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Humanitarian Swami.

Ravi Shankar (the Hindu holy man, not the sitar player) gains intense joy from religious quietude. But he has also launched dynamic humanitarian outreach projects to help, for example, in the shell- shocked post--September 11 environment in New York City and in the battered aftermath of the war in Iraq.

"I feel that humanitarian work is just part of the spiritual way of life," says the 44-year-old Shankar in an interview. "Humanitarian efforts are included in this [contemplative] way of life. It's quite natural."

He has also said, "Service is the expression of joy and love. Ask yourself, 'How can I be useful to those around me and to the whole world?' Then your heart starts to blossom and a completely new level begins."

His Geneva, Switzerland--based International Association for Human Values (IAHV), founded in 1997, is sending volunteers to Iraq from its Mideast offices to help restock and rebuild urgently needed facilities such as hospitals and schools as well as set up "trauma centers" to teach his calming meditation technique. The organization has issued a global call for other volunteers to join it in delivering aid to the Iraqi people.

Just as there was a coalition of scores of nations that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, so there should be an ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse fraternity of people from all over the world, says Shankar, who can help put Iraq back on its feet after the war and decades of neglect by the tyrant who used to reign in Baghdad. "The provision of aid through a multinational and multifaith coalition will demonstrate that this is an opportunity to bring greater unity and cooperation to the world," says the holy man.

The IAHV has sent numerous volunteers into crisis areas to help with rebuilding and setting up trauma care centers. In Bosnia and the Kosovo province of Yugoslavia (places that experienced bloody ethnic tensions and wars) and Gujarat, India (which was hit by a catastrophic earthquake in 2001), thousands of IAHV volunteers worked to help local inhabitants recover from the emotional and psychological effects of the devastation. The association rebuilt entire villages following the Gujarat temblor.


Shankar is also enormously interested in rehabilitating prison inmates. Nearly 60,000 prisoners around the world have been taught Shankar's breathing technique, including about 15,000 in the United States. IAHV volunteers have worked with inmates in Massachusetts, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, New Mexico, Colorado, and Hawaii. The holy man's group has worked with gang members in Los Angeles, and there are pilot prison programs in France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy, and Australia.

"When inmates drop their conflict [through meditation], they come together," the guru says. "Transformation happens. People throw off their hatred. This we're doing in India, in many parts of the world, wherever there is conflict, to bring opposing groups together." In one city, he reports, there used to be a murder almost every day. After the Art of Living breathing program was introduced, the crime rate dropped to almost nil.

Stress (and the anger, anguish, anxiety, and aggression that flow from it) is one of the foremost problems in the world today, Shankar believes. He developed his Sudarshan Kriya breathing technique and began to teach it in 1982 to help people cope with stress and replace it as much as possible with peace, joy, and centeredness on the present moment. Today, the program is taught in some 132 countries as part of Shankar's Art of Living Course. An article in Yoga Journal has said the method "may be the fastest-growing spiritual practice on the planet." The Art of Living Foundation, a UN nongovernmental organization based in Bangalore, India, is Shankar's core creation; it has spun off the IAHV and several other charitable groups.

The foundation conducts seminars and retreats with major corporations (such as Shell Oil Company) and international organizations (such as the World Bank) to help business executives and other leaders master methods of reducing stress while increasing motivation and productivity. Shankar is a proponent of balancing business with ethics and social responsibility, and he advises key corporate leaders on the importance of values in business life. For example, he has spoken at the World Economic Forum, the annual meeting of the world's top leaders in Davos, Switzerland, and has also authored numerous books on how to lead a balanced and fulfilling life.

Fifteen thousand villages in India have adopted the IAHV's so-called 5- H program--health, homes, harmony in diversity, hygiene, and human values. The 5-H program aids in the construction of durable homes for the homeless, repairs existing domiciles, and provides free housing for seniors, widowed women, and the disabled. In addition, the program offers basic health care and hygiene to the poor. The group also runs about 600 homes that supply temporary shelter for the homeless.


The organization has an arm for young people, too, called the Youth Leadership Training Program. It encourages volunteerism and a deep commitment to service among youth around the world. Under this program, youth leaders work predominantly toward helping at-risk communities alleviate poverty. In just six years, IAHV's mission and programs have reached some 10 million people in India, Africa, Europe, Central America, and the United States. Throughout all its programs, the association maintains that the incorporation of human values into all aspects of life will ultimately lead to the development of a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world.

