Sri Sri Ravi Shankar comes to Washington

I went to see Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the spiritual leader of the Art of Living Foundation, Thursday night. He came to the Washington DC area as part of a world tour– I guess what he does every year. The conference room was filled to capacity, mainly by Hindus, but there were all kinds of people, a crosssection of DC’s melting pot. I saw my instructors and others from my kriya group. They were manning the booths, selling literature and recordings, distributing leaflets, helping people sign up for courses and explaining the organization’s activities. I bought a book of Sri Sri’s collected chats – Celebrating Silence.

The meeting was kicked off by a local musical group, the Generics, from the University of Maryland. They sang a cappella. Several of them had taken the intro courses and wanted to sign for Sri Sri. They were surprisingly good — kind of mob music (there were about 10 of them), but with at least four quality lead singers.

Sri Sri got up and chatted for about 30 minutes. I can’t remember the details of what he said, but a couple of things stick. Early in the chat, he fielded a question, what is the purpose of life? He said that if anyone told you that he/she had the answer to that question, you should immediately ignore him and turn away because no one can really tell you what the purpose of life is. You has to find that answer for himself inside yourself.

While people were waiting for the meeting to start, they put questions onto index cards and handed them to ushers moving through the conference room. When Sri Sri came on stage, he was handed hundreds of questions. He said that he would pick three to answer. People kept sending up more questions, even passed the point when they could have been included in the Q and A session. There was obviously more significance to the written questions than just the chance to get an answer.

After speaking for about half an hour, he led us in a meditation — it was 25 minutes, but it seemed like an instant. That’s quite an accomplishment given that it was not the most ideal conditions. Even though it was surprisingly still; there were more than a thousand people — coughs, grunts, cell phone (despite repeated warnings to turn offall electronic devices). But the time still flew by.

Sri Sri definitely looked very Indian, fitting the mold of a spiritual leader. He had long, flowing hair and beard, dressed in white robes. He has a dark complexion, and a penetrating gaze softened by a permanent smile. He spoke with a relaxed, high-pitched voice. If Hollywood — or Bollywood — were going to cast someone in the role of a guru or swami — Sri Sri would win hands down. But there is obviously a keen intellect behind the window dressing. He really knows how to work the crowd, get them involved and draw in their participation. He is always eliciting feedback form the audience.

The meeting ended with Sri Sri being mobbed by the audience. The organizers wanted the audience to forma line so that Sri Sri could greet them one by one, butut seemed that chaos would prevail. It was 9:30 at night. I had to head home so that I could still find my wife awake so that she could pick me up at the metro station.

Why did Sri Sri come to Washington? He had met with congressional leaders and also with President Bush– Thursday was National Prayer Day.