Friday, November 17, 2006

HOLY COWS AND SACRED ONES

I first saw him in an unlikely place. It was the summer of 2003, and I was standing in a line for one of the big roller coasters at the Six Flags amusement park in New Jersey. Right behind me, there was a man with a flowing beard and a long white robe standing and marveling with childlike enchantment at the snaking and whizzing roller coaster on top. I was amused, but even in 2003, I was not entirely sure what Sri Sri Ravi Shankar looked like. I did suspect it was him because I had probably seen his photo somwehere, and two of my friends has attended his art of living ccourse and had strongly recommended it to me. Their most important rationale was that "there is nothing spiritual about it"; it was a logical and 'scientific' technique of meditation. I never ended up attending one of those courses, but now I wish I had (or perhaps I still will) out of sheer curiosity.

Three years later, the massive following around Ravi Shankar is exceedingly looking like a cult and seems jarring to me, something like that around Satya Sai Baba. I have read some of his writings. While there is nothing particularly dogmatic about them, I also could not see anything exceptional in them; no fresh point of view, no new insight. I have already written about his article on terrorism, in which some lines are outright ludicrous. But today, I see hundreds of thousands of people following him, hanging on endearingly to his words, and preaching his philosophy around the world. But even after having read some of the articles about and by him, and after one Nobel prize nomination later, I still don't understand what exactly his philosophy is; that leads me to think that his philosophy is not so much being taught, as it is being parroted. His deep-breathing technique may have its merits, but that hardly explains his mass appeal.

But what I worry about the most is his followers' consistent insistence of the innocent quality of his teachings, the 'non-spiritual' nature of his discourses. They say that in fact, he is against organised religion, his sayings don't have a religious flavour. But religion is first and foremost about blind faith; the rituals and dogmatic sounding customs that most people's definition of religion necessarily contain come much later. If you are convinced that someone's discourses don't have an iota of dogma in them, and if you are stuborn to the point of unwavering belief in this fact, then you are actually being dogmatic, and there's not much difference between you and someone who strictly adheres to well-defined religious customs taught by a preacher. Both these attitudes are the same, because at their root, they are the product of blind faith.

There have been sinister examples of cults in history that have not been imbibed with any one religious philosophy or tradition. The members of those cults were lured into them precisely because the non-religious sounding tenets of the cult appealed to them. Jim Jones's cult is an archetypal and chilling example. The charismatic preacher preached essentially what was racial equality, compassion, and love, attributes that should not necessarily subscribe to a particular religion. But the line between religious dogma and religious dogma masquerading as 'objective' and logical beliefs is thin, and Jones's followers certainly did not recognize it. The distinction between being in love with an idea and being in love with the person who came up with it was quickly forgotten. The result? Jonestown, Guyana, and the largest collective mass suicide in history, grotesque proof of how one man can convert well-reasoned and sane people into faith imbibed zombies. Convert them to such an extent that, when the moment of reckoning arrives, mothers willingly inject cyanide into their babies' mouths.

I am in no way comparing Ravi Shankar to Jim Jones, and I hope that I never have to compare anyone to Jim Jones. But I wish to emphasize that just because someone preaches universal compassion, equality, and peace, does not mean he is incapable of forming a cult around him. Religious faith is akin to romantic love, and just as in romantic love, it does not always take rational justification to subscribe to it; in fact, since most of us have some rationality in us, rationality may be the perfect bait to lure someone across the line of faith. For a moment, let's assume that Ravi Shankar's words bear weight in terms of policy or political action. That still is no reason to worship him with the kind of enraputured soul-filling ideology that you see and hear.

