Can you situate the different organizations that His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has started and your role in them?
There are many organizations that he has founded, but the two largest are the Art of Living Foundation (AOLF)
and the International Association for Human Values (IAHV)
. I lead the USA chapter of International Association for Human Values and direct government relations for the Art of Living Foundation. Both are non-profit organizations, 501(c)(3)s, run almost entirely by volunteers, and with consultative status at the United Nations. They operate in over 150 countries and affect millions of people. As an example, for the Art of Living’s 25th anniversary in 2006, 2.5 million people from all over the world attended the celebrations. Many heads of state, parliamentarians, community leaders as well as ordinary people from all walks of life came to Bangalore, India. The government of India had to add two new lanes to the highways to accommodate the crowds. It lasted three days and was an extraordinary event. Can you tell me a bit about how you came to this position? Where did you begin?
I became involved with the Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s organizations about 15 years ago.
I was born and raised in Istanbul until I graduated from high school in Turkey. My mother, Nermin Odabas, raised my sister and me as a single parent, as my father had died in a car accident when I was six years old. So my first role model, a strong woman, was my mother. Rather than taking any easy path, she took up the causes my father had cared about. His dream was to implement projects to improve the underdeveloped parts of Turkey, and he was well known and respected in the development world and in political circles. My mother established a private institution in his name and organized seminars which changed laws about labor relations in Turkey. She was a pioneer in this field and became very successful. I remember her working until late hours in her office and taking long business trips. People constantly came to visit with needs and ideas. She was called on increasingly to mediate in disputes between employers and labor unions, and succeeded where others had failed. She almost always found a way to resolve long-standing strikes because she had the trust and respect of both sides.
This role of woman as a mediator during conflicts made a huge impression on me. I would hang around and listen as so many men, with my mother the only woman, sat around a table in our dining room and worked out agreements that would bring peace to both parties. She was successful in everything she did because of her hard work, commitment and excellent public relations. She was an instinctive and effective peacemaker. Her success came in part because she was a woman. But I was also keenly aware, growing up, of how women and men were treated differently, and was quite outspoken about it.
After high school, my mother wanted us to have a broader education so we went to study abroad. She wanted us to be independent and to learn another language well. I studied English, economics, and history at St. Aldates College in Oxford for a time, alone at first, then was joined by my sister. I had never visited the United States, but friends at Oxford urged me to move here, and indeed, when I eventually came to the US, in 1981, I found myself very much at home, and have lived here since. The image of US in my mind was that it was a very materialistic country and I didn't want to be influenced. Instead I found spirituality here.
I did my BA in International Relations and MA in Communications and Conflict Management at American University. In 1987, after working several years at the Turkish Embassy, I established my own nonprofit organization, the World Children’s Day Foundation. Its vision was to recognize what kids could do to make a difference, not waiting for others to create, reflecting their own values. I worked closely with UN and UNICEF to engage elementary schools around the world in community service projects. It was quite successful and got considerable attention, including recognition by the United Nations. It was implemented during the school year and ended with children going to the UN for four days. There, children took seats in the General Assembly, and were the symbolic leaders of the world for a day talking about their community service projects. As Gandhi said, be the change you wish to see in the world.
Then I took a break for a time, as I raised my two girls. Where did religion fit in your upbringing and background?
My family was Muslim but not very religious, observing rituals only on religious holidays, though I remember my grandmother praying five times a day. But from a very early age I was in love with Sufism. Rumi, who is very much part of everyday life and culture in Turkey, spoke to my heart. I admired Sufi teachings. I found books of Rumi’s poems in the house when I was very young and was deeply touched, not really knowing why, as I read them. I liked that Sufism was not dominated by do’s and don’ts, or ideas and threats of punishment, rather by a sense of divine longing. It was about a path of divine love and devotion, and that appealed to me. Meditation meant less to me at that stage than the idea of love.
But I also very much appreciated Turkey’s secular ethos and was happy growing up with the legacy of Ataturk’s reforms, the founder of Turkey. He believed, as did I, that there should be a separation between religion and State. I considered myself his daughter since like no other leader he introduced sweeping reforms and transported Turkish women from behind veil into a membership in parliament. He gave women the belief that they can do anything, encouraging them in fields generally reserved for men, such as aviation. Because of that I received my international certificate in parachute jumping when I was in my teens and proudly wear my parachutist pin! Ataturk also pulled religion out of the governing of our society. But now there are real dangers that Turkey will become another Islamist society. Because of that I became one of the founders and vice president of Ataturk Society of America here to fight to keep the rights we have earned.
Going back to my teen years though, I longed for the kind of solitude that Sufi practice promised, as I grappled with the basic questions of who am I, why am I here? What’s the purpose of life? These were questions that affected me deeply and fiercely, not as abstractions but as real questions to confront. It was as if my life depended on getting the answers.
I went through a period when I was angry with God, for putting us on earth but not giving us the tools to understand and unravel the mystery. I was not attracted by the rituals of formal religion; I did not want to pray when and how others told me. All of that made little sense to me. I was rebellious, and developed a keen sense of justice, as I traced my own way.
Those qualities led me to increasing concern about women’s issues. Why were women treated differently? There were so many expectations shaping what women could and could not do in their lives. I wanted to make sure that they were provided with the same opportunities as men. I was also bothered by the expectation that I should take my husband’s name when we married, especially because my father’s name, with his sudden death, had special significance. Fortunately, my husband was ahead of his time and said that it would be an honor for him to take my name in a combined surname. It was not easy, requiring court processes in both Turkey and the US, but we did it.
I was finding it hard, nonetheless, to find answers to the questions that continued to trouble me. When did you first meet Sri Sri Ravi Shankar?
