In a spiritual leader, an institution in India, THEO PANAYIDES meets a man for whom actions speak louder than words, from coming up with a breathing technique to conflict resolution in troubled areas of the world
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar opens the door (he’s been having dinner in private, with the door closed) and the whole room stiffens. Conversation ebbs, everyone reflexively rises as if standing to attention. We’ve been having dinner too, a delectable buffet at the Indian High Commission in Nicosia – but now the guru’s back, and the sense of awe is palpable. A knot of people forms around him. One young man pulls his wife and baby along, presumably for the child to be blessed by Ravi Shankar. Others take selfies. I’ve already overheard one man telling others during dinner that he lives in Barcelona, and came to Cyprus just for the occasion – though it may be that he’s part of the entourage, as opposed to some random superfan.
Half an hour earlier, in a nearby hall in the High Commission complex, I attend ‘An Evening of Wisdom With Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’ – though I actually arrive halfway through, to find the audience sitting cross-legged with their eyes closed while Gurudev leads them in meditation. “Deep relaxing…” he intones dreamily. “Nothing to do, and nothing to know.” The mood is languorous, almost to the point of being sluggish. “Let every cell in your face start smiling,” he urges the crowd. (“I just want to see people smiling more,” he tells me later, in our brief interview.) “Let every cell in your body start to relax.” The evening ends – and he’s once again mobbed by the audience, people holding phones aloft to capture his likeness and proffering bouquets of flowers.
The 66-year-old spiritual leader is a celebrity in India. More than that, he’s a humanitarian; even more than that, he’s an institution. He’s the founder of the Art of Living foundation, an NGO with branches in 156 countries. His Twitter feed (@srisri) regales his 4.2 million followers with tweets that might’ve come from a public official or regional government: “On the 18th of this month, solar lamps worth 1 Crore have been donated by the @ArtofLiving to light homes in remote areas of Assam,” went a recent missive. (One crore is equivalent to 10 million rupees.) Among his many honours is the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian award, which has been bestowed on only 314 individuals – from a population of 1.3 billion, lest we forget – in seven decades.
In person he’s soft-spoken and avuncular, his expression alternately sly and amused. Interviewing him, in the usual sense, is out of the question. For one thing, he’s a global ambassador who travels constantly, granting interviews wherever he goes; he can only give a sliver of his time. And there’s something else too, the fact that a man in his position can’t afford to be too explicit. Wisdom works best with a touch of the vague or cryptic, allowing the listener to complete the thought in their own mind; his answers are brief, his actions speak louder than words. How would he summarise his message, in its simplest form? “A violence-free society,” he replies, with an air of having answered the question before. “Disease-free body, stress-free mind. Only this can make a person happy.”
Hard to argue with that, though achieving it is another matter. Some might take him to be spouting platitudes – but of course his reputation precedes him, and his legend holds it all together. “I think silence is the mother of all creativity,” he tells me later. “Any poet, anyone who wants to write a book – they just go to a corner, and be by themselves.” True enough – but the story behind this harmless truism is that he himself was silent for 10 days and nights, back in 1982, on the banks of the river Bhadra in Karnataka, at which point he was suddenly inspired to create Sudarshan Kriya, a breathing technique that’s become the lynchpin of his many programmes. “I was in silence for 10 days,” he recalls dreamily, “and then like a poem, like a gift it came to me.” The legend is burnished on his YouTube account (1.67 million subscribers) where, for instance, we discover that Ravi Shankar – the ‘Sri Sri’ and ‘Gurudev’ are honorifics – was a very special child, much exercised by spiritual questions. “Many times as a child,” he muses in his low sing-song voice, “I wondered [if] I am in the wrong place. Nobody seemed to think big, or to think about life, and the world, and the divine nothing”.
That video offers amusing little snippets, as for instance that his primary-school teacher in what was then Madras State – who’d cane pupils’ palms for not completing their work – was never able to punish him (“Somehow he could never do it”), presumably a case of his charismatic aura coming through at an early age. The website bio adds another snippet: “By the age of four he was able to recite the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Sanskrit scripture”. ‘What have been the turning points in your life?’ I ask – but in fact the question is irrelevant. “From childhood I had this inclination to the higher truths about life,” he replies patiently. “So I didn’t have any big dramatic turnaround, no.”
Has he had what might be called supernatural experiences?
“You know, you call it ‘supernatural’ if it is new to you. If an experience is normal to you, ordinary, you don’t call it supernatural. I feel that this ability is in everybody.”
The experiences might be supernatural – but in fact his achievements have been worldly, and practical. He’s intervened in Colombia (!) between the government and the FARC guerrillas, meeting with both sides to try to get them to embrace Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of non-violence. He’s been widely involved in conflict resolution in India itself. He’s organised prison programmes all over the world. “I think evil is just a shadow,” he muses. “It’s not an object. So, inside every culprit – inside every bad guy – there is a good person hiding, and wounded. You have to heal the victim inside every culprit. That is why we are working in prisons all over the world.”
