Renowned spiritual leader leads dialogue on Combating Religious Extremism and Terror at the Atlantic Council in Washington
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, April 20, 2018 – Leading a dialogue on combating fanaticism, world renowned spiritual leader and humanitarian Sri Sri Ravi Shankar stressed the importance of imparting lessons in non-violence to youth and introducing a multi-cultural, multi-religious curriculum in educational institutions.
“For kids, we need to teach them lessons in non-violence, the importance of non-violence. Unfortunately today, pride got itself latched onto violence, aggression”, the spiritual seer lamented. “If someone is very aggressive that is the thing to do. We need to wean them (kids) away from being aggressive to be more compassionate, and the value of compassion, value of communication, value of cooperation should be more emphasized than aggression. That would be essential in our society, here as well as in India”, he said.
Sri Sri or Gurudev as he is reverently called by scores of his followers was headlining a discussion on ‘Combating Religious Extremism and Terror’ at the Atlantic Council, a leading American think tank which focuses on international affairs. He heads The Art of Living Foundation, the largest non-profit organization reaching over 370 million people in 155 countries.
Whenever there is a conflict, there is both a “communication breakdown” and a “trust deficiency”, he told a standing room only audience at the Council’s headquarters in DC. “If somehow you can bridge these two, then the peace process begins”.
The spiritual leader mentioned it was important to make people feel that they are part of the process and cautioned against hurling accusations at them. “Give them the confidence we understand their point-of-view, their predicament. Inside every culprit there is a victim crying for help. If you can heal the victim, the culprit will disappear”, he said.
Sri Sri attributed “the root cause of terrorism” to “wrong indoctrination”. Decrying the warped mindset of fundamentalists, he noted, “These people think that their brand of God is only the true God; everyone else is doing something that is false and so when they don’t accept the real God, they don’t have the right to exist. This is their concept: either you accept my God or you have no right to exist because my God created this whole world. So, this wrong indoctrination needs to be set right. For that a multi-cultural, multi-religious education will play a big role”, he said.
“When every kid grows up with a broad mindset knowing that there is only one God, but worshipped in many ways, adored in many ways, in many cultures, many civilizations, many scriptures and books, that accommodating and accepting the diversity will come in their genes”.
Sri Sri underscored that multi-cultural, multi-religious education must be introduced in schools and colleges to expose youth to the ‘other’.
“The ‘other’ is always a threat”, he noted. “Other cultures and other religious dialogues should be part of one’s life, then the fear of threat will disappear”, he reasoned.
The spiritual leader was hopeful, pointing out that there are educators who do not harbor or impart extreme views. “We have very sane and well-meaning educators still on our planet”, he said, adding that “their voices need to be heard more. If you see in the world, people who can lead are very few, but their voice is very loud. The voice of peace has to come in the forefront”, he emphasized.
Responding to a question about how religion and the caste system in India sometimes prevents people from reaching the higher values, Sri Sri admitted, “There are fringe elements in all religions. We should just ignore them, corner them. The voice of peace and sanity must be heard loud and clear”, he said to applause from the audience.
The spiritual leader bemoaned that the “caste system has been a big issue” and “unfortunately, it is also getting politicized a lot”. While it doesn’t pose an issue in towns and cities, it does exist at the village level, he noted.
Regarding solutions to end the caste system, he emphasized the importance of education and revealed that his foundation is offering free education to some 60,000 kids in rural areas. “Big spiritual gatherings also play a role where no one bothers about your religion”, he said. “People of all castes attend and it is a melting point”.
Sri Sri drew attention to a disturbing trend that “though conflict happens in one place, the range of its spread becomes global. Before, it could be contained in one place, but now because of information or misinformation, you have to put tremendous effort to contain the disturbances. It also creates a lot of fear in the human psyche. If something could happen there, it could happen here. That sense of fear is on the rise. We need to bring back the faith in humanism”, he stressed, adding that there are good people everywhere.
“It’s not only bad things. You see, good news is no news at all”, he said evoking laughter.
The humanitarian leader underscored, “We need to rise above our nationality and help those in need anywhere in the world. In this digital age, when phones do not have any boundary, we should also remove the boundaries from our mind. We should feel we are global citizens”, he said to much applause from the audience.
Looking around the packed room, Frederick Kempe, President and CEO of the Atlantic Council, noted that while his association has hosted heads of state, business leaders, all manner of celebrities, it has “rarely seen such enthusiasm for the speaker of an event”. He extolled Sri Sri for being “a remarkable world leader and true humanitarian hero”.
On hand were: Dr. Mukesh Aghi, President and CEO of the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum, who introduced the revered speaker; and Dr. Bharath Gopalaswamy, Director of the South Asia Center at Atlantic Council, who moderated the dialogue.
It is noteworthy that Sri Sri has been instrumental in treating US veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “We have taught close to 3,000 veterans”, he told the Atlantic Council gathering. “They had tried all types of counseling and nothing worked. Finally, they came to try our breathing exercises and techniques. It was a very successful program”, he said, adding it spread to other countries like Israel.
The mindfulness guru spoke of working with school districts in New York, New Jersey, Illinois and other US states where children with a lot of aggression and anger can avail of techniques offered by his foundation. “We have developed many programs for kids to empower themselves so they feel stronger and are able to control their emotions”, he said. “We need to empower our youngsters”, he stressed, “and make them understand that they need not be a victim of their own stress or disturbance”.
When asked about resolving conflicts that arise from within, he responded, “Challenges are from outside, but strength is always from inside”, drawing much applause from the gathering.
Another member of the attentive audience asked, ‘After a divisive election, what would you say to the average American to give them hope and make the world more peaceful’?
“America has a very vibrant democracy. It has a great justice system. The values and constitution guarantee everyone their rights. So, don’t lose hope”, Sri Sri replied. “You are progressing. Keep that faith and hope and move forward. There is no need to be desperate in this country because the system is such” that though challenging times do come, “finally the truth will come”, he said.