Soon after I came to the United States, a friend urged me to go to a public talk that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was giving. So I went to listen to the lecture, and right away I realized that he was someone I could learn from. What he said made sense intellectually, and his presence spoke volumes. I first took the Art of Meditation course and received my mantra to meditate and sometime later, the Art of Living course, which focused on breathing techniques. The course came at a difficult time for me. I had been in a car accident and suffered whiplash and continuous, severe pain. Nothing seemed to help and I had a baby five months old to care for. My physical therapist suggested that I try yoga and meditation. The result of the course was immediate and powerful. I decided to give it a try, and after a month and a half my pain had vanished. I was grateful and overjoyed, and talked about it all the time, to whoever would listen.
I then started to volunteer for the organization, and little by little, I became a part of the organization. Over the years, I trained as an Art of Living teacher in India and in my current positions I deal with projects related to disaster relief, community development, and women’s empowerment, among others. It felt right to be in this organization, not only for the service it was doing globally but because Sri Sri's respect and trust in women's ability to lead and be a uniting factor was evident. I heard him say on many occasions that in Indian mythology, all the major portfolios &- Defense, Finance and Education -- are represented by goddesses: Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati. I always feel empowered to hear that. I think because of his belief that women have within them the seed for profound social transformation, he places them in almost all the key leadership positions in his organizations. My counterpart in India and in many countries, are women. Some of our most successful and visible projects in this country are also headed by women -- Youth Empowerment Seminar (YES), Haiti, Prison SMART, and the research department. Over time, the organization has become my life. When did you work as a journalist and what did you draw from that part of your career?
I worked as the Washington correspondent for the USA edition of a major Turkish daily newspaper for four years, until 1991. I had always seen myself as a journalist, growing up. So those were learning and growing years. I also published articles in the Washington Post and the Nation’s Business. How does your organization approach and define peace? And how do you see the role of women in bringing peace?
We start always from the point of view of the individual. Peace is our very nature. Once an individual connects with that inner peace, outer peace happens as a natural extension of that.
In IAHV, in the early stages of its establishment, there was discussion about its logo, and what was decided was to use the image of one person dancing on the top of the globe. That conveys the idea of transforming society one individual at a time. Because if the individual is not peaceful inside, how can they bring peace to those around them? Think of the tremendous destruction one individual, let’s say a terrorist, can cause in a society. By the same token, transforming that one individual into a peaceful being also contributes tremendously to the society.
Creation happens through women. Mothers are our first teachers. We learn our first behaviors from them. We run to them to resolve our fights, conflicts. They smooth out the differences and focus on the common ground. They are also not afraid to relate from the level of the heart whereas it is considered weak when a man does that. Sri Sri always say “Men can inspire to fight; women inspire to unite." He also said that there are more wars in the world today because there is a lack of feminine leadership to unite people to overcome differences and bring home the purpose of life that we are all born with.
Women are already involved in the peace process but they work quietly so they are not noticed as much. Their work is usually taken for granted. It is important to acknowledge and document what has already been accomplished. What you are doing with the upcoming symposium is a timely and important initiative in that direction.
Bhanumathi Narasimhan, Sri Sri’s sister, has organized four International Women’s Conferences (IWC)
since 2005 to bring attention to the contribution of women to the peace process. The last IWC was attended by women from 44 countries in Bali, Indonesia. There were 15 women there from fragile states sponsored by the World Bank Institute. The focus was on finding some of the best practices, what worked, and the common problems. Hearing the experience of these women was very powerful.
At these conferences, the Vishalakshi Award is given in the memory of Sri Sri’s mother. The award recognizes women whose life and work reflect Vishalakshi’s selfless service, power, and spirit of joy. And where does religion come in? And how does it relate to your work with women?
Religion is probably one of the strongest forces shaping human interaction, and it can be well used or misused. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar makes the comment that symbols and practices are like a banana skin, and the spiritual values & the quest for truth and awareness of our divinity & are the banana. However, people in every tradition have thrown away the banana and are holding onto the skin. We can find and build on strong common human values that are shared by all traditions: to be friendly, helpful, generous, to respect the rights of the next person, to bring out the best qualities, dignity. These are universal values shared by all. The challenge and goal is to live the values on a daily basis, as an individual and a society.
It is true that women are absent from leadership in many religious organizations, and that has deep roots in attitudes and practices. Men have exercised power over women in religion but attitudes are evolving with time. Changes are happening, as women have the chance to show their capabilities in every field.
As to peace, we have to remember that our essence is love. Negative feelings and violence result when stress builds up. We need to look at it and deal with it in realistic terms. That is one of the keys to our approach. We use the breath to learn how to handle negative emotions. Most people through their lives are never taught how. When tendencies to violence come up in the mind, people don’t know how to control them. But you can control the mind through breath. This approach to peace is linked to the causes of wars. Look at the individuals who make the decisions. What is happening inside that person? And how can you count on a transformation? I believe Sri Sri’s keynote speech at the last Parliament of World Religions in Australia emphasized the connection between individual stress and global violence.
People come to our sessions for many reasons: health, curiosity, or a desire to go deeper. There are many paths. They learn the techniques and apply them and it works. I now feel joy every morning. What kinds of programs do IAHV offer for women and why?
IAHV and the Art of Living Foundation work hand in hand to implement programs. The Youth Leadership Training Program (YLTP) focuses on upliftment and transformation of youth to enrich communities. Local youth are encouraged and motivated to become “Agents of Change." It is a two-month long training but the end results have been phenomenal. YLTP puts special emphasis on training women to become youth leaders because for any change to be sustainable you need to engage women and make sure they are fully participating. The vision and energy of youth is powerful. We have also a Rural Development Program (RDP) and the training for that lasts four months. An integral part of RDP is its vocational training program for women, which offers skