From Ravi Shankar An Autobiography Raga Mala (1997) Edited and Introduced by George Harrison.
From my childhood I had much interest and curiosity in spiritual matters, hearing about saints and yogis with special powers performing miracles – some who could materialise objects, who could themselves disappear and reappear elsewhere, or appear in two places at the same time. I believed the stories, because I heard them from people whom I could trust.
For the first eighteen years of my life, I did not have the opportunity to meet any great spiritual yogis. I had met only a few hatha yogis who could. perform physical feats. For instance, I saw one chap who could take a bowl filled with half milk and half water, and suck in all the liquid through his penis and then bring it back out – like a straw! He then boasted that he could similarly enter a woman and suck the ‘life-juice’ out of her through his lingam. Dada, who was there, had asked him, ‘Is there a container in which she keeps her “life-juice” for you to do this?’ The ‘yogi’, with his wet, limp dick hanging out, smiled foolishly!
I grant you that sort of exploit was entertaining, but it didn’t impress me particularly. Tat Baba was the first great yogi I had contact with, and he came to me when I was in the lowest state of mind and spirit. He had an extraordinary personality and a tremendous power emanated from him. All my problems seemed to vanish from then onwards, and things changed dynamically. I believed in him, and he bestowed such love and strength upon me. He also provided me with the mantras which one chants at times, or preferably all the time inside one’s mind.
Everything was fine for almost twenty years, but later on I realised that he was a normal human being in many respects, with weaknesses, rough edges and soft corners like anybody else. He had acquired his powers through sadhana, the traditional Indian practice of sacrificing all materialistic things and working in a disciplined manner under a guru’s direction towards achieving self-realisation through spirituality, music or another route. Yogis can, however, lose their powers if they do not stay on the right path and maintain this sadhana. They can fall into the various traps of money, women, sex or power. Similarly in our mythology we have tales about great souls who become attracted to a beautiful apsara (celestial nymph) and lose their siddhi, becoming like any other human being. Though one is not supposed to criticise one’s guru in any way, I do feel Tat Baba came down through many grades from the supreme power that he once had. His powerful vibration diminished gradually, like a battery running down.
This made me feel very sad, but I will never forget those wonderful years when he was all-powerful and we were ‘connected’. I had felt his presence so strongly, as he was solving my problems and protecting me all the time. I will always be grateful to him for his love and grace of those years.
After Tat Baba died in 1973, for a few years I felt like I’d lost a father. I had been depending so much on him. Even when he was not present, I always had that confidence that he was taking care of me in any dangerous moments. That level of dependence is unhealthy really. One has to have the power within and have full trust in oneself; that is the ideal.
Two or three years later a friend of mine in Los Angeles, Richard Bock, who was a devotee of the great yogi Satya Sai Baba, arranged for me to meet him in Bangalore when I was playing a concert there. I went along to have his darshan (to see him). Satya Sai Baba is one of our best-known and most popular yogis, and I had read books about his miracles and the objects he materialises – lockets, rings, diamonds, whatever; he has that special power – and furthermore his great philosophical and religious teaching. I was absolutely dazzled by his presence. He was so loving. As if he knew me already, he took me aside for three or four minutes and told me almost everything about my life: what I was going to do, my problems, my fears, my hopes. I told him that I was looking only for a blessing, and he said, ‘If I am not your guru, it doesn’t matter. I am like your mother or your father. Consider me either or both.’ He blessed me and gave me vibhuti – white holy ash with a fantastic smell.
That’s how it started. For a few years I felt once again that a guardian angel was protecting me, and it gave me a great uplift. A number of times I played for him on his birthday, and he gave me lockets with rubies or emeralds, which he would materialise just like that, as he is well known to do. He also gave me a zircon ring. When in time this became a bit loose, I went back to him and showed him it. In front of many people who were sitting there, watching like hawks, he handed back the ring and I put it on. Although it looked the same, I knew it was different. Not only did it fit me, it was also made of pure diamond and 22-carat gold!
Call him a magician if you like, but this is merely a kind of game – what we know as his Lila (from Krishna’s Lila, his game of teasing the gopis). He is more than a magician: whether he truly materialises diamonds or not, and I believe he does, his main ability is that he can talk to you and get inside you. He tells simple parables with profound meanings, and has changed so many people’s lives. His other side is to pay homage to them, and often I have played for them too. Mata Anandamayi was one, the lady-saint of enormous warmth and love. I also met the great Kamakoti Shankaracharya of Kanchi, from the Tamil town of Kanchipuram, when he was in his eighties. He was worshipped like God alive. If he wanted he could have lived like a maharajah, because there were multi-millionaires all over the world devoted to him, but he never travelled in a car, train or plane, only on foot or on an elephant, and he never even had a house to live in – he lived outdoors under the trees as much as possible, or if it was cold there was a place near the temple where he sat. He always ate simply, and just wore a loin cloth or, in the cold, a cotton garment like a shawl. His eyes exuded such love. Seeing him was like taking a cold bath in an extremely hot weather. I met him about four times and I played for him three times; once in Madras, unforgettably, outside underneath a mango tree, with his elephant standing nearby. Despite the scorching midday heat, neither my sitar nor Alla Rakha’s tabla went out of tune. I felt such a beautiful feeling – I don’t know how time passed.
