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‘Guru of Joy’ advises Kenyans

Dec 24, 2006 Success, Sunday Nation

An unusually dressed man passed through Kenya this past week. His flowing white robes and long hair and beard marked him out as an Indian sage. But this extraordinary man is not a religious leader. I had the privilege of interviewing him, and what he had to say is worth recording during this season of goodwill.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is the originator of the Art of Living Foundation: the world’s largest NGO. Forty million people across the globe have felt its embrace. The organisation runs projects in 156 countries, focusing on children in slums and rehabilitating hard-core prisoners, with genuine success.

Sri Sri himself is a man apart. Called the “Guru of Joy” by his followers, he is a spiritual leader of the modern era. He combines a vast repository of timeless wisdom with an array of wisecracks and one-liners that make him a great entertainer. The Art of Living’s Silver Jubilee, celebrated recently, attracted 2.5 million people – the largest number to ever attend a single spiritual event. Imagine the population of Nairobi turning up at one gathering, and you have some idea of the scale. Leaders from around the world were in attendance, including our own Njoki Ndung’u. Edith Cresson, France’s former prime minister, pointed out: no politician could have achieved this.

His message is simple: love is not an emotion; it is our very essence. The world must recapture “human values” – the ways of living that we have lost under layers of dust. We no longer educate ourselves in the right way; we have lost our cultural moorings; and we confuse religion with spirituality.

Our problem is not the fact that we are Christians, Muslims and Hindus; our problem is that we are not good enough Christians, Muslims and Hindus. At the heart of all our religions is a set of universal values that teach temperance, tolerance and goodwill. Every person, every community must rediscover these values to achieve salvation.

Sri Sri visits nearly 40 countries every year, and last week he came to Kenya for the first time. He addressed the United Nations; met decision-makers (led by vice-president Moody Awori); and finished with a mass interactive session of song and practical wisdom. I watched Kenyans throng to see him, and they were not disappointed: his childlike exuberance and profoundly simple message enchants everyone.

I took this unique opportunity to ask this man about the way ahead for Kenya. Sri Sri’s key concern was with the violence he detected in our society. No society has ever achieved prosperity in a climate of violence, he asserted. Economic development simply does not happen if you are too busy grabbing from each other, by fair means or foul. A violence-free society is a pre-requisite to any advancement.

As we start to disburse enterprise funds to our youth, it is also heartening to learn that Sri Sri advocates an emphasis on the young of any country. His proposition is that values can be recaptured best by focusing on the young and on the country’s grassroots. A revolution in values must emerge from the lower and newer echelons, not from the coffee-rooms of the aged intelligentsia.

What about business? I put to him. What is the role of business in helping us to achieve alignment in values? He thought carefully and said: “Politics is lame; business is blind.” If the two stay detached from each other, operate in different spheres, then neither will move forward. If you blindly “mind your own business”, pay heed: you cannot stay aloof from the society that nurtures you.

I informed him that we were facing an election year. How should we choose our leaders? He had a message for every voter: never elect anyone on the basis of your immediate personal gain. Never vote for the sake of gaining a few shillings at election time; you will lose far more. By electing leaders who bribe you, you will mortgage the future of your country, your community, your family and yourself.

So what should a voter look out for? What are the signs that a leader is worth electing? Sri Sri’s answer is apt for Kenya, where we seem to vote for large cars and expansive wallets, rather than big hearts. Look out for those who engage in simple living and high thinking. Look out for those who offer themselves as your servants, not your rulers. Look out for those who are standing because they are genuinely driven by the need to improve the country.

But he had a word of warning: do not become cynical enough to believe all politicians are bad. “Trees do not grow rotten apples”, he pointed out: a few apples become rotten and poison others. When we find good leaders, we must honour and appreciate them. More importantly, we must strengthen them. We must give them the support and succour that they need in order to achieve their mission. Strengthening the arm of the good leader is the duty of every Kenyan.

He left us with a final message: let go of the past. Do not dwell on it, do not keep revisiting it. To get rid of bad memories, grow good new ones. What happened in our past happened in another country, to other people. Our duty is to be in the present and to build the future.

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