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Emperor of Air

Behind The Art of Living is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, whose followers compare him with Krishna and Jesus. But Shankar doesn't seem too concerned with fanfare or fortune, he just wants to keep spreading his simple message—all you need is love.

By Allen Salkin

The Man
Shankar was born may 13, 1956, in Tamil Nadu, India. His father, Venkat Ratnam, was a scholar of languages and now does charitable work. Mother Vishalaskshi died in 2000. The couple chose the name "Shankar" because May 13 is the birthday of ninth-century Hindu saint Adi Shankara. Ravi, a common name, means "sun." In the early 1990s, Shankar met the famous sitar player Ravi Shankar, who complained that the holy man was unfairly capitalizing on the name the musician had made famous. Soon after, the guru added the honorific "Sri Sri."

There are two legends about Shankar dating back to his childhood that followers readily recite to demonstrate his divinity. As a baby, Shankar was rocking on a large swing hanging from four iron chains. The swing suddenly fell to the ground. His father says it was a miracle the infant wasn't injured; physics dictates the four chains should have fallen into the center of the swing, but they fell outward instead. Then, as a 4-year-old, Shankar is said to have recited passages from the Bhagavad Gita, a holy text he had never even read.

As a boy, Shankar refused to play soccer with the other children, saying, "These feet cannot kick anybody, let alone an inanimate ball." Instead, he spent time writing poems and plays, and studying. He graduated from St. Joseph's College in Bangalore with a science degree and was offered a job in a bank. He turned down the offer, following a spiritual path instead, eventually traveling to Rishikesh to study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the guru famous for popularizing Transcendental Meditation (TM).

In 1982, Shankar entered a 10-day solitary period of silence, during which he says the centerpiece of The Art of Living, the Sudarshan Kriya, was revealed to him.

The Teachings
The centerpiece of the AOL program is the Sudarshan Kriya, a breathing technique that promises to cleanse the body and mind, eliminate stress, and restore focus. To find out more about the kriya—and because American Art of Living functionaries said they wouldn't let me interview Shankar unless I did so—I signed up for a four-day, 16-hour introductory course in Manhattan, two months after I'd visited India. The course was taught in a Holiday Inn conference room, not far from the original Macy's department store. My teacher was Nancie Di-Silverio, one of the 200 or so AOL instructors in the United States. The Southern California native was one of a dozen teachers flown to New York after the September 11 attacks to head free AOL classes, which normally cost $250.

DiSilverio asked us each to introduce ourselves to the other 13 students by shaking hands, looking in each other's eyes, and pledging, "I belong to you."

Then we men and women, ranging from dewy-eyed newlyweds to gray-haired grandmothers, were given lessons on taking deep Ujjayi breaths and asked to consider what each of us wanted out of life and out of the course. By hour three of day three, we were deep into the Sudarshan Kriya, breathing like pumping bellows through our noses, eyes closed, slightly dizzy, hearing DiSilverio beseech us: "Put a smile on your face—even if you have to fake it! Smile." The air being sucked in and puffed out was ice cold, flowing in from a window open to the January chill because Shankar has dictated that the air must be fresh when the kriya is taught. On a cassette player in the corner, Shankar's voice intoning "so-hum" set an unrelenting breathing rhythm: Soooooo (breathe in)-hummmmmm (breathe out ). The pace is slow at first and then quickens like a runaway train: sohumsohumsohum . . . .

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Reader Comments

Sari

A precious description of AOL and Ravi. Just finished some basic course, loved it but dislike the cult things. Thank you. Greetings from a foreigner journalist in India!

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