Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar spent the afternoon receiving devotees by appointment. A succession of neatly dressed individuals who desired his blessing and had travelled to the outskirts of Bangalore knelt earlier than him as they requested for assist, bending their faces to his neatly saved toes in respect and submission. Gayatri, a administration marketing consultant, had waited a 12 months for this second. She was decided to get Shankar’s blessing earlier than opening a brand new subsidiary in Dubai along with her enterprise accomplice. “I can tell you very confidently, not even [becoming] a mother got me this feeling,” she stated, after the guru had given his endorsement.
When it was throughout, Shankar, wearing pristine white robes that bunched over his waist, was bundled right into a white SUV with a small entourage and pushed deeper into his ashram to greet extra followers. As his automotive bumped alongside the potholed roads, devotees hailed the person they name “the master”, a saint in a Kia.
Shankar, 66, is amongst India’s most well-known dwelling godmen, the title bestowed on the non secular leaders to whom a whole lot of hundreds throughout this huge nation flip for knowledge on the best way to stay, the best way to run firms and the best way to play politics. Celebrated for giving Hindu philosophy a secular enchantment, he’s been feted by the highly effective, from Joe Biden to India’s prime minister Narendra Modi.
Thousands of individuals the world over have renounced the traps of on a regular basis life — alcohol, deadlines, commuting — to volunteer full-time with Shankar’s Art of Living organisation, a meditation empire stretching over greater than 180 nations, which markets its programs as a treatment for stress. Shankar claims that eliminating anxiousness is the trail to world peace. By the guru’s personal estimation, the largely volunteer-run organisation has amassed belongings price greater than $120mn because it started in 1981.
Beyond its energy to form a whole lot of hundreds of lives, Shankar’s mesmeric affect is, like that of different fashionable gurus, a magnet for cash and energy. That occurs by design, based on R Gopalakrishnan, a former enterprise government and administration author, “Without influence, the godman is just another hermit in some little place.”
Some misuse their affect. In the previous decade, abuses by highly effective godmen have proven how susceptible individuals can fall prey to charlatans. Several spiritualists in India have been jailed, charged with rape, homicide, even pressured castrations. They have been accused of making cults; one godman lays declare to founding a brand-new Hindu nation. Influential yogi and businessman Baba Ramdev was reprimanded by India’s securities regulator in 2021 for telling followers that investing in his firm, then known as Ruchi Soya, would make them a crorepati (millionaire).
Shankar has not been linked to felony exercise, however he’s no stranger to controversy. Art of Living has denied a number of accusations of land encroachment and is battling a superb imposed by an environmental courtroom for alleged harm attributable to a pageant it hosted for 3.5mn individuals on the Yamuna river plain close to New Delhi in 2016. Yet the guru stays a favorite of India’s center lessons, his consistently increasing empire the results of a non secular celeb dwelling in the true world.
As the Kia pulled up exterior the ashram’s yoga faculty, safety guards held again the gang. Shankar eliminated his rectangular Ray-Ban sun shades and bought able to run the gauntlet of adoring followers. One group snapped at me angrily after I inadvertently obscured their view. A grid of members of the family had been making an attempt to observe by way of video name. Meanwhile, a band of aides scurried about, relieving Shankar of the choices being thrust into his arms: flowers, silk scarves, sweets, cash, letters. By the time he’d completed, the boot of the SUV was crammed. In the midst of the whole lot, the long-haired, bearded Shankar smiled and blessed, not with the handshaking gusto of a politician however with a sort of flowing movement, like a Tai Chi practitioner.
The time period “guru” is commonly used to imply skilled. In India your guru is your non secular information and instructor, and probably somebody with whom you’ve got a deeply emotional relationship. Regions throughout the 1.4bn-strong nation have their very own native gurus. But celeb godmen like Shankar and the motorcycling spiritualist Sadhguru have grow to be an business since India liberalised its economic system 30 years in the past, creating new wealth and deepening inequality. Ritika Periwal, an Art of Living meditation instructor, informed me that the gang that day included greater than 2,000 villagers from rural components of West Bengal, “who’ve literally been saving up everything to be able to come here and meet him for a few seconds”. They’re right here to hunt his recommendation on the whole lot from getting their kids married to serving to their farm by a disaster, she stated.
