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Thursday, March 31, 2016

World Cultural Festival, AOL, Ravi Shankar, etc.

I rarely write opinion pieces. But this one in response to an angry comment on my FB wall about an article I shared attacking Art of Living's 'World Cultural Festival' (WCF) had to be written.

I feel saddened by how opportunities such as this end up getting used by attackers to (along with presenting facts) also take digs at individuals, make sarcastic comments and brand them as this or that. And in reaction, the hurt defenders look for and muster all the evidence that they can in adulation of everything these individuals have said or done. I don't see any opening or invitation for an honest dialogue from either side. Please don't misread the force in my post as hatred, which is not what I feel. I feel sad and angry at the state of things, which includes a dialogue (or a lack there of) which is highly polarised.

WCF-defenders might call me anti-Hindu and anti-Spirituality. Much like how if one speaks up against the State these days, one is called anti-National. I am, in fact, motivated to write this because I consider myself pro-Hindu and pro-Spirituality, struggling to reclaim the intended meaning and purpose of these as being to restore life, heal and unify, and not to destroy, hurt and divide.

According to me, the issue of pollution in Yamuna is a detail; an important detail nevertheless. There are reports that claim that the water got polluted and the floodplains compacted, and there are reports that claim that the water was actually left much cleaner and the floodplains were not disturbed. I must admit that I don't know the exact situation there, though I really cannot wrap my mind around the possibility of 35 lakh people landing up on the floodplains of a river and leaving it cleaner and restored!! And I absolutely don't trust any institution's report or certificate in such matters. Much along the lines of not trusting or promoting certified organic products at reStore. Moreover, I have a first-hand experience of NEERI blatantly lying through its report.

About fifteen years ago, I was sitting in a hall full of people from Kattuppalli fishermen's village assembled at the Thiruvallur collectorate for a public hearing about a petro-park proposed to be built there. The NEERI's Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) claimed that there was no significant vegetation or faunal life in the proposed site. And then the village leader (supported by civil society and research groups like Exnora and CRINIEO) presented a long list of flora and fauna that they had documented in the same area. It clearly demonstrated that it was a biodiversity hot spot. This lead to a lot of commotion, and eventually, the suspension of the hearing and the project itself.

We can endlessly do research, fact-finding, produce reports and argue over details. I have not much interest or motivation to do that. But I would definitely like to talk about a few things that stand out.

Ravi Shankar (RS) has said in an interview on March 18 “If someone had raised this concern at least three or six months before, we would not have gone to this place at all.” But we have copies of letters dated May '15 and October '15 from DDA denying RS the permission to use the floodplains and requesting him to propose some other site instead. This makes me wonder about his integrity and the strings he might have pulled!

RS talks about being a good subject of the State. Let's aside the fact that I question the very idea of State. But based on what RS has said, if he does not believe in respecting the court order and will not go by any judgments of any of the State institutions, how is he applying it to himself?

This is only a sampler. I might be able to put together a long list of contradictions in statements and realities if I spend some time doing my research. I did that sort of a thing for the riverlinking project ten years ago. But what I am actually interested in are more fundamental, paradigm-related questions. I see the WCF as a detail within a larger paradigm which is what needs to be brought into the discourse.


During my school-going years, I grew up with the word culture being used largely in the context of 'cultural programs', which basically meant 'dance, music, drama, costumes'. I don't see it as much different from how RS is using it, at least in the context of the WCF. Yoga and meditation might have been the extra elements thrown in. Costumes and the arts are forms of cultural expression, which are today, floating in mid-air with their foundation suffering serious erosion. What we see taking over is a Global Consumerist Culture, which has turned the very purpose of art forms from expression for invoking resonance, into commodification for consumption (entertainment). What we need in order to promote world culture and its diversity is not a 7-acre stage (however eco-friendly it is) bringing 35 lakh people and thousands of performing artists over. We need a clear and loud critique of globalisation which is eroding cultural diversity and homogenising cultures across the world. I don't see RS doing even a bit of that. I'd recommend watching Ancient Futures to understand this destruction, which has been unleashed on a massive scale.

