Giving Peace a Chance

31 Jul 2011

Neither the cold nor the rain could dampen the spirits of the 50,000 people who descended on Berlin’s Olympic Stadium to celebrate The Art of Living Foundation’s 30th anniversary, writes Samantha Leese.

Despite myself, I think of the Nazis. Which is probably the last thing I should be doing today, at the start of a two-day festival of peace, but it’s hard not to on the approach to Berlin’s formidable Olympic Stadium, whose design – commissioned by Germany’s National Socialists for the infamous 1936 Olympic Games – was modelled on Rome’s Colosseum. Far from the ancient, ruined beauty of that structure, however, the Olympiastadion is resplendent in its vast, squat ugliness.

Now the natural stone façade glowers, damp, under leaden skies, beyond a tree-lined avenue flanked by international flags and banners welcoming us to the 30th anniversary celebration of the Art of Living Foundation, established by Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Called the World Culture Festival, it’s like the Olympics but with dancers instead of sprinters, yogis instead of gymnasts, ribbons instead of javelins and vibrant, jangling costumes instead of spandex.

There is, as my travelling companion puts it, an atmosphere of “divine chaos” here. Nobody has accounted for the rain or for the temperatures that, on this July day, struggle to stay in double figures. A woman in a sari wraps a sodden sweatshirt around her shoulders as she presses through a shower, while another shakes out a muddy yoga mat as her friends sit, frowning, against the walls of the stadium.

The huddled crowds seem hurt by the sun’s absence, as though a great friend has forgotten to come to their party. Nonetheless, here and there are bursts of colour and sound. A clown, dressed in bright green overalls emblazoned with rainbow peace signs, attempts to boost morale with tricks. In between pillars, groups of tireless optimists move through yoga sequences, play bongo drums, blow bubbles and skip to imaginary melodies. The grounds, dotted with white tents for artists, merchants and caterers, take on a carnival air. Against the gloom, grinning faces represent most of the world’s countries.

Not for this lot the contrived diversity of university campuses and Benetton ads. Some 55,000 participants are here to fete the many cultures of our planet. The more we understand of one another, goes the wisdom, the less likely we are to drop bombs and start wars; the more likely we are to achieve world peace.

It’s refreshing to be around people who don’t think of those words as the empty babble of beauty queens but as a realistic and paramount promise. Timothy Wong, a corporate trainer from Hong Kong, notes that events like this “bring attention to the fact that there are people working towards a better world, no matter how cynical you can become”.

Seemaa Hiranandaani, a long-term Hong Kong resident from Mumbai, India, believes that before peace can prevail, “each individual must take responsibility for their own mind, their own life. Only a lit candle can light many candles”.

Wayne Yeh, a Taiwan native who moved to Hong Kong seven years ago, is more adamant. Asked whether we will see peace in this lifetime, he says, “Of course we will. Soon people will realise peace is better than war and they will spend more effort and time on loving each other and celebrating rather than fighting each other.”

Some 800 dignitaries are attending the festival, including 70 political ambassadors and ministers from 14 countries. They speak throughout the event in a series of keynote addresses. One of the most eloquent is Geoffrey Van Orden, a British Member of the European Parliament who was serving as an army officer in Berlin when the wall came down, in November 1989.

“Now we see freedom flourishing everywhere,” he says, referring to the wave of uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. “People are looking for more than political freedom and material prosperity. They are looking for a greater spiritual dimension.”

Former Slovenian prime minister Alojz Peterle calls for the “inevitable victory of peace”.

The thudding irony of the ideas being expressed here, where Adolf Hitler rallied his forces to launch one of the most atrocious conflicts in living memory, turns out not to be ironic at all but an act of deliberate cleansing – one that, curiously, remains undiscussed until the last hours of the festival.

In one of a number of speeches delivered by world religious leaders, Zen Master Thich Thien Son boldly mentions the war where others have carefully euphemised. Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp speaks indirectly of the “darkest pages of human history” that were written here. When the passionate Reverend Barbara Lewis King remembers “the great athlete Jesse Owens”, she simply pauses to acknowledge the ideology he defied by outrunning his blonde opponents.

“In this stadium,” Thich Thien Son says, “thousands of people raised their hands to begin war. Now we raise our hands to begin peace.”

LATER, FROM THE PRESIDENTIALsuite of Berlin’s Maritim hotel, Gurudev echoes Thich Thien Son’s words, explaining that this year’s festival is not only a declaration of world peace, but also a historic moment for Israel’s Jews.

“At the same time,” Gurudev observes, “Berlin is a city where walls were built between people and taken down by the people. Now it is time for walls to come down between cultures.”