The net on the whole and social media specifically have helped the godmen develop their attain exponentially. Shankar, who was dictating a tweet after I first met him earlier within the day, is continually accompanied by an aide whose job is to curate his social media presence. He has 5.5mn Facebook and 4.2mn Twitter followers, to whom he broadcasts recommendation and teachings, historic philosophy for the burnt-out center lessons, in each English and Hindi. His Art of Living podcasts seem completely on Spotify, because of an audio partnership with the streaming service signed in 2021 for an undisclosed sum.
Darkness had fallen by the point Shankar reached a woman with bobbed hair who was visibly distraught. She was going by a bitter divorce, a media co-ordinator defined to me, and stated her husband had taken their kids. Shankar lingered, instructing her to inform her husband to return and discuss with him, and that she ought to get a job and stand on her personal toes. She was nonetheless crying when he left. Shankar’s recommendation isn’t at all times comforting. He as soon as remarked, “When you get hurt, it is not only the other person at fault. If you had been strong and skilful, nobody could have abused you.”
That doesn’t at all times sit properly, even with these in Shankar’s shut orbit. In the early 2000s, critics started publishing nameless posts, accusing Art of Living of misappropriating funds, pushy gross sales techniques, brainwashing, operating a cult and psychological hurt. Art of Living strongly denied the allegations on the time and later sued two of the bloggers in a US courtroom, alleging libel and publication of commerce secrets and techniques. A settlement was reached, however Art of Living paid each side’ authorized charges and the case was dismissed with prejudice, that means the defendants can’t be retried and may subsequently not be thought-about responsible. The bloggers’ criticism stayed on-line. But at the very least one in every of these blogs has been blocked by a Bangalore decide, that means nobody right here on the ashram, which is simply exterior the town, can learn it.
For his greatest occasion of the day, Shankar addressed hundreds crammed right into a meditation corridor for satsang, a communal prayer that features music and dancing and ends in a shock leisure. Today, it was a efficiency by a sword-wielding martial artist. “People don’t have to bring me flowers, shawls, nothing,” Shankar informed the gathered devoted by way of a microphone, with a contact of remonstration. “Just come with your smiles.”
There’s a hypnotic high quality to his voice, a high-pitched but cooing, honeyed, singsong tone that has ushered tens of millions right into a meditative stupor. But there’s additionally one thing unsettling. His sister and biographer Bhanumathi Narasimhan has described how, as a younger man, Shankar’s voice appeared to not belong to his physique however was “connected to a field that was beyond and unknown to us”.
Then it was time for group meditation. Shankar’s teachings have a military of supporters worldwide, and a handful of peer-reviewed research have discovered his respiratory methods efficient as a part of remedy for melancholy. One course participant of a silent retreat tells me that though she discovered Shankar’s ashram “a bit culty”, the meditation and reflection had helped her by a troublesome time.
Today the guru leads meditation wordlessly. Lights go down and hundreds of individuals disappear into themselves. Afterwards, a male voice bellowed from the gang: “LOVE YOU, GURUJI!”
“I know,” the guru replied coyly.
Shankar had organized to satisfy with me by the lake on the coronary heart of his ashram. He sat leaning on the arm of a wood chair that his aides carry from place to put for his use. Shankar had joked earlier that one good thing about ageing is now not being anticipated to leap up and greet followers. He wore an air of centered focus however, up shut, didn’t give off the high-wattage charisma he had exuded to the gang the day past. “Of course, when you do something good and when you inspire people, they really start loving you and following you,” he stated, explaining his affect.
The bodily proof of that love was throughout. The ashram, constructed on land in Shankar’s house state initially leased by the federal government, is way greater than I anticipated. Situated on 450 acres, it’s a everlasting house to about 3,000 devotees and may host 100,000 individuals for main occasions. There are amenities for detoxing, an ayurveda spa, a analysis institute and a hospital providing the whole lot from emergency care to “ozone therapy”. Followers famous this land was naked and rocky earlier than Shankar arrived.
