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 organising various things: yagya, conferences on Vedic Science, Ayurveda.”
MN Chakravarti, a former teacher of Maharishi’s Transcendental Meditation, 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 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, MN Chakravarti found Ravi’s father, RSV 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 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.”
Unlike some great sages in Indian mythology who crossed over from pleasure to asceticism, Ravi had none of the vices associated with callow youth. He neither smoked nor drank. He loved cinema though and in Rishikesh, “He used to take the boatman along with him, to cross the Ganga to town and see a film… otherwise, there would be no boat on the way back. He would tap on the window of our hostel and I would let him in,” said Chakravarti.
So far, the lad showed no sign of extraordinary powers, until one day when he arrived in Kalady, Adi Shankara’s birthplace in Kerala. According to Chakravarti,” Here, I was given an advanced technique by Maharishi. Ravi was not, although he was there. Maharishi was to leave from a small airstrip 20 kms away. Then Ravi made a prediction. He said Maharishi’s plane would stop, the door would open and an emissary would come and ask for me.”
Ravi Shankar was right, but only partly. The Maharishi’s plane did stop and his secretary did come out. But the chosen one was Ravi, not MN Chakravarti.
The stories converge after that. Ravi was given charge of Maharishi’s Institute of Vedic & Management Sciences, in Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh). He shadowed his guru day and night, flew with him to every destination and was soon regarded his successor. Then suddenly one day, Ravi left – according to him, out of his own volition. Yet another story which did the rounds was that Ravi had, albeit inadvertently, leaked sensitive information to a foreigner who turned out to be an intelligence operative and was then sent out of the institute on some trumped up charge involving voucher payments.
So, what was the real story? Sri Sri spoke in euphemisms, as is his wont.
“It (relationship with Maharishi) was very good, nice, loving and cordial. I am sure they had a lot of expectations from me, but then I went into silence and I started teaching Sudarshan Kriya (SKY). He knew I could not stay. It was like a golden cage for me. I needed to connect to grassroots level people. At that time (with Maharishi), I met Mrs (Indira) Gandhi, Jagjivan Ram, all the top people of the country but suddenly, I took leave from all that and changed to village-level persons. I travelled to small and remote villages. My heart was more with them. The sewa (service) aspect was not part of that (the TM) movement. That movement was more intellectual, based on meditation. I was more interested in sewa.”
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 AoL 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 favourite with Maharishi who saw him as a trusted aide and a possible heir. But one particularly unfortunate event appeared to have started his fall from grace.
In 1980, a massive yagya, featuring 6,000 pandits, was to be organised at Maharishi Nagar, a vast ashram in NOIDA, in UP. In Sri Sri’s words:
“Maharishi had his own style of celebrating and did everything with a lot of pomp and show. For this particular ceremony, he wanted everything to be in yellow as far as the eye could see, as this was the colour of goddess Laxmi. So all the sweets were to be yellow, decorations in yellow and gold coins from different countries were brought for this yagya.”
Despite all the preparation, the yagya degenerated into chaos, with the pandits running riot and protesting against Ravi Shankar.
The disastrous event is described succinctly by Michael Fischman in his book, Stumbling Into Infinity. To begin with, many amongst the huge contingent of pandits recruited for the yagya were carpet-baggers who had been signed up by unscrupulous elements on the promise of rewards and a permanent place in Maharishi Nagar. A rumour that they would be packed off without the promised largesse sent them into a frenzy. Eventually, despite the opposition, Ravi Shankar stepped in and calmed the pandits down with the assurance that no one would be evicted.
Although he regained many of the brownie points that he’d lost when the yagya flopped, his deft handling of the fallout created jealousy.
His less favoured colleagues began to poison Maharishi against the young pandit, suggesting that he was trying to usurp his guru’s place.
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 schools but transfer all the kids to Delhi. Ravi rebelled and insisted he would continue to care for the children in Bengaluru. The battlelines were now clearly drawn between the guru and his favourite 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 with grassroots 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 the forthcoming Gurus: Stories of India’s Leading Babas, Bhavdeep Kang, Westland Books.