May 16, 2016

Mired in controversy, a famous Indian guru tries to set the record straight

Max Bearak
Washington Post
May 16, 2016

Two weeks ago, I wrote a story about a world-famous Indian guru — the founder of the massively popular Art of Living Foundation — who had stepped into controversy three times in quick succession after a quiet rise to international prominence. On that weekend, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (whose doubly honorific title is reserved for the very few) gave a news conference to Indian reporters who baited him with questions about his deserving the Nobel Peace Prize. I'd seen a video of the back-and-forth and was surprised to see Sri Sri in such a combative mood. After all, he is known as a purveyor of inner serenity.

"She didn't do anything to deserve it," he said of Malala Yousafzai's Nobel win in one moment of sass, after calling the awarding of prizes "political." Yousafzai, who was a teenager when she won the prize, had spent years advocating for girls' right to an education in Pakistan's Swat Valley, risking her life in the process. Weeks earlier, Sri Sri had created waves by reaching out to the Islamic State militant group by way of a news release from one of his ayurvedic health centers in Irbil, Iraq, only to receive a picture of a beheaded man in response.

Last week, Sri Sri surprised me again when he reached out through a PR agent based in Orlando (though I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, given the marketing I've seen of his ayurvedic personal care and nutritional products). The agent said that Sri Sri wanted to set the record straight and that he had been misquoted, particularly in the Indian media. I thought this might be an opportunity to get clarity from a man whose philosophy is centered on bringing clarity and happiness to others.

"Namaskar, Guru ji," I said, greeting him, when the agent got us on the conference call. "And happy birthday."

By coincidence, it happened to be Sri Sri's 60th. "I had a big cake," he said.

After hearing about his visit to the drought-hit Indian state of Maharashtra — where he gave the news conference referenced above — I asked him to explain how he thought his words had been twisted in the media.

"All that I’ve been saying is that all this work I do is not for any prizes but because it is my passion. That’s all I’m saying. I have respect for all those others who have won prizes," he said. "There have just been some misquotes, that’s all."

And he did mean actual misquotes, even though the interaction was filmed. I was especially interested in whether he had been offered a Nobel — only to have rejected it, as he seemed to imply in the video. "Specifically," I said, "I think people are interested by two quotes from your press conference in Maharashtra. In one of them, you say, Hamare paas pehle kuch log aaye the, aur uske baad humne kaha, ‘Rajneeti, usme padenge nahi’ (earlier some people had come to us, and after that, we said that ‘we won’t go into those politics’), seeming to refer to people him offering a Nobel. Who were these people?"

Said Sri Sri, "No, you see, some people said you have to get the prize and do some lobbying and all, and I said no, no, I’m not interested in any of that. Because I’m not doing the work for any prize. I’m doing it because it’s my passion. I’ve been misquoted actually."

The question of whether the Art of Living Foundation, or people associated with it, lobbied for Sri Sri to get a Nobel is actually quite fraught. In April 2010, an anonymous "whistleblower" alleged in a blog that an entire team of people was aggressively mobilized, with Sri Sri's blessing, to get as many prominent public figures as possible to nominate him for the award. The post contains emails that are supposedly copied verbatim by someone who was privy to the "project." A post two years later says that the blog was frozen after an injunction by a U.S. court on behalf of the Art of Living Foundation.

I told Sri Sri that misquotes usually mean that you've been attributed words you didn't say. He said that his words were warped and that he means no disrespect toward any award winners.

In much of the rest of the interview, Sri Sri went on to describe his radically simple yet optimistic philosophy, centered on stress relief. He used the words "harmony," "diversity," "stress" and "happiness" at least half a dozen times each.

"The root cause of violence is stress. Until you can teach someone how to relieve themselves of stress and gain harmony with themselves, you cannot expect a very nonviolent or harmonious atmosphere around them. Family violence and violence need to be eliminated, and the root cause of all that is stress," he explained, when asked about his work promoting world peace. "No one teaches us in school how to get rid of stress even though it is completely normal to have stress. My main mission is to relieve people from stress and bring happiness into their lives. We bring together communities and encourage diversity everywhere — to come together in a sense of celebration."

That bright message was similar to the one he said resonated at a recent interfaith conference in New Delhi, which was even graced with the presence of Syria's grand mufti. "Syria today is the most troubled part of the world. So we invited him to share his feelings and his experience," Sri Sri said. "He gave us a new taste of what could be a better world, or society, in harmony and celebration."

The words kind of blend into one another, like watercolors. Veering back toward his relationship with the media, I wondered aloud whether he thought the media could be trusted. He said that until the controversies, yes, but then the PR agent jumped in and diverted us toward a conversation about stress relief for those in the United States who face inner-city violence. And then a member of the Art of Living Foundation's media relations staff elaborated on Sri Sri's exclusive breathing technique, Sudarshan Kriya, which apparently reduces stress and increases happiness. Sri Sri will be traveling to the United States to introduce Sudarshan Kriya, starting in Washington on June 24, and traveling to seven other cities, including the Art of Living International Center in Boone, N.C.

Sri Sri suggested I look at a PDF about the inner-city work.

And in case I hadn't achieved clarity on his trust or mistrust of the media, Sri Sri added, "The mistrust is because we don’t feel connected with people, you see? And stress is again the root cause of that. When we know how to relieve our stresses, our approach, our observation, our expression ... all changes. You get more clarity, you are more calm and more serene in your observation, your expression, and that helps one to get over the stress and mistrust."

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