By Suma Varughese February 2006 Through a combination of technique, satsang, seva and celebration, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has made spiritual champions of his largely youthful following. On the eve of its silver jubilee, we take stock of Art of Living’s popularity and success. Sitting in a vast room, surrounded by prasad and gift items from his lakhs of devotees, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar takes time off for a brief interview. Excerpts: How did all this happen? When you started out AOL did you know it would get so big?One thing I felt is that the whole world is my family. Everybody is part of my family. I always felt a sense of belongingness to everyone. What was your mission for AOL?There was no particular mission. There was no ambition to start a particular movement. Everything unfolded naturally. It started with an intention to just share whatever we have. The movement did not happen because we wanted something. It happened as a part of sharing. Whatever we have, we shared with people and still more people wanted to have it and so it went on like this… through word of mouth.What is your vision for people? How do you see them?When I see people I see them as my own self. Like my own fingers, my own parts. I don’t get any feeling that ‘they are my people’ or ‘they are not mine’ and that is what we tell all our teachers and teach in all the teachings. Sense of belongingness. Why the Silver Jubilee celebration?The Silver Jubilee itself is a reason. It’s 25 years. So people from everywhere wanted to come. So we need to cater to the crowd that comes. It’s a huge massive exercise!Yes, it’s a huge massive exercise. Very efficient volunteers are here. Everybody is coming together to do it. I am just inspiring them, being a guest there. Rest everybody is doing. That shows the enthusiasm in people, it fits with our logo of making life a celebration. There always seems to be an expansion of projects, of activities…You know, that’s quite natural. When people are full of enthusiasm, love and compassion, they just want to share it and their intention to share it brings the compulsion to start the projects. But they all say that the source is you.(laughs) I simply take credit for all the work that the volunteers do, that the devotees do. Devotees do all the work. Looking back, what is the achievement you are most proud of?I don’t consider these things as a big achievement. Actions, activities are not any achievement and what needs to be achieved is already present within everybody. More and more people wake up and see that the essence of truth is present as seed in everyone, in oneself. Then immense satisfaction comes. That self-realisation is coming to more and more people. The unshakeable, profound devotion is the worthwhile thing to achieve. In front of that nothing stands. Devotion to the Divine! And yet ironically it is our very nature. What we need for our highest achievement – happens to be in a very funny way our very nature. What do you think is the most important quality that every human being must possess?Nurture human values, compassion, love, caring, friendliness – many people are not friendly with those who they think are different. Basic tendency should be friendliness. In spite of differences, an attitude of friendliness with one and all, whatever their isms, philosophies, attitude may be, makes a big difference. From our side, having a friendly attitude even though the other person is not responding. If you keep your attitude instead of swaying to the other person’s attitude then you come up. People say you never ever write off or give up on any human being. So much compassion. Don’t you ever get tired?I never do anything that is not in my nature. You don’t ask the wind whether it gets tired of blowing or the sun, are you tired of shining because they don’t do anything that is not in their nature. And the thing here is, there is no pretension. Anybody here does a mistake, they come and say I have done a mistake and finishes it. There is no covering up of a mistake. There is no trying to show off something which you are not. These are the principles that make people very strong. And when we lead through such examples, when it is coming from our own lives it becomes really effective in others’ lives also. People are moved by people, not just by principles. Because there are theories and philosophies, tons of books are available in every library. People are not moved by that. Transformation happens by living examples. And that is what people here have become – the living example. It’s a ripple effect. So much of it seems to come from your own absolute faith in their potential which is not even glimpsed by them.It’s all in Divine hands. Perhaps only those who need to blossom come here. How do you perceive the Divine?Like the space permeates everything, Divine also permeates everything. It’s the basic substratum of the universe. The basic difference between the West and East is that in the West, there’s the Divine and the devil. In the West, devil is an entity. In the East, devil is not an entity. It’s just the lack of divinity. Like darkness is not a substance, it’s simply lack of light. Sometimes it’s even perceived as dormant light. Light hasn’t yet manifested, not active. Even inside the devil there is divinity, but it is sleeping. When it wakes up the devil simply disappears. That seems to be the attitude that gives so much faith to your followers.Yes. When we go prison and to naxalites and others, we don’t consider them as bad people. We simply say they have beautiful hearts that have not come to light. We see goodness in them too but it’s sleeping. As we drive down the vast spreads of dry grassland in interior Maharashtra, our eyes are held and refreshed by a vivid spot of green. We have reached Kapsi village, where transformation is as visible as the tall stalks of corn arching against the vivid blue sky. This was a village wilting under the savage rule of drought a mere three years ago. Fields lay arid and fallow and despair was in the air. Recalls Dr Madhav Pol, a pediatrician in the nearest town in that region, Phaltan, ‘So acute was the water shortage that they would buy tanker water for basic necessities. Today they have water even in the month of May.’ The fields are gay with corn, sugarcane, cabbage and cauliflower patches. Every few yards, we see small rectangular bandhs, still holding water in late December. Kingfishers streak the air with a vivid bolt of blue as they dart towards the plentiful trees. The scent of growing plants, warm sun and cool breeze evoke pure pastoral bliss. There are 28 such bandhs, and three bigger ones built with government funding. Together they signify not just life for the village and its farmlands, but hope, confidence and enthusiasm. This is a village with a future. The freshly painted pink homes testify it, the spick and span toilets attached to each home reveal it, and the bashful smiles on the faces of the young village boys and housewives proclaim it. The source of this turnaround has his visage painted in technicolor on the walls outside the village temple. Long, wavy hair, gentle eyes, a beaming smile – Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living Foundation (AOL). Over the years, the Art of Living Foundation has been one of the best publicized and definitely the fastest growing spiritual organizations in the country. A driving energy seems to consume its members, for it has spread like quick fire, conquering country after country, until it now stands at 144 countries with a membership close to 20 million and a teaching staff of 5000. Its popularity has raised the image of its charismatic founder to almost cult status. Presenting talks at the UN, participating in the World Economic Forum at Davos, and in many leading academic institutions in the US like Yale University, University of California at Berkeley, and Columbia University, his is one of the most prominent faces of Indian spirituality abroad. Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, which he did not get, he has once more been nominated for 2006 by US Congressman Joseph Crowley. The publicity has not always been in AOL’s favor, though. The image it receives from the media is that of an elite organisation consisting of the rich and famous. Critics also point out the organization’s hard sell, and the fees that it charges (Rs 1,500 for a basic course in the metros and Rs 2,500 for an advanced course). They also question the wisdom of vesting spiritual tuition in the hands of young people, for the AOL teachers are usually in their 20s or early 30s. But there is no arguing against the astounding popularity of the group. Nor the fact that more than 60 to 70 per cent of its ranks consist of those below 30, a rare occurrence in spiritual organizations, where most members are above 30. It calls itself the largest volunteer-based network in the world, and for all we know, it may well be true. Today, as it stands poised to celebrate its Silver Jubilee, on February 17 -19, 2006, the sheer size and scope of its celebration is a telling symbol of its growth, youthful energy and presence in society. Twenty five lakh people from 144 countries are expected to descend upon Bangalore. Jakkur airfield has been booked for the event, trains from across the country have been requisitioned, and virtually the whole of Bangalore will be playing host to this jamboree to end all jamborees. President APJ Kalam will give the valedictory address and the event will be attended by a host of dignitaries from around the world, including President of Sri Lanka, Mahindra Rajapaksa, President of Slovenia, Dr Janez Drnovske, President of Mauritius, Anerood Jugnauth, and governors and chief
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