By Aalif Surti
We present the life and work of some contemporary gurus who have affected the lives of millions through their teachings and personal example
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
“Expansion of happiness is the purpose of creation and we are all here to enjoy and radiate happiness everywhere.” This is the core of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s teachings. A pioneer in the field of consciousness study in modern times, Mahesh Yogi is best known for popularising meditation and Indian spirituality throughout the world. Famous in the 1960s as guru to the Beatles, Maharishi has moved beyond the image of a ‘flower power’ guru to touch millions through his teachings, programmes and educational institutions.
Maharshi’s teachings are Vedic in spirit, and encompass every sphere of human life including health, education, economy, peace efforts, science, government, religion, law, rehabilitation, art and culture. His Transcendental Meditation (TM) programme has gained worldwide popularity, and at one time his name became synonymous with levitation—the raising of the body through yogic techniques. In fact, the image in popular culture of the levitating sadhu can be said to owe its origin to Mahesh Yogi’s ‘Yogic Flying’ programmes.
Today there are millions who have been introduced to TM—the simple system of mentally repeating a given mantra, taught by an estimated 40,000 teachers worldwide. Scientific studies have found that TM indeed does have a tangible effect on body responses and stress levels. Says Maharishi: “My easy system of TM is a desired means to spiritualise modern materialism and materialise old spirituality.”
In recent years, the Maharishi who is now 86, has turned his attention to drawing out streams of Vedic knowledge, like sthapatya, science of architecture, jyotish and ayurveda, and present them in a practicable manner. Yet his lifelong dream has been the establishment of an ideal society based on Vedic principles and ‘natural law’. All his activities are geared towards this supreme goal, whether it is the creation of the World Government for the Age of Enlightenment in 1976, the launch of the ‘Ideal Society’ programme in 108 countries, the Global Administration through Natural Law, and the Maharishi Open University. Although his utopian plans may appear grandiose to some, he is a visionary who not only dares to dream but also tries to actualise his dreams.
Websites: www.tm.org, www.maharishi-india.org
The Dalai Lama
His Holiness the Dalai Lama is perhaps one of the most respected and recognised spiritual leaders in the world today. Through his non-violent approach to politics, refusal to hate the enemy, emphasis on universal values rather than religion, and the willingness to explore consciousness in scientific terms, he has touched the hearts and minds of many.
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, has multiple identities—he is the spiritual and temporal head of the Tibetan people, winner of the 1989 Nobel Prize for Peace, and perhaps the single largest factor responsible for the current global interest in Buddhism.
Born in a peasant’s family in Tibet, he was recognised as the reincarnation of his predecessor at age two. He was just 15 when the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950. After 10 years of struggle, he fled to India along with 80,000 Tibetan refugees. Since then, he has lived in exile in Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh.
His Holiness has repeatedly appealed to the United Nations and the world community on behalf of Tibet. He has been able to bring a measure of democracy in the traditionally feudal Tibetan society—members of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile are elected directly by the Tibetan diaspora. He has encouraged his people to protest non-violently against Chinese occupation and has never termed the Chinese government as his ‘enemy’.
Starting life as head of a nation, the Dalai Lama has grown to be so much more. If any one person could be honestly called ‘world guru’, it would be him because of the wide respect he commands, and the transformation he has affected in the way we view the politics of conflict. He talks in language free from religious jargon, and his message is rooted in the essential equality of all human beings and the concept of universal responsibility.
Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, he said: “Responsibility does not only lie with the leaders of our countries or with those who have been appointed or elected to do a particular job. It lies with each of us individually. Peace, for example, starts within each one of us. When we have inner peace, we can be at peace with those around us…. When we feel love and kindness towards others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace…. What is important is that we each make a sincere effort to take our responsibility for each other and for the natural environment we live in seriously.”
His entire life has been an untiring mission to spread and actualise this profound message.
Popularly known as Amma, Mata Amritanandamayi’s life comprises her teachings. For most of us, Amma is the ‘hugging guru’, who sweeps all who come to her in a warm, accepting embrace. Clad in a white sari, her face wreathed in smiles, Amma’s greatest miracle is unconditional, free-flowing love for all.
Amma began life as a fisherman’s daughter in a coastal village in Kerala. Her childhood was difficult, and she would often go into states of spiritual absorption. As she grew up, so did her fame, and she now has an ever-growing following all over the world.
Amma’s activities are not limited to providing spiritual succour. She has enabled the building of numerous hospitals, schools, old age homes, and shelters for the poor. Her humanitarian activities have attracted the attention of the world community and she was awarded the United Nation’s Gandhi-King Award for Non-violence in 2002. For Amma, service not only benefits the receiver, but the giver as well. She encourages her disciples to serve with smiles and kind words, so that those who give, those who receive, and those who look on, are all transformed by the sprit of selfless love and universal kinship.
