smile is far more complex than just the activation of a dozen or so muscles. It is propelled by wisdom, the ability to communicate, the will to inspire others, a trust that is shared, and a divine confidence to convince others of the truth that one has realized. This was the first thought that entered my being as I sat facing Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar during the preliminary introduction minutes before our conversation began. To be in his presence was just as calming as the entire ambience of his sprawling ashram campus a few miles outside Bengaluru.
To learn and to let others learn the art of living reflected in every word that Gurudev uttered. Yes, it is easy for others to read between the lines and interpret everything according to their own sensibilities but even a short glance at the way his efforts have transformed lives will be enough to understand the way our conversation went. If being in his presence is an education, then this is exactly what his foundation has achieved over the years because “there is no better service than helping someone uplift their state of mind”.
The success story of the Art of Living foundation doesn’t end with having touched 450 million lives from 156 countries in nearly 40 years in ways that go beyond wellness programs and includes initiatives that educate and enlighten. Finding sustainable happiness by being introduced to bhakti and yog sutras among other things is just the core of the way educating young minds can be initiated towards world peace. We had gone around the educational institutes run by the foundation in the city and within the campus and it was easy to understand that everything from water conservation to women empowerment to saving the girl child, from swachhata awareness to being atmanirbhar are the founding principles that have led to their having more than 470 schools in 20 States with more than 58,000 students enrolled because, after all, it is education that has “the power to bring peace to the world and alleviate poverty”. It isn’t simply a dependance on text-books and skill development that take care values to a new level but the way their enrolled students learn to deal with doubts, blames, desires, rude behaviour, humiliations, anger, stress, and worry that makes various institutes and Sri Sri University rise above the mundane. The goal of real education is to increase awareness, not just to inform. I will be writing more about Sri Sri University in another article but what matters is knowing that developing visionary thinkers with social consciousness to lead and precipitate inevitable changes that will ultimately change the way education has been defined so far.
The most heart-warming facet during this daylong sojourn to the ashram was, is, and will be the time I spent with Sri Sri as his humility reached out through the armour of sixty-plus years that I came with and has given me that much-needed impetus to know that our choices need to be in place. It is these choices that possibly determine the way the future will shape itself. Even as I began asking the questions that I had in my mind, Gurudev presented before me a blend of ideas that were more than just being revolutionary. I did manage to ask him all the questions that I had with me though the fact is that his answers went deeper than than each of them until a new dimension of clear thoughts prevailed. You will know what I am talking about as you read through this conversation.
Sir, I am one of those few fortunate beings who happens to get the opportunity to be with the world guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar Ji. This doesn’t happen all that often with anyone. Sometime back newspapers have reported about some judge somewhere who asked not be addressed as Your Lordship because your honor is enough, and added that any other form would be equally valid. My first question, therefore, is that when people come to you, how would you prefer to be addressed as? Guru, Guru Ji, the teacher, Sri Sri, Gurudev, or maybe just Ravi?
I give the freedom to them. I don’t insist that anyone must address me as gurudev. Whatever people feel like, you know… it’s up to them.
Fantastic. There is a quote that I’d like to read out before the next question. This was published on a website a few years back, and it is a quote by you. It says that “the trouble in today’s world is not because of lack of education. But because education is being misrepresented, misused and misunderstood”. Do you think the problems with education today is because of the wrong definitions we have been brought up with? How will you define education?
Education is that which makes you civilized, which makes your mind sharper. And fills your heart with compassion. If an education doesn’t lead you to a space where you feel you’re a complete human being, then I think one has to look back into it and see if there is some flaw in the system of education. If highly educated people turn out to be terrorists, there is something seriously wrong in what they learned or what they have not learned. Education is supposed to make a human being blossom intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. If this doesn’t happen, then the education system has to be reviewed.
Okay, the entire education system has to be reviewed. Before we get to the solutions for this, let me first mention that you have often talked about nourishing inbuilt virtues that can impart true intelligence. Is true intelligence possible through textbooks and conventional education that goes on in our schools, colleges and universities?
See, conventional education stuffs you with lots of information, it makes you more like a computer where whatever you feed in, comes out. Computers don’t think on their own and analyse. So, it remains a simple equation of whatever going in determining what emerges as the output. But blossoming of a personality has many other aspects and not just information. It needs role models. It needs inspiration. It needs to reach-in and kindle that inner fire in an individual but for this you need to tap into emotional intelligence as well.
Yes. So when you talk about role models, do you mean these role models have to be from the business world from the spiritual world?
