By Sanjiv Kakar
For him, creation is an infusion of love, love and only love. And he tries to instill love in all hearts with his specially designed Art of Living course. Meet Sri Sri Ravishankar, guru with a global appeal
Fivefold service to the people
Sri Sri Ravishankar’s mission for the future is the 5H Program. This means health, hygiene, housing, harmony in diversity and human values. The aim: to bring about a social transformation so that the complete potential of each individual is expressed.
Ravishankar personally supervises this program. He is also a founder member of the International Association for Human Values, a nonprofit educational organization committed to nurturing human values in society.
For this purpose, he has a network of highly motivated, well-trained personnel. The Youth Training Program (YTP) is perhaps the most ambitious program to educate the rural community. There are specially trained yuvacharyas (young teachers) for it. Most are volunteers, inspired by Ravishankar to do service where it is most needed. Sarvodaya Vidyalayas have already been started in some rural areas and more are being set up in tribal areas. Another charitable trust, Sri Sri Vidya Mandir, has also been founded to spread education.
Besides education, other activities include distribution of clothes to the poor, setting up medical camps, formation of local cooperative groups, and even creating sanitation facilities.
Science in Sudershan Kirya
Dr Vinod Kochupillai, head of the Cancer Centre at AIIMS, the premiere medical institute of India, explains the scientific aspect of sudarshan kriya:
“In today’s society, psycho-neuroimmunology (PNI), often referred to as of mind-body importance, is becoming very popular. PNI shows how the mind and emotions influence both the nervous and immune systems. For instance, happy people produce chemical messengers, which travel from the nervous system to the immune system, resulting in better health.Sudarshan kriya is a unique breathing process, which removes stress from the body. Negative toxins are flushed out and each cell flooded with new life to energize body and mind. This experience of centeredness, freedom and fulfillment releases neuropeptides, which influence the immune system positively and hence, the whole physiology.
Both sudarshan kriya and pranayama have been researched in Nimhans, Bangalore, India, where it was found successful with 70-80 per cent patients suffering from severe depression. Abnormal brain wave patterns turned normal with regular practice.
Studies conducted at Harvard, USA, revealed that 70-80 per cent patients suffering from AIDS benefited from this process. Lymph node swellings decreased, pain was reduced, breathing and digestion improved, energy levels increased. The Republic of Slovenia conducted a research on patients suffering from multiple sclerosis. With sudarshan kriya, significant improvement was found in the patient’s mobility, endurance levels and lung capacity while anxiety levels came down.
Ongoing studies at AIIMS suggest that these processes help cancer patients also. It also helps in controlling the urge to consume tobacco.’
Make the divine your Valentine.
Just be…and know that you are loved.
That is Beloved.
—God Loves Fun by Sri Sri Ravishankar
When I first met Sri Sri Ravishankar, or Guruji, as he is popularly known, I was impressed with the slender figure dressed in simple white robes, a long black rosary around his neck. Engaged in a question and answer session with a large congregation, there was a Vedic purity about him. Dignified and refined, he smiled, his eyes twinkled, as he replied to questions, in Hindi, in English, in Tamil, whatever the need of the questioner. He was at ease sharing his knowledge of the shastras(ancient Hindu texts), as well as answering personal questions on relationships, marriage, birth, death, or karma. Nothing was trivial; no one was outside his reach.
Witty, he did not take offence even to the most offensive questions or when somebody took him lightly. A chit in the question box said: ‘Can I recommend to you a good barber?’ Spontaneously Ravishankar pointed to his flowing tresses and beard and smiled: ‘I don’t need a barber, because my hair is not entangled. Hair is like thoughts. Neither my hair nor my thoughts are entangled, because I have the comb of knowledge.’ The audience broke out into an appreciative applause, but it left me perplexed. I was not used to this unique combination of wit and wisdom, of seriousness and frolic. Much later I learned that this is the Art of Living: to accept creation in its totality.
As he got up (to leave, I imagined) there was an explosion of jostling as the crowd surged forward. There was a smile on every face, some tears, mostly laughter. What was going on? I asked my motherly neighbor, who was using her elbow to maneuver herself towards the stage. She barely had time to reply: ‘Divya Milan is about to begin.’ And then, you had to witness the scene to believe it! Ravishankar hugged everyone. Some touched his feet, others asked more questions. Four hours later, a new lot arrived and Ravishankar waved and smiled to the newcomers also.
That was my introduction to the famous Art of Living course by Sri Sri Ravishankar. It has traveled to 106 countries till date. An educational, nonprofit charitable foundation, accredited as an NGO with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC), Art of Living has representatives at the UN in New York, Geneva and Vienna.
Ravishankar’s wide appeal cuts across religion, gender and class to make Art of Living a global name. Moreover, people of all faiths practice it. There are also specially designed courses for children, youth, prisoners, corporates and social activists. And new courses are regularly introduced, the most recent being Nav Chetna Shivirs, which has been designed keeping the weaker sections of society in mind.
