TOP STORIES

The mediator

Art of Living and Sudarshan Kriya have made Sri Sri Ravi Shankar a global name in spirituality and wellness. What is less known is that he has successfully played peacemaker in places racked by violence and bloodshed around the world. A peek into how he juggles these diverse roles.
By Hindol Sengupta

A high-ranked official at the Ministry of Home Affairs says the tweets were a sign that there could be some channel of conversation with Kashmiri extremists. The official, who did not want to be named, confirmed that when the ministry discovered that Wani’s father Muzaffar had consulted Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living (AOL) in Bengaluru, it asked the 60-year-old spiritual leader if he could assist the government on Kashmir.

AOL, which is present in 155 countries and claims to have touched the lives of 370 million followers, did not comment on Ravi Shankar’s role in the Kashmir issue. The guru won’t talk about it either. “We stay away from politics,” he says, though he adds that he has known Prime Minister Narendra Modi since 2000. “I have never taken any obligation [from him] and neither has he—we have that in common.”

The backchannel collaboration between the government and Ravi Shankar is illustrative of  the mediatorial role the latter has taken in conflict zones across the world. He has worked to broker peace between the Colombian government and the rebels of the FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia People’s Army).  With a strong AOL presence in Colombia, Ravi Shankar is no stranger to that country. In fact, in June 2015, the guru was awarded Colombia’s highest civilian award, the Orden de la Democracia Simon Bolivar. A month or so after that, he held talks with FARC, Latin America’s oldest and largest guerrilla group, at Havana, after a meeting the Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in Bogota. Whether or not directly influenced by these talks, the two sides announced a ceasefire and a peace agreement, putting an end to a 50-year conflict that had claimed more than 200,000 lives and uprooted 6 million people.

“His [Ravi Shankar’s] meeting[s] … motivated us to search for the path that would take Colombia to its encounter with the principles of non-violence,” says FARC leader Iván Márquez, one of the key interlocutors with the government, in a YouTube  video. “The teachings of [the] Art of Living are essential to achieve stable and long-lasting peace.”

In another video, Santos says: “He [Ravi Shankar] urged them [the rebels] to follow the Gandhian principle of non-violence and cultivate the art of meditation and breathing.” The guru is particularly known for Sudarshan Kriya, a form of meditation revealed to the guru on the banks of the Bhadra river in Karnataka’s Shimoga district.

2016_oct_ravishankar1
2016_oct_ravishankar2

At his ashram at AOL’s 70 acre headquarters on the outskirts of Bengaluru, Ravi Shankar tells me he always had a penchant for resolving disputes. “Even in school, I would try and stop boys from fighting,” he says. Born in Tamil Nadu, Ravi Shankar moved to Karnataka to study, earning a science degree from Bengaluru’s St. Joseph’s College. He studied meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation technique, and guru to the Beatles in the late 1960s.

He says his first experience of negotiating peace was three decades ago at the height of the insurgency in Punjab, when he used to teach meditation in prisons in Jalandhar and Ludhiana. “I realised that it is all about really listening to each side. Everyone is talking but very few are listening.”

This may sound simplistic, but as his experience in Colombia showed, it isn’t. After the first day of the talks with the rebels, FARC seemed unconvinced. FARC member Tanja Nijmeijer asked Ravi Shankar: “Do you think spirituality is possible without social justice?” The guru said: “No, social justice is the first step of spirituality.” The next day, the rebels announced that two of their most militant leaders, Márquez and Pablo Catatumbo, would participate in the peace talks with Ravi Shankar. 

When Catatumbo met the guru, one of the first things he said to him was: “We are not terrorists. We are not drug dealers. We are revolutionaries.” Soon after, in a break from diplomatic protocol, Ravi Shankar invited the FARC group to the Indian embassy in Havana and led them in a session of guided meditation.

“He understood how to build confidence. There was a lot of mistrust, a lot of violent mistrust,” says Francisco Moreno Ocampo, a sustainable business expert who worked with the Mexican government on education and was one of Ravi Shankar’s key interpreters in the FARC negotiations. (He is now a full-time Art of Living teacher.) “His method is to keep listening and listening and make very gentle but strategic interventions. To talk to FARC about Gandhian non-violence was not easy, but Sri Sri said we are all victims. At the press conference, Márquez said that this touched him. He agreed with Sri Sri that everyone in the circumstances was a victim.” 

The AOL team says that Ravi Shankar also urged the Colombian government not to demand an immediate de-arming of the guerrillas. The slow pace of laying down arms helped prevent friction. The process of rolling out the ceasefire took almost a year. In August, Márquez tweeted: “We thank Ravi Shankar for his support for the process. Now comes the planting in Colombia of the Gandhian principle of non-violence.”

Cut to Iraq. In 2003, Ravi Shankar sent a delegation to Iraq to urge its political leadership to talk peace. But the team was unable to meet anyone. Unwilling to give up, just before war broke out there, AOL sent a team of two meditation and yoga teachers and two doctors, who rented a building in Baghdad and began providing trauma relief to victims. By 2007, AOL’s doctors and trainers had assisted around 5,000 war victims.

When Ravi Shankar visited Iraq in 2007, he got an appointment with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which led to the Iraqi government sending 55 young people to Bengaluru for AOL training. Ahmed Chalabi, then deputy prime minister of Iraq, described Ravi Shankar as “a great man”. Ravi Shankar visited Iraq again in 2008 and 2014. 

