By Suma Varughese December 1996 True laughter is true prayer, teaches Sri Sri Ravishankar—the guru whose Art of Living courses gives lessons in living, which concentrate on breathwork and self-awareness ‘The language of the head is words. The language of the heart is love. The language of the soul is silence.’ Starting his discourse in a Delhi auditorium with these words, this man with soft eyes, jet black flowing hair and beard and an artist’s relaxed hands disarms his audience by asking: ‘So, in which language do you want me to speak?’ It’s a rhetorical question. The tongue he continues to use is in words, of course, but in a language that goes straight to the heart. The precepts he speaks of run close to the soul. Another time, you attend a satsang (communion) the guru has graced in a devotee’s home in north Delhi, India, expecting to sit through one more edifying discourse. But all you do is wait as he sits on the dais with eyes shut, opening them periodically but only to indicate to the singers to continue with yet another bhajan (devotional song). Then, suddenly, he gets up and starts to dance, with the ecstasy of a Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. You wait some more for the discourse to begin. He stops dancing, takes an unhurried look at the expectant faces, smiles almost mirthfully. He’s done it again: not a word is spoken, but much is communicated by the eyes. The satsang comes to an end. This is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a new age guru with a mystique of his own. Slipping in a moment from singing and showering rose petals on his congregation to the deepest meditation, or from bantering with his devotees to discussing eternal verities, he defies easy slotting. One of his disciples has to summon three personages to convey what he is all about: ‘Guruji has the compassion of Jesus Christ, the playfulness of Krishna and the erudition of Adi Sankara.’ But what also attracts a growing number of people in India and other countries to Ravi Shankar is that he is a thoroughly modern man speaking ancient truths. In his person, Vedic precepts become contemporary, eastern mystique sheds its mystery. For the Indian generation alienated from its roots by relentless westernization, he represents the acceptable face of tradition. Not surprisingly, his following is, by and large, from the urban middle class. In Mumbai, western India, his devotees include many young professionals, IIT students, even socialites and film stars. Their first introduction to the guru usually is the 14-hour Art of Living course, which has so far drawn over half a million participants the world over. Basic to this course is Sudarshan Kriya that Ravi Shankar discovered in 1982, after emerging from a 10-day retreat into silence, an event that marked his ascendance into enlightenment. Sudarshan Kriya is a cycle of breaths—long, medium and short. Since the mind oscillates wildly between the past and the future, the breath, which is by definition necessarily in the present, is used to ‘rope in the wandering mind’. Like Zen masters who teach that the present moment is a chink opening into eternity, Ravi Shankar also hauls his audience back to the here and now with posers like, ‘Where are you?’ The Art of Living course combines the kriya with meditation and teaches how to observe the mind, to live in gratitude and to discard expectations. The workshop also provides a value-based framework to life and tools with which to build the superstructure. The benefits of the workshop include stress reduction, a resurgence of vitality, mental clarity and joy of living. Those who attend the course routinely report relief in respiratory and spinal disorders, diabetes and heart problems. The program has been acclaimed by the World Health Organization. The workshops are organized under the aegis of the Vyakti Vikas Kendra (VVK), which has over 200 centers in India. The centers are managed by 70-odd teachers trained by Ravi Shankar, most working on an honorary basis. Arun Madhavan quit his job as area manager with Standard Chartered Bank to join VVK as chairman. The Art of Livingworkshop, Madhavan says, brought him greater awareness, a deep sense of joy and virtually obliterated his medical bills. His mission is to promote it in the corporate world, where its benefits as a stress-reliever have already led to wide acceptance. So far in India, the workshop has been attended by over 15,000 professional managers. One of them is S.B. Ganguly, the chairman and managing director of Exide Industries. Says he: ‘I suddenly find myself a friend to everyone; my attitude towards my family has improved. The rat race has ended and my mind is at peace.’ But how does Ravi Shankar view his mission? ‘We are trying to bring back human values,’ replies the 40-year-old guru, attired in his trademark off-white silk lungi-kurta, while lounging in the home of one of his meditation teachers in Mumbai. ‘The purpose of The Art of Living course is to retain innocence while increasing intelligence. The innocence of the ignorant is not as precious as that of those who have gone through knowledge to arrive at another level of ‘I don’t know’.’ That is a beautiful ‘I don’t know’.’ Ravi Shankar’s philosophy is Advaitic, stressing the essential oneness of the Self and the Absolute. But he has his own unique way of driving home the eternal truths. Invited to speak at the United Nations’ 50th anniversary celebrations, he surprised those present by repudiating the possibility of world unity, before adding that the word implied a duality. When asked about his idea of God, he says: ‘You believe what you don’t know; I don’t believe in God. God is the very core of your being, it is like peeling an onion and reaching that central nothingness, which is God. The whole is God.’ With a good measure of irony, Ravi Shankar employs the general belief in God’s omnipresence to resolve the free will versus determinism debate: ‘When your thought is in alliance with what is happening, you call it free will; when it is in opposition, you call it destiny. ‘ Non-duality presupposes non-doing, which is the understanding that life lives itself, we don’t live it; that feelings, thoughts, states of mind happen, we don’t create them. When a disciple asks him how to be detached, he answers: ‘Don’t try to do it. You are already that.’ Answering another question about the value of celibacy, the master replies: ‘Celibacy is not a practice. If it’s a happening, then it’s authentic. Trying to stop yourself from having sex is unnatural and only makes you think of it even more.’ Simplicity, naturalness, effortlessness and spontaneity are spiritual precepts for him. The ego, which is considered the chief foe of seekers of enlightenment, simply arises from a short supply of ‘naturalness’, says Ravi Shankar. It is more difficult to be an atheist than a believer. ‘Don’t try to develop unconditional love,’ he advises, ‘because you are love.’ As for himself, he appears to be running his worldwide organization absolutely effortlessly. Born in a prosperous business family in Bangalore, southern India, Ravi Shankar’s spiritual destiny manifested itself in his infancy, when as a child of four, he recited the entire Bhagavad Gita. The atmosphere at home was deeply religious. His father, a medical astrologer, divined his son’s unusual powers early, and has always supported his decisions. At eight, in addition to conventional schooling, Ravi Shankar started studying Vedic literature. By 18, he had earned a degree in science. His background in science and the Vedas is what brought him to the notice of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the transcendental meditation movement. Ravi Shankar rose in the movement to become a close associate of Maharishi before deciding to forge out on his own. His younger sister Bhanu recalls him as the perfect brother, ‘very friendly, very humorous, a guiding spirit. I copied him in everything’. Each of his disciples has his own favorite guru story. Khursheed Batliwala, a VVK instructor from Mumbai, remembers the time ‘Guruji’ came running barefoot to him, clutching a wad of notes because he was told that Batliwala didn’t have any money for a journey he was about to undertake. Nitin Limaye, from Baroda, western India, relates how a group of them were out walking with the guru one sunny day. Suddenly, the guru stopped and advised them to run for cover because it would rain shortly. There was no evidence to support this sudden bit of meteorology, but they obeyed him and watched the rain cascading down half-an-hour later from the safety of their ashram. Accomplished at the veena (an Indian musical instrument) and the piano, Ravi Shankar’s musical inclination filters down to his devotees. Their satsangs are riotously joyous affairs, bhajans sung with the gusto of school students at a picnic. Starting with The Art of Living workshops (which are now available for children, too), VVK’s activities have been expanding. They include a four-day advance course, taught by the guru himself, usually in his sprawling Bangalore ashram, and teaching the mantra-based Sahaj Samadhi Meditation. VVK has also set up the Ved Vignan Mahavidyapeeth, dedicated to the revival of Vedic wisdom in education. The institute is working closely with 240 schools in Bangalore. A research body it has set up has been commissioned by the government to reappraise the siddha and ayurvedic systems of medicine. All this is a creditable achievement for somebody who took up the mantle of a preceptor only 10 years ago, but for Ravi Shankar ‘it is all fun. Life is a ga
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