Art of Living founder, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar aka Ravi Shankar Ratnam is not accustomed to hostility from the media.
In fact, his highly efficient team of PR professionals dealing with bad press for the first time in 30 years thanks to the controversy surrounding the World Culture Festival organised by AoL on the banks of the Yamuna river in Delhi.
Such is the magnitude of the controversy this time that even a leading English newspaper, whose owners are known devotees of Ravi Shankar, carried front page stories on the culture festival that were less than congratulatory.
“Overnight, the media has turned into our enemies. We enjoyed such good relations (before this). It’s all part of a sinister conspiracy,” says a senior AoL office-bearer who left his family in Bengal two decades ago to devote his life to Sri Sri’s cause. Refusing to be drawn into making a statement on record, he said, “I am only talking to you as a friend.”
Ravi Shankar and his followers take their “friendship” with the media very seriously. In his journey from a virtually unknown yoga guru in the 1990s to an international celebrity, his greatest allies and most effective promoters have been a section of very influential journalists in Bengaluru.
Such is their devotion to the godman that they openly fall at his feet and seek his blessings during press conferences. The most recent instance where journalists blurred the line was Saturday.
Three reporters touched his feet at the end of a media interaction organised by a national television news channel at his ashram in Kanakapura on the outskirts of the city.
“He (Ravi Shankar) later came to us and gifted each of us an expensive silk shawl. He asked us to visit his ashram with our families for a free yoga retreat,” says a senior magazine journalist who preferred anonymity.
While it is possible that some journalists feel genuinely passionate about his project to ‘heal the world with yoga’, AoL’s PR team has never left matters to chance. For nearly 20 years, journalists, not just from Bengaluru but across India, have been getting massive discounts from AoL for their yoga programmes. Often, the entire fee of a residential yoga camp, which can run into several thousand rupees, is completely waived off for journalists.
Although rare, criticism of Ravi Shankar in the media started trickling in early 2008 when he joined other godmen such as Baba Ramdev, Asaram Bapu, Morari Bapu and Vishveshwara Theertha Swamiji in sharing the stage with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and other Hindutva outfits. Despite the VHP’s statements at the time that these godmen were being enlisted to build momentum for the BJP’s 2009 Lok Sabha campaign, Ravi Shankar and his PR team maintained that he had no political ambition and would support any political party which raised the right issues.
Ravi Shankar did not make any public statement seeking a mandate for the BJP in those elections but attended several VHP rallies where the Hindutva bogey was raised to create a public discourse that would polarise votes and benefit the BJP. In his speeches, Ravi Shankar restricted himself to calling for greater unity among Hindus, adherence to the Vedic way of life and criticism of Islamist terrorism.
In May 2010, the guru made the front pages when he claimed that terrorists had tried to assassinate him after a stray bullet entered his ashram. Through a series of statements, he sought to create the impression that he was on the hit list of terrorist for speaking about Hinduism and Indian culture.
The bullet, investigations later showed, had been fired by a farmer who was trying to chase away stray dogs. The police findings led some local newspapers to carry editorials criticising Ravi Shankar of being irresponsible and triggering panic to gain publicity.
In March 2012, he once again gained infamy when he said at an event in Jaipur that all government schools should be privatised because they are turning into breeding grounds for Naxals. He was quoted as saying that “children of private schools don’t get into this (naxalism)”.
In November 2014, he was part of the VHP’s sant sammelan in Tumakuru near Bengaluru where 5,600 Hindu pontiffs had gathered. Together, they passed a resolution calling for a ban on cattle slaughter and religious conversions, for the cow to be made the national animal, the passage of a uniform civil code and making termination of pregnancy illegal.
Ravi Shankar’s PR team, however, still maintains that he is neutral and has no political affiliations.
It is easy to see why the Sangh Parivar would want him on their side. The yoga foundation he started in 1981 has branches today in more than 150 countries with a combined following in excess of 300 million, making him one of the most popular godmen in India. He’s one of the few English-speaking gurus in the country and holds the keys to a constituency of urbane, upwardly mobile Indians who the BJP and the Sangh have always been eager to woo.