Healthy breathing and Hindu rebranding with Ravi Shankar and Sai Baba.
For many young Indians traditional Hinduism seems out of touch. How do rambling Sanskrit prayers in dirty dark temples relate to iPhones and Wall Street? I did see an electrical drum-beating bell-ringing apparatus in one old temple, so some priests are embracing technology, or growing lazy. Others have seen the need for a fresh paradigm. A new breed of “businessmen-gurus… the Pat Robertsons and Billy Grahams of modern Hinduism” (Luce 2006 180) are repackaging ancient teaching as spunky self-help spirituality for busy executives. Their message is booming around the world, much as charismatic churches with rock bands and PowerPoint are outstripping stained-glass parishes with pipe organs.
One of the most famous is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who spoke at the ECC campus on International Peace Day last year. Peace is to be found within us, he said, not outside: “if you are at peace with yourself, then the entire universe is in peace”. He planted a peace tree and released five white doves to spread serenity over all five continents.
Last Saturday we visited his “Art of Living” centre near Bangalore. From the roof of the six-tiered, 1000-petalled lotus meditation building, perhaps a sort of Hindu Crystal Cathedral, we admired the countryside. Inside, unlike many ancient temples, all was light and airy. Clean marble floors, white walls with pastel pink and lemon pillars, a ceiling of plaster lotus petals. Alongside the primal OM were the Star of David and other religious signs, and a central statue of Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, qualifying our guide’s insistence that it’s a nonreligious organisation.
The man himself wasn’t home, so we watched a video of his relief and peacemaking work between Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government – he was nominated for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. Journalist Edward Luce did meet him and was not impressed. The answers he gave to his devotees’ mundane queries were “more like those of an agony aunt than a prophet”, although the audience was ecstatic. He was dressed in white robes with flowing dark hair and beard, “as if Jesus were shooting a shampoo advertisement” (Luce 2006 177).
We were introduced to the Art of Living philosophy by Dinesh, a young graduate with excellent English from the Mumbai Indian Institute of Technology. Fellow students mocked him when he first adopted the movement’s yoga-like practices, until they saw his life changing and became interested. Different faiths have differing symbols and rituals, said Dinesh, but the same values, so we should accept all paths to God and not try to convert anyone. We take food, clothing, technology from all cultures, so why not knowledge and wisdom? Religion is the banana peel that can be forgotten, spirituality is the banana itself. American Prof DeAne murmured in my ear, “but you can’t grow a banana without a peel”.
To show how hard it is to focus our disordered minds in the present, Dinesh instructed us to exactly mimic his hand clapping. After a few repeated claps I would go into autopilot, my mind wandering, so I failed to follow when he skipped a beat or broke the rhythm. Ravi Shankar has the cure: a “unique breathing technique, which brings enormous joy, a stress free mind, healthy body and blossomed life”. Medical research has shown his breath system reduces blood lactate and bad cholesterol, increasing antioxidants and well-being hormones, says the flyer, and it has totally rejuvenated over 20 million people in over 150 countries – there are testimonials from a doctor, flautist, taxi driver and “a terrorist, now a reformed person”. As Dinesh put it, “the solution to most problems is under our nose”.
We also popped into the super-luxurious Soukya International Holistic Health Centre (www.soukya.com). They have a more comprehensive and costly approach to healing, combining Western medicine and seven different Asian systems: from mediaeval German homoeopathy to Tibetan astrology, Chinese acupuncture and auriculotherapy to Indian herbal Ayurveda.
Today we visited the Whitefield ashram of another guru who’s made it big in the West. As Lonely Planet writes, “Everything about Sai Baba is big”, from his huge round afro haircut – looking like a shampoo disaster, to big palatial residence, big money charities and big sexual controversy. Like Ravi Shankar, he wasn’t there to greet us, but we sat on the cool marble of the vast audience hall where large photos of Sai Baba flanked Hindu statues A devotee assured us it’s a deeply spiritual experience to hear him. When he met the guru, writer and United Nations Under-Secretary General Shashi Tharoor was impressed:
I was not blinded by faith, but the encounter was indeed astonishing at several levels. In our private talk, Sai Baba uttered insights about my family and myself that he could not possibly have known… He waved his hand in the air and opened his palm. In it nestled a gold ring with nine embedded stones, a navratan. He slipped it on my finger, remarking, “See how well it fits. Even a goldsmith would have needed to measure your finger.”
In the shop were framed photos of the guru’s face and feet. Books in many European languages praised his teaching and miracles. I read he briefly resurrected a devotee and blessed him, before he died again. He’s supposedly the reincarnation of an earlier Sai Baba, who died in 1918, and is also widely depicted in India with a short white beard and red headscarf. Sai Baba’s Afro may be greying, but like Elvis, we are assured, he will return again. One book sketched his next incarnation.
Like Ravi Shankar, Sai Baba tries to embrace all faiths. Over the ashram gateway hover two ugly angels with tattoo-like decorations on their arms that make them look like winged bikies. They hold a floral wheel with five petals: the Hindu OM, Buddhist wheel of Dharma, Zoroastrian fire symbol, Islamic Star and Crescent, and Christian cross. Inside the circle, a pillar represents yoga or union with God and is topped with an open blossom, the unfolding “lotus of the heart”.