Category Archives: art of living

Ramachandra Guha and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar


Ramachandra Guha represents the typical Indian intellectual: brilliant, totally westernized – and who looks down on anything Hindu – because he has inherited from the British colonization a gigantic inferiority complex about his own culture and spirituality. And like many of his brothers and sisters of India’s intelligentsia, he feels nowhere better than in the West. This can be gathered from his Oslo diary published in the Outlook magazine of 20th October, where he says, and I quote : “…After two weeks in Oslo, my hosts send me off to Svalbard, deep into the Arctic Circle … I spend four enchanting days in and around the little town of Longybein, located at 78° N. I have the privilege of sampling the northernmost bar, the northernmost cafe, the northernmost supermarket, and the northernmost souvenir store in the world “… Then he adds – and this shows that this Macaulayan fixation is transmitted since many generations from father to children: “The person most envious of my trip is my daughter, who has read evocative descriptions of Svalbard in the novels of Philip Pullman”.  Wow: I am a born Frenchman, brought up in some of the best European schools, I vaguely known of Philipp Pullman (do you?), but have never heard of that he wrote about the archipelago of Svalbard” (have you?).

Once he has proved his credentials of a connoisseur of western literature and lover of western atmospheres, Guha, because he is in Norway, home of the Nobel Peace Prize, chooses to attack Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of the Art of Living movement, who has been the most nominated Indian in the last three years: “After my talk, a lady comes up and introduces herself as a doctor, and an advisor to the Peace Institute. The names I had mentioned were all very good, she said, but surely it was time that the peace prize went to an Indian? She mentions the name of a fellow townsman of mine (Sri Sri Ravi Shankar), a man who has grown long hair, given himself four fancy initials (HH/SS), and whose name is also that of a very great exponent of the sitar”. And of course, Guha tells her gleefully: “I suggested to the doctor that if not giving Gandhi the prize was a scandal, awarding it to my fellow townsman would be an even bigger scandal”. How typical of these Indian intellectuals, who are always spitting on their own culture, specially if it is Hindu-related.

Yet, there is no doubt that Guruji, as he is known to his followers, qualifies for the NPP – in fact he does tenfold time the work of a Mother Teresa or a R.K Pachauri: he not only performs charity work in many of India’s villages, he also promotes pesticide and fertilizer free farming, takes orphans from Kashmir or the North-East in his ashram, and his volunteers do relief work, both at the physical and psychological level, whether in Bihar during the floods, in  Iraq or in the US during the recent cyclone. Sri Sri is also trying to revive single handed, the ancient Vedic tradition by training young priests in a Gurukkul which blends ancient knowledge, with modern thought, while promoting Ayurveda as the medicine of the 21st century. He is attempting as well to mediate in many conflicts, in Kashmir, Sri Lanka, or between the Christians and Hindus. And lastly he has revived and modernized the ancient science of pranayama.

Of course, Guha is an unabashed admirer of the Norwegian Peace Committee: “The Nobel Peace Prize is itself a splendid example of Norwegian internationalism, in keeping with the country’s ethos of generous aid to poorer countries, not to mention its efforts to resolve ethnic conflicts around the world”. But not everybody in Europe would agree with him : Norwegians have sometimes the reputation of being staunch, left-leaning Protestants, who often have a condescending view of Asia. Thus, when they award prizes, they are necessarily influenced by a Christian vision of the world and an idealistic left-leaning sympathy. For, as most Europeans, they have been brought-up in the belief that democracy and philosophy started with Greece and that a Humane civilization, began with Jesus Christ. And of course, they have a covert – or at  best unconscious – suspicion, if not of India, at least of Hindus, who for them remain the heathen, the pagans which the missionaries of yesteryears, and unfortunately those of today too, have created in the minds of many westerners.

They can only agree with Mr Guha: how can they then, give their Peace Prize to a Hindu?

François Gautier

Will Sri Sri Ravi Shankar get the Nobel Peace Prize?

September 28, 2005

Is there still a prejudice in Western society against Hindus?

Amongst the front runners for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Guruji, as he is known amongst his disciples, truly deserves the Nobel Prize because he is a universal man of peace. His Art of Living courses taught in 144 countries provide tools that improve over-all health, wellness and increase enthusiasm and mental focus.

His Prison SMART programme (Prison Stress Management and Rehabilitation Training), has helped prisoners throughout the world in rehabilitation and in reducing violence and drug dependency. It also teaches the inmates skills that enable them to accept responsibility for their past actions and handle future conflict and stressful situations successfully.

His post-traumatic stress alleviation courses have helped to bring peace to victims of war in Kosovo (80 per cent of Kosovo’s population suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Harvard Medical Group), in Israel, the Balkans, Sudan, Afghanistan, the United States, Iraq and Pakistan.

Yet, it is an uphill task for a Hindu leader to get the Nobel Peace Prize.

Yes, Mother Teresa got it, but she was a Christian and not a natural born Indian. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s teachers and volunteers are from all religions — Hindus, also Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Parsis, Sikhs etc.

He himself teaches that breath, the main vehicle of his practices, has no religion or nationality and hence his disciples come from all countries. And though he is a Hindu leader, he could be truly called a universal soldier of peace.

When Vivekananda went to the West and addressed ‘my brothers and sisters of America’, at the Chicago Parliament of world religions, the West suddenly took note of this spirituality beyond religion which is true Hinduism and its acceptance of all other religions and all other spiritual leaders.

But since then there has been a relapse. As a Frenchman and a Westerner, I have been privileged to have met the Mother of Pondicherry, herself a French by birth. Her association with Sri Aurobindo and her deep knowledge of Indian spirituality helped bring a certain understanding of Hinduism, but that was only limited to France.

It is true that there is untouchability in India, and that it has harmed her image. For instance, by refusing access to Westerners in certain temples, such as in Banaras, Hindus have not created the right picture.

But is also true that Hindus have been made untouchables by a certain section of Western intellectuals (with the help of Indian academic residing in the West), whereas Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalaï Lama, who practice a religion which is derived from Hinduism, are fashionable in the West.

Take for instance, the special issue Time magazine did on meditation and another one on yoga, the word ‘Hindu’ was not even pronounced once. But are not mediation, yoga and pranayama Hinduism’s gift to the world?

Yet, compared to Desmond Tutu and Mother Teresa, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has done more work and his peace movement is phenomenal, from Argentina to Siberia, from South Africa to Fiji.

His efforts, for instance, for those that have been traumatised by natural calamities, such as the recent tsunami in Asia, are outstanding. About 5,000 Art of Living volunteers have been involved in tsunami relief efforts and courses to help people overcome post-traumatic stress disorders were conducted for over 3,500 people.

Hurricane Katrina has blazed a trail of devastation throughout Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Victims are not only in need of immediate medical care, food and water, but also of the most urgent trauma care, which the Art of Living Trauma course is providing.

Mother Teresa mostly catered to Calcutta, but Sri Sri’s social programmes in India are making a difference everywhere through service and spirituality. The aim of this program is to uplift individuals and communities so that they become self-reliant socially and economically.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s soldiers of peace have adopted 25,300 Indian villages in 25 states, trained 25,710 village youth in youth leadership training programme and conducted over 75,000 villages courses benefiting more than 2.3 million people.

I was watching Bono, another front runner for the Nobel Peace Prize on CNN the other day, along with Bill Clinton and Klaus Schwab, chairman of the Davos Economic Forum. True, Bono has done good work raising money for poor countries through concerts, but I thought that it pales when compared to the scope, universality and breadth of Sri Sri Ravi.

There has also been talk of a thousand women getting the Nobel Peace Prize. But this is would only be a face-saving gesture, which would dilute the dignity of the Nobel Peace Prize

And this again raises the question: Will His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, an apostle of peace for all, not get the Nobel Peace Prize, just because he is a Hindu? That would be a sad day for India and for the world.