The Nobel Peace Prize nominee recalls something his father used to say: “The world is full of people and mistakes. Love the former and forgive the latter.” Capturing the spirit of the festival, he adds, “This planet Earth is a place where we should shun all prejudices against each other and become like children again.

“Wherever I go I feel everyone is part of my family, so I never think they are different or they don’t belong to me. I have visited so many countries, been to so many places, and I have not met one stranger. I think every child has this quality, being at one with the people around you. I never want to grow up.”

Gurudev is a diminutive man with long black hair and a generous smile. He is sitting draped in white robes on a sofa in the hotel room, tapping on a BlackBerry. A second smartphone rests next to him, showing the time. We are running close to an hour late. On the other side of town, a hall full of people wait for the guru to begin a satsang (a yogic gathering) and he seems intent on disappointing as few people as possible. The red brocade of the sofa’s cushions is hidden by a large white sheet. Rumour among his more excitable acolytes is that the holy man’s energy is strong enough to burn through furniture and that the sheet is there as a precautionary measure.

In reality, it serves to highlight his mysticism as visitors stream in to bow or lie prostrate at his feet. Some cry, others giggle. There is a flash of embarrassment as he asks one man to get up, and, after each visit, Gurudev offers around a box of Turkish delight.

While he is properly addressed as His Holiness, the noted spiritual teacher and ambassador of peace is affectionately “Guruji” to his followers. He started the Bangalore, India-based Art of Living Foundation in 1981 as an international educational and humanitarian organisation. For 30 years his non-profit personal development and trauma-relief programmes, which are based on the traditions of yoga and meditation, have emphasised the need for a stress-free, violence-free society that begins with individual well-being.

The foundation works in tandem with the International Association for Human Values, which Gurudev founded in 1997, on projects that target troubled communities around the world. The organisation says 13,000 children have benefited from its free school programmes while 5.6 million adults have been reached through its stress-relief workshops. Altogether, the foundation estimates that in three decades, more than 100 million man hours have been invested in “developing the full human potential”. And 10 million trees have been planted.

Officially, the World Culture Festival is an anniversary celebration for Art of Living, which has earned special consultative status with the United Nations. Unofficially, Gurudev says, it is a “family reunion”.

IT IS 7.50PM AND the rain is coming down in sheets. Thunder rumbles and the wind cuts through the water at a slant. The centrefield is exposed and the spectators, although covered overhead, are barely protected from the wintery assault. It’s so cold that the girl next to me is wrapped in a fleece blanket, shivering visibly. My companion is calculating the cost of dashing back to the hotel to get a duvet.

Then, with a roar of excitement, 2,000 Bulgarian dancers parade onto the field in national costume and Elitsa Todorova, a startling brunette and one of the country’s most beloved pop stars, belts out tune after tune through the driving rain.

Wearing black jeans and a traditional top, she bounds across the stage with a pair of drumsticks and slams them into the water that is streaming over her instruments. The puddles shatter and leap into the air like diamonds. Todorova is dripping wet, laughing, with mascara running down her cheeks. She faces her audience and, with lyrical timing, shouts, “God bless all the people of the world!”

In a moment of triumphant cliché, a pair of doves is released. For 20 minutes, no one has noticed the cold.

This is the beginning of the evening portion of the festival’s Grand Celebration. Hailed as the highlight of the weekend, the five-hour event is a joyful showcase of international cultural talent. It is also a testament to the indomitable optimism of the performers and their handlers, who have travelled from all corners of the globe to encounter a wet and precarious outdoor stage.

There is no hope of the rain abating and the show, as they say, must go on. But we wonder whether the ballerinas from Russia, the drummers from South Africa, the tango dancers from Argentina or any of the other artists here today will match Todorova’s hearty disregard for the elements.

They do, and none with more sympathetic appeal than Japanese singer Yako Mama – a Fukushima native who has dedicated a “lotus dance” to the people of her broken hometown.

Backstage, under the stadium, past an ominous room marked “doping control delegates”, the one-time geisha sits for our interview in a red silk dressing gown and crystal tiara, her princess-pink nails picking distractedly at the cloth.

“[Fukushima’s] symmetry is all gone. All my friends are gone,” Yako says, looking away. “The lotus flower is Buddha’s flower. It blossoms in the dirt and it is still so pure. With this symbolism in mind, I’m going to sing for all the earthquake area.”

Asked how her devotion to Gurudev’s teachings has helped her cope with the disaster, she explains, “Unless one has internal strength, one cannot face situations like this. Art of Living has helped me by making me strong. I truly believe there is a connection between [an individual’s] body-mind stability and the good he or she can do on Earth.”

It is fitting, then, that Yako should perform alongside 800 international yogis who, in rows of yellow, blue and orange mats, move through sun salutations as she emerges from a glittering lotus bud on stage.