The grandson of a clairvoyant, Shankar was born to a non secular, middle-class, south-Indian household in 1956. His father labored within the automotive business. Like many godmen, tales of Shankar’s childhood have a definite whiff of the fantastical. In one, he miraculously avoids being crushed by iron chains as a child. Another claims that by the age of 4 he was capable of recite from the holy textual content The Bhagavad Gita, a 700-verse tome written in Sanskrit. What’s sure is that as an adolescent he stumbled upon transcendental meditation and it modified his life.
In the Nineteen Eighties, Shankar claimed to have developed a novel type of meditation, which he trademarked as Sudarshan Kriya (Proper Vision by Purifying Action). He broke away from his instructor on the time, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who had unfold transcendental meditation internationally and taught The Beatles. One scientific paper describes Sudarshan Kriya’s central respiratory method as “rhythmic hyperventilation”, and a whole lot of scholars on the Indian Institute of Science protested towards a chat Shankar gave there, apprehensive that it endorsed his “unscientific” views. Nonetheless, it was the tactic that helped him make his title.
Today, each time he’s in India, which isn’t actually that always, Shankar receives a stream of officers from throughout the political spectrum at his ashram. He denies they’re after his followers’ votes and says he won’t ever endorse any particular person or celebration. He has met with prime minister Modi a number of instances and Gopalakrishnan counts him among the many godmen who’ve a “mutually reinforcing relationship” with the federal government. Shankar says he has no political affiliations.
The rise of India’s fashionable godmen has overlapped with the ascent of Hindu nationalism below Modi, who has promoted lots of the historic practices championed by the gurus alongside his ideology of Hindutva. It’s a phrase that actually means Hindu-ness however has come to face for Hindu nationalism.
In 2014, Shankar and different civic and non secular figures had been heading a nationwide anti-corruption motion that felled the federal government of then-prime minister Manmohan Singh. If Singh’s secular Congress celebration was the loser, its arch rival the Bharatiya Janata celebration (BJP), led by Modi, was one of many winners. Modi was elected premier that very same 12 months. “When we started this movement, it benefited certain parties,” Shankar acknowledged.
Modi was chief minister of Gujarat state in 2002 when it was wracked by bloody intercommunal violence that killed almost 2,000 individuals, largely Muslims. His position in these riots is contested; human rights teams allege his state authorities failed to guard Muslims. Shankar stated he was satisfied that Modi was not accountable and publicly defended him on the time.
Yet exterior his ashram, the deepening polarisation in India worries the guru. When I requested him if the BJP’s Hindutva has made India kind of peaceable, Shankar stated he believed there was much less terrorism, however “I won’t say all is very rosy . . . There are some people who are doing all this rhetoric, which is so painful. And there are people who create hate between the communities . . . wanting to divide and rule.”
The notion that India below BJP rule is hostile to its roughly 14 per cent Muslim inhabitants was strengthened by a 2019 act handed by parliament, providing a pathway to Indian citizenship to individuals from minority religions in close by Muslim-majority nations which excluded Muslims. “There were many wrong steps,” stated Shankar of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which triggered protests in India. “Maybe with good intention, but I would say India can take a lot of help.”
The identical 12 months, he mediated in a long-running interfaith dispute over a non secular web site Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, however turned embroiled in controversy when he warned that India risked turning into civil-war-torn Syria. Muslim leaders took him to courtroom over the comment, accusing him of threatening the neighborhood. It wasn’t “a threat, it’s only airing a concern,” stated Shankar, sounding distressed. “You know, when people want to twist your words, they can just twist.
“We are an international organisation. We are not limited to Hindutva,” he added. “We don’t talk on the boundaries, country or cultural boundaries. No, we say the whole world is one family. Our whole philosophy, idea, is very different.”
