By Suma Varughese
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.
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 ministers of 10 Indian states. Over 3,500 musicians including Dr. M Balmuralikrishnan and Lalgudi Jayaraman will play a variety of instruments from veenas to nada swarams, flutes and violins in another massive exercise. No organisation has ever tried to organize an event of this size. Few could swing it off. But the AOL will, in all likelihood, make a success of it, such is the enthusiasm, energy, commitment and confidence it emanates.
Where does it come from, this compelling momentum, this steady outpouring of energy that attracts and magnetizes lakhs towards itself? Accustomed as one is to the positive energy inherent in spiritual organizations, one has rarely experienced the kind of buoyancy, energy, optimism and initiative that I witnessed at the AOL. Part of it can be attributed to the effects of success. It must feel good to be part of such a high profile, enormous organisation, which can almost seem like a club of movers and shakers. One of the devotees says that it is a ‘cool’ place to belong to, and in the lexicon of youth, he has it right. Yet there is more to it than that. Beyond the youthful high, these are people charged with a passion to serve and a confidence that overcomes all barriers. Above all, they are seized with a love and devotion to the guru that inspires and enables them to go to any lengths in his service. A substantial amount of the AOL’s success can be attributed to the currency of love circulating between them and their graceful, captivating master.
It is hard to put a finger on Sri Sri’s appeal, so variegated is it. Devotee after devotee raves about his humility, simplicity and caring nature. Says Ami Patel, who looks after media for AOL in Mumbai, ‘ I have never met anyone more humble than him. When there is no room in the ashram, he offers his own room. He has the ability to connect with anyone beyond gender, caste or creed.’
Adds Swami Pragyapad, a former IIT graduate and one of a handful of renunciates in the ashram, ‘He has the ability to be very natural. The intimacy is instant. Everyone feels, ‘Guruji is mine’
Swami Brahma Tej, another of the renunciates, says, ‘His only question is, ‘Are you happy?’ A guru loves his devotees a hundred times more than a mother can. Ever since I joined the organisation, I have experienced the grace of the guru powerfully.’ He adds, ‘His concern is that we blossom in life.’
Vikram Hazra, one of his early devotees who has himself gone on to earn considerable fame and following within the group through his popular bhajan and rock satsangs, says, ‘Guruji is the only person who understands me. That’s what brought surrender. There are things I hide from myself which I can’t hide from him.’
Sri Sri’s sister Bhanumati Narsimhan, (Bhanu didi to all) calls herself his first devotee and is deeply involved with the organisation, taking regular meditation courses as well as running a school for underprivileged children in the ashram premises. She says, ‘What appeals to people about the AOL is its authenticity, genuineness and naturalness. Guruji is so easily approachable, and one can be perfectly natural with him. One can sit next to him and eat at the same table.’
At the same time, devotees talk of his prescience and omniscience, the miracles that blossom around him. Bhanu didi recalls with misty eyes, an event that took place during a satsang in Kerala. ‘There were lakhs of people and among them, one elderly woman lost her chain. For many people, the gold chain is their only fortune and she was weeping. Guruji knew about it in his usual uncanny way and called the woman to the stage. Then he took off the gold chain he was wearing and gave it to her. This was the only chain he has ever worn and it was given by my mother to whom he was very close. He had never taken that chain off in his life. Yet he unhesitatingly gave it to the lady. It has taught me to free myself of attachments.’
Kishore Mukherjee, one of his longstanding devotees, who has been with him since 1986, and among the few with grey on his hair, recalls that a deaf-and-dumb child got cured by his presence. He says, ‘But he never claims to be the cause. When miracles are brought to his notice he will always say, ‘Is that so?’ Says Bhanu didi, ‘Often, I wonder when I listen to his knowledge or experience some of the things he does, is he my brother?’
The proverbial guru’s grace is perpetually invoked through many astonishing stories. Young Prateek Khandelwal, a Mumbai-based devotee, says, ‘I wanted to contribute money to the fund-raising efforts for the Silver Jubilee but I wasn’t making much. One day after kriya I prayed to Guruji and told him that I was leaving the onus on him to get me the money. That very day, I got a transition bonus of Rs 15,000. And an increment of Rs 4,000 a month, which I intend to give for the next three months to the Silver Jubilee. All of this adds up to exactly Rs 27,000 which is what I wanted to give for the event.’
