ART OF LIVING FOUNDATION TIMELINE
1956 (May 13): Ravi Shankar was born in Papanasam, Tamil Nadu, India.
1975: Ravi Shankar gained a Bachelor of Science degree from Bangalore University.
1982: Ravi Shankar discovered Sudarshan Kriya (the movement’s cornerstone breathing practice) during a silent retreat in Shimoga, Karnataka, India. He formulated the first Art of Living course, and founded The Art of Living Foundation in Bangalore, India.
1983: Ravi Shankar held the first Art of Living course in Switzerland.
1986: Ravi Shankar held the first Art of Living course in North America.
1993: Ravi Shankar was excommunicated from Transcendental Meditation
1997: Ravi Shankar established the International Association for Human Values (IAHV) In Geneva, Switzerland.
2006: Art of Living’s twenty-fifth anniversary celebration was held at the Bangalore ashram, and attended by 2,500,000 million people
2012: The campaign Volunteers for a Better India (VFABI) was launched, encouraging citizens to partake in nation-building efforts.
2013: NONVIO campaign was launched by Shankar’s movement, to promote acts of non-violence through social media, and implementing non-violent principles in governance, health care and mass media.
2016: A three-day World Culture Festival was held at the banks of the Indian river Yamuna, attracting visitors from 155 countries, among them 35.000 musicians.
AoL’s guru/ leader/ founder Ravi Shankar (often referred to using the double honorifics Sri Sri, and his devotees often call him Guruji or Gurudev) was born on May 13, 1956, in Papanasam, Tamil Nadu, South India to parents Vishalakshi and Venkat Ratnam. The family moved to Jayanagar in Bangalore when Shankar was a small child. In India, Ravi is a fairly common name meaning “sun.” The name Shankar, however, is derived from the Hindu saint Adi Shankara, with whom Ravi Shankar shares a birthday.
The hagiographic accounts of Shankar’s childhood describe him in terms of the guru he would become, and in that sense, according to Stephen Jacobs (2015), they follow a very predictable storyline. These devotee accounts suggest that spiritual interests were evident in Ravi Shankar’s life from an early age. A well-known legend among devotees is that as an infant Shankar’s traditional Indian hanging cradle, supported by metal chains, fell to the ground. Instead of crushing Shankar in the cradle, the chains fell outward as if by a miracle of physics. The four year-old Shankar is said to have recited passages from the Bhagavad Gita, one of the holy texts of Hinduism. Likewise stories are frequently told about his young-age rebellion against the practice of untouchability and other forms of injustice, and his unwavering devotion to religious practice through daily pujas and Sanskrit studies. According to the hagiographies, Shankar was a studious and intelligent child. He preferred to write and study more than play, and he is said to have written poems and plays at an early age. Science was also an interest for the young Ravi Shankar; he graduated from St. Joseph’s College in Bangalore with a Bachelor’s degree in physics. However, for Shankar, [Image at right] this scientific interests and an ordinary life as a bank employee were not enough; he also became a scholar in Sanskrit literature, and ultimately chose to follow a spiritual path.
Art of Living literature tends to emphasize the favorable time of Shankar’s birth, his name, and his Brahmin heritage, thus orchestrating a hagiography to put him “under favorable skies in the eyes of Hindu believers. Furthermore, like many hagiographies, [the biography] puts emphasis on the predispositions and rare capacities shown by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar during his childhood” (Avdeeff 2004:2). The idea that Ravi Shankar was on a path to sainthood since he was a child, the “known fact” that he has attained enlightenment, and the numerous other stories that build up under his holiness, are all important within the organization. Alexis Avdeeff estimates that the majority of devotees believes in Shankar’s enlightenment, and believes that he became enlightened during a period of a ten-day silence in which he claims to have received the technique of Sudarshan Kriya, the cornerstone breathing technique taught in AoL. Ravi Shankar himself neither confirms nor denies the “rumors” of his enlightenment and divine inspiration. He rather maintains an ambiguous stance on the subject, through mystical utterances like “Many can cross with the help of the One who has crossed” (Avdeeff 2004:3). Shankar himself seems to extend this ambiguity and mysticism to his own biography. He favors the current moment and who he is right now, emphasizing how he has kept true to the child he once was, and, in good Peter Pan style, that he has never really grown up.
