Make money, be happy
WHEN YOU HAVE 20 million people hanging on your every word, you might smile as much as Ravi Shankar. His beam undoubtedly stretched even wider when he met 2.5 million of them in person in February.
African royalty, Indian politicians, European former prime ministers and Russian military chiefs mingled with international business executives, spiritual leaders, celebrities and humble plebs from 145 or so nations in an otherwise inauspicious venue of a Bangalore airfield - all there in his honour and to 'celebrate humanity'.
The occasion was the 25th anniversary celebrations of Ravi Shankar's Art of Living Foundation (AoLF) - the world's largest privately funded, volunteer-based non-government organisation, whose patented breathing technique has reportedly transformed the lives of millions.
For three days, his followers sat, meditated and listened to speakers and impromptu symphonies by 3,800 musicians who had apparently never met before.
'I tell you, it was a miracle,' the 49-year-old says, smiling broadly, perched on a chair in a Mid-Levels apartment, surrounded by about 20 grinning devotees. 'And there were no traffic jams, no incidents at all. It was so smooth.'
Ravi Shankar likes celebrating. He has just arrived from Indonesia, where he was celebrating with about 3,000 people. Last night he was celebrating at the Kowloon Shangri-La hotel with 800 or so well-heeled (and possibly well-healed) locals, and today he flies to Taiwan, presumably for more of the same.
Ravi Shankar says his itinerary 'depends on where the pressure comes from', but in the coming month he's scheduled to be in Taiwan, Hawaii and four cities on the US mainland, Belgium, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Germany again, South Africa and then Mauritius. On his whistle-stop tours around the world - he averages about 40 countries a year; in 2004 he visited 175 cities - he will offer workshops, give public talks, and perhaps celebrate a bit to raise the funds to breathe life into AoLF's community projects (although the revenues from his breathing technique, Sudarshan Kriya, help maintain his ashram in Bangalore).
AoLF has many community projects around the world that deal with socially responsible enterprises and lofty ideals - from child care, health issues, women's rights and sanitation to housing, drug rehabilitation, depression counselling, trauma programmes and emergency relief.
Many of these projects are in Ravi Shankar's native India. Others are directed to cash-strapped hot spots, such as Iraq, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iran. There's also a large concentration of effort in the west, including trauma and relief projects in the US after the September 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, and similar work after the war in Kosovo, the flooding in Poland and on Germany's River Elbe, and the Madrid train bombing. In Beslan, North Ossetia, AoLF counselled the Russian military and victims of the school hostage massacre.
When one thinks of the world's worst hot spots for death, disease and destruction, one word comes to mind: Africa. Has Ravi Shankar been to Sudan lately? 'We have not,' he says. 'The more funds that come in, the more you can do.'
All the travelling has made life such a blur that he's even unsure about what the year's highlights for AoLF have been. 'I don't know,' Ravi Shankar says. 'It is like you have a web page and it is updated every day, [and then] it's updated,' he answers cryptically. 'We have all our volunteers do it anyway. I simply take credit, that's all,' he says, smiling, provoking laughter from everyone in the room.
What he can say is that he does see more stress in the world, not surprisingly. 'There is an increase in suicide and depression in the world today, and stress has taken its toll on people. There is child obesity, juvenile diabetes. Health is a big concern and we need to bring that [back to what it should be]. If the body is healthy, the mind is healthy.'
In Hong Kong he says that the level of domestic violence is 'alarming' and that the city's rampant pursuit of material wealth has taken its toll on happiness levels - even though, conversely, he isn't anti-capitalism.
'I see a high stress level. There is social pressure, competition, and to cope with this they need to find inner strength,' he says. 'Stress is inevitable. Material gain is OK, but not at the cost of your happiness. You need to find the balance, inner peace, happiness. I want to make people realise that life can be fun.'
Ravi Shankar disputes the belief that the pursuit of money is the root of all evil. 'No, I don't think it is. It is the ignorance and greed and how to cope with it,' he says. 'Money should not be blamed.'
Perhaps it's this reasoning that helps him justify the corporate events he engages in (for clients such as the World Bank, Shell, Tyco Instruments, ICI and Standard Chartered).
The idea is to make the business community, well, nicer. The idea being that if the business executives in charge of today's corporations are stressed and not managing their emotions effectively, we all pay for it.
'You need to be responsible for society and engage in CSR [corporate social responsibility] - help in places where it is needed,' he says. 'There are too many people in the world [who need help].'
Ravi Shankar defends his controversial counselling of Russia's military and police. 'They are the defenders, like the police, they are there to maintain peace, to protect the people,' he says. 'If the military are not there to defend, if an aggression comes to them ...' His voice trails off.
'We need to admire these people. Human beings are human beings, and they are just playing a part, they all have a heart, they need a sense of relief, they all need peace. We can't see the military as hard criminals, they need to heal themselves.'
And Ravi Shankar is as much a mystery on another of his favourite topics, organic farming, as he is on other issues. He has set up the Mobile Institute of Agriculture in India to educate farmers about chemical-free farming, but will not condemn genetically modified food.
'I am not against genetic engineering, but I would see what impact it has on the health of people. I would always be cautious,' he says, and adds that he has spoken to corporations such as Monsanto, which are responsible for the production of the harmful pesticides, but he says he won't be drawn by politics.
'I stay out of the politics,' Ravi Shankar says. 'But I do encourage the R&D departments of these companies to be more considerate of people's health. They do appreciate it. They see the future is more organic and herbal.'