Gurudev says people don’t mind criticism because they know the truth is not going to change. Also humour is part of India’s tradition and people make fun of anything, everything. Photo: Mytreya Kashyap/Mint
Bengaluru: The Art of Living Foundation will celebrate 35 years of service this year by organizing a World Culture Festival in Delhi on 11-13 March. In an interview, founder and spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar talks about the intolerance debate in India, a potential Nobel Peace Prize nod, the changing paradigms of good leadership and why he does not worry about any backlash to his views on the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community or gender bias in temples.
What do you hope to accomplish through the World Culture Festival?
Celebrations are themselves an achievement. You don’t need an achievement for celebration. One message definitely we would want to give to the world through celebration, through this particular festival, is that we are one family and good people are together. Divisive forces and people who are spreading violence and hatred will have to wake up, and see that the world is coming together.
Why should one attend the World Culture Festival?
It’s a celebration, everyone’s invited. Like when there’s a wedding or a function in the family, you go and invite all the family and friends. For us, the whole world is a family, so we are inviting everyone.
What will be the highlights of this festival?
There is a leadership summit. Leaders from all walks of life will come and they will share their experience. They will inspire youngsters to participate. There is also a youth summit. The cultural festival, which will be inaugurated by the Prime Minister, will see lakhs of people.
What has been Art of Living’s biggest achievement so far?
Art of Living’s main aim is to bring a smile on everyone’s face, and it has done that to a great extent, wherever it has reached. It has also inspired people to take up social activities, service activities.
When did you realize that you wanted to become a spiritual guru?
You say spirituality begins when people ask themselves ‘Who am I?’ When did you ask yourself that question?
Actually, I knew when I was very young that I have come here to do some work. Meditation was like breathing for me. It was a part of me.
What is the hardest part about being a spiritual guru?
The hardest part is communicating what you really are, what you feel, to the world which has prejudice and cynicism.
What is your strategy to navigate the cynical world?
I love to take such challenges. I like to interact with people who have no idea about spirituality, interact with people who are anti-spiritual. I find atheists are amazing people. The interesting thing is they are the real seekers somewhere deep inside. Scepticism, I welcome. Cynicism, I tolerate. Foolishness, I have compassion (for).
So there is no intolerance in your camp?
No. I feel that this country has more indifference than intolerance. We are indifferent. Whatever happens, we don’t care, we don’t bother. That should go. It is better to be a little bit intolerant, move away from indifference. (Let us be more) intolerant to injustice, intolerant to crime, intolerant to meaningless endeavours that people undertake.
If you look at the ‘Puranas’, there is so much of healthy debate and that is how great ideas came. What is causing the rising intolerance in India towards any criticism of religion?
Religion is criticized maximum in this country, like nowhere else. So we have always been open to criticism in this country.
So you don’t think it has changed at all?
No. This country has (had) freedom for (a) long time. People make fun of anything, everything. Humour is part of our tradition. That is the beauty of India, unlike in other countries where you will be beheaded if you write something wrong. Here we don’t mind criticism because we know the truth is not going to change by criticism.
You recently won the Padma Vibhushan. There are rumours you could be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for your role as a peace mediator in Colombia. How do you feel about that? What is it about the award that excites you the most?
I don’t think any of these awards have at any time excited me. What excites me is when I can see tears turning into smiles and smiles turning into tears of gratitude. That is what excites me, not someone’s opinion about me or the work I do.
Tell us about your role as a peace negotiator.
I don’t do it as an extracurricular activity. I just do it as part of my job. It is in my nature to bring peace so I keep doing it, wherever it clicks and works.
Tell us about your experience with the Columbian rebel group FARC...
They are atheists and such nice people. We had three days of (2-3 hours each day) deliberations and later on they also joined meditation, and it was a sea change. The day I was leaving, they said please don’t forget us. They each brought a stone and told me please touch this stone so that your energy is with us. That itself shows that deep within every one of us there is a thread of spirituality. Whether they accept or acknowledge it, it continues to be there. I told them, look, your goal is to have prosperity for your people and prosperity does not come by violence. So, peace precedes prosperity. First there was resistance and later on they understood my point of view. And they unilaterally declared a ceasefire. That is their greatness, I tell you. Many people in conflict don’t even come for talks. They don’t even listen to others. Their ears are shut like the ISIS. They won’t come for any talks because they are so fixed in their mind. They feel only they have the right to live on the planet. Their version of God, if people don’t accept it, then they have no right to live on the planet. With such people, you cannot even start a dialogue.
Have you tried talking to ISIS?
Well, I mentioned that I would love to have a dialogue with them and they sent me a death threat. There ends the whole story.
You have engaged with Yazidis in Iraq, HIV patients and natural disaster victims globally. What’s next for you?
We walk the talk. We say one world, one family and we have to be true to that statement. Whatever comes, I am right there. If you plan from now on, okay I want this, then you may miss out on many things that nature is going to bring in front of you.
What is your idea of a good leader?
There are many characteristics of a good leader. One who does not impose himself/herself on the people who he/she is leading. They facilitate and have lots of patience for their growth. It is almost like a coach of soccer or cricket who waits there and allows people to move ahead. (Somebody who is) ready to take the challenge and walk the talk. You can’t tell somebody, be calm and get agitated yourself.
Do you think the paradigm of leadership has changed considering the world around us has become more chaotic?
Definitely. A leader in the past used to be in an ivory tower. They would not connect with all the cadres. Even today, some political leaders don’t even talk to the cadres or members of the lower ranks. This is not good. When you are encircled by a certain group of people, they become a fort and they filter every communication coming in and going out. A leader should be really aware of this and not let this happen. He should keep his lines of communication open throughout, through all levels, without disturbing the hierarchy. This, itself, is a great skill.
What are the human values you would like to see in the leaders of today’s corporate world?
Large-heartedness, patience and the ability to check greed, and be more humane.
You have come out strongly against gender bias in temples and supported the LGBT community. Do you fear you might alienate some of your more conservative followers?
I don’t worry whether someone follows me or not. I have to be true to myself. What I feel, I say. If people don’t like it, it’s their choice. They don’t need to like everything I say.
What is the best way to teach spirituality in schools?
Children are spiritual by nature. We just have to preserve their innocence while kindling intelligence. Children don’t like anything forced on them. So I would like to keep it extracurricular. Our children’s programmes are conducted with a lot of fun and games. Yoga, pranayama and breathing techniques give them practical tools to deal with stress. It helps them develop pleasant personalities while being strong from within so that they don’t succumb to peer pressure.
Many people see God in you and even worship you. How does that make you feel?
It’s okay. I see God in them too.
What is the legacy you want to leave behind?
Leaving a legacy is very far ahead. I would like to see a stress-free, violence-free society now and we are working towards it.
Courtsey : LiveMint.com