Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: The Mystery of Two Sris and More
In a country which is said to have more spiritual leaders per capita than any other nation on Earth, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has been described as the “unusual holy man”. He cuts across caste, class, and religious lines to command an enormous following both in India and outside.
Sri Sri, largely managed to stay away from controversies, till he was dragged in court for organising the World Culture Festival on Yamuna river bank, and more recently after he said, “Malala did nothing to deserve a nobel peace prize.”
On his birthday, The Quint gets to know Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the man behind a global art of living movement and the most recent controversies.
Born into a religious and spiritual family in Tamil Nadu on 13th May 1956, Ravi Shankar was named ‘Ravi’ because his birth was on a Sunday, and ‘Shankar’ after the eighth-century Hindu saint, Adi Shankara, born on the same day. Ravi Shankar, a self-proclaimed child prodigy, has narrated how by the age of four, he was able to recite parts of the Bhagavad Gita, and was commonly found in meditation.
Ravi Shankar’s sister, Bhanumati Narsimhan describes him as a ‘gifted child’. “Just the thought that my Master shared the same womb fills me with gratitude. Often people ask me when I realized he was my guru. The truth is I have always followed him. Guruji was a leader at school as well. Sometimes even our teachers would speak to him for solace,” writes Bhanumati.
Early Life and His Gurus
Ravi Shankar’s first teacher was Sudhakar Chaturvedi, an Indian Vedic Scholar and a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi. By the time he was 17 or 18, completing his Bachelor of Science degree from St Joseph’s College in Bengaluru, Ravi Shankar was already meditating and conducting Satsangs.
It is during this time that he became a follower of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Ravi Shankar largely remained silent about his guru till Yogi died in 2008. Remembering Mahesh Yogi he once wrote, “He often said that being with the Guru is like being in a cocoon – you are completely protected in the Guru’s aura, and after him you emerge as a butterfly soaring high.” Ravi Shankar’s life is truly reminiscent of what his Guru believed!
In the year 1981, Ravi Shankar went into a ten-day silence and Sudarshan Kriya, a powerful breathing technique, was born. With time, Sudarshan Kriya became the centrepiece of the AOL courses. The Art of Living foundation is now an international, non-profit, educational, and humanitarian organisation.
The Global Connect
Operating globally in close to 155 countries, Art of Living is said to have more than 370 million followers. During the year, Ravi Shankar spends his time between his ashram near Baden Baden Germany, and AOL’s ashram near Montreal, Canada, apart from traveling consistently between the main ashram at Bengaluru and the ‘power hub’ Delhi.
Somebody who propounds a stress-free life to his followers, Ravi Shankar usually starts his day as early at 4 am conducting meditation sessions, meeting his followers, discussing news and issues that may need attention, and meeting members of the press. His day usually ends at around 12:30 am, but not before a few international calls and telephonic conferences.
With a vision to create a ‘violence-free, stress-free world’, he has often been questioned for meditation courses that cost upto Rs 4000. Nonetheless, the number of his followers and his international clout have increased year after year.
‘The Mystery of Two Sris’
In the millenium year 2000, as the world survived the paranoia of a ‘pralaya’, Ravi Shankar went to New York to attend a peace summit. During the summit, a fellow spiritual leader, Satyanarayan Goenkaji, urged Ravi Shankar to rethink the name of his organisation, since it may be thought to be inspired from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s book, “The Science of Being and the Art of Living”.
Ravi Shankar explains the decision of an additional honorific through a blog post, “that evening, I called our key organisers to discuss changing my name and that of the organisation. This was a grave matter and everybody had something to say. I easily dropped the ‘Pandit’ from my name. A colleague who had been with me at Maharishi’s came up with the idea of Sri Sri. Everybody agreed that one Sri is very common, generic and confusing. My opinion on the matter was irrelevant in this animated discussion. I was just a silent witness. And so, I was rechristened at Waldorf.”
In 2001, a PIL was filed in the Karnataka high court alleging that Art of Living had constructed huge structures, encroaching upon a water-spread area. The investigations found that the foundation had encroached upon 6.53 hectares of the tank area.
In 2010, an NRI accused the spiritual guru of grabbing 15 acres of land owned by him on the Kanakapura Road in Bengaluru. The status of both the cases is unknown.
In 2012, Sri Sri courted controversy by stating, “government schools are breeding grounds for Naxalism,” for which he was criticised by activists and academicians both.
By suggesting a mutual agreement for building the Ram Mandir to solve the Ayodhya issue, convincing Baba Ramdev to discontinue his fast during the anti-corruption movement of 2011, offering to mediate between the Naxalites and the government, and through his latest efforts to mediate between women activists and traditionalists on the entry of women inside Shani Shignapur temple, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has managed to remain relevant in India’s social and political scene.
With a long list of awards and honorariums (the latest being a Padma Vibhushan) behind him, Ravi Shankar now seems to be sinking under the weight of his own responsibility when it comes to the latest Yamuna riverbank controversy.