'Maoists are very good people. They have zeal and... want justice'

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By Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living Foundation, tells Debaashish Bhattacharya that he is ready to mediate between the government and the Maoists
  • Published 11.07.10

It’s election time on the campus. At Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Ved Vignana Maha Vidhya Peeth near Bangalore, students get ready to vote a 10-member “Union Cabinet” to power. The headmaster doubles as the chief election commissioner, as the candidates — chosen from some 2,000 students —file their nomination papers.

Ravi Shankar aides say the spiritual guru takes his students through this mock general election every year in a bid to find or create “future leaders”. This is possibly the closest students can get to politics in a school that teaches both science and religion.

The victorious students elect a prime minister who forms his government which helps run the school. The defeated candidates play the Opposition, pointing out the “failures” such as delays in school bus services or garbage disposal.

The 54-year-old Art of Living master smiles when I ask him about the idea behind creating “a Parliament within” the school, the first of the 110 free-of-cost institutions he runs in the country’s tribal belts.

“They may be doing all that,” he says. Ravi Shankar used to visit the school frequently, but now he manages to go there once a year or so. The organisation has “grown so big and I have so much to take care of,” he says.

We are meeting in a small rectangular room in his sprawling ashram in Udaypura, some 20km from the Karnataka capital. If anything, Ravi Shankar’s “personal” office — bare save a handful of chairs and a coffee table — accentuates the air of austerity in his ashram, strewn with pagoda-style meditation halls, unadorned residential quarters and a massive dining hall that can accommodate thousands of people, who sit and eat on the floor.

But make no mistake. The physics graduate from Bangalore’s St Joseph’s College, who set up his first school with help from his father in 1981, now presides over a spiritual empire that spans 151 countries and has an estimated annual turnover of Rs 900 crore.

Sudarshan kriya, a breathing technique that he devised and popularised to combat stress and other ailments, is a “successful product and a major hit”, says his longtime aide and former marketing whiz Vinod Menon. It is also the main source of revenue for the Art of Living Foundation, which offers numerous courses on breathing exercises at its units in India and abroad for a fee.

Today, the monk seems to be in trouble. A bullet was fired at a congregation inside his ashram in Bangalore barely a month ago, wounding a disciple. Now, an extortion threat looms over his organisation, with unidentified callers demanding Rs 42 crore.

Though Union home minister P. Chidambaram, quoting a police report, said Ravi Shankar was not the target of the bullet fired barely five minutes after he left the congregation, it has done little to assuage his followers. Many believe it was a failed attempt on the guru’s life.

Yet Ravi Shankar appears unfazed. He is all smiles as he pads into his office from the shoot of a documentary on his ashram. The white-robed monk sits on a chair, runs his fingers through his long bushy hair and strokes his flowing beard.

The founder of the Art of Living would rather not talk about the incidents because of the ongoing police investigations. But his twinkling eyes betray no fear.

Security at the ashram, teeming with college students from different parts of the country who have gathered there for his many courses, is hardly tight, with no policemen in sight.

But clearly, going by the bustling activity, his empire is a success story. The new-age guru, born to a well-to-do Tamil Brahmin family domiciled in Karnataka, however says that he is not driven by profit. Yet he likes to make a profit — anything from 10 to 30 per cent, he says — because he doesn’t want to “go around with a begging bowl”, as many yogis tend to do.

If there is one thing he learnt years ago after he met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who chiefly introduced him to the West as an eloquent speaker of “vedic science”, it is to ensure that the “bad image” of the Indian yogi is never attached to him. “The West feels most of them are fake and they are there just to grab money and then bring it to India,” he says.

He kept that in mind when he set up the Art of Living Foundation in 1982. All his units abroad — from Europe to North America and Latin America — were asked to decide locally what to do with the funds they raised. “Funds could come to India only when they are raised for specific projects such as our schools,” says Ravi Shankar, Guruji to his disciples.

Founding the Ved Vignana Maha Vidhya Peeth, his first school, was a turning point in his life and he says he could not have done it if his father R.S.V. Ratnam, who ran an automobile business in Bangalore, had not lent him Rs 30,000.

Subsequently, the Karanataka government leased him 60 acres of land, where his ashram came up. “We later bought 50 acres or so to expand the ashram,” he says.

While his father always “encouraged” him on his spiritual journey, Ravi Shankar’s late mother Vishalakshi wanted him to take up a job and stay at home after he finished college. But there was no going back for him after Pandit Sudhakar Chaturvedi, who he says had taught the Bhagavad Gita to Mahatma Gandhi, indoctrinated him in vedic sciences.

In the last 28 years, the meditation guru has possibly spent more time “in the air” than “on earth” travelling through the world, setting up or looking after his units. In 2004, for instance, he says he visited 184 cities in the world.

No wonder, the Art of Living Foundation has blossomed, with several sister organisations such as the International Association for Human Values and Vyakti Vikas Kendra cropping up over the years. The organisation has more than 7,500 teachers.

The scale is nowhere more apparent than at his Bangalore ashram, where 15,000 vegetarian meals are cooked a day, with 1,000 kilos of rice, 2,000 kilos of vegetables and 100 kilos of salt. “We spend nearly Rs 2.5 crore here a month on food, water, transport and electricity,” the monk says.

To be sure, Ravi Shankar’s “hard work” has paid off and his foundation has become a byword in several countries. In Argentina, for instance, it recently signed an memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the country’s law ministry to make the breathing programme compulsory for its prisoners and prison officials.

Life hasn’t always been without controversy for the meditation guru, though. Acclaimed sitar player Pandit Ravi Shankar reportedly took exception when the meditation guru started prefacing his name with the word “pandit” some years ago.

The monk says his followers called him pandit after his mentor Pandit Chaturvedi. “But I dropped the prefix to end the confusion after I found people asking me to play the sitar at my programmes,” he says.

With the passing of time, Ravi Shankar says he is increasingly getting drawn to “conflict resolutions” even though the number of conflicts is on the rise and his efforts to resolve them are “just a drop in the ocean”. From Iraq to Sri Lanka, the foundation is running trauma centres and orphanages.

But if there is one conflict that perturbs him the most these days, it is India’s homegrown Maoist insurgency. “Maoists are very good people. They have zeal and enthusiasm and they want justice,” he says.

However, he stresses he “totally disagrees” with the “path of violence” they follow. The foundation now runs several ashrams and schools in the Naxalite-affected states of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh and the guru says he regularly meets Maoists who visit his ashram in Bangalore.

“When I meet them, I tell them to fight democratically. I tell them: You are fighting for justice and so am I. You are fighting for the poor and so am I. We will stand together if you give up violence. But don’t shoot the innocent policemen or CRPF personnel. The tears of their families are very hard to bear,” he says.

Ravi Shankar says the Centre should engage a reputed voluntary organisation as a mediator to get the Maoists to the negotiating table as there is “too much mistrust between the government and Maoists and they will never talk directly.”

For his part, the monk says his organisation is ready to play a role in resolving the conflict. “If both the government and Maoists ask us, we are ready to mediate between them. I want this bloodshed to end. The mother of a killed policeman and the mother of a killed Maoist feel the same pain,” he says.

If only the government and the Maoists paid any heed to him.