Ravi Shankar was introduced to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his Transcendental Meditation movement at a meeting in Bangalore when he was a young man (Gautier 2008). Shankar followed the Maharishi to his ashram in Rishikesh, spent some time there, and gradually gained the trust of the TM guru/ leader/founder. After “learning the ropes,” Shankar was gradually given more responsibility within the organization. “Although Sri Sri was very young, Maharishi recognized his abilities and put him to work. He was thus sent to various places to give talks on the Vedas and science” (Gautier 2008: 36). Ravi Shankar was also sent to various countries in Europe to continue his teaching and to set up centers for learning. He furthered his organizational talent through event management within Transcendental Meditation. Gautier states that even though very little is known about the time Shankar spent in the TM organization, he believes this to have been a formative period for Shankar as a young man. Through his stint in TM, Shankar seems to have learnt the necessary skills to start his own spiritual venture, which he named The Art of Living Foundation (Humes 2009: 295-96). It is also more than likely that Ravi Shankar based the name of his movement on one of Maharishi’s best-known publications, The Science of Being and the Art of Living (1963).
Throughout the years, both Shankar’s parents became deeply involved in Shankar’s trust, in the Ved Vignan Maha Vidya Peeth (VVMVP), and in running the Art of Living Ashram in Bangalore, India. Pitaji is one of his son’s most ardent followers, and the enormous meditation hall in the Bangalore ashram is named Vishalakshi Mantap for Shankar’s mother. Ravi Shankar’s father seems, among the family and personal friends, to be the most vocal about his son’s spiritual maturity, asserting that “He is both my son and my master.”
Art of Living can be understood as a world-affirming religion, which, according to Eileen Barke, “embrace the world’s secular values and goals while using unconventional means to achieve these” (1998: 21). Through its many humanitarian initiatives, such as rural education and health initiatives, the NGO parts of the organization work hard to make the world a better place. The importance of humanitarian values within the AoL organization align with many other Asian NRMs, which often focus on socially engaged spirituality (Clarke 2006; Warrier 2005). This reinforces positive public relations, and reinforces the organization’s world-affirming ideas.
Personal and spiritual development goes hand in hand with social and humanitarian work in AoL. However, the Art of Living Foundation is primarily a religious/ spiritual organization, and aligns itself with a modern Hindu framework. The guru regularly performs Hindu rituals (pujas), and many Hindu religious festivals are celebrated in Art of Living’s Bangalore ashram. Gautier (2009) and Humes (2009) note that Ravi Shankar grew up in the Hindu faith, and that Shankar himself takes a devotional stance toward the supernatural. The Hindu practice of bhakti (devotion) is important in Shankar’s teachings of Divine Love. Ideally, love is ego-less, and this selfless love should be given to one’s fellow people, to the guru and to God.
Cynthia Humes notes that guru worship is important in AoL:
Shankar […] allows others to fawn over him as Hindus characteristically do to their masters – thereby locating his teachings within a Hindu mode of legitimacy, making him a popular choice in guru for Indians. Expressions of love and attachment to the guru is common in weekly Satsangs, “gatherings of holy people,” devoted to Sri Sri […] (2009: 384).
Fred Clothey (2006) states that in India a tradition of religious seeking and guru worship can be traced back to the times of the Upanishads (a collection of texts that contain some of the central philosophical concepts of Hinduism, written in Sanskrit ca. 800-200 BCE). This tradition is common even today. In the Bangalore ashram, when Ravi Shankar attends, there are large gatherings where the devotees meet the guru. These are interchangeably called darshan (where one sees and is seen by the guru), or satsang. Steven Jacobs (2015) translates satsang as “good company,” a time where devotees can spend time with their beloved Sri Sri. These events are immensely popular, and the large prayer/meditation hall is filled to the brim every night. Devotion to the guru is highly emotional, and is expressed through bhajans (devotional songs), as well as individual songs, poetry recital, and testimonials in open-mike sessions. Devotion to the guru is also expressed in the innumerable acts of seva (selfless service/ divine work) performed every day at ashrams, centers, and humanitarian projects around the world, by devotees and volunteers.
