Michele Hewitson Interview: Ravi Shankar

By Michele Hewitson

Sri Sri (Rev) Ravi Shankar's Auckland hotel room was covered in white sheets. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Sri Sri (Rev) Ravi Shankar's Auckland hotel room was covered in white sheets. Photo / Steven McNicholl

From the briefing notes from the PR company to the guru, His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: "It is really important that the interview is conducted as on time as possible and without unnecessary fuss."

What good advice. His message is a stress-free life. He is about conflict resolution and happy, happy, joy, joy and who does not want that?

But of course there would be briefing notes. I suspected there might be a bit of fuss. He is a very famous guru, the fifth most powerful man in India, according to Forbes' Power List of 2009. He has inspired more than 300 million people worldwide, according to his The Art of Living Foundation blurb.

He was in Auckland to give a talk which covered conflict resolution, women's empowerment, how to achieve a stress-free mind and a disease-free body, what to do about problems with youth and more besides.

We were to meet in his hotel suite, which had been guru-fied by way of wrapping it in white sheets. I had an unspiritual thought: Do hotels charge gurus extra for the use of all of that linen? The guru was not in the suite. There were plates of nuts and fruit and an enormous box of expensive chocolates on the table beside the guru's throne, an armchair draped in a sheet and an orange, embroidered cloth.

"Please, sit down," invited one of the many people in the suite. Not on the throne, obviously. I would later be mildly ticked off for calling the chair a throne. His Holiness said: "My sofa! I wouldn't say throne. Thrones are very thorny these days." I think he said thorny. He's a bit of a mumbler. Whatever it was, it was funny. I know this because the chorus laughed, heartily.

That was later. While waiting for the guru I was introduced to the chorus, or entourage - I am not allowed to call them followers. An elegant English woman, "a former lawyer/teacher" for Sri Sri's The Art of Living Foundation gave me a lesson: "It's centred on the Indian guru who presents the ancient knowledge completely for the 21st century and it can be adapted for all the races and religions and creeds and cultures ... It really gets inside the individual to transform them ..." I was a bit distracted. I was interested in the bit of paper she had in her hand: Those briefing notes. There was a brief conflict resolved by her not letting me see them. I know what they said because the guru absent-mindedly, his mind no doubt on higher things, left the notes behind and I, my mind on nosiness, pinched them.

There were two fellows setting up a video camera. They were going to film the interview. No, they weren't. A bit sulkily for spiritual fellows, I couldn't help but feel, they took the thing away. You could call that conflict resolution. I wouldn't call it stress - or fuss - free.

I thought: Where's the guru when I need him? And there he was. He said, "Hello! Hello! How are you?" How should I address him. "Well, just usually Sri Sri." He kindly explained that one Sri means Mr; two means Reverend. So, here is Mr Rev Ravi Shankar, looking very serene and smiley. He had bare feet and a soothing, sing-songy voice. He said, "Wonderful! Wonderful!" But he seemed a bit distracted. He was reading his briefing notes. Fair enough, if you are a guru to more than 300 million people worldwide, you need to know what's what.

You might also be regarded as a good businessman. He said, "Not at all. Because I am not doing this as a business. You take more and give little, that is business. If we had good business sense we would have made millions ... but, no, I don't have. Because charity and business are opposite."

There is no point talking to him about money, although it is a talking point on the internet. He doesn't Google himself because, he says, he is of the wrong generation - he is 54. "No, I don't Google. I don't go into all that." He does know what is written about him and his foundation because people tell him. Some of what is said is less than complimentary: that he and his family have become wealthy; that his breathing techniques are simply old yoga techniques repackaged into a commercial package.

When I asked whether these things were damaging, he smiled beatifically and said, "No, I don't think opinions make any damage if there is no truth to it. If there is some truth to it, it helps you to correct yourself. If not, it is just prejudices and I feel sorry for them ..."

