“Spirituality should come into politics,” was Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s advice to Indian Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel during a nationally televised dialogue. And he went on to tell the minister, “Politics is mainly about caring for people and their welfare. If everyone understood this very purpose of politics, the country will gain a lot.” Over the years, Sri Sri has been working to bring spiritual values to politics, particularly in India.
“We need to spiritualize politics, socialize business and secularize religion. Devoid of spirituality, politics breeds corruption,” he says.
A universal agenda
Sri Sri travels around the world to interact with political leaders and impress upon them to integrate spirituality and their political philosophies. Recognizing his contributions in shaping a new political order, parliaments around the world have invited Sri Sri to address their lawmakers. He has addressed parliaments of South Africa, France (Strasbourg), Germany (Deutscher Bundestag), Scotland, Brazil and Argentina besides frequent appearances in the European parliament. On these fora, he has been articulating the need for bringing a holistic perspective to the national decision-making process.
From human values to terrorism, to conflict resolution, he not only highlights global issues of concern, but also offers suggestions to address local political equations. He also works to build larger consensus in conflict-ridden countries to help the political class come together to find solutions. For example, in Sri Lanka, Sri Sri worked with political leaders from the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the Opposition United National Party and smaller parties such as Tamil National Alliance. The Tamil press frequently publishes Sri Sri's views on peace.'
In 2007, the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki invited Sri Sri on a peace mission to the troubled country. Becoming the first Indian spiritual leader to visit the country, Sri Sri and the Prime Minister discussed ways to rebuild war-torn Iraq.
Sri Sri also met with over 80 Shia and tribal leaders in Baghdad, urging them to end all killings: "Give the non-violence philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi a trial; give peace a chance," Sri Sri said. Touhed by Sri Sri’s humanitarian initiatives in Iraq, the Shia leader Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Aqaadi said: “We welcome your delegation with open arms and hearts. We welcome you as our brother and we are ready to work hand in hand with you.”
In 2007, Sri Sri unveiled a proposed Universal Declaration of Human Values at the John F Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, DC in the presence of a galaxy of US politicians including senior Senators and Representatives.
Thanks to his proactive agenda, Sri Sri is the only spiritual leader from India who has a following among the political class of Pakistan. His wisdom is venerated by the political class of Nepal and Malaysia as well.
Consensus in a Polarized Polity
It is even more important to make the political class realize that politics is not about enjoying a position, but ensuring the welfare of people when the polity is polarized on ideological lines.
“When political parties are stuck to their party ideology, they start placing the party interest above the interest of the nation. We cannot afford to have such a divided polity in a multi-party democracy like India,” says Sri Sri.
Accordingly, Sri Sri has been engaged in efforts to build political consensus in India based on national interest.
- Builds larger consensus in conflict-ridden countries to help the political class find solutions
- Welfare of people when the polity is polarized on ideological lines
For example, when the Indian polity was widely divided and the government’s survival was at stake over the issue of the civilian Nuclear deal with the United States, Sri Sri made a passionate appeal to all political parties to arrive at a national consensus keeping the best interests of the nation in mind. “Political parties need to display magnanimity and support the initiatives which are in national interest irrespective of the party that brings it forward. India has always had a tradition of the government and opposition coming together in national interest whenever a crisis befalls the nation,” he counselled politicians.
A spiritual guru with no political or ideological affiliations, the masses see Sri Sri as the balancing force between the Left and Right of the Indian polity. He offers the middle path on issues where the country is being polarized along political lines
Amidst threats from misguided Maoists and Jihadi elements, Sri Sri is seen as a universally accepted ambassador of peace. The Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Dalits and Sikhs alike have faith and confidence in him. He always denounces both Left-wing extremism and Right-wing fanaticism in unambiguous terms and calls for dialogue among people of different ideologies to create an atmosphere for national progress.
- Calls for dialogue among people of different ideologies to create an atmosphere for national progress
- Educates the political class about short sightedness in policy making
- Helps governments to correct policies and resolve situations that could turn into political waterloos
- Pre-empts politically motivated division of people
Repeatedly, Sri Sri has shown that leaders from all sides of the political divide can be brought together. He hosts many public events where politicians from all denominations come together. When Sri Sri hosted the Silver Jubilee celebrations of The Art of Living in February 2006 in Bangalore, India, 750 politicians of all hues attended the celebrations.
Correcting Political Short Sightedness
Sri Sri also plays a proactive role in educating the political class about short sightedness in policymaking.
He always speaks out strongly against what he calls “succumbing to vote bank politics”. When India literally burned over providing caste-based reservations to students, he opposed the move saying it will divide the nation in the long run and hurt the self-esteem of people.
He extends help to governments to correct policies and resolve situations that are turning into political waterloos. For example, when the Maharashtra government threw up its hands in its efforts to stop suicides by farmers, Sri Sri stepped in with a multi-pronged initiative that effectively ended the crisis.
