To the uninitiated, the naked adoration is unnerving. Why does this beatifically smiling man with an incipient paunch and suspiciously jet-black locks, drive millions into an ecstasy of devotion? The legend of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, his vast global following, naturally leads one to expect charisma, a blazing intelligence or at least an overwhelming force of personality. So what is it about this understated, prima facie unremarkable man that brings statesmen, scientists, intellectuals and lakhs of ordinary folk, to his door?
Michelle Ferreria ought to have an explanation. He is, after all a neurologist and familiar with the workings of the human mind. Particularly the limbic system, specialized brain circuitry closely associated with religious experiences and spiritual awakenings. (Temporal lobe seizures involving this region of the brain have resulted in profound spiritual insights, conforming exactly to the descriptions of enlightenment by, for example, Sri Sri. The feelings of bliss, mystical transformation and sudden perception of universal truths, it would appear are common to spiritual leaders and patients of certain forms of epilepsy.)
But Michelle discovered Sri Sri Long before she began studying the human brain. She was fourteen, a teenager transplanted to Florida from the Dominican Republic. The art of living (AoL) programme eased her transition from adolescence to adulthood. The practice of meditation, as taught and patented by Sri Sri made her “calm, stable, alert” and enhanced her capacity for retention. She continued with the programme all through marriage, motherhood and medicine.
She looks at him with eyes of love, uncluttered by medical know-how. “I don’t know how to live without his teachings”, she says simply. It was to Sri Sri she turned when confronted with crises. Suffering from idiopathic trigeminal neuralgia - intensely painful facial aches with no apparent cause - she came for treatment all the way from Florida to the Ayurvedic hospital at Aol Ashram in Bengaluru.
If Charu Sampat’s 60-watt smile is any indication, her limbic system is all lit up. A matronly teacher of Art of Living courses, she says he is central to her existence. What better way to celebrate her twenty-fifth wedding anniversary than an audience with gurudev? Encased in a bright red sari, a gift from her mentor and guide, she exchanged garlands with her husband and emerged euphoric at this mark of special favor.
For Shiksha, a lovely twenty-something from Chandhigarh who is part of AoL’s media team, he fills a void she didn’t know existed. I was dragged to the AoL course by my aunt. I went through it without paying attention. On the last day of the programme, he arrived. I didn’t particularly want to see him. And then he entered the room. All around me, faces lit up with inexpressible joy. They were so in love with him.
Love, says Sri Sri, is not an emotion, it is your very existence. The love theme substrates the mythology of Sri Sri, assiduously built through promotional books, articles and videos. Visitors to the Bengaluru ashram find themselves introduced to Art of Living through films celebrating his love suffused childhood and evolution to full-fledged “Guruhood”, supported tenderly by a doting family. It is a syrupy picture, not unlike the smiles one encounters at the ashrams’s reception counter.
[ Excerpted with permission from “Gurus : Stories of India's Leading Babas” by Bhavdeep Kang, Westland Books, June 2016. Views expressed are writer’s personal ]