Teaching traditional knowledge and “ancient Indian wisdom” is an important part of AoL activity. This knowledge is a hybrid of traditional Hindu wisdom (for example through commentaries on Hindu philosophical texts) self-help rhetoric, and plain common sense. Milda Ališauskienė (2009) notes that
In this teaching, which takes the form of daily messages to followers that are later published, Shankar quotes various Hindu-origin concepts and Hindu writings such as the Bhagavad Gita and Ashtavakra Gita, which raises questions about the origin of his ideas. For example, in his messages about the laws of the nature he explains:
“There are three powers in nature: Brahma shakti, Vishnu shakti and Shiva shakti. Usually one of these powers dominates. Brahma shakti is a power that creates something new. Vishnu shakti is the power that sustains existence while Shiva shakti is the power that transforms, gives the life or destroys. (Šankaras 2001: 208)”
But at the same time, in his messages to his followers Ravi Shankar also uses concepts and metaphors from Christianity, thus making his teaching more accessible to a Western audience. (Ališauskienė 2009: 343)
One of the most important “learning strategies” in AoL is the guru’s daily messages to his followers, which are published online, and collected in books. These are called Wisdom Quotes, and in them Shankar states things like “Finding security in inner space is spirituality.”
Ravi Shankar finds legitimacy in historical religious traditions such as Hinduism, and to some extent Christianity. However, the guru himself is the main source of power and wisdom in AoL. Shankar is a charismatic guru, and devotees experience his person, his teachings and the movement’s practices as true and authentic. Also, by learning the practices and learning how to be a guru devotee, participation in AoL often entails some form of personal transformation. The idea is that people become happier, healthier, and better through associating with the organization, and in AoL personal transformation is closely related to notions of learning, healing, and religious experience. These ideas are not only important in Hinduism, but also in the modern, global spiritual culture, of which Art of Living is a part. Guru worship and philosophy is important in AoL, but courses (in breathing practices, yoga, and meditation), that is, practical learning, is how participants are taught and socialized.
Art of Living beliefs, rituals, and practices are primarily drawn from a Hindu-inspired worldview, and so yoga, meditation, and pranayama (breathing techniques) are the core practices in the movement. The courses and techniques taught by the organization are more or less the same everywhere, and all teachers receive similar training. Usually two teachers, one male and one female, teach each course on offer.
Art of Living has much in common with its parental organization Transcendental Meditation. In addition to being guru-centric movements, “[…] both teach techniques which help to reduce stress, both have Hindu origins and both claim they are not religious but NGOs” (Ališauskienė 2009:3-4).
Both organizations teach a simple mantra -style form of meditation. [Image at right] The form of meditation taught in TM is based on mantras from Indian tantric traditions (Lowe 2011). A certified teacher gives the mantra to the meditator, and the TM style of meditation is said to be natural, modest and uncomplicated. The meditation technique taught in AoL is quite similar: Sahaj Samadhi Meditation (or Art of Meditation) is what the organization calls a “graceful, natural and effortless” meditation technique.
Both TM and AoL teach a set of simplified hatha yoga postures. Yoga is an important part of AoL teachings, but in relatively “mild” forms that are suitable for everyone. Yoga is taught in both introductory courses and in special yoga courses, is said to warm up and relax the body, and make it ready to learn and practice the movement’s cornerstone practice, the Sudarshan Kriya breathing technique. The most common yoga practices in AoL are Surya Namaskara (sun salutations) and a few other asanas (yoga postures) that are said to offer physical, mental and spiritual benefits. In addition, AoL has introduced their own playful take on yoga, called “village yoga.” This short program mimics the everyday work done by women in Indian villages, such as “sweeping with a broomstick,” “grinding wheat on a stone flourmill,” “washing clothes with hands” and “pulling a bucket of water from the well.” The rationale behind the village yoga is, most of all, physical benefit. Physical labor is strenuous and will exercise the body, even if it is done only as yoga exercises. However, village yoga can also be interpreted as a way of bestowing worth to the work that is done in Indian villages on an everyday basis. Perhaps it is also a critique of an urban lifestyle seen as unnatural compared to the “romantic simplicity” of village life. These techniques are taught to (mainly) urban, middle-class participants, with the explanation that “people in the village naturally perform yoga postures as part of their daily work [which] stretches their arms and waist as they breathe accordingly in rhythm. In the village people lead a far more healthy and happy life.”