Afterwards, Gurudev leads a peace meditation during which we chant “Om shanti” (“I am peace” in Sanskrit) in our thousands. “Don’t we want to see a smile on every face that we meet?” he asks.

As if in response, a striking band of young Israelis bursts onto the centrefield. The vocalist, in a figure-hugging black dress, cuts a stylish figure through the mist while the dreadlocked lead guitarist shuns the slippery stage for the grass. They are the Idan Raichel Project, a pop group from Tel Aviv dedicated to spreading a message of tolerance and sharing the multicultural essence of their homeland. The music is a whirl of African, Caribbean and Middle Eastern sounds and the audience is up on its feet in no time, dancing in the stands without a shred of self-consciousness. The significance of their presence is not lost on the crowd, nor on the band. Gurudev tells us later that the show was symbolic and a “very emotional experience for [the artists]”. In a speech, Israeli cabinet minister Ayoub Kara says, “Culture is our pride and our history and our future.”

IT IS 10PM AND there are whispers that the ballet will be cancelled. As the most internationally renowned artists on the roster, Russia’s St Petersburg Ballet Theatre was to be the evening’s penultimate act. But a rain-soaked stage has made the dancers wary, so it is no small surprise when Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake starts to play.

Bravely, the corps de ballet approaches the stage en pointe. They struggle to balance without sure footing and a girl slips, threatening a domino effect. Once the pas de deux is underway, the prima ballerina gamely pushes through a few near falls while her partner does his best to hold her steady. In the end it is a beautiful scene, as much for the choreography as for the spirit with which it is danced.

The Grand Celebration closes with a riot of colour as thousands of artists flood the centrefield singing, cheering and waving flags. Hong Kong’s presence in the stadium has so far been outshone by the enthusiasm of others, but Yeh is about to make up for that.


“Berlin is a city where walls were built between people and taken down by the people. Now it is time for walls to come down between cultures.” – Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar


In a moment of unbridled zeal, he leaps over the barrier between the pitch and the audience and races onto the grass brandishing Hong Kong’s red bauhinia flag. Having pushed his way into the middle of the crowd, Yeh gives the city’s symbol pride of place.

“We may be a small dot on the map,” observes Hiranandaani, “but we sure know how to make a mark on the global community.”

At one point, by chance, Yeh finds himself marching alongside the mainland and Taiwanese flags.

“The three of us came together without anticipation and in that moment I truly felt the union of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Even though politically they are still separated, spiritually they have always been one,” he says, “I felt very proud.”

The next morning, the skies are lighter and we file into the Olympiastadion for the second day of the festival. A powerful African drum beat kicks off the centrefield’s performances, which will include operatic arias by a pair of sopranos from Azerbaijan, folk dancing from Kosovo and a yoga rave from Argentina, mixing ancient Sanskrit songs with pumping electronic music.

At noon, all eyes are on a Shaolin monk, who has taken the stage in breathless silence. The stadium, too, has fallen quiet. He’s holding a needle while a younger kung fu student taps the side of a clear Perspex pane. On the other side is a yellow balloon. There is a sense of theatrical magic, but this is no illusion. It is a test of how spiritual discipline can manifest in physical strength. He misses the first time, lets out a cry and closes his eyes. Having regained control, the monk flicks a second needle through the acrylic wall. The balloon pops and the crowd applauds.

Outside, in the stadium’s grounds, are four pavilions, representing Asia-Pacific, Africa, Europe and the Americas. These are, in theory, performance tents but, since the best cultural shows have taken place in the stadium, they are mainly being used as commercial spaces, selling food and souvenirs.

A visit to the Asia-Pacific pavilion proves unrewarding. Soname Yangchen’s contemporary Tibetan mountain songs are brave but noisy, so we pick up two plates of vegetarian curry and wander along to Africa’s marquee.

The energy hits us like an explosion of sunshine. On stage, a dazzling South African with red hair leads a group of regal women in a jubilant rendition of Waka Waka – the Rainbow Nation’s anthem and official song of the 2010 Fifa World Cup. The chorus proclaims it is Africa’s time. The room is stuffy and damp, and the feedback from the speakers is ear-splitting, but everywhere, people are dancing. They are standing on fold-up plastic chairs with their arms around their friends and children balanced on their shoulders. Some are clapping, others are cheering, and every one of them is smiling.

And it is only now, at the end of all this, that I finally understand why we are here. There will be no treaties signed today and no political promises made. The wars we have started will carry on and the rebellions will not be calmed.

But if 50,000 people can gather in a place where some of the worst human history was made to heal and laugh and love cultures that are not their own, then there is hope for peace.