By Guido Bilbao
Photos: Cortesía El Arte de Vivir
Hotel Holiday Inn, San José (Costa Rica). I ascend to the Presidential Suite on the top floor for a fifteen-minute chat with a man who is said to possess the power to change the world. His name is Ravi Shankar and he is a spiritual teacher who continues to gain followers around the world.
Upon exiting the elevator, I see that the hallway is crowded with fifteen people who have been waiting hours just to see him walk by. The same thing happens everywhere he goes: people fill the fire stairs, they jump over barriers; like plants reaching for the light, they are drawn to the aura of his presence.
I am greeted by a representative of the Costa Rica branch of Art of Living, an international organization headquartered in India, but with a reach that encompasses the entire planet. In every country where it has a branch, the association promotes the philosophy of Sri Sri, as his followers call him. The group holds that meditation, breathing, and awareness can turn the hell of this world into a paradise. The faithful swear that his teachings have changed their lives. There are also doubters. We are here to try to discern who this man really is.
The young woman who welcomes me says only that I need to take off my shoes before entering the guru’s room.
When the door opens, everyone in the hallway stands in a futile attempt to get a look inside the room: inside is just an enormous room, the floor hidden by white sheets and more people who are all ecstatic at the imminent appearance of their guide. The feeling of devotion exuded by the faithful imbues the situation with a special atmosphere that seems to herald the arrival of a saint or deity rather than a man.
Ravi Shankar appears through a door behind me, and my first impression is of a not very tall man dressed in a white tunic, a man who smiles graciously and walks with light steps. In keeping with the energy in the atmosphere, we could say that he seems to walk on air. Somewhat surprised, I put out my hand and he gently squeezes it in return.
Then he sits down and takes out a small white aerosol container with a green top that he presses several times to no avail. I ask what it is.
“Disinfectant,” says one of his associates, who kindly offers to serve as a translator.
How would you describe Ravi Shankar to someone who does not know you?
It is not important for them to know me, but rather that they know themselves. My only message for them is that they should live a stress-free life. I am not here to talk about myself, but to promote a happy society.
Nonetheless, people want to know who you are.
If they want to know me, I’m always available, and they can meet me any time
What was your childhood like?
I spent my childhood dreaming of a world where everyone is part of one big family and of bringing spirituality to every home and every person. My dream was to dry people’s tears; I could never bear for people to feel sad. I use a scientific approach for the modern world, but one rooted in ancient wisdom.
How did this spiritual awareness emerge in a child?
It was something inborn in me. And, of course, my teacher had been with Mahatma Gandhi for a long time. I grew up hearing stories of Gandhi and other saints. Now that I’m older, it’s the other way around: I’m the one spending time with young people.
What spiritual figure do you most admire?
I think every child is a spiritual figure. Every baby is spiritual. We are born with pure hearts and clear minds. Every child smiles four hundred times a day.
So what happens that those babies become bitter adults?
We lose that smile over time because we are not taught the value of non-violence, because we are not taught to release stress.
Many people see stress as a natural part of modern life; they believe that personal development, success, and creativity are not possible without experiencing stress.
If we needed stress to be productive, then Afghanistan or Lebanon, where there is so much tension and stress, would be the most creative, successful places on earth. They are not. Creativity never arises from stress.
How did Art of Living come about?
It was 1981. The President of the Supreme Court of India and other leaders asked me to spread my message. Every painting needs a frame to hold it. The Art of Living is that frame. If it had been left up to me, there would be no organization. Generous people in India started Art of Living in order to share with the world something that had helped them.
Some people have doubts about your association; they consider it more of a self-help multinational rather than a spiritual organization. What do you say to these criticisms?
It is a very democratic non-profit organization. We have a system where we renew the board of directors and all the positions every year or two. Some people would like to stay on, and I imagine that there are one or two who have their own agendas. But it is a very dynamic organization. The important thing is not the frame, but the picture; the goal is to spread knowledge, not to be an organization. Criticism is always welcome, since it helps us improve.
You don’t feel like you’re being accused of fakery?
Look, there are prejudices in many countries, a preconception that an Indian guru is like this or that. Prejudice closes the mind. Prejudice leads to obscurantism. A doctor can make mistakes, a lawyer can fool you, and a businessperson can defraud you. But you can’t judge everyone by the few who do not behave ethically. That would be paranoia.
How can people distinguish a real teacher from a false one?
I have no idea. How can you tell if someone is good or bad? Only experience will tell.
You collaborated with the peace process in Colombia. People even say that the unilateral cease-fire by the FARC was the result of your advice to follow Gandhi’s principles of non-violence. Can you describe your experience?
It is in my nature to seek peace, whether for individuals or nations. I didn’t do anything extraordinary. I always say the same things, whether it’s in Iraq, Africa, or Colombia. It was something normal…
After the U.S. Presidential election, a lot of people are afraid of what might happen because of the Republican victory. What advice would you give Donald Trump?
I don’t give advice unless people ask for it, but I would make a comment. What is the difference before and after the election? The United States continues to be a democracy, a country that promotes freedom. Latinos have made great contributions to the development of that country. They are part of the United States. So we shouldn’t be too worried.
Then he dips into a small basket and gives me two small bags of almonds as a parting gift. I opened them and ate the almonds while photos were being taken. As I was leaving, the Art of Living representative noticed the empty bags —and my full mouth— and looked at me in surprise.
‘What happened to the almonds?” she asked me. “Did you eat them? They were most likely blessed; you should have kept them,” she scolded.
The faithful waiting in the hallway questioned me as I put my shoes on.
“What did you feel?” asked a girl quickly. She told me that many people had changed their lives after seeing him, that they had left everything to follow his teachings. Some journalists had arrived with lists of questions, but they broke down crying when they looked into his eyes and felt something new inside.
“What did you feel? Tell me the truth. What did you feel?”
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was born in southern Indian in 1956. He could recite parts of the Bhagavad Gita, the ancient Sanskrit scriptures, by the age of four. His first teacher was Sudhakar Chaturvedi, who had worked extensively with Mahatma Gandhi. He graduated with degrees in Vedic literature and physics in 1973. In 1981, he founded Art of Living as an international educational and humanitarian non-profit organization. The educational and personal development programs provide powerful tools for eliminating stress and fostering feelings of well-being. As a spiritual teacher, Sri Sri has revived the traditions of yoga and meditation. In addition to rescuing ancient wisdom, he has created new techniques for personal and social transformation. Throughout its thirty-five years of existence, Art of Living programs have improved the quality of life of more than 370 million beneficiaries in 156 countries. He has served as a mediator in peace processes in the resolution of conflicts in Iraq, the Ivory Coast, Kashmir, Bihar, Colombia, and Cuba.