'On the Plateau of the Peak' book review: The art of gurudom

As a child growing up in the 1990s in a Tamil Brahmin maternal family, there was a natural affinity to religion in all walks of life. This was also the time the fad of spiritual gurus was slowly gathering momentum, and today, where there’s a Jaggi Vasudev for Indian elite classes, there’s a Radhe Maa for families from lower income groups. The Art of Living Foundation and its “guru” Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, occupy the elite spiritual ecosystem in India, attracting English-speaking, peace-loving upper middle-income families, not to forget the deeply superstitious business and entrepreneurial class, into its fold. 

It is to such a target audience that this biography by his sister is pitched.

A book by a sibling can scarcely be expected to be objective; one that is commissioned by a commercial publisher even less so. But even accounting for those caveats, Bhanumathi Narasimhan displays a remarkable ability to suspend her judgemental faculties. The geography-defying subtitle — “On the plateau of the peak” — aside, the book opens and closes with Sri Sri’s amazing ability to broker peace in strife-ridden Colombia, which had eluded more experienced interlocutors for years. In 2015, he met a delegation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army (FARC) who appear to have responded instantly to her older brother’s mystical force-field. 

Ms Narasimhan describes the meeting thus: “Every moment was poignant. On the very first day, a connection was made. On the second day, they recognised him as a Master.” Ms Narasimhan writes she was “touched”. “After having lived their entire lives as per (sic) certain rigid systems, they had melted in a matter of three days,” she goes on. This ingenuous sense of awe runs through the various bafflingly titled chapters.

 
In “Ocean in a tea cup”, Ms Narasimhan details their childhood and how Sri Sri, predictably, was mystically brilliant. She would read novels and Sri Sri would mostly spread his strange wisdom about the house. Wonder of wonders, Sri Sri would be able to quote passages from ancient texts at random without having read them. When he played a particular raga on the veena, it would rain. What could have been a deeply interesting personal account of what makes Sri Sri so enigmatic is limited to Ms Narasimhan singing praises of her brother. The only explanation she gives for his spiritual pursuits — besides his “divine” vision — is in the account of Sri Sri’s association with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (he of The Beatles fame). This, in turn, has helped Sri Sri garner a younger, more hip audience.

 
Unsurprisingly, the books also avoids all mention of the debacle at the National Green Tribunal in 2016 and the irreparable damage Art of Living did to the natural habitat of the Yamuna plains in New Delhi. Sri Sri’s extremely well-connected foundation, though it faced a strongly critical media, escaped almost unscathed from the legal battle. 

 
If this doesn’t speak volumes for his political clout, then perhaps his ability to bring Prime Minister Narendra Modi as his guest of honour for the event would. As would the fact that Indian armed forces were deployed to build temporary bridges on the smaller water bodies. Sri Sri is, of course, not alone in the political connections and impunity he enjoys. A whole host of popular gurus across social strata are common visitors to weddings of MPs’ children. Several politicians and business tycoons invite spiritual leaders like Sri Sri and Jaggi Vasudev to speak at private events.

 
The high Brahmanical spirituality that Sri Sri follows is also a palatable version of alternative religion to the Right-leaning religio-political parties in India. Brought up in the Tamil countryside, several of his rituals borrow their meaning and even phraseology from the Sankritised and exclusive traditions of Brahmin homes. Ms Narasimhan’s account of these rituals has no sense of introspection — which is to be expected given her relationship with Sri Sri.

With no reflection or sense of irony, it is obvious to wonder why a book that reads more like a brochure would be published by someone other than the foundation. The answer is simple. Sri Sri functions today in a political context where religion is taking on a greater cultural role, where policy decisions are governed by sensibilities of religious communities and where the average Hindu wants to appear a global citizen and rooted to his culture at once. Sri Sri’s acceptance internationally and his well-travelled persona bode well for the acceptability of the new, robust brand of Hinduism.

 
My childhood tryst with spirituality and religion eventually led to a strong aversion to rituals. It’s hard not to roll your eyes at Ms Narasimhan’s biography, especially given the essay style that is devoid of any intellectual inquiry. But as easy it is to dismiss it as a cult-specific exercise meant strictly for Sri Sri’s current and prospective followers, it is also a striking signifier of our times. Ms Narasimhan’s account is less a demystification of her brother’s rise to gurudom than an eye-opening peek into how mysticism is rationalised and how perfectly rational events are mystified. That — and only that — makes it an important piece of writing.

Gurudev
On the Plateau of the Peak; The Life of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Bhanumathi Narasimhan Westland; 288 pages; Rs 599


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