One can even begin on the path of spirituality only after one has renounced all refuges. Most of the world today takes refuge in money, material and co-dependent relationships. But like the Buddha has said, the most dangerous and complex refuge is the 'Idea of God'. The modern rational mind is extremely uncomfortable with inhabiting the refuge of religion, which is comprised of beliefs, symbols, idols and myths, all of which are perceived as 'irrational'. Someone “expounding the truth”, especially one which comfortably keeps it where it is with ample opportunities for small improvements (meditation, asana, pranayama, a few hours / days of charity or volunteering) naturally becomes an extremely attractive replacement. This is nothing more than sophisticated religion which has been invented for the modern rational mind. The template of the Idea-of-God refuge remains intact. The content has changed. That is all.

'Spirituality' and 'Spiritual Guruship' are extremely slippery areas to tread, especially in today's times. Even within the KFI institutions, I see many people constantly say 'K said this..' 'K said that..' and I tell myself 'That's fine. What do you think? What are you saying?' Even K, who is supposed to have taken utmost care in not wearing the garb of guruship, is said to have commented in his last days that no one really got him, and that most people who came for his talks consumed them as entertainment. He walked out of the institutions that got created around him. Now, if someone claims to be enlightened and really wants to help raise human consciousness, why will (s)he be sitting and watching as people swarm into his/her camp, looking up to him/her as an external savior and seeking refuge, and lapping it all up? Shouldn't (s)he, at the very least, be warning people about the danger and engaging with it?


Yoga and meditation have become very easily salable commodities today. In fact RS has himself said "Yoga and meditation should be commercialised to reach every nook and corner." 

We want to take as much of it as is convenient for us. We want to 'manage stress' and 'become happier and calmer' in order to comfortably stay on in the exploitative paradigm. How many yoga schools or gurus are ready to talk about aparigraha as an essential aspiration and practise in Yoga? Capitalism's very foundation is parigraha.

Good Work?
The CSR paradigm (which all of AOL's constructive work comes under) is very problematic. Capitalism is a very comfortable philosophy for those who have made it “successfully” up the ladder. We can call them the elite or the aspiring elite. This class of people, who make up pretty much all the followers of AOL, also want to do some good work, but without disturbing or questioning their own world. RS, in fact, reinforces their illusory world by saying things like “I don't see there is any conflict between capitalism and compassion.” And even some absurd things like what he said in a speech in a conference called 'Corporate Culture and Spirituality': “People ask me 'Don't Business and Spirituality go against each other?' I tell them 'Business and Spirituality are like the scissors and needle; one cuts, another joins. Both are essential.... Business is all about passion and spirituality is all about dispassion. They look like opposites but they are complementary. The in-breath and out-breath. You breathe in... passion... and you breathe out dispassion.” Uh?

The CSR is like an intoxicating potion that is given in the name of medicine. It keeps us shut behind the golden bars of illusion, only intensifying the world crisis!

Small is beautiful, and yes, big is inherently ugly, within the paradigm we are talking about. (Please don't confuse 'Big' with 'Vast / Expansive'.) RS supports the government's 'Make in India' Campaign and makes statements like “India has proven to the world it has the capacity to do something gigantic.” Could these needs 'to do something 'gigantic' and 'to prove to the world' be coming from fear / poverty consciousness?

Most people understand small as constricted, limited or weak. Quite the opposite: Small can be much more inclusive, expansive and resilient than the big. I'll post another separate write-up based on our own experience at reStore and OFM, which are built on the value of S-I-B, in order to substantiate this.

* A Spiritual Guru who will keep her/his discourse limited to aligning inner and outer peace; a Guru who will design processes or ask questions for self-enquiry and not expound “truths” for others to follow. This is what draws me to Ramana Maharishi and Eckhart Tolle, even though they don't actively talk about capitalism and climate change.

