government cannot stop people from seeking spiritual peace.
Shanghai-based brass manufacturer Man Hu was suspicious when her herbal doctor advised her to switch from stress-busting medicines to spiritual lessons in something called the Art of Living offered by a group from India.
Indian spiritualism? In communist China? The idea railed against her upbringing.
“I grew up in an atheist country,” Hu told OZY. “We do not believe there’s any god, and I was hesitant about accepting my doctor’s advice.”
That was October 2003. On a Friday two months ago, Hu was introducing 106 Chinese men and women to the spiritual cult at the Bangalore ashram of the movement’s founder, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, helping them bridge a chasm far wider than language or culture alone.
Increasing loneliness amid rapid affluence makes the country an obvious market for spiritual movements that promise solace.
A generation after Mao Tse-tung’s Red Guards tried to cripple homegrown spiritual and philosophical strains like Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, thousands of Chinese are clutching contemporary Indian spiritualism as their modern belief systems.
Organizations sired by faith healers like Ravi Shankar and Mātā Amṛtānandamayī, and by yoga preachers like B.K.S. Iyengar — who passed away in August — and Mohan Bhandari are juggling commitments in India and the West with a flood of invitations to expand in China. The Art of Living foundation already has 55 Chinese teachers who hold classes across 20 major cities in that country, said Karthik Krishna, the organization’s media coordinator. Bhandari’s Yogi Yoga brand has multiple centers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Many of these gurus have been visiting China, and some, like Bhandari, have even made the country their home.
A few Indian preachers have been followed and harassed by government officials on their visits to China, where the communist party retains an iron grip on intellectual freedoms, even as the middle class has burgeoned three decades after reforms have made China the world’s second-largest economy.
But living in a Chinese city can be difficult and alienating. Chinese face relentless competition — for education, housing and even spouses. Increasing loneliness amid rapid affluence makes the country an obvious market for spiritual movements that promise solace.
“The fast-paced, young Chinese may have a lot of money, but at some point they realize they don’t have any peace of mind,” said Dhyana Amrita, a close aide of Amṛtānandamayī — better known as the “hugging Amma” — who accompanied her in November 2012 to Shanghai for a U.N. conference. “That’s where Indian spiritualism is helping them.”
Iyengar, one of India’s best-known names in yoga, visited Beijing in June 2011, and his daughter Geeta — who too is pursuing her father’s vocation — was in the Chinese capital in July to inaugurate a yoga festival co-sponsored by the Indian embassy there.
Ravi Shankar, who counts several of India’s top political leaders and corporate honchos as his followers, traveled to Beijing in October 2010 and to the eastern China city of Hangzhou in July 2013, where he spoke at a conference on ecological challenges facing the world, Krishna said.
“These contemporary spiritual practices are tailored for today — they need you to just spend a few minutes every day to find your inner peace.”
But their popularity in China preceded their visits. They already had many followers in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mongolia and among Chinese immigrants in Singapore, where these spiritual movements first arrived in the 1990s.
“We were not surprised [about the invitations to Ravi Shankar from China],” Krishna said, recalling a visit by the guru to Singapore in 2009 where more than 10,000 people of Chinese-origin hosted a reception for him. “The news spreads fast.”
For one of the teachers at a Beijing class of Bhandari’s Yogi Yoga, the initial drive came from a desire “to get prettier.”
“I was overweight and stressed when I started three years back,” the woman, who only identified herself by her English name Ivy, said over the telephone. “Now I feel calmer and I’ve lost the extra weight I had.”
Followers attend a few short sessions followed by snappy self-practiced routines. This efficient packaging of modern Indian spiritual movements is a critical factor behind their success in countries like China with centuries-old spiritual traditions of their own, said Hu.
“Traditional meditation practices need you to devote a lot of time,” she said. “No young person trying to build a career can afford that. These contemporary spiritual practices are tailored for today — they need you to just spend a few minutes every day to find your inner peace. That’s why it works.”
Despite indications last year that it no longer considered religion and spirituality taboo subjects, China’s Communist Party remains skeptical about religion, ingrained over nearly seven decades. The Falun Gong, a controversial Chinese spiritual group, remains banned and its adherents are still often targeted.
When she visited Shanghai in 2012, Amṛtānandamayī was closely followed by security personnel wherever she went, her aide said. “They just didn’t trust us,” Dhyana Amrita said.
That suspicion doesn’t resonate as deeply with ordinary Chinese anymore. More than 20,000 Chinese men and women have taken Art of Living courses, and another 5,000 are currently taking classes, Hu said.
Krishna admits that at least some Chinese may also just be aping a trend.
“China is one country that does not want to be left behind,” she says, “whether in culture, sports or for that matter spirituality.”