Ah, Indian gurus have come a long way. Question is, a long way from what? Meaning...
The traditional image of Indian gurus was of a deeply spiritual, ascetic, non-materialistic seeker of cosmic truth. The guru eschewed the maya of worldly entanglements, having his (or rarely, her) sights on lofty enlightenment.
Times have changed, at least when it comes to the guru of Radha Soami Satsang Beas, Gurinder Singh. His predecessors pretty much followed the traditional guru role.
However, Gurinder Singh has devoted himself to making his family one of the richest in India through complex financial dealings with some relatives who are disciples, Malvinder and Shivinder Singh, a.k.a. the Singh Brothers.
(See Dirty money tied to RSSB guru's Ranbaxy wealth, which has links to other posts on this subject.)
Understand: I have no problem with people making money. I just find it more than a little interesting -- this tale of how an ordinary business man becomes a guru after being appointed by his uncle, then becomes vastly wealthy.
And we're not talking about straightforward aboveboard business dealings here. Not at all.
Read a lengthy recent story in India's Economic Times, "Brothers Malvinder Singh and Shivinder Singh: Business builders or deal makers?" to learn more about the guru's business connections.
It isn't a pretty picture, though unfortunately the portrait painted of how the Singh brothers make their money probably is all too common these days: corporate executives out to feather their own private financial nest through short-term deals who pay little attention to business ethics and creating value for public shareholders.
Since June 2008, when the brothers sold their stake in Ranbaxy, Fortis shareholders have earned a compounded annual 4.5%, against a broad market that has returned 5.7%. The story is no different in Religare Enterprises—their other big business.
This company, which is effectively their holding company in financial services and has applied for a banking licence, has seen its balance sheet grow five times in five years. But, in this period, it has eroded shareholder wealth at a compounded rate of -2.5%. In just over a decade in business— Malvinder, 40, and Shivinder, 38—have seen a blur of corporate activity, a level most entrepreneurs of a comparable size see in a lifetime.
..."They haven't articulated a clear strategy in business building," says Shriram Subramanian, founder and MD, InGovern Research Services, a proxy advisory services firm.
"This is another instance where the promoter does not consider other investors as partners and works towards creating shareholder wealth. The promoters largely work towards satisfying their own egos and enhancing personal wealth."
The relationship between the Singh brothers, Radha Soami Satsang Beas, and the RSSB guru comes up at the end of the Economic Times story.
The family's close ties with the Radha Soami sect—a spiritual movement—and its shadow on business choices has also intrigued corporate watchers. Several members on the Fortis and the Religare boards are either followers or have some connection with the sect. According to a distant relative of the brothers, some of this can be traced to the circumstances in which they were thrown into business.
"Remember, they were young when they lost their towering father untimely," he says. "There was tremendous pressure to keep the torch alight. He (Malvinder) saw the paternal side feuding in courts, and believed they were hostile.
He was looking for advisors within the family whom he could trust. So how surprising is it that he fell back on the maternal side of family, who happened to have roots in the Radha Saomi?" Their mother, Nimmi Singh, is the daughter of Maharaj Charanjit Singh Ji, the sect's previous guru. His nephew, Gurinder Dhillon, is the current guru.
His wife, Shabnam Dhillon, owned 8.6% of Religare in March. Their two sons, Gurpreet and Gurkirat, owned 6.48% of Religare in March 2012 but have since exited. Transactions between the listed companies and group entities has not been viewed kindly by the market. In the two-month period following the transfer of their international healthcare assets from a private company to the public listed company, the Fortis stock lost 25%.
"The deal will not pass as squeaky clean if evaluated from the corporate governance and ethical points of view," says Ambareesh Baliga, an analyst. "In fact, it may raise a few logical questions even though it may be flawless, legally speaking." "They should have revealed the number of employees on the payroll of the private company," says another analyst, on the condition of anonymity.
From my perspective it seems kind of strange that, here in the United States at least, leading politicians have to file annual financial statements regarding their income, net wealth, investments, and so on.
But with Gurinder Singh Dhillon and his family we have a spiritual leader who is much more secretive about his financial dealings, even though supposedly his moral/ethical stature is much higher than that of politicians. After all, to RSSB devotees the guru is considered to be God in human form.
A very rich God.