Shankar defines human values as:

* The innate dignity of human life.

* Respect and consideration for the "other."

* The interconnection between humankind and the environment.

* The importance of integrity and service.

* An attitude of nonviolence.

* The individual and collective quest for peace and happiness.

The swami's worldview is summed up in the following interchange. A devotee of Shankar's declares, "I see Krishna [a Hindu god representing cosmic goodness] in you!" The holy man rejoins, "Krishna is in every child in the world. He is in every one of us, but we have lost touch with him. And the agony every human endures is the pain to be reunited with the Krishna within us." One of IAHV's most important projects is education--not only expanding the mind with knowledge but inculcating an attitude of caring for and serving others. The group develops and promotes values-based educational programs for preschoolers as well as primary, secondary, high school, and university students.

The holy man, who says he doesn't think of himself as an adherent of any particular religion and who views the world as "one family," believes that America urgently needs to teach children about human values in schools and also about how to manage anger and aggression. "Just a couple of days ago," Shankar recalls, "I heard about a shooting in a school here [in America]. This sort of child, who has so much aggression and anger, must learn how to let it go. But for that to happen, values must be inculcated--but not those that create fanatics of any other type. We need to inculcate values consistent with the multireligious education that America stands for."

Speaking of education, the guru started a school for 3,000 children in a tribal area of India. "We admit them according to neither caste nor religion nor nationality," the guru says proudly. "The school gives them a high-standard education. And they're very good children. They perform so well!"


Shankar was raised in a well-to-do Brahman family. His father was a businessman in India's domestic automobile manufacturing industry. Both his mother and father, he says, were exceptionally responsible, compassionate, serving people. His father was involved in the women's empowerment movement, and one of his grandmothers was a particularly devout Hindu who influenced him greatly. At the same time, however, his family gave him and his one younger sister a variety of interreligious experiences. "We were exposed to many different faiths," he remembers. "I grew up in a very tolerant home."

Even as a young child, Shankar recalls, he would often slip into a meditative state, and by the age of four, he could spontaneously recite from the Bhagavad Gita, one of the core scriptures of Hinduism. Later on, in school, he would tell his friends, "People are waiting for me all over the world. I am going to visit them one day." By the age of 17, he had completed his traditional education in both modern physics and Vedic literature.

While he studied the scriptures intensively as a youth, today, he says, "I'm not a big reader. Usually I just sit in silence and meditate. That's one weakness, that I don't read too much."

Like many Hindu holy men, Shankar never married. Celibacy in Hinduism, just as in the Christian monastic tradition, is viewed as a way of mortifying the flesh and exalting the spirit. "It just happened that way; I never grew up, remained a child," Shankar jokes. "I didn't feel there was a need for me to get involved in family life."

Asked to comment on the various religions of the world, the holy man says that the "Middle Eastern" religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are belief oriented, while the Eastern religions--Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Shinto, and Taoism--are experience centered. "Because of this," he observes, "there is no conflict between the Eastern religions. But the three Middle Eastern religions seem to be in conflict again and again. It is something that puzzles me. So I feel that God and religion should be based more on experience rather than just belief."

The guru feels that an openness has to come into all religions that lets the faithful embrace the good things from every side. "We must accept wisdom from everywhere," Shankar asserts. But it is playing with fire "if we try to convert each other and say, 'Our religion is better than yours.' "

Religion, Shankar notes, comprises spirituality, symbols, and practices. All the differences and friction between religions come, he says, from the symbols and practices, not the spirituality and core values. So with more focus on spirituality, he reasons, interreligious conflicts can be dissolved. Keeping their eyes on faiths' common spirituality and values, believers can come together and see the differences between religions as occasions to rejoice, to celebrate the diversity.

"We need to educate the whole world," Shankar declares. "I always say, we accept food from every part of the world, we accept music from everywhere, we accept technologies irrespective of the country of origin, why not accept the various faiths?

"We ought to educate every child in the world in all the different religions, so he learns a little bit about every one. Then there is a broader vision that comes to life, and terrorism and the Taliban type of mentality would never come about. When a child learns about another tradition," the guru observes, "he will stop hating that tradition."n

Robert R. Selle is an editor in the Current Issues section of The World & I.
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Title Annotation:Ravi Shankar endorses meditation training as humanitarian relief
Author:Selle, Robert R.
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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