Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 November, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 February, 2014, 5:52pm

A MILD, if not unusual, state of confusion gripped this office recently when a press release was received announcing the impending arrival in Hong Kong of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The baby boomers among you may associate that name with the Indian sitar, George Harrison and a waft of patchouli (or other inhalable substances). Could this be - in the words of a colleague well-versed in the lingo of the era - 'the music dude'? Actually, no. Closer perusal of the press release elicited the information Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is 'The World's Greatest Breathing Authority and Master of the Art of Living'. I thought this rather cast his musical namesake in the shade where life's little accomplishments are concerned, and set off at a brisk trot to Kowloon to meet the man himself. As it was one of those warm, still, sunny days when every particle of air clogs the lungs with pollutants, it occurred to me, as I gasped along, that learning not to breathe could well be a handy stand-by for survival in Hong Kong. Still, this seemed a defeatist attitude and tips from any master were surely welcome. My contact for our meeting was a charming woman called Sharmila Chugani who had invited about 20 people to meet Sri Sri ('A higher form of 'mister', for a spiritual master,' Chugani explained) Ravi Shankar. This group was mostly seated on the floor, radiating goodwill towards an elfin gentleman with flowing robes and hair, who was perched on the sofa smiling serenely back at them. 'He is here, in person,' whispered Chugani, reverently. Everyone beamed in so encouraging a manner when I came in she suggested making the interview a public, shared experience. Once I'd recovered from the minor bout of hyperventilation this idea induced, we repaired to a bedroom and waited while music tinkled outside. 'They're just appreciating his visit,' explained Chugani. 'Some people sing to him, some people touch his feet. That's what's so beautiful about Guruji, you can just have a cup of tea with him. I'd definitely say he has qualities of the divine in him, although he never says that. He preaches the Oneness. His language is from the heart not the mind.' This was true. At any rate, when the master appeared and sat with us, still smiling, his language was operating on some internal level. A few days later, I was flicking through one of Chugani's booklets and came across this piece of advice from Guruji: be willing to be wordless. Now, there are many situations in which this is an admirable position to take but an interview, ideally, is not one of them. In its combination of the brief and the arcane, however, this meeting resembled a close encounter with the Oracle at Delphi. 'I'm very ordinary, most ordinary, not special,' murmured the master. After some gentle prodding, he admitted he could recite the Bhagavad-Gita, the Hindu scriptures, at four and that in 1982, when he was in his early 20s, he spent 10 days in silence, emerging with a special technique for breathing and meditation which he has since passed on to thousands of followers in 89 centres. I was curious to know what had happened in between; he said he'd studied engineering. But how had he suddenly changed? The master beamed. 'I understand what you're saying, you're asking, 'Was there a shift?' But I'm like this before, I'm like this after. You cannot say why these things happen. It just comes.' Now he says he sees 5,000 to 8,000 people a day in his ashram outside Bangalore in southern India, when he's not travelling. 'Today is my 112th city in 250 days. People ask me in India, 'Why do you have to go out?' and I say this knowledge is not only the property of India. Everywhere in the world needs this.' And where does his energy to travel come from? 'It's the same for you, you are not just the body, you are the spirit. The consciousness is the noble source of energy.' I liked this idea, having been particularly taken by a testimonial in Chugani's booklet from a journalist who confirmed the Healing Breath Workshop had removed writer's block and a dread of deadlines. The press release claimed the late Rajiv Gandhi had been impressed too, but the master said that was a misprint, it was another Gandhi, and anyway, 'I don't give importance to these things. I feel everyone is the same, we are all part of one big family.' Even those people who might harbour suspicions about him? 'So what? I haven't incurred many, except in Washington - someone came in shouting, he was a fundamentalist Christian. He came to attack me, he was as close as one foot away, and I said 'Wait!' and he just sat down. His whole energy field changed. Then he came and did a breathing workshop. You see, lack of proper spiritual education today leads to a narrow outlook.' At this point, I wondered if he'd met Sai Baba, that other holy man of southern India. 'I have not met Sai Baba ... I have met him on another level. But maybe it's better not to talk about this, I would not want to distract the people who are following those paths.' I thought this a generous, not to mention intriguing, attitude, suggesting as it did a higher plane of networking gurus. Does he have visions? He gave a little laugh and replied, 'All the time.' A tiny pause ensued. So, what are they like? 'Difficult to describe.' Does he ever feel alone? 'All the time and never,' replied the master and laughed, clasping himself with glee. When he went back into the room, everyone clapped, the way people do when a plane lands safely after turbulence. Chugani remained with me, suggesting I do a workshop and learn a breathing technique called Sudharshan Kriya. The course costs $1,600 and lasts a weekend (you can fax Chugani on 2722-7913 to find out when the next one is). 'It's not concept driven,' she said. 'It's totally process and experience driven. It's like putting your body into a washing-machine, and it's not only miraculous in its healing, it has a certain grace which is magical.' What about pollution? 'The body can be cleansed after 20 minutes' exercise,' promised Chugani. Guruji himself, asked about his impressions of Hong Kong, had merely - and, I might add, characteristically - replied, 'I don't have an opinion about any place or people. I see things this moment as they are. Next moment, they might be different.'