Today, the Mata Amritanandamayi Math in Kollam district has got ashrams and centres all over India and abroad, which serve as home to those who wish to engage in spiritual practice. A cancer hospital near Mumbai, AIDS care centre in Trivandrum, community outreach programmes for the terminally ill, neurological care camps and free treatment for epilepsy and diabetes have been made possible through Amma’s efforts. She has also established 60 educational institutions including the Amrita Institute of Technology and Science (AITEC), the Amrita Institute of Management (AIM) and the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS)to impart modern education while reorienting society to universal spiritual principles.
Asked how she managed to do so much in a relatively short span of time, Amma says: “I am like a river which keeps on flowing. The river has no mission but simply keeps on flowing and people flock to it to drink its pure water.”
Contact: Mata Amritanandmayi Math,
Ph: (0476) 2896399378678, website: www.amritapuri.org
Lovingly called Gurumayi, Swami Chidvilasananda is the current head of the lineage of Siddha masters. She has devoted her life to spiritual practice and serving her master, the late Swami Muktananda, who introduced shaktipat initiation and teachings of this lineage in the West in 1970. Before he passed away in 1982, Swami Muktananda passed on the leadership of this lineage to Gurumayi, and she has been engaged in giving teachings and initiations of the Siddha lineage since then.
Siddha Yoga sadhana is the process of connecting with the power and wisdom of one’s inner being, the Self. It involves: bringing the heightened awareness and strength of the Self to outer activities and situations, nurturing one’s awakened inner power by engaging with the practices, opening oneself to the transforming power of the gurus’ teachings through contemplating their words and putting them to work, and allowing the wisdom of the guru to call forth one’s own inherent truth.
Obviously, the guru’s guidance is of prime importance in the lineage of the Siddhas, since it is a path of direct transmission of knowledge and energy from the guru to the student. The Siddha guru is also said to have the power to effect kundalini awakenings in the disciple through shaktipat. What is unique about Gurumayi’s role is that she has brought this tradition out of its cloak of secrecy; a process set in motion by Swami Muktananda and continued by her, and has made it available to students in the east and west in the form of a curriculum of study, and also through retreats, chanting, and meditation ‘intensives’. Teachers are trained in Siddha Yoga meditation through SYDA (Siddha Yoga Dham of America), an organisation that is responsible for much of Siddha Yoga activities throughout the world. The original Siddha Yoga ashram is at Ganeshpuri in Maharashtra, and is called Gurudev Siddha Peeth.
Gurumayi is author of several books including Courage and Contentment, Enthusiasm, Inner Treasures, and Kindle my Heart.
S.N. Goenka is the man behind making widely available the Buddhist meditation technique—vipassana—as a secular form of mind training. Having learnt vipassana in Burma from Sayagi U Ba Khin, Goenka decided to teach vipassana to anyone who needed it. In 1974, he established the Vipassana International Academy in Igatpuri in Maharashtra for this purpose. This meditation movement has grown phenomenally since then, and the ten-day vipassana course is available at centres around the country.
Goenka’s approach to the teaching of vipassana is completely non-sectarian. For this reason, his teaching has a profound appeal to people of all backgrounds, of every religion, in every part of the world. The course is offered free of cost, with the option being given to each participant of contributing to the organisation according to their capability in the spirit of dana. Sangha rules laid down by the Buddha are followed during the course, with the last meal of the day at noon, segregation of men and women, and early mornings and nights. The main activity of the day is meditation in which participants are instructed in the development of complete awareness of the mind and its activities.
Vipassana, which literally means ‘seeing things as they are’, is a way of transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the connection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to physical sensations that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. This observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body dissolves mental impurities, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion. Life becomes characterised by increased awareness, self-control and peace.
Goenka has personally conducted hundreds of vipassana courses around the world. He has also trained more than 600 teachers, who have conducted courses in more than 90 countries. In this, he denies a ‘guru’ role for himself and sees himself simply as a teacher. Which is why he has laid emphasis on training others to fulfil his role in the teaching of vipassana. Asked how he does this, he says: “One must first become perfect in the technique so that there is no deviation. So one is showed the right path. Secondly, one should experience oneself at least to an extent up to which one can guide others. One must give up a lot of things and have a lot of love, compassion and goodwill. Many times one starts teaching and asking for money, which is totally prohibited. So every teacher and everyone who trains a teacher must have means of livelihood and this must be free service. These are the four qualities on the basis of which we train people to become teachers.”
A prolific writer, Goenka has written in English, Hindi and Rajasthani. His works have been translated into many languages around the world.