When I hear about one lakh people singing and dancing together, their emotions essentially orchestrated by a single man on a stage, I see no reason to not believe that what I am seeing may be the collective exaltation of a cult. If people think that Ravi Shankar is someone exceptional because he preaches in a non-spiritual manner, then it may be part of a delusion that they are unaware of. Perhaps Ravi Shankar has excellent PR skills, perhaps he is unusually articulate, perhaps he is the Dale Carnegie of India, but all that is no reason to worhip him and put your complete faith in him, as many of his devotees do. After all, as I often reiterate, compassion, equality, and respect and love are qualities that are independent in their merit and do not need to be true because they are enunciated by someone in particular. The same thing can be said for all the social service efforts that his foundation is engaged in; admirable efforts in themselves, and it's not necessary to attach any kind of aura to the person spearheading them. If Shankar iterates values in a way such that the common man understands them better, we certainly appreciate him for doing that, but it should have nothing to do with worshipping him, dancing to his tune in the millions (pun intended) or calling him 'Sri Sri' for that matter.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Millions of people's devotion and love to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar comes not because of what he preaches or of what work his foundation has done, neither for his teaching or his techniques. Isn't it something to wonder about? Such a charismatic person creating a wave of love throughout the world, giving people hope in the time of conflict and war? It is something that humanity is in real need these days. Love, ease and confort, and he provides that. We have forgotten our basic human values and he just reminds them to us. But again that is not the reason why million of people love him. Frankly I do not know why but I am one of these people. People might call his organisation a sect. That's their choice. But think of this: When something so big gets bigger and bigger to encompass the whole world, till everyone becomes part of it, what can we call that? I don't know but it's something worth considering. It's obvious from your writing that you are intrigued with this matter, why people worship him. Why are there so many spiritual organisation spreading so quickly in India and the world? Is that something good for humanity or are they converting us? There are definately corrupt spiritual organisations and some that are not and I think the fact that they are spreading so quickly means that humans need some form of spirituality today. We have lost contact with our basic humanness and have forgotten what it means to be human, to be caring loving and compassionate, understanding our differences and sharing our common values. The world today is tired of fighting, be it at home or between nations. We need to join hands with our neighbours and become strong in our own community, nation and the world. I'm sure you agree with that.
Then to come back to the question, why woship him?? For me he represents love. He genuenly cares for people and is a mother for many. But that's just my opinion.
Chris

9:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My dear friend,
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is not preaching in a non-spiritual manner. He is a spiritual leader and all of his work is about spirituality which is the common thread between all religions. Spirituality is what deals with the human values such as universal compassion, love, peace, friendliness, helping others etc...
I think you fail to see that because all your judgements and comments are based on information and not on experience. Yes, do take the course and you might understand. Experience is a thousand times better than words.
Ralph

2:26 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Ralph and Chris, thanks for your comment. I don't have any objection to the benefits of the activities that AOL and RS are engaged in, and I agree with you that one should admire these efforts. There are and have been many such individuals in the world, completely non-religious and non-spiritual, who have also engaged in this. And why do compassion, love, peace, friendliness etc. have to be said to be part of spirituality? Why not of moral philosophy? Do you think that what moral philosophers have taught is not the same as what RS has taught?
What reason could one have to not regard General George Marshall as not being equivalent in his benevolence to RS?; after all, his Marshall Plan (after WW2) also gave hope and solace through monetary aid to a battered European continent of millions. My problem is not with the benevolent activities that RS orchestrates, it is only with the cult like following that he has. I see him being worshipped like god, and that's what I don't approve of. The problem with someone being worshipped so much is that you can fail to have an objective evaluation of his abilities and words. For example, I stand by my opinion that the article cited above does not say anything that could be viewed as an immediate, practical device. The way the article ends does not make any sense, and anyone like me would become extremely skeptical about the wisdom of RS's words after reading it. My point is, I don't dispute the man's qualities, nor his efforts at bringing peace. What I dispute is the cult-like following. Let me just ask you a few questions; if the answer to those questions is yes, then I think you will agree that you are not engaging in hero worship of RS.
1. Would you be ready to strongly criticise or dispprove of RS's words or writings if they don't appeal to your objective judgement? In the first place, would you exercise your objective judgement when it comes to RS?
2. Let's say you have a child (maybe you already do), would you be ok with not trying to indoctrinate the philosophy of RS in him right from his birth? Will you be ready to let him form his own opinion of RS and AOL as he grows up?

And I don't doubt that I am intrigued by RS and AOL, and by the fact that it is a worldwide phenomenon. But I think you will agree that just because something is a worldwide phenomenon does not mean it is exceptional in its own merit. Christianity, Islam and Scientology are also worldwide phenomena with millions of followers, but it's probably a trivial fact that one can debate their merits. I agree that I have not experienced AOL and RS's teachings, but even if information is not the same as experience, it can be quite good for evaluation and criticism. Does that mean that I cannot criticise Christianity if I don't become a Christian?

As you can see, I have nothing against RS. He may be a very nice man, and may be unusually articulate in enunciating principles which others perhaps have not been so fortunate in explaining. I would love to have a cup of tea with him, and could hold him in much respect all my life. But that's no reason to hero worship him, is it? What concerns me is the increasing godlike status he is acquiring in the world.

9:21 AM  

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