Francois Gautier is the South Asia correspondent for Marianne, the largest selling French magazine and the editor of La Revue de l’Inde, a Paris-based magazine solely devoted to India.

Francois Gautier

Harvest of faith?

Harvest of faith?

Author: Francois Gautier
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: October 16, 2002

This column is specially addressed to my Christian brothers and sisters of India. At a time when again a Western missionary ministering in India (Father Marian Zelazek who works among leprosy patients in Orissa) has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and when Mother Teresa’s beatification – and later the canonisation – is being speeded-up by the Vatican, it is time to look into the real motives of Christian missionaries working in India.

We all know that Mother Teresa incarnated in the 20th century true Christian charity, helping “the poorest of the poor”, and that she lived a life of nun, with rectitude and service, as Jesus Christ would have liked her to. It also should be said that Mother Teresa did the work that wealthy Hindus and Hindu organisations should have done. After all, there is no denying that it takes a Westerner to pick up the dying in the streets of Calcutta and raise abandoned orphans, a thankless task if there is one. Hindus, even though their religion has taught them compassion for 4,000 years, have become very callous towards their less fortunate brethren and there are not enough Hindu organisations, apart from the Art of Living, the Vivekananda and Ramakrishna missions, or the RSS, doing charitable work as the Christians do. This is despite the fact that there is growing awareness amongst Hindu organisations that it is time to get their act together, that they ought to be doing more for the dispossessed and the poor of the land than they have so far.

Unfortunately – and in spite of herself maybe – Mother Teresa carried a very negative image of India: That of poverty beyond humanity, of a society which abandons its children, of dying without dignity. Alright, it is accepted there is some truth in it. But then it may be asked again: Did Mother Teresa ever attempt to counterbalance this negative image of India, of which she was the vector, with a more positive one? After all, she had lived here for so long that she knew the country as well as any Indian, having even adopted Indian nationality. Surely she could have defended her own country? She could, for example, have spoken about India’s infinite spirituality, her exquisite culture, the gentleness of its people, the brilliance of its children…

Regrettably, Mother Teresa said nothing of the sort. Does this mean that she stood for the most orthodox Christian conservatism? Was it, as some of her detractors said, that her ultimate goal was to convert India to Christianity, the only true religion in her eyes? I cannot believe it, although it is true that she never once said a good word about Hinduism, which after all is the religion of 700 millions people of the country she said she loved, and has been their religion for 5,000 years – long before Christianity appeared. Did Mother Teresa consider, as all good Christians do – particularly the conservatives ones – that Hinduism is a pagan religion which adores a multitude of heathen gods and should be eliminated?

The hardline Hindus argue that there has been no change in Christian or Protestant designs on India since they arrived with the Portuguese and the British, and that Mother Teresa was much more clever than Lord Hastings: She knew that on the eve of the 21st century, it would have looked very bad if she had openly stated her true opinions about Hinduism; so she kept quiet. It seems a bit farfetched but, ultimately, is not her charitable work – whatever its dedication – an indirect method to convert people? For without any doubt, most of the people she saved from the streets did ultimately become Christians. And if you ask those “elite” Indians who knew her well, such as photographer Raghu Rai, a great admirer of her, she always said: “It is now time for you to embrace the true religion.” (Raghu Rai politely declined.)

India today is an emerging super power and Indian Christians, while worshipping the memory of Mother Teresa, should try – by talking around themselves, writing articles and books – to propagate a more positive image of their country. Why does India’s intelligentsia, most of whom are born Hindus, also defend her? These are intelligent, educated people; they must surely have some inkling of Mother Teresa’s negative impact? Does Vir Sanghvi or for that matter Naveen Chawla, Mother Teresa’s ever admiring biographer, understand what she really stood for? That she may have been someone basically hostile to their culture, their religion, their way of life?

