The art of Loving  Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar says that emptiness is a doorway between the material and spiritual worlds, and a place where one can understand the nature of the spirit.

Published: 06th January 2018 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 06th January 2018 03:18 PM   |  A+A-

Pitaji was a student of Vedic astrology and Ayurveda. He mapped out the child’s horoscope and shared its uniqueness with other family members. Four planets were in exalted positions in addition to other very special configurations.This gave him an inkling that the child’s path would be extraordinary. The day of the baby’s birth also coincided with the birth anniversaries of two great Indian saints and reformers, Sri Adi Shankara and Sri Ramanujacharya. Adi Shankara was the proponent of Advaita philosophy (monism) and Sri Ramanuja was the proponent of Vishishtadvaita philosophy (qualified monism) and was one of the most important saints of the Sri Vaishnava tradition. As our family had great respect for traditions and reverence for saints, it was a matter of celebration that the child’s birthdate coincided with the anniversaries.

This also certainly influenced the choice of the child’s name.
My father’s mother was a clairvoyant and had predicted long before that Pitaji would have a son and a daughter. ‘He will bring light to the whole world. Name him Ravi,’ she had said. ‘Ravi’ in Sanskrit means the sun, and coincidentally the day of the child’s birth was a Sunday. She had also suggested that I be named ‘Bhanu’, which also means the sun. Honouring her words, ‘Ravi’ was decided as the name and ‘Shankar’ was added in reverence to Adi Shankara. They even had the idea of including ‘Narayana’ because of the Ramanuja connection but decided against it as ‘Ravi Shankar Narayana’ would be too long for a name. On the auspicious eleventh day of the baby’s birth, the name ‘Ravi Shankar’ was whispered into his ears by my father.

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Young Ravi was at an age when most young people would dream of a good job and a great salary. But 
his world was far removed from all of these aspirations. My brother met Maharishi in Rishikesh, and when he came back home, he stayed only for a few days, just to do some paperwork. He was going to accompany Maharishi to Switzerland as a student of the Maharishi European Research University (MERU). He was away for close to two years.
 This was a very long time for all of us, and letters and a few phone calls were our only solace. When his letters came, Amma would read them first while I waited for my turn, and between us we shared tears of joy and longing on reading his words. One of the letters said, ‘All colours are beautiful, and it is difficult to choose between them. So I decided to wear white, which includes all colours.’ Another letter spoke of how barbers were few in Switzerland and haircuts, expensive. Finally, a letter with news of his date of return arrived.

 International flights did not land in Bangalore those days and my brother had to go to Chennai 
and take a connecting flight to Bangalore. Pitaji and I went to the airport to receive him. Our ears were tuned to arrival announcements and eyes glued to exit doors from which passengers emerged in bursts every few minutes. My brother had left for Switzerland attired in simple trousers and a shirt. I expected him to look the same when he returned. When he arrived, our eyes met, and the love and depth in those eyes were unmistakable. Although I wanted to believe that the person before me was my brother, many things had changed. In flowing white robes and long hair, he looked ethereal, and the appearance looked perfectly natural to him.

His hair touched his shoulders, and it looked luxurious. His voice was soft and gentle, seemingly slower than before, yet it carried an unmistakable energy. My heart was in conflict, struggling to believe that my brother was still the same, but my mind was stunned into acceptance that he had changed. Pitaji took charge of his luggage and we started our drive back home.

Image Source: Gurudev: On The Plateau Of The Peak - The Life of
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar; Westland Publications Pvt.
Ltd.; January 2018Sri Sri Ravi Shankar with his
sister Bhanumathi

‘What is this avatar of yours?’, the words came pouring out of Amma the instant she saw her son. He smiled as their eyes met, the only answer to her question. She studied him carefully, absorbing every detail. The subtle strength of his glowing presence was unmistakable, and the aura had a palpable quality about it. He was always considered handsome, and our aunts and uncles would complement him and tell my mother that he was the ‘Kamal Haasan’ (a popular film actor) of our house. But the charm and beauty that he exuded now was incomparable and different. While we were experiencing these changes, I could see that a battle was raging in my mother’s head between ‘he has changed’ and ‘he is my son’.
 