As one South African participant comments: ‘We are constantly trying to forget the divisions in our country. But after the Art of Living course, racial tolerance is no longer an issue. We’ve moved beyond tolerance to unconditional acceptance and love.’ Another one pipes in: ‘Tolerance is a dirty word in Art of Living. Tolerance means putting up with something you don’t like. But love has no dislikes, no boundaries.’
Are social schisms really being healed? I questioned Stanislav, a Russian whose mother is an Art of Living teacher in Moscow. He answers: ‘We have a lot of pain in our society, so a lot of healing is needed. The Art of Living cleanses the mind, heals the emotions, and the trauma just vanishes. It helps you to forgive and begin life anew. Come to Irkutz in Siberia, and see for yourself how the courses are helping the prisoners.’
Testimonials are aplenty. But what is this unconditional love that every Art of Living student talks about? Says Rahul Nathan, an executive in Delhi, India: ‘Love is our nature. It is infused in every particle of creation. Just drop the stress and you experience it for yourself. Then you reach out to the whole world. This is what seva (unconditional service) is and the Art of Living is all about seva.’ What is it about Ravishankar that draws so many people into this course? His enigmatic charisma, his wit or is it his song to a joyful life? Perhaps its the zest for life, the encompassing of opposites, to move beyond duality to wholeness, to express the inexpressible, to be both in time and outside it, to be in the world and yet not in it.
Spirituality flows through Ravishankar’s veins. Born on May 13, 1956, in a spiritual family in Papanasam, Tamil Nadu, India, little Ravishankar showed devotional powers from a very young age. I travel to Uragapura, a remote village in the Indian state of Karnataka to meet his father, R.S.V. Ratnam, who works for the uplift of poor girls through his Vista India Charitable trust. This includes a school and a vocational training unit. Well versed in Sanskrit, Tamil and English, he has passed on his extensive knowledge to his son.
Pitaji, as Ratnam is popularly known with the Art of Living clan, recounts: ‘It is such a beautiful thing that Ravishankar was born where all sins are being removed.’ Papnasam means the removal of all sins. There is a full spiritual legend to his name also.
Ravishankar was born on Shankara Jayanti, the birth anniversary of Adi Shankara, the great Indian philosopher. He was named on the 11th day of his birth, which was Ramanuja Jayanti, the day Ramanuja (another important theologian and Hindu philosopher) was born. And as the village was famous for its Shiva and Vishnu temples ‘we named him as Ravi Shankar Narayana (Shankar and Narayana are respectively other names for Lords’ (It is only recently that ‘Ravi’ and ‘Shankar’ have been clubbed together into one word. Someone once asked, why Sri Sri comes twice; he is reported to have twinkled, and replied, because 108 Sris would make it too long!).
From his early years, Pitaji tells, there were events, which indicated that the child was special. As a baby, he was rocking on a large swing, hanging from four iron chains.
‘When I went to see the boy, all the chains which were holding the cot fell down. Normally the chains would have fallen in the center of the swing. But miraculously the chains fell outwards, not in the center.’
At the age of three, he was sent to a teacher, who wanted to begin her lessons with a shloka (passage) from the Bhagvad Gita, ‘Praasthayam Pratiboditaam‘. Incredibly, the young Ravishankar completed it for her by adding ‘Bhagavatam Narayanena Svayum‘.
One day he watched his father doing puja (praying), and wanted to know all about it. Pitaji gave him a photo of Meenakshi, consort of Shiva, and with an unquestionable faith he accepted her as his personal God. He would not eat anything before offering it to his personal God. Unable to pronounce ‘Meenakshi’, he called it ‘Vicchini’.
Reminiscing about his childhood, Ravishankar says: ‘I would bunk the sports class and come home early. I would go to play football, and looking at my feet, I would say, these feet cannot kick anybody, let alone an inanimate ball.’
By the time he was nine years old, he had mastered the Rig-Veda. After completing his college in English medium, he came into contact with many renowned masters and leading intellectuals. One such was Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who wanted to take the budding seeker and scholar to Rishikesh, India. But there was a tug of war within the extended family as he was offered a manager’s post with a bank. The spiritual quest won, amidst a barrage of protests.
Ratnam was resolute. Ravishankar first went to Rishikesh, then overseas, where he completed his Ph.D. in Vedas and science. The young master traveled widely and finally, Ravishankar was all prepared to start on his own. In 1982 he went into ten days of silence. When questioned about this, he is reported to have said that he knew something was ‘coming up’. It is said that the Sudarshan Kriya was reveal to him around this time. Others claim that this is the definitive period of Sri Sri Ravishankar’s enlightenment. And so Art of Living was born. The first course was held in Shimoga, India, a unique experience, in which Ravishankar communicated with the participants through silence. When he began to speak, many felt that they had already heard what he had to say.