A meeting with Sri Sri’s father, Acharya Ratnananda (Pitaji to all), who runs an AOl organisation called Vista in rural Karnataka for the uplift of rural women, offers a clue to the source of Sri Sri’s groundedness, humility and gentleness. For his father is all that and more. At 85, he chooses to live in the rugged simplicity of the rural institution, when he could well have lived in the luxury of the ashram. However, says this staunch Gandhian, ‘By remaining in the ashram, I deny the happiness and improvement of a large number of girls in the rural areas. My real luxury is to see that I wipe a tear and win a smile wherever I can.’ When asked if he is proud of his son he responds, ‘He belongs to the world. Physically I may own him because he is my son. But spiritually the world owns him, including you.’
And then there is the sheer magnetism of the guru, his allure.
I am at the Bangalore ashram, the International Center of the AOL, a huge 100-acre campus. Everywhere there are signs of construction, painting and repairing activity as it gears up for its massive Jubilee celebrations.
The heart of the ashram is the impressive Vishalakshmi Mantap. Designed as a massive five-tier circular structure (the tiers represent the five elements) with no supporting pillars except at the back, architects wrote off the task as impossible. Sri Sri (who is as protean as he trains his followers to be) took over the architectural plans. Today, it is the centerpiece of the ashram, able to contain 3,000 people at the base level alone. Designed like an amphitheater, the center holds a stage for the guru. Named after the guru’s mother, every evening it hosts a satsang, besides regular meditations and AOL courses.
I am present at one of the satsangs, the highlight of ashram activity and a distinctive feature of AOL. The AOL satsangs rock, because of the repertoire of great singers and great songs, mostly bhajans but all denominations are free to chip in. The guru partakes of the satsang whenever he is in Bangalore, and it is fascinating to see the electricity that runs through the room when he is glimpsed.
He has a light graceful walk and as he enters, people throng around the stage to offer him flowers and gifts. Patiently, he takes every offering. The songs become more vibrant in his presence and everyone sings along. The guru sits cross-legged on his chair and closes his eyes. For a good 20 minutes the music continues. Then he opens his eyes, and picking up a microphone, sings fervently into it. He has a high trained voice, and the crowd sings with even greater élan. A few dance on the sides. There is an air of abandon and celebration that is uniquely AOL.
Inhibitions are cast aside. Joy of living is given vibrant expression through song and dance. This freewheeling celebration is perhaps its greatest appeal to youth. Spirituality here is a full-blooded affair.
After answering questions with wit, humor and insight, the guru dances his way out, waving his hands with matchless grace, and the crowd goes wild. Even Aishwayra Rai would be hard put to match his allure, and at least some of the appeal comes from this confluence of playfulness, mischief, grace and chutzpah.
The guru’s multifaceted persona is reflected in the organisation. Says Vikram, ‘AOL is a balance of technique, knowledge, seva, singing, dancing and joyfulness. It has an entry path for everyone.’
Guru apart, the technique, Sudarshan Kriya, taught in the Art of Living basic course, is an invaluable entry point for most people. A combination of various breathing techniques, it takes just 20 to 30 minutes of practice. Its effects are phenomenal, by all accounts. In the slums of Dharavi, Mumbai, I meet young Prashant Whatkar. He is dressed in a dignified kurta pyjama and speaks with the measured cadence of a seasoned social worker. Whatkar recovered from spinal cancer with the help of Sudarshan Kriya, and says passionately, ‘Seva has become my great mission.’
Much good work has come out of his and others’ commitment, including transformation of many wayward youths, the construction of a school and the landscaping of a garden where once a dumpyard lay.
Whatkar’s elder brother, a solemn young man called Krishna, was addicted to Corex cough syrup. ‘I used to work in a company that distributed it and on an average day, I drank three bottles.’ Entry into the AOL fold healed him of the habit. ‘When doing the course, I threw away my bottle. We feel Guruji is good. In this there is a lot of fun.’
Another bright-eyed youth with a mischievous smile, Kishore Deophode (28) readily confesses that he was a bit of a scamp. ‘I only knew how to eat, drink and fight,’ he laughs. ‘My friends and I would steal cycles and scooters and live on that money. After I did the YLTP (Youth Leadership Training Program), I was transformed and felt that I had to change Dharavi. I became a full-timer with YLTP. I made all my friends do the course and my family also. They could not believe that I had got so much gyan!’
Swami Pragyapad says that the technique healed him of his asthma, his shyness and improved his grades.
