Emperor of Air
The face of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, guru extraordinaire of the explosively expanding yoga and meditation practice called The Art of Living (AOL), is more lined than it appears on the covers of his dozens of books, CDs, newsletters, Web sites, and postcards. Today the twinkly-eyed, black-bearded "guru of love" is in New Jersey, in the bridal suite of Royal Albert's Palace hotel, wiping his hands and waiting to be interviewed. His white robes are made of a fine, opalescent fabric that shimmers slightly.
He begins speaking in a cheerful, slightly bleating Indian-accented voice about his favorite subject. "Love is the only superior power on the planet; love has the healing power. It can heal mental, physical, and spiritual illnesses."
His simple message—a light blend of Eastern religion, meditation, yogic stretching, and breathing—is catching on big. Tens of thousands of Americans have taken his classes that feature the breathing technique he calls Sudarshan Kriya. Five years ago, his ashram in India was attracting about 5,000 overnight guests a year. Now, more than 25,000 annually check in for retreats at the 60-acre center that attracts up to 5,000 visitors a day when Shankar is there. Worldwide, more than a million people in 136 countries have taken his introductory course. He spends about 60 days a year at his ashram near Baden Baden, Germany, 40 days at AOL's ashram near Montreal, Canada, and 150-odd days on the road, giving satsang (spiritual talks), everywhere from Atlanta to Singapore. The Art of Living may be the fastest growing spiritual practice on the planet.
"The organization is growing at such a fast rate," says Prashant Rajore, the administrator of Shankar's ashram in India. "In India itself, we have doubled in the past year. We have doubled the number of our teachers; we have doubled the number of our volunteers working in the villages."The Ashram
To understand the vastness of AOL and ponder the question of why Shankar, why now, leave New Jersey for a moment and head to a spread of rocky hills on the outskirts of Bangalore in South India. Here, high above a vast valley of rice fields and banana trees, a mammoth new building is rising into the sky. Pillars as thick as elephants swirl upward, supporting gymnasium-wide slabs of what looks like the biggest wedding cake the earth has ever seen.
This ornate confection is made not of whipped cream, eggs, and flour, but of concrete, gold leaf, sweat, and hard cash. When it's done, the main floor will hold 3,500 meditators, all breathing hard and fast, then slow and deep, for Shankar. The extraordinarily grand temple, perched dramatically on the pinnacle of a hill overlooking the vast valley, isn't just for show. Asked why they were building it, my ashram tour guide said simply "We have outgrown the old one." The old meditation hall, a flat-roofed, white-walled, one-story building, was built about a decade ago and can hold only about 400 people.
On the next hill over is the dining hall, where vegetarian meals are ladled out. That's where, five months before my interview with Shankar in New Jersey, I met James Latimer, a 29-year-old former British Telecom client manager who is now a landscaper at the ashram. Latimer had taken a basic course in England in 1994 and now is one of many Shankar followers who believes his guru has something supernatural going on. "Someone special has come to earth," he gushed, eyes bright. "In The Art of Living, there are people who think this could be Krishna, this could be Jesus." You'd think that such talk wouldn't sell well with Americans, who are wary of charismatic gurus, familiar as we are with the well-chronicled excesses of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, David Koresh, Jim Jones, and Baba Muktananda. But it does.