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Still a child at 50, but a colossus of spirituality and social service (Sri Sri Ravishankar)

Aserene and smiling countenance. The sing-song voice. The long tresses, which he was brushing as we entered. His 50 years sat lightly on Sri Sri Ravi Shankar—spiritual guru and founder of the Art of Living Foundation—conveying a sense of being at complete peace with himself and the world around him, even as his volunteers were preparing for a three-day international conference on human values to celebrate his birthday. Expected to descend on Bangalore were dignitaries from India and abroad. “It is a celebration to reassure everyone about the power of good and the power of truth, and that the power of love is higher than anything in the world,” he said when asked about what he wanted to convey to this huge congregation.I have made one thing clear from the beginning: I won’t say anything that is not natural to me, that is not in my personal life.

Born in 1956 in a middle-class family, Ravi Shankar today is one of India’s best known spiritual leaders and spiritual ambassadors to the world. He is the only non-westerner to serve on the advisory board of Yale University’s School of Divinity. He founded the Art of Living Centre, an NGO having special consultation status with the United Nations—he addressed the UN on the occasion of its 50th anniversary—and at least one American Congressman has nominated him for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

For all that, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar insists: “I am not specifically attached to an organisation or Art of Living or anything else.” All that he is doing, through his sudarshan kriya breathing technique, which has reached over a million people in over 100 countries around the globe, and other social and development programmes, he says, is “trying to put a smile on everyone’s face.”
Certainly, the hundreds of volunteers and visitors in his ashram were all smiling that morning. The ashram, also called the Ved Vignan Maha Vidyapeeth was established in 1982 on a 60-acre hill just outside Bangalore. With the conference just two weeks away, the place was milling with volunteers, students doing the course, and foreign visitors from many nations. So much so that the ashram kitchen had set up a separate non-spicy section for their lunch.

Excerpts from an interview:

What is the real Art of Living?

We should see life with a broader perspective, have a cosmic vision about life. Seeing our life in context with space and time broadens our vision. Second is commitment to truth, values and service. Third is being compassionate. Art of Living encompasses these three.

The world seems a more dangerous place than a few years back. How do you see what is happening in the world today?

I see the erosion of human values. At the same time, the need for it is also being felt by the people. So you have to bring back the faith in goodness in the people. It is not that you have to be aggressive and ruthless to be successful. You can be pious and serve society and still rise up in society. That reassurance in people, in their own goodness and good qualities is needed.

Would you like to redefine development in the Indian context?

More than one fourth of the European population suffers from depression. We can’t allow India to tread those lines of development. We need development but not at the cost of mental health, not at the cost of social harmony, not at the cost of equality and justice. I think spiritual knowledge can bring mental strength to people. Spiritual uplift will help in building a strong nation. Everyone has to play a part in introducing a more value-based education. After the rural programme that we conducted here, our volunteers are really confident that we can bring about a transformation in society.

When you have conviction you don’t need to convince people. You be what you are and they will be what they are.

Do you see any change in Indian politics?

I hope for the best. I hope sense prevails in politics.

Is it time then for people like you to take more active interest in social and political governance?

See, a reformer cannot be a ruler. And a ruler cannot be such an effective reformer. So our role as NGOs and social activists is to bring reform in society, bring down the greed level in society.

Hopefully, they will elect better politicians after that?

Yes, you can see that in certain areas there are instances where villagers themselves gave Rs 10 each to a candidate and made them win elections. I feel that spirituality is in our bones, in our nadi, in our genes. It can never completely disappear. It just takes some opportunity to bring it up. We need to nurture a little more of those spiritual values and surely things will improve.

What is your view of the moral policing that is happening in the name of protecting Hindu culture?

It is unfortunate. Violence will not protect any culture. Only understanding, a broad attitude towards life and acceptance that we are in a global society today will. It is only through this kind of understanding and globalising wisdom that we can protect a culture, not through demonstrations. I am not for using any violence and then justifying it.

Is Art of Living Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and vice versa?

If the person talking knowledge does not leave the knowledge it is not effective at all. So I have made one thing clear from the beginning, that I won’t say anything that is not natural to me, that is not in my personal life. And we don’t do anything that is not in my nature. That is what I tell everyone. Be with your nature, be natural, do what you can to encourage good qualities in people around you.

How would you describe yourself?

I am just a child who refuses to grow up. I have been a child and will remain a child. I don’t take any positions. I won’t say, address me this way or that way. When you have conviction you don’t need to convince people. You be what you are and they will be what they are. We move with conviction that this is what is best for the world. There are a few points like accepting people as they are, accepting the situation as it is, living in the present moment, and to feel a connection with the divine within you. That transforms the life of people.

The secret of your ever-present smile?

I don’t know. When you think that the situation, people and circumstances are more powerful, then you lose the smile. When you are in the self and the consciousness you know is much more powerful than any event that happens around you, there is no reason or cause for anxiety.

Tell us about your experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I am very proud of my volunteers in Iraq. Our centre was 500 metres away from the Red Cross building which was bombed. I asked the volunteers if they were scared and wanted to come back. They said, now that everybody has left, our presence is all the more required. So they stayed back and conducted courses, trained three local teachers, who now take training courses here, so there are around 15-20 people undergoing training to take care of women and children there. When our people taught them simple yoga and meditation, pranayama and sudarshan kriya there was total transformation. People were able to smile again. It is touching and heartwarming when you listen to their experiences.

Do you subscribe to the idea of clash of civilisations?

There is partial truth in it. It is because we have not globalised wisdom that the responsibility again falls back on us. We have not taught the world the variety of knowledge available to us. If every child knows a little bit of all the different religions in the world, there is no way a child will become a fanatic. When we keep them compartmentalised and make them believe that only they go to heaven, only this is the truth, then the world cannot be a safe place. If children in Afghanistan knew a little bit about the Buddha, they would not have destroyed Bamian Buddhas. This education is essential.

Mood renewed: People gather for meditation at the Art of Living centre, Bangalore
If a Hindu says Allah or a Muslim says Ram they will not lose their religion. Fear of losing one’s faith has kept people in their little compartments. Comparative study of religion makes a person broad-minded. It makes them global citizens. The six eastern religions have co-existed all along. If the rest of the world also adopts this model, I feel world peace is not far. 

Filed under: Peace

One Response

  1. prasad says:

    fantastic

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