Also, do they know that Hindu society has always been the target of Christians since their coming here? Do they understand that they and a thousand of their peers, who belong to the intellectual elite of India and keep praising Mother Teresa (or Father Zelazek), are doing harm to their country and opening it to its enemies? The Christian influence is very strong in India today: It shapes the minds of its young people in a subtle way through its schools, which many of the children of the affluent attend. It moulds the thinking of the tribes it has converted, particularly in the North-East where the missionaries have always covertly encouraged separatism (see the remarkable book Indigenous Indians by the Dutch Scholar, Koenrad Elst).

It is also sad to see the majority of Hindus are unaware of the very negative image of their country and religion which Mother Teresa’s name is carrying. It is even more unfortunate to see that Hindus vote for her as the most popular Indian (as reported by a weekly magazine that recently conducted an opinion poll). Was Mother Teresa really Indian? Did she really love India as an Indian? While we must respect her memory, it is necessary that Mother Teresa’s sainthood or Father Zelatek’s potential Nobel prize be seen in their proper perspective by both Hindus and Indian Christians: By making her a saint, or giving Father Zelatek a Nobel, the Vatican and the West are still perpetuating a kind of condescending, neo-colonial attitude: “We, the Westerners, bring to you, the heathens, the civilisation and the true God.”

Ultimately, when she becomes a saint, Mother Teresa’s spirit will continue to haunt India because she will be worshiped by millions of Westerners for the very negative qualities and aspects that India is trying to emerge out of: Poverty, human despair and lack of self respect.

Toughness pays

Toughness pays
Author: Francois Gautier
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: November 29, 2003
Have you ever taken an El Al flight from Mumbai? The security is drastic: You are asked a hundred questions by young men and women, Indians, but of Jewish origin, whose parents emigrated from the first century onwards after the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem, to find refuge in India where they prospered and lived in peace till many of them went back to Israel in 1948 (indeed, India is probably the only country in the world where Jews have not been persecuted).

Why did I visit Israel? Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of the 144 countries-wide Art of Living movement, had been invited by the Government of Israel, thanks to the efforts of Rabbi Cooper and Dr Balitzer from Wisenthal, US-based foundation. All along our trip Rabbi Cooper and Dr Balitzer proved invaluable. I was tagging along because I have always believed that India and Israel have to come together. For 40 years after Independence, India did not have relations with Israel. Yet, India and Israel have much in common – both can learn a lot from each other. Like Indians, Israelis are one of those “elected people of God” – of whom Sri Aurobindo speaks in his book the Hour of God – who have managed to keep their spirituality alive in spite of oppressions, invasions and genocides.

Indians and Israelis also share a serious problem with Muslim fundamentalists. And India could learn a few lessons from the way Israel handles this problem, however much it is criticised by the Western media. Unlike India, which since Independence has chosen to deal with this problem in the Gandhian spirit, that is, by compromising most of the time with Islamic intransigence (if not giving in); Israel has showed that toughness first, followed by negotiations, pays better. Basically, the concept of “land for money” is something that India could learn from: In 1967, Israel was under threat of getting engulfed by its fanatical neighbours, so it stole the initiative by crushing them in a lightning Six-Day War and kept some land which it used later as bargaining chips with Egypt and Syria.

FACT (Foundation Against Continuing Terrorism), which I launched this year, was taking to Israel an exhibition on Kashmiri Pandits, one of the biggest genocides of the 20th century at the hands of Islamic terrorism, to see how it could be put up at different places in Israel to create public awareness there. Because of the hostility of Arab countries to Israel, El Al cannot overfly any of them and a journey which should take four hours takes, instead, seven hours, nearly the same time as a flight to Europe. We landed in Tel Aviv early in the morning. Tel Aviv is a modern city on the Mediterranean coast. It is much more relaxed than Jerusalem, as it is less subject than the capital to suicide attacks. People there speak several languages, girls look gorgeous and the affable Indian ambassador, Mr Raminder Jassal, who has done so much to improve Israeli-relations, hosted for Sri Sri Ravi Shankar a gracious meeting with the Indian community in Israel.

The drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is short, but the impressions are striking: The landscape is dry, rocky and arid and one wonders whether this land is worth fighting for. But Jerusalem is a beautiful city, perched on a hill, all constructed in white stone. As we arrived, the city was shining against the setting sun of a cool November evening. The King David Hotel, whe-re we stayed, is probably one of the most beautiful hotels in West Asia: Old world, stately and entirely furnished in mahogany. It also has a history of violence, as it once housed British troops and was bombed by Jewish activists. The rooms offer a view of the old city of Jerusalem and everything looked so peaceful.

Peaceful? Not really: As soon as you step out, you can feel fear: Suicide bombers can strike any time, anywhere and our security would not even allow our car to stop near a bus, for fear of it being blown up! It is Friday evening and we went to the Wailing Wall on this most holy Shabbat day. It is an impressive sight: Hundreds of young men and women, in ancient velvet black coats and funny fur hats, locks falling one each side, face the wall swaying back and forth while chanting an age old prayer that their forefathers have repeated for centuries. Sri Sri too touched the wall reverentially and concentrated for a few minutes: Two very ancient spiritualities met.

As in Ayodhya, Muslims have placed their mosque on the most sacred space of the Jews, exactly where their ancient temple was built. The golden mosque stands there as a perpetual taunt, as an unending expression of aggression. After the Seven-Day War, the Israelis control the entire area. But it remains very tense: As a mark of respect to Islam, we want to meditate in the mosque, but we are facing the wrong direction and the imam takes objection when he sees the rishi from India in a dhoti and kurta with long flowing beard and tells our security men that “Infidels” are not allowed to worship there. Luckily there are not many faithful at this time and an incident is avoided.

We met a number of dignitaries. The President of Israel, a soft-spoken gentleman, who is very worried about the Palestinians suicide bombers – “No religion condones that kind of barbaric act,” he told us; the mayor of Jerusalem, who proudly showed us the magnificent view of Jerusalem from his office terrace; Mr Shimon Peres, Nobel Prize winner and Israel’s best known face, who preaches tolerance – but even he condemns the suicide bombers; or the deputy Prime Minister of Israel, Mr Sherenzki, a well-known dissenter from the erstwhile Soviet Union who is seen as a hawk by observers, but appears very gentle to us.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar talked about all the marvellous work his volunteers are doing amongst India’s poor villages: Bringing housing, hygiene, human values, and harmony in diversity. He also speaks about the stress and post-trauma Art of Living courses – a combination of pranayama, meditation and relaxing techniques – done to great success in Iraq and Bosnia, and how they could also be taught in Palestine and Israel. When asked about terrorism, Sri Sri said: “The problem is that children should be taught a little about each religion, so that they develop a broader perspective.” If the Taliban had known even a little about the Buddha, he added, they would not have destroyed the Bamian statues.

I was surprised to note that whenever I mentioned Kashmir, neither of our interlocutors blinked: Kashmir did not mean anything to them, although it faces more or less the same problem that Israel does at the hands of the Arabs. Even, Mr Sherenzki, the Deputy Prime Minister, looked blank. That is when I realised that an exhibition on Kashmiri Pandits had to come up and we arranged for two venues, one in Tel Aviv, with the possibility of it coming up also at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem. We thus left with a sense that so much more has to be done so that Indian and Israel, two ancient people sharing some of the same spiritual, cultural and contemporary problems, really start understanding each other.

Religion of man

Religion of man

Author: Francois Gautier
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: December 25, 2002

Famous French writer and politician Andre Malraux once said that “unless the 21st century is spiritual, then it will not be”. What he meant was that the world has now come to such a stage of unhappiness, of stress, of natural resources wastage, of religious and ethnic conflicts, that it seems doomed – ecologically, politically and socially. So unless the 21st century allows a new spiritual order to take over – not a religious order, mind you (because religion has often proved too narrow and dogmatic) – then we are all going towards self-destruction, Pralaya. And the September 11, 2001, tragedy has reminded us that time is pressing and that we are desperately and badly in need of spiritual regeneration.

