MANILA, Philippines – Picture 35,973 artists from 155 countries of the world sharing one stage. Ninety-one performances packed into a three-day run. One hundred fifty-five volunteer makeup artists lugging around tons and tons of lipstick, blush-on, foundation, eye shadow, mascara, false eyelashes, etc. to primp up thousands of performers. One thousand two hundred religious leaders from different faiths and sects — Jainism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam — attending one forum. One hundred seventy-two dignitaries, including heads of state, statesmen, captains of industry, business executives coming together to share and exchange views. A staggering audience of 3.5 million that’s 30 times bigger than the biggest Super Bowl attendance in history. What do we have here? Why, it’s the World Culture Festival held last March 11-13 in New Delhi, India!
On a sweltering Indian summer, all roads lead to New Delhi for the World Culture Festival (WCF) 2016 to celebrate The Art of Living’s “35 years of service to humanity, spirituality, and human values to over 370 million people across 155 countries.”
Transforming the banks of the sacred Yamuna River into the ginormous festival site was not without controversy as it came under attack from local environmentalists. Here, probably the world’s largest stage was mounted over an area of seven acres.
The main man behind it all is Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar who in 1981 founded The Art of Living, which he says is not so much an organization as it is a principle, a philosophy of living life to the fullest. “Its core value is to find peace within oneself and to unite people of different cultures, traditions, religions, nationalities in our society under one goal, which is to uplift human life everywhere.”
Gurudev has this one message to give to the world: “So, we are here from so many nations, so many different languages, following different faiths with one intention to bring love and harmony in the world...”
We Are Family
“We all are one! We are all one world family,” says Gurudev. And we can take on the world and achieve anything, he says, “when we have a large and generous heart ... God Himself descends on earth. God is not someone sitting far away in the skies. He resides within us all. This is the essence of all religions — be it Vedanta, Sufism, Islam, Christianity, etc. It is said in Christianity, ‘The kingdom of God is within you.’ So, do not go looking for God here and there. Just relax and repose within yourself in silence, and you will experience waves of deep bliss arising within you that very moment.”
That very moment, in the heat of Indian summer, I am, as part of the six-member Philippine media group, standing in the midst of humanity. Above us, the proud and mighty sun treats us to a spectacle of lights. And suddenly, the bright skies give way to nimbus clouds and we’re caught in a downpour that later intensifies. But soon, to everyone’s surprise, a rainbow appears on the horizon and then comes a hailstorm. Amazed and confused over the abrupt weather changes, we ask ourselves, “Are these really ice pellets raining down on us?” At the height of Indian summer? Incredible, isn’t it? (Well, India is not described as incredible for nothing.) All that’s needed to complete the scenario is an apparition coming down from the heavens.
But of course, we keep an eye out for the different performers who are resplendent in their native costumes. Like the Brazilian dancers doing their scintillating samba and capoeira. “Our performance is a mix of all the strengths of our culture — it reflects our roots, way of life, identity, happiness, cultural diversity,” says choreogapher Bia Gaspar.
The just-as-colorful Lithuanian dancers dazzle with their ancient Baltic dance that’s more than 2,000 years old to showcase “how we are all connected to each other.”
Performers from Mauritius, Kenya, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Nigeria have come together to send the message of one Africa.
Of course, we’ve traveled this far (three hours and 28 minutes from Manila to Singapore via Philippine Air Lines and another five hours and 40 minutes by Jetstar Airways from Singapore to Delhi) to watch and cheer for our very own dancers from Abuyog, Leyte, which was among the hardest-hit municipalities in Leyte during typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).
It’s heartwarming to find swarms of spectators applauding and raving over our multi-awarded Abuyog (meaning bees) performers. “Despite the catastrophes we’ve been through, we remain a smiling, loving, passionate and compassionate people,” declares artistic director Victor Hao Cuenco. “We want to show the peoples of the world how beautiful our culture is. We want to tell everyone that we are all connected as bees swarming around their beehouse.”
My favorite bumblebee, grade schooler Randy Herboso, tells me it’s his first time to travel abroad, like most of his fellow Abuyogs. He has a 14-year-old older brother who’s also with the group.
So many young people have come to this festival to perform or simply to watch. Even the visually challenged children from Bijapur are adding their voice to this world forum.
Quite popular with the youth is Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi Ji, who graces the first day of the festival. We hear some local youths chanting, “Modi! Modi! Modi!”
