In times of terror, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is an icon of world peace. The spiritual leader speaks to S Gurumurthy about his mediation in Colombia to bring the armed rebels to the negotiation table and how he applied the Gandhian principle of non-violence, and ancient Indian values of yoga and meditation to rid the world of violence and mould it into One Family.
Do not get him married. Let him be a brahmachari for life. He has a mission in the cause of our dharma.” This was how the Kanchi Mahaswami, the Sankaracharya of Kanchi, regarded by many as divine incarnation, blessed the young boy Ravi Shankar. This was when the young Ravi Shankar’s parents, Visalakshi and Venkat Ratnam, the devout Brahmin couple from a small town, Papanasam, in Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu when they took him—their only child—to have darshan of the Mahaswami. Visalakshi was distraught. But Ratnam, well versed with Upanishads, astrology and Ayurveda, understood that his child was destined for something big and high. A few years later, the Sage also told the young Ravi Shankar, to be a sanyasi but not wear saffron dress. Thus began young Ravi Shankar’s spiritual quest. I personally saw him first when he was an extremely attractive young brahmachari, with sharp features and piercing eyes, just out of his teens.
He was staying in the Indian Express guest house in New Friends Colony in Delhi when Ramnath Goenka and me met him.And today The Art of Living, which he founded in 1981 to expound yoga and meditation to destress the over-worked and over-stressed people, rid the world of violence and mould it mentally into One Family—Vasudaiva Kutumbakam as the Upanishads say—is spread over 155 countries, touching the lives of over 370 million people. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, as he is known today, is a globally popular yoga and spiritual master. His reputation has travelled beyond India and he is more popular in other continents than even in India. He was honoured with the highest civilian awards by Paraguay in 2012, and Colombia in 2015 again. Sri Sri was decorated with Mongolia’s highest civilian title Order of Pole Star, as far back as 2008. But he got the first recognition—not the highest like in those countries, but the next highest, Padma Vibhushan—from Indian government only in 2016. Why so late in India? Why the recognition of Sri Sri had to wait till Narendra Modi came on the scene? It needs a deeper analysis of why Sri Sri has been recognised by governments outside India. The reason is that he represents the ancient Indian values which is the soft power of India that the world respects but that is precisely what the secular India is averse to. Read on.
The concept of soft power, which the Harvard academic Joseph Nye developed in 1980s as contradistinction to the hard power of the US, has changed the grammar of diplomacy and geopolitical communication. Nye suggested America’s attractive brands of Harvard, Stanford, Micky Mouse, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo to replace the coercive icons of US warships, bombs and missiles, to make the world love, instead of fearing America. Nye commended the adoption of US soft power as part of its geopolitical strategy.
But the Indian soft power is not a strategic asset created by corporates but a philosophic and spiritual evolution over millennia. The grammar of Indian soft power founded on its philosophy is different from Nye’s strategic soft power produced by US businesses. Secular India is ignorant of the philosophic and cultural soft power of ancient India and its high value and need in modern times. What is Indian soft power? In the context of India, Professor of International Communication and Co-Director of India Media Centre at the University of Westminster in London, Daya Kishan Thussu, writes in his book, Communicating India’s Soft Power: Buddha to Bollywood: “In a nutshell, the distinctive characteristics of India’s soft power is based on its traditions of public reasoning and religious tolerance, its culture of argumentative heterogeneity and philosophy of peaceful coexistence.” Thussu argues that so far, no indigenous discourse on soft power has emerged from India. This is because Secular India is afraid of opening the locker of ancient India fearing that the pseudo secular foundation of Indian secularism will crumble.
Therefore, it is intentionally blind to what contribution non-conflicting Indian civilisational ethos can make to the world. In fact, secular India does seem to know very little of that India which the world needs. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, and the Indian spiritualists like him starting from Swami Vivekananda, who travelled beyond India to talk about its greatness, are a product and proponent of that India— the ancient India —which secular India has shut its eye to. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar represents the continuity of the master who expounded the spiritual and philosophic soft power of India. He is recognised by distant people, in distant lands for the age-old solution from this ancient land of Rishis which he offers—harmony based mutual respect of faiths, yoga and meditation. He is recognised for expounding and representing the very [ancient] Indian values the secular India is shy of owning and many seculars and liberals are actually averse to.
I knew Sri Sri for long and have had extensive interactions with him on matters of national interest and developed reverence for him over years. I decided to interview him—the first by me ever—when I saw a YouTube video in which the Colombian Guerrilla leader and member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Iván Márquez, acknowledged and thanked Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and the Art of Living for negotiating peace and putting an end to a 50-year-old armed conflict between the rebels and the government. The site www.srisriandfarc.com says that Sri Sri explained to the rebel leaders the importance of following the Gandhian principle of non-violence, but, without surrender or giving up their ideals, continuing the struggle through peaceful resistance adding that, “in this conflict, everybody is a victim”. The website says that, “for the first time maybe in their life, the FARC leaders meditated and later learned breathing techniques”. How did this happen? Where is India and Sri Sri, and where is Colombia and its rebels? How did they come to know each other? How did they accept Sri Sri’s advice. What happened between them? Curiosity drove me to seek his interview which he readily granted.
