Anger: Sri Sri Ravi Shankar Doesn’t Know It
By NIMMI RAGHUNATHAN
Those were early, pre-satellite days when Indian TV programming was an hour long on the weekend. Right after blasts of some nostalgic film music, a youthful man with a wispy beard, long black hair, and a sing-song voice would lend quick wisdom in capsules. By the time the mid-90s rolled in, his visits to Southern California were packing halls. Today he requires arenas.
Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, aged 67, the founder of the Art of Living, now must think only in terms of millions: both in relation to his worldwide followers and the organization’s unspecified but even larger financial worth. And yet, he continues to retain a calm that seems almost passive, belying the idea that urgency and overt dynamic action are required to build empires.
And that works well for the devotees who flock to learn from him the tools and power of de-stressing, including the very popular ‘Sudarshan Kriya,’ a breathing technique.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in Los Angeles as a part of his swing through US cities, was at AOL’s beautiful center, a historic building with Grecian columns, mahogany pews, and hardwood floors for yoga when he spoke with India-West.
Clad in pristine white clothes, he retains the bird-like slim sprightliness of his younger days. Visibly at least, age, it seems, has only touched his hair gray. Warm and receptive, the Guru, not necessarily known for his loquaciousness, answered questions at some length and with practiced ease. He also seemed to enjoy what he is known for – quick thinking one-line answers. He did this while one more gaggle of people milled outside the room, waiting to meet him.
Q: What are the changes you see in the America you used to visit then and now?
A: I have been coming here for 42 years. In those days there wasn’t so much violence. California was more spiritual and known for its fun. Today, you have 2.8 mass shootings per day in America. It makes you wonder whether you are in a civilized society or back in a barbaric age. Having said this, I would say there is also a lot of interest in spirituality. So, we have this bipolar thing going on. On one side there is this increase in spirituality, and on the other, there is violence. Also, in those days there was quite a lot of prejudice. Today there is less prejudice about yoga and meditation, it has become a narrative of the mainstream.
Q: Speaking of prejudice…Art of Living is known as a yoga institution rather than a Hindu one…
A: Yes. Spiritual, yoga-based, service-oriented.
Q: Not necessarily a Hindu one?
A: See religion is limited to a certain sect of people but spirituality is pan-religious. It (Art of Living) helps people across the spectrum of different religions. Also, because it is not religious in nature it is accepted in colleges and schools and business sectors as something that can improve human life.
Q: Tell us a little bit about the upcoming mega program, the World Culture Festival, in Washington DC in September. Why DC and what do you want to see achieved with it?
A: Any place you select, this question will be asked. I would say, why not DC? Being the national capital, I think all the more it needs the spiritual vibes and the diversity message. This is like a cultural Olympics. What do you see at the Olympics? It is a platform for people to exhibit their sporting talents. This is an Olympics without competition.
Q: …Art of Living will gain influence in DC?
A: Art of Living is an influence in people’s lives. ‘To make life a celebration’ is the motto of Art of Living. The festival will give amateur artists a platform to exhibit their talents. And there will be mass meditation, and yoga sessions too.
Q: You have not shied away from meeting politicians, unlike some others who think politics is not in the realm of spirituality. Why is it important to engage with them?
A: Spirituality is about empowering people and bringing knowledge and wisdom to them. Knowledge and wisdom are necessary even for people in politics without which it would be a disaster. Anyone who is dedicated to public service needs to manage themselves, their own stress levels, patience, and perceptions, and rise above prejudice. Our programs help with this.
Q: In your experience around the world, do you think religion is better served by right-leaning governments? Do you think they listen more?
A: Spiritual leaders around the world cater to human needs. Just as a doctor who doesn’t care whether a patient is right-wing, left-wing, or in the center, we don’t interfere with their ideology. You know, it is not just about the type of government; everybody listens to us. I have been to Venezuela with a leftist government. I have given advice and they have followed it. We are present in China, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine…
Q: We complain about religious conversion in India. But isn’t it also a fault of Hindu leaders that they have not filled the gap that people feel?
A: Yes, we cannot deny it. There has not been an understanding from Hindu leaders. We remained more in rituals rather than attending to the mental and psychological aspects of people.
Many Hindu institutions are engaged in a lot of service activity, but poverty is something that can be taken advantage of by luring people financially or otherwise and asking them to convert. That is wrong.
Secondly, our Hindu population is not well-educated in its own roots. In this, Hindu leaders have definitely not done their job, they could have done better. We just remained in the kathas of Ramayan, Mahabharat, and Bhagavat. We didn’t go a little further in addressing grievances and needs.
The things that are said in other religions are said in the Bhagavad Gita also but that has not been highlighted. Lord Krishna says, ‘I will relieve you of all your sins, come unto me.’ Now, this is seldom quoted but what is popularly quoted is ‘Do your duty, don’t worry about the result.’ Today’s young people who are in pain are looking for the ‘I will relieve your sins,’ and Lord Krishna has said this, but we don’t highlight it.
Another thing we have not highlighted is that God is One and has many forms. People grow up thinking you have to please so many gods and goddesses, and that it is too complicated. It causes fear in the mind and people think, ‘I gave a flower to this God, did namaste to that God, and the other God will be angry,’ causing a split in the mind, in the devotion amongst the younger generation. We have to bring them Vedantic knowledge, the highest knowledge. People are ready for it.
Q: Is a personal God needed in the practice of yoga?
A: To feel a personal connection to God is necessary! God is not an object. Sage Patanjali says in the Yoga Sutra, by adoring the divine, samadhi happens easily. Bhakti is necessary. Nothing works without bhakti.
Q: We say love is the purest emotion…
A: Love is not an emotion. Love is your very existence!
Q: When people think of you, it is always of a smiling visage. When did you last get angry?
A: (Laughing). It’s like asking when did you beat up your wife! First, you have to ask, do you have a wife or not?
Q: So, no temper ever?
A: Still laughing, shakes his head.
Q: Are you happy with where Art of Living is today?
A: I am content.
Q: What would you like to see happen in ten years?
A: See, if I thought such things…then I cannot be sitting in the seat where I am. I have no desires at all. It is all happening naturally and it is for people to take it where they want to take it. Here is the knowledge, here is the wisdom, Art of Living is just the framework.
Adi Sankara after whom you were named: The architect of India! Yes, I was born on his birthday.
Ego: Something you need not worry about.
Mind: You have to be mindful.
Music: It comes with life.
Silence: Mother of all creativity and peace.
Favorite place: (Pointing to his heart). Inside.
Hollywood and Bollywood: Places that create illusion. Yogis love Holy-wood which destroys the illusion.