It was one of those cold nights in the month of December. After taking a walk in the Sumeru Mantap, couple of us were sitting with Gurudev in his kutir. Gurudev got a call from from Mehul, our main teacher coordinator from Ahmedabad. Along with his wife, he had taken up the mission of teaching Art of Living programs to bureaucrats and lawmakers in Gujarat. After meeting Gurudev, Mehul’s life had seen a huge transformation – from being rebellious and wayward to becoming a gentle and committed social worker.
Usually very happy and jovial, Mehul had concern and worry in his voice, as he conveyed to Gurudev a conversation he had with one of his contacts (a businessman who since then has moved to the US). He was informed that there had been a meeting of few Congress party members. There were discussions to create some trouble along communal lines for the newly formed Narendra Modi Government. This conversation shook him. He thought frantically, “Are big riots in the works here?” What should he do next? Would it better to relocate to Bangalore with his family? Would that be a right thing to do?
He asked Gurudev for guidance. For a moment, all the laughter in the kutir turned into silence. Gurudev closed his eyes for a few moments. His smiling face assumed a serious look one has not often seen. He told Mehul to be strong and continue working in Ahmedabad. After the call, Gurudev said that we needed to write a book that highlighted the common thread between Hinduism and Islam. Gurudev previously had authored a book on Christianity and Hinduism. Usually, writing a book of this nature would take its own sweet time but it was different this time and the book was published shortly per Gurudev’s instructions.
There was a big international course happening at the Bangalore ashram the following week, and we all got tied up with responsibilities and totally forgot about this whole incident.
During those days, the Ayodhya issue was simmering and Gurudev wanted to find an amicable solution that would bring the two communities closer. He held several talks with VHP and Muslim organizations in and around Delhi. He met several leaders from both sides including Ashok Singhal, Kamal Farooqi and Javed Akhtar among others. The whole idea was to have intercommunity dialog and keep it apolitical. There was positive response from both sides but progress was halted when Sudheendra Kulkarni got involved with Kanchi Shankaracharya and completely sidelined Gurudev’s efforts.
It was during this time that the Godhra carnage took place followed by the riots across Gujarat. Ahmedabad was under curfew for several days. Thousands of people were displaced and living in relief camps. Per Gurudev’s guidance, Art of Living Foundation started redeploying volunteers from 2001 earthquake relief efforts to provide trauma relief workshops for riot victims. Gurudev visited Gujarat early April, about a month after the riots, to meet the victims, conduct peace marches to redouble our efforts to bring communities back together. AOL organized nine different interfaith events across the riot-affected area. Gurudev personally met hundreds of Muslim and Hindu community leaders, spent hours together in meeting riot victims, hearing their plight and consoling them. Many Art of Living teachers and volunteers were working day and night in various relief camps providing much needed trauma care.
Shabana Azmi and others alleged that it was the Sangh Pariwar who had set their own people on fire in the train to create a reason to attack minorities. On hearing this conspiracy theory, Gurudev shook his head and said that such a thing was hard to believe and quite impossible. (Interesting to know that one of the Congress office bearers from Godhra was later indicted in inciting the riots.)
On his subsequent trip to Gujarat, Gurudev met with Chief Minister Narendra Modi and pointedly asked him “Did you do all that was in your capacity to stop these riots?” With moist eyes, Mr. Modi replied “Guruji, kya aap bhi aaisa sochate hai? (Guruji, do you also think this way?)” There was a lot of pain and sorrow in his eyes. An intelligent person at the helm of affairs would not smear their own face with tar.
Later on, Gurudev went to visit a prison in Ahmedabad. In the prison, there were many innocent women and men locked up. Gurudev spent several hours listening to them. I remember thinking that these trips were very different. Most often when Gurudev visits any place, people are joyous and happy. But during these trips, people would come and tell horror stories of those dark days. When you heard their stories, whether Muslim or Hindu, one’s hair would stand on end in pain and disbelief. One’s heart would cry, “Sabko sanmati de bhagwan.” (Bless everyone with good thoughts). How could we as a human society move so far away from the values that we have cherished over the centuries. This experience increased my resolve to continue the work of Gurudev to bring harmony in diversity and communities together.
While there were several NGOs working on either side, most of them tended to be biased and hateful of others. There was hardly anyone who was balanced, unbiased, and apolitical toward the whole scenario. The victims of either side were often controlled by these NGOs, who prevented them from having an open dialogue with others. We were in a precarious position. While some thought that the Art of Living is pro-Congress, others thought that the Art of Living was pro-Hindutva. It was a very challenging situation for us to work. Thanks to the inspiration of Gurudev, in all these tough scenarios, our volunteers managed to keep themselves focused and moved on forward.
This whole journey with Gurudev was such a learning experience for me. By just being around Gurudev, I learned how not be biased, hear both sides of the issue, and remain poised in the face of challenges. I was so inspired by Gurudev’s unwavering commitment, equanimity, farsightedness, and on top of it all – patience.
When asked about Modi, Gurudev once said, “Truth will prevail, he will come clean of these allegations.”
It is around the same time that war clouds were looming over Iraq. Deeply concerned, Gurudev sent a team of teachers to Iraq on a peace mission. More to follow in a later post!