Photo: VTV retrieved
Living in Venezuela right now means constant stress and anxiety. Your mind is always on your next meal, on your increasingly worthless money, in, simply put: survival. Even the country’s ruling class isn’t at peace, hopscotching bank accounts between their dwindling number of friendly nations abroad. It’s a bitter irony to think how a few years ago we were called The Happiest Country in the World.
So imagine my surprise last week, seeing a poster of a gentle South Asian gentleman that vaguely looked like Joselo. The promise on print: Living Without Stress from something called The Art of Living Foundation.
A closer inspection revealed that I wasn’t being offered the teachings of some mystic mountebank reading Tarot cards on daytime television. This was Ravi Shankar—not the sitar musician who performed with George Harrison, but His Holiness Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the spiritual guide who met with Maduro in the presidential palace last week, to talk about peace and non-violence through dialogue with the opposition:
Visited Venezuela after a gap of eight years. President Nicolas Maduro received me warmly and listened to my ideas. We discussed the principles of non-violence and peace through dialogue. (1/4) pic.twitter.com/TCgUSNFLzS
— Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (@SriSri) July 10, 2019
Maduro spoke wonders about the meeting, “deeply spiritual, very much from the heart with this man, a guru of peace and truths. I thank him, we spent an hour and a half talking about peace, the strength of dialogue, and I thank his visit to Venezuela.”
The meeting went on for almost as long as the meeting with the UN’s Human Rights High Commissioner Michelet Bachelet did, so maybe there’s something special about this guru after all.
On the poster, there were mentions of yoga, meditation and breathing exercises, maybe good for middle-class white Americans trying to find enlightenment through cultural appropriation, but if this guy has Maduro on WhatsApp, he might help me and about 30 million of my friends on a way more practical method of relaxation. Namely, taking a Cuba-educated dictator off our shoulders.
Alas, fate had a different, more mysterious path for me. When I dialed the advertised phone number, I was greeted by “The number you have tried to call is out of reach.” Maybe it’s the universe telling me how, in today’s materialistic world, aren’t we all numbers trying to reach each other?
Or maybe they got tired from people calling, asking about Maduro.
Fortunately, The Art of Living Foundation also has a website, with claims like having meditation techniques that work just as well as medication for clinical depression. Also, you learn astounding facts about Sri Sri’s life, like how he was “able to recite parts of the Bhagavad Gita at the age of four” and how he had “enough credence to attract opposing parts to the negotiation table in Iraq, Côte d’Ivoire, Kashmir and Bihar.”
Although one can’t talk about Shankar’s involvement in Africa, Middle-East or his native South Asia, he has quite the record in South America.
In 2015, during the peace talks involving the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group, the guru visited President Juan Manuel Santos in Bogota, and the FARC leadership in Havana. He convinced both Santos and FARC to follow the Ghandian principle of non-violence, and took the latter on a visit to the Embassy of India in Cuba, where Shankar taught them meditation exercises.
Shankar hinted at his role in creating a ceasefire and was even invited to assist to the signing of the final agreement.
But where things get interesting is in Argentina, where Sri Sri has led 150,000 people in meditation on Palermo. Since the mid-2000s, The Art of Living Foundation has been involved with the country’s Ministry of Justice and the government of Buenos Aires—back when it was headed by current President Mauricio Macri—in teaching meditation techniques in schools, prisons and the Federal Police.
However, the guru’s true reputation over there is less about peace and more about money.
In 2012, the Federal Administration of Public Income investigated the foundation for tax evasion of 4,3 million dollars worth of donations. The Art of Living also got into the real estate business with “Nirvana,” a gated community of over 200 lots, plus orchards, a meditation center and membership to a country club with one of the largest golf courses in South America.
In the end, I didn’t manage to get a hold of His Holiness Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. I have no doubt that many of his followers have benefited in some way with his teachings; I mean, he’s either a well-meaning, harmless spiritual man traveling around the world, trying to help in conflict-zones, or he’s an unrelentless narcissist, adding names, countries and contacts to his resumé, caring more about the image he projects than actually helping real humans suffering.
Here’s hoping for a future where things don’t get even dumber, by having both sides elevating the profile of Shankar in Venezuela. But hey, it could be worse. They could try getting Zapatero again.