“We thank and acknowledge Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s efforts in putting an end to the longest armed conflict in (South) America. His meeting in Havana with the peace delegation of the FARC has motivated us to search every possible way to put Colombia on the path of Gandhian principle of non-violence. With the help of Sri Sri we have placed our spirit to achieve reconciliation and co-existence in a big and benevolent country, whose destiny can’t be that of war. The teachings of Art of Living are essential to achieve a stable and long lasting peace.” These are the words of Chief Negotiator and the head of the FARC Peace Delegation Ivan Marquez. How did all this start?
It all started in the autumn of 2013 when a group of South Americans met me in Montreal and brought up the very grave situation in Colombia where Art of Living volunteers was active for the past eight years. I said, ‘We must reach out to them’. Our volunteers worked to make some contact with FARC in Cuba through different channels and finally it materialised in 2014. Initially, there was huge resistance because they are Marxists and would not believe in anything spiritual or even remotely religious.Eventually our continued efforts in talking to them softened their stance.
Were you directly involved in the negotiations with FARC or was it through your volunteers?
Both, I was in touch with them directly as well as through our volunteers. Actually, I met with them directly only once in Havana. Later on, I spoke with them a couple of times through the help of translators and our volunteers. But our volunteers were working continuously with them and were in touch with them.
Can you give some anecdotal references of yours or your volunteers’ involvement?
In 2015, I met with president Santos after I was presented with the highest civilian award of Colombia for our work in the country. The customary meeting with the President after the award function, which normally is just a formal handshake, lasted for about 50 minutes where he aired the concerns about the grave situation and said all efforts for peace were not yielding the desired results and now military option seems to be the only way left. He was really worried as the military option could cost over 40,000 lives.
That was when I offered to give it a try by going to Havana and meeting the FARC rebels. After some feelers, they first met me in a public talk I gave at the University of Havana. The next day, we had a personal meeting with all the commanders and leaders of FARC.
Initially, they said the Gandhian principle of non-violence was hypocritical and I should instead talk to the Colombian government to stop the atrocities on the revolutionaries. They were insisting that the government must announce a ceasefire.
But when we did a meditation together, they became happy and became interested in meditation. I explained to them the futility of continuing the way they have been for the last 53 years. When I said that I understand they were also victims of the situation, one of them remarked that for the first time someone has understood their position. The next day they all came back and we again had a talk for over two hours. On the third day, they followed me to the Indian Embassy in Havana where I led a meditation. And the next day to our surprise, they came with me to the press conference and announced that they would follow the Gandhian principle of non-violence and declared a unilateral ceasefire.
So you mean to say they abruptly decided to drop their uprising?
Neither the government nor the press could believe in the declaration of unilateral ceasefire by FARC and presumed it to be another gimmick of the revolutionaries. For another two weeks, bombings continued and people were losing all hope.
On July 9, I had a telephonic conversation with Iván Márquez and told him to stop the violence immediately if they were serious about peace. I also appealed to the government to give them 20 days’ time so that the communication about the ceasefire could reach the revolutionaries who are operating in remote areas. A month later, the government acknowledged the ceasefire and followed it up with a ceasefire from their side.
By this time, the FARC members had done many of our meditation programmes. Our teachers went there three times and conducted programmes for thousands of guerrillas. The rebels were so thrilled by meditation, yoga and knowledge sessions that they requested for our knowledge books and tapes etc. After three days of our interaction, one of them even came to me with a stone and requested me to transfer some energy to the stone!
I explained to them that the path they have chosen to deliver social justice was not appropriate and if they follow the Gandhian path of non-violence the whole world will be with them. Instead of causing so much death and destruction, they can do so much for their own countrymen with dignity. They really opened up and appreciated this line of thinking and requested for our help to continue the activity on the ground level to bring reconciliation among revolutionaries, guerrillas and the victims, the general population. And our volunteers started this right away.
What was your experience of dealing with the guerilla group which many consider responsible for the loss suffered by the Colombian people during the 52-year conflict, which has claimed more than 220,000 lives?
They are revolutionaries and we must understand that they are working with a mission. They have a mission to fight for social justice. So they feel they are victims of oppression. We must understand their mindset and realise they are not having parties in the jungle. They are struggling to achieve some goal.
How did you manage their anger and revenge mentality? Had they become fatigued with violence?
