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The Pastime of the Well-heeled:
Cultivating the Art of Living - 1
by H.N. Bali Bookmark and Share

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Would you recall, dear readers, the loud hype that preceded the arrival of the year 2000 of our Lord’s grace? There were dark apprehensions that the world was coming to an end on 31st December, 1999? Many a priest the world over predicted doomsday. Quoting chapter and verse from the Puranas, our own astrologists and self-declared soothsayers predicted the coming of the dreaded ‘pralaya’ – the end of the universe. There was panic all over the world, especially the United States of America which has, to our good fortune, taken over the task of the Greek god Atlas to hold up the sky for eternity. People in California were selling their homes, fearing the impending doomsday. Many were storing milk powder and groceries in their basements should they manage to survive as prized artifacts of an earlier civilization.

There was, however, a group utterly unfazed and completely unconcerned with predicted impending doom. They were – you’ve guessed it - the volunteers of Art of Living preparing to celebrate the dawn of the new millennium, of all places, in Milano, Italy.

How come they were so cool-headed when the world was gripped in feverish chaos? Simple, very simple! They were absolutely self-convinced by the teachings of their revered guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who had told them reassuringly: “Give me all your worries and you be free and happy.”

How lasting indeed – almost permanent – has been the innocent message of an ordinary Parsi guru, Merwan Sheriar Irani a.k.a Meher Baba who invariably laced his sermons with the phrase “Don’t worry be Happy”. I wonder, however, how on God’s earth can a worried man be happy? Have you ever put on a smile when consumed by a nagging worry? Nonetheless, once the musician Bobby McFerrin adopted Meher Baba’s catchy phrase in his celebrated song “Don't Worry, Be Happy”, there has been no looking back.

However, Sri Sri had gone further than that. He also convinced disciples:

I tell you, deep inside you is a fountain of bliss, a fountain of joy. Deep inside your center core is truth, light, love, there is no guilt there, there is no fear there. Psychologists have never looked deep enough.

Finally, the much-dreaded midnight gave way to a new dawn. The new millennium arrived and the world was safe and sound as ever before. What began with chaos became blissful. Hadn’t Sri Sri, the global guru belied the prophets of doom and thus silenced many a Doubting Thomas?


The spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is the founder of the Art of Living Foundation created in 1981, which aims to relieve individual stress, all societal problems, and (hold your breath) the perennial problem of violence. In 1997, he established a Geneva-based charity, the International Association for Human Values, an NGO that engages itself in relief work and rural development and aims to foster shared global values.

I’ve often wondered why on earth do our spiritual leaders start their missions abroad? Vivekananda perhaps made the beginning, but he didn’t do by choice. He had somehow reached Chicago – or rather his followers in India forced him to attend the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 – to represent, as he said in his soul-stirring address, “the the most ancient order of monks in the world”. Indeed he stayed on to acquaint Americans with the true face of the much-maligned Hindu faith. He also collected funds to build Belur Math, the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission and Math to perpetuate the memory of his Master. It is also on record that when he was meditating on the famous rock off Kanya Kumari he had a vision that his Master beckoned him on to go overseas.

In case of the present-day gurus there are different reasons for starting abroad. One of them is the conviction that prophets aren’t honored at home.

Plagiarism isn’t just a dreaded practice of literature and journalism. Do you recall what happened in 2006 to Kaavya Viswanathan and her much-publicized magnum opus How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life? However, it has a far wider spread. It occurs in the world of religion too. Didn’t Patanjali and even Adi Sankara adapt some of the ideas first conceived of by the the Buddha?

Art of Living is indeed a catchy – almost enticing – brand name like Surf, KFC and TGI Friday. However, it isn’t Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s own brain wave. He plagiarized it from Maharishi Yogi – discussed later – who in 1963, published a book bearing a grandiloquent title, Science of Being and Art of Living, which was later transcribed and published in several languages. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar wisely left out the philosophical first half of the title, namely, Science of Being, and plumbed for the catchy second half Art of Living, now invariably abbreviated (a la Americana) AoL .

It is of late all the more famous because of the March 11 – 13 World Culture Festival organized on the flood plains of Yamuna. All VIP’s of the Lutyens Delhi were present there. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was flanked by half a dozen Union cabinet ministers. Also present were the BJP president and the Lok Sabha speaker.

Arun Jaitley has filed a criminal defamation suit against Arvind Kejriwal. Old hatchets were buried for the days of Sri Sri’s political-cultural jamboree. All smiles, the Delhi Chief Minster was rubbing shoulders with the Union Finance Minister. The BJP leadership and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) may be engaged in a bitter war of words, but Yamuna floodplains appeared to have drowned their differences.

And don’t forget Prime Minister Modi inaugurated the Festival. He spent good two hours extolling Sri Sri’s virtues.

The traffic snarls of three days were a small price to pay for its success. As a power statement, the Art of Living founder had confirmed his status as India’s most well-connected, self-styled spiritual god man.

The sheer dazzle of the occasion meant that the controversies swirling around the event were quietly buried. Only a day before the event, the National Green Tribunal had fined Sri Sri with a Rs 5 crore fee for environmental violations. In an act of brazen defiance, Sri Sri had claimed that he would prefer to go to jail than pay the fine. His lawyer strangely claimed in court that Art of Living didn’t have Rs 5 crore to pay up. Do you believe that?

Think about it: What if you were caught jumping a traffic light, but refused to pay the fine, challenged the policeman to arrest you, and then had the powers-that-be publicly hail you as model citizen. And this is what exactly happened. Indeed, all are equal but some are more equal than others

Army Corps of Engineers was requisitioned to set up pontoon bridges, the urban development ministry was asked to provide temporary toilets, the Delhi government was a sponsor as were public sector navratnas for what was supposedly a “private” celebration.

Sri Sri has an uncanny knack of attracting affluent devotees. He isn’t a guru living in penury but someone who travels first-class, swings into an interview in a Bentley, lives in a luxurious ashram in Bengaluru, will stay in the capital at a posh Golf Links address and is often seen in the company of the bold and the beautiful.

Sri Sri – like the other government-favored god man, Baba Ramdev – has built a remarkably successful global business enterprise. You have heard of crony capitalism and crony socialism. What about “crony spiritualism” where well-networked gurus and babas (or imams) are given special benefits and privileges?

Interestingly, as a new age guru Sri Sri is a step ahead of the political class in some aspects. Last month, he came out strongly in support of gay rights and striking down the abhorrent Article 377. Isn’t it trimming your sails to the prevailing winds?
Sri Sri

Fifty-eight year old Guru Ravi Shankar is frequently referred to simply as Guruji or Gurudev or simply by the honorific Sri Sri.

I have often wondered why the title Sri Sri as if one Sri won’t do. Here is the explanation from horse’s own mouth

That evening, I called our key organizers at the Waldorf Astoria to discuss changing my name and that of the organization. This was a grave matter and everybody had something to say. I easily dropped the Pandit from my name. A colleague who had been with me at Maharishi’s came up with the idea of Sri Sri. Everybody agreed that one Sri is very common, generic and confusing. My opinion on the matter was irrelevant in this animated discussion. I was just a silent witness. And so, I was rechristened at Waldorf. However, despite this exercise, MTV and Fox News still showed my photo when the legendary sitar maestro passed away.

Beatles’s Guru

And now to some illustrious predecessors of Sri Sri. Do you remember Mahesh Prasad Varma a.k.a Maharishi Mahesh Yogi? It is a pity public memory is so short. No wonder yesterday’s celebrities are today’s nonentities. He is the one who developed what was a hot favorite some two decades ago, called Transcendental Meditation technique as if just plain simple meditation is not enough. Besides being a self-proclaimed guru he was also an expert in marketing though Philips Kotler does make a mention of him in his Marketing Management. He knew before Unilever that every now and then Lux must be called New Lux and given a brand uplift.

In the late 1960s and early1970s, the Maharishi achieved fame as the guru to the Beatles and also the celebrities of the Beach Boys the once-famous American rock band formed in Hawthorne, California in 1961. He didn’t stop at that. Riding on the wave of popularity the Maharishi started Natural Law Party in 1992, and ran campaigns in dozens of countries. He created the Global Country of World Peace, as always a non-profit organization, and appointed its leaders. In 2008, the Maharishi announced his retirement from all administrative activities and went into silence until his death three weeks later.

In 1963, the Maharishi audio taped the text of the book Science of Being and Art of Living, which was later transcribed and published in several languages. K.T. Weidmann describes the book as the Maharishi’s fundamental philosophical treatise, one in which its author provides an illustration of the ancient Vedic traditions of India in terms that can be easily interpreted and understood by the scientific thinking of the western world. In the Science of Being, the Maharishi illustrates the concepts of relative existence as the experience of everyday reality through one’s senses, and absolute reality as the origin of being, and the source of all creative intelligence. The Maharishi describes this absolute reality, or Being, as unchanging, omnipresent, and eternal. He also identifies it with bliss consciousness. The two aspects of reality, the relative and the absolute, are like an ocean with many waves. The waves represent the relative, and the ocean beneath is the foundation of everything, or Being. Establishing oneself in the field of Being, or unchanging reality, ensures stability.

However, the most famous of his followers, the Beatles who had catapulted him into dizzying height of publicity got disillusioned with him. John Lennon called him a money-grubbing, sex-obsessed fraud dubbing him as the Giggling Guru. His all-too-famous Transcendental Meditation is a forgotten chapter.