His work has “transformed” inmates from South Africa to Scandinavia – yet it’s also being offered to college students by 101 universities in America, to make them feel better and more relaxed. You wouldn’t think the exact same approach could work to relieve exam stress and also rehabilitate criminals – but it’s all about breathing techniques, “that’s the key to our programme… It works all over the world, in 170 countries around the world”. Sudarshan Kriya, the fruit of those 10 days of silence, “sets the rhythm back in your body,” explains its creator. “When you go out of rhythm, it’s like an instrument going out of tune.”
But breathing is so natural. Why must we be trained in how to do it?
“Sleep is so natural – but why do so many people suffer from insomnia?” he counters with a practiced chuckle. “When you are tensed, you don’t know what to do – because neither at home nor at school, nobody taught you how to get rid of negative emotions”. That, in a nutshell, is what he offers through the Art of Living – a deep negativity-cleanse through breathing, meditation and yoga. Aren’t negative emotions just part of being human, though?
“I’m not saying emotions are bad, they are all natural. But if they stay in you too long, you think it’s good?” He shakes his head: “Causes damage”. If you snatch a toy away from a child, it feels angry, he offers by way of analogy – but it doesn’t let that feeling grow and fester, like adults do. What about stress being creative? “If stress could bring creativity,” says Gurudev, his lively eyes twinkling, “Afghanistan would have become the most creative place in the world!”
It’s a telling response – because it’s a shrewd, witty response, the kind a sophisticated guest might make at a dinner party; not the response of a sheltered swami spending his days in blissful meditation. That’s the slight oddity in meeting Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: he inspires the reverence we associate with a man of God – and does indeed spend most of his time on good works and spiritual matters – but his energy is alert and dynamic, an entrepreneur’s energy. He has three professional bases (in India, the US and Germany) and shuttles between them, travelling endlessly. “I’m very busy the whole day. Technology has made me even more busy… I keep addressing conferences – mental-health conferences – giving meditation programmes, and many other things”. Then there’s Ayurveda, Indian “alternative medicine” according to Wikipedia – or just medicine, for those without a Western bias.
We’ve been talking about Covid; I’ve already wondered why we allowed stress and fear to take over everything. (“You’re asking my question to me!” he replies, chuckling.) As the interview winds down, Ravi Shankar offers me a present: a vial of 60 pills labelled ‘NAOQ19’, made by an Indian company called Sri Sri Tattva (their website cites him as ‘Our Inspiration’). “We have put our Indian doctors together,” he explains, “and have come up with this medicine that just got approval a month ago. For Covid – mild and moderate Covid care. In the beginning of Covid, if you take this for three days, from being positive you’ll become negative. And no side effects!”
Cue a chorus of scientists declaring this to be wrong and outrageous. Cue the usual suspects insisting that there’s only one therapeutic for Covid, the kind you inject in your arm – and if others do exist then they’re certainly manufactured by giant US pharmaceutical companies, not some Indian guru practising natural medicine. (The ingredients on the back of the vial list around 15 herbs.) On the other hand, maybe some humility is in order. A glance at the figures on Worldometers shows that India, Bangladesh and Nepal have about a tenth of the Covid death rate of the US. India did have a surge in May 2021 – the one that was in all the Western media – but brought it under control in a few weeks and has stayed largely Covid-free since (even their Omicron was mild), even as Europe labours under endless waves. Maybe we’d do well to heed these teachings, whether on Covid or otherwise.
A question remains: is it right for a spiritual leader to be also (in effect) a businessman? But here, again, cultural factors may be at play. Indian culture seems to treat such matters more holistically, viewing spirituality as a part of life. It doesn’t require its gurus to be pristine, primly divorced from the dirty business of making money – and of course making money pales next to Art of Living’s charitable works, from free education to river-restoring and tree-planting. “OK?” says the polite, shrewd-looking man sitting next to me, his voice growing perceptibly harder as he steers the interview to an end – then relents: “One last question”.
What to ask? I’m flummoxed, feeling like I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’ve barely even asked about his life, beyond a quick description of his diet. (Vegetarian, of course, though “I do take yogurt, and a little milk sometimes”.) What’s he like as a person, this towering figure and lifelong mystic – if indeed that’s the word to describe him? What gives him pleasure in life? “Well, I am not running after pleasure,” he deflects. “I only give what I have.”
In the end, the man himself may be less important than the effect he’s had (and continues to have) on others. Madhumita Hazarika Bhagat, the high commissioner – who’s been sitting in on our interview – now leans forward slightly, wishing to add one last thing before we part. “I can say I’m a beneficiary of Gurudev,” she says with a smile – and explains that she took the Art of Living course many years ago, learned a lot, and continues to live by it. “I’m a living example of how, in my whole career and my whole life, I have benefited from Gurudev’s course, and his meditation.” Sri Sri Ravi Shankar smiles a cryptic, dreamy smile, radiating calm and serenity – then nods, gets up graciously, and goes next door to have his dinner.