Saturday, January 23, 2021
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Making Spirituality Mainstream

Ruchira Roy

From being a lofty concept hijacked by an esoteric group of seekers, spirituality has come a long way. More people today are looking to learn practices like meditation, breathing and yoga to achieve mental clarity, calmness, and to access their inner lives. As mental health disorders rage through this country with more than 20 crore people reportedly depressed, spirituality has much to offer. An important contribution in making spirituality available to everyone, beyond religious, caste or geographical differences, has been made by spiritual gurus like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who is said to have touched the lives of 450 million people worldwide through his teachings, programs and philosophy of life that seem to have a universal resonance.

As the world grapples with unprecedented mental health consequences of the pandemic which has hit at the very psyche of human kind, creating fear, anxiety and a sense of uncertainty and waywardness, Sri Sri who turns 64 this May, has been one of the few spiritual leaders actively engaging with millions of people, including the stakeholders in the crisis, the frontline workers, helpers, health professionals, businesses, industry bodies and the general public by way of doing both-providing material relief and extending mental comfort through free online meditation sessions that so far have 27 million participants globally, even as celebrities like Karan Johar, Hema Malini, Shiva Rajkumar, or musicians like K S Chithra, Rajesh Vaidhya, Shivamani, Shankar Mahadevan, Gundecha Brothers, sportsmen, medical professionals, media organizations and industry bodies like the FICCI, ASSOCHAM, PHDCCI, All India Organization of Chemists and Druggists, Dr. Vandana Shiva,and Indra Jaisingh, among others, interact, meditate and seek guidance from him.
The Beginning..In the summers of 1982, he went into a 10-days silence in Shimoga, where he cognized Sudarshan Kriya (SKY), a popular rhythmic breathing technique that 450 million people world over vouch for. It came to him as poetry, he said. The practice became the centerpiece of his programs taught world over in 156 countries. His first batch was a group of engineers and doctors, who reported feeling well-rested, energized and a sense of calmness they had never experienced before. In dealing with depression, researchers from NIMHANS postulated that SKY was as effective as the established anti-depressant drug imipramine and All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi reported that SKY and Pranayama sessions reduced serum cortisol levels – an indicator of stress. In a country with more than 20 crore people suffering from depression, his teaching and spiritual practices came as strong hope for non-invasive forms of healing.
In 1982, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar founded The Art of Living which would grow into one of the world’s largest volunteer driven organizations over the next few decades, working in the field of education, trauma and disaster relief, stress mitigation, environmental conservation, and conflict resolution. As part of its ongoing work, volunteers of the organization have provided 59.7 million meals in India for 1.5 million people and distributed 500 tons of essential relief material to affected families. In the US, volunteers have distributed 25,000 PPEs and led trauma relief workshops for frontline workers and healthcare professionals. Under the ‘iStandwithHumanity’ campaign launched by Sri Sri, the organization has reached out to over a million and a half daily wage workers and migrant laborers stuck in different parts of the country with food material, medical supplies and sanitizers. The organization has opened a national helpline (080-676-12338) where the Art of Living teachers are counseling people undergoing stress and anxiety in the lockdown. With an objective to support the healing and recovery in the long term, the organization also launched a helpline to help those undergoing severe mental distress and physiological symptoms in the absence of alcohol, drugs and other substances.
Even in matters of resolving tensions, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has been creating space for dialogue, employing and emphasizing the need for spiritual values, at times even on the political hotbeds of conflict - be it the Colombian civil conflict where he is known to have convinced the FARC rebels to take up non-violence or mobilizing a gathering of 12,000 Kashmiris during a state wide shut down, to start a grassroots civil society movement against ‘gun culture’ or bringing together 67 major insurgent groups from seven states of Northeast India on one platform to begin a new chapter in reconciliation and development.

Farmers to militants, from the white collar worker to students, from prisoners to the cops, from statesmen to policy makers, his followers are an eclectic mix of people who have resonated and responded to the universal nature of his appeal and philosophy.
On the outer and more manifest level, his scope of work entails everything from river rejuvenation to prison rehabilitation to trauma relief and education.
• Reviving 43 dried rivers across the country benefiting 70 million people in over 5094 villages.
• Over 8,00,000 inmates in 65 countries have undergone the prisoner rehabilitation programs. “This program has made me feel free from inside. And isn’t that a wonderful feeling for a prisoner?” says an inmate from a Belgian prison.
• Started in the wake of farmers’ crisis in 2012, the organization’s zero cost farming training has reached 22 lakh Indian farmers in 19 states.
• His organization runs projects to raise awareness about hygiene, and build community leaders in rural areas, having trained over 2,49,408 rural youth with a reach of 40,212 villages in India.
• Planted over 81 million trees in 36 countries and 26 Indian states
• Developed ovee 1000 model Gram Panchayats, 62,000 + toilets and 1592 bio-gas plants built
• 90,200 hygiene camps and 27,427 medical camps conducted benefiting 12 million people.
• 702 Free Schools are giving education to over 70,000 children in far flung areas, 90% of whom are first generation learners.
• Sri Sri launched the national Drug Free India campaign witnessing the participation of over 1 crore students apart from the support of 90 eminent personalities from the field of entertainment, politics, sports and academics.

Power of Connection..His teachings can be experientially integrated into life, working through exploration instead of imposition. This explains why they work well especially for those in the heart of a conflict. They have benefitted the genocide facing Yezidi community in Syria, eased inter-communal tensions in Iraq, and stopped gang wars in Ivory Coast. Sri Sri has found global acceptance across wide political spectrum, working continuously with people on all sides of a conflict, the victim and the perpetrator, the law enforcer and the outlawed, sometimes drawing flak for it from vested interests, but seldom hindered by it. In Kashmir, Northeast India, Ivory-coast, Iraq, Kosovo, Lebanon, Colombia, Middle-east among other places-Sri Sri has created safe spaces for dialogue to flourish, in spite of stiff uncomfortable resistance. He is known for his care giver approach to mediation which finds trust among stakeholders.
To cite an example, when tension in Iraq soared in 2008, Sri Sri met leaders on all sides (Shia, Sunni and Kurds among others). Peace observers say, he is one of the very few world leaders to have been able to do this at the time of conflict.
“In any long-drawn conflict, the victim tends to turn an oppressor and the oppressor becomes a victim,” says Sri Sri, “A broader vision and spiritual understanding alone can break this vicious cycle.”

In 2014, Sri Sri was one of the lone voices calling to draw attention to the Yezidi genocide and send help, rescuing and rehabilitating almost 2500 Yezidi women captured by the ISIS. Former Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri Al-Maliki says about Sri Sri, “There are big powers who have big might, but they are not able to unite the hearts and mind of people. This work can be done only by a spiritual leader.”

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