Frontline special

Panacea at a price

Print edition : October 13, 2017

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar at a Youth Leadership Meet organised his foundation in Coimbatore in 2014. Photo: J. Manoharan

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar presides over a mighty spiritual empire and criticisms against him range from financial irregularities and nepotism to ecological damage.

HE is the guru who gave himself a double prefix and was named one of the “Seven Most Powerful People in India” by Forbes magazine in 2009. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar commands a mighty financial and spiritual empire—The Art of Living (AOL) —that has grown and continues to grow exponentially ever since he founded it, rather quietly, on Bengaluru’s outskirts, circa 1981. The name of the organisation he started was perhaps inspired by the title of a book called The Science of Being and Art of Living written in 1963 by his guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whom he abruptly left in 1980.

Today, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has a global presence: there are over 10,000 centres across 156 countries and more than 370 million people have been “touched” by any one of his many programmes that “provide techniques and tools to live a deeper, more joyous life”. He has a following that can rival any godman’s, although it is restricted to the middle- and upper-class educated sections of society.

His Bangalore International Centre on Kanakapura Road alone is spread over 100 acres (40 hectares), he runs a 244-bed ayurveda hospital, and his Sri Sri Tattva facility manufactures ayurvedic and proprietary medicines, cosmetics and food products. AOL’s India budget alone is around Rs 8 crore a month, which, a spokesperson said, “is mostly allocated for the running of the 425 free schools in tribal and rural areas and the 25,000 full-time staff and instructors”.

There is also a maze of sister organisations such as the International Association for Human Values, Ved Vignan Maha Vidya Peeth, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar Vidya Mandir, Vyakti Vikas Kendra India, Sri Sri Rural Development Program and the Sri Sri Institute of Agricultural Sciences and Technology Trust, among others, all of which have been established to “promote and support courses promulgated by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and the AOL organisation worldwide”.

According to reports, the global annual turnover of the organisation is in excess of Rs.1,000 crore. AOL is also active in agriculture, where it is engaged in educating farmers on the benefits of saving native seeds, and river rejuvenation.

AOL philosophy

“Clarity in mind, purity in heart and sincerity in action. This is our formula. We follow yoga Vedanta as a philosophy and service as our main motivation goal,” he told Frontline during a 30-minute interaction at his centre in Bengaluru.

“Religion is like the skin, spirituality is the banana” is a famous quote of his. But going beyond spirituality, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has been actively involved in political and peace negotiations, be it with militants in the Northeast or separatists in the Kashmir Valley or in Ivory Coast and in Sri Lanka. He even attempted to get Colombian rebels to surrender. He has initiated rehabilitation training for over seven lakh prison inmates. “I see inside every culprit there is a victim crying for help; this yoga Vedanta, this knowledge, has the power to transform,” he told Frontline.

But should a person like him, who preaches and swears by spirituality, be involved in matters of state? “Yes, certainly,” he said. “Gurujis are in touch with common men every day. I am in touch with 2,500 to 3,000 people on a normal day and 30,000-40,000 people on occasions and weekends. We hear their problems and their issues. At times we bring these issues to the notice of the people in authority. It is our duty. If there is corruption, water issues, deforestation, we have to take an active role. Activism is part of our duties. When you are in activism you have to communicate what you feel is just and what you feel is the need of the people to the people concerned. Some in authority are receptive, some are not. And it is not party-wise. It depends on the individuals. Some in authority are quite sensitive, sincere. Some of our appeals fall on deaf ears. Swamis in the past too were part of the social system. They started gurukuls. They were the ones who brought in ayurveda. Adi Sankara [the 8th century philosopher and theologian who consolidated the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta] travelled the length and breadth of the country. He was a sanyasi. Yes he walked. But if in those days there was air travel he would have used air travel (laughs). He would not have said: ‘No I won’t go by air travel, I’ll walk.’ They used whatever means of transportation was available.”

