Some years ago, I was invited to speak at a conference on education at the Bengaluru ashram of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. He was, even by then, a fairly well-known name, boosted by his influential followers and substantial media coverage. His unique selling proposition at the time was not sermons, but Sudarshan Kriya, a set of breathing exercises that were quite popular.
The sprawling ashram was packed because of the conference, with a fair sprinkling of foreigners; I was a bit mystified why I had been invited, but it seemed a good opportunity to visit the place, so I went along. The living quarters were simple, everyone ate in a large canteen and then were expected to wash their own thalis. The mood was ascetic.
The conference hall, however, was well appointed with excellent acoustics. The speakers were drawn from different fields, but it was clear that the speeches were just the opening act; everyone was waiting for Sri Sri himself. When he came, there was a roar; two devotees of his (one of them an extremely famous model and socialite of an earlier time) walked ahead of him, spreading roses along his path. Sri Sri gave a short speech, after which he led the congregation in swaying and dancing.
Two things were quite apparent: first, that Sri Sri’s followers were extremely devoted to him. I had seen — and met — several gurujis, swamis and their ilk before and seen the respect and awe in the eyes of the believers. With Sri Sri, it was a case of fond attachment rather than mere belief; his simple homilies and his casual style touched them all, whether it was a school teacher from a Mumbai suburb or a high-flying executive who had quit his job at a Bengaluru-based multinational to dedicate his life to his guru. He performed no miracles and did not present his followers with any trinkets, but that did not matter.
Sri Sri was also different as far as media management was concerned. The gurus of yore kept the media away from their establishments; Sri Sri welcomed them. A vast army of savvy young bhakts — mostly women — often visited newspaper offices, offering not just interviews and visits but also free Sudarshan Kriya seminars to journalists. They were persuasive and a bit pushy too, but always polite. And they often were mystified when someone turned down their offer — what could be offensive about a few classes to teach the correct way to breathe and achieve nirvana? (Achieve waves of happiness like never before, says their website.)
The result was that Sri Sri had arguably the best image among gurus in the country. He filled the vacuum left behind by those great high-profile gurus of yore — Osho, Sathya Sai Baba and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who had dominated the landscape in the 1970s and 1980s. Sri Sri also attracted a completely new kind of follower — the educated (and well-qualified) young professional. Techies, for example, love him. He packages his message in easy to understand language and does not make too many demands; plus there is the Sudarshan Kriya which, its practitioners claim, is very helpful. While there was a creepy, cultish vibe about many other swamis, (to say nothing of some nasty scandals about sexual exploitation), Sri Sri was positively wholesome.
Today, the same guru is attracting severe criticism and is the butt of much mocking on the social media. Whether it is his implicit support for the Bharatiya Janata Party, or the controversial festival on the banks of the Yamuna or his latest claim that he turned down the Nobel Prize, Sri Sri is being ridiculed and criticised for his un-guru like behaviour. His organisation has still not paid the fine of Rs 5 crore that the National Green Tribunal imposed on it to allow the Yamuna festival to go ahead — is he now too big to be held accountable by any institution? And for him to sneer at Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Peace Prize is in very poor taste.
It’s quite a fall from being a generally liked purveyor of yogic techniques and messages of peace and brotherly love to someone now seen as a contentious figure. Sri Sri has increasingly become a presence, even a player in public life. In the run up to the 2014 general elections, Sri Sri’s tweets and other comments made it clear where he stood. Politicians have long hobnobbed with religious figures to woo the votes of the devotees; for the most part, the sundry swamis and mullahs have done it discreetly. Sri Sri was leading the way, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind what he wanted his followers to do.
The rewards of this support have been plentiful: A higher profile, a Padma Vibhushan, which is one step away from the Bharat Ratna, and the Prime Minister’s presence at a cultural festival that regulatory bodies had serious problems with. He is now the pre-eminent guru in the country and that is saying something in an environment where swamis and sants of various types are mushrooming all over the place. Undoubtedly, his following and influence will only increase.
But to be a public figure is to attract greater attention; every utterance of his will now invite scrutiny. The mainstream media might be less probing, but the social media beast will be unstoppable in its mockery and criticism. It’s one thing to be a smiling guru spreading the word about the best way to breathe and reach a higher consciousness, quite another to flout regulations and then refuse to pay up. Heaping scorn at a young girl who was shot for wanting to study is shockingly bad form and reeks of envy. No amount of good public relations can now reverse the impression that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is no longer a guruji but has become a somewhat of a politician....