An Indian Hindu guru may be the last emissary the Taliban expect, but Sri Sri Ravi Shankar would love to teach inner peace to the world’s most notorious Islamist insurgents.
Visiting Pakistan for the first time in eight years, he basks in the diplomatic rapprochement that made the trip possible but his dreams of harmony couldn’t be further removed from the suffering of millions worldwide.
Spry for a man in his mid-50s, dressed in pristine white robes and his hair still ebony, he began the second leg of his three-city Pakistan tour by tossing rose petals into the air cheered on by some of Islamabad’s most elegant women.
Nominated for the Nobel peace prize and described by Forbes magazine in 2009 as the fifth most powerful person in India, Shankar established the Art of Living Foundation in 1981. It estimates it has 300 million followers.
He travels widely and in 2007 took his message of peace and meditation to Iraq, where he urged Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds to give peace a chance and was invited to introduce his Art of Living rehabilitation programme in prisons.
His centres teach breathing practices and techniques to help people from all religious backgrounds overcome the stresses, jealousies and insecurities of modern life to become more focused, happier and healthier.
He first visited Pakistan in 2004 and organisers say there are now 5,000 followers — a tiny number in the Muslim country of 174 million known more for sheltering Osama bin Laden and harbouring the Taliban than meditation.
So does “Guruji”, as he’s known, think Taliban fighters are ripe for inner peace after battling the Americans for 10 years in Afghanistan and bombing their way through Pakistani cities since 2007?
“Definitely! I would love to stretch my hands to Talibans because I would like them to see from a broader perspective the universe,” he told AFP at the Art of Living centre in Bani Gala, an upmarket village near Islamabad.
“I would like to educate them. There must be something wrong in their way of thinking that says ‘only I am going to heaven, everyone else is going to hell.’
“I would say that is not possible, you know. So I would like to give them the experience of inner connectivity,” Shankar said.
He claims to find parallels among extremists jailed in India, but hastens to add that Pakistanis, and not he as an Indian Hindu, would have to be responsible for any similar outreach programme in Pakistan.
“When they undergo our breathing exercises and techniques, suddenly their fanaticism drops. They start appreciating diversity,” he claimed.
His followers in Bani Gala were drawn from the country’s urbane, educated and liberal elite who abhor the international stereotype of Pakistan as a font of Islamist terrorism and religious conservatism.
Organisers insist they attract people from all walks of life, but the audience was predominantly wealthy and middle class — ladies who lunch or who took the day off work, well dressed with posh handbags and designer shades.
Shankar, who visited Lahore on Monday and was scheduled to travel to Karachi on Wednesday, brings greetings from India’s 1.2 billion people as the two countries resume peace talks that were stalled by the carnage of the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Insurgencies, social and economic problems, corruption and the poor level of education can all be addressed by taking a a deep breath, he claims.
“Everyone should take a little bit of time, 10 minutes, five minutes, 10 minutes, to calm down. Even in the worst scenario they need to calm down and take action in a calm state of mind,” he said.
But he was preaching to the converted — a well-educated crowd keen to see peace finally overcome the three wars between India and Pakistan.
“We want peace with India and we want friendship with India. That’s why we came here,” student Kashif Abbasi told AFP while waiting for Shankar to finish his myriad press interviews and finally address his followers.
Sitting a few rows further forward, lawyer Natasha Khan dismissed out of hand any suggestion that having an Indian spiritualist in town was a problem.
“That’s a non-issue at this sort of event that he’s a Hindu or an Indian or anything. Nobody that I know said anything to me, if there’s someone else I don’t know about it,” she said.
Shahnaz Minallah, the Pakistan co-chair of Art of Living, suspects the “agencies” — a euphemism for the security services — were behind Shankar’s visa being rescinded before and describes his visit as a “living miracle”.
“We were scared about the Pakistan-India thing and the Hindu element attached to it, whereas it’s nothing. It’s neutral. It comes from that region but it fits into any tradition,” she said.