Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
“We leave this world with an empty hand”
With a velvety smile Sri Sri Ravi Shankar spreads peace around the world. Rebels lay down weapons. Jihadists melt away. Who is the wise man from India who has captivated hundreds of millions and planted 81 million trees worldwide? A meeting that may lead on the path to happiness.
Wrapped in a smooth white cloth, his long, black gossamer hair tousled like cotton candy, the Indian guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar sits with the resting pulse of a top athlete and a serene expression. He has just recorded an interview with Swiss National Television — routine for the spiritual healer. Wherever he appears, cameras follow hoping to capture his ecumenical insights.
Over four decades, the 63 year old has gained a massive, 450 million-strong following, including among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. Millions tune in every day to listen to his teachings delivered over multimedia. At a time when inter-religions conflict is on the rise, the guru's message of peaceful coexistence offers a welcome panacea.
Like Gandhi, the Indian mystic is devoted to a life and philosophy of non-violence. As a young boy, Ravi Shankar freely quoted the Vedic scriptures. He later became a pupil of Mahatma Gandhi's companions.
Thousands of militants in war torn countries such as Iraq, Kashmir, Lebanon, Kosovo or the Ivory Coast have laid down arms and renounced violence as a result of Ravi Shankar's ministrations. In Colombia, Farc rebels agreed to join him in three days of intense meditation which miraculously led to a ceasefire.
Today, the Enlightened One has granted me an audience. He slips a Swiss “Ricola” candy in his mouth and indicates with a quiet smile that he is ready to begin.
„Path to Happiness": Sri Sri and Urs Gehriger
Sri Sri, thank you very much for the honor. I was just told that you have a following of 450 million people across the world. You are way more popular than Trump, Putin and Xi or any other politician. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, I feel a little nervous right now.
Just sit back and relax and be yourself. [Reporter moves back on his seat, takes a deep breath.] That's it. Just be yourself.
Obviously, you are an exceptionally gifted human being. At the tender age of four, you already knew the ancient Bhagavad Gita, a key scripture of Hinduism, by heart. When did you first feel that you are different than the people around you?
As a child, I used to feel that. Other children used to talk about cricket and other things. I could not relate to them. The games and small fights among the people would all look very frivolent to me. In fact, I would feel so out of place. I tried to be with everybody, talk about normal things, but it was very difficult for me.
Were you isolated as a child due to your special feelings?
I was not very comfortable. I was nervous. I felt more comfortable in the company of elderly people.
Your very first teacher was Sudhakar Chaturvedi, an Indian Vedic scholar and a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi.
I felt very comfortable with him because he talked about things which would make sense to me rather than my friends who just talked about some movie actor and games. Not that I had any aversion to fellow students. I wanted to be with them, but I felt out of place.
When did you first feel that you were at the right place?
This was when spiritual discussions would happen. Meditations.
You mentioned the fighting among children. What did you think when you saw your young friends fighting?
I would just go in the middle and stand there and try to separate them.
Did you manage to stop them?
Sometimes, yes. Sometimes I got squashed in the middle. [laughs]
When did you first feel that you had a special force or a power to bring a peaceful atmosphere?
I never thought I was special. It is probably just in my nature. It's not any power at all. I just do it. That's it.
More and more people are searching harder for inner peace these days. Why is that number growing so remarkably?
I think people are intelligent. They know that there is something more in life.
What is there more in life?
That's what they're looking for. They want to see if there is more than the routine. They want to see if there is more truth. They ask: "Who am I?" It's a philosophical question, but it is a question of a journey. To find out what is beyond your emotions and thoughts that come and go. Something that is not changing. This is spirituality.
Could it be what we call, “the meaning of life”?
Have you found the meaning of life?
That's why I am teaching.
Now, there are people who say that there is reincarnation.
[chuckles]. Yes, I know.
Do you know where you were, how you lived in previous lives?
I know, yes.
Can you speak about this?
Why do you ask me? There are many, many examples of people coming back to life. Forty or 50 years ago, people were not believing in this in the West. In the East, of course, people know that consciousness cannot be destroyed. It carries on and comes back.
Can we influence how we will be reborn?
Yes. It depends on the impressions in our consciousness in our life; what kind of impressions we have and then our intentions, if we have intention. If the intention is strong, then that will happen. You intend to go to work so you take that car. You drive. You make that effort. Then you come back. Similarly, too, I have a specific intention, a specific desire. "I want to do this." Then you'll come back.
Let’s stay in this life for a moment. In my benign every day routine, I face trivial feelings like frustration, stress or anger. I can get up in the morning, hear the birds singing, go to work, and suddenly I have a spurt of anger because a person is taking the seat on the train I wished to have. You always seem composed and placid. Does Sri Sri never get angry?
I was angry about 7 or 8 times. I remember, once, when there was a tsunami. I traveled 48 hours from the European Parliament to talk to the people hit by the tsunami. There was one boy who was supposed to distribute blankets. He had not done it for a few days because there was no camera available. He said, "I will distribute it in front of a camera,” so that he gets to prove that he is giving. Otherwise, he said, "people will blame that I have sold them". He wanted to make his reputation, safeguard his reputation with the camera. I told him, "You're stupid." It was the only word that came out of my mouth. I was very upset with him. When people blame you, so what? Your reputation is not important.
Nobody believes that I really can be angry with anyone. So, when I do get angry, they start laughing, and I start laughing. This is my weakness. I cannot keep it for long. Just a few minutes, I am a smiling man.
Do you have any advice for common people like me how to manage spurts of anger?