The cornerstone of Art of Living practices is the breathing technique called Sudarshan Kriya (SKY), which loosely translated means “healing breath.” Shankar himself says that “During a period of silence, the Sudarshan Kriya came like an inspiration. Nature knows what to give and when to give. After I came out of the silence, I started teaching whatever I knew and people had great experiences.” Teaching the Sudarshan Kriya was the very reason Shankar founded the Art of Living Foundation, and to this day, the technique is taught in every Art of Living beginner’s course.
The world-affirming quality of AoL is found also in its techniques. “Salvation” is not found after death, but in this life. The “[…] ultimate aim [of SKY] is to change the world and people, to make people happier and enable them to live without stress […]. The elimination of stress is associated with a greater quality of life in society as it currently exists, but ultimately it also brings people to a qualitatively different existence.” (Ališauskienė 2009:343).
According to Ravi Shankar, the rhythm of breath is very specific. It corresponds to one’s emotions and body, and to the rhythms of earth and nature. For various reasons, these rhythms are often out of tune with each other, and it is the mission of Sudarshan Kriya to bring them back into harmony. The technique itself is a cycle of rhythmical breath, where the practitioner sits on his/ her knees, in the yoga position known as vajrasana. The body is relaxed, and the practitioner breathes through the nose. After the Kriya , the practitioner relaxes, and ideally enters a state of meditation where the mind and body is aware but deeply rested. The technique is taught in two varieties. The long Kriya is guided, often by a tape with Ravi Shankar’s recorded instructions, and is meant to be practiced once a week in a group setting. There is also the short, “everyday” Kriya, which ideally should be practiced every day. By controlling the rhythms of breath, the Art of Living teachings say that people can also control their emotions, their bodies and their minds. The organization provides an example: when one is sad, the breathing comes in a long and deep fashion. Likewise, when one is angry, the breath becomes short and quick. Because the breath corresponds to emotions, the organization teaches that one can use the breath to change emotions too. “It ( Sudarshan Kriya ) flushes our anger, anxiety and worry; leaving the mind completely relaxed and energized.”
One of the main characteristics of the many educational courses offered by the Art of Living Foundation is the aim to provide participants with a set of techniques, skills and knowledge through which they can achieve a better quality of life. Stephen Jacobs (2015) sees the AoL techniques as consistent with what he calls the “therapeutic turn,” concerned with individual health and well-being. Practitioners are taught ways of coping with mental and physical stress, and how to react to the stressful situations that arise around different tasks and demands in daily life. The techniques, which consist of breathing techniques, meditation and yoga exercises promise to improve health and well-being.
In the years since Ravi Shankar founded Art of Living, it has grown into a vast global religious/spiritual organization, with ashram headquarters in Bangalore, India [Image at right] and Bad Antogast, Germany. Creating a new religion can be a smart business strategy, and, in many ways, AoL functions like any multi-national company. The organization has centers and groups all over the world. Its participants are also customers, who pay for courses, retreats, and brand associated products (like books, DVDs, or Ayurvedic health supplements). AoL brand management is rather successful, which is reflected in the organization’s significant online and social media presence. Business-wise, it makes sense for a movement like AoL to use different “elements of successful branding [which] include fashioning visually striking material artifacts, instituting communally celebrated festivities, creating easily identifiable symbols that designate affiliation, and using iconography and public discourse in order to elevate the […] leader to near-mythic status” (Hammer 2009: 197). The guru can now travel comfortably around the world enjoying the fruits of his labor as a religious entrepreneur (Bainbridge and Stark 1985). While AoL does not attack competing movements, as many devotees have or have had connections to other gurus and movements, Shankar has been known to criticize other religious or secular leaders when the opportunity arises (Tøllefsen 2012).
