Ravi Shankar usually known as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, was born Ravi Shankar Ratnam on 13 May 1956. He is also frequently referred to simply as “Sri Sri” (honorific) or as Guruji or Gurudev. He is a spiritual leader and founder of the Art of Living Foundation (founded 1982), which aims to relieve individual stress, societal problems and violence. It is an NGO with UNESCO consultative status. In 1997 he established a Geneva-based charity, the International Association for Human Values, an NGO that engages in relief work and rural development and aims to foster shared global values. In 2010 Shankar was named by Forbes Magazine as the fifth most influential person in India. He was involved in the protests demanding a strong lokpal bill.
Ravi Shankar was born to Smt. Vishalakshi Ratnam and R. S. Venkat Ratnam, who was then active in the automobile business. He was named “Ravi” (a common Indian name meaning “sun”) because his birth was on a Sunday and “Shankar” after the 8th century Hindu saint Adi Shankara, with whom he shares the birthday. He completed his studies for Bachelor in Science at the age of 17 at St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore University, culminating into the degree which he received on 7th December 1974 (at the age of 18) from Bangalore University.
After graduation, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar traveled with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and was invited by Maharishi to give talks on Vedic science, arrange conferences on the Vedas and science, and set up Ayurveda centers. He was with the Maharishi at the inauguration of the first of the Golden Domes at Maharishi International University. He was earlier addressed as “Pandit Ravi Shankar” (or “Punditji”) but in the early 1990s changed his name to “Sri Sri Ravi Shankar” (literally “Mister Mister Ravi Shankar”) after the renowned sitarist Ravi Shankar objected that the guru was using the name he had made famous.
The 1980s saw Shankar initiate a series of practical and experiential courses in spirituality around the globe. Shankar says that his rhythmic breathing exercise sudarśana-kriyā (Hindi: came to him in 1982 “like a poem, an inspiration”, after a ten-day period of silence on the banks of the Bhadra River in Shimoga, state of Karnataka, adding, “I learned it and started teaching it”.
Shankar says that every emotion has a corresponding rhythm in the breath and regulating breath could help relieve personal suffering. After realizing Sudarshan Kriya, Shankar started sharing it with others through the Art of Living course, first held in Shimoga.
Shankar inspired his father and several other prominent citizens of Bangalore to found Ved Vignan Maha Vidya Peeth, an educational and charitable trust, in 1981. Under the auspices of this trust, he opened a school south of Bangalore for local rural children. The school now provides free education for 2,000 such children.
In 1983 Shankar held the first Art of Living course in Europe in Switzerland. In 1986 he travelled to Apple Valley, California in the USA to conduct the first course to be held in North America.
In 2010 Shankar appeared on MTV’s “Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory” in which he and Rob’s manager, Jeremy Larner, attempt to help Rob find true happiness in life.
Shankar teaches that spirituality is that which enhances human values such as love, compassion and enthusiasm. It is not limited to any one religion or culture. Hence it is open to all people. He feels the spiritual bond we share as part of the human family is more prominent than nationality, gender, religion, profession, or other identities that separate us.
According to him, science and spirituality are linked and compatible, both springing from the urge to know. The question, “Who am I?” leads to spirituality. The question, “What is this?” leads to science. Emphasizing that joy is only available in the present moment, his stated vision is to create a world free of stress and violence. His programs are said to offer practical tools to help accomplish this. He sees breath as the link between body and mind, and a tool to relax the mind, emphasizing the importance of both meditation/spiritual practice and service to others. In his view, “Truth is spherical rather than linear; so it has to be contradictory.”
Peace and humanitarian work
In the 1990s, Shankar initiated a number of humanitarian projects, which continue to this date under the auspices of the Art of Living Foundation and its numerous national organizations. In 1992 he started prison programs to rehabilitate prison inmates and help them reintegrate into the mainstream. 1997 saw the beginning of the International Association for Human Values, a humanitarian organization, and its 5H program, which aims to bring sustainable development to rural areas and revive human values. After the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center towers in New York City, the Art of Living Foundation offered free courses in stress reduction to New Yorkers. The group ran a relief program in Kosovo for the war-ravaged population and for public health, university and UN personnel. The organization started an operation in occupied Iraq in 2003 aimed at relieving the stress of the Iraqi population, particularly the rising population of traumatized widows. A similar program was implemented in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2006 teaching war victims as well as UN and NGO personnel. In 2007, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar visited Iraq at the invitation of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and also met with Sunni, Shia and Kurdish leaders. He visited Pakistan in 2004 and met with political and religious leaders there as a part of his efforts to promote global peace. He is involved in interfaith dialogue and currently sits on the Board of World Religious Leaders for the Elijah Interfaith Institute. Many volunteers assisted the 2004 tsunami victims and Hurricane Katrina victims, in Haiti and many other regions of conflict and natural disaster. There is a prison stress management and rehabilitation techniques program, known as Prison SMART (Stress Management and Rehabilitation Training), which assists many prisoners and prison staff worldwide.
Sudarshan Kriya is a “breathing-based technique” that is a core component of the Art of Living courses and “the cornerstone of … Art of Living Foundation’s trauma relief programs”.
A number of medical studies on its preparatory practices have been published in international peer-reviewed journals. A range of mental and physical benefits are reported in these studies, including reduced levels of stress (reduced cortisol—the “stress” hormone), improved immune system, relief from anxiety & depression (mild, moderate & severe), increased antioxidant protection, and enhanced brain function (increased mental focus, calmness and recovery from stressful stimuli), among other findings. Persons enrolling for the courses sign a non-disclosure agreement with an undertaking not to teach the learned techniques (including Sudarshan Kriya) to other people without taking Teacher’s Training.
According to Bharti Verma, M.D., in The Way of Grace, by David Lucas Burge and Gary Boucherle, “Sudarshan Kriya is not hyperventilation…. The process is unlike hyperventilation and seems much more complex in its nature. A person hyperventilating will often experience lightheadedness, blurred vision, muscle spasms of hands and feet, a general feeling of being unwell, fainting and loss of consciousness. In contrast, course participants learning Sudarshan Kriya report a state of deep relaxation while feeling rejuvenated and re-energized. Clearly the experiences of persons practicing Sudarshan Kriya are exactly the opposite of what a hyperventilating exercise would be expected to produce.”
The breathing technique has also garnered fair number of critiques as well, doubting the efficacy of the breathing technique, and for not producing enough scientific data stating it’s differences with hyperventilation.[More Citations needed to explain the differences between them]
Local Art of Living organizations exist in 152 countries.