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Today, inspired by him, Art of Living volunteers have rejuvenated about thirty rivers, and water flows in areas that have remained dry for decades. One of the volunteers shared that she was amazed at the result of their efforts. They would just take Gurudev’s name and begin the work, and where science failed to find solutions, faith would work. Sometimes I wonder whether he knew where the water was flowing or water flowed where he wanted it to flow. This difference perhaps exists only at a rational level, but when one is connected with creation, there is perfect harmony between oneself and nature. Nature supports one fully and one is completely aligned with her.

Once the bore wells were drilled, a cottage was set up with mud floors and a thatched roof held up by bamboo poles. It was called Shakti. Gurudev stayed in this simple cottage, which leaked during the rains. There was very little by way of physical comfort in the ashram at that time. Still, a few volunteers, who came from different parts of the country and across the world, made it their home. 
Two sets of kutirs, called Vasishtha and Vishwamitra, were the first blocks to come up. They were low-cost stone structures decorated with delicate lotus petal designs along the borders—the petals were Gurudev’s idea. A little ahead of the first cottage, we built a small round kutir for Gurudev, which had a hat-shaped cemented mesh roof. This became the Shakti Kutir eventually and the other cottage was renamed Narayana, which became a venue for various courses, pujas and satsangs.
 
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Gurudev was keen on bringing peace to a region in Bihar that was afflicted with Maoist violence. Sanjay Kumar, a young and dynamic Art of Living teacher, was sent to the area. He initiated a dialogue between two major warring factions and jump-started various relief programmes. Gurudev suggested that the leaders of the warring factions be requested to come to Rishikesh. Normally, members of such factions would neither prefer to come out of their hiding nor would they meet eye to eye. However, heeding Gurudev’s advice, they decided to take the bold step of visiting Rishikesh. But there was a catch—neither of the factions was in the know regarding the other coming to Rishikesh. 

As expected, both confronted each other at the railway station, and but for the presence and intervention of Sanjay, the groups, armed to the teeth, would have caused great damage if not outright bloodshed at the station. However, somehow they were persuaded to still travel to Rishikesh, and upon their arrival, Gurudev spoke to them, spent time with them, and managed to teach them the art of meditation.
During the first few days, they came armed to the sessions, but within three days, they were relaxed and started participating in the programme, singing together.

On the last day of the programme, Gurudev garlanded both the leaders, and they embraced each other and promised to put an end to the violence. It was a historic event that ended years of animosity and restored peace and joy in the area. Gurudev advised them to nourish the newfound peace by way of organising satsangs and preeti bhoj—a communal event during which communities would cook and eat together.
 
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Gurudev says that emptiness is a doorway between the material and spiritual worlds, and a place where one can understand the nature of the spirit. From emptiness begins fullness. On the one side of emptiness is misery; on the other side, joy. The Master helps one cross over. Gurudev could wade across a river, over slippery stones and through gushing water very comfortably. Not just during regular walks by the river, but even when he was visiting flood-affected areas. 

For people walking with him, it would get quite difficult for they had to keep pace with him while maintaining their balance. It looks so easy when one watches him from the banks. But when one tries to follow him, one wonders how he manages, that too without getting his dhoti wet or dirty!
After some of these walks, Gurudev would guide us into meditation. And I would feel as if there was a door opening, then another, and then yet another and so on as I moved from one loka (realm) to another. Normally, we are aware of only one level of existence. But there are several other higher planes as well. 
The scriptures have spoken about the different lokas—the pitr loka (of ancestors), the deva loka (of gods and other celestial beings) among others. I experienced the different realms in those few minutes. When one goes sightseeing, the vision is always outward. Here, the Master makes one go inward.