I requested him what his ambitions are for Art of Living. “See, if I had an ambition this could not happen. I can’t take care of others. I have no ambition for myself,” he stated, not fairly answering the query. He put the organisation’s progress all the way down to a kind of snowball impact — one individual studying meditation desires to show three individuals, and so on. Art of Living has “organically expanded”, he stated. “I don’t make much effort to expand anything.”
“Make your smile cheaper and your anger expensive,” reads an indication within the ashram that typifies Shankar’s knowledge. Another advertises a paid-for “happiness app”. I begin taking note of the various chained silver assortment packing containers, emblazoned with QR codes for digital donations. The Art of Living doesn’t look like brief on funds. A gargantuan new meditation corridor is being constructed over an outdated helipad to create space for extra guests.
Shankar insists his “movement doesn’t have any connection with business”. But business enterprise is a presence all through the ashram. Devotees buy his framed portraits, books, Art of Living-branded clothes and yoga mats in quite a few retailers. You can purchase an audio model of The Bhagavad Gita in a number of languages for Rs12,000 (£120). A journey company helps guests e-book flights, cabs and holidays. In addition to the large kitchen serving free meals, there are cafés promoting pizza, kombucha “brewed by meditators” and birthday muffins, common for being blessed by Shankar, at Rs2,000 every.
There are so many locations to spend cash within the ashram that it feels somewhat like Disneyland for meditation. Bharathy Harish, managing accomplice of Madhurya, a high-end clothes and crafts retailer within the ashram, informed me it “is an independent entity. It’s just by policy that we support Art of Living’s free schools.” She requested me to not disclose the store’s month-to-month revenues or her wage.
Across the ashram, adverts extol Sri Sri Tattva’s ayurvedic merchandise, the largest enterprise in Shankar’s orbit, which sells the whole lot from branded medicines to cleansing merchandise to a high-end skincare vary known as Shankara. It is run by his nephew Arvind Varchaswi, who I met in Sri Sri Tattva’s boardroom. Bringing ayurveda, a standard Indian medication primarily based on the concept of steadiness, to the world has “been Gurudev [his Holiness]’s vision”, stated the softly spoken Varchaswi, who wore a smartwatch and had a small ponytail. He goals to make Sri Sri Tattva “really big and become a public company”, alongside the traces of Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Foods, a family title and a publicly listed firm price $5bn. Varchaswi insisted his uncle was not concerned in his enterprise. But Shankar does endorse it, tweeting about Sri Sri Tattva’s Covid therapeutic to his 4.2mn followers, for instance.
Shankar’s best asset is his volunteers. Rahul Sejwani, 27, volunteers within the Art of Living’s media crew and was behind the Spotify deal. His dad and mom are devotees, and he took his first meditation course as a small baby. “When I joined, I wasn’t very inclined to spirituality,” stated Sejwani. But his devotion to Shankar grew as he felt the guru’s constructive affect on his life. A journalism graduate, he left Mumbai to volunteer full-time in 2017. “I don’t think that I’m controlling my life, it’s just happening . . . everything has been so easy, so happy since I’ve come here.”
On my final night time on the ashram, a crowd filed into an open amphitheatre round a man-made lake with a stage jutting into it. Some 5,000 individuals had arrived from Sikkim and West Bengal, based on the media crew. As the music grew livelier, teams of younger individuals jumped up and threw their arms about, evangelical superchurch-style. When Shankar’s SUV approached, he waved to the gang below a cinematically full moon.
A devotee had purchased a white hat for the godman, which he obligingly parked on his head. In his commodious chair, surrounded by water and devotees, he had the air of a king. “Any excuse to celebrate life is good,” Shankar informed the gang. “Today, when world is in such a gloomy mood, we must keep these traditions to uplift the spirit . . . There are many divisive forces today. It is time for us to wake up,” he continued, insisting that we should all come collectively to heal the social material. Just briefly, I puzzled whether or not our interview had performed on his thoughts.
As he spoke, Shankar saved blowing his nostril. He appeared drained, asking that only one act carry out this night fairly than the deliberate two. And the godman on the throne began to look completely human.
Chloe Cornish is the FT’s Mumbai correspondent
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to seek out out about our newest tales first