“I feel like a boy on his first day in university,’’ He confessed.
“The media’s job is to criticise, and it must do its job. But the criticism should be constructive. Criticism has value when you’re thinking big and positive, not when you’re thinking narrow and divisive. I don’t agree with biased journalism, which attacks specific communities or groups.”
“Actually, I think the media has two roles,” he went on. “One is to present the facts as they are. And the other is to provide a ray of hope, present a vision for the future.”
We moved on to the movement he founded, which has now grown into a global spiritual empire. Who coined the term ‘The Art of Living’, we asked. “A group of us were sitting together and someone said our principles turned living into an art. So I said, fine, call it The Art of Living. The name had a nice, secular, allinclusive feel to it. It’s really a modern name for a traditional philosophy. Remember, 25 years ago, most Indians tended to see Vedanta and Yoga as outdated relics; there was little respect for them. It’s nice to see things coming full circle now.”
So how does he react to charges of being a well-marketed Guru? “It’s like commentary after the match is over,” he shrugged. “People can study the movement’s success and turn it into a marketing model now, but no model was originally designed to make it a success. Frankly, no one was more surprised than I was that it became so successful. Truly, I want nothing except to share my joy. Maybe that’s why so many things are happening.”
What about people who misuse the foundation’s name for commercial benefit? “I can’t police the world. But I do request anyone who’s thinking of joining a centre to log on to our website and make sure that it’s actually affiliated to us.”
How does he react to arguments that religion is becoming an increasingly divisive force and creating tension in the world? “I think western philosophy has been really clogged up by the concept of good and evil,” he responded. “If someone doesn’t think like you, he becomes evil. Indian philosophy has never been so black and white — notice we have no concept of Satan. And we say that when even Ravana died, his soul merged into Rama’s, because after all, we’re all part of the same cosmic unit. But the world is getting increasingly polarised. I gave a speech at the European Parliament saying all religions have the same goal and a lot of MPs were furious. They asked how I could equate their religion with one that they claimed gave rise to suicide bombers.”
“The tragedy is that people from all parts of the world can do so much harm while being convinced they’re upholding the cause of good,” he went on. “I call war the Worst Act of Reason. After all, everyone comes up with a rational justification for war. Saddam said he had good reason to invade Kuwait, George W Bush insisted he was justified in attacking Iraq. But what good finally came of it all?’’
Choices & Blessings
“Personally, I oppose capital punishment. I believe every criminal should be given the opportunity to reform. But I can understand the sentiments of the families of those who died defending Parliament. Letting off Afzal could demoralise them, apart from hundreds of security personnel. I would suggest life imprisonment for Afzal.”
Does he know tennis ace Leander Paes? “I’ve met him a few times.” Does he have any advice for Leander following the much-publicised spat with doubles partner Mahesh Bhupati at the Asian Games in Doha? “I don’t give advice unless asked. The world is full of orphan advice — advice not taken because it wasn’t asked for. Of course, a lot of times people also ask me for advice so that they can later blame me if things later go wrong. At times like that, there’s a phrase I really like to use, “The choice is yours, the blessing is mine!’
Happily, he didn’t use that phrase even once during the news meeting. Stories were pored over, details sought in some cases, and slots decisively indicated.
And then it was time for a graceful exit. Clearly, the Guru of good times hasn’t just discovered and perfected the art of living, he’s also mastered the art of leaving — people happy, that is.
‘WAR: Worst Act of Reason’
Guru Gyaan: Sri Sri Ravi Shankar On The Art Of Living, Role Of Media, Growing Global Tension And Lots More
He likes to read the newspaper everyday, but does spiritual guru and Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar have any favourite pages or columns?
“I flip through most of the pages, except sports, which doesn’t interest me much. Of course I read Speaking Tree and Sacred Space on the TOI edit page, but I also like to read science stories. I have a degree in science, you know, though I can’t claim to know much about science.’’
How did his interest in science square with his spiritual pursuits, we asked. “Where’s the contradiction?” he retorted. “Both science and eastern spirituality begin with the same premise: experience it first, then believe it. That’s why there’s never been a clash between science and spirituality in the Orient.”