The Kriya heals at the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels and seems to go a long way in making the AOL clan the happy, positive and active bunch of people it is. Thanks to the guru and the Kriya, transformation is the rule, rather than the exception. After that, service follows. ‘We need to begin to see ourselves as humans sharing a planet, or even as spiritual beings having a common human experience…Let us create a world of tolerance, which leads to acceptance, ending in love – the very essence of who we truly are,’ says the master.
This is an organisation that emphasizes bhakti and karma. Jnana is less stressed, because, say the members, Sri Sri believes in practical wisdom. Yet his talks and the spiritual aphorisms enunciated in the basic course – the present moment is inevitable, accept people as they are, responsibility equals power – are the essence of spiritual wisdom. Spirituality and seva are the twin-pronged mission of the AOL, reflected in their two organizations. AOL Foundation is a non-profit humanitarian body that runs courses such as the basic and advance AOL courses. The latter takes the practitioner into deeper realms of silence and meditation. There is also Art Excel for children to overcome inhibitions and fears, Self Management Seminar for corporates to cope with stress and achieve their potential, and Divya Samaj Nirman, a program that helps people challenge their own limitations and break through barriers that stop them from contributing to the world.
The other is the International Association for Human Values (IAHV), an NGO set up by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in 1996 for social, economic and spiritual uplift. The premier work of the IAHV is the 5H programme, standing for homes, health, hygiene, human values and harmony in diversity.
The work done at Kapsi village is a reflection of 5H in action. Welfare measures have snowballed. Dr Pol, along with a few village youth who had completed a remarkable AOL programme called Youth Leadership Training Program (YLTP) that releases a powerful leadership drive in ordinary boys, moved from water conservation to the construction of toilets and provision of smokeless chullahs expressly for the welfare of the womenfolk. Today, Dr Pol is empowering the villagers to shift to organic farming.
Six hundred villagers have done the Nav Chetna Shibir, a free program offering meditation and pranayam and over 210, the AOL basic course (the organisation charges Rs 300 in rural areas for this, the argument being that people do not value what they are given free.)
This is truly an AOL village and a microcosm of the transformation the movement is effecting in the larger world.
I am sitting in Shebha Mohan Kadam’s well-furnished house in the village. Shebha, who hosts a weekly satsang every Thursday, says that she no longer feels the need to go to a dispensary because the Sudarshan Kriya keeps her healthy. The others reveal that they have given up eating non-vegetarian or stale food and add with touching simplicity, ‘Guruji told us that if we continue walking along the right path, even those who are going wrong will follow us. So we are doing that.’
They echo Shebha Kadam when she says, ‘We feel satisfied. We have confidence now. We feel we can get together and do better.’
If one village can revive its confidence and take responsibility for its growth and progress, it is a great thing and the man who inspired this vision must be lauded. But thanks to AOL, such initiatives are being launched in 25,300 villages in India, benefiting more than 2.3 million people. The statistics are mind-boggling. Over 75,000 Nav Chetna Shibirs, more than 28,350 cleanliness campaigns, more than 1.3 m trees planted, 12,857 medical camps benefiting 4.3 lakh people, 1,474 homes helped built and 50 model villages developed. In addition 25,710 village youth have been trained in the Youth Leadership Training Program and 2,000 self-help groups with a membership of 35,000 villagers have been founded.
These apart, there are programs to heal prisoners of stress and negativity called Prison Smart that has reached out to over 1,20,000 prisoners in many countries, and is also offered to militants and naxalites, many of who have laid down arms, tribal welfare programs, slum development programs, de-addiction programs, trauma relief programs as well as calamity relief measures.
But despite the remarkable work done, what is the real measure of the AOL’s achievements is the quantum growth in each of its members.
‘We are ordinary people who work out of love and belongingness,’ says young Trupti Sapre, having a Master’s degree from TISS and a full-time AOL worker for the last three years. She coordinates the work done by the youth leaders (yuvacharyas) across the country. She shares, ‘I used to do a lot of work with NGOs while studying and that led me to realize that only the spiritual approach is capable of bringing real change. People must change for situations to change.’
With her are a few youth leaders in their late teens and early 20s, staying at the Bangalore headquarters to do a teacher’s course that will enable them to teach the Sudarshan Kriya. Each has an extraordinary tale to tell, not just of their own transformation but also of their subsequent devotion to community welfare.
