Magical Modernities? Post-secularism and spiritualism on Indian television

Channel surfing on morning television in India—a truly bewildering experience given there are now 800 plus channels and rising—involves navigating a mix of news and sports channels, children’s shows, cookery shows, soaps, nature documentaries, consumer-advice programmes, and the odd reality TV and Western-style breakfast show.

In many ways the schedule (aside from its extreme abundance of offerings) appears not that different from morning television in Australia or the UK apart from one significant difference, one of the most prominent genres in the morning slot is religious programming. In this presentation I examine the role of spiritual television, a genre that many households in India engage with on a daily basis, in constituting modern forms of televisual publicity and citizenship.

The paper comes out of findings from a larger comparative study of Asian popular factual television (funded by the Australian Research Council), which uses lifestyle programming as a site for examining competing and contested models of modernity and citizenship, representing as it does a genre that is centrally concerned with teaching audiences how to manage and negotiate residual and emergent modes of selfhood and sociality.

I argue that spiritual programming in India is increasingly positioned in the broader TV market as lifestyle advice television offering blueprints for (late) modern living, with saffron-robed yoga gurus, new age babas and entrepreneurial astrologists increasingly jostling for screen time with celebrity chefs and Bollywood stars. If figures like the hugely popular yoga guru Baba Ramdev and the family-friendly astrologer Astro Uncle, who provides astrologically-based parental advice, are now important guides to life, fate and fortune in today’s India what might this mean for questions of civic responsibility and citizenship in a country significantly shaped by regional, religious and linguistic differences?

How does television’s role in India as a kind of privatized electronic shrine enable both a collectivism of sorts and a form of individually tailored neo-spirtualism? What sort of post-secular civility and publicity is enacted through televised spectacles such as Baba Ramdev’s famous mass yoga camps, which are attended by thousands of people?