Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was born in Southern India in 1956, Shankar›s childhood reflects how he started seeking answers by looking within. He was often found in meditation from toddlerhood and through his studying of ancient Sanskrit scriptures he was able to recite passages from the Bhagavad Gita as young as four, (Mahatma Gandhi would refer to the Gita as his own spiritual dictionary).
His first teacher was Sudhakar Chaturvedi, an Indian Vedic scholar and a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi. Sri Sri graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from the St Joseph’s College of Bangalore in 1973, after his graduation he travelled extensively with his second teacher Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, spreading his vast knowledge of Vedic sciences by holding speeches and organising conferences, conveying his messages of peace and the importance of strengthening the witness within.
In 1982 Sri Sri sat in silence for 10 days, and through his time spent in meditation the Sudarshan Kriya (a powerful breathing technique) emerged and he realised things like «every emotion has a corresponding rhythm in the breath and regulation of breath can help and meditation is supreme.
He founded the Art of Living as an international, educational, non-profit and humanitarian organisation emphasising on self-development through education, focusing on how to alleviate stress and bring forth inner peace.
You started meditating as a young child. Do you think we are born with ‘the same yearning to look within’?
Every human being has the need to meditate, because it is the natural tendency of humans to look for a joy that will not diminish, a love that will not get distorted into negative emotions. You have been meditating even before your birth, when you were in your mother’s womb, doing nothing. Your food was fed directly into your belly without your having to chew. You happily floated in the fluid, turning, kicking and basically just being. You have experienced a state of comfort called meditation and you want to regain it. Meditation is absolute comfort. So, returning to the state that you had once experienced, before coming into the hustle and bustle of this world, is very natural. Everything in this universe is cyclical, and, ultimately, seeks its source. That is the nature of the world.
During your 10-days in silence, ‘Sudarshan Kriya’ was born. How important would you say awareness of breath is?
It is very important. Breathing is the first act of our life. Breath is the most important source of the vital life energy in us, the prana. It is the link between body, thoughts and emotions. Awareness of breath establishes you in the present moment. When you pay attention to your breathing and practise pranayama and Sudarshan Kriya, stress is released from the system; peace dawns in the mind and human values such as compassion, responsibility, friendliness and a sense of belongingness naturally develop.
You founded the Art of Living in 1981. Why?
I had a very strong desire to see a smile on every face that I saw. I just started sharing what I knew, with an intent to make everybody experience the depth and vastness that they carry within themselves. With time, more and more people came and gradually the organisation took shape.
You work tirelessly meeting religious and political leaders all over the world. What drives you?
Just my nature, which is to spread happiness. I am in my element! You need motivation to do something if it’s not in your nature. Motivation is short lived because it is an external stimulus - an imposed activity. The sun does not shine because it is an imposed activity; it shines because that is its nature. It can’t but shine! A river does not get tired of flowing, air does not get tired of moving, Similarly, when we are established in our element, in our very nature then everything works as per nature, we do not get tired or bored.
How do you stay calm and centred living such a busy life?
As I don’t do anything out of my nature, there is no stress in that which I do.
Out of all your numerous awards for your humanitarian work, which one means the most to you?
I see these awards as recognitions not for a person but for the principle of a one-world family, where human values are rekindled for our collective happiness and peace. I am quite happy with that and don’t see any value in rating them. I neither do things for publicity nor to get credit. I simply do what must be done. We all need to work together to make this world free from violence and stress.
What and where is consciousness?
You are consciousness! Consciousness is present everywhere, expressing itself in various diferent forms. Whatever is, is that. It’s everywhere and nowhere. It’s beyond description and identification.
Can you describe the process of letting go?
Life teaches you the art of letting go in every event. Agreeing to uncertainty is letting go. You can be at ease with the uncertainty of the world when you realise the certainty of the consciousness. The more you have learnt to let go, the happier and the freer you are. Any joy you experience in life is from the depth of your self, when you settle down and let go of all that you hold on to. Being centred in that space is meditation.
How do we strengthen the ‘witness within’?
There is an actor and there is a witness in you. As you go inwards, the witness aspect grows in you and you remain untouched by events. And as you go outwards, the actor in you becomes more skilful in responding to situations. These two entirely opposite aspects of our being are nurtured by meditation.
There is a beautiful story in the Upanishads, which says, ‘On the tree of this universe, there are two birds sitting, one is enjoying the fruit, the other is just watching, like a witness’. So, there is one aspect of you that is not doing anything, that is much bigger. And there is one aspect in you that is doing everything. Both are present in you. On one level, you find that you are changing. Your thoughts are changing, your emotions are changing, and your body is changing. Yet at another deeper level, there is something in you that is not changing at all; it is the same. So it is not one or the other, it is both together simultaneously. The more you become a witness to your body, thoughts and actions, the more joy dawns in life. So keep practising being a witness.
What concerns you the most about the world we live in?
Rising fanaticism is a serious concern. ‘My way is the only way’ - this mind-set has created so many problems in the world today. Fanatics, terrorists are nurtured with this belief. I think it is absolutely essential today to give multi-faith, multi-cultural education right from a young age, so a child doesn’t grow up thinking, ‘only I go to heaven’. Every child should know about all the religions of the world and start respecting them. They can thus grow up with a broad mind-set and terrorism can be nipped in the bud. Diversity is the nature of creation and needs to be preserved. Spirituality has a big role to play in uniting people of all diferent religions, to come to an understanding that we are all part of one universal human family.
What issues do you feel need addressing most as we head to a new decade?
Lack of understanding among cultures, environmental care, depression and rising suicidal tendencies. There is a lot to be done.
Why are your known as the ‘Guru of Joy’?
This you should ask the people. I don’t label myself or anybody. We all are much beyond narrow identifications. Millions of people across the globe are experiencing true joy because of the work we do.
Is it true that before you sit down in meditation, you stand on one leg crowing like a cockerel?
Well that’s my trade secret!
Revered as a spiritual leader, Sri Sri continues tirelessly to campaign for inner and outer peace the world over through his Art of Living courses and schools. His self-development programmes have reached millions of people globally, from Latin America to the House of Commons, from war torn Iraq to the poorest corners of the world. Sri Sri is often found in meetings with world leaders, helping build bridges between nations in conflict and spreading the word of peace, emphasising on the lightness of being. “Just relax and be happy. The more relaxed we are, the more spontaneously and naturally things get done.”
During four decades of dedication and hard work Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has received numerous university doctorates and continues to spread his message of peace throughout the world.
Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has recently launched the Sri Sri School of Europe headquartered in the Black Forrest, Germany. For more information, visit srisriravishankar.org