Solving Politically-Motivated Conflict
Be it bringing Maoists rebels to talks or playing the role of a peace ambassador in communal conflicts, Sri Sri is always quick to rush to action to pre-empt politically motivated division of people. That was how he recently defused two volatile conflicts in India. In August, he played a major role in finding an amicable solution to the Amarnath land imbroglio that triggered large-scale violence and protests throughout Jammu and Kashmir.
Similarly, in June, he worked to defuse the violence and tension that had engulfed the Indian state of Rajasthan following an agitation by the Gujjar community demanding recognition as a backward community (scheduled tribe) and reservation benefits. The conflict had hit a political deadlock as the Gujjar community was politically too influential to be ignored. At the same time, giving in to their demands would have meant antagonizing other communities. Caught in the jam the ruling party of the state approached Sri Sri to help find a negotiated political settlement.
Pre-Empting Political Exploitation
It is not just conflict resolution. Sri Sri’s initiatives go deeper and aim to pre-empt conflict and political exploitation. The Dalits in India continue to be a politically exploited group. Seen as a large vote-bank, political parties have taken recourse to the short-term gain of ensuring that they remain disintegrated from the mainstream. Over the years, Sri Sri is constantly engaged in helping the community break free from the shackles of social and political exploitation.
In 2007, he hosted a landmark conference in New Delhi as an endeavour to end social discrimination based on one’s birth. Commenting on the initiative, a leading English daily wrote in its editorial pages, “The inescapable fact is that such a reformist intervention is the need of the times, without which public service would remain a chimera and self-service the only touchstone in our political life. Absence of such intervention would mean that Indian society will not develop as a democratic society, but will remain a prisoner of the past.”
Creating Good Politicians
- Warns against politics of hate practiced by some parties
- Impresses upon politicians to work together towards progress for the nation
- Motivates good people to enter the political arena
- Increases public awareness of their political rights, especially among the underprivileged sections
We often tend to put politics and dishonesty on the same platform. Because of this good, principled people are not motivated to join politics or participate in the political process. This has allowed the political system to rot under a few corrupt politicians. This is another area where Sri Sri plays an active role by motivating good people to enter the political arena. Often in his public interactions, particularly with the youth, he voices his opinion that young politicians should come forward to take the country ahead. “Like in Mahatma Gandhi’s time, politicians were respected. When a politician comes to a village, he used to be respected as if a saint has come. We need to bring back that value system,” is his often-repeated refrain.
Ending Politics of Mistrust
One thing that really concerns Sri Sri is the politics of hate practiced by some parties. “We have to end the politics of hate and mistrust. True politics is to care for all people, regardless of differences in caste, religion, ideology, or language. Often political parties come together because of common enemies rather than common goals. They unite on the basis of hatred and fear,” he rues. He engages political leaders to impress upon them to work together towards progress for the nation.“Much time is wasted in mudslinging and in undoing the work of the others. India will shine truly when political parties complement and honour one another,” he wrote in a signed article in a leading national daily.
In the same article he urged opposing parties to work towards common goals: to alleviate the suffering of the poor, to make the rich charitable, the innocent less vulnerable and the educated incorruptible.
Grassroots Political Education
Sri Sri has also undertaken several initiatives to make people aware of their political rights, mainly the underprivileged sections who are often politically exploited. Through its public programs, The Art of Living educates people on the importance of exercising one’s political rights. “Come and cast your vote. Do not vote for people who bribe others for votes. Voting to elect the right candidate is our national duty,” Sri Sri said while addressing a recent drive to encourage people to participate in the country’s electoral process.
A Mass Appeal, A Mass Message
- Promotes a prejudice-free political system
- Encourages politicians to practice stress-elimination & relaxation techniques for better governance
Being a revered spiritual leader with a mass appeal, the masses take cognizance of what Sri Sri stands for and are ready to place him ahead of politicians.
Going by his following which cuts across the political divide, it will be no exaggeration to say that after Mahatma Gandhi, Sri Sri seems to be the only leader who has the ear of the common man, the ruling class, decision-makers and opinion makers alike. Not surprisingly, politicians from different parties come to him from time to time seeking his advice.
Taking a holistic view of the process of political reforms, Sri Sri has been pushing for a prejudice-free political system. “Consensus can emerge only when politicians learn to drop prejudices. Prejudice against religion, caste, gender… is what is preventing people and parties to come together. To be able to drop prejudices, we need to teach politicians to widen their sense of belongingness. This can happen only when they are free from stress,” he says. Guided by this, The Art of Living has taken its stress-elimination programs to many politicians in India. Sri Sri himself has addressed many lawmakers and taught them relaxation techniques. Addressing the Senate of Argentina in May 2008, he said, “Decision-makers need to be free from stress to come up with great ideas and work well.”
The goal of politics is to bring good governance and increase material comfort of people. The aim of spirituality is to boost morality and human values. “Both need to go hand in hand; if one is the eye, the other is the ear. Cross the threshold of politics and see the Divine,” are his words of wisdom to politicians.