( Ten years or so ago I spent a day with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and his followers on a Delhi to Agra road trip . I wrote a tongue- in- cheek story on the high-flying lifestyle of Sri Sri who advocates `simple living’ to those who flock to him. Until the article was published I had not imagined his followers would be so intolerant of any criticism of their Guru. Industrialist Rahul Bajaj, an ardent Shankar devotee, and a major advertiser of my paper called the owner to complain. Is it any wonder then that interviews of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar are usually adulatory? Fortunately for me, my editor stood by the story. P.s. To put it in today’s context, I have made slight modifications in the original story)
“Guruji takes care of everything. You just come”, says a middle-aged voice over the phone inviting you to the CII delegation at Agra where Art of Living Founder, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is to give a concluding lecture.
The bus leaves at 9am and the devotees saunter in the lawns and foyer of a sprawling farmhouse in Gurgoan (a Delhi surburb) where the Guru is staying. Amidst chants of Jai Gurudev- the greeting the disciples exchange on meeting each other- you try and pick the voice of the lady on the phone. “Hi , I am Maureen Motwani” she appears suddenly.
She says she is not sure when the bus leaves for Agra. “With Guruji one cannot say what might happen the next moment”, she says ominously. And apropos of nothing adds, ” I was Miss India. Did you know that”?.
Indeed, the devotees thronging the plush bungalow are mostly has-been beauty queens, aging socialites, media barons and stressed out CEO’s of companies- the latter having facilitated Ravi Shanker’s address to the CII delegates.
After a long wait, pregnant with expectations and emotions (few women weep with bliss at the very sight of “Guruji”) a short, swarthy man donned in white, walks out of the house. Typical of an Indian guru, he has a long flowing beard and long dark tresses cover the shoulders of his unstitched robes.
The devotees suddenly break out singing a bhajan and escort him like a bride to a sparking Mercedes Benz waiting to transport him to Agra. Ravi Shanker slips in , slouches on the back seat, smiles and waves at the devotees peeping in through the car window, and is off.
All the high rank and file of the business world follow Shanker in a rickety bus to Agra. In the bus they remind you, that “Guruji” is different. “Didn’t you see how in his presence all the stress and tension is dissolved?”, asks J. P. Gupta, a Company Director and owner of the farmhouse where Shankar stayed. I am not too sure . I am just perplexed why the beloved Guru went solo in a luxury car when there was so much room in the bus we are traveling in. Surely his adulating followers would have loved to have him in their midst? Except me and the other fellow journo, everyone in this bus had the power to own a couple of hot cars if they didn’t already.
I am amused by the irony of a man who claims to own nothing, zipping by in a gleaming Mercedes while those who can actually afford one, bumping along the Delhi – Agra highway in the less than comfortable bus. I try to ask the followers about this but I am scoffed at for my `ignorance’. ” You will never understand the ways of our Guru”, they conclude.
It is a long bumpy bus-ride to Agra and we are dropped off at the Jaypee Hotel- a deluxe five star hotel where the CII meeting is due. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s merc. had arrived almost an hour before and the guru is checked in a luxury suite. I ask the followers to let me interview him. ” It won’t be possible just now. Guruji just arrived from a long journey. He is tired and resting”, I am summarily told. I really won’t understand the ways of this Guru, I think to myself. We were the ones who had a rough bus-journey to Agra. He had had it smooth in a Mercedes didn’t he? We were the mere mortals who should be resting. Not the mighty Guru who could surely summon the reserves of his yogic- powers to de-stress himself.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar emerges from his suite only in the evening. At the CII meeting, he speaks for 10 minutes peppering his speech with truisms and repeating the lecture he gave at the Millium Peace Summit in New York. ” I am getting some vibrations from you”, exclaimed a visibly overcome CII delegate when offered the mike to ask a question. The lecture over, some of the top honchos of the industrial world sprawl at his feet.
Sri Sri is back in his plush five star hotel suite. The devotees sit on the floor while Sri Sri Ravi Shankar sits on a high sofa. There is silence and it is broken only to compliment on what a “tremendous success” his lecture was. Indeed Shanker has been successful around the world with his breathing technique, Sudarshan Kriya over which he has even obtained a copyright.
It is this technique which has lent to his growing popularity for his lectures are full of spiritual cliches and are shockingly insipid. But for his followers, even his off the cuff remarks are taken down as pearls of wisdom and repeated to the uninitiated. Critics say Sudarshan Kriya itself is nothing but rehashed Yogic exercise known to indian ascetics since antiquity. But Sri Sri was the first to market it to the modern world and its yours to learn provided you pay the price. Like most guru-seeking people, Shanker’s devotees, mostly the urban elite, come to him to get rid of their tentions and anxieties. And like many esoteric groups, his devotees attribute many miracles to him.
I am finally ushered in for the interview. At the door I hear a visibly shaken devotee exclaim “Guruji looks so much like Jesus Christ”. Its not hard to see how difficult it can be to ask any reasonable questions from a man so deified and protected by an adulating cabal. As I take my seat , I am suddenly aware that I am the only one besides the Guru sitting on a chair. Every industrialist worth his salt, sit crouching on the floor even when there are few empty chairs available.
For a few seconds I just look at the Guru waiting for something to happen. Maybe some sort of holy ‘vibrations’ to flow through my cynical veins, I hope. But the Guru looks away shyly. Unlike Osho, making eye-contact is surely not the way of Sri Sri I conclude . Especially not if you ask him anything uncomfortable. When you do so he looks at his followers, who as if on cue, clap and cheer loudly on his half-hearted attempts at answering, drowning you out completely.
When you have touched that sensitive cord with the Guru you know your interview is over. Some of my questions are basic but these are questions Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has dodged all his life, often with trite humour. Sample this- to the question why he gave himself the two Sri’s he says “because 108 Sri’s would be too long” or “there was already one Ravi Shankar so to avoid the confusion”. Where for anyone else awarding oneself superhuman titles would seem very arrogant and egoistic, for Sri Sri Ravi Shankar it is seen as a natural assertion of his so- called ‘enlightenment’.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is also silent about his own guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, under whose tutelage he grew to prominence in the Spiritual supermarket. And from whom he possibly picked up the idea of trademarking meditations. Mahesh Yogi became the first Indian Guru to trademark a meditation technique when he trademarked his Transcendental Meditation in the 1970’s.
As the evening sun sets on the hotel in Agra, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar gets ready to rest for the day. Everyone is summarily ushered out of the room. On the train back to Delhi the words of the followers come back to me ,” You will never understand the ways of Guruji”. Amen.