This edition of the Express Adda held at Indigo, One Golden Mile, New Delhi, hosted spiritual leader and Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. In a discussion moderated by Vandita Mishra, National Opinion Editor, The Indian Express, and Prasoon Joshi, lyricist and Chairman, Asia Pacific, CEO and COO, India, McCann Worldgroup, Sri Sri spoke about JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar’s arrest on sedition charges and how the government could have handled the issue better, the need for dialogue and on mediating in times of conflict. Responding to a question on Section 377 that deals with criminalisation of homosexuality, Sri Sri called it an obsolete law that needed to go.
Mishra: How do you look at what’s happening in JNU? You often say that nindak ko apne paas rakhna chahiye (you should keep your critic by your side)… because he keeps you clean and he keeps you honest. In this situation, what many would say is that the government is criminalising dissent. Since the Prime Minister listens to you, and you talk to him, what would you say to him as his government takes on students in JNU?
It’s important that freedom of speech be honoured at all costs. Everybody has the right to freedom of expression but sedition, when someone says Bharat ko barbaad karke rahenge, that will not be tolerated by any democracy. We can’t leave such seeds unattended, which will grow and criminalise the whole atmosphere. We need to nip the criminal tendencies at the very beginning. It shouldn’t be done with vengeance, it should be done with compassion. If a child has a criminal tendency, what will the parents do? Will they say it’s freedom of expression? They will say, no, this is not acceptable. Such punitive action needs to be taken so that the kid doesn’t go off track. Today, we face the threat of terrorism across the world. We need to be watchful and alert.
Of course, I have always preferred moderation, mediation and holding a dialogue. But action needs to be taken and we cannot ignore such provocative things.
Mishra: You talk of reconciliation. You have said that hatred and fear are actually love upside down, that repulsion is attraction from the other side. Would you say that the government could have shown greater compassion towards students?
They could have done much more. They could have included some mediators, some people who could give them some sense.
Joshi: Coming to spirituality now, if spirituality is an eternal truth, then why does it have to reach out to people or simplify itself or look for context?
We have to speak the language of today and today’s language is one of science. Language is a medium and spirituality needs that medium. Let me make a distinction between spirituality and religion. Religion is something you are born with — it’s your name, the rituals that surround you from birth to death. But spirituality is something very personal. We are made up of both matter and spirit. Like we need amino acids, carbohydrates and minerals for the body, a spirit is made up of compassion, love, values, greater understanding. This is the core essence of all religions. Unfortunately, the world over, we have thrown out the essence and are holding on to the dry skin. Spirituality always unites people from across religion and race and gives you much needed self-esteem, confidence and fearlessness.
Mishra: You said, you fit everywhere, and you do. Do you find it a challenge in these times when people are trying to slot you? How difficult is it to be all that you are? A spiritual seeker and guru, you are also a conflict mediator. You also speak up on social issues, you have also spoken up on corruption. Is it challenging to maintain a certain political neutrality and reach out to everyone?
I love challenges. Thirty-five years ago when we began this programme (Art of Living), spirituality or mediation was taboo. Yoga was taboo. People thought yoga was for people with long, matted hair, ashes all over, standing on one leg some where on the banks of the Ganga. That was the perception the world over. People thought it was a weird thing to do. I called it the ‘Art of Living’ and people came, it created some curiosity, people thought there is something in it. With time, the prejudice has lessened.
Mishra: You have spoken about the power of yoga and meditation to weed out prejudices. You have also spoken of reaching out to ISIS. Have you done that and how did that go?
I reached out to FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and it was very interesting to meet them. After they gave me the highest civilian award in Colombia, I had a formal meeting with the President. The President was very worried. He said a military option was the only option.
Mishra: And this is a six-decade-old insurgency…
Yes, it is a 50-year-old insurgency. He (the President) said they (the rebels) were bombing water resources, bringing down telephone towers; seventy lakh people have lost their homes, twenty lakh people have lost their lives and we have to go for a military option and I’ve taken permission from America. He said, ‘my only worry is that we will lose 40,000 lives’. I said, let me try. So I went to Colombia and spent three days talking to them. First, they were very reluctant because I am from an alien culture speaking an alien language, from an alien religion. They were quite reluctant but the last day, they came along with me for a press conference and accepted my proposal of a non-violent way of pursuing their aim. They declared an unilateral ceasefire. Neither the press nor the government could believe it. They thought it must be a gimmick. But it stayed and a month later the government declared a ceasefire. Bilateral talks began, peace agreements were signed over five points — one will happen in March. So in March, this whole conflict will be sealed forever.