There really is no point asking him about money. He never spends any. "People around me will take care of almost anything and I don't need anything. But I keep some money in my wallet." Goodness. He has a wallet? "Yes, yes. I do. I have $500." What does he spend it on? "Oh, I don't spend anything! Ha, ha! I've had [the $500] for many, many years. Perhaps once or twice I put $1 to take a trolley out of the trolley machine." I'd imagined one of his followers would push his trolley.

If you ask how many followers he has he laughs and says: "I don't make followers. I only make leaders. Ha, ha. When I am sitting there's nobody behind me!" Well, no, his chair was up against a window. He gestured towards the non-followers, who were on the other side of the suite. The non-followers laughed like drains. We could move the chair, I suggested. Nobody laughed.

I asked, a tad grumpily, thinking about what it must be like being followed around by a laughing chorus, if he had any normal life. He said, "I feel I'm pretty normal!"

He said, "I continue being a child." As a 4-year-old he recited verses from the Bhagavad Gita, which he had never heard before. "Yeah, it came out like a poem." What does he make of that? "Our consciousness is old; there must be some impressions from the past."

He is given to gnomic guru-ish utterances, thankfully - otherwise he'd be a terrible disappointment. If you ask about his friends, he says: "Everyone is my friend." But does he have close personal friends? "You know, anyone I speak to goes close to my heart." I'm not sure he totally took me to his heart. I, honestly, tried to give him a chance to talk about what he was doing here, which is the free plug cue, and he got ever so slightly snippy. "Tell me why I shouldn't come? Do you know the reason why I should not come?"

He said: "I like to say my family is all over the world." Does he have a house? "I feel at home everywhere I go." At the age of 8 he announced: "All over the world people are waiting for me. One day I will visit them." That sounded a bit nutty. "My mother used to scold me. She said, 'Why do you tell lies?"

It is fair to say I was more interested in the idea of what it's like to be a guru than he was in talking about being a guru. Obviously while gurus are thin on the ground in New Zealand, in India they are 10 a rupee. A guru is merely a teacher, he says. Still, people come bearing gifts and sit at his feet. "You know, I play two roles. And one role is as a religious and spiritual leader and there are certain protocols that people follow. I personally don't advocate any protocol. Not at all. It is in the tradition and the people come with flowers and all the food and I give them back! Yes, absolutely." He swept his hand before the offerings on the table and said, "What do I do with all this for?"

A normal fellow then. He sometimes eats porridge with tabasco for breakfast, which sounds disgusting. "Ha, ha. Tastes are so different. Yes?" He travels first class, when he has a long trip and has a programme to deliver when he arrives. He doesn't have a driver's licence but did drive in either 1981, or 1982 (the memory of a guru is not infallible), in Switzerland. "On the wrong side of the road!" He is not very good at driving. "No, I don't think so." He said, "Well, I drive people crazy sometimes!" The chorus roared. They were driving me a bit crazy.

He won't tell me what his indulgences are because he was once asked if he liked Pringles and he said, "'Yes, of course I like Pringles,' and then wherever I go, I tell you, hundreds of Pringles land up in my room! So I'd better keep what I like to myself! Especially to the newspapers!" The chorus cackled. He played to the house. "I will be on a diet of Pringles!"

What do people want from him: to tell them how to be happy? "You know, people are looking for ways to be happy. There are conflicts within themselves, with the family ... And some come to have fun! Spirituality is all about making life light, bringing the energy and joy and happiness amongst life and you can't take it too seriously!"

You couldn't accuse him of that. He has been described as the hottest guru around. "I think I'm the coolest!" Is he a celebrity guru? "You mean: Am I a guru of the celebrities?" Is he? "I am a celebrating guru!" I said, "That's a terrible joke," but the chorus proved me wrong.

Having never met a guru before, I have no idea whether he is a pretty normal sort of one or not. I suppose it is entirely normal, for him, to be interviewed with an appreciative audience supplying the laugh track. This might be one of the perks of being a guru.

I was offered a perk: A free meditation class. Perhaps I should have taken it. I was feeling rather stressed. Perhaps I needed enlightenment, because conducting an interview with a guru, in the presence of an adoring, affirming audience was not exactly my idea of happy, happy, joy, joy.

- NZ Herald

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