The sceptic and the spiritual guru

If you’ve met any ardent followers of the ‘Art of Living’, chances are that they’ve strongly recommended the course to you. Most followers swear by the courses, and I’m often told that doing the course would make me a happier person.

It wasn’t as if I was dying to be a happy-shining person. But when I got the opportunity to meet Sri Sri Ravishankar, the founder of the Art of Living movement, my curiosity got the better of me, and I thought, why not.

After a long trek across town, I arrived at the stated address armed with questions. The building lobby was packed with people decked up in silk, gold and diamonds. Every hand held a garland; eyes were fixed on the gate with much anticipation. They were all waiting for their ‘Guruji’. We are escorted into the flat that Guruji will be visiting. It’s a plush apartment in a fancy suburban high-rise and the view is to die for. A picture of Sri Sri stares at all the bustle in the household and reminds me of the task at hand.

“He’s arrived!” and suddenly there’s silence. With a Gandhi topi on his head (presented to him by one of the followers, I presume) he walks in and settles down on a garlanded swing. While he’s still preoccupied with the task of ridding his long flowing hair of flower petals, I start the conversation.

How can one lead a stress-free life in a world where the cost of roti, kapda and makaan is shooting through the roof, I ask.
“One must engage in social and spiritual activities to rid oneself of stress,” he answers. But how does one make the time for such activities when living in a city like Mumbai?

Sri Sri insists that making time for spiritual activity is essential because it actually adds time to your life. His followers nod in consent. “It brings clarity and perspective and you get to understand your priorities. It adds quality to your time,” explains Anurag Dhoundeyal, a 25-year-old musician and an Art of Living practitioner.

While an enhanced quality of life, inner-peace, and a calm mind are essential to live a healthy life, doesn’t it sound a little selfish? If we all focus on inner peace, who will fix what is wrong externally? Who will fight corruption, poverty, crime, and all other woes plaguing society?

Sri Sri Ravishankar explains that spirituality brings about openness and honesty, which will automatically fix all that is wrong in society. “The scams are all happening because of greed, and spirituality can keep greed in check. Spirituality makes a person honest.” I point out that, ironically enough, most of our politicians do present themselves as deeply ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’, and many pay obeisance to god-men, swamijis, and self-styled ‘spiritual’ leaders. But that hasn’t made them any less greedy or any more honest, has it? To which the ever-smiling guru says, “They are all show-offs. If they were true believers, they would never do all this.”

So far, the Guru has made it pretty clear that the spiritual path is the one to take. But walking this path costs a lot of money. How does one justify having to pay for seeking spiritual well-being?
“In order to receive something, we have to give. If you get something for free, you will never value it. The nominal fee that we charge for our courses is based on the age old concept of ‘Dakshina’,” says Sri Sri.

However, not so long ago, spirituality meant leaving the material world behind. Here I am, seated in a luxurious apartment that epitomises material wealth. The ‘Art Of Living’ foundation has numerous influential and powerful followers. The organisation itself is very wealthy. Isn’t there an obvious dissonance between the ancient concept of spirituality and what it’s come to mean today, I ask.

With another serene smile, the spiritual leader answers, “Spirituality is not anti-life. You should continue to do your work and seek prosperity, but you should not be greedy. It is very important to share your wealth with others.” He adds that irrespective of what you earn, a part of your income should always be given to charity. “In our case, the organisation spends close to 90% of its wealth on charitable causes.”

Over the past thirty years, ‘Art of Living’ has spread to 151 countries and has millions of followers. With those numbers, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and his organisation could make for a great marketing case study. I ask the spiritual leader if he thinks it’s ironical that a spiritual organisation has now become a brand.

‘Guruji’, as his followers lovingly refer to him, takes branding as a sign of his popularity. “We don’t like to brand ourselves but we are very popular and it comes with the territory,” he says.

We go on to discuss the state of the nation. I ask whether he thinks the country will overcome current problems like corruption and inflation. In an ever so optimistic tone, he says, “I am sure our youth will wake up and take a stand.”

On my way out, I overhear someone say that there’s a couple waiting to get engaged in the presence of Sri Sri. In the elevator, I meet an 8-year-old who goes to a school set up by the Art of Living foundation and loves meditating. She turns ecstatic when I tell her that the Guru is nearby, on the other side of the wall from where she is standing.

I am not a follower of the ‘Art of Living’, but I can’t help but feel awed by the amount of love, respect and faith that Sri Sri evokes in people across religions, nationalities and ages. I hope that his dream of a peaceful, non-violent world where politicians are honest and businessmen are selfless comes true. I’ll be a selfish optimist and hope that it happens in my lifetime.

The interview originally appeared in DNA

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