I am expecting a somber holy man, and in prances a young bhakti saint, a slender figure in white, dancing and singing, dark eyes beaming as he weaves through thrilled devotees. This is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar or Guruji as his disciples call him. He brings to mind images of Mirabai, Kabir, Rumi–mystics, wandering, enraptured in song and ecstatic devotion of the beloved. In person he is both wise and playfully childlike, he has written a book called God Loves Fun. He is confident, relaxed, and attentive. He seems much too good-looking and well-dressed in impeccably stitched white to be a guru! Why white? “Because it has all the colors in it,” he says from Toronto where he is on his One World Family tour.
A satguru–a true self-realized enlightened master from the Vedic tradition, he has spawned many different programs, but he is best known for the Art of Living (AOL) Foundation, an NGO that teaches the Sudarshan Kriya (SK), a healing breath process that “eliminates stress and creates a sense of belonging.” Composed entirely of volunteers in 140 countries, this is one of the fastest growing organizations in the world.
Sri Sri’s accomplishments demonstrate how one person can make a global impact. He has addressed the World Economic Forum, the U.N. Millennium World Peace Summit, and hosted a well-attended international conference on “Spiritual Regeneration and Human Values.” In Gujarat he tried to mediate between leaders of opposing Muslim and Hindu communities to resolve the Ayodhya issue, and developed a Village Adoption program for earthquake rehabilitation. He has a vision to unite the globe in a common spirituality of human values. “I want the world to feel like one family. People from all different backgrounds, religions, cultures come together and celebrate.”
Possibly, the busiest man in the world—visiting 40 countries a year, often not sleeping, he works round the clock. He laughs, “You know, stress comes to you when you take on a job which you cannot do or when you lack energy … when you’re at ease with the situation, I don’t feel that there is any need to be stressed.” Pausing, he humbly reveals—“I remember when my mother passed away and I had to be in a big satsang with 8,000 people. There was so much joy and enthusiasm and I was deeply attached to my mother as well, but I was there, right there. I thought if I could manage this then nothing else could really disturb me.”
He was born on May 13, 1956 to Venkat Ratnam and Vishalakshi, his mother, in whose memory he named the Mahalakshi meditation hall in Bangalore. By the age of 17 he had completed his traditional education in both Vedic and modern science. He sees no contradictions in that. “Vedas truly kindles interest in science. The main sloka in the Vedic heritage is—let knowledge come to you from every side … it makes you very open-minded.” At 26 after a 10-day silent retreat, he spontaneously began teaching the Sudarshan Kriya, the cornerstone of the Art of Living Foundation (AOL).
Inside the high ceilings of the Islamic Cultural Center mosque in Oakland, CA most of the 70 multi-ethnic participants of the Art of Living course have left. A group lingers on conversing—Persian, Afghani, Pakistani, Buddhist, Hindus, Jews, Christians, and atheists. “The religion is the banana peel, the fruit is spirituality. We need to focus on the fruit not just the outer layer,” says the self-assured teacher Sangeeta Jani, who has taught one course a week for the last 11 years. “We are helping everyone realize the core of their being, which is beyond any limitation, which is the same, no matter the color of their skin, their religion, caste or race. The deepest part of one’s being, it’s the same—we touch that aspect, including and accepting everything else that comes along with the person’s culture. It does not come in conflict with any other culture, practice or religion, it only enhances it,” says Jani.
She explains, “Seva, sadhna, satsang” (service, practice, and spiritual community) are the essential components of AOL. “These three, guruji says, are the different paths. Certain people follow the path of just knowledge and just the intellect is stimulated. Certain people only meditate and certain people engage only in bhakti. We have a combination, balance of all.”
Sudarshan Kriya, the breathing technique taught in the AOL course, creates inner peace by releasing stress. By the end of the course the separation between people has broken down, creating a genuine sense of belonging. Short-term benefits of SK are a feeling of well-being and relaxation, but the long term benefits are said to improve high blood pressure, cholesterol, and even management of chronic conditions like diabetes, HIV, asthma, fibromyalgia, and other diseases. A long time HIV positive survivor, now off drugs for 10 years says, “The Kriya centered me, focused me, brought me into the present moment. The grace of the work shifted my state of being, my sense of well-being affected the way that I dealt with my illness, and now I am completely healthy—I don’t come from a fear base around it.”
