By Shivi Verma
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is indisputably one of the most popular gurus of our times, and his landmark offering, the Sudarshan Kriya, has brought health and happiness to millions the world over, says Shivi Verma
Ever since I came to know about Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, his Christ-like face, childlike smile, and gentle voice has held a certain kind of charm for me. Listening to him on TV used to be a delight. The manner in which he gave simple replies to life’s complicated questions with a playful smile on his lips, used to win everybody’s heart.
I remember trying to copy his mellifluous style of speaking. Soon Sri Sri became a spiritual super star, and Art of Living, the organisation founded and headed by him, became a household name. The sway he holds over his followers became evident to me when I attended a rally organised by him in Mumbai. People came in droves to be a part of it from outstation and almost every vehicle on the road seemed to be rushing to the venue. Sri Sri, on the contrary, was his light, playful self as he came on stage and addressed the cheering crowd. “I know you love me. You do not have a choice,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes. Today he is widely sought after by the media, politicians and the ordinary masses.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was born in Papanasam, Tamil Nadu, to Visalakshi Ratnam and R. S. Venkat Ratnam. He was named Ravi because his birth was on a Sunday, and Shankar after the eighth-century Hindu saint, Adi Shankara, because it was also Shankara’s birthday. By age four, he was able to recite verses from the Bhagavad Gita. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Bangalore University. After graduation, he travelled with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi giving talks and arranging conferences on Vedic science, and setting up meditation and ayurveda centres.
He says that his rhythmic breathing practice, Sudarshan Kriya, came to him in 1982, after a 10-day period of silence on the banks of the Bhadra River in Shimoga, in the state of Karnataka, adding, “I learned it, and started teaching it.”
Sri Sri says that every emotion has a corresponding rhythm in the breath, and that regulating the breath can help elevate the individual and relieve personal suffering.
In 1983, Sri Sri held the first Art of Living course in Europe, in Switzerland. In 1986, he travelled to Apple Valley, California, to conduct the first course in America. Today Art of Living has its presence in 152 countries across the globe. His band of followers include celebrities, and politicians and he has the highest number of youth followers. He has inspired millions of people to lead positive and creative life based on spirituality. His works for farmer’s upliftment, water conservation, education, disaster relief management. youth and women empowerment, and conflict resolution has affected countless souls.
An excerpt of his email interview with Life Positive
What is the secret of your humility and charming smile?
I don’t know. I am a child who refuses to grow up!
You appear so gentle. Do you have a tough side? What is it like?
One can be gentle and firm at the same time. Fortunately, I have to be tough very rarely with people – so rarely, that when I do, they don’t believe it.
What is the purpose of your life as a guru?
To get people to enquire about the purpose of their life.
Being a guru is tough. The media and people view you suspiciously and the best of your activities are under a scanner. How do you respond to that?
They are doing their job. I am doing mine. While scepticism is healthy in the media, cynicism and prejudice is not.
You are known to work for conflict resolution in many areas. Recently you went to Iraq. Has it brought any change? What is your method? What was the reaction of Arabic people to a Hindu guru?
I went there to oversee the relief effort which has been happening. The Yezidi community has suffered one of the worst genocides of the 21st century under the onslaught of ISIS in Iraq. Thousands of Yezidis were trapped in the Sinjar Mountains. Our volunteers have been able to airdrop 120 tons of food and rescue about 200 girls. The Iraq Parliament themselves lauded the humanitarian efforts within Kurdistan. A lot of people have done our programmes in Arabic countries, including the Kurdish Parliament. So, they are quite open.
AOL has many celebrities endorsing it. Is it a marketing strategy? Has it affected the organization’s credibility?
One of the first points that we have in our programmes is to accept people as they are. So, we welcome everyone. Second, the Art of Living does not need endorsement from anyone to grow. It has grown by the experience that people have. The organisation’s credibility has been built through so many diverse service projects that are also entirely volunteer-driven.
What draws people to you? How are you able to inspire so many people?
Again, I don’t know. You should ask them. When you receive something which is so precious in life, you want to share it with others. There are two kinds of joy. As children, we have all experienced the joy of receiving. As we grow in life, we have to move towards the joy of giving.
The film PK has generated a lot of controversy. What made you give Rajkumar Hirani permission to shoot his film in your ashram?
I feel our philosophy is much bigger than some criticism. Truth is that which stands the test of time.
Where is the human race destined to reach and how will we get there?
Everyone has love at the core within them. To go deep within yourself, you don’t have to go anywhere else. Wherever you are, you can just sit for a few moments and be silent. These few moments add a lot of value to our life.
You recently rejected the Padma Vibhushan award by the government. Why?
Usually, these awards are highly coveted and there are many contenders for them. I thought it could inspire someone else to do more service to society.
You are doing a lot of work for the cause of the environment, farmers, water conservation, education, moral values, and conflict resolution. Please shed some more light on the mission of AOL. What are the other projects being run by AOL? Where do you plan to take it?
Yes, our volunteers take up different service projects where they are. Many times, even I come to know about it much later. Our volunteers have revived seven rivers in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, some of which have been dry for decades. Our Rural Development Programme has distributed over 10,000 solar lights in remote areas where there is no electricity. In the Art of Living, when there is an issue that affects a large number of people anywhere, volunteers get together and work towards finding a solution.
You addressed the issue of corruption and women’s safety in your Volunteer for better India Campaign. What are reasons for these problems and how can they be resolved?
The issue of women’s safety is connected with liquor consumption. When someone is under the influence of alcohol, they don’t know what they are doing. We do programmes in villages and when the whole village becomes aware that alcohol is harmful for them, they shut down the liquor and tobacco shops themselves. This has a huge impact on the social life of the village, and crimes in general, and also against women, come down drastically.
Corruption begins where belongingness ends. No one can be corrupt with their own friends, they won’t ask for bribe from their own family. So, educating people to have a sense of belongingness in society can help tackle corruption in the long term. In the short term, when you are united it is easier to fight corruption than fighting alone. In Ahmednagar in Maharashtra, there was a road which existed only on paper, there was no actual road. A group of youth got together and went to the Mayor’s office and smilingly said, “Please tell us the date by which the road will be done. We will not leave until you tell us.” The road was made the next day! So, uniting is a very effective strategy against corruption.
What is your vision for India and how do you plan to contribute to it?
There are seven areas where India can lead – food, tourism, music, clothes and jewellery, ayurveda, technology and spirituality. India was always known as the nation that guided the world. People used to come from far to learn here. We have to present our culture and heritage properly to the world.
What do you think is the biggest problem facing the world today? Is there a spiritual crisis? What can be the solution?
Terrorism and fanaticism are a cause of concern today. We saw so many horrifying videos of beheadings and mass shootings last year. The mindset of ‘My religion is greater than yours’ is the root cause of such violence. We need to reach out to every corner and give a broad multi-cultural education which is based on human values, so that children do not grow up harbouring a prejudice against a community or religion.
What is your message to the world?
The world is one big human family. Let’s make life a celebration.
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