A Guru Teaches Techies How to Breathe
As Arun Nandal prepared to start a new job as a software engineer, the good son touched his parents' feet to seek their blessing. Then he boarded a train and traveled 40 hours from his home in northern India to the country's tech capital, Bangalore, to share his joy with someone almost as important. That person was Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, well known in India and, increasingly, around the world as guru to the technology class. Nandal, 22, credits Sri Sri and his Art of Living courses on breathing and spiritual development with helping him land his first job, at Lucent Technologies Inc., in Bombay. He says Sri Sri's techniques taught him to concentrate better and helped boost his university grades. "We are very energetic at our age, so we need to focus," says Nandal. "Art of Living helps with that."
Nandal is far from alone in his admiration for Sri Sri. In the past two years, the guru has become hugely popular with India's urban elite and its growing community of technology graduates. These disciples say Sri Sri's approach to yogic breathing -- rhythmic breaths that flood the body with oxygen -- eases the intense pressures of their stress-filled, competitive vocations and helps them find meaning in life beyond their jobs. It's a perfect solution for a generation that is breaking away from centuries of religious and family tradition. Rather than following the Hindu doctrine of penance and renunciation intertwined with past and future incarnations, Art of Living tells its generally well-heeled adherents to guiltlessly enjoy whatever wealth they accumulate and to live for the moment -- while giving back to society and letting the guru concern himself with their troubles. "It's a spiritual niche into which New Age, developing techies fit," says Rukmini Bhaya Nair, an Indian Institute of Technology professor who writes about the country's evolving tech culture.
Some 4 million people are active devotees of Sri Sri's sudarshan kriya breathing, which the savvy guru says he discovered while meditating for 10 days in 1982. The 47-year-old ascetic is a hot commodity on the lecture circuit and has spoken at U.N. events and the World Economic Forum. "Peacemakers are right here and everywhere -- within each one of us we can create that peace," the guru told world leaders gathered at Davos.
Some 1 million of his followers live outside India. In the San Francisco Bay area, for example, the number of practicing devotees has grown to 3,000 from 2,000 a year ago. It hasn't hurt that corporations such as Oracle (ORCL ) Sun Microsystems, and Cisco Systems have hired Art of Living teachers to conduct six-day seminars at $150 a head. "The knife of job loss is hanging over our heads. The fear leads people to join the courses," says Ravi Phatak, an Oracle engineer in San Francisco who runs Art of Living seminars.
The epicenter of Sri Sri's movement, though, is Bangalore. At Sri Sri's headquarters complex and ashram, located on 60 acres of lush hillside south of the city center, the guru has a brand-new building for his satsangs, or evening devotionals. After sundown, as many as 3,000 followers gather in the great hall beneath a roof shaped like unfolding pink lotus petals with a glass dome at its center. If Sri Sri is in residence, he addresses his flock; when he's not in town, the congregation listens to tapes of him speaking. As the ceremony wears on, youthful devotees -- many of them with long hair and beards like their guru -- sway, sing, and chant into cordless microphones.
Bangalore's legions of young engineers, struggling with the friction between India's traditional culture and their new role as players in a global industry, eat it up. They've even given the movement a techie acronym, AOL. "Once you learn [Sri Sri's] teachings, you forget everything else you've learned," says Puspanjali Parida, a smiling 25-year-old computer-science graduate. She says the pressure to succeed was so great that she was nearly suicidal after failing an entrance test for a computer course, but that Sri Sri's teachings and breathing technique dissolved her fears. "I saw myself in a new light," she says.
Art of Living gatherings may look like a hippie nostalgia tour, but they're smart business. Bangalore tech consultants estimate that the group took in $10 million in revenues last year. Art of Living says it invests much of that money in giving free courses to prisoners in India, the U.S., and Europe, and for rural-development programs in India and South Africa. Sri Sri leads an apparently simple life, owning almost nothing, wearing Spartan white or saffron robes, and living in a one-room cottage in his ashram when he's not traveling to tend to his global flock.
The son of a middle-class social worker, Sri Sri received a B.A. in science from a college in Bangalore. Upon graduation, he looked into a career at a Calcutta state-sector bank. Instead, Sri Sri became a disciple of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian who introduced Transcendental Meditation to the West in the 1960s. Soon, Sri Sri had risen to become manager of the guru's foreign operations -- where he learned a thing or two about networking and marketing.
When Sri Sri struck out on his own, he knew just how to spread the word about his breathing program: through endorsements from socialites, fashion models, business leaders, and members of Parliament. His followers aggressively pitched the guru's message to corporations in India and, later, overseas. Art of Living is "ancient wisdom made contemporary," says K.B. Seshadri, global sales director of iFlex Solutions, a Bangalore software house. "There's no reading of scriptures. It's practical."
It's also an opportunity to be included in a club where not just techies but India's rich, famous, and beautiful play, critics note. It's "a far easier membership to acquire than the snobby Bangalore Club," the city's elite, ex-colonial country club, says tech consultant Chiranjit Banerjee. Sri Sri counters that Art of Living serves a far more important purpose than any social club. "Every intelligent person has a spiritual quest," he said in response to e-mailed questions. "Art of Living creates the conditions whereby the quest can be nurtured. It is not a luxury item but has become a basic necessity in today's world."
As long as India -- and Silicon Valley -- keep minting new software engineers, Sri Sri will be there to help them find their spiritual way.
By Manjeet Kripalani in Bangalore