With time, these courses became more structured, and teachers were groomed to carry the knowledge all over the world. Now many more courses have been added. But the message of love remains. It stems from a non-dualistic notion of creation, where everything is part of one divinity. Our true nature is love, and love infuses this whole creation. Once we drop the tensions and stress, we realize our true nature. Knowledge is the means to become ‘hollow and empty’, to get rid of all the impressions we have accumulated over lifetimes. These cloud our minds, which are currently like a photographic plate over laden with multiple exposures (hence the confusion and lack of clarity). Once we attain this state of inner emptiness (our natural self), we experience for ourselves the dynamic oneness of creation, whose very nature, like out own, is love. Responsibility to our fellow human beings is not to be taught, it is an intrinsic part of universal love. This appears to be the core of Ravishankar’s teachings.
In fact, the foreign followers seem to be most impressed with the Art of Living. John Osborne, Chairman of the USA Chapter of The Art of Living Foundation, comments on a transformed attitude on the part of the average American:
‘Wherever I go people are asking me about meditation, stress management, what they can do to give themselves more energy and clarity of mind, more focus and harmonious relationships. So the time has clearly come for the Art of Living in USA.’
Involved with Art of Living for the last 12 years, Osborne does regular satsangs (communions), besides teaching basic and advanced courses. There are as many as 150 teachers across the USA. Art Excel courses for children are also gaining in popularity. Though the authorities were initially hesitant about the prison programs, Osborne says that now ‘there’s a huge demand for our services’.
According to Ravishankar, the organization should be the framework, the bare scaffolding to present the knowledge. For this reason, his headquarters nestle in an ashram on the outskirts of Bangalore. There you find his other charitable foundation, Ved Vigyan Mahavidyapeeth, which looks after rural education and development and seeks to revive Vedic knowledge. The ashram also provides free education to 600 children. A special attempt is made to locate absolutely illiterate families and a monthly stipend is paid to the girl’s parents to encourage them to send her to school.
The ashram boasts of an ayurvedic clinic. Regular Art of Living courses are held, which draw participants from overseas as well. A large meditation hall is under construction. A hilltop amphitheater, Sumeru, makes a wonderful backdrop for moonlit satsangs with Sri Sri Ravishankar.
Visitors treat this ashram as the abode of the Divine. There are rumors that an ancient Shiva temple lies beneath the waters of the lake within the ashram. Others say that the ashram of the Vedic sage Vashistha was on this very site.
Ravishankar himself lodges in a modest kutir (hut) in the ashram premises. Visitors claim that merely entering the Shakti Kutir, as it is called, immediately stills the mind, and they have no questions to ask!
Other ashrams are located in Bad Antogast, Black Forest, Germany, and near Montreal, Canada.
During the Navratra festival of India, devotees from all over the world join their Indian brethren in celebration and worship at the Bangalore ashram. And the five S’s prevail: sadhana (devoted practice), seva (unconditional service), satsang(communion), celebration and smile. During the Dussehra (a major festival of India) celebrations (Ravishankar maintains silence during this period), a yajna (a Vedic fire ritual) is performed to purify the environment. Another special occasion is Shivratri (an occasion special to Lord Shiva), in which Ravishankar spontaneously, almost without volition, performs tandav, the dance of Shiva. A devotee at this year’s Dussehra celebration recounts:
‘The kalash (urn) of water seems to have a life of its own when it is ceremoniously carried around at the end of the puja. Sri Sri Ravishankar glows with divine light, and the flow of Grace is so marked that none can miss it. But what touched me more than these miracles was Guruji’s love for each one of us, his concern that we were happy and comfortable. Something flowered inside each one of us, we were in love.’
What endears him more to his devotees is the ever-joyful composure. At a farmhouse in Gurgaon, India, a satsang heralds the presence of Sri Sri Ravishankar. He is talking, answering questions, singing, leading the evening meditation. Few know that his mother, Vishalakshi or Amma as she was popularly known, passed away two days earlier. Only at the end of the program does he reminisce about it, briefly. He was installing the idol at the Vishalakshi temple in Varanasi, India, when he received news of his mother’s demise. This was the very spot where his maternal grandfather had prayed for a child, and his mother was born to him. He was not physically present at his mother’s funeral ceremony, though everyone claims that his presence was palpable.
Is this what enlightenment is all about?
In his own words: ‘Mysteries are there not to understand but to live. Living the mystery of life is joy. Enlightenment is that state of being mature and unshakable in any circumstance. Come what may, nothing can rob the smile from your heart. Enlightenment is a rare combination of innocence and intelligence, having words for expression and, at the same time, being very silent. In that state, the mind is fully in the present moment. You just sit and the song flows through you.’
For more details, go to the Art of Living homepage.
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