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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

"Following a guru appears to be a quick way toward personal transformation," says Robert N. Sollod, a professor of psychology at Cleveland State University, who has published works on the psychology of religion. "People are looking for that."

Perhaps Shankar's growing success can be explained by the strong appeal many spiritual searchers find in someone whose practice promises to solve all problems. "There was a moment when he just locked on, looked me in the eye, and stopped . . . and I went into that classic description of pure bliss, pure peace, just everything was light," says Nancie DiSilverio, who first heard Shankar speak in person at a satsang in Connecticut in 1992. "It happens because he's established in being, and he runs around in unbounded space-time. In his presence, if you can let go, that's available." What Solland is describing is transmission, or shaktipat, a longstanding phenomenon among gurus and their disciples.

Truman State University professor and Shankar follower Lloyd Pflueger explains that in the Hindu tradition the main reason people see an enlightened guru is not just to listen to words of wisdom but to actually receive the "radiation" from the guru's presence. "Whether or not you are noticing the sun, the sun's rays are permeating the skin and changing it. It's like that when you're in close proximity with the source of spiritual radiance. Just being in the presence of the master can touch something in you beyond words, beyond logical discourse. It can be either partially or totally decisive or transformative in your spiritual growth."

Pflueger says that Shankar's presence is a more valuable tool for transformation than what the guru actually says. "I feel Sri Sri has a very strong radiation. It's not constant. It's like a peacock. It's not all the time when the peacock spreads his feathers, but when he does, you can't ignore it. I've been around Sri Sri when the feathers are spread in various degrees, but there are times when I've felt I would physically melt from the spiritual radiation I was feeling from him."

Shankar's teachings are cherished by his followers, who marvel at the ease his methods bring them. "What Shankar is emphasizing is the experiential component of religion," says Michael E. Nielsen, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Georgia Southern University. "Its advantage is that you can have the results right away. Most Western religions, Christianity and others, have developed all these elaborate belief systems that try to explain things in a rational way and make people feel better." According to Nielsen, if you try to understand things through experience, the proof is in the pudding. "You do the practice and the stress leaves you and you feel better. It promises a very satisfying and immediate thing. You can feel better without relying on someone else to explain it rationally and without relying on the promise of heaven later. What Shankar is teaching is very appealing to people for this reason. Someone could be an agnostic or an atheist and still get something from Shankar's philosophy—that the individual has within them a greater sense of intelligence."

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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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