Under the watchful eye of the Indian government, yoga master Sri Sri Ravi Shankar wants to resolve the world's conflicts through a breathing technique. At a gathering last month, he attracted 3.5 million followers in New Delhi.
NEW DELHI — Legal wranglings added an extra element of suspense to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar"s latest "mega event." Ahead of the World Culture Festival in New Delhi, where 3.5 million poeple gathered last month to meditate en masse, local authorities had threatened to cancel the event over concerns that the lotus-positioned believers would unleash "absolute chaos." They worried too about the environmental implications of the event, which featured nearly 40,000 musicians and dancers.
Shankar, a yoga master with tens of millions of followers in 155 countries, certainly knows how to attract a crowd. In India, his portrait is displayed in airports and on city billboards. For the country's affluent urban class, his smiling face, framed by long hair and a black beard, has become a symbol of happiness and a stress-free life.
The spiritual leader has also been to refugee camps, to Sri Lanka, and to Iraq, where he visited the construction site of the first Ayurvedic Hospital of traditional Indian medicine. The messiah of happiness is an unofficial diplomat who operates independently but under the watchful eye of India's Hindu nationalist government. His promise to resolve world conflicts through a "breathing technique" makes for good PR, bolstering India's image as a tolerant nation committed to peace.
A power broker
Sri Sri, as his followers call him, also has a knack for bringing together major global power players. U.S. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, and Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan — people who are hardly known for their yoga expertise — were all invited to the World Culture Festival to speak about world governance.
"It's the UN General Assembly, but with an emphasis on inner peace," one festival participant explains. Officially, the giant event, with its yoga, dance and speeches by dignitaries and business leaders, was a celebration of peace and diversity. But it also marked the rapid rise of a Hindu "saint" in New Delhi's corridors of power, a coming out party for a key broker of Indian "soft power."
Sri Sri's ashram, near Bangalore, is shaped a bit like a wedding cake, five stories high and fringed with Corinthian columns and what look like giant cement scales. There's a sugary sweetness to the place, a description that also applies to the guru himself. His words, spoken in an almost childlike voice, flow like honey. "I believe in humanity, and that yoga, which creates a harmony between body and mind, can lead to a peaceful coexistence," the yoga master says.
Dressed in his flowing white tunic, Sri Sri gives the impression of floating above the ground. His aim is equally lofty: to end conflicts on the planet through a breathing technique he developed at the age of 26 during a spiritual retreat at the edge of a river in southern India. "When you sit with closed eyes and meditate, you do nothing, and yet the vibrations you generate change the world," he says of the technique, called Sudarshan Kriya.
The ashram is officially called the Art of Living Foundation. Inside, visitors from California's Silicon Valley wash their aluminum plates. The daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro is there too, as is Francisco Moreno Ocampo, son of a prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC), who has just finished eating breakfast with his friend Juan Carlos Losada, a Colombian deputy.
Ocampo and Losada have prepared for mediation in a quest to help solve Colombia's decades-old civil war between state forces and the FARC guerilla army. The government and FARC have held peace talks in Havana, Cuba, for the past several years. One of the two men went to visit the Colombian president, whose daughter is a yoga practitioner, explaining that "the emotion and stress is blocking the peace process." The other went to Cuba to meet FARC negotiators, bringing with him a host of techniques and ideas learned from Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
In mid-2015, Sri Sri made his own visit to Cuba, where he met directly with FARC leaders. "At first, the FARC negotiators were a bit skeptical," Sri Sri admits. "But then they realized I could listen without prejudice, and we had a three-day meditation session." A peace agreement was signed shortly after, though no one can know with certainty how much influence the guru really had on the process.
"Peace is achieved by first changing the minds of people and communities, and finally the state," Ocampo says. "The first two are our responsibility, and the third is rather the domain of my father, the international jurist."
Breathing is good for business
Sri Sri has also made succcessful forays into the world of business. Rajita Kulkarni heads the World Forum for Ethics in Business, a branch of the Art Foundation of Life, and she holds an annual seminar at the Parliament in Brussels, where the "Saint" was received in June 2015 to speak on the "path of yoga." Kulkarni says the organization has also sold training courses at the international business school INSEAD, Harvard and Stanford, but doesn't say for how much. Money is a taboo subject at the Art of Living Foundation, making it impossible to know how much revenue it generates every year. The organization is clearly doing well, though, given that it funds hundreds of schools around the country, organizes charity around the world and hosts massive events such as the World Culture Festival.
"We must promote "soft diplomacy" and encourage contact between people rather than waiting for the government to intervene every time," Sri Sri told the Times of India in 2014. During the crisis between Nepal and India in late 2015, Nepalese Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa traveled to Bangalore to visit Sri Sri's ashram before meeting his Indian counterparts. The guru has a "special importance because of his great influence on the Indian establishment," Thapa says.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was an important catalyst for the influence of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Modi is a "hard man with a soft heart," Sri Sri has said of Modi. The guru attended the prime minister's 2014 induction ceremony and has always defended Modi despite his controversial role in the riots between Hindus and Muslims in 2002, when 2,000 people died. Modi was chief minister at the time for the western state of Gujarat.
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Narendra Modi and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
"In ancient times, gurus used to organize the Rajyabhishek, or the provision of the king's oath," he says. "Today, it is the president who does this. Yet in many countries, it is still the cardinal or bishop who crowns the king or the queen. This is because they place wisdom ahead of other things."
Shankar regularly advises Modi, inspiring government programs such as "model villages," an infrastructure initiative, and "clean India," which was launched in 2014 to promote sanitation and encourage citizen involvment in cleaning up public places. And in 2015, when the UN agreed — at Modi's insistence — to establish a global day of yoga, it was the teams at the Art of Living Foundation that organized sessions around the world, in collaboration with India's embassies. "Shankar is not only an asset for India but for the whole world," a close adviser to Modi says.
Not everyone buys in
But he does have his critics. Outside of India, Shankar's subtle references to Hinduism pass mostly unnoticed. They're seen simply as Indian spirituality. But at home, the guru's discourse comes off too specifically Hindu and therefore poses a challege to Indian secular society. Muslims are particularly wary of the new "soft power" in New Delhi. Shankar has also been criticized for his handling of the caste issue: He laments the discrimination it fosters but has never called for the end of the system.
He waves off his critics. He promotes an an India steeped in Hinduism but insists on it being a religion of tolerance and diversity. "Terrorism is spreading where there is not enough spirituality," Shankar says.
How does he explain then why radical Hindus organize bomb attacks, like those in India during the late 2000s? "The radicalization is a reaction to radicalization," he says, implying that radical Islam is to blame for the rise of Hindu fundamentalism. He calls Hinduism "the religion of tolerance" and insists that it cannot give rise to terrorism.
At one point, Shankar proposed some breathing exercises for ISIS leaders so that they might better control their emotions. The men were less than appreciative, threatening to blow up the Malaysian hotel where Shankar was staying and kill him if he continued his Hindu proselytizing in Islamic countries. For the first time since the beginning of the interview, the guru clenches his jaw. "They are mentally ill," he says of the terror group's members. In some corners of the globe, emotions and ego stand decidedly in the way of peace.