No, Pope Francis could not come, so he sent his representative Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo. Bishop Sorondo notes that there are great similarities between His Holiness Pope Francis and Sri Sri. “Christians believe that the human being is made in the likeness and image of God and you believe the divine can be found in each human being. One of the great ways to foster peace and harmony in the world today is through the work done at a person-to-person level. To know each other’s religion and to reduce the differences.”
Sending a message through his Conservative Party’s parliamentarian Matthew Offord, British Prime Minister David Cameron has invited Sri Sri to address the House of Commons, the lower house of the Parliament, “whenever you visit UK next time.” Cameron was quoted as saying in his message, “People say that no one can change the world, but Gurudev has already started.”
The Art Of Living — And Loving
“There are two things why I joined The Art of Living,” confesses Kim Hartman of Holland, now director of The Art of Living Philippines. “First, I asked myself what’s the real reality, there must be more to life. Secondly, I felt I was not living my full potential and I didn’t want to live like that. I was searching here and there. Then I stumbled upon this book God Loves Fun by Sri Sri that deals with different topics. The moment I read it, something clicked inside me, like when you read the Good Book. A week after, I was taking the AOL course, now called the Happiness Program. I didn’t want it to be over so I started helping my teacher and became a volunteer.”
Today, Kim teaches primary school kids, teenagers and adults in The Netherlands and the Philippines “to provide them with tools to have clarity of mind and to use their full potential for the benefit of God and society.” With today’s rising incidence of suicides among the youth, Kim helps young people deal with stress and life’s challenges.
“My mom told me that the course would really help my back pain as she experienced a lot of relaxation and healing from the session she attended,” Nameeta Dargani shares why she’s now with AOL.
The lovely mom of two young boys adds, “Yes, I gave up negativity and complaining after a few months of practicing Sudarshan Kriya! I decided this was the path I wanted — that of joy, celebration and service to humanity. I am so grateful to Sri Sri for freeing me of my small-minded issues and showing me how great and full life can be when you are free from stress. It is all on a voluntary basis — nothing is imposed. You can participate in whatever manner you choose.”
She elaborates, “My life began to change on different levels soon after I took the first Art of Living course. Physically, I had so much more energy and I got sick less often. Emotionally, I found that people, events and situations did not disturb me the way they used to. I felt so much more centered. My mind got really clear and calm. And spiritually, I have never felt stronger — I feel so comfortable, natural, and happy. I feel more connected with people and nature. This has been the greatest gift.”
For his part, Amar Daswani relates, “I was a workaholic fixated on building a business after college. My life made sense and had a goal yet basic questions about myself and what made me truly happy were not answered — some part of me knew there was more to life than eating, sleeping, working, and having some fun. My sister told me about the Happiness Program and I thought it would give me some much-needed time out from work and relieve some stresses. Instead, I got more than that, including renewed and more fulfilling goals in life and tools to allow me to handle challenges with enthusiasm and sustained energy.”
Did he have to give up anything to follow Sri Sri? Amar quickly replies, “Although Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has millions of followers, he actually doesn’t ask for followers or qualifications from anyone — he simply wants to share his smile with everyone in the world and his knowledge and wisdom. This love for life and people is so infectious that people naturally want to be around him and be inspired. He gives total freedom, allowing people to take pride in their personal achievements.”
He adds, “Now, having done the program, I have the tools to manage my state of mind which improves my responses to situations and makes life more like a game and adventure than a problem. The breathing techniques have also improved my asthma, and I find myself less prone to diseases. Due to less stress, I find that I can be more free and natural in my relationships, which have improved.”
Happy volunteer Gigi O’Hearn gushes, “AOL techniques have not only helped me conquer my health issues (she suffers from lumbar back sprain). It has also encouraged me to be open to other self-empowerment modalities and expanded my meditation community. Having witnessed the devotion, commitment, and passion of AOL members who have so much love in their hearts has given me the motivation to contribute in whatever way I can, the best I could.”
Gigi is delighted to add, “Currently, I am doing volunteer work at the Ashram in Bangalore. Considering that this is supposed to be one of the happiest places to be, I am struggling on my eighth day of volunteer work. On my third week in India, I am already homesick, I’ve had enough of Indian food and I miss speaking my own language. What Guriji is asking of me now is to persevere, to believe in the process — to stay on and finish my month-long commitment. However, I am home away from home with my one world family. Yesterday, I was comforted by a young Lithuanian guy’s words which go, ‘I am just enjoying what is present.’ As one signage in the Ashram from a Sri Sri quote says, “This pain is just like the cloud. Have you seen clouds stop moving? Eventually, just like all clouds disappearing, it will be gone.”
Written by Ching M. Alano