* If (s)he indeed wants to comment on the state of the world, then sufficiently understand its complex nature. At the very least, (s)he should have a voice like JK's who didn't shy away from calling out that the emperor had no clothes on, while talking about having compassion for the emperor. A voice that will boldly make statements such as “It is no measure of health to be adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” He is supposed to have called students who passed out of KFI schools and joined the mainstream society “disgustingly successful.” Eknaath Eswaran is another voice that does this beautifully and forcefully.

* If (s)he wants to engage in solving the present day crisis, then with a proper understanding, work towards creating a new paradigm, where
- small and local are celebrated and restored
- small and local are networked for wider reach
- infrastructure is created for emergence at local levels
- resources are mobilised locally

Here are some powerful examples of how local action can scale up and go global.

'Incredible Edible' was a humble attempt to grow food in public places in Todmodern, a small town in England. It has now spread to many countries across the world.

'Transition Town' was an initiative started in a small town in England in response to the world oil crisis and has now become a powerful network called 'Transition Network' spread across hundreds of towns and cities across the world.

'Awakin Circles' started with a group of friends who would gather ever Wednesday in a small meditation circle. These circles happen in many many cities across the world, with thousands of people meditating on Wednesdays. Even the gift-culture-powered and volunteer-driven Vipassana movement is an inspiring example.

The 'Ugly Indian' is a social experiment for civic action which started in Bangalore and has now spread to many cities across India. The power of this movement lies in the anonymity of its members. Even during the Tedx Talk, the speaker refused to reveal his identity and wore a mask!

Ekta Parishad, a nation-wide organisation which works for adivasi and dalit land rights regularly organises padayatras of several thousand people at a time, who walk hundreds of kilometres as a form of social action. The resources for organising these yatras are saved a few rupees / a handful of rice everyday over a period of a few years leading up to the walk, by the adivasis themselves.

We need cultural festivals which will support and promote local wisdom and practices in agriculture, weaving, water conservation, seed and plant diversity, along with regional folk art forms. The outstanding work of 'Deccan Development Society' needs to be looked at. Provide scholarships for these artists and artistes to perform and teach widely, not just in elite contexts. And sincere attempts to heal and revive classical art forms, much like in the 'Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha'.


I am expecting to receive responses which might pick some minor details in my article and argue over them. I'd like to state upfront that, though I'm open to correcting factual errors (if there are any), I am not interested in engaging with detail-related arguments. I'm very happy to engage in a dialogue around the larger / deeper paradigm-related statements made in the article.


kasi said...

What is the point of celebrating any festival ?
Yoga/meditation is spread in nook and corner of India , joking right?
Yes spirituality can be spread in a better way, in a world where attention span is 30 seconds , u need marketing to draw people in- sad fact !!
CSR- People don't do anything for society crib for that, people try something again the also crib , what to do ?
All the other programs are commendable!!
May be people got benefitted from AOL, a topic to research - do a write up on this as well

guruboppana said...

I would love to have a dialogue, If at all I meet you next time. I thank you for this write up. I have found some answers to the questions I'm unaware of...

Shuba said...

Wow... This is the thing that bothers me too... Why would any modern day guru, encourage this mass worship? It is funny when they separate religion from spirituality in their offering, only to create a pseudo God in themselves. Let the devotees be worshipping, but the role of the guru is to get them out of the Savior mode and get them on a path of inner exploration. Anyway, I could never say it as clearly as you have done. Kudos

Amar Raval said...

You have hit the bull's eye...Nothing more to be added...We need to understand the very need of what is being done in the name of SPIRITUALITY...

If they are really interested in improving the society why giving any lesson is being charged with a FEES...that to not a small amount !!!

The current ruling party is using all the baba's in the country for their vote bank. Mostly all the baba's are doing business & sorry to say we are living in a country where people use their heart more & brains less if they have any.

