Sri Ravi Shankar
I first heard about SriSri Ravi Shankar when I did an Art of Living Basic Course in 1998, and learnt the breathing technique Sudarshana Kriya. I had never heard of him down here in New Zealand but he seemed to have some nice teachings. We are recommended to do the kriya daily and notice what happens. Certainly my health and mental well-being had improved dramatically over the 5 days of the course, but after 3 months I gave up doing the kriya. I still occasionally went with friends to Satsangs, and watched videos of his teachings over the next few years. SriSri's teachings are impressive, and as someone who has studied a lot of Indian spiritual thought I couldn't fault them. But as to his being Self-Realized...well I just couldn't believe that. I had been a Sai Baba devotee in the mid 90s and compared to that controversial miracle man SriSri seemed decidedly human.
In April of 2004 SriSri Ravi Shankar visited New Zealand. I casually went along with a friend to a big hall in central Auckland for his talk. Entry was free, and we went early to secure a seat near the front. The large hall filled up with about two and a half thousand people, mainly Indian-New Zealanders, but a fair sprinkling of the New Age Kiwi crowd too.
Then SriSri entered the hall with a small entourage. The first thing he said upon entering was, teasingly, "Do you feel at home?" This non-plussed some of the crowd I could feel, but it is one of his themes: we should all feel part of one big family, we must all develop a sense of belonging.
SriSri is a smallish fine-boned man in his late 40s. He went up onto the stage and received a traditional Maori welcome. His talk is very informal. He says many things that almost seem to be formulaic, that he repeats in most of his talks such as, "Spirituality is like a banana: Religion is the skin, and when you peel it you have spirituality." Many of the jokes are familiar too: talking about the need to be sincere, he pointed out how the airline hostesses smile and wish you a nice day, "but they don't really mean it!" which always gets a good laugh. He spoke about how modern people have a "retention problem" due to short attention spans. I can't remember if he said it was from watching too much TV, and leading such frenetic lives, but that was the implication.
One story that really hit home for me was when he said we should all strive in our lives to be of service, so that when we died, people would be crying. He said when you are born people are smiling and happy, and if we have lived a good life they will be crying and very sad. We shouldn't live such a life that it would be the other way round and people would be smiling and happy when we die! I know this is an old chestnut in Indian culture but he told it in such an amusing way.
As far as emanations of energy are concerned, I didn't notice anything in particular. I wasn't right at the front, so maybe that was why.
At some point SriSri got all of us to meditate for 10 minutes. I sometimes experience chronic fatigue from having hepatitis C, and up to that point I was finding it hard to concentrate on the talk due to having gone on a long car trip earlier in the day and not eating very well due to lack of time. I decided to silently ask SriSri for more energy while I meditated. The meditation seemed pretty short and sweet, but as SriSri pointed out we did it for 20 minutes. A minor miracle did occur too. From that point on my energy was much improved, and I could concentrate properly.
Later in the talk SriSri fielded questions in a very casual, almost cavalier manner. One middle-aged Indian man right at the front asked a very simple question about some spiritual point, which just a little earlier SriSri had explained already. SriSri made the hall laugh when he gleefully said, "This is what I mean by retention problems. You remind me of the man who went to the temple to hear the Ramayana being told over night, and the next morning asked, "What was Ram to Sita?"
At the very end SriSri suddenly said he would give Darshan. He told us to stay in our seats and he proceeded to walk off the stage and slowly walk up and down the several long aisles, from the front of the hall to the back. Needless to say his request to stay put was ignored by many of the indians. Pandemonium seemed to break up around him as he slowly made his way around the big hall. Many of us stood up and stayed where we had been seated, but a huge whirlpool of people surrounded him and he was out of sight. Garlands of flowers were being put around his neck and no doubt many were trying to touch his feet. As he made his way slowly to where we were a group of us European New Zealanders walked to the end of our aisle but couldn't get out for all the people. We leaned out, stretching our hands and SriSri quickly touched each hand one after the other. Except he missed me, the furtherest out. I suddenly felt bereft. Then, picking up my feeling he suddenly turned around and I stretched out my hand as far as I could. He then enticingly withheld his hand for a second, then stretched and touched mine. A message was here for me; I know all the intellectual stuff, but my devotional side is undeveloped. It didn't stop there. He suddenly seemed to stop and stare at me and something very powerful and loving was happening. I felt like maybe Infinitude was looking into me. It must have only lasted a couple of seconds but I swear the excited crowd whirling around him, the whole world in fact, seemed to go stock still during that time. And then just as suddenly he turned around, the noize and tumult began again, and he was gone.
A very spiritual looking young Kiwi woman who had been standing next to me looked at me in awe when I turned around. I couldn't stop smiling after that.
Even before SriSri Ravi Shankar left the hall a large group of kiwi women started dancing ecstatically near the front of the hall, waving their hair around to music, in celebration of the amazing feeling in the atmosphere. It was like a bacchanal dance. Meanwhile SriSri left. I heard later from the young Indian woman who was driving him back that night to her parent’s place (where he would stay the night with a close disciple from India) in the suburbs, that she got lost. Her family had just moved into the house and she didn't know how to get there. She said to her two passengers they had better help her. They both laughed, and then the disciple guided her all the way back to her new house, without roadmap, without ever having been in Auckland before.
The next morning I went to meditate, and I suddenly burst into tears and couldn't stop crying. I didn't really know why I was crying but I knew it was because of that look I had received. Every time I thought of the look I would start crying again. This lasted off and on for the next 3 days. I have found it easier since then to cry, and to trust in God.
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See also Satsang Reports,
a related series of impressions of satsang
providers on tour, ie in a more "formal" setting.