Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: From Skepticism To Spiritual Guidance

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The first time she saw him she wasn’t sure what to make of him. “I was skeptical,” says Bhairavi “Vivi” Tolani. “He was just this guy with long hair, white robes and a very feminine voice.”
Tolani was 17 when she first saw Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, one of modern India’s most celebrated spiritual leaders, at a soccer field in Mumbai. She had taken his core Art of Living course a year earlier and enjoyed learning the breathing techniques. But this event — attended by thousands — wasn’t her cup of tea. Tolani associated chanting with old people. And there was lots of it. It was boring, a turn-off, decidedly “not cool, like my grandmother should be listening to this,” says Tolani, who — at that time — would rather be listening to Guns N’ Roses. Instead, she was wondering: “Where am I, and what am I doing here?”
Thirteen years later, she considers Shankar her guru, or personal spiritual guide. She’s not alone. Shankar “may be the most famous, the most prominent, Hindu guru in the world right now,” according to Varun Soni, Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California. “He literally has millions of followers.” According to its website, Art of Living, Shankar’s nonprofit has “reached” more than 300 million people in more than 150 countries since its inception in 1981.
It’s unclear, however, exactly how many have become regular practitioners, like Tolani, who has spent the last four months helping prepare for Shankar’s third annual visit to the Los Angeles Art of Living center. In seminars running three days this week, followers will pay $1,100 or $1,500 — depending on when they register — to hear Shankar discuss the Upanishads, one of the primary sacred texts of Hinduism. He’s also giving a free talk tonight for USC students, his first one on campus.
According to Soni, who helped organize the event, Shankar didn’t charge an honorarium. “He’s doing this because he wants to meet with USC students,” Soni says. “He’s much more than a guru. He’s also a statesman. He’s also a humanitarian, a new type of guru.” According to his website, Shankar promotes stress-free living. His teachings are based on Ayurveda, an alternative approach to medicine based on the Atharvaveda, another ancient Hindu text which includes herbal remedies. “We’re celebrating energy,” says Tolani, now a doctoral student at USC who has seen Shankar every year since 1999, sometimes traveling back to India from the United States to see him. She’s also helped teach Art of Living classes and volunteers at the West Coast headquarters at Hoover Street and West Adams Boulevard, just north of campus. Soni understands the allure.
Historically, “In India, the guru is the door, or the avenue or path, to get to liberation or moksha,” freedom from the repeated cycle of death and reincarnation. “You become one with the godhead or universal conscience. That’s the goal.” Some are skeptical. “These days, all the gurus are basically after money,” says Ramesh Landge, executive director of Cooperative Outreach of India, a Christian nonprofit that provides services in slums near Shahbad Dairy in southwest Delhi. Landge criticizes Shankar and others like him for “providing services only to rich people, not for the poor.” At Art of Living, Tolani counters, “there is no exclusion. It’s open to everybody. We’re multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious.” She was raised in a Sindhi family, with roots in the Indus Valley in modern-day Pakistan, and considers herself “a non-religious Hindu.” Art of Living, she says, “is spiritual.” She carries of photo of Shankar on her dashboard and regularly participates in Sunday breathing exercises at Art of Living.
She’s also studying for her doctorate degree in molecular biology, plans to graduate next year and hopes to someday run her own bio-tech company. She believes it’s possible to accept spirituality without denying science. “Every breath I take I feel connected to the divine,” she says. “I’ve come to accept that it doesn’t make logical sense, but it makes sense.”