Mishra: And the Colombian government has given you their highest civilian award…
They gave it to me before this. When you accept some award, you become more obliged to do something for that country. Luckily, for us, our effort was successful. So, I thought maybe let us do something with ISIS and ask them what their problem was, why they were killing people.
Mishra: Who did you speak to?
I sent a message to them. They sent me death threats instead, showing some beheaded bodies. ‘You want to talk to us, this is how you can talk to us’, they told me. I said there is no point in further discussion if they think that people with other points of view and those who are different have no right to exist. So I left it at that.
Joshi: What is your point of view of a nation state? Spirituality is about oneness, humanity. Do you think we should have borders at all? Or have a national identity?
You can be a universal person, you can be a world citizen yet be a good subject of your state, a good citizen of your country too. I don’t see any conflicts between these identities. We all have several identities. First and foremost, we must know we are part of one light, one divinity — Jeev Brahma Ishwar Avinash. We are part of one divine being. Our second identity is that we are part of the human race of the planet. Then we belong to this country. Then our gender identity — male or female, then religion, country, language. All these identities are there. We need to prioritise. But first we must remember that we are part of one human race. When this identity is sacrificed for smaller identities, then we have conflicts. We don’t even realise we have these many identities.
Mishra: We are talking about conflict and identity, there’s also discrimination and identity. You have been involved recently in the Shani Shingnapur controversy. You proposed two models — one is the Kashi Vishwanath, where everybody is allowed, and the Tirupati Balaji, where only the priest goes to the sanctum sanctorum and nobody else. You suggested that it could be the Tirupati Balaji model. Why not the Kashi Vishwanath model?
I had a detailed conversation with all the stakeholders. When it comes to religion, there is a lot of fear among people. To change, fear is a big obstacle. Some custom that has been followed for the last so many years, if they want to change suddenly, there is a fear. Intellectually they say, okay I will do it, but emotionally, there is a block that if I do this, maybe something wrong will happen to my village, maybe somebody will die in my family. I gave them the assurance that nowhere in the scriptures is there any discrimination…now these are the two models. They said one lakh people visit that temple on Saturdays and it is only a 20×20 space and there is a lot of oil that is poured there and often people have slipped and fallen. So, they said the second model may be more practical at this moment.
Mishra: When we are on discrimination and identity, you have also spoken for gay rights. You have actually spoken about decriminalising Section 377, about their right to be equal. At the moment, the case is in front of a Constitution Bench in the court. Do you think it should have been resolved by political leadership, by Parliament instead of leaving it to the courts to do this?
Politicians want to play safe. They are more concerned about the vote bank in their constituency. Well, sense should prevail. We cannot be blind to the progressive thinking that is happening around the world. Around the world, it is decriminalised. We cannot hold on to a law which is obsolete, which has been there since the colonial era, which was not even found in this country. We do not find it in any of our shastras, like Manusmriti, or any old laws and rules of kings and queens in this country. Why should we hang on to it? We must be progressive.
Mishra: Is the World Culture Festival (to be held in March this year) premised on the idea of everybody coming together and the yagya, of meditating and reaching within.
We have Olympics for sports, we have economic forums of different kinds for business and industry, we have UN summits of leaders of political parties getting together. I don’t find anything like this in the field of religion, spirituality or arts. So I thought we should bring art and culture from around the world on one platform. Now, 35,973 artistes are going to come on one platform and play musical instruments and sing and dance in Delhi. We have to create a stage of seven acres, that is six football grounds for them to perform. So it’s one-of-its-kind meet that is going to happen.
Joshi: Is it possible that our governments could be more spiritual?
Why not? This country got freedom by singing satsangs of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was less of a political person and more of a spiritual person. So the root of our freedom movement has been spirituality, which we have forgotten in the past 60 years or so. We need to spiritualise politics. It would put an end to corruption. Politics is not for making money.
Mishra: Amartya Sen said recently that it is not that India is intolerant, it is that we are too tolerant to intolerance. Would you agree with that?
I would put it differently. We are too complacent. Kuch karte hi nahi. Jo ho raha hai chalne do. Indifference is the word. I would say we are too indifferent to things. We need to take a proactive role.