In Artful Living, Sri Sri and Nityananda Have Much in Common
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s organisation has had a history of allegations of land-grabs, writes Aditya Sinha.
Six years ago, a sex scandal broke out in Bangalore involving the 33-year-old Swami Nityananda, when the godman with striking looks and thick shoulder-length hair was apparently caught on video with Tamil actress Ranjitha in his bedroom. It made for a good clip on YouTube and on CD—WhatsApp had only just been invented two months earlier—and it kept the press busy. For some of us, it didn’t seem much more than a case of another fraud caught in the act.
Two months later, in May 2010, another controversy eruped involving another godman, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, when there was a firing near the periphery of his sprawling Ashram in the Panchagiri hills just outside Bangalore: at first reports said the firing just missed the Guru’s convoy, then reports hinted that disgruntled devotees were involved; and finally the state police chief said that a nearby farmhouse owner had merely fired at a stray dog. One of my newpaper’s reporters spoke to local villagers who complained that the Ashram kept encroaching and gobbling up their land, and that their complaints to the authorities went unheeded because Sri Sri was a powerful man.
True enough: the Art of Living Foundation, which claims tens of millions of followers spread over 80 countries (as far away as Argentina) celebrated its 35th anniversary with impunity on the banks of the Yamuna in Delhi this past weekend. The foundation also has a sophisticated public relations set-up, and back in June 2010 invited me for a face-to-face with the godman.
The ashram is enchanting, much like a filmic sci-fi utopia that is lush green and where everyone is young and beautiful, wearing wide, beatific smiles. Even the PR person who escorted me around looked like a shampoo ad. At Rs 4,000 for their short-term breathing exercise courses, it very much resembles a weekend getaway for corporate executives.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar spoke of how proper breathing could solve the world’s problems (yes, even Kashmir could be sorted in this way, he said) and what was striking was his effeminate voice and his luxurious white robes, with intricate white embroidery all around. He seemed disappointed when finally asked about the firing, cursorily dismissing it; his people would give me all the facts on that incident. He did mention that my newspaper had an important mission to spread the positive word, etc.
Back in office, one of the local reporters asked if I remembered the Nityananda sex scandal. The swami was more than 20 years younger than Sri Sri and, before the scandal, had seen a massive expansion of followers, eating into the older godman’s devotee base. To protect his turf, the rumour went, Sri Sri’s people had set up the sting operation against Nityananda.
This could not be verified. The scandal suspiciously originated from a section of the media, and only then did the police file cases. After being on the run for 52 days, Nityananda was arrested and jailed. But then the video was found to be morphed, and a year later the cases withdrawn. And in late 2010 the BJP-run Karnataka government began investigating Nityananda’s finances.
Somehow, the Art of Living with its vast wealth manages to avoid such inquiries. Instead, the BJP-led central government this year conferred Sri Sri with the Padma Vibhushan, and allowed him his sprawling jamboree extravaganza, without requisite permissions, alongside the Yamuna, inviting censure and fine from the National Green Tribunal. The adverse publicity forced President Pranab Mukherjee and many foreign dignitaries to cancel. Prime Minister Narendra Modi glowingly addressed the meet, however.
The government’s interest was positive publicity after three continuous months of being on the backfoot, starting with the Pathankot airbase attack and lately with the counter-productive police action against left-wing students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Sri Sri is extremely popular with a certain class of Indians, both at home and abroad, some of whom may recently be wavering in their support to Modi, given that his governance promises have not lived up to expectations.
Sri Sri said he would set up a permanent environmental park for the Yamuna, at the venue of this weekend’s festival. It sounds suspiciously like another land-grab by an organisation with a history of allegations of land-grabs. But like the outer Bangalore villagers we can only be mute spectators, for this is a godman with very powerful devotees indeed. The floodplain should revert to its original owners, and even a hint of any alleged land-grab should not be allowed to proliferate.
(The writer is a senior journalist and co-author with AS Dulat of ‘Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years’)
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