They can be from anywhere in the world. If we go back and see how the freedom movement in this country began, we will have the answer. Of course we had iconic leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and others like Sardar Patel. The most important even then were our school teachers and we had able masters in every village. They are the role models who people used to respect and they carried some weight and a lot of dignity. They were looked upon for anything, you know, for instance, even to resolve conflicts to inspire people. They were thought to be the role models that I speak of. Now we find this zeal missing, whether it is a movement of freedom or it is the Naxal movement, or it is any political movement. The torchbearers were school teachers and college professors. Even today, they continue to be in that line a little bit. But we have moved away from that phase of really inspiring teachers.
But sir, teachers are still teaching, they’re still communicating, they’re still bringing about awareness, though the way they go about teaching may or may not be as productive…
Not enough, because our population has grown many folds. And then that dignity for teachers what used to be there has somehow slid down a little bit.
Sir, you have mentioned good teachers for political movements and even for the naxals. A few years back there was this rather controversial quote attributed to you by the media then where you were quoted as having said that government schools breed naxals and, therefore, privatization of education is essential. A clarification did point out that this was a misquote not fully understood by the media.
I never said that this was the case with all government schools and I was then misquoted. We have worked in Bihar, Jharkhand, and in Chhattisgarh, and many of the schools that are run by government then had poor facilities. And we have seen that teachers in these states were not that responsible… so all that I was saying is that in the name of secularism in those days, no moral and spiritual education was imparted to students. As a result what we observed was a sense of dryness of social values and a sense of pride in being violent. The Communist philosophies of Karl Marx were taught more than, you know, the teachings of Lord Krishna, and as a result then children would follow those lines. This was my experience. I can’t say this about all the government schools… and thus that was a misquote. I said most of these people, Naxalites in particular, didn’t get the loving care and the right education that they get in institutions like our institution and many others, you know, where there is a respect for values. See, my mother herself studied in a government school. How can I call all government schools disruptive? No, that’s a misquote. That was way back in 2007 or 2008. But today, the scenario is much different. Schools, even government schools, are giving yoga lessons. There is moral education everywhere. So things are changing for the better. And this new education policy, I feel, is a big milestone. That’s a big achievement for the current times, though it will need a lot of hard work to bring it to the practical realm. This may take some time and effort.
So what you’re effectively trying to say is that it is very easy for a policy to be declared with great fanfare and a host of wild and whirling concepts, but implementation could need a lot of attention.
Implementation has challenges.
If so, how do you think these challenges can be effectively met?
See, whenever you want to take a big leap, challenges are going to be there. It is normal. And we have to work for it.
There are a whole lot of recommendations that the NEP 2020 has. One of them is interdisciplinary education and the other is a focus on vocational subjects. So how does Sri Sri University plan to implement these two?
Interdisciplinary system is very essential to have a blossoming of personality and even those who graduate from top colleges may find it difficult to do something as simple as writing an essay or a letter. This because they have been completely focused in just what their subject and remain unaware of what is outside their core subject. They are in darkness. So it’s good to give our students a wide range of wisdom, a wide range of knowledge. The second important thing is that despite the best core education they’re sometimes unemployable. This is a problem and we see unemployment rising so much. Even the industry needs people who can understand and do things beyond their core specialization. So we had to bring in skilled training on top of their education. If skill training is embedded in education, as soon as they finish school or college, they’ll get a job. See, a person who studies agriculture and is unable to go and even repair a pump and has to wait for an electrician to come, needs practical skills too. So if you skill him in relevant areas, then the nation steps towards being atmanirbhar or self reliance. Learning new skills also gives students a wider choice in employment. This interdisciplinary education alongwith skill training will make this country move forward by leaps and bounds.
Yes sir, we do need to march ahead by leaps and bounds… but what I understand is that for these last few decades, education has been focused on theories, a lot of theories, and less of practical work. So the truth is that students must go out and apply this theory. Is it?
What you study should be of use, and there is no point in studying about what happened in 1850 and 1617. Why spend time on memorizing facts that are there for anyone to read? See, all information is available on your fingertips quite unlike our times when we had to go to library, look for books and then search for hours together. If we need to access information today, you know, we have the right technology that makes it easy. Informations are on our fingertips. So students and even professionals don’t need to memorize all that.
What the students need today is to unburden their mind and give room to creative thinking. A burdened mind cannot come up with creative ideas.
The conventional universities opt for conventional modes of imparting education and spirituality, yoga, and meditation are not a part of the routine here. Why do you think these inclusions are important for students?
See, students want to be creative… and they want to be happy. They also want to have fun. Unfortunately, it is concepts like spirituality that have been projected as being too serious to be fun. This is not a correct conclusion. Spirituality is something that makes you more energetic and more enthusiastic. It gives you a broader vision about yourself and your life. You know, it focuses your mind better than doing many other things would. So spirituality is needed for those who want to be intelligent and innovative. This is how I define spirituality. See, our youth today is undergoing two extreme emotions. One is aggression. Another is depression. It is the practice of meditation and yoga that helps them escape this trap of aggression and depression. It makes students physically fit… and everybody wants to be fit today. Yoga is trending unlike 40 years back when yoga had to face so much prejudice. Yes indeed, yoga is a fashion today.
