Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s first major tryst with organised spirituality was a lecture by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who took an immediate shine to him. The next thing he knew, he was whisked off to Switzerland and found himself travelling the world with his guru.
Sri Sri recalled his days with Mahesh Yogi as follows : “I was into studying the Vedas and he used to conduct these Vedic Science conferences around the country. So many scientists and scholars would come and I attended one of the meetings. He just picked me up from one of these and said, “You come with me.” He asked me to come to Switzerland for a month or so and then he kept extending. That one month became almost a year. But I was still interested in doing my formal degree. So that is how it started. I was organizing various things : Yagna, conferences on Vedic science, Ayurveda.”
M. N. Chakravarti, a former teacher of Maharishi’s Transcendental Meditation (TM), who knew Ravi well those years, had a different story to tell. According to him, in 1975, When Sri Sri was around twenty years old, he had attended a TM class in Melkote (in district Mandya, Karnataka) of which he was the coordinator. He initiated the young man into the Maharishi’s programme, after which the two got to know each other well. “We would go to his home in Jayanagar (in Bengaluru; now the Sri Sri Media Centre) and his mother would feed us”; recalled Chakravarti.
However, M. N. Chkravarti found Ravi’s father, R. S. V. Ratnam extremely ambitious, “sort of like a star mom”. He didn’t think Sri Sri was either ambitious or interested in money. “He was a nice boy, very eager, decent and smart. His sister, too, was very nice.”
Later, Ravi did a stint in Rishikesh, where the Maharishi’s ashram (famously inhabited by the Beatles for a space) was located. “We went there for the advanced course. You know, each round of meditation involves 40 minutes and we as teachers are expected to do three rounds. He used to tease me and say that as a senior, I should do more.”
He was “sweet-looking”, said M. N. Chakravarti, the kind of boy whose cheeks people have an irresistible urge to pinch. Despite the flowing hair and beard, he has more than a touch of the effeminate, which leads one to ask whether spiritual leaders have a strong feminine side?
‘You are Just the way you are naturally. It is for others to perceive the masculine or feminine. Because you can’t say I want to be this way or I have to be this way and I should not be this way. No, be absolutely free and be natural.’
By the time Sri Sri joined Maharishi, his most spectacular disciples, the Beatles, had already broken up. But more than a decade later, he would be introduced to them by a former TM practitioner, Michael Fischman.
Now head of Art of Living in North America, Fischman played the beatles for Sri Sri, after he spotted a picture of the band with Maharishi on his coffee table. Sri Sri was delighted with the lyrics of “Across the Universe”, particularly the chant, “Jai Guru Deva”. He then sat through all the numbers inspired by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and later commented that the song, “Within You Without You” was based on a traditional Indian raga.
In "Guru of Joy", Francois Gautier writes that very little is known about Guruji’s time with Maharishi, largely because Sri Sri himself appears reluctant to dwell on it in any detail. What seems clear is that he was a favorite with Maharishi who saw him as a trusted aide and a possible heir.
Finally, the tipping point came when Maharishi, with the objective of starting Vedic schools all over India, sent Ravi Shankar to establish the Ved Vigyan Vidya Peeth in Bengaluru, in 1985. Not only was a trust set up with Sri Sri, the late justice V. R. Krishna Iyer, Lakshman Rao (then Mayor of Bengaluru) and Justice P. N. Bhagawati, sixty acres of land had been allotted by the Karnataka government in the outskirts of the city on a thirty year lease, with a plan to admit 200 children to the school. A little later, Maharishi took a random decision to not only shut down the school, but transfer all the kids to Delhi. Ravi rebelled and insisted he would continue to care for the children in Bengaluru. The battle-lines were now clearly drawn between the guru and his favorite shishya.
How difficult was it to part with his guru? I asked Sri Sri “It was very tough. On the one hand, I had a vision. There were so many people waiting for me. On the other hand, I felt I could not leave because there was no reason. I had all my comforts, I had everything. At that age, I had seen almost everything in the world. It was tough to take an adventurous step of starting something from the very beginning and following my own vision, my passion of really connecting it with grassroots of people. From that platform, I could not do it. I have heard that they were not very happy that I embarked on something different.”
[ Excerpted with permission from “Gurus : Stories of India's Leading Babas” by Bhavdeep Kang, Westland Books, June 2016. Views expressed are writer’s personal ]