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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

Shankar flew into New York in January to participate in the prestigious World Economic Forum. As an invited religious leader, he was accorded the same status as South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and President of the World Muslim Congress Abdullah Omar Nasseef. The night before his appearance at the forum, Shankar gave a satsang at a synagogue on the Upper West Side for 2,000 people who paid $10 each. A band played Indian songs to warm up the crowd, and then he arrived in white flowing robes, holding flowers and walking sprightly down the center aisle before ascending the stage and carefully clipping on a microphone. He answered a few questions from the audience: "Do you think gurus should be treated differently from other people?"

"Just as a normal human," Shankar replied. "Just as a dear friend, nothing more."

"Will you ever marry?"

"I don't think I've grown up. Child marriage is prohibited. Maybe if I get older, I'll consider it. But do you really need to get married to raise a family? You simply have to consider the whole world your family."

A video camera caught his every utterance. Shankar speaks English, Tamil, and Hindi fluently. He answered some questions with care and others with playful laughs. One person asked: "Can you explain the mind-body connection?" This is a subject Shankar has written on and talked about extensively. But this time he answered only, "Yes, they do seem to be connected, don't you think?" He smiled and soon announced, "Enough questions, I think. Let's meditate, shall we?"

Afterward, I was led up to the stage to meet him. After a satsang he will stand for hours, shaking hands, touching heads, and smiling at anyone who waits in line. We shook hands, and I said I hoped he would find time in the next two days for an interview. After I stepped down, I was told by a cadre of teachers that I couldn't have an interview. Sri Sri was busy preparing for his speech at the economic forum—and I hadn't taken the basic course yet.

The Lesson
Three months later, the medieval-looking, ash-white Royal Albert Palace was teeming with Sri Sri followers, most of whom appeared Indian. (The Manhattan crowd in January had appeared mostly non-Indian.) The sound of chanting and the scent of curry wafted through the corridors, and piles of shoes filled the corners near the main conference hall.

I was led to the bridal suite. Shankar asked how I was. I told him I was a little hung-over and had not slept because I'd stayed up all night for my birthday party. "Your head hurts?" he asked. "Come here." He held out his hands. I knelt down in front of him. He put his fingertips on my temples and the top of my head. This was a strange way to begin an interview, but why not try an empirical test of his healing powers?

He moved his hands on my head for 15 seconds, then lifted them off. "Better?" I backed away, then slid into the chair, trying to gauge what I was feeling.

"I'm not sure," I said. "Do you believe you can heal people?" I asked.

"People say it makes them feel better," he replied. His brown eyes were wide, his face open and easy to stare at. He was a very pleasant person to be around.

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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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