Parav Kohli from Punjab is a case in point. A smoker and drinker before the AOL program he undertook in his 12th standard, he is now a teetotaler and has been a full-time yuvacharya since 1999. Parav holds 10-day de-addiction programs for his village and nearby areas to free them of the hold of drugs. With the help of other AOL members he secures participants jobs to makes sure they remain clean. He has also opened a sewing unit to give employment to women in the area. And in order to bring about awareness of the danger of using pesticides and chemical-free drugs, as well as infant foeticide, he has undertaken a padayatra for 15 days. ‘We make people promise not to kill the girl child,’ says Parav, ‘and through the padayatra we are knitting all the sections of society.’
Amol Bhujbal from Satara, Mahrashtra, confesses, ‘I tried committing suicide three times. But after reading a book by Guruji, Jeevan ek sundar utsav, I feel life is a celebration.’
Bhujbal too is an active community helper, ‘During Diwali, many people in our village were too poor to make sweets. I gathered volunteers and we made sweets and distributed them as well as clothes. There are also many political factions in the village. I made them do our course and now they live harmoniously with each other. I also opened a herbal tea unit for the employment of village youths.’ The YLTP empowers these youths to take responsibility for the welfare of the village and resolve its individual problems. Initiatives emerge as each handles unique challenges and situations.
Trupti sums it up when she says, ‘Here, all inherent talents blossom.’ The yuvacharyas agree, smiling broadly as they say, ‘We all wonder, accha, I can do this also. Billi se sher banaathe hain, YLTP.’
The blossoming of talent and the uncorking of potential are stories that recur wherever one goes. All members concur that to Sri Sri, it is the growth of the individual, not the growth of the organisation, that matters. Says Prajakti Deshmukh, a former actor and TV director, who ‘junked it all up after getting into Art of Living because I outgrew the need to chase money or fame’ and is today an AOL teacher, ‘I had not traveled in a Mumbai local train for years, because one was conscious of being recognized. Today, I can travel with absolute ease. It makes no difference to me.’
Pallavi Wagh concurs. A former air hostess, she gave it up after five years because it was not ‘me’. Today, this attractive young woman is a full-time AOL teacher, ready at a moment’s notice to go wherever she is dispatched, be it the Gulf, Eastern Europe, Pakistan or the interiors of Maharashtra. ‘I just come home to change suitcases,’ she explains.
During her years with the AOL, she has tried her hand at every conceivable activity, from cooking pao bhaji and ragda pattice for 500 people, to motivating youths in Arab countries and Nepal, helping children cope with stress and giving TV interviews. She recalls, ‘I’ve never been good at writing but one day, three or four of us were summoned and asked to give the foreword to a book. I wrote something really trite and after an hour or so Guruji came to check out our progress. He looked at what I wrote and told me, ‘Pallavi, you are capable of writing so much better. You have written me such lovely letters’. I said letters were different because one just wrote what one felt and he told me, ‘That’s what you have to do here as well. Write from your heart and whatever you write will touch people.’ So I did that and it came out really well. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I can do this too.”
It is this sense of ‘wow, I can do this too’ that most seem to experience as a constant state of being.
Swami Pragyapad, formerly Prashant Rajore, talks about the quantum leaps in growth that he has experienced at the ashram. He says, ‘When I finished IIT, I rejected quite a few offers because they could not bring out the best in me, the full human being. At the ashram, my full potential is being realized. My all-round abilities have grown, my confidence levels have gone up and I experience immense satisfaction. Friends from IIT tell me that I have really changed.’ The swami’s job functions have included administering the giant campus, and constructing the pride of the place, Vishalakshmi Mantap.
He discloses, ‘Being responsible for its construction has taught me so much about man management. People have their own ways of not doing things and it was a challenge to make them work without appearing strict.’ He says, and many of the others echo the statement, that AOL has made him ready for anything. ‘I’m no singer, but when I hold courses I often sing.’
Kishore Mukherjee (Kishoreda to all), says, ‘I remember going to a jail in Punjab, and despite having given us permission to conduct our Prison Smart program, the prison official refused to give me entry telling me that it was a high-security prison and that he couldn’t risk anything happening to me. After he had said his say, I told him, ‘If you have finished, let us go in.’ The man was taken aback. I told him, ‘I have to follow guru vakya. My guru has told me to teach and that is what I must do.’
Such implicit obedience to the guru’s word is part of the armor of these spiritual warriors. All of them talk of the Guru’s grace that comes miraculously to their rescue and enables them to accomplish much. Kishoreda talks about the time the guru sent him to Russia to
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