Sri Sri Ravi Shankar‘s Art Of Living kicked off Sangam 2008 yesterday, a three-day All-India Summit for Environment. Using the “triple bottomline approach” (ecology, economy and technology), the confluence sought to bring together “multi-sectoral non-government organisations (NGOs) on one common platform to develop practical solutions for India’s most pressing environmental concerns.”
Organised through AOL’s sister concern, the “International Association for Human Values” in partnership with the United Nations Millennium Campaign, with “technical support” from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, promotional literature for the summit said Ravi Shankar, along with Dr R.K. Pachauri, Dr Ashok Khosla, Sunderlal Bahuguna, Dr Vandana Shiva, and Kartikeya Sarabhai would be in attendance.
BHAMY V. SHENOY of the Mysore Grahakara Parishat, who plays a lead role in bringing out a magazine for NGOs called Catalyst, was among those who signed up, paying Rs 5,000. He fled before the end of the first day. This is a letter he has written to several NGOs and NGO heads of his first-hand experience.
“I am back from Ravi Shankar’s Sangam 2008 within a few hours of its inauguration. It was supposed to be an “all-India NGO summit for protection of environment and access to social justice.” In reality, this was one of the cleverest hoaxes perpetrated in the name of a spiritual movement using the facade of NGOs.
“We should keep away from this “spiritual” person. His is a commercial ashram doling out psychological products specially for some foreigners and middle-class women who have studied in English medium schools. Many are working there as volunteers. It was impressive to see how so many could be motivated to give their services free of cost to produce profit for an institution. This requires genius of the highest order.
“I even met a professor from IIT Bombay who is a volunteer there. When I expressed my disappointment with the whole show, she was very “sympathetic” and assured me that she too felt the same way at first, and later thanks to “guruji” she could see the light.
“Uniformly every volunteer to whom I complained about the NGOs being taken for a ride, responded in the same manner as though all of them were robots programmed by some unknown force. The whole campus is filled with security people. Going from one place to another place was like going from one section of a jail to another where every gate is protected by a security guard.
“After charging Rs 5,000 as a delegation fee, Art Of Living was providing us a room to be shared with two others, and with no towels, soap, drinking water, etc. The food was sub-standard. We were expected to wash dishes after eating.
“We did not go there as his disciples. I do not think delegates were taking part to learn about self-help as his disciples may be expected to do. I refused to wash dishes which was not liked by some. This is not because I dislike it. I have done it often. But I did not pay Rs 5,000 to do that. Moreover on the website, I was offered better lodging and food facilities.
“What a wonderful way of advertising his product by charging us!
“Companies pay money to advertise their products, but here Ravi Shankar collects money from us and introduces us to his product.
“There were satsanghs, “free” introductory yoga classes, visit to his first abode, etc. I am sure some NGOs would have decided to buy his products and will act as his emissaries. Of course, there will be a few like me who will attempt to do just the opposite. There were spies in the ashram observing people like me. It was obvious and at one time I was even frightened.
“During an evening satsangh, there were some planted questions put to Ravi Shankar. Still, his responses were pedestrian at best. One of the questions was about the new burning topic of global warming and climate change and what he (Ravi Shankar) thought about them.
“At first, he ridiculed those who are worried about such things and proceeded to give the example of the Y2K phenomenon. Ravi Shankar dwelt on how foolishly people worried about Y2K, about places exploding, about the world coming to an end, etc and how nothing of the kind took place. He was suggesting that Y2K was not a problem and so also global warming. Little did he take into consideration the elaborate precautions taken by the world to prepare for Y2K and how India became the world capital for IT and outsourcing as a result.
“What a pity such an ignoramus is considered as a “guruji” even by the firebrand Vandana Shiva.
“Someone asked the question about the unrest and violence in Kashmir and his response was to pat the questioner and to state that youth should get involved.
“After spending less than 24 hours, I decided to leave the place. The cult-like environment was suffocating. Some other delegates from Mangalore with whom I have been conversing also decided to leave after the inauguration. One of the speakers Ananth Nadkarni, vice president, Tata council for community initiatives, too decided to leave early. Another speaker who was to talk on HIV left even before the end of the first day.
“But for Vandana Shiva, none of the advertised experts and well-known speakers (R.K. Pachauri, Ashok Khsola, et al) were present. Is it possible that their names were prominently placed to sell the Sangam?
“We were told that about 500 delegates had registered and there were three silver sponsors. They must have raised at least Rs 30 lakh and the incremental cost would be no more than Rs. 3 lakh. This is an excellent and clever way of making huge profits. Business colleges should use this as a case study. We should admire the entrepreneurial capabilities of Ravi Shankar. It needs genius.
“Despite being a keynote speaker, Vandana Shiva spoke for just few minutes and that too in a rambling manner. She took the opportunity to bash Tata’s small car, the Nano. Her so-called keynote speech was dull and did not dwell on the main subject. A high school student could have delivered a better speech with greater insight.
“A High Court judge also gave an uninspiring talk making no substantive points except offering “pranams” to “guruji“. What a joke!
“I attended the first workshop and it was also equally boring. Speakers were more interested in offering pranams than dwelling on the subject.
“I do not think we can collaborate with this group. When they were pressing us to register all the time, and not giving us any suggestions on how we could collaborate, I knew this was a commercial establishment and not a spiritual centre as is advertised. Perhaps we should write an article on how NGOs should guard against such frauds in the future.
“I am sure during your meeting with Ravi Shankar and his people, you would have come to the same conclusion. Let us now revert back to the poverty issue and stop any idea of collaborating with Ravi Shankar.
“I am planning to demand the return of payment since facts were misrepresented to me while registering. I am exploring the possibility of filing a case in the consumers’ forum. When our NGO, Mysore Grahakara Parishat, is encouraging others to file cases, I need to follow that example.”
Photograph: courtesy Art of Living