When I ask people in the U.S. whether they have heard of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the answer I typically hear is "not really, but it sounds familiar - wasn't there a sitar player with that name?" The sitar player is Ravi Shankar. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is one of the most prominent humanitarian and peacemakers of our time, with a spiritual following akin to that of the Dalai Lama's, if not even larger. Yet unlike the Dalai Lama, Sri Sri has not become a household name here in the states. Considering his track record for peace-building, trauma relief, and his work towards creating a violence-free society, it is worth it for us to know his name and get familiar with his work, especially because he is about to put Columbus on the international map with his up and coming visit June 27 and 28 for a two-day immersive program from 6:30-9:30 called "Get Happy Columbus" - to be held at The Ohio State University.
Sri Sri is most commonly known as a spiritual guru to millions of people around the world. In Sanskrit "Gu" means darkness and "Ru" means remover, thus, a guru is one who removes our ignorance or our lack of awareness about something. We have tech gurus, financial gurus, and health gurus. Sri Sri is a spiritual Guru. If that seems complicated, you can just think of him as a life coach. He gives advice and solace to those that seek it and he is open and ready to consult with anyone that asks.
He is most well-known as the founder of the Art of Living Foundation, the largest volunteer-based organization in the world today, which he created in 1981 as a means to relieve individual stress, societal problems, and violence. In 1997, he established a Geneva-based charity, the International Association for Human Values (IAHV), an NGO that engages in relief work and rural development and aims to foster shared global values.
While his work is extensive, at present, his fame is mostly in his peace-building work. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times and Joseph Crowly, the U.S. congressional representative from New York, nominated him again this year for his Peace work with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the rebel group more commonly known as FARC.
FARC is a guerilla group that formed in 1964 alongside many communist movements in Latin America that sought to fight imperialism, land inequality, and rampant poverty. The party was initially created seeking justice and remuneration for a society that was deeply unequal. For decades, FARC adhered to a Marxist-Leninist political agenda to promote anti-imperialism and seek land rights for poor peasants. However, in order to promote their agenda, FARC became increasingly cruel, violent, and criminal, adhering to terrorism and torture. The list of human rights violations against the group is exhaustive.
The rift between the terrorist group and the Colombian government seemed insurmountable and the relationship had been broken by decades of bloodshed and mistrust. On June 28, 2015, Sri Sri held several rounds of discussions with FARC members in an exercise of confidence-building, and stated that "in this conflict, everyone should be considered as victims. And inside every culprit, there is a victim crying for help." After the talks with Sri Sri, FARC finally agreed to embrace the Gandhian principle of non-violence, remarking it was spiritual wisdom that had been missing, and spirituality that was most needed to fight for a better world.
Sri Sri states that "people who take to violent means due to a sense of injustice, can be engaged in dialogue if approached the right way. From their perspective, they are fighting for a cause out of righteousness. In a way, their passion, commitment and the spirit of sacrifice is commendable. When outer dynamism, which they have in abundance, is complemented with inner peace, they can prove to be a boon to the society."
In addition to Colombia, Sri Sri has spearheaded significant peace work in Iraq, Syria, Israel-Palestine, Kosovo, Russia, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Panama, South Africa, and he most recently attempted peace talks with ISIS.
Sri Sri believes in the importance of large peace festivals and his Art of Living Foundation recently hosted the World Culture Festival, which was the largest gathering for World Peace yet recorded at 3.75 million attendees, and viewed on-line by 1.7 billion people around the world. Not only did the large gathering of people create hype, but it is believed that the gathering had a healing effect, due to the large numbers of people meditating for a common good at the same time.
As a volunteer in the Art of Living and a student of Sri Sri's, there are many projects in the organization that I could champion, however it is his peace work that intrigues me the most. It appeals to my idealist tendencies.
During my grad school days, where I delved deep into the social sciences, I remember myself as a starry-eyed optimist with romantic visions of what a just society should look like. However, a few years later, after a divorce from a ten-year relationship, student loan debt, a grueling 8-5 temporary office job, and health setbacks, I became painfully aware of the reality of my life. Being a single woman with modest means and not many connections made it hard to make ends meet, or even find a permanent job. The activist networks from graduate school and ideas that inspired me did not translate to my reality.
I remember meeting Sri Sri around that time, and not only was he supportive and kind to me, but his projects and all the work he was doing inspired me to make a difference. He was busy doing amazing work, yet he took the time to care about me and my inner peace, while also caring about peace in the world. He became my example, and he helped me re-kindle my idealism and my drive to work for change in society. Finally, he gave me the tools to make an optimistic outlook "a lived experience", not just an intellectual concept or cliché about looking on the bright side.
I am grateful. I don't know why he helped me, but he did, and I have seen him do it for other people too. He lives, walks, and talks compassion. It inspires me to learn from him.
To register for the Get Happy Columbus meditation event: http://gethappycolumbus.org/