Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: I can't afford to be apolitical

Posted on: Monday, May 19, 2014 | Posted by: Art of Living Universe


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If India is the spiritual heart of the world, as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has often said, the spiritual leader is easily one of its most recognizable faces. As head or "inspiration" like he likes to call himself, as Art of Living Foundation (AOLF), an educational and humanitarian group, he has gathered millions of followers across 152 countries.

On the day we are to meet the 58-year-old and his sister Bhanumathi Narasimhan, 56, at the sprawling AOLF headquarters in Udayapura on the outskirts of Bangalore, he is busy with visitors at a building that's a short walk from the Secretariat. Sunk into a sofa, his diminutive frame shrouded in white flowing robes manages to command attention. A handful of followers are seated on the floor beside him, Bhanumati is on a chair to his left, smiling. She says this is the first time she has agreed to a joint interview with her brother.

This is the sibling whose divinity she claims to have experienced all her life. There are too many instances to share, she says, casting a sidelong look at him, while he waits for her reply. "When he was eight, he'd tell me that people are waiting to see him. I'd listen and simply nod. Then when we travelled abroad in 1989, everyone he met said the same to him — Gurudev, we were waiting to see you. That's when it struck me how he had divined that people were waiting for him."

Sri Sri smiles.

Born to Visalakshi Ratnam and RS Venkat Ratnam, an automobile businessman in Papanasam, Tamil Nadu, Sri Sri remembers being eager to visit temples all through his childhood. "And all she was interested in was good food and nice dresses," he laughs. Bhanumathi blushes and admits she had a weakness for fried eats. "She still does," he says, pulling her leg.

During the 1980s and '90s, Bhanumathi would accompany Sri Sri on his spiritual tours to foreign countries. "But I travel so much, she can't keep up with it," he points out. She has chosen to settle into her role as Director, AOL's women and children programmes wing, managing 175 rural schools and schemes for women empowerment.

Often, Bhanumathi is credited for being AOL's financial brain. "No, no. Luckily she doesn't manage finance," Sri Sri interrupts. "Nor do I. Left to us, AOL wouldn't have become as big as it has. It is my team that is responsible," he says with self-deprecating humour. At this moment, he sounds like the head of a conglomerate, not very different from how ex-Infy man Mohandas Pai identified him. Forget business houses, he had said. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is the man who runs the biggest empire, was his opinion.

Mahatma Gandhi, who influenced his family and childhood, is always a subject for robust debate. Sri Sri's paternal grandfather is said to have stayed at Sabarmati Ashram and served Gandhi for 20 years after his wife moved to her parents' home, handing him 10 kilos of gold jewellery saying, "I will take care of the children. You go and serve the country." In fact, Sri Sri's teacher Pt. Sudhakar Chaturvedi was also Gandhi's tutor, having taught him the Bhagavad Gita. We examine what Gandhi said about spirituality and business. 'When any organization or individual has too much money, they lose their spirituality.' Sri Sri ponders and counters. If poverty is the cause of spirituality, the poorest African countries would be spiritual. That isn't so, he says. Money and spirituality are two dimensions, and have little to do with each other. "But money should not overpower humaneness," he says, and Bhanumathi nods.

Have they always agreed on such core issues or were there bloody fights? "Never!" is his emphatic answer. The good-natured fighting was with their mother, says Sri Sri. "I have lost my temper precisely nine times in my life, and I remember each instance." One was in 2004 when Sri Lanka was struck by the tsunami. Materials from AOL weren't distributed for a whole day because the person responsible for disbursement was waiting for a camera to document the distribution.

Those nine instances apart, Sri Sri is a man known for his witty repartees and calm spirit. Not many spiritual leaders are known to extol their followers with: Don't take life too seriously. You will never come out of it alive.

"You have to relax, free your mind," he says. "When I look at certain TV shows and watch people laugh when someone on stage falls, I wonder if that's humour. Wit can't be cultivated. It has to come naturally to you."

'Naturally' is also the word used for funds that flow in from across the world to propel AOL's projects. "It is Divine grace. I am not good at marketing. When you start something with good intent, money will come. Various AOL centres are constantly engaged in wonderful projects and sometimes, I receive information on them only once they are completed. It's hard to keep track. But my job is not to manage, it's to inspire."

Bhanumathi has remained silent for most part of the interview, but Sri Sri cannot enjoy that luxury. We veer to a discussion on his political leanings. Anything he says is fodder for the media, especially when it has to do with governance or politicians. When he was questioned about Modi's Gujarat model, he acknowledged the government for providing water and electricity. Immediately, he says, he was branded pro-Modi. If he were to remain silent, he would have been called pro-Congress, he laughs.

"I can't afford to be apolitical," Sri Sri ruminates. But it's issues that concern the common man and society at large that catch his interest. Corruption and the hoarding of black money, for instance, are top of mind. And, of course, the viciousness characteristic of the 2014 elections concern him. Before we leave, we have a pressing question. Has he thought of a successor? Bhanumathi shakes her head. Sri Sri falls silent again, before asking,"You mean, after me?"

"No, I haven't."

Source: Bangalore Mirror

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