Sathya Sai Baba

Sathya Sai Baba died in April 2011 after illness due to respiratory and kidney problems. He was a “living god” for nearly forty million people worldwide, and his believers have credited him with resurrecting the dead and healing the sick. To his Hindu followers, Baba was an avatar, or an incarnation, of a god who performed miracles, including materializing jewelry and vibuthi (holy ash) out of thin air. With schools in more than thirty-three countries and educational programs in 166 countries, Baba became a global figure despite having left India only once (to visit Uganda in 1968). His supporters, including high-profile Indian politicians and American businessmen, proudly celebrated his mystical feats and humanitarian efforts. But his critics denounced him as a fraud for decades, claiming his feats were common magic tricks. Later, former followers accused him of child molestation, after which the U.S. government issued travel warnings to its citizens about the allegations

T.N. Seshan, remember the famous Chief Election Commissioner of India, used to hold up a ring Baba gave him and said, “He gave this ring out of nowhere, which is set with nine gems; there is a ruby in it, a pearl in it, sapphire in it, there is an emerald in it, there is a diamond in it . . . he realized this for me out of nowhere.” Seshan later explained, “I am not a jumbly person. I’ve got a master’s degree in physics; I have a master’s degree in administration economics from Harvard. I find nothing contradictory between the physics and the fact that I believe this [ring] came out of the blue.” However before Seshan was gifted by the Baba, it must have belonged to someone.

By 2011 the state’s tax department estimated the worth of Baba’s Sathya Sai Central Trust at about nine billion dollars. Nearly two months after Baba’s death, 216 lbs. (98 kg) of gold, 676.8 lbs. (307 kg) of silver, and about $2.5 million in cash were discovered in Baba’s personal chamber after it was opened for the Trust to inventory items (“98 kg Gold Found . . .” 2011).

Come to your own conclusions.

Genuine Spirituality

If “it be true that good wine needs no bush…” as Rosalind said in As You Like It, genuine spirituality needs no publicity, no promotion – none whatever.

Remember Keshab Chandra Sen, the famous nineteenth century Bengali social reformer who attempted to incorporate Christian theology within the framework of Hindu thought and who started his own breakaway “Brahmo Samaj of India” in 1866. Later in his life, he came under the spell of Ramakrishna. Vastly impressed by his deeply genuine spirituality, Keshab started writing about the Saint of Dakshineswar in his widely-circulated bulletins.

Told about this, Ramakrisna one day asked Keshab why was he advertising about a simple priest. Keshab explained how he wanted the educated elite of Calcutta to know about him and visit Dakshineswar.

Ramakrisna smiled and said: “Keshab, when lotuses bloom, uninvited the honeybees flock. They come on their own. No one invites them. Those who are blessed by the divine spark will come here entirely on their own.”


Merchants of hope there are aplenty. Abundant indeed are the self-proclaimed Messiahs. However, those who earnestly care to think through the problems of human destiny, get, sooner or later, disillusioned with these self-proclaimed gods. 

Formidable indeed is the path of human salvation, but worth striving for, tell us the seers of Upanishads. However each one has to strive on his own, steadfastly guided by a guide if he’s lucky enough to find one.

When the Enlightened one was about to enter his mahasamadhi, he turned to his favorite disciple Anand not to pass on the baton to carry on, not to offer a cure-all formula. Instead, the Buddha said: “Seek your own salvation with diligence.” So has each one of us.

Centuries before what the Thathagatta said, the Katha Upanishad had had summed it up:

Arise, awake, (know your strength) and relent not till you reach the goal. This is possible (only) by approaching the (really) enlightened ones (who have understood the Reality). The wise, however, describe the path (to such understanding) to be arduous like negotiating a razor’s edge – sharp and difficult to tread on.

The search for human salvation is difficult – formidably difficult. There are no comfortable certainties – no instant solutions The crash courses on offer by modern-day gurus – Sai Baba, Maharishi Yogi Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and their lesser-known counterparts – are, in the spiritual world like the get-rich-quick Ponzi schemes of the commercial world. As a keen observer of the human quest for salvation, poet Ghalib summed it succinctly in a verse of his:

‘chalta hun thori dur har ik tez rau k sath
pahchanta nahi hun abhi rahbar ko main’

(Assuming that he indeed knows the way (to the destination)

I do trot along awhile with every fast-paced walker
I haven’t so far run into the real Guide I’m in search of.

Continued to “Man’s Eternal Search: Discovering the Meaning of Life”

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Comments on this Article

Comment I don't know, but comparing SriSri with Maharishi is really like comparing apples to oranges. IMO there is no comparison. there are many thousands maybe millions of people whose lives have become joyful because of Maharishi, but who also are independent of his or any organization. Sri Sri on the other hand, is only about himself and IMO not worth listening to. my descernment is ok but even I could tell something wasn't right about him.. and after a little searching found out I was right.

09/03/2022 01:14 AM

Comment Rarely does prose read as poetry!
Amazing piece with a depth that takes time to sink in !!

03/30/2016 02:14 AM

Comment What a beautiful piece of writing! A little bit of satire but an awful lot of philosophy.
I always wondered about what it is that draws millions so readily to these Gurus (I am not trying to be critical of them)? It appears that to take charge of your own life, make your own decisions, find your own path for the search of Truth takes an awful lot of courage. There are so many unknowns and so much of risk. The one who is willing to take all this is the true leader who is unafraid to live with the consequences. Most of us can't handle it. We find it easier to become followers. Let others take the lead. If millions follow them, they must know what path they are leading us to? We need not be responsible for our own actions having to face the consequences. What we forget is that the biggest mistake in dealing with the risks of life is to avoid them.

03/28/2016 12:17 PM

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