“What’s the main essence of life? Love!” Indian yogi Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, also known as Guruji, recently told a packed hotel ballroom in Jakarta as he twirled his microphone and almost skipped across the stage.
“If no one loved you, would you like to live?” he elaborated, to the shaking heads of the hushed crowd.
Dressed in long flowing cream and white robes, and with a playful, almost giddy manner, the guru imparted lessons on how to live in harmony with the timing and delivery of a stand-up comedian.
His message to the about 1,000 people present was simple: if people have a strong sense of belonging and of service to others they will be happy, but first they have to clear away the stress and strain that prevents them from being open to that.
“Our aim is to put a smile on every face and that happens when we can relieve people of their stress, when we can help them to handle their own negative emotions. That makes a big difference in people’s lives,” he told assembled journalists, including The Jakarta Post, in slow lilting tones.
The non-profit foundation he established in 1982 runs educational and development projects in 141 countries and teaches his Art of Living course, a combination of self-development workshops, yoga postures, chanting and breathing techniques to relieve stress.
Money earned from courses and received in donations is invested into humanitarian aid projects; followers claim that Art of Living is the world’s largest NGO accredited to the United Nations. It currently has a center in Baghdad providing stress relief classes to victims of trauma, and an estimated 1,000
Iraqi citizens and U.S soldiers are reported to have benefited so far.
Art of Living has built and funded the running cost of two schools for the poor in Jakarta and supports a range of local charities from its branches across the country.
You don’t have to look far for information about Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s teaching or the activities of his organizations but details of his life are sketchier.
When his biographer, French journalist and loyal follower Francois Gautier, asked him what he wanted to be when he was growing up, he answered: “I was a child, I am a child; when did I grow UP?”
He gives similar playful responses to other personal questions such as why he never married, which he also attributes to being a child who never grew up.
The mystery surrounding his early life and his reluctance, common among yogis, to speak about his past has resulted in many stories circulating which are difficult to substantiate.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was born into an educated South Indian family in 1956 and his parents, both spiritual people and dedicated to alternative medicine and charity work, would seem to have influenced his choice of career.
As a child he used to tell school friends that people around the world were waiting for him. At the age of four he is said to have been able to recite the ancient spiritual text, the Bhagavad Gita, by heart. When asked how this could be possible he seemed shy, almost bashful, but hazarded an explanation.
“Mind is an impulsive energy and intelligence and according to the laws of thermodynamics we know that energy can never be destroyed. So it might be that we have impressions from the past.”
He completed studies in traditional Vedic sciences and obtained a modern science degree by the age of 17. While attending conferences and teaching meditation classes, he came into contact with the renowned guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of Transcendental Meditation (TM) and guru of The Beatles.
After some years working with Maharishi, setting up schools for the poor, teaching meditation and organizing spiritual gatherings around the country, he went into total silence for 10 days in the early 1980s and developed his trademark breathing technique, the Sudarshan Kriya. The Art of Living Foundation and numerous charitable organizations stemmed from the courses he began to teach using this technique.
At the heart of Guruji’s teaching is an analytical approach to life which, he said, required relaxing the mind through breathing and meditation.
“I say there are seven layers of our existence: body, breath, mind, intellect, memory, ego and the self or spirit. Learning a little about each of these is what we call Art of Living. But intellect should be sharp and that can only happen when our emotions are calm. This meditation is very simple and yet very profound and effective. In a short period it can bring a big difference in ones life.
“And people from all religions and cultures, they all take to it easily.”
The classes have reportedly been taken by four million people around the world; special programs are also tailored to tackle social ills such as criminality and corruption.
This is a topic he warms to instantly. With a characteristic flick of the hair and a stroke of the beard he told journalists in Jakarta that his programs have had great success in India in 21,000 villages across the country. They rely on one central concept: belongingness.
“You know corruption only happens outside of belongingness. Nobody will do corruption to their own family members or close friends. So when you create a sense of belongingness then people start having a sense of commitment and feel close to people around them. Then they stop being corrupt, at least in that circle.”
Confident that this approach could also be applied in Indonesia, he said the key was to give self esteem to young people and to channel their energies into creative service activities. Making them leaders of local development projects could empower them to transform society, he added.
Although he refused to be drawn on who he may have been in a past life, it is clear that many of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s followers consider him to be the reincarnation of a divinity. Organizers of his recent visit were keen to avoid emotional scenes and said that he does not like to be treated like a saint. The guru himself is more nonchalant.
“You know, nothing disturbs me, this doesn’t affect me at all,” he said with that flick of his long hair and a bright smile, before taking the stage.
“If someone honors me, it is their own greatness that they honor. I don’t give much importance to that… One thing I usually tell people is ‘honor each other, see goodness in everybody. And be like a child from within’,” he added with a mischievous grin.