What Sri Sri Ravi Shankar did not mention was that gurujis of all hues need to be in politics. They need to hobnob with politicians and the powers that be for their own well-being and protection. And political patronage for Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has been plentiful. He has been quoted as saying that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been “bashed unjustly for years and years”. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was also present at Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2014 when Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister. And a posse of BJP heavyweights, including Modi, a number of his Cabinet colleagues such as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and the then Minister for Urban Development M. Venkaiah Naidu, BJP president Amit Shah and Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, all attended AOL’s three-day World Culture Festival in Delhi in March 2016, an event which caused irreparable damage to the ecologically fragile Yamuna floodplains, according to the National Green Tribunal (see box).

Early years

Born into a Tamil Iyer family in 1956 to Visalakshi and R.S. Venkat Ratnam, Ravi Shankar had his early initiation, according to M.N. Chakravarti, a former journalist and teacher of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation (TM), when he attended a TM class in Melkote in Karnataka as a 20-year-old.

Speaking to Frontline, Chakravarti said he and Ravi Shankar even travelled to Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh where they were roommates for nearly six months. They naturally got to know each other well, visiting each other’s houses in Bengaluru often.

According to Chakravarti, Ravi Shankar’s father was an extremely ambitious man who “pushed his son to accept and take up a role he was not really interested in”. “His father was a sort of star mom. He would keep pushing Ravi. Anyway Ravi was destined to take it up and eventually get millions of followers too.”

By 1977 he had become a staunch disciple of Mahesh Yogi, organising conferences on Vedic science and ayurveda and yagnas for him. He accompanied Mahesh Yogi, flying to various destinations, and was made in charge of the Maharishi’s Institute of Vedic and Management Sciences in Bhopal. Whether he considered himself to be the Maharishi’s successor is in the realm of conjecture. Suddenly, in 1980, he left Mahesh Yogi’s institute—although he has always maintained that he left of his own volition, knowledgeable sources said he was sent away and that when Mahesh Yogi got to know that he had started his own ashram in Bengaluru, he even refused to speak to his former disciple.

The story is that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar had divulged, albeit inadvertently, sensitive information to an American “devotee” (who, it was later discovered, was an intelligence operative trying to ferret out information on Mahesh Yogi’s ashram and activities) he had befriended at the institute.

Both the American agent and Ravi Shankar were sent out on some trumped-up charges involving voucher payments. In 1982, Ravi Shankar undertook a 10-day period of silence in Shimoga (Shivamogga) in Karnataka and emerged with the Sudarshan Kriya®, a powerful breathing technique that became the centrepiece of Art of Living courses. Much to the chagrin of even some of his most ardent supporters and followers, he later patented it. To many of his then most ardent followers, this was another step in the “commercialisation of spirituality”.

Charges and criticisms

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s critics question the need to charge a fee for teaching a breathing technique. The rationalist Narendra Nayak said: “Do you have to pay to learn to breathe? Respiration governs several processes of the body. It is basically hyperventilation—when you pant like a dog, you lose carbon dioxide, it brings the pH levels up, respiratory alkalosis occurs, there is a decrease in ionised calcium and this results in a tingly feeling that is mistaken for nirvana. People like him perpetrate their hypocrisies but are the icons of the great Indian middle class.”

Besides disbelievers, a number of former AOL believers have also been critical of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and the goings-on at AOL. Their charges range from nepotism and being pressured incessantly to organise successful events “come what may” with a certain number of paid participants to teachers being left stranded when they become a liability (since they have no legal contract, they are helpless).

There are also charges that donations and land meant for welfare projects are used to build the AOL corporate and the Sumeru group of companies, which is owned by his nephews Arvind Varchaswi and Ajay Tejasvi and their father Narasimhan.

Besides, there are allegations of financial irregularities in the organisation and acquisition of land by means fair or foul. According to some former believers, AOL falsely claims that some techniques were discovered by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

A retired official told Frontline that a few years ago he had been pressured by local goons to sell his 15-acre farm situated in the vicinity of the AOL ashram in Bengaluru. Although he had developed the land spending over Rs.1.25 crore, he was offered only Rs.33 lakh.

Under pressure after his fencing was repeatedly broken and the sprinkler systems were destroyed, he finally sold it for less than half of what he had invested on it. A few years later he realised that the same land was under the control of AOL. When he met Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, he was told: “That is your land. Come do seva.”

