Godfellas II: A series on gurus and their politics

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Peacemaker India has to address anger in Kashmir, says Sri Sri
Photos: Courtesy The Art Of Living

WHAT DO you make of a man who conducts workshops for Gujarat riot victims on one hand and Narendra Modi on the other? Victims of the Iraq war on one hand and George Bush on the other? Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says his Art of Living and meditation techniques are open to all. That only by contending with victims of violence and its perpetrators, can suffering in this world end. Sri Sri says he will never join active politics. But he does make his voice heard at political causes across the world. From Iraq and Afghanistan to wars closer home — Maoist insurgency and Kashmiri separatism. What is his political stance and how much does it matter to those who call him Gurudev?

When a guru is inaccessible as Sri Sri is, the only way to decode what he’s all about is to look at his following. “Sri Sri is like a mother and father to me,” says one disciple, explaining his significance. His meditation techniques — the Sudarshan Kriya and the focussed meditation worked into different packages for different age groups works brilliantly for the entire family, says another.

While the disciples come from all over the world and range from the mega rich to a clutch of reasonably poor, there’s only one way to understand the guru’s effect on them. Unquestioned faith and adoration. In a climate of such devotion, is there room for reason, for political dialogue, which requires people to sit at the same level and where is the room for dissent? Dissent among disciples seems fine. Dissent on the principles or on the greatness of Sri Sri is not an option. Dissent may not be required in the conventional guru-disciple relationship. But if Sri Sri is positioning himself as a leader for world peace, as someone who is trying to get people in conflict to see eye to eye, then the question must be asked — can he do the same? Is the aura around him only the handiwork of devoted followers? Are they actually doing the opposite of what he asks in putting him on a pedestal — in which case are his lessons in living better and using your critical mind falling on deaf or over-deferential ears?

SRI SRI’S global following runs into millions and Art of Living workshops are conducted among victims of war, tsunamis, quakes and riots, with Naxalites, terrorists, separatists and world leaders tells the story of great individual transformation. From violence and trauma. People who have been able to sleep again and drown out the frightening sound of the tsunami from their troubled minds. People who have been able to come to terms with the violent crimes they have committed. Or get past violence done to them. Such is the power of meditation and healing the mind. Ancient techniques, revised and reinvented by Sri Sri. That’s individual healing.

But conflict mediation requires political resolution, an outlook that diplomats and conventional peace brokers argue, is different from the Art of Living, where the focus appears to be the individual mind. But even this critique, it can be argued, is in the realm of conjecture. What isn’t, is Sri Sri’s interview. A straight set of answers to what he believes is possible for him to achieve as a global peacemaker.


‘We are trying to bring sense to the Maoists’

RAVI SHANKAR was born in 1956 in Tamil Nadu and the double ‘Sri’ epithet was later added reportedly so he is not confused with the sitar maestro. He graduated in both Vedic literature and physics at the age of 17, and soon became a disciple of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In 1982, during a silent retreat in Karnataka, Sri Sri is said to have discovered the version of meditation he is now known for — the Sudarshan Kriya. That year, he set up the Art of Living Foundation in Bengaluru, which has attracted a global following.

Breathe easy Sri Sri’s meditation techniques are a hit

Excerpts From An Interview

Where does the personal end and political begin for a guru?
What is politics if it’s not catering for the welfare of the people. Every spiritual leader is anyway catering to the needs of the people. When people are unhappy, how can a spiritual or religious leader keep quiet?

So to tack it down to issues you have spoken of as a spiritual leader. Let’s take, for instance, the 2002 Gujarat riots. 
I was there. I visited the Shah Alam camp. We conducted trauma relief and many inter-religious prayer meetings, trying to bring people together after the riots.

You have helped with trauma relief in Iraq, Kosovo, Gujarat and Kashmir. But what about in terms of taking a stand that could maybe take a lid off some of that violence, by saying, this is who I think was responsible for the riots?
Without studying, without knowing, we condemn the riots. We visited the prisons and many innocent people were put in prison. We attended to them. We talked to them. We know the facts. But we are not on a trip of just accusing people left, right and centre.

‘To enter politics in one country is too small a thing for me. We are worldwide, we have no time’

You have also held workshops with Narendra Modi and his government. You have said there is no such thing as saffron terror. How do you reconcile all these different positions?
One position is clear to me. Unless we have solid proof or proper understanding of the situation, we don’t comment on it. Second, my main interest is not accusing people and keeping them away. I’m more interested in making dialogue work. Bring people together and have a dialogue. Whether it’s Kashmir or the Jat agitation in Rajasthan, I have always been there. Even in Nandigram, we were there when the whole thing happened. We were the only NGO who went there and catered to the needs of people when there was so much rage. This is our policy, we are not partisan. We are not favouring one political party against another. Some of the activists, you know, are in trouble. Some of the activists in the Gujarat riots who were speaking this and that, the truth is all coming out. So I wouldn’t beat the same drum as some of our so-called activists. Because I know what they were doing is also not correct. Our duty is to be completely unprejudiced.

In Kashmir, you have talked to both stone-pelters as well as separatist leaders. A promotional film of yours shows you talking to Yasin Malik. What do you hope to achieve that the government and its appointed interlocutors are not already doing? What political space do you occupy?
Transformation that has to come from within. The anger and rage. That has to be addressed.

You mean the government is not addressing it?
Yeah, there should be a human touch.

And the Omar Abdullah government didn’t provide that?
I wouldn’t say they didn’t give it completely but you know the government is a formal institution. Even if they do the best they can, it doesn’t carry the human touch. Only NGOs can effectively bring in the human touch.

What role did you see yourself playing in Kashmir?
I tried to bring them all together to the table to talk.