As a guru organization, Art of Living is centralized and quite bureaucratic (Finke and Scheitle 2009) Local centers or groups have some autonomy, but the central organization provides worship- and course materials, a brand name and a common “history” to the local AoL branches. Local centers and groups throughout the world do provide some resource feedback to the central organization, but the power balance is clearly in favor of the head offices. This organizational structure also means that the movement is less likely to experience schism.
The leadership of the AoL organization is inextricably linked with the biography of the guru/ leader/ founder, who holds authority on many levels in the organization. One way of understanding Ravi Shankar is not only as a guru but also as a highly accomplished businessperson who has created a religious movement that in many ways is comparable to any multi-national company.
Like most New Religious Movements, AoL has faced some issues, challenges and controversies in its time. Among the most important are the break between Art of Living and Transcendental Meditation, at mass media and public relations, and politics.
An early issue was the public schism between AoL and Transcendental Meditation. In the early 1990s, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi excommunicated several young, charismatic, and high-ranking members of TM. Ravi Shankar and his ‘colleagues, Deepak Chopra and Robin Carlsen, had learnt how to run a spiritual organization from their guru, and had started their own competing spiritual ventures (Tøllefsen 2014; Humes 2009). From the time that Ravi Shankar founded the Art of Living in 1982, AoL and Transcendental Meditation co-existed and catered to a similar audience. Ravi Shankar was a teacher in TM, and considered Maharishi Mahesh Yogi his guru. Humes (2009) notes that Ravi Shankar recommended devotees in the U.S. continue their involvement with Maharishi’s organization, and he encouraged them to use the Sudarshan Kriya technique as complimentary to their TM meditation. Maharishi even supported Shankar’s teachings, as “TM practitioners were initially allowed to take his [Ravi Shankar’s] techniques and attend his courses” (Humes 2009:296). Ravi Shankar continued to work within the TM movement while setting up his own ashram in Bangalore and conducting his own courses on his newfound breathing technique. However, the conflict between the two guru-led movements peaked in the early 1990s, as TM began to adopt a hostile attitude toward Shankar’s organization. “[N]o overt action was taken by the TM movement hierarchy in the United States against Shankar’s programs until 1993” (Humes 2009:296). At this point, the devotees who practiced Sudarshan Kriya along with TM started facing sanctions, and when AoL workshops started to outrank TM in popularity in the U.S., “[b]rand loyalty to Maharishi was insisted upon” (Humes 2009: 302). Maharishi now faced the very real risk that devotees would leave his movement and spend money on the more affordable programs run by Ravi Shankar and Deepak Chopra (another ex-TM devotee and “rival Indian leader” who became a religious entrepreneur in his own right). Shankar and Chopra became obvious threats to the TM organization, and their excommunications represented an organizational defense based on competition for adherents and the need for maintaining organizational uniqueness.
Deepak Chopra was literally thrown out of the TM organization. However, the break between Maharishi and Ravi Shankar was less unexpected and less dramatic. Ravi Shankar seems to have kept his respect for his old teacher. Humes (2009) notes that:
The strong emphasis on guru veneration in the Hindu tradition has ensured that Shankar never openly criticizes or speaks out against his master Maharishi. But the affection seems to have been mutual: only when the Art of Living workshops threatened to become more popular than standard TM fare did Maharishi take action against Sri Sri in North America.
A contested point for New Religious Movements is often public relations, both in relation to mass media and to mainstream society. However, AoL is not a very controversial movement. Its philosophy and practices are quite “soft,” and geared towards the urban, middle-class. Although Art of Living is not mentioned very often in online or printed news, many of the headlines are quite positive. The most comprehensive source for positive AoL PR is actually the organization’s own webpages, where their press report archives go back a few years. The headlines build up under Ravi Shankar’s image as an ambassador for peace: “Global Humanitarian and Spiritual Leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar Embarks on a Peace Mission to Pakistan” and “Karnataka lawyers boycott courts; spiritual guru Sri Sri offers to mediate.” AoL press coverage does not generally report that the organization is in conflict with the wider society. Rather, news reports have until recently covered AoL and Shankar entering areas of conflict in society (both nationally and internationally) in an attempt to spread a message of peace, and facilitate public discourse and communication. In more recent years, however, the public image of AoL has changed, and less positive reports have been published. The organization has faced criticism from bloggers and the conventional press both.