In this inward journey, physical space also has a role to play, and the Master creates the right atmosphere.
One could have all the ingredients to make tea, but without heat, the tea would taste bland. The presence of a master ignites the experience. And once one gets a glimpse of the subtle and the mystical, and gets attached to a place, he shifts it. Rishikesh is no longer a regular part of our March schedule any more. 
Gurudev never allows one to be attached to anything. The same mind can either make one entangled or free. When one feels a connection with one’s self, there is no attachment. A sage is one who is firmly established in his or her self. Many holy persons would visit Gurudev whenever he was at Rishikesh. They would meet and greet each other like they were friends. 

Pragyanandji Maharaj would call by every day. The conversations between them were most interesting. During discussions on the Upanishads, Gurudev would say, ‘Tell us, Maharaj-ji, what does the scripture say?’ Maharaj-ji always responded with great affection. Once he said, ‘Gurudev, why should I search in the scriptures when I could get wisdom directly from you!’
 
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Image Source: Gurudev: On The Plateau Of The Peak -
The Life of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar; Westland Publications
Pvt. Ltd.; January 2018,Gurudev in North
America in the early 1990s

Gurudev walked into his kutir one day declaring, ‘Devotees are dangerous!’ He was chuckling as he repeated the statement. He had just returned from a two-day trip to Tamil Nadu, which had turned into quite an adventure. He was supposed to go to Neyveli for an event and fly back in a helicopter. But it started raining and the chopper was forced to land in a paddy field in the middle of nowhere. A few hundred villagers ran to the spot to investigate this unexpected vehicle and visitors. They took him to a small Devi temple nearby and talked about the problems they were facing, including the lack of rains. 
Gurudev assured the villagers that the problems were already being taken care of (the rains had come to begin with). By this time, a local Art of Living volunteer arrived at the spot with his car to escort Gurudev. It turned out that the volunteer was an administrative officer who was posted nearby.

Gurudev apprised him of the difficulties that the villagers were facing and requested him to address their needs. They decided to drive to Thiruvannamalai, where an advanced meditation programme was being conducted.When he arrived, the participants there could not believe their luck! They talked of how they had seen him flying en route to Neyveli and wishing that they could only make the copter land at their campsite. After interacting with them, Gurudev visited the local Shiva temple. At the temple, Shiva was being worshipped as the fire element. The temple priests had invited Gurudev a few months back to inaugurate the Kumbhabhishekam ceremony that happens once in twelve years. Gurudev’s office had informed them that his schedule was packed and that it would not be possible for him to attend the ceremony. But here he was at the ceremony on the very same day! 

As per the tradition of the temple, the ceremony could only begin with the permission of a guru and  providence ensured that it did. Walking out of the temple afterwards, he met some Kashmiri Muslim boys who were running a small handicrafts shop nearby. They came to him, thanked him, and said, ‘We see what you are doing for Kashmir and have always wanted to meet you and thank you. We never thought we would get a chance like this.’ After the meeting, he got into the car and started his journey back to the ashram. The volunteer accompanying him said that he had been wishing to take Gurudev on a long road trip and now his wish had been fulfilled. Could all of this have been planned? 

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During spring 2010, at a public gathering in The Netherlands, Gurudev presented the audience with a question, ‘How and where should we celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Art of Living?’ Ideas started flowing in, and some of our volunteers suggested a plan that looked a little far-fetched in the beginning. They wanted to celebrate the big day in a stadium in Europe. Gurudev was ever ready as usual and said, ‘Yes, this is what we will do!’ And preparations started in full swing for an event at the historic Olympic Stadium in Berlin. 