2016_oct_ravishankar3

“By the time he was there for the second time, he was one of those rarest of rare outsiders who was talking to [leaders of factions such as] Maliki, [Omer] Jabouri and [Mohammad Taqi al-] Modarresi. That was astonishing,” says Mawahib Shaibani, a former banker for Credit Suisse and Merrill Lynch based in the United Arab Emirates, who heads AOL’s work in West Asia. She has been at the forefront of Ravi Shankar’s work in Iraq for about a decade, and says he’s among the very few people who can talk to “the Shias, the Sunnis, and even the Kurds, and still function in Iraq”.

In recent times, Ravi Shankar has also had a dialogue with the Baba Sheikh, the supreme religious leader of the Yazidis, a community of ethnic Kurds that once fought Saddam Hussein and is now at war with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to protect its homeland, Kurdistan. Recently, AOL airdropped 130 tonnes of relief material for Yazidis fighting ISIS in Sinjar in northern Iraq.

Several factions are involved in the violence in Iraq. The majority of Iraqis are Shia Muslims, but Saddam Hussein was Sunni as was the elite that ruled Iraq under his dictatorship. Since 2006, when Hussein was hanged, there has been a relentless bloodbath between Shia and Sunni militia. The Kurds are mainly Sunni, but they fight anyone who is seen to be a threat to their homeland, including ISIS, which is mostly Sunni. 

Jabouri is an influential Sunni leader while al-Modarresi is not just a major Shia leader and theologian but also controls the seminary in the city of Karbala, one of the most sacred places of the Shias. These leaders, including the Baba Sheikh, are, to say the least, dreaded enemies. That a Hindu guru from India is able to work in Iraq is unique. Shaibani says Ravi Shankar has been able to accomplish this because of his universal message. “His message is, ‘Forget what you and I think of god. Let us first discuss what you and I think of peace.’” Ravi Shankar recalls the Iraqi government telling him that he could not go to the Red Zone, Baghdad’s most dangerous area. “But I said, ‘I have not come here to be behind a security cordon. What is the point in that?’” He did spend a night in the Red Zone. 

Ravi Shankar is also the only Hindu spiritual leader to have visited Pakistan twice—in 2004 and 2012. In March 2014, arsonists burnt down an AOL centre in Islamabad. “I felt sad that some people feel such hatred but our work continues in Pakistan. It has never stopped,” he says.

Recently, Ravi Shankar’s image has suffered because of a controversy surrounding the World Culture Festival that AOL held in March in Delhi, on the banks of the Yamuna river. Some environmentalists accused AOL of irretrievably damaging the Yamuna floodplains. In August, an expert committee of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) recommended a fine of Rs 120 crore, saying that the floodplains were “completely destroyed, not simply damaged”.

AOL refutes the charges, pointing to a letter written by the Ministry of Water Resources representative, Shashi Shekhar, on the NGT committee before the final report. The letter said that the Rs 120 crore figure was “ad hoc”. Shekhar, secretary in the ministry, wrote in his letter on March 3 to the chairman of the NGT that the final figure was an “inadvertent mistake … largely due to the fact that I was running high fever and I could not see the entire report”. The case is in court. 

Prabhakar Rao, environmental scientist and spokesperson for AOL, says: “All we are demanding is an unbiased study. This report is clearly not unbiased. How can it be when its members change their views so dramatically?”

Ravi Shankar skirts the issue. Instead, in a light-hearted manner, he tells me that what he failed to do at the event was bring Modi and his rival, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, on the same platform (at the festival).

The Yamuna issue is not the only image challenge AOL faces. The organisation is looked upon as being for the rich, which Ravi Shankar says “is completely untrue”. It is perceived as pro-rich because his discourses are often attended by some of South Asia’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, such as Keki Mistry, CEO of HDFC; Venugopal Dhoot, who owns Videocon; and Binod Chaudhary, Nepal’s only billionaire and owner of the CG Group, which makes the popular Wai Wai instant noodles.

To drive home his point about not being elitist, Ravi Shankar argues that he neither owns AOL, which is a charitable institution, nor does he have any share in Sri Sri Ayurveda, the company under which all of AOL’s consumer-facing businesses operate. Sri Sri Ayurveda is under a trust managed by AOL devotees. Its businesses include a 300-bed hospital in Bengaluru and a portfolio of 200 products ranging from medicines and ghee to shampoo and energy drinks.

For years, Sri Sri Ayurveda was low-key and localised, but in the past one year it has grown to 1,000 franchise stores and around 30,000 other points of sale. There is no doubt that Sri Sri Ayurveda is eyeing the success of Patanjali, the consumer products brand that has grown under the auspices of another guru, Baba Ramdev.

Patanjali grew 150% last year to Rs 5,000 crore and Ramdev talks about hitting a turnover of Rs 10,000 crore in the next year, taking on companies like Hindustan Unilever and Nestlé.

Sri Sri Ayurveda’s COO Tej Katpitia says his company “never really pushed any of its products until very recently”, but online and mobile sales are growing “100% month on month”. 

Ravi Shankar, on his part, refuses to discuss business. “My focus and path is spiritual,” he insists. But it is clear that this is yet another case that will test his skill in doing a tough balancing act—between growing the AOL brand and yet remaining aloof from the commerce.