Spiritual Leaders Have To Be Neutral: Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is a contented man. Having spread the Art of Living in more than 150 countries, all he wants to focus on now is teaching meditation so that people can handle stress. In the news recently over his controversial World Culture Festival on the Yamuna flood plains and his questioning the Nobel peace prize for Malala Yousufzai, the spiritual guru is not hesitant about calling the Modi government slow. The Statesman caught up with him a day before his 60th birthday.

Thank you so much, Guruji , for talking to us. You turn 60 on May 13, many happy returns of the day. How are you celebrating your birthday?

Thanks. Every day is a celebration in this campus as you know.  We are doing service activities and we hope many more people join the service this month.

When people turn 60, they are asked when they plan to retire. But I guess I shouldn’t ask you that question?

( laughs…) Doesn’t seem to be a possibility in the near future. You can’t retire from your nature. If you are doing something not in your nature you think of retiring. But here we are just ourselves .

What is your message to our audience and readers? The modern professional is hassled and unhappy with the world around, where does he get peace from?

Correct. Our activity is centred around inner peace and outer service. First we need to find inner peace. It is necessary to take care of yourself. Take care of your stress levels. The busier you are, the more the need to meditate and introspect.

There are so many spiritual gurus or religious leaders who are either turning into politicians or seeking political affiliation or are turning businessmen and claiming huge success. What is your take?

You know it is very tough to be neutral in this country. The moment someone approaches you, someone participates in your programme, you are tagged as belonging to that political party. So to keep the neutrality you need to have all the parties interested or nobody takes interest in it. That is a challenge. So far we have been able to maintain ourselves, our dignity, our neutrality. As a spiritual and social organisation it is our job to care for people, specially when there is so much poverty, corruption and natural calamities.

We can say we are in an isolated place trying to help. We need to interact with everyone. So politicians, government officials, media, everyone has to pitch in to see something concrete on the ground. All spiritual leaders have to be neutral. They have to be like journalists. If someone asked you as a newspaper if you are with communists or Congress or others, you will say you are here for people. Similarly, spiritual leaders, I think, have to be for people.

People say these days there is no growth without political affiliation. Do you have any political favourites?

You know I don’t get swayed by someone’s else’s ideology or model because I know what we really want. When we do something that is useful for people everybody appreciates it.  I leave it to you (to judge which politician is doing good). It is the job of journalists. There are people who need to improve in every government. To keep myself out of trouble I see only two things; there are people who are doing a good job and there are people who can do better.

The government is completing two years. Would you spare a thought on how they can improve?

Yes there are a lot many areas they can improve on, there are many things they have done well or performed. They have three more years to go… There are many beautiful schemes they have come out with but the implementation, handling the bureaucracy, might do with some improvement.   The speed with which it should go can be enhanced.

You have also talked about world politics. You have been a peace ambassador, a mediator, an arbitrator in a situation in Colombia and offered peace negotiations with ISIS too. But what about  home? Any experiences in India? Do you think there is less acceptance of a neutral person participating in negotiations in our country?

See in all these negotiations I don’t go on behalf of some party. Neither the government, nor the rebels. I go as an individual.  We have been talking to ULFA. We have been working in the North East in Manipur. I met several groups recently. I give them my vision. I find it interesting that there are many takers for this idea of a cohesive, conflict-free society. That could be a trigger for a more prosperous society that we can think of -- when the rebels or revolutionaries get to understand that today it is not about independence, but inter-dependence that matters more to achieve their goals. See the paradigm has shifted in the past decades. We cannot hold on to the colonial era paradigm.

Can we take up Kashmir as an example closer home?  With Pakistan, conflict doesn’t seem to be subsiding.

Challenges are many but we cannot give up. We need to keep pursuing our goals.

On Pakistan, have you offered to talk to any parties?

Definitely, whatever we can do to bring harmony in the world, including Pakistan, I am always available, I am always there.

Your recent comment on Malala… (of her not deserving the Nobel) has got varied responses. Your critics say the Malala issue brought out your anger.

Absolutely no anger. You know I don’t lose my mind over such small things. I have a right to speak what I feel.  I didn’t say anything new.  I only placed the facts when someone asked me are you doing all this work to get a prize. I said I don’t need to do so much work for a prize. When someone of 16  can get a prize, then you don’t need to do so much for a prize. That’s not my goal at all. Whom do I impress with a prize?

Your critics also panned the World Culture Festival and you did get very angry with the National Green Tribunal. Why did you feel there was politics behind NGT’s thinking.

I was not angry with NGT. I was very definite, firm in mentioning, come and see where there is pollution. We for one are for (saving) environment.  I suspect the people who approached the tribunal have some political motives. If they were really bothered about the environment, they would have taken up other issues nearby. There are three illegal constructions, they didn’t care about those. They were only concerned about this temporary three-day event.

But why would they go against you, you are not a political person.

That is my question to you too.

Going back to this Ayurveda Pharmacy you mentioned, there is talk about a brand that is being promoted by a yoga guru -- that it has become a short cut to build a good business.  When someone opens a pharmacy in the Himalayas and makes an announcement of it being a Rs 5000 crore company, how does it affect you?

When we started we were far from the city and there were two Ayurveda doctors who were part of Art of Living. They started treating people and asked us to start a clinic. Then an Ayurveda College came up so we thought we should give quality medicines. What we produce today is not even enough for our own people. Now when they see quality in our products they approach us and demand more. I don’t give my attention at all.

Don’t you have an urge to promote your products when you are on the stage?

No, because we already have so many things to do, we are in 150 countries. There is enough to deal with.  In America we were conducting “Welcome Home Troops” programmes for soldiers who returned from war zones in Iraq or Afghanistan.  They needed help and we started this programme. It was a big hit. They are able to sleep better, their lives are better. So when you have such things to do, products are a very small aspect. I have not much interest  in it. We support it. We have our people working on it. We have a “Forum on Ethics in Business” which is an international programme. Every year we give awards to people in business.

I learnt at an airport kiosk that your business is going to be worth Rs 1000 crore. Do you set any targets?

No, I don’t set any internal business targets. I don’t put my head into it. I am occupied with meditation, training advanced teachers to help people handle stress. If I focus on business, this will suffer. I am into meditation and there are people who take care of other things. We have a trust for Ayurveda, for education and for farmers. We have 450 free schools which are helping 55,000 children. A trust on agriculture is helping lakhs of farmers. We are giving them seeds, educating them about organic farming. Many times we connect farmers to buyers. Some farmers don’t know where the market is for organic products. We help them connect. We also have an employment exchange to help people find jobs.

I wanted to talk to you about the digital world. It is replacing everything around us. Are we really on a disastrous path as human beings under the influence of digital gadgets?

No, no. It is about how we use it.  Look at this (picks up his phone). It is a great friend but if you lack human values, if you are not taught about ethics in life, then you can use the gadget in a wrong way. It can be disastrous.  You cannot blame the technology, the person using the technology should be more aware. And a much needed change in education should happen where it is not just stuffing information but character building.  Technology has transformed this world in a big way but it also needs to transform the human being to be stress free and violence free.

Absolutely, as we talk here, one third of Indians will not manage a meal tonight but there is  one third of population thinking about which car to buy this season or which gadget to buy this birthday. What is your message to them?

Those who have should be more sensitive and serve the people and those who don’t have should be strong and work towards self-reliance.

The Courtesy : The Statesman