The event was scheduled for July, just a few days before the World Cultural Festival (WCF) in July 2011. Gurudev requested Stephan Chopard, an Art of Living teacher from Switzerland, to buy shawls for everybody, but we were expecting a sunny day for the programme. But it turned out that the day received an unusual out-of-season shower, and the shawls were of great help during the chilly rain. Although it was pouring, not one person in the 70,000-strong stadium left the venue. 
Hundreds of umbrellas opened up, covering the entire seating area of the stadium. Normally, when it rains, one prefers to stay inside, but this day I was standing in the open with the rains enveloping me. It was wonderful feeling the blessings from the skies showering over me. 

Although it was cold, there was so much warmth around me, being connected to people from 150 countries! The artistes danced and sang with abandon as if inspired by the rain. The dancers from Russia performed ‘Swan Lake’, a ballet, literally in a puddle of water! The raindrops glistened on their faces 
as brightly as their sparkling costumes. Little droplets flew from the tips of their fingers as they gracefully moved around, with each movement enhancing the whole performance. The dancers from Bulgaria skipped and hopped on the wet and slippery grass and matched the rhythm of the drops falling on the earth as their lead artiste sang a song on water. She was a skilled drummer, too, and water drops flew from her drumsticks like flashes of lightning. The grand finale song was called ‘Colours of the rainbow’.
 
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I can recollect many instances when my mind kept oscillating between considering Gurudev as my brother and my Guru. Whenever I am exposed to his discourses on wisdom, I often wonder, ‘Is this really my brother?’ I cannot explain the feeling, but there is a sense of an unbounded presence that is beyond the limitations of siblinghood. I am reminded of the words of Yashoda, the mother of Lord Krishna, in the Srimad Bhagavatam. She says, ‘I know that he is my son, but it feels as if I have been trying to catch the wind with my pallu.’ How is it even possible?

Image Source: Gurudev: On The Plateau Of The Peak -
The Life of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar; Westland Publications
Pvt. Ltd.; January 2018,The infant Ravi Shankar with his mother

My Brother. My Guru. As the heart alternates between the two roles, ‘my’, which is a sense of belonging, remains the only constant. It is a subjective connection. The essence of life is to feel a personal connection with the divine, but I am happy that I could see beyond our familial relationship and recognise him as my Guru. Experiencing the Guru Principle is the most amazing thing that has happened in my life. It is the peak of life’s experiences. Gurudev says, ‘The enlightened one is not on the peak. Rather, the peak is beneath the enlightened. One who goes to the peak comes down, but the peak seeks the one who is stationed in the plateau of the inner space.’

The Sanskrit word sahodari, translated into English as ‘sister’, means the one who shares a womb with you. I often wonder how a womb could capture something so boundless. In his compassion, Gurudev chose to share that space with me. Even if he were to limit himself to a body, a tiny corner of my heart would still feel that limited connection. 

Infinity is real and intangible, but a Guru is both infinite and tangible. Each time I sense an expansion of space within me, my small identity vanishes and merges with infinity. Perhaps this is what surrendering oneself is all about. Traversing life’s precious moments, remembering the divine in every breath, I surrender again and again. In my journey to eternity, every step that I take is a goal unto itself.

One evening, seated there and gazing into the sky, he said, ‘Tomorrow there will be a miracle.’ One could expect such a statement to attract hundreds of questions and demands for further explanations. But when the Master speaks, one has faith and is open to all possibilities. The next day, as dawn broke, news of Ganesha idols drinking milk started pouring in from different parts of the world. There was a small Ganesha idol close to the entrance of the ashram, and when we offered it milk, the milk disappeared into its trunk. When Gurudev was informed of this, he said, ‘Such miracles happen from time to time to restore faith in a higher power.’ During the satsang conducted that evening, Gurudev spoke of the presence of innumerable angels amidst us.

Two sets of kutirs, called Vasishtha and Vishwamitra, were the first blocks to come up. They were low-cost stone structures decorated with delicate lotus petal designs along the borders.... A little ahead of the first cottage, we built a small round kutir for Gurudev...

