The Art of Living Foundation, a global humanitarian and educational foundation, held its World Culture Festival in New Delhi from March 11 to 13, celebrating 35 years of its service activities worldwide. The underlying philosophy of Art of Living Foundation is that the world is one human family and that with the practice of pranayama (yogic breathing) and meditation, inner peace can be attained, leading to peace in society. The Foundation is active in more than 150 countries and programs are open to everybody; local volunteers reach out to teenagers at risk of turning to violence or radicalization and to prison inmates.
Notable successes in the group’s conflict resolution work include its rehabilitation of large numbers of Maoist and Kashmiri terrorists who have publicly repudiated the path of violence after personal interactions with the Art of Living’s founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. They have heeded his appeal to renounce bullets in favor of ballots. Similarly, in Colombia, more than fifty years of armed conflict are coming to an end; Sri Sri mediated with all parties there as well last year, meeting with FARC leaders in Havana and encouraging them to follow Gandhian methods. The president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, referred to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar as a “herald of peace” and conferred on him the highest civilian award of the Republic of Colombia.
This then, establishes the context in which the voices of peace from across the globe felt the need to participate in this World Culture Festival, in effect the world’s largest interfaith gathering. There were nearly 35,000 international participants, including political and business leaders along with several hundreds of thousands of participants from across India. The Vice President of the European Parliament Ryszard Czarnecki, a delegation from Belgium led by Minister of State Herman De Croo, the longest serving member of the Belgian Parliament, and a former prime minister of France all participated and pledged support to world peace—sadly this was just before the terrible terror attacks in Brussels.
Just to indicate the extent of global goodwill on display at the Festival, dignitaries also included the Vice President of Suriname, the Prime Minister of Fiji, Culture Ministers from Norway, Latvia, the UAE, governors of multiple Russian Provinces, and many more. Sri Lanka, a nation long divided by sectarian violence, was represented by the speaker of its Parliament and the head of the opposition. Prominent Indian leaders put aside political differences to share the common platform. Finally, Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India and members of his cabinet sat shoulder-to-shoulder with their political rivals. Everyone put their differences aside.
To dismiss a global gathering of this sort as “crony spiritualism” as Neeta Lal does in a recent article in The Diplomat is saddening and shocking; it undermines these efforts to pursue peace. At a time when the world is debating, with a sense of great urgency and anxiety, ways and means to counter radicalization, the World Culture Festival has brought interfaith dialogue out of the discrete confines of conference halls and into the public domain. The extent of participation by ordinary people from across the world sends a strong message. None of this is reflected in Lal’s analysis, which has simply missed the point of the Festival.
A liberal spirituality, such as that of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, seeks to bring all religions together and to engage with radicalized elements in a spirit of love. The World Culture Festival saw religious leaders from all major traditions share a platform and assert a common pledge to peace; the Shankararcharyas, high priests of Hinduism, shared space with Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorando, who read a message from the Pope; the Grand Mufti of Syria, saints from the Jain faith, Zoroastrians, Muslim religious leaders of every sect, Buddhist leaders from China and Japan, participated as well; an eminent Rabbi represented Judaism. Here is the eloquent testimony of a participant, the Reverend Gerald L Durley, pastor of the Providence Missionary Baptist Church: “Thank God tonight,” he said, “for we are here in peace, we are here in love.”
If such affirmations of diversity and unity are not cause for celebration, then what is? Why should this dimension of the World Culture Festival be obfuscated, ignored, or repudiated? This is an appeal: In the land of Mahatma Gandhi, give peace a chance. Don’t muzzle these voices.
Sanjiv Kakar is an associate professor of English at Delhi University.