The big name in the West around the time when I ventured out was Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He established Transcendental Meditation, or TM, which became popular with many people, even in the government of the United States. He was very charismatic and attracted many followers. Today he is maybe the best-known yogi in the West. He has followers everywhere – even a university in the Midwest of the USA.
Many followed him, like the Hare Krishna movement led by Swami Bhaktivedanta. The Swami was a very good, simple fellow from Calcutta but such an ardent follower of the Krishna cult. From out of nothing he built almost an empire of the Krishna people, known as ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), and it is a great credit to him. Westerners became devoted and have built beautiful clean temples everywhere. They sing bhajans and have fantastic food. Some people feel they hustle too much, but there is so much that is positive about them.
Of course a number of other yogis made a bad name for themselves through their collections of Rolls Royces, and in some cases a strong emphasis on taking the sexual route to becoming spiritually pure. But there are people who believe in all that. If they have helped others, which is the most important thing, I never say anything against them. That’s fine. But from the outside some of the stories do sound strange.
What unfortunately can happen is that, though the swamis themselves are good and genuine people, in somewhere like America sooner or later their devotees turn their efforts into a corporate operation. They build huge ashrams and it becomes almost like a bazaar. The wonderful souls, who are really not bad at all themselves, get waylaid by it. And after seeing the American televangelists, I have come to realise that there is no business like religion not only in the USA but everywhere else too, including India. It is unbelievable how commercial it has all become. More than anyone else, the Americans are so naive that you can convince them of anything. It is what makes them so open and dynamic, but it makes them vulnerable as well, especially in the field of religion and spirituality. They are seeking something else. After their whole materialistic enjoyment – ‘seen it all, done it all’ – they want a deeper experience. So they are easy targets for conmen to exploit. For each of these few great saintly people I have mentioned, you can count at least one hundred quacks. It is very sad. And the USA is the biggest market. You don’t yet find this as much in Europe, but it is starting to happen there as well.
There is another group of yogis or saints who have been an influence on life – those I have only read or heard about. In my childhood I was always eager to learn about the miraculous feats of such spiritual masters as Lahiri Mahasai or his famous friend Trailanga Swami, who was reputed to be over 300 years old and certainly weighed over 300 pounds. Lahiri Mahasai’s guru, Babaji, is a legendary and very powerful yogi who is reputed to be a few hundred years old. He does not show himself in public, but is supposed to be alive still, dwelling in the Himalayas. Then I was particularly fascinated by the stories of Ramakrishna Paramahansa, a great saint and yogi from Calcutta, and his disciple Swami Vivekananda.
Vivekananda belonged to an important Calcutta family but he chose to renounce the material world and become a sannyasi. His teachings were derived from a combination of the ideas of Ramakrishna and his own doctrine based on the age-old Vedanta philosophy. His Raja Yoga and Hatha Yoga are unique books. Blessed with a dazzling appearance, as you can see from photographs, and a tremendous personality, he was the first swami to bring the distillation of the Hindu religion and philosophy to the West and present it in a form that could be understood by Westerners. In 1893 he arrived, unknown and in his late twenties, at the World Congress of Religions in Chicago. He had been allotted just a few minutes to speak, but the moment he stood up and uttered the introductory words, ‘Brothers and Sisters of America’, it was like magic: he instantly electrified the audience and was allowed to speak for three days!
He founded the Ramakrishna Missions (also known sometimes as Vedanta Societies) in all the main American cities. Gradually they spread all over Asia, Europe and Africa too. His approach was intelligent: he didn’t try to convert Westerners to Hinduism. He didn’t make them utter old mantras all the time, or force them to learn Sanskrit or worship Krishna. The Ramakrishna Missions had chapels which resembled churches, with photographs of Ramakrishna alongside images of Jesus Christ and Buddha. And his followers don’t hassle. Vivekananda saw that it was vital to make sure no one felt threatened. He became extremely successful and popular, and I have always had the utmost admiration for him.
ALAP (1977 Bombay Doordarshan documentary about Ravi Shankar) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwb3tHWQJEY&ab_channel=AshramsofIndia