Blogs such as Confessions of a Guruholic (aka Klim’s Blog), Beyond the Art of Living (aka Skywalker’s Blog), Further Beyond the Art of Living and Leaving the Art of Living have published a litany of charges. In 2010, AOL complained initially in India and then in the United States asking that handwritten notes on the teaching of Sudarshan Kriya uploaded by bloggers be deleted.

AOL U.S. also subpoenaed Google and WordPress to reveal the identities of the bloggers in order to prosecute them for defamation, copyright breaches, trade libel and disclosure of trade secrets. Bloggers later called the Kriya notes a mix of cult mythology and self-explanatory banalities. In a ruling by the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Jose division) in 2012, AOL got two blogs removed but nobody’s identity was disclosed.

Expensive learning

Learning spirituality and yoga from AOL is expensive. The basic programme designed for beginners, the three day ‘Happiness Program’, which includes “powerful breathing techniques and wisdom that can change your life, guided relaxation through breathing, light yoga and stretching and insights into the nature of the mind, and guided meditation”, costs Rs.5,300 (on a twin sharing basis), while courses for the already initiated are twice as expensive. Overseas it costs even more. In the U.S., where over 200 cities host AOL courses, events and weekly follow-ups, the Sri Sri Yoga, Art of Silence, Sahaj Samadhi Meditation or the Panchakarma Cleanse, can set you back anywhere between $350 and $2,000.

Frontline had a look into the financial statements of a handful of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar-inspired organisations such as the Ved Vignan Maha Vidya Peeth, the Art of Living Foundation and a few other affiliate entities registered in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. (The AOL entities in the U.S. and the U.K. are just the tip of the iceberg as AOL, as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar himself proudly stated, has a presence in 156 countries.)

According to Nonprofit Explorer, a body that researches tax-exempt organisations in the U.S., the Ved Vigyan Maha Vidya Peeth clocked a net income of $1,943,943 for the fiscal year ended December 2015; its total revenue was $4,683,472 and functional expenses totalled $2,739,529. The entity operates from Nashua, New Hampshire, and has been tax exempt since 1994, being classified under Personal Social Services (Human Services-Multipurpose and Other).

Contributions totalled $1,021,226 (21.8 per cent of total revenue) and programme services brought in $2,964,352 (63.3 per cent), while investment income amounted to $6,67,894 (14.3per cent) and rental property income $30,000 (6 per cent). Executive compensation accounted for $2,20,000 while other salaries and wages totalled $107,761.

The entity had net assets worth $20,660,371, with $20,834,597 in total assets and $174,226 in total liabilities. .

The Art of Living Foundation, headquartered in Santa Barbara, California, has been tax-exempt since 1995. For the fiscal year ended 2015, its net income was $1,441,251, with total revenue at $5,230,018 and functional expenses at $3,788,767. The notable sources of revenue were contributions, which brought in $1,987,218 (38 per cent) and programme services, which totalled $3,001,132 (57.4 per cent). Salaries and wages accounted for $5,87,828. The foundation’s net assets were $16,159,480, with total assets at $16,406,500 and total liabilities at $247,020.

The Art of Living Health and Education Trust is another non-profit organisation based in the U.S. Incorporated in 2008, the trust has Anurag Jain as its president and Ajay Tejaswi as its secretary. Created to “fund programmes that foster, promote, and support quality healthcare and value-integrated education around the world”, it is located in Washington and has been tax-exempt since 2009. The trust’s total revenue in the fiscal ended December 2015 was $131,353, while total functional expenses were $175,981. Revenue came purely from contributions.

Yet another U.S.-based organisation is the International Association for Human Values (IAHV), which is headquartered at Washington and has been tax-exempt since 2000. For the fiscal ended December 2015 the total revenue was $2,265,730, total functional expenses $1,569,410 and net income $696,320. Contributions accounted for $1,361,923 (60.1 per cent) and programme services $9,03,632 (39.9 per cent). Salaries and wages accounted for $514,728. The net assets stood at $2,088,019, with total assets at $2,142,193 and total liabilities at $54,174.

The Art of Living Foundation (U.K.), which is registered as a charity and has its registered office in Middlesex, according to the statement of accounts with the Companies House (the U.K.’s registrar of companies), clocked £185,645 in revenue for the financial year ended March 2016, most of which came from courses.

Expenditure amounted to £236,659, resulting in a loss of £51,014.

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