Spirituality as an act of faith, as a social organisation probably has more followers in India than any secular movement. The Guru today is a dominant figure and the likes of Baba Ramdev, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Jaggi Vasudev shape the lives of millions of people, determining their ideas and regulating their daily lives. The Gurus, at least the larger-than-life figures mentioned above, are extraordinary men with enormous achievements. Their ashrams are feats of social organisation which will be the envy of any political party and a case study that any IIM or even Harvard can be proud of.
It is clear that religion is a deep source for mobilisation. One is reminded of Mahatma Gandhi’s statement that we do not require lessons on managing law and order from England when our people can manage a crowd of pilgrims as large as the Kumbh Mela. In terms of scale, the Kumbh makes even the historic sound of American protest at Woodstock seem provincial and more like a village meeting.
Of late, the Guru who has commanded attention is Baba Ramdev. His attempt to turn Patanjali into a major medical firm anchored on food, cosmetics and medicine based on the Ayurvedic cosmology has won accolades. Baba Ramdev could create an economic behemoth because he turned the spiritual into a political civics.
One needs a detailed ethnography of Baba Ramdev’s enterprise to understand the full scale of his effort. Meanwhile, though, another Guru is clamoring for attention. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar with his Art of Living movement is as political as Baba Ramdev, but more cosmopolitan. Like Baba Ramdev, he has nibbled on the edges of the political. He appeared in the background of the Anna Hazare movement and apparently played peacemaker on the Kashmir issue.
One senses the Guru wanting to invade the political and managerial space, convinced he can add to the idea of “India shining”.
Of course one must admit some Gurus turn sour, pulling a Mallya in a spiritual sense on their followers. The case of Asaram Bapu comes to mind. While emphas-ising all this, one must remember that the Guru is an everyday phenomenon in India. The family Guru is a revered figure, but he stays within family proportions as a spiritual mentor, an advisor and exemplar who adds meaning and direction to the everydayness of life. Compared to the usual Guru’s scale of activity, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is the Cecil B. Demille of Gurus.
The World Culture Festival was a mega event conceived on a gargantuan scale by a man who proclaims the world is his family and gets a crowd which quite represents the family of man in its behaviour. Sri Sri’s World Culture Festival however raises certain questions about spirituality one needs to answer. The success of the event is not in doubt. All the indices — from body count, to footfall to media attention, to the sycophantic presence of VIPs hanging around him — were there to witness. It was an extravaganza that one witness called “spirituality as conspicuous consumption”.
An event of this scale is a civic activity. It demands space, money, administrative clearances of impressive order. Yet it raises civic issues. Firstly, the National Green Tribunal saw this festival as an act of disruption and imposed a fine of `5 crore on Sri Sri. Secondly, ecologists have noticed that the amount of muck left after the festival — from plastic cups to every form of garbage — was enormous. It was a rag picker’s dream and a civic administration nightmare.
It was not just the short-term impact, but the long-range ecological impact that was distressing. Sri Sri acted like a VIP convinced that some people, even Gurus, are more equal than other Gurus. Yet what he devastated was a wetland. By compacting it for the festival, Sri Sri reduced its capacity to absorb water and, therefore, increased the possibility of future flooding.
The question one has to ask is two-fold: What is Sri Sri’s sense of civic consciousness? Could he have arranged for volunteers to stay behind and clean up as an exemplary show of civic behaviour? Instead, he treated it as a bureaucratic exercise of clerical clearances.
There is also the deeper question of ecology. One was naïve enough to think that ecology and spirituality went together. In fact, there was an ironic moment during the celebrations, when Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, who played the quiet believer, claimed he could clean the river with the collaboration of AoL and the BJP. Yet there was little response to the observation and it remained part of a forgotten wish list.
A neglected flood plain was no match for the World Culture Festival. But the question that haunts one is: What use is culture, even world culture and spirituality, if it treats nature with contempt, ignorance, even organised illiteracy? One understands that 1,700 Kathak dancers dancing is an event, but ehy is what happens to a flood plain irrelevant?
Sri Sri also misread the event, lashing out at those who called the event “a private party”. He claimed that the world was his family. One wishes he had included plants and animals in the family. Nature seems outside the ambit of his spirituality and this is worrying. One was surprised by the silence of politicians from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Mr Kejriwal. It is this silence that makes the writer as an ordinary citizen ask a few questions of the regime and Sri Sri.
In a secular sense, did you fulfil the ordinary requirement of civic consciousness? In a spiritual sense did you think of nature when you planned your cultural festival? Does this festival become a projection of your ego, your ability to create mega events as a symptom of your organisation? Would a Ramana Maharishi or a Dalai Lama have been guilty of this? I think as an exemplar, a leader, as a Guru and a citizen, one needs to answer these questions. Democracy too has a spiritual tenor that needs to be respected.