It has always been the land of spiritual dreams. But now its mostly nightmares that are available here. Home to seers and saints, India, once a rich repository of mystical knowledge and experience, has been transformed into an assembly-line producing godmen by the dozen.
Therefore, separating the grain from the chaff-the real guru from a bevy of charlatans crowding the spiritual landscape-is a daunting charge to say the least. Poonam Malhotra, director of Full Circle, a publishing house and bookstore in New Delhi specialising in spiritual tomes, has her finger on the pulse when she says: "The fact that there are so many seers now means there is a real need. And as in anything else there are frauds as well as genuine ones. But Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is in a different league. I met him over a year ago and was instantly drawn to his message of love and simplicity."
Malhotra is one of the many who have been influenced. Shankar is a big draw, attracting people from over 90 countries. Over 3,600 centres propagating his message have come up all over the world (including Mongolia and China). What is his spiritual message that seems to have struck a chord and has thus been a success? Says Vikram Raina, director, Triveni group of industries: "A lot of Indian gurus dont practise what they preach. He does."
There is an interesting tale about Shankar. One that confers on him the status of a seer in the hallowed tradition of ancient Indian spirituality. He is said to have emerged from a period of silence and begun preaching Sudarshan Kriya, a breathing process devised by him in 1982 (it has since been patented by his organisation). Says the spiritualist: "I thought that others should also experience what I had. So, I gathered a few people and said that I wanted to talk to them and they liked it. They in turn told their friends and thats how it became popular." Thus was born the Art Of Living.
Shankars credentials are impressive. He was honoured with the title of Yoga Shiromani, at the World Conference on Yoga, by the President of India. In September 1995, he was invited to address the United Nations to mark its 50th anniversary. Ever since, NASA has recommended the kriya to its astronauts. That apart, numerous other research institutes, including the prestigious Bangalore-based nimhans, have acknowledged and approved of the medical and psychological benefits of the kriya.
Little though is known about Shankars early life. He is said to have been able to recite the entire Bhagvad Gita by the time he turned four and finished his education in modern science and Vedic knowledge just before he turned 17.
Shankar, whose family hails from south India, was associated with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for some time before he established his own patented path. The only thing that he is prepared to say about his brief stint there is: "I have visited his ashram and given talks on Vedic subjects there."
Sudarshan Kriya-which translates into su for right, darshan for vision and kriya as purifying action-is taught as part of a six-day basic course. Each participant has to pay Rs 1,000 for the course, which is used for the many welfare activities the organisation conducts all through the year. The six days are devoted to teaching breathing exercises, yoga and gyan culled from scriptures like the Bhagvad Gita, the Ashthavakra Gita and the Upanishads. The importance and benefits of sharing, selflessness and service are all simultaneously focused on through games and exercises.
Riddhi siddhis (magical powers like being able to see and predict the future, cure minor and major ailments) are, according to scriptures, a minor auxiliary of having attained true knowledge and bliss (nirvana). Shankar too is said to have such powers. His disciples, however, are careful not to overemphasise that aspect. Says Deepam Chatterjee, a high-ranking army officers son, who himself served in Siachen and is now a close associate of Shankar: "When you talk about miracles it gives an entirely wrong picture of what is really happening. Other gurus have been rubbished because their miracle-inducing powers were highlighted."
Chatterjees own story is nothing short of miraculous. After returning from Siachen, the armyman suffered five slip discs and was afflicted by paralysis of the face. Down in the dumps and contemplating suicide, he was informed about the course. Unimpressed, yet desperate, he enrolled himself for the advanced course which was being conducted in Rishikesh a few days later. Thats where he met Shankar for the first time. This was in 1997. From then on, Chatterjee has "no longer needed any form of medication" and travels around the world conducting courses and teaching yoga. Today he is one of the closest associates of Shankar and his immediate family are firm believers. Says his mother Neena: "You find a change, your outlook, inner feelings undergo a complete transformation. Too much of logic or intellect doesnt work here. On the lighter side, my beautician now tells me that I no longer need to come to her as my skin glows without any artificial aid."
THERE are many other such examples where obstructions in clogged arteries have disappeared and people suffering from cataracts and asthma have been cured. But Chatterjee is at pains to distance his guru from such "trivialities". After all, Brahma gyan is to rise above even such "alluring and potent powers".
The spread and reach of the organisation is indeed all-pervasive. Whether its the hills of Almora or the interiors of Bihar, Shankars message and his yogic miracles are on a popularity upswing. In their thrall is as much the chatterati circuit of Delhi and Mumbai, as are the intellectuals and even criminals and the very poor. They have all been touched by this organisation. Says Ajay Kumar Singla, superintendent, Tihar jail: "I have seen tremendous change in the inmates who have done the course. The quantum of change could not have been achieved through a book or a psychologist."
To encourage those inmates who have done the course and want to practise it everyday, a separate section has been created. Three thousand inmates and 300 staffers have undergone the course so far in this high-security detention centre in the Capital. Says Manjinder Singh Suri, who has served four of his 10-year-long sentence in Tihar on charges of carrying drugs: "You feel very relaxed after performing the Sudarshan Kriya. Earlier, I wanted to avenge the wrong that had been done to me by people who had planted the drugs on my person, but now my way of thinking has changed completely."
The rich and the famous also seem to swear by this new gospel of spiritual regeneration. Filmstar Sanjay Dutts wife Rhea Pillai, a former model, is not only a follower of Shankar but is also a basic course instructor. Master batsman Sachin Tendulkar too is said to have done the course. Avers former model and actress Sonu Walia: "Everything that I had been looking for all my life was compressed in those five-six days of the course. I was sceptical, and I would argue, how can everything be so simple? I dont think I could appreciate my life till I did the course. " Adds Subha Rajan, director of the CII, who organised Shankars talk during a recently-held three-day conference: "I had only heard that he speaks well. He was extremely brilliant."
Shankar, however, is not one of those stock, esoteric godmen muttering arcane mumbo jumbo. He is also socially conscious. Therefore, Art Of Living is not merely about elevating ones soul but its about physical well-being as well. The organisation, besides constructing many water tanks and sinking borewells for the poor, have built 32 dwellings for them near Bangalore. The organisation also runs a school for children, belonging to illiterate, underprivileged families, near its 60-acre ashram just outside this City of Gardens.
The boarding, lodging and clothing of its 800 students are taken care of by the organisation. In addition to that there is a heritage school which teaches Vedic science to its 50 male students. Shankars emphasis on education stems from the fact that many social evils would not have been there had the right education been imparted at the school level itself. Says he: "We have not given spiritual knowledge to our children." Swadeshi products are being encouraged for a limited period of time to help people in each region to stand on their own feet. And the move to ban plastic in the Capital finds an echo in one of the organisations publication.
So, thats new-age compatibility for you-an easy co-existence of scientific conscientiousness and unquestioning faith. But Dinesh Kashikar, an IIT, Mumbai, MTech in chemical engineering and an ardent Shankar devotee, says: "We give you something that works if not the reasons about how it works." For the many devotees of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, that is reason enough to believe in him and his miracles.