Contact: Vipassana International Academy,
Ph: (02553) 24407686, website: www.dhamma.org
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
The popularity Sri Sri Ravi Shankar enjoys today is phenomenal. With his simple and easy to understand teachings and the Sudarshan Kriya technique of self-growth disseminated through the Art of Living course, he has reached out to more people in India than any other single guru in recent times. Born on May 13, 1956, his proclivity towards spirituality led him to do a PhD in the Vedas and science.
In 1982, he is said to have gone into 10 days of silence because he felt something was “coming up”. During this period, Sudarshan Kriya was revealed to him, also felt by followers to be the time of his enlightenment. From this experience, the Art of Living programme emerged. Art of Living has been able to penetrate every corner of India through a loose organisation in which teachers are trained and sent forth to conduct the courses. Anyone can enrol, and fees are charged according to participants’ capability. Ravi Shankar himself is based in his ashram near Bangalore.
His basic teaching stems from a non-dual view of reality, where everything is part of one divinity. Dropping our ego, we can realise our true nature and self-knowledge is the way to drop impressions to access our natural self. Our true nature is love, which is the essence of the universe and indeed, of the Divine. Says he in God Loves Fun: “Make the divine your Valentine. Just be…and know that you are loved. That is Beloved.”
This love is to be expressed through service to one’s fellow being, and thus Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has inspired numerous educational and charitable organisations around the globe. The Art of Living Foundation promotes self-development and health-related educational programmes, many of which feature Sudarshan Kriya. An estimated one million people have taken the Art of Living course in more than 100 countries. The Art of Living repertoire has grown in recent years with the addition of Art Excel, a personal development and empowerment course for children and teens, and the ‘5-H Programme’, which takes a holistic approach to social service, focusing on the five ‘Hs’ of health, housing, hygiene, human values, and harmony in diversity, and trains youth to help implement these programmes in their communities.
The complete picture of the impact Sri Sri Ravi Shankar will have on our times is yet to emerge, since the legions of his followers continue to burgeon, and his teachings reach newer corners with each passing year. His special appeal among the young and the urban population has ensured that his true legacy would be the bringing of a spiritual outlook amongst ordinary people, and helping them live richer, calmer, more productive lives.
Contact: Art of Living Foundation,
Ph: (080) 2843227374, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sathya Sai Baba
Adored as embodiment of love, Sathya Sai Baba is for his followers an avatar of the Divine. Beginning his career at age 14 as a reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi, Sathya Sai is now seen as a perfect master in his own right, guiding followers on the path of love and selfless service. For ‘love all, serve all’ is his simple yet profound message. Baba, as he is fondly called, is the greatest example of his own credo of selfless service through his charitable activities.
A lot of media attention has been focussed on the many miracles Baba has performed, such as manifesting objects out of thin air and teleportation. Devotees report vibhuti (sacred ash) collecting near his photographs and miraculous visions of him in times of need. Baba himself says that his only miracle is love.
Baba is based in Prasanthi Nilayam in Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh. His teachings are in the form of easily understandable statements like: ‘Hands that help are holier than lips that pray’, and ‘make your life a rose that speaks silently in the language of the heart’. The four principles he has laid down for his devotees are:
• There is only one religion: love.
• There is one language: of the heart.
• There is only one caste: humanity.
• There is only one God.
To put into action his principles, the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust has set up charitable educational institutions, hospitals, and a drinking water project that has brought water to around 1.5 million people in Andhra. Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences in Puttaparthi is a unique super-specialty hospital where free surgeries are performed.
Baba’s system of ‘integral education’ is designed to foster self-discipline and pro-social conduct. Students are required to take courses on morality and spirituality and devote time to community service. For, Baba believes: “The end of education is character.” He has established a model education system, which includes primary schools, secondary schools, and an accredited university offering undergraduate, post-graduate and PhD courses. No fees are charged, and admission is open to all.
In recent years, there have been several controversies around Sathya Sai Baba. Baba has maintained a dignified silence through it all, saying: “Bear all and do nothing; hear all and say nothing; give all and take nothing; serve all and be nothing.”
Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev
Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev is a master, yogi and mystic rooted as strongly in inner experience and wisdom as he is in mundane matters. Sadhguru has tirelessly worked towards the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of all. Traversing seamlessly from the ancient to the modern, Sadhguru leads the sacred journey from the known to the unknown.
Equally at home in loincloth and jeans, in the Himalayas and straddling a BMW in America, Sadhguru seems an unlikely spiritual master. Marking a clear departure from the usual practice of sermonising, Sadhguru’s teaching is scientific and his methods are direct. Belonging to no particular tradition, Sadhguru incorporates what is most valid for the common man from the spiritual sciences.
Founder of Isha Foundation, an international public service organisation which imparts the knowledge of yoga in over 100 centre in India and various parts of the world, his discourses and meditation programmes have transformed many. The Isha Yoga Center established by him near Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, is a powerful centre for seeking.