We have all the bullshit day's to celebrate, we need a week for tree plantation for every company in a year & a week for farming lessons to be given to the kids so that the farmers don't extinct as they have seen the worst days in our country.

All the groups & activities you have mentioned has to be made more popular so that it reaches all the citizens of the country...

Once again a thanx for such a well written & awakening blog...keep up the good work

Madhumanti S said...

Thanks for this thought provoking article. It resonates a lot with what i feel and perhaps countless people like me feel about politics and hinduism yet dont seem to have a voice in the polarized world. Unfortunately, today if I identify as a spiritual hindu-( which I am) I run the risk of being branded RSS, saffron, casteist and brahminical by my left friends so I am forced not to talk about an essential part of my identity. And I certainly dont identify with the RSS, its nationalistic, chauvinistic religion- I have so little common with them. And my politics about the environment, society, economy and indigenous people is entirely left oriented. Yet by sweeping Hinduism's tremendous diversity into one singular, rigid ideology of Hindu Dharma, I think RSS deliberately and the left unwittingly are equally remaking Hinduism into one singular and insular religion, misrepresenting its universalist, compassionate, self awakening oriented ethos. And that leaves no space for a third way: the hindu spiritualist, left- liberal, environmentalist, universalist. That is what I am and I dont see my position being represented anywhere.

That brings me to my second point- what are AOL, Ramdev and many hindu missions like these doing to Hindusim? I see they are promoting "Pop Spirituality": Very attractively packaged religion- easy access to yoga, pranayam, meditation, better food habits, holistic healing and indeed these things are very helpful. But ultimately do they provide awakening and enlightenment of the inner self, help us see the truth and through that truth bring harmony to the outer world?
Take the case of upper middle class followers of AOL and Sri Sri. They help overworked and over stressed corporate employees become peaceful through some meditation and exercises. But if one were to ask the question-" why are people are so over stressed?"- the answer is, when a typical corporate employee is forced to work 12-14 hrs daily, live in a constant fear of being laid off, has no time to unwind, when corporate efficiency and productivity becomes their only goal, anxiety, depression and illness will necessarily follow. No amount of meditation, yoga or lectures is going to change that.
And Hindu ethos says-If you are steeped in materialism, possessiveness and attachment, you will reap sorrow. Therefore simple living and practicing non attachment will give you inner peace and happiness. So if AOL was truly about awakening and enlightenment then they should be addressing these deeper issues. All that they do for corporate employees is to help them cope with the capitalist system without questioning its fundamentals of extraction, greed and destruction.

Sangeetha Sriram said...

Kasi, yes. People are benefitting from AOL and I would like to surely write about it.

Sure Guru. We can discuss further when we meet.

Subha, Madhumanti: I agree with your views. Thanks for sharing them. I have some more thoughts to share on this phenomenon. Will do it soon.

Amar, I don't think I clearly understand your points. Could you say it in a few lines?

kutty kutty blogger said...

Sangeetha: You have articulated your views on the subject very lucidly. The Buddha's refuge "in the idea of God" is new to me though I have held that independently - similar to the refuge in patriotism unleashed at present. The middle class, the fan-base and the fuel of the modern gurus is like the man riding an already overloaded donkey; mumbles his sympathy for the animal but refuses to get off. Hence the perfect fit between the two. Good stuff what you have written.

Nishant Gupta said...


Amit B said...

A very thought provoking article Sangeetha. A Guru's role is to guide the student towards the light of knowledge, allow him to evolve and then let him/her continue on this journey on his/her own. Attachment on the guru's or even the student's part can lead only to grief and all this happens because we have given up on the faculty of independent thinking. Found Swami Parthasarathy's book "The Fall of the Human Intellect" which points to the neglect of the development of the human intellect as the single most important reason for the current crisis facing human beings today. If only we stopped and applied our intellect before acting the world would indeed be a better place.