The airport authorities interrogated the pilot for landing without permission, but he managed to explain to them that they were left with no other choice! Marcy, who was on the flight, told me that while the absurd argument about the unauthorised landing was going on, Gurudev stepped out of the plane. A member of the maintenance staff was startled to see him, probably because of the long hair and beard and the white robes, and exclaimed, ‘Jesus!’ Soon enough, the discussions came to an end, and they were escorted to safety.

When a guru speaks, only wisdom springs out. But sometimes a guru does not need to even speak as his presence itself creates wisdom. As the frequency of courses increased and visitors and seekers started pouring in, my father offered to convert a small property that we owned into a place where my brother could stay and meet the people who sought his audience. We called the new place ‘Gyan Mandir’, which means a temple of knowledge. Every Thursday, when Gurudev was in Bangalore, he held a satsang at the place. We invited all our neighbours for the satsang. A family of two sisters and their mother would come all the way from Mysore without fail. We were a small group of eight or ten people. A spiritual guru based in Rishikesh once suggested to Gurudev, ‘If you wish, thousands would come to you easily. But you would need to show some small miracle, so that they recognise there is something special.’ My brother replied, ‘I’m here to share wisdom, not to draw crowds.’

Once, in Baltimore, Gurudev was speaking on the importance of prayer at a public event. Suddenly, a man, almost seven feet tall and hefty looking, seated in the last row, started interrupting his speech. He said he found it laughable that people prayed and started guffawing in a threatening manner. Soon he started advancing towards Gurudev. Many of us panicked sensing the possibility of violence, but Gurudev signalled us to wait. He approached Gurudev, loomed over him and asked, ‘Aren’t you scared?’ Gurudev just smiled and gently tapped on his forehead. The man collapsed to the ground weeping. He later did some basic and advanced programmes and started following Gurudev. The Yoga Sutras say that when people are established in non-violence, violence ceases to exist in their presence. I saw this happening in front of me.
 

Although it was cold, there was so much warmth around me, being connected to people from 150 countries! The artistes danced and sang with abandon as if inspired by the rain. The dancers from Russia performed ‘Swan Lake’, a ballet, literally in a puddle of water! The raindrops glistened on their faces 
as brightly as their sparkling costumes. Little droplets flew from the tips of their fingers as they gracefully moved around.

When Gurudev met with a journalist from The Wall Street Journal at New York’s Lincoln Center, he was asked ‘Is the practice of yoga religious?’ He said, ‘Yoga, Ayurveda, mathematics, the names of some English months… they all originate from Vedic traditions. But there is no belief system attached to all of this; it does not bar you from believing in a specific form of God or even impose that you must believe in God. Newton discovered the law of gravitation. But that’s not considered a Christian law.’ Addressing a large audience, he added, ‘Yoga suits today’s busy world because we don’t have time to practise much yet want the best results.’

I can recollect many instances when my mind kept oscillating between considering Gurudev as my brother and my Guru. Whenever I am exposed to his discourses on wisdom, I often wonder, ‘Is this really my brother?’ I cannot explain the feeling, but there is a sense of an unbounded presence.

During a short period of the tour, Gurudev stayed in a Zen monastery and remarked during a talk that the air was filled with Zen koans. He once started off by saying, ‘And the next sutra is 2+1= 0,’ and for the rest of the evening we were trying to figure what that meant! At another venue, he came in, sat down, and started meditating. After about forty minutes or so, he opened his eyes and said, ‘…and that was the next sutra’ and walked off!

Gurudev says that emptiness is a doorway between the material and spiritual worlds, and a place where one can understand the nature of the spirit. From emptiness begins fullness. On the one side of emptiness is misery; on the other side, joy. The Master helps one cross over. Gurudev could wade across a river, over slippery stones and through gushing water very comfortably. Not just during regular walks by the river, but even when he was visiting flood-affected areas. 

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