Critical Article on AoL in the New York Times
An incredibly well-written article, originally posted here on New York Times website, entitled “Indian Spiritualism Made for the Modern Age”.
NEW DELHI — A peculiar characteristic of Indian leaders who claim to represent the average man is that they dress very differently from him. The majority of Indian men today wear shirts and trousers, including a tribal king who lives on top of a hill in the South Indian state of Kerala. But political and philosophical figures in India continue to wear costumes from another time. Among them is a middle-aged man in white silk robes.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of a movement called the Art of Living, is one of the most influential people in urban India. It may appear that Sri Sri is a typo, but it is actually a compliment he has paid himself. A single “Sri” is an honorific that can be granted to any Indian male. A double “Sri” is in spiritual territory.
The Art of Living Foundation, for a fee, tells people how to breathe, how to meditate and how to manage stress. It has hundreds of outlets across India and the rest of the world offering to teach breathing techniques, including one that Mr. Shankar (no relation to the famous sitar player) claims he has invented. In the first week of July, in Berlin, the Art of Living Foundation celebrated 30 years of existence.
It is not surprising that the first decade of the foundation was unremarkable. In the 1980s, the Indian middle class was closer in spirit to the poor than to the rich. There were no solutions to emotional problems. The sleeping pill came close, but there was something morbidly modern about it. Art films showed tragic creative men and licentious women in sleeveless blouses taking sleeping pills.
In the 1990s, as the economy was liberalized and the middle class grew more prosperous, the word “stress” slowly entered their vocabulary, first as a somewhat self-congratulatory description of what their professional success has done to them. Later, “stress” began to include heartbreaks and other traumas.
As urban India began to search for inner peace, the Art of Living made deep inroads into the newly affluent society. It provided a yogic alternative to going to a shrink, stigmatized even today in India as an evidence of mental imbalance. Mr. Shankar, an educated, English-speaking South Indian, impressed the modern affluent with stock phrases (“Do not fall in love, rise in love”) and a brand of Hindu philosophy that is secular in nature.
As in the case of many self-proclaimed Indian gurus, Mr. Shankar’s success lies not in deceiving others but in convincing himself that he is an extraordinary entity.
Nine years ago, I was invited by the Art of Living Foundation to interview Mr. Shankar. Mr. Shankar was in the house of a wealthy businessman in South Mumbai. In the living room he sat on a large, embellished, thronelike chair as about 50 of Mumbai’s rich and famous sat on the floor, among them the film actor Vinod Khanna and the actress Nagma. At Mr. Shankar’s feet sat a newspaper reporter, taking down notes as he spoke.
All the interviews that evening were supposed to be conducted in this manner, with the reporter on the floor, at his feet, and he on the throne.
When it was my turn, an absolute silence filled the room as I dragged a chair toward him. When I sat down, there was an audible moan from his followers. The interview did not go well. Most of his answers were snubs that elicited loud guffaws from his audience.
Over the years Mr. Shankar has tried to expand the Art of Living to the less affluent masses by offering free courses and sharing the stage with spiritual leaders who already enjoy a mass following. During the public appearances of Mata Amritanandamayi, also known as “the hugging saint” because she tries to hug every person in her audience even if there are thousands, Mr. Shankar sometimes stands by her side to share the glow. But he has not had much success.
The failure of Mr. Shankar to spread his influence beyond the affluent represents an inexplicable anomaly in a familiar pattern of Indian society. Usually, an elite obsession percolates down the layers to the masses. Most of Indian culture has spread this way, including food, rituals, music and cricket. But, for some reason, elite spiritual masters have made little impact on the masses.
Mr. Shankar has, however, succeeded in taking the Art of Living to the West, which is not surprising. In most of the first world, an Indian has a better chance of being accepted as a spiritual leader than, say, a Hungarian. In several interviews, Mr. Shankar has emphasized the branding of India as the spiritual home of the world. It is one of the most enduring and absurd of myths.
The writer and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, who was yet another national figure who professed love for the common man but took to wearing Dumbledore’s gown to distinguish himself, said in his acceptance speech after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913: “Is not the East the mother of spiritual humanity and does not the West, do not the children of the West amidst their games and plays, when they get hurt, when they get famished and hungry, turn their faces to that serene mother, the East?”
His statement may seem laughable now, but the myth at the core of his speech survives. Indians would argue that there is indeed a unique spiritual side to India, and as evidence they would present the many gurus here who find a ready market. But the fact is that many of these gurus are charlatans, like the man who convinced his female followers that his blessing was bestowed by massaging their breasts.
These exotic gurus emerge because Hinduism is not a structured faith with a central authority or a chain of command. So there is more room for spiritual freelancers.
Still, the branding of Indian spirituality is so powerful that the young and the old from the West continue to come here in search of the “truth.”
The person who finds it is requested to inform this reporter first.