When there are separatists who say we are demanding freedom from India, do you see their cause as valid? Are you passing on their messages to the government? What do you see the main problem is?
Peacemaking is a skill in itself.

That’s why I’m asking you this question.
I need to see how I can get my point across to them. And that requires certain skills. I am not going to reveal all my skills to you (laughs).

Do you think their demands are valid?
First of all, perception is the main issue. Any demand arises out of understanding or lack of understanding. So instead of brushing aside their demands, first we have to get their perception, give them another perspective. See, people are blindfolded, so if you broaden their vision, you give them another perspective. For instance, the per capita income of Kashmir is the highest in the country. All other parts of the country, it’s Rs 400- Rs 500, in Kashmir, it is Rs 1,100. Their productivity is zero. They want freedom, but first you should have economic freedom. You have to give them this perspective. Suppose the Indian Union stops all funding tomorrow, what will you do? You will starve. You can’t even pay a month’s salary to your people? It’s snowing half the year, how will the area sustain itself? So these are the things we have to talk to them about and we are doing that.

You have also been talking to Pakistan. What have you been saying there?
When I go to Pakistan, I’m not involving myself in any of the politics there. My area of concern is peace in the minds of the people. First, individual peace, inner peace. There can’t be peace outside if there is no inner peace.

Israel and Palestine, India and Pakistan, do you have a view on what the central factor of these conflicts is?
The central factor of all conflict is always the lack of trust between the two parties.

When there is so much blood spilt on both sides, it’s difficult to get either side to trust the other, isn’t it?
Correct. But revenge is not the answer. Our job is to try and bring the people together. We are going to have a conference in November of the imams and rabbis of the world.

What will be the agenda of the conference? 
To build trust and peace in the Middle East. Disturbance can be created in no time but building peace takes time and sustained effort.

You have talked about bringing peace to Nandigram where there are a whole lot of issues about the way farmers’ rights were being taken away… and you have also done work in other places where farmers are starving, like Vidarbha. And you have also talked about ethical business and corporate practices. These three things are related, aren’t they? What advice do you give to dispossessed farmers whose land has been snatched, and to corporates who are encouraging governments to acquire land from farmers?As someone who heads so many trusts, is there a fine line you have to tread, where on the one hand, there are corporates who want to fund you and on the other hand they are snatching land from farmers?
Our organisation is not funded by corporations. We conduct courses and we charge fees and from that we run our programmes. We have no institutional donors as such. That’s less than 6-7 percent of our total generation. And we don’t go running after corporates. In Nandigram, we were there for trauma relief and we were running free schools. That was the only thing that was running at that time. And we are also trying to bring sense to the Maoists.

What do you mean by that?
We try and say we were with them on their idea of social justice, but not through violence, through democratic means. When you don’t respect democracy and you think you can rule people with the gun, you are again going back to the Middle Ages.

So how do the Maoists react?
They understand. They are dedicated. Their hearts are aching for the country, for the people. They have such a high amount of dedication. People are with them. They are against corruption. You only need to give them a little turn, to tell them to eschew violence and stand for elections. But taking a gun and shooting your own people and your policemen doesn’t make any sense.

What’s your opinion on land acquisition?
We should acquire land. There is so much of land that is not irrigated, why can’t we acquire that?

So you are saying the government is wrong to acquire fertile land from farmers?
Yes. Absolutely. Today we lack food, and in such a situation, you cannot acquire fertile land and use it to make cars or bikes or chemicals. You should go to areas where nothing grows.

When you meet someone, do you have at the back of your mind — I must go talk to them so that I can facilitate X, Y, Z?
Absolutely.

So when you talked to George Bush, what did you have in mind?
Harmony. Understanding.

Were Bush’s beliefs on the Iraq war against harmony?
You know they had this concept of good and evil. Our idea is to bring tolerance. Like we did with the jihadis in prisons, for instance. It’s the same thing. We made them understand that it’s not that they only have the ultimate truth. Truth exists elsewhere too. That understanding suddenly opens their vision.

I want to ask you also about your support to the Jan Lokpal Bill movement, since your organisation has also been on an anti-corruption drive. There was criticism of the way a small group of people appropriated the right to frame the law as they saw fit. What’s your view?
The Lokpal Bill is one aspect of anti-corruption. We have done several things. We had gone to government offices and painted banners saying ‘I won’t take a bribe’ and propped it up at the offices. So we almost compelled them to do that. Then we took promises from the general public not to give bribes. We worked on three tiers. One is the level of politicians through the Lokpal Bill. Another is the level of bureaucrats where we put these banners up. And then educating the general public. In the past three months, I have travelled across 16 states. Lakhs of people attended the functions. It generated a big wave.

In movements like this, the middle class is seen as believing almost that this political space should be vacated, and that somehow some magic will happen and corruption’s going to disappear. Isn’t there political naivete in this and in movements like these?
Any system has flaws. So if you focus on the flaws and say we are not going to do anything about corruption, that’s a greater flaw. We are not saying all politicians are corrupt. But the dominance of corrupt people should end. These movements spring up when people are fed up. One is the work of rulers and the other is the work of reformers. Rulers cannot become reformers. And reformers shouldn’t take the place of rulers because their work will suffer. But they need to work together. This is our main contention. We’re not going to enter into politics at any point in time. But we would definitely have a say when it comes to the matter of the people. And politicians cannot have a free run for their selfish goals. And we will be watching that.

So you are never going to join active politics?
It’s too small for me. To enter politics in one country is too small for me. We are worldwide, you see, we have no time. Why would you leave a bigger platform and jump onto a smaller platform?

Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
[email protected]

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