You see, the anger is not just suddenly here. It is just a sprout of what is underneath there. The seed is already there. If there is frustration, there is some seed of frustration or stress inside and which has not got released just by sleeping or just by your activity or watching a movie. It stayed there. That frustration just sprouts, must, at the time. But if you can attend to your breath, the rhythm of your breath— and if you cleanse your system of these blatant frustrations or stress— then small things don't disturb you.
You invented a breathing technique called “the Sudarshan Kriya” that came to you “like a poem, an inspiration” after ten days of solitude. What is the secret of this technique?
It simply says that for every mood of your mind there is a particular rhythm [of breathing]. If you are angry, you breathe differently. If you're happy, your breath flows differently. Breath is the link between body and mind. The mind you cannot directly handle. But through breath you can handle the mind. When you attempt the rhythms of the breath it has an immense cleansing effect on your system.
When do you advise to do perform this breathing technique? In the early morning?
Anytime before lunch or dinner. Not immediately after lunch. For both breathing and meditation, your metabolism goes down. Immediately after food, your metabolism is higher. There's a conflict with your body, as we call it. Either you recognize this shift, or you will not be able to meditate properly. I would advise to do it before dinner or after your sleep before breakfast.
You mention sleep. We read heroic stories of Napoleon sleeping on his horse, going from one battle to the next. Are not the hours but the intensity of the sleep important?
No doubt the intensity of sleep is important. Sleep is very important. If you don't sleep for a few days it affects your behavior dramatically. It affects your behavior very badly. It affects your clarity and expression. Perception, observation, expression — all these are affected if you don't sleep properly. Also, meditation is very complementary. Meditation helps you to go take good sleep. If you have slept well, you will have good meditation. One should sleep six to eight hours every day.
How many hours do you sleep?
Three hours, four hours.
Is that all?
Well, if you're a good yogi and you are doing a lot of meditation, three or four hours is good enough provided that you don't get restless and frustrated in the daytime.
What is for you the priority of things that a person may want to achieve in his lifespan?
See I have nothing, no ambition. I have no personal ambition. All I want is to be useful for people around me as much as I think. I give every free minute of my life for people.
Obviously, you are very successful. In war torn Columbia, you helped to make peace in 2015. You approached the FARC. They agreed to speak with you, and your effort ended in an armistice. How did you do this?
Journalists from around the world have asked me the same question. The Americans had tried. The Norwegians tried. Everybody tried. I simply say that there is goodness in every human being. There is a good person sitting in everyone. I have told them [FARC] that, and they were very touched by that.
You told them?
I told them I know that they're not having fun in the forest as guerillas. They are there for a cause. They want social justice. I told them, “I accept your cause. You want social justice for your people.” But, I told them the path of violence and destruction they have chosen I don't agree with. They said what was missing in their entire movement was the spiritual guidance, spiritual paths. They all meditated with me. I took them through meditation for three days. That made a whole lot of difference. Their whole thinking pattern changed.
There are pictures where you see the rebels with tears in their eyes. What was the moment they started to cry? Do you remember?
They said, "We saw some light. You are the only person that understood us, our pain. Please do not forget us when you go back to India. Don't leave us." That's what they said, and they promised me that they would start a political party. Then, they started a political party in 2017. They requested me to come to inaugurate the party. I am the spiritual person who doesn’t like to be involved in politics. I sent my blessings.
Do you think there is a moment in a conflict where people are ready for peace? If you don’t match that moment, even you are not successful.
Correct. That's what happened with Sri Lanka. I went there and tried to talk to them. Some thought they are much more powerful than the Sri Lankan government and they don't need any help. They were not ready for talks. Nevertheless, I feel that we should keep making efforts and we'll succeed. So far, we have succeeded almost everywhere. Almost.
There are aggressors who say, “I love death more than life.” Islamic terrorists have often used this phrase. Do you think you have a chance to turn them over?
We have turned many of them when they were in prison. I spoke to them. We have some videos of them saying they thought before when killing people they can go to heaven, but now they see they find heaven by loving people. We have a couple of them expressing that.
Do you find religious fanatics are harder to speak to?
They are harder, of course. The same happened with ISIS, and I told them I would like to speak with them. I just would like to meet with them and talk to them about what is that in their minds? They sent me a picture of a beheaded body and said, "In this state, we will talk to you." The talk ended there.
What did you think when you got this picture?
I felt pity for them. They are foolish. They were stranded and unfortunate. They're on a path of self-destruction.
If you ask human beings: “What is your greatest goal in life?” Most will say they want to be happy. How can we find happiness?
There is a joy in getting, and there is a joy in giving. The joy in getting is an infant joy. The grownup joy is the joy of giving things. But we have to grow to a stage when we enjoy sharing. When you find the joy of giving, conflicts just simply dissolve.
Sometimes people give, but nothing is coming back. They stop to believe in giving. How long can you give without getting something back?
If you give something to get something back, it is business. But say you go to your grandmother on Christmas Eve, and she makes all these cakes and cooking, and she feeds you. Her joy is in that you enjoy that cake that she bakes, not when she is sitting and eating the cake by herself. Your father gives you a birthday present and giving that present he's not expecting something return back from you. This is the joy. I would say the mature joy. Everybody can experience this. You simply need to be more aware. We leave this world with an empty hand. Like Alexander the Great who’s last wish was, “Bury my body. Do not build any monument. Keep my hands outside so the world knows the person who won the world had nothing in his hands when dying“.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, 63, was born in Tamil Nadu, India. He has received 18 honorary doctorates and countless awards. His largest project is the “Art of Living Foundation,” the world's largest volunteer-based NGO. It has representatives in 155 countries and unites people from all walks of life and religions. In India alone, the Foundation maintains 618 free schools for 80000 children.