One of the greatest and most poignant mysteries of life is how every time man errs and darkness engulfs us, the Supreme, the Divine, or whatever name we give It, sends down upon earth His instruments — the avatars, shaktis, gurus, yogis, saints, vibhutis — to help humanity.
Most of these instruments are vilified in their own time, and only when they die are they deified. In the old days, avatars and gurus were physically tortured: Jesus Christ was crucified on the cross by his own people. Nowadays, there is no need to crucify gurus physically; they are just pilloried by the media. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, one of the most selfless gurus today, whose pranayama techniques have benefited millions, and whose volunteers work tirelessly all over the world to alleviate pain, has been attacked again and again.
Recently, Pierre Monegier, the Delhi-based correspondent of France 2, the French national channel, approached the Art of Living Foundation with an apparently innocuous request for an interview: ‘We are planning to do a story on the importance of religion and spirituality in India.’ The request was granted and Monegier and his reporter, Nida Hasan, were allowed access to every corner of the Bangalore ashram, as well as an interview with SSRS. This is what came out on July 4 in the prime time news of France 2: Sri Sri was introduced by a voice over as the ‘head of a vast flourishing business.’ The Bangalore ashram was described as being ‘a gigantic resort with many hotels and restaurants (absolutely false), and innumerable shops dedicated to Sri Sri Shankar.’
mportance was given to images showing devotees touching SSRS’s feet, or asking him to hug them (with voice), and having tears in their eyes, as Monegier knew it would shock French viewers not used to the Indian ways of devotion. Then, Monegier stated: ‘Most disciples pour into the organisation 10% of their income,’ which is a lie. Finally, of the interview with SSRS, they chose only one quote, which could again shock the French: ‘I am like any other doctor — a specialist who can bring happiness to people… the ultimate goal of money is after all happiness’ and Monegier concluded: ‘Some of these auto-proclaimed popes of Hinduism have a flavor of scandal to them.’
Now this is a serious matter: what if an Indian journalist based in Paris asked for an interview with the Cardinal of Paris, lying about his true intentions, and used the opportunity to defame the Cardinal and French Catholicism in general? His or her visa would not be renewed or could even be revoked at once. Usually, it is very easy to denigrate gurus and Hindus — and probably Monegier and Hasan banked on that. But this time, everybody has reacted: the Art of Living is considering filing a defamation suit against France 2 India; the French embassy in India and the Indian embassy in Paris have been contacted and an Indian government official has said that ‘he was appalled by the France 2 footage.’
The accusation of Gurus being super-rich, running empires, having assets in tax-free countries is nothing new. But what I have seen with my own eyes is that a guru starts with a few disciples, and as the ashram grows, people have to be fed, expenses met. Then he has satsangs, which have to be paid for, departments have to be started to run housing for guests, kitchens, administration… At some point donations are not enough and extra money is sought through sales of DVDs, ayurvedic products, photos... France 2 focused on the shops of the Art of Living ashram in Bangalore, even having a close-up of a cash register in an ayurvedic outlet and a saleswoman with a bundle of rupees in her hands. From the beginning, Sri Sri has tried to revive ayurveda in India, seeing how every third shop here is an allopathic one and that this ancient, wise and unique medical system was slowly dying.
Sri Sri started his own ayurvedic factory under one of his most senior disciples and brought out some pioneering products, which today are marketed under Sri Sri Ayurveda. What’s wrong with that?
True, in the end, a movement like the Art of Living has to be run like a multinational — yet every rupee is poured back into seva projects or into ashrams that are always running into losses.
France 2’s film is highly biased, and is a direct attack on India’s ancient culture. That France is only the 11th biggest investor in India, behind smaller countries like Belgium or Mauritius, is undoubtedly due to the wrong image that is propagated by channels like France 2. Will Pierre Monegier get away with what he has done?
Follow Francois Gautier
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on Twitter @fgautier26