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HE is a superstar with an estimated 20 million fans who gets swamped wherever he goes and often needs to travel with national guard protection. He has admirers in the highest places, including US Vice-President Joe Biden. He swans around on stage to wild applause. But he’s not a rock star, actor, or film star; he’s a spiritual leader who is fast becoming one of the most powerful men in India and soon to be in our region.
His name is His Holiness Sri Sri Ravishankar Ji, affectionately known in India as Sri Sri, Nobel peace prize nominee, player on the stage of world politics, adored guru or “teacher”. I’ve been granted unique access to him travelling with him on the election trail through India, Nepal and Bali, making a documentary and marvelling at his following.
And he has emerged as one of the major kingmakers in the coming Indian elections. Though not a candidate himself, he is the force behind the ubiquitous “I Vote For A Better India” organisation.
“IVFABI” is not a political party but rather a “campaign”, being run to help rally more of India’s 814 million voters to register to vote. Sri Sri’s aim is to get 80 million new people to join the democratic process; particularly the coveted but as yet untapped youth market. Under 35s make up 65 per cent of the voting population. There are 23 million new voters, 18 and 19 years old.
And he’s succeeding. On the road, I witnessed the remarkable pulling power of a man they call The Pope of the East for his charisma and profound spiritual teachings. He is able to attract audiences of 250,000 in stadiums double and triple the size of Wembley and its FA Cup crowds. They hang on his every word. It is a following of devotees that Biden once described in a speech at the Kennedy Centre in Washington as “incredible … actually incredible”.
As the election draws to a close, he’s already inspired millions to register to vote and change the destiny of their country. But despite his people power he has refrained from openly endorsing any candidate, or overtly guiding his followers. However, in a move that put the cat among the pigeons, Sri Sri did launch the memoir of Hindu National candidate, the BJP leader Narendra Modi, to a media fanfare.
Modi, who is tipped most likely to topple the government and its entrenched Gandhi dynasty, is a self-made businessman with strong financial aspirations for India. If he does win, he would catapult a country which has just risen to the third-largest economy in the world further into the limelight, which could have a profound influence on economic growth in Australasia and surrounding regions.
Dressed in white robes with long flowing black hair, Sri Sri Ravishankar looks every bit the Indian guru. Travelling with him as part of his entourage was an eye-opening experience. We were besieged as we came out of airports, rushed into waiting cars by men with guns, and driven around in motorcades with sirens blaring. We were saluted and bowed to walking into hotels, like royalty. When former French prime minister Edith Cresson witnessed more than a million people gathered at the airfield in Bangalore to celebrate the Sri Sri-founded Art of Living Foundation’s jubilee in 2005, she described the crowd as something “no politician on earth could even dream of”.
He has become a spiritual supernova in a crowded firmament; and this is the power that is now being harnessed. Many detractors are critical of his lobbying, saying as a spiritual leader he shouldn’t be dabbling in politics. Sri Sri is unapologetic. “There should be spirituality in business and politics; and business and politics in spirituality.”
A man who has a science background and a practical mind, he lives true to this belief. On one hand he is like the Dalai Lama in his appeal — teaching meditation, his own brand of yoga and breathing called Sudarshan Kriya, an ancient eastern philosophy. He teaches in a secular manner that he calls “the knowledge” or “the wisdom” (which he claims is Vedic in origin. “Buddha was a Hindu,” he reminds me). Yet on the other hand, he is a profoundly political man; lobbying hard against corruption in politics and in business, co-founding the International Leadership Symposium on Ethics in Business, which convenes its annual conference at the European parliament in Brussels. He says a spiritual life is about service to others, not just navel-gazing.
He is a renowned humanitarian who travels to 30 countries a year. He was in Australia in 2009 as a keynote speaker for the Parliament of World Religions in Melbourne. He visits trouble spots to try to help resolve conflict. Former Iraqi deputy prime minister Ahmed Chalabi says “Guruji is a great man”. Francois Gautier, respected French political journalist, declared in an editorial that the Nobel peace prize nominee “truly deserves the prize because he is a universal man of peace”.
His organisations, The Art of Living Foundation, which he started in 1981, and its sister, Geneva-based IAHV, established 1997, have done laudable work around the world sending hundreds of thousands of volunteers into 150 countries. He sees no contradiction in his work as a “guru” and yet a social activist. He says they both feed each other: “Only when we have inner peace will there be outer peace; and only with outer peace will we find prosperity. We have to have a stress-free, violence-free world.”
Part of his appeal is that he straddles all socio-economic classes. Forbes-listed billionaire Binod Chaudhary, whom I met in Nepal, gets excited when I ask him about his relationship with Sri Sri, explaining the guru is “instrumental” in his renowned success. But average Indians love the guru of joy too, especially when he sings to them as he sweeps down his long catwalks into the crowds. But the minute he sits down and shuts his eyes to meditate, crowds who were shrieking moments before “Guruji. Guruji” (our beloved teacher) “lift their consciousness” and meditate with him. It’s astounding, and totally spooky, to look out at more than 250,000 people and not see a twitch or a shuffle, utter deference.
Not that he doesn’t have vocal detractors as well, with a list of grievances including his repackaging and trademarking of universal yoga techniques; his political or social alliances; the degree of transparency in his NGOs. But they are drowned in the sea of positive voices.
Pundits attribute his massive popularity not so much to his humanitarian efforts, political prowess, or anti-corruption message. But to his ability to tap into the spiritual Zeitgeist of an era; both in the East and the West.
As India has become economically stronger, its rapidly growing middle class has developed more “stress” and with it has come the need for the panaceas to stress with catchphrases like “health and wellbeing”, “longevity”, “happiness and inner peace”. The Art of Living appeals to this home market.
Meanwhile, in the West, there is the chronic search for meaning for those like me who can’t believe in a man on a cloud but want something more to combat their existential angst. Sri Sri says, “God is not something out there, it is within you so as you honour yourself, and honour your spirit, you are honouring the Divine.” He won’t deify himself either. “The guru is just an excuse for the devotee to practise devotion.
“A guru is just a coach, you have a coach for football, a coach for cricket, and management gurus all over the world.”
The hunger for meaning is why Buddhism is thriving, especially in the corporate market. At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, many celebs and world leaders chose a session by Goldie Hawn on meditation over a speech by Iranian President Hassan Rowhani.
“Businessmen around the world are coming to the realisation that it’s not just the money that is giving them happiness. Half of our health we spend to get wealth, and then half of that wealth we spend to get health back again … it’s not good economics,” he says.
You may be materially rich but I would like you to become spiritually rich, rich in love and compassion, rich in your ability to spread happiness to the world.”