On his visit to Pakistan the Art of Living guru urged better ties between India and Pakistan – improve trade relations, promote cultural exchanges and start a religious dialogue – Zarminae Ansari
I was never the strongest or most flexible student in a yoga class, but I could really breathe. And breathing correctly is one of the most important elements of yoga. So much so, that every yoga teacher I’ve had has asked me where I had learned to do that. The answer is: in a beginners’ course with The Art of Living years ago in Boston, where I learnt the excellent breathing techniques that I’ve continued to use.So when the founder of The Art of Living, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar visited Pakistan recently to promote regional peace and dialogue, I was curious to meet him. It was also a good opportunity to observe his visit from the lens of Aman ki Asha’s Milne Do campaign. How did he and his delegation (his secretary, plus the Director of Projects and Communications Director) feel about his visit, the visa process, and potential for peace in the region?
At a lovely spring afternoon session at the new Art of Living centre in Bani Gala near Islamabad, I spoke to several people who have attended the courses here. One of them, Fatima Khan Shamsi, an Islamabad resident, had initially attended the course to see what it was it all about. ‘The first ditation was more out of fun. But the more meditations you do, and the more experienced you get, you reach that state of peace,” she said. “In the next level you pack your bags and live with 32 strangers without uttering a word for 4-5 days and break your non-speaking fast on the last day. And you don’t want to talk because you are so content with yourself. I met amazing people and now we might meet after ages but we connect on a different wavelength. It helped me in my personal life to become more accepting. To realise that things are meant to happen – how we react to them is entirely our own choice”.Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the smiling, soft-spoken, bright-eyed teacher in white robes, was surrounded by disciples, including many well-heeled residents of Islamabad and Lahore, nearly inaccessible because of all the people who wanted blessings, and/or photographs, so we spoke on the way to the airport as he was leaving.He told me how the Pakistan centre was established when he asked Naeem Zamindar, who was living at the San Francisco centre, to return to Pakistan as there were lots of people waiting for him there. “He left his job in Intel and came back.”
Those who have done this intense course feel a special connection with each other, no matter where in the world they’re from, especially if they are Pakistanis and Indians. It’s like belonging to a special club, or being “part of one big family” as Sri Sri puts it.
I ask him about accusations that his organisation is out to convert people. “Anything doesn’t conflict with your own religious faith, and which can help you physically, mentally, bring happiness and enthusiasm, should be WELCOMED,” he smiles. “If it’s in conflict with your religion that’s a different issue. Today is the day of interfaith dialogue, exchange of wisdom and knowledge. We need to be more open-minded. We can’t say just because this particular knowledge is not from your own teacher you can’t take it. You take technology from all over the world, and eat food from all over the world, you should take wisdom from all over the world. The beauty of Art of Living is that it doesn’t interfere with anyone’s faith or religion. It is yoga and breathing exercises and only brings benefits. It makes people’s lives better and healthier. Those who practice benefit from it, avoid illness and needless medications.
If you stop them, they will suffer. The course is standard, but we modify some elements, singing or chanting, that we adapt to each country and culture. In India we sing differently, in America we sing differently, here in Pakistan we had Sufi songs.”What about security concerns in Pakistan where extremists are often target anything or anyone they see as countering the Saudi version of Islam? “I am not worried. If challenges come, they will be dealt with. Prejudices exist everywhere in the world. As people get more educated, prejudice decreases. The fanatics – I only wish I could interact with them in some way – It is through education, communication, love and compassion that we have to win them over, and not sit and worry about them.”
I wonder if this club or family that transcends borders can transcend the class divide. At the event at the Islamabad centre, people did the bhangra to the beat provided by dholis. Service staff, like caterers, stood watching from the periphery, some taking videos with their cell phones. Is there too much of a social divide?
“We have all walks of life,” responds Shahnaz Minallah, who runs the centre in Islamabad. “Every section of society, every class of society comes together on this course. It is fascinating. We have courses for different age groups, for totally illiterate groups, for prisoners, for the corporate sector. We have run programmes for a 100,000 people in slums, held trauma relief workshops in the flood areas here. We are not profit-oriented. We have fees because there are costs associated with setting it up. If anything is left over, it goes back into the courses and centres.”
“The security guards the government provided were a bit grim and serious initially but today there was a certain lightness, they were smiling, amused, they wanted to take photos with me,” adds her Guru. “They came for my blessings, and there was a lighter atmosphere. That is something to be noted.”It was the first trip across the border for the delegation accompanying Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. All of them said that they had received overwhelming warmth and welcome in Pakistan. They felt safe, welcome and at home here. Except for the signs in Urdu they might as well have been in India. Lahore seemed a lot like Delhi. Everyone ensured that they were served excellent vegetarian food even if the repertoire was relatively limited.”The average Indian has certain perceptions about Pakistan, the media projects it as an enemy state. And you come here and see so much in common. That’s the best part. We have the same fears, the same passions. The people here really put their heart and soul into inviting Gurujee,” said Bharat VIG, Director Projects, Art of Living. “There were some issues, but even the visa officers at the Pakistan embassy were great and it was basically a very amiable process. Hopefully the governments will ease the visa restrictions.” Sri Sri himself didn’t get a visa last year. And he strongly endorses Aman ki Asha’s Milne Do campaign to urge the governments of India and Pakistan to ease visa restrictions between the two countries.
The writer has a Masters degree in Architecture History, Theory and Criticism from MIT; she writes and produces material on Pakistan and regional peace.