The advent of the Internet has yielded mixed results for AoL and groups like it. On the one hand, the public can easily find information on AoL and easily communicate with it and its devotees. An online media also allows organizations to exert control over their (self) presentation. This is very important for an organization like AoL, which aims to create a global spiritual and humanitarian community (Jacobs 2015). However, AoL also faces the problem of critique on the internet. In AoL’s case, the bulk of critique has come from online blogs run by disgruntled ex-devotees. The blogs accuse AoL of cultism (in the negative sense), and brainwashing. In 2010, AoL sued two of the most influential bloggers (“Klim” and “Skywalker”) for publicizing trade secrets, defamation, trade libel and copyright infringement. Only the trade secret issue could have been used in a trial. However, formal litigation was avoided, and in 2012 AoL and the bloggers reached a settlement through which AoL dropped the lawsuit, paid the bloggers’ lawyer fees, and agreed to initiate legal action against the bloggers again. The bloggers were allowed to remain anonymous, froze their existing blogs, but were not restricted from starting new blogs on the same theme.
The lawsuit against the bloggers was not a major issue in the “conventional” press. However, Art of Living Foundation has been criticized for other issues, such as land encroachment on a tank area in Mysore, Karnataka. The local authorities allegedly wished to fine the organization and dismantle the meditation center at the locale. However, Ravi Shankar’s political connections seem to have helped to prevent that outcome. A news report from Oneindia (2011) states that “Though a timely intervention by the then Chief Minister of the state, BS Yeddyurappa reportedly had saved Sri Sri and his Art of Living foundation from facing any legal trouble.”
More recently, AoL has been heavily criticized by environmentalists and concerned citizens regarding the environmental damage done to the Yamuna floodplain during the organizations’ World Culture Festival in March 2016. [Image at right] The Huffington Post reported extensive damage to water bodies and vegetation at the 1,000-acre festival venue, and a National Green Tribunal committee suggested a fine of 120 crore rupees (about $28,000,000). The fine was subsequently reduced to 50,000,000 rupees (a little over $750,000). A news report in The Diplomat reports “Sri Sri declaring defiantly ‘We’ll go to jail but not pay the fine. We have done nothing wrong’. The matter was ultimately settled after much hullabaloo with AOL coughing up a tiny fraction of the imposed fine.” The World Culture Festival and AoL’s political connections can, however, open the door to further analyses of the organization in a Hindutva context.
Hindutva (Hindu-ness) is a form of contemporary religious [right-wing] nationalism, where India is touted as the Hindu motherland, and where other religions (particularly Islam, but also Christianity) are referred to as foreign, and therefore, unwanted. Hindutva politics define Indian culture through a particular set of ”Hindu” values, and is strongly anti-secular. Hindutva politics has been adopted as the core ideology of the ruling right-wing nationalist party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party to which India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs. The prime minister was a guest of honor at Art of Living’s World Culture Festival, and his party offered military services during festival preparations. Although Ravi Shankar is careful about how his political leanings come across to the public (often opting for PR on peace and religious dialogue), his organization seems to, as noted above, directly benefit from his right-wing political connections.
Ravi Shankar’s nationalist politics are in some contexts highly visible. For example, regarding the Ayodhya dispute over the Ram temple/Babri Masjid, Meera Nanda (2011) notes that Sri Sri
hides a Hindu nationalist passion behind the carefully cultivated image of playfulness, love, and joy. He has repeatedly displayed his Hindutva colours on matters of the Ram mandir and minorities. The British magazine The Economist described his politics quite accurately: ‘Art of Living is open to people of all faiths. But, in fact, discussing the Ram temple, its guru starts to sound less like a spiritual leader and more like a politician, talking about the long history of “appeasement of the minority community”’ […] (2011:100).
Image #1: Photograph of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living Foundation.
Image #2: Image of an Art of Living Foundation devotee in a meditation position.
Image #3: Photograph of the central Art of Foundation ashram in Bangalore, India.
Image #4: Photograph of land in the Yamuna floodplain where the Art of Living Foundation’s World Culture Festival caused environmental damage in 2016.
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10 June 2016