When he is not busy working on his proclaimed goal of world peace or leading a satsang, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar inspires a fast-growing FMCG company which carries his honorific title. The spiritual leader, who has followers in some 160 countries, stays away from the commercial aspects of Sri Sri Ayurveda (it is left to professionals and volunteers) but vouches for the quality of the products. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, he explains how he started the business, how violence can be tackled and how to achieve peace.
You started Art of Living as a better way of living. Do you see the products from Sri Sri Ayurveda as an extension of the holistic wellbeing it promotes?
Correct. When we started the ashram [near Bengaluru] two doctors came from Kerala. They suggested starting a clinic here, and I agreed. Then we thought we should start an Ayurveda college because there was a need for Ayurveda doctors. And we opened a college and it has become one of the best colleges in India. Then we came up with medicines because we needed to have pure medicines. Then we started other products [personal care and cosmetic] because there was demand for them. Initially, we did not have enough even to give the Art of Living volunteers and families. We did not want to compromise on quality.
Many of your initiatives that flourished later were started out of need. How do you recognise such requirements?
It stares on your face; that is why it is called a need. For instance, water. Now water is the biggest problem in Latur [in Maharashtra]. If it is left to the government, I don't know how many years it would take. So our people took it on our hands. First we put Rs 1 crore and started clearing silt from rivers. The pace of work was so good that the water level started coming up and the entire Latur joined us. Like that, the needs stare on your face and if you start leading, everyone will join. We have now worked on the rejuvenation of 17 rivers.
About two decades ago, you said people took pride in violence and that was the problem with the world. Nothing much has changed since.
If you see it from one end, yes, there are some things that have not changed. From another angle, there is always change. For instance, there are more hospitals than earlier now. And there are more patients also. Hospitals cannot keep coming up to cater to new patients. What we need is lifestyle change. And education is the only way to achieve it.
When your efforts to help the world are not reciprocated, how do you feel?
There is so much good response. If people were not responding, our programmes would not have expanded as much. Today we have demand for so many teachers [of Art of Living]. There are 15,000 teachers in India and still we need more. Today all our schools are full, which indicates people want to learn. We only have to catch up with the pace of violence that happens in this world.
Your teachings often go beyond the constraints of religion.
Our veda is good for everybody. Similarly, peace is needed for everyone. We tell people whatever they want to worship, continue worshipping that. I will help them make their minds clearer and their hearts purer through yoga and meditation.