It was chairs and people as far as the eye could see the equivalent of the entire population of Utah sitting in rapt attention in row after row when 2.5 million people gathered on the airfield in Bangalore, India, in the winter of 2006.
They had come from 150 countries to honor His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living Foundation, and co-founder, with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, of the International Association for Human Values. Political leaders from South Africa to Iraq took turns praising the Indian spiritual leader for his efforts to bring people together in a "one-world family."
Sri Sri's list of accomplishments and programs and initiatives is so long trauma relief and women's empowerment and conflict resolution and breathing classes that have been taught to millions of people that it's a bit hard to get a handle on him, or to figure out why his name isn't a household word in the United States. (Just to set the record straight, he is not the Ravi Shankar who played the sitar with the Beatles.)
All that relative obscurity may be changing. Next week Sri Sri will be honored at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. And he has recently launched his "Violence-Free, Stress-Free America" initiative, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Art of Living Foundation.
On Friday he'll be in Salt Lake City, as part of a five-city tour. University of Utah president Michael Young will host a reception for him; then from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sri Sri will lead a "meditation for world peace" and will answer questions. Tickets for this event, which will be held at the University Park Marriott Hotel, are $25 ($10 for students).
Sri Sri is a Hindu, "but if you ask him what his religion is he'll say 'love,"' explains Poonam Tandon, who teaches Art of Living courses in a breathing technique called Sudarshan Kriya. The technique, according to the Art of Living Foundation, has been found to increase both beta-wave and alpha-wave activity in the brain, leading to increased mental alertness and relaxation. The technique is said to decrease depression and anxiety, and improve cholesterol levels.
Sri Sri, who grew up in India, got a degree in physics and studied Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He discovered that many people have so much stress and so many nagging, swirling thoughts that they can't get into a meditative state. What they needed, he decided, was a class in yogic breathing, pared down to a few, simple exercises.
The breathing, Tandon explains, "takes you to the doorstep of meditation."
Tandon herself grew up in the United States, and was taught by her parents to meditate from the time she was 9 years old. But it didn't really click until she began the Art of Living breathing exercises, which brought "an immense sense of well-being and contentment, and at the same time I felt my abilities could blossom," she says.
The technique has been taught in prisons, hospitals and schools, to Russian soldiers, AIDS patients, Indian terrorists, women in war-torn Baghdad and Hurricane Katrina survivors. "Anyone who breathes can take the course," she says.
The six-day class was recently taught in Salt Lake City and will be taught again beginning April 20. The course is taught largely by volunteers, and the hefty $375 course fee goes almost entirely to fund Art of Living service programs, Tandon says.
The breathing technique and meditation fosters crucial human values, according to Sri Sri. On a recently released DVD message, the gentle guru lists these values as compassion, love and wisdom. It is lack of wisdom, he says, "that has brought terrorism to this world."
Today's heroes, he says in his quiet, lilting voice, "will have to have an undying smile," not aggression. "Today's heroes don't need to have villains to shine. They shine by their very virtue."For more information about His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's visit, go to www.artofliving.org.