As the founder of the Art of Living Movement, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, says: “I see a crisis facing the world today. It is fundamentally one of identification. People identify themselves with limited characteristics such as gender, race, religion and nationality, forgetting their basic identity as part of the universal spirit. These limited identifications lead to conflict. There are wars happening throughout the world today in the name of religion.”

What is the solution, then? I will quote again Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: “Every individual is much more than the sum of these limited identifications. The highest identification we can make is that we are part of Divinity, and second to that, we are human beings and members of the human family. In divine creation, the whole of the human race is united. Along with this proper identification of ourselves, the right vision of who we really are, we need to return to the values that are the essence of all major traditions. These shared values need to be reintroduced in society today.”

What the world needs today is to find a third way, which is neither of capitalism, nor of communism. Communism has long collapsed all over the world. China pays only lip service to it and it is only in India, Kerala, or Bengal, that we see leaders and intellectuals believing in its virtues. Capitalism is not the answer to all the world’s woes that the Americans think; with it comes a lot of inequality, selfishness, a disregard for the poorer sections of society and the forgetfulness of true spiritual values. It also engenders avarice and greed. No, what we are looking for now is a something we could call a “spiritualised socialism”, as envisioned by India’s revolutionary poet, philosopher and yogi, Sri Aurobindo.

A Hindu temple, a Christian church or a Muslim mosque, have no meaning unless they also act as social centres, helping the poor, giving away money, houses, imparting education and hygiene. Indeed the Art of Living foundation does just that with its volunteers going in thousands of villages all over the world and selflessly bringing Hygiene, Housing, Harmony and Human values. It is true that there are countless NGOs doing the same job wherever there is poverty and conflicts, but unless they pass on along with their material help some spiritual values, they are failing in their task.

How can the people of India contribute to this wonderful goal of spiritual regeneration and shared human values? Indians have always recognised unity in diversity through the concept of the avatar: God manifests himself at different times, in different countries and places , under so many different names.

Thus, they have always granted everybody the right to worship God under any form.

This is a very precious spiritual – not religious – knowledge, and which, even the most humble Hindu peasant spontaneously practices. Indeed, a recent report by the UNESCO pointed out that out of the 128 countries where Jews lived up to 1948, in only one country, India, they were not persecuted!

What India has therefore gifted to the world is not a religion but a living spirituality, of which we can even distinguish certain forms in the West at present: Hatha-yoga, copied and imitated by thousands of gymnastic and aerobic movements; meditation practiced by millions of Americans and Europeans, many of them Christians; or pranayama, which is taught by the Art of Living Foundation and can be practiced by anybody, whatever their nationality and religion. Indeed, for the past two decades, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has transformed the lives of millions of people around the globe with his Basic Course, a combination of simple yet extremely powerful breathing and relaxation techniques, that eliminate stress, handle negative emotions, improve health and help ordinary folks to enjoy life to its fullest.

But we can do much more than that: Let us all move away from political or religious ideologies to show our support for the revival of human values such as honoring one’s own traditions while respecting diversity, compassion, non-violence and honoring the wisdom of age-old traditions. Let us also move away from the rites and rituals of religions.

As Sri Sri Ravi Shankar again says: “Religion has three aspects – value, ritual and symbol. The moral and spiritual values are common to all traditions. The symbols and practices, those rituals and customs that form a way of life within a religion, are what distinguish one tradition from another and give each their charm. The symbols and practices are like the banana skin, and the spiritual values – the quest for truth and knowing deep within us that we are part of divinity – are the banana. People in every tradition have thrown away the banana and are holding on to the skin.”

May the 21st century herald then a new era in humanity, an era of accepting each other and understanding one another’s culture. May the spiritual regeneration of the world begin now. Let India show the way, by throwing away the banana skin and holding on to the banana only.

(Francois Gautier on India and the spiritual regeneration of the world)