Jim Farrow, a jovial Art of Living teacher and recently retired from his endoscopy practice in Monterey, is educating health professionals across the country, with a DVD entitled “The Science of Breath,” 10 years of scientific studies on the medical benefits of the SK. Farrow says studies show not only improvement of immunity but actual altered brain wave patterns that reflect relaxation simultaneous with greater clarity, and improved hormone levels. Many depressive participants are able to stop taking Zoloft or Prozac. “It’s free. You don’t have to go to the drugstore to refill your breath, and there are no side effects to your breath,” chuckles Farrow.
Art of Living seems to be a new model of activism—creating a better inner and outer world. I catch Joan Goodrum, another radiant AOL teacher on the phone. “Well, la gringa taught us how to make sprouts,” she laughs quoting one of the participants from a nutrition talk she delivered in Bijaqual, two hours from Panama City. The area is poor—families of 10 live in tiny, two-room cinder block huts. Incest rates are high, pregnant 13-year-olds are common, and people have terrible health—high cholesterol though they live in the fruit basket of the world surrounded by mangos and papayas. “One of our AOL persons is from this area. She became a successful attorney in Panama City, she wanted to come back here and do something,” reveals Goodrum. That’s pretty much how an AOL seva project begins.
Bill Herman has just competed a three-day Breath Water Sound (BWS) teacher training course in the Dominican Republic along with participants from all over the Caribbean. At 10:30 p.m., he left his sleeping wife and child to talk to me in the lobby of the Almariz hotel. Course participants “have a powerful experience of peace and joy that floods them that they have never found in any other way in their life, … that sense of gratefulness from that, then in turn, brings up a desire to serve in their own communities,” says Herman “and we support them in these projects through our 5H program.” The 5H Program focuses on—Home, Health, Hygiene, Harmony in Diversity and Human Values to adopt a holistic approach to social upliftment.
For example, “Many women participants in the training have experienced sexual violence. They have found that AOL really helped them and this is a way to help other women in that same situation, deal with the stress, the fear, the anger, and bring the joy back into their own lives.” In the last few months he has created 200 new BWS teachers in the U.S. BWS is a short course that “goes out” free to underprivileged sections of society. It is the primary vehicle through which the 5H program in India has succeeded in developing schools, digging wells, imparting vocational training, doing organic farming, and helping village women halt the problem of alcoholism. The Divya Samaj Nirman (DSN), a program that sparks seva in community, has transformed 15,000 Indian villages in one year, generating projects 10 times their initial value.
“Neither at home nor at school have we learned how to handle negative emotions or rid ourselves of unwanted stress,” says Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. So he designed an innovative curriculum called ART Excel for children ages 8-12 and teens, giving kids access to confidence, focus, and leadership qualities. An ART Excel child, Kavya is confident and charming. At 19 years of age, she excels in school and extra-curricular activities, and has the same concerns as Americans her age. She relates how once when guruji was leaving, he saw her looking sad and called out to her. Kavya burst into tears saying, “guruji, there’s this boy … ” He spent the rest of the evening sharing his dinner and talking to her. Last year in Palo Alto, in answer to a question from a mother who was concerned that her son was seeing a psychiatrist because he was gay, Shankar thoughtfully suggested bringing her son to the kriya, to help him be more at ease with himself. Acceptance, unconditional love, ease and inner freedom are qualities that Sri Sri embodies in the littlest of interactions.
“Service is the expression of love. Serve in whatever possible manner you can. Ask yourself ‘How can I be useful to people around me and to the whole world.’ Then your heart starts blossoming. Otherwise we are always thinking ‘What about me, what about me?’” Exemplifying their teacher’s words, local AOL volunteers are the backbone of all these programs. Regular people, from all walks of life have taken the time to organize courses and fundraising events. The ripples from each person’s dedication spread far and wide, creating a chain reaction of causes that transform millions of lives.
Another program Prison Smart, which is offered in the prison and correctional system in India, reached an al Qaeda operative Mohammed Afroze incarcerated in Mumbai jail. He was so transformed that he chose to forgo bail, extending his stay in jail to learn meditation. Sri Sri comments, “When people have the notion that only they will go to heaven and everybody else to hell, they need some education. It’s worth giving training to people of all sections of society. We cannot label some people as criminals, they’re not criminals forever. They have a good heart, they do have good intentions—they just need help. They can understand, you know, that there’s light coming into their life.”
