Peace, one step at a time
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a spiritual guru of enlightenment and human values, aims to change the world, writes Norma Connolly
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar tries to save the world, one deep breath and one smile at a time, but now the spiritual guru is looking to a more powerful body to spread his message of harmony and enlightenment - the United Nations.
Mr Shankar, a 50-year-old Indian who leads what is claimed to be the biggest volunteer non-governmental organisation in the world, has launched a declaration of human values, a menu for global harmony that he believes can change the world, stop wars, curb violence and hopefully rescue the planet from environmental disaster.
It's a tall order for the bearded, ever-smiling, white-garbed founder of the Bangalore-based Art of Living Foundation, but he and his many followers seem to believe it can be done.
Ruth Kuok, who runs Art of Living courses in Hong Kong, says the world has no choice but to adopt the manifesto if it is to survive.
'I think his declaration is very timely,' she said. 'It is what we all know inside. We know that this has to happen. It just took someone like Sri Sri to do it. It's about living in harmony. I think that is why it appeals to people, why it is so universal.'
And it may not all be wishful thinking, because Mr Shankar has some powerful supporters.
Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, Mr Shankar revealed his universal declaration of human values in Washington last month at a gathering to mark the Art of Living Foundation's 25th anniversary in the John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts.
Assembled in the US capital for the event were 2,500 people, including senators and congressmen, judges, prominent businessmen, international diplomats and scientists and the day, March 28, was officially proclaimed 'Sri Sri Ravi Shankar Day' in the city.
The declaration was drafted in the form of a proposed resolution to the United Nations General Assembly.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was not at the gathering, but his chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, delivered a message on his behalf, which stated: 'It is reassuring to know that you - a diverse assembly of origins and cultures - have gathered to celebrate your commitment to global harmony and peaceful co-existence. The values you champion, including non-violence, compassion and the sanctity of all life, go to the heart of what the United Nations stands for.'
The next step for the declaration, if it was to go any further than being just a wish list of niceties, would be an official presentation to the UN General Assembly by member nations. After that would come a long and complicated process of wording the document in such a way that would be acceptable to all voting nations.
The UN already has a Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which was adopted in December 1948. That declaration was voted on 1,400 times by the 58 member states as each word and clause of the text was scrutinised.
But Mr Shankar believes that without human values as a base, human rights can never truly be attained worldwide.
So, what exactly are human values?
According to Mr Shankar's declaration, they are: a deep caring for all life; non-violence; compassion, friendliness and co-operation; generosity and sharing; a feeling of belonging and oneness with all life; an eco-friendly attitude and caring for the planet; service to society; a sense of commitment and responsibility; peace and contentment; enthusiasm; integrity, honesty and sincerity.
Perhaps in its simplest form, it just means being nice.
Mr Shankar says in the declaration: 'Just as water flows downhill and fire rises, so the natural tendency of the human spirit is to evolve toward these universal human values. Although these values are innate in every human being, they have been overshadowed by the stresses and strains of our lives and by society's failure to encourage and nurture them.'
He has his own simile: 'Human rights are like the fruits of the tree of human society whose roots are human values. We have collectively neglected to water the root of this tree, though we have waited eagerly for the fruit to appear and ripen.'
He also called on children to be given multifaith, multicultural education so they grow up with a general knowledge of the world's religions.
Mr Shankar (not to be confused with famous sitar musician Ravi Shankar, the father of singer Norah Jones) is well known in India but is becoming increasingly familiar in western countries. In the United States and Canada, several cities have dedicated days to him. Earlier this month, the New Orleans city council declared April 3 'His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar Day', and Mayor Ray Nagin presented Mr Shankar with the key to the city.
Hong Kong has yet to go so far as to proclaim a holiday in his honour, and he remains largely unknown here, other than to those who have taken the Art of Living course.
World peace and harmony begins at home though, and in the foundation's centre in Yau Ma Tai which opened 15 years ago, Ms Kuok leads courses for children and adults, teaching them to manage stress and anger through breathing techniques and meditation.
'All our instructors in Hong Kong are volunteers. People who have done the course and practised the breathing technique feel that they are better able to handle stress in their lives and are generally happier. Many come back as volunteers,' Ms Kuok said.
Tension-filled office workers are also not forgotten. The Hong Kong branch also carries out corporate stress management courses.
Mr Shankar's breathing technique, called the sudarshan kriya, is the core component of the Art of Living course with its cycle of breaths - long, medium and short.
Since Mr Shankar introduced the technique in 1982, it has been taught to millions in 140 countries. Prices of the courses vary, depending on length and whether a basic or advanced one is done. On average worldwide, the basic course costs about US$220, which has led to some criticisms of the organisation as catering to the rich.
In a public debate in Delhi in 1995, Bollywood script writer and poet Javed Akhtar launched an attack on Mr Shankar and other modern gurus, saying: 'It is not enough to teach rich people how to breathe.'
Mr Shankar travels widely, visiting up to 40 countries a year, according to the Art of Living website.
In April last year, he gave a public talk in Kowloon, which was attended by more than 1,000 people, where he addressed the rising number of domestic violence cases in the city.
He was scheduled to visit Hong Kong again for two days to hold workshops and meet members of the local branch of the Art of Living at the beginning of June, but according to organisers, that trip has been cancelled.
His declaration of human values follows on from the founding of the International Association for Human Values (IAHV) 10 years ago. According to his foundation, this association has created development projects in more than 25,000 villages.
The organisation's website states: 'Through the IAHV, large volunteer relief efforts have been delivered across the globe including in Afghanistan, in Bosnia, in India after the earthquake in Gujarat, in New York for those who were affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and in Asia in the aftermath of the recent tsunami disaster. IAHV volunteers continue to provide trauma relief and stress management in Iraq.'
As for the man himself, those who have met him describe him as practising what he preaches - emanating a calming presence and a sense of goodwill and enthusiasm.
Details of his early life are sketchy. It is known he was born in May 1956 in Papanasam, Tamil Nadu in southern India. It is said that by the age of four, he could recite the Bhagavad Gita - a Sanskrit epic text that translates as 'Song of God'. According to his biography, at 17 years old, he had already attained an advanced degree in modern physics.
A student of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for several years, it has been reported that he developed his sudarshan kriya (su - proper, darshan - vision, kriya - procedure) breathing technique after 10 days of silence, during which he said he attained enlightenment.
The human values that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar espouses are:
A deep caring for all life
Friendliness and co-operation
Generosity and sharing
A feeling of beloning and oneness with all life
An eco-friendly attitude and caring for the planet
Service to society
A sense of commitment and responsibility
Peace and contentment
Integrity, honesty and sincerity