Sri Sri ravi Shankar on Spirituality and SeculariSm
by Amit Roy
THE Indian spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has urged Indians andnon-Indians
alike to “do some breathing exercises – take some deep breaths
– and sit and meditate for a while”.
In an exclusive interview with Eastern Eye ahead of addressing a large audience at the Royal Albert Hall last Sunday (19), Ravi Shankar said: “Meditation –Pranayama meditation – is something that uplifts our human consciousness.”
The Guruji, as he is called by millions of his followers in India and around the world, has also addressed gatherings in Manchester, Liverpool, Leicester and Edinburgh, as well as members of the Commons and the Lords jointly in speaker John Bercow’s chamber.
Ravi Shankar, who is best described as an“ambassador of peace”, works through the two organisations he has set up – the Art of Living Foundation and Inter national Association for Human Values.
His main aim is bring about a “stress- free, violence-free
society” which he seeks to do by transforming individual lives for the better.
Today, Ravi Shankar travels the world and goes frequently to his academy in Germany. He was born on May 13, 1956, in Papanasam, Tamil Nadu, but grew up in Karnataka, which he regards as his home state. Physics was one of his subjects at St Joseph’s College in Bangalore, the city where he now lives.
Bangalore is known as “India’s IT (information technology) capital,” but Ravi Shankar, a guru with a droll sense of humour, quipped: “For me, ‘IT’ is inner transformation!”
That said, he is, in many ways, a thoroughly modern and technologically savvy guru, who speaks perfect English and relies on mobile phone apps, for example, to guide followers with their breathing exercise.
“Have you seen our World Culture Festival?” he asked at one point.
He demonstrated his favourite wrap- round video glasses which showed classical dancing in front of vast crowds these were part of celebrations in March marking the Art of Living’s 35 years of activities.
Before setting off to address a meeting called by the Institute of Chartered Accountants, Guruji composed himself in his suite on the 39th floor of theShangriLa
Hotel, at the Shard, London’s tallest building. He spoke at length to Eastern Eye about practical ways in which ordinary people could enhance the quality of their lives.
“The big question in everyone’s mind is, ‘What is the purpose of life?’ ” he began, when invited to sum up his philosophy of life.
“This is exactly when the journey towards the spirit begins, when we start asking the question, ‘What is the purpose of life?’ ” he elaborated.
“There is a part of us that is not changing and there is a part that is changing all the time,” he went on. “Some body or mind or emotions or thought patterns change. (But) there is something that is not changing. And when we latch on to that, discover and explore that something that is not changing within us, then we are on the path to spirituality. That’s when many more secrets get revealed to us – about the universe, about the self, about consciousness, about God.”
“Yoga is a step in this journey, a very important step,” said Guruji. “People think yoga is just an exercise; usually people do yoga just for well-being.
“But I would say it is much bigger and much beyond that – it connects you to the universal spirit. And the im pact of it on our daily life is multifold. It can make you healthy, create positive vibrations around you – it can give you insight into what is going to happen in the future.”
“It will also bring you confidence, sharpen the intellect,” he added. “All inhibition will drop off from you so there are many benefits – side effects – of meditation.”
He urged people to view the ups and downs of life in a different way. “See life from a broader perspective. Two, have faith – ‘only the best will happen to me’. Third, (when) challenges come, you must have the confidence to overcome them. Then it does not cause you stress.”
He offered practical tips on breathing exercises and meditation. “If you ask me how to meditate, I make a number of apps. Sattva is one such that you can download for free, to give you an initial experience of how to meditate.”
He does not think “self-taught”
brea thing exercises are a good idea. “I wouldn’t recommend that because you should learn from someone who has done it. Technically, you have to guide people correctly. You cannot just say, ‘Ok, close your eyes, do this, this, this.’ You have to be guided through medita tion step by step.
“Meditation is not concentration, it is an effortless process,” he pointed out. “But to get into that state of meditation a few minutes of breathing technique are essential.”
Is it possible to separate meditation and breathing exercises from religion?
“Yes, this is about spirituality,” he clarified. “Spirituality is the essence of all religions in the world because it uplifts human values – it uplifts the hu man spirit.”
Ravi Shankar, paying his first visit to London since 2007, said he had followers in many places, including “South Africa, South America and Russia. In Manchester we had a very full hall and in Leicester, too. Usually I come to one spot in Europe – in Germany, where we have our academy. People from England come every time I go there.”
Asked what he thought about the UK being essentially a secular society, he replied: “Secularism is not in contradiction to spirituality. In fact, secularism is part of spirituality. In secularism you respect all religions; you have a broad mindset. You see everyone as equal, this is the basic principle of secularism. And everyone has freedom to practice his or faith. India is an example of this.
“Even Hinduism, perse, is very secular in the sense it allows everybody to practise whatever they wish to worship,” he argued. “So secularism and spirituality go hand in hand. They are complementary to each other. If you are spiritual then you will definitely be secular. You cannot be a fanatic. You cannot be theocratic.
“Religion divides people whereas spirituality unites them all as one human family. The world is one human family – with differences. Whereas reli gion does not seem to promote differences, spirituality promotes differences allows people freedom.”
He was generous in his analysis of western society. “Most people in America are spiritual. They are not religious perse they may not go to places of worship and pray but they do practise human values, compassion. They are kind, they (give to) charity, they medi tate, they ponder on the philosophy of life. And I think that is very much ingrained in the psyche of western society. Those values are there in Britain.
“What is special about eastern spirituality is it offers you techniques so you can keep the stress away – you can come out of ‘burnout’ situations. Peo ple who are doing service – in the Red Cross and other organisations – often say ‘I have burnout.’
“Spirituality recuperates, meditation helps one to recuperate. Though yoga and meditation have their roots in Hin duism, their outlook and approach are very secular.”
He turned his attention to healing. “Though ayurveda is part of Vedic wis dom, it does not say, ‘I will not tell (its secrets to) those who don’t believe in the Vedas.’ Ayurveda is effective for anyone even in atheists it impacts.”
There were many visitors milling around Ravi Shankar’s drawing room while he spoke to Eastern Eye in a small office whose windows offered him a panoramic view of the Thames.
How did he cope with the stress of so many demanding his attention.
Looking utterly at ease, he laughed: “But do I look stressed?”
“You need to relax when you get tense,” he said. “When you don’t get tense at all you don’t need anything.”
He didn’t really have a typical day. “I keep meeting people all day.”
Guruji continued: “In the evenings I give half an hour to meditation, half an hour to give a talk and then sit and lis ten to music – bhajans.
“Simple things I have always follo wed and believed in are clarity in mind, purity in heart and sincerity in action.”
Was he vegetarian?
“Yes, yes, yes! I have always been vegetarian. I enjoy food from south, north, west, east – even Gujarati!”