Industrialists, celebrities, and powerful politicians like L.K. Advani flocked to take photographs with him at an international conference, raising questions for some about Sri Sri’s own political agenda. According to him, his interest is in the spiritual regeneration of all areas of society. “People from all political parties had come. It was the first time that we had invited all the political leaders, … every avenue of society needs to be benefited by spirituality. If people are not spiritual then they become corrupt.”
He has his own ideas about how to settle the Ayodhya crisis. “Because that place does not hold any significance for Muslims, it only makes sense for them to give it, the most holiest place for Hindus, as a gift. Then there could have been such goodwill … and the Hindus can give them something back in return.” He thinks that Hindus and Muslims could come to an agreement instead of politicizing the issue further and burying it in lawsuits. The fundamental problem, he thinks, is not with Muslims but “leftist minded and secular Hindus who are against the devoted Hindus … why won’t they respect the sentiments of millions of rural Indians, who may not be highly educated but have a deep faith in Rama’s birthplace.” He questions secularists, “if the situation was reversed and it was the birthplace of Mohammed shouldn’t it be given to the Muslims?” “Let those people who have faith … do their thing (otherwise) fanaticism will go on increasing and people will be … humiliated on this issue.”
“Fanatics in any religion are not inspired by the scriptures or wisdom,” says Sri Sri on the larger question of religious fanaticism. “You cannot try to eliminate fanaticism in Hinduism if it exists in other religions. It is just an instinct of survival (and has) nothing to do with the philosophy.” He sees ten 10 of terrorism with “400,000 Kashmiri Hindus driven out of their homeland and living in inhuman conditions in refugee camps,” as having cast this fanatic shadow. He says the only way forward is, “We have to have a multi-religious, multicultural education for every individual and terrorism or fanaticism should go from every part of the world. Only then the world can become a safe place, otherwise the shadows will keep falling on one another.” He believes that Art of Living provides a step in that direction.
But Sri Sri isn’t just about weighty issues of religion and violence. He answers questions about whether marriage and sex can interfere with the spiritual path. He says, “Marriage, sex, love, is a personal choice. It can help someone on the path or it can even be problematic.” But when pressed that he himself has chosen to be celibate, he laughs, “Because I have never grown!” On if he has ever been in love, he says “I’m always in love. I’m a spoiled teenager, all the time in love.”
According to Sangeeta Jani, Sri Sri is the embodiment of unconditional love. People report magical healings, walking out unscathed from life-threatening situations. Jani, who was miraculously saved in a drowning accident, found out that her guruji had heard her calling from the water. There are thousands of similar stories among his devotees. Whatever the truth, many teachers, and volunteers have the common experience that once you start doing his work, you are taken care of and everything falls into place.
Some people think of him as a God. Are you? I ask. Sri Sri demurs. “First tell me what is God? If your God is love, then I am love, definitely … God and love is the greatest miracle or magic in the world and in love all is possible. Love is the greatest healing force on the planet.” So love and God are synonymous. Does that mean he is both? “There is no two, when you say synonymous it’s only one,” he says laughing.
Then he explains further, “God is the substratum, is the energy, is a field, that we are all in and everybody is part of it … some express it a little more, some express it a little less, but love is in every heart in this planet.”
Then what is enlightenment? The answer comes immediately. “Realizing that you are that love. Hmm … there’s an ancient Upanishadic sloka, “Thou are that” that is what the ancient masters said and then realized that, “Aham Brahamasmi,” (I am that) coming to that outlook. The whole journey is from being somebody to being nobody to being everybody. Okay? Okay.”
I am sitting in a sea of ecstatic people singing and dancing while Sri Sri is seated on stage. He stands up, begins to sing and dance, sending the crowd higher and higher. I look around me—for some of these people he is a guru, for some he is an avatar, a human incarnation of a god, others think he is a scientific enlightened leader creating a sustainable spirituality—a new global religion of human values, engendering a society that could make war, terrorism, and religious fundamentalism redundant. I try to hold onto my doubts, but I can’t, I am dissolving into this ecstatic bhaktic fervor. The truth is I am having too much fun!