The childhood of Sri Sri

Author Bhavdeep Kang
If are expected to be free of familial ties, certainly goes against the grain. His family has always played a dominant role in his life and work, his parents having recognized his early genius. The product of a union between “Acharya” RSV Ratnam and Visalakshi, he was an extraordinary child, capable of reciting passages from the Bhagavad Gita at age four - an ability he shared with other spiritual prodigies, like Uma Bharti, the BJP leader from Madhya Pradesh.

At that age, writes in his adulatory, “Guru of Joy”, his parents took him to a Sanskrit teacher called Thangamma. She recited a verse and looked expectantly at little Ravi, waiting for him to repeat after her. He surprised her by completing the verse. His next Sanskrit teacher was the renowned Vedic scholar, Pandit Sudhakar Chaturvedi. Much is made of the fact that Ravi Shankar was his first pupil since Mahatma Gandhi. “He taught Gandhi the Bhagavad Gita. I grew up with that kind of satsang from the very beginning,’ said Sri Sri.

Not unlike the Mahatma, the boy was a crusader against social injustice. At age ten, Ravi Shankar defied his grandmother’s notions of untouchability by fraternizing with a Dalit who herded cattle in the Brahmin household. However, her prejudices did not make her any less dear to her grandson, who was so anxious about losing her, he would stay awake every night watching her: “Every time I felt she was not breathing, I would wake her up and as long as she was snoring - which she did loudly - I was happy.”

Lest we dismiss the young Ravi Shankar as a dull do-gooder, Gautier describes a Dennis-the-menace moment : Once, he removed all the official documents from his father’s briefcase and filled it with toys prior to a meeting. His father enjoyed the joke, as did his colleagues.

Nor did sibling rivalry raise its potentially troubling head. Ravi Shankar and his sister, Bhanu, adored each other. She said to Gautier :

“I always wanted to be where my brother was. I was not interested in hanging out with my friends. In fact, my parents had to seek special permissions so that I could accompany my brother on his class trip!”

But it was his mother who was the most significant influence in his life. Shortly after her death, allowing himself a single tear, he said : There was a woman in my life, who loved me more than herself.. she was my mother.”

Visalakshi was afraid her son would become an ascetic, as predicted by an astrologer she had consulted when he was an infant. His interest in spiritual pursuits accentuated those fears. “My mother was worried that I will become a monk or a recluse, so they (mother and sister) would hide all my puja things every day. They would ask me to hurry up whenever I meditated. “Why are you doing it for so long, Sandhyavandanam (prayers performed at twilight) and all that,” he recalled.

She encouraged him in his academic efforts, he undertook basically to please her. As for school, other than music and the arts, “I was deeply interested in Physics and History. Also Astronomy and Cosmology. I had no interest in Commerce”, he twinkles. Additionally, his father imparted what he knew of astrology to his son.

Ravi attended St Joseph’s College in Bengaluru, a desirable choice for children of upwardly mobile government employees and received his BSc in Physics in 1977. A job with a bank beckoned, but Sri Sri preferred to pursue Vedic Studies, with the support and active encouragement of his father.

RSV Ratnam, described as scion of a prominent family “responsible for many path breaking developmental activities in the state of Karnataka” and (until his death) “engaged in research on the modern applications of the ancient Vedic wisdom”, comes across as the driving
force behind the programme. Whatever his ambitions, there is no denying his obvious attachment to his son. His word sketch of Ravi Shankar, in Francois Gautier’s book, depicts a saintly child who respected his elders, was compassionate, had been blessed by a multitude of saints, was tolerant, generous, cheerful, intelligent, loving, and beloved by all.

When did young Ravi realize he wanted to take the spiritual high road? “It was there from the very beginning. It was my life, it was what I had come to do,” he said. Did others, for instance his teachers, realize it as well? Sri Sri said they didn’t quite know what to make of him. Nobody could understand what he was all about. “We lived in two different worlds.”

[ Excerpted with permission from “Gurus : Stories of India's Leading Babas” by Bhavdeep Kang, Westland Books, June 2016. Views expressed are writer’s personal ]
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