Sadhguru’s programmes are specially designed to suit every section of society—from corporate executives to criminals, from academics to illiterate tribals. Sadhguru works with the world’s pre-eminent spiritual leaders and institutions to foster peace, understanding and co-operation. As a delegate to the United Nations Millennium Peace Summit and member of the World Council of Religious Leaders and the Alliance for the New Humanity, Sadhguru works tirelessly to impart the goals established therein.
The success of his prison outreach programmes, called ‘Inner Freedom for the Imprisoned’, stands testimony to the transformation that can be brought about in an individual irrespective of his external situation. These programmes have been conducted among the inmates of all the central prisons of Tamil Nadu and also in the US.
A powerful orator and communicator, Sadhguru’s addresses at premier institutions and organisations all over the world have been instrumental in presenting ancient and eternal knowledge of spirituality across the world, creating new levels of understanding, respect and acceptability. Sadhguru is an accomplished poet and author of several books. His latest book, Mystics Musings, is one of the most candid unveilings of the mystical dimensions of life.
Contact: Isha Yoga Centre, Ph: (044) 24333185, (042) 26215345,
Sri Kalki Bhagavan
Sri Kalki, considered avatar of Shiva, envisions the elevation of man to a state of unimpeded oneness. He claims to liberate man from suffering by bestowing the highest benediction—enlightenment. Founder of the Golden Age Foundation, Sri Kalki believes that what makes us different from other sentient beings is that we are conscious of our consciousness.
His basic teaching involves the realisation of three degrees of consciousness as: cosmic consciousness where a person who has a sense of immortality not of attaining it but of already having it; nature of the mind where we can be free from suffering by becoming aware of doubts; and illusion of self where we are not who we think we are. Enlightenment is the realisation of cosmic consciousness and a seamless abiding in it.
Sri Kalki imparts learning through deeksha, the ancient system of transference of energy from one body to another, or from one mind to another. He is said to not only give seekers deeksha for enlightenment but also enable them to give deeksha to others. The various kinds of deeksha given by Sri Kalki are mukthi deeksha, youth deeksha, phala deeksha and maha deeksha.
Sri Kalki has founded the Global Oneness Community with the following objectives:
• To co-create a vision of oneness, encouraging individuals, networks and organisations to create a happy world.
• To support the preservation of ancient spiritual wisdom residing in all cultures around the world.
• To support initiatives that unite people in mutual action and projects aimed at creating global oneness.
The Oneness Festival and the World University of Consciousness headed by Sri Kalki arrange workshops that discuss subjects like enlightenment, mysticism, the art of parenting, female spirituality, and hold satsangs. Sri Kalki’s foundation also provides services on vastu, homas, astrology, and healing and massage.
Swami Dayananda Saraswati
Swami Dayananda Saraswati is a teacher of Vedic knowledge, which he has been engaged in disseminating for the past four decades. The turning point in his spiritual quest occurred when he attended a discourse by the famous Vedanta guru, Swami Chinmayananda, first in Chennai and then in Pune. After six years of functioning in various capacities in the Chinmaya Mission, Dayananda adopted the life of renunciation in 1962.
Swami Dayananda calls upon the need to revive religion because it teaches tolerance, fortitude and acceptance. The path to these virtues is through prayers alone, he teaches. Well-versed in contemporary affairs, Dayananda’s teachings are not merely an exposition of a philosophy. He has conducted many short-term and in-depth courses and delivered public lectures throughout the world since 1976, which have focussed on the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, Sanskrit grammar, Vedic rituals and chanting.
Each Vedanta course taught by him yielded over 60 acharyas and teachers (graduates) who now teach all over the world. His understanding of western culture has enabled him to communicate the vision of non-duality to modern listeners. He has the ability to make people see the truth about oneself after communication with him.
Swami Dayananda has founded Vedanta centres like Arsha Vidya Ashram in Rishikesh, Arsha Vidya Gurukulam in Coimbatore and another in Pennsylvania, USA. Dayananda has given lectures in American universities, and has addressed international conventions at UNESCO and the United Nations, where he participated in the Millennium Peace Summit.
Swami Dayananda founded the All India Movement (AIM) for Seva in November 2000, which provides medical, educational, nutritional and infrastructure assistance to remote villages in India. The strength of his movement can be estimated by the fact that all major Hindu spiritual leaders have joined it collectively as the Acharya Sabha. Dayananda has also convened the first World Congress for the Preservation of Religious Diversity, inaugurated by the Dalai Lama. This led to the formation of the Global Commission for Religious Diversity in Delhi. He also participated in the Women’s Global Peace Initiative that convened at the UN in Geneva in 2002.
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