We went to them and gave them a taste of meditation. You know, in one sitting of meditation, people could realise what it is to be peaceful, what it is to be happy… The clarity of mind comes, the emotions soften, old wounds get healed. That is what exactly happened. Subsequent to the three days of meditation, they did pranayama, yoga and Sudarshan Kriya and even underwent a three-day silence and advanced meditation programme. That really impacted their whole outlook towards life and society as well.
Did you expect the FARC to respond to your appeal and teachings to follow Gandhian principles of non-violence?
Yes, of course! Anything I do, I do with total conviction. I knew that they would change. After all, we are all human beings and people are open to reason. I would have loved to do the same thing with ISIS. But there they have the religious indoctrination that anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their definition of God has no right to exist.
What did you tell them about Gandhi? Were they already aware of him? How did they get influenced by Gandhian thought?
They already knew about Gandhi. They had read about Karl Marx and I am sure they would have definitely heard or read something about Mahatma Gandhi. They are all educated people. But when I first mentioned the Gandhian way, they said it is not practical. And they also said it will be hypocritical to announce that they will be adopting non-violent path since they have lost a lot of people in this 53-year-old war. After meditation, they changed their mind and agreed to the reasons cited to them. Also, I shared with them my experience with LTTE.
The FARC leaders have often taken pride in the fact that they stood on their own feet and rejected offers from Norway, USA and other countries. What made them open up to your mediation?
Yes, they told me that they did not listen to the US. The Norwegian peace delegation had met them. They said they had rejected all the proposals. They were very strong on their decision, policies and principles. That’s why neither the press nor the government could initially believe the announcement that they were ready to accept the Gandhian principle of non-violence. There was a sort of cynicism and sarcasm on the first day of the announcement of the ceasefire.
Were they disappointed that the peace treaty couldn’t pass the referendum? Are you too disappointed?
Yes. I really felt and also expressed to the President that we should have taken two more months to do the groundwork. People were not aware and the opposition was not involved. Because of this, the opposition leaders campaigned differently than the President. The peace process took more political colour than it should have. A little more time and effort in taking opposition parties into confidence and explaining the positive aspects of the treaty to the masses would have helped. We had even contacted the opposition leader, who was also a former President.
What makes you so confidently say the FARC rebels will not pick up guns again despite the rejection of the peace treaty between the government and FARC by a small margin in the recent referendum?
I am very sure the FARC leaders will not pick up guns again or act in a violent manner. I think it is virtually impossible because they have promised to follow the path of non-violence and they have been meditating every day regularly since then. Their whole attitude has notably shifted.
What is the way ahead? What will be the Art of Living’s role in Colombia now?
I am going back to Colombia soon in November. I will be jointly addressing the Reconciliation Program with the President. We are also actively educating people about the benefits of the peace process and why they should say yes
There is the report of FARC leaders asking for forgiveness at a meeting between some victims of violence and FARC organised by the Art of Living in Havana. What triggered this softening?
In August, the leader of our volunteers, Fransisco, took some 20 victims, including wives and families of the army generals and commanders, to Havana. They sat across the table with the FARC members. The FARC people looked into their eyes and asked for forgiveness. This was a turning point and helped turn negative vote for the peace process. The President really appreciated this move and only Art of Living could have done this because we have been working with the victims also in Colombia for the last several years.
We have been conducting programmes for the victims of the war so that they could also forgive and move ahead. We need to heal them and make them understand that eye-for-eye stance is not going to do
Barring some report in Indian media, your role in the Colombian peace process has been generally understated. Are you disappointed?
Not really! I neither do things for publicity nor to get credit. We had to do this job and we did it. Of course, the South American media has covered this quite well and both the President and the FARC leaders have acknowledged that it is the new approach of Gandhian principle and meditation, which has really made the difference. I am quite happy about that. As long as people who are relevant in the peace process understand the importance of peace within and the role of meditation in achieving it, I am satisfied.
Does the Colombian experience motivate you to get involved in other conflicts around the world?
I don’t really look for motivation. We in the Art of Living are moving with a mission to bring happiness in people’s lives and resolve conflicts. We keep making our efforts wherever we can. We have done it in Sri Lanka. We are doing now in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Beirut, Equador, Salvador, etc. We are also doing some work in Venezuela, which is also very significant. Of course, in Kashmir, we have taught many people in the prisons. Many volunteers in Kashmir are involved in nation-building.
Will the Gandhian model work where a religious people believe that their religion alone is legitimate and other religions have no right to exist?
There is an issue with religious fanatics. We cannot educate them unless they are inside a prison! But once they are in prison we can change their mindset. The Gandhian principle will not work where there is religious indoctrination because they believe that if they kill the non-believers, they will go to heaven. It is hard to convince such people through the Gandhian principle.
S Gurumurthy is a well-known commentator on political and economic affairs. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org