So the distance between these concepts and their perception has reduced.
In fact, this is the new trend, a fashion, a fad. Today, world over more than 2 billion people are practicing yoga. Yoga makes people feel better and is more like a wellness program. More importantly, it helps you to heal yourself. In student life people fall in love and fall out of love. There are a lot of emotional scars and it is only meditation and yoga that helps them to cope and pursue a creative life. Thirdly, there is this evil called stress… tremendous stress from parents and peer pressure and the uncertainty of future. Thinking about how the future will present itself causes them to feel very helpless and aggressive, and as I said earlier, depressive. These practices help them to cope up with the stress.
The right way then is to forget aggressiveness and maybe become assertive in a positive way?
Yes. See, aggression doesn’t help anybody. And for some strange reason, it’s considered a macho thing to be aggressive. But then it goes beyond its permissible limit and brings in misery. Such students end up making their parents miserable. They make the fellow students miserable and they create such a ruckus in the university… and they are unhappy themselves. An aggressive attitude simply means they’re not happy.
Absolutely, accepted. Last two questions, sir. One: There is a lot of talk about foreign collaborations and, you know, availability of foreign investment for education. In what ways does a foreign collaboration or funding from foreign countries help India’s education evolve?
See, funds from wherever they come, will always help education. This is a good thing but if they come with strings attached, they can be dangerous. That’s not good. The truth is that education has no borders. Yes, politics has borders, trade has borders, but education should not have any borders. See, we have gone to 160 countries around the world. Our programs are in 78 American universities and they are all teaching our breath control workshop and they found tremendous improvement in student’s performance and behavior and in their overall well-being… and today, as we are speaking, many people are committing stress-induced suicide. I read somewhere recently that were 28 students committing suicide every day which is unpardonable. We have to jump in and give our students a stress free ecosystem for them to study. Education needs a stress free ecosystem.
Stress-free ecosystem… what are the three things which will improve this ecosystem?
First of all we must understand what stress is and then stay away from being stressed. Stress is all about having too much to do in too little time without having the energy to deal with it. This is the way stress affects people. People do get stressed and they don’t know what to do or how to get rid of stress. We need to teach them techniques like pranayama and Sudarshan Kriya and it is meditation techniques that come in handy for them. Besides stress, the other culprit is competitive spirit. Competitive spirit in itself is okay but it should not strangle one’s lifeforce. Competitive spirit should be encouraged in an atmosphere which is not bitter, which is not hostile.
Is this possible? After all, life is survival of the fittest.
But understand that hostility can really distort the whole system. So merely having a system that works is one thing… the second vital factor is to be able to create a sense of belongingness among students. Values like friendliness and compassion… these values have to be encouraged in an individual. Non-violence is something that we must encourage in student life.
I thought non-violence was a concept that had stopped existing…
You’re right… somewhere between then and now people have forgotten this way of nonviolence but we need to remind them that this is a very, very important principle and that this is a sign of civilized behavior. We talk about civilized behavior. And if people don’t practice non-violence, we are not an educated society at all.
So non-violence is not to be mistaken as being submissive sir?
It’s not being submissive and yet at the same time it’s not being a slave to violence… as that is not the sign of a civilized society.
For our policymakers, for our teachers, for our students, and for our administrators in the world of education… a one sentence message from Gurudev.
With the new education policy, you have a lot to do. I think the aim is to build a good ecosystem and you are the foundation for a new education system to emerge from here. So I would ask all of you give your 100%. This is the right time you know, and you are here to sow the seed, and you will find a beautiful crop that’s coming up as a very civilized educated society where everyone could be happy.
Thank you so much. Guruji.
The final impression
I remember as we got up I said, ‘Sir, I am not your disciple but more like your younger brother and I have learned quite a few things even in this short conversation. After all, we are born in the same month about an year apart.’ He looked at me and smiled. And I could hear an entire symphony in that single smile. For those who choose to listen to him and let his words flow up to them riding that smile will know what a sahasra veena jhankara or a taal ninaad or even a laya tarang or abhang naad mean to their immortal soul. There was some sort of antarnaad that was seamlessly pervasive on the entire ashram campus and even a few hours spent there had the power to bring about a realization that we are all a part of the celestial order that keeps giving us options. Choices. It is about these choices that our conversation had hinged on all this while and I knew that so long as thinkers and doers like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar are there in our midst, they shall continue to make the right choices clearer to us. Yes, even to the education system as such.