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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

I asked him if he understood that Americans are somewhat distrustful of gurus, especially those who claim supernatural powers. Was he worried that he'd be grouped with people like Rajneesh and Koresh? "I don't put a label on myself," he said, moving his hand across his forehead. "I'm just an absolutely natural and free person. I'm 100 percent free. I have no titles. I have no labels. I have no chains binding me."

I asked him why he was celibate and wasn't he ever tempted to try sex.

"There is no such compulsion or need that has arisen. . . . This time around on the planet I'm meant to do some work," he said. "I feel that there is so much love all the time, vibrating; love is all the time there. There is no need for me to find love and joy in something, an act."

I asked him how he had the patience to greet every person in the room after a satsang. "When there is so much love, you can greet. Love always energizes," he answered. "Why shouldn't I meet everybody if my meeting everybody brings them some relief, some solace, makes them feel happy?"

Finally, I asked him about his strategy for winning new converts, about whether the new meditation hall was part of that strategy, and how he felt about the billboards of his face that were going up in India. "I've not thought about those things," he said. "It doesn't matter."

The Exit
After shankar left the room, he was swamped by admirers. People fell to the ground and touched his feet. They held up their babies for him to touch. A man was led up to him by a teacher, and the man said, "I'm lost, I don't know what to do. I'm lost. I need help." Shankar told him to take the basic course. He looked to the teacher and told her to help the man enroll.

More and more people closed in on Shankar, but he had to leave to speak at the evening satsang. The music was getting faster and louder and more frantic with his expected arrival. He sauntered into a fancy walk-dance step, snapping his fingers in the air. It allowed him, with a smile on his face, to benignly glide through the throng and into the conference room. I said to the event coordinator, who had sat with me through the interview, that the dance step was an impressive move, a good way to get through the crowd without hurting feelings. "It's so much worse in India," he said. "It's not a life most of us would want to live." But it is the life that Shankar believes he was born to live.

As I stood there watching him accept the adulation of the crowd, I thought back to the last question I'd asked him when it was just the three of us. Before I turned off my tape recorder, I said there was one more thing I wanted to ask, a question just for myself, not something that I had to ask him for the article. I don't believe that Shankar is a god or that he can heal a headache with his hands, and I haven't done the Sudarshan Kriya since I finished the introductory class. But Shankar struck me as an awfully kind person who was teaching a form of yoga that many people believed was helping them, and he wasn't asking them for lots of money or to do anything else for him. After months of poring through his financial records, interviewing his followers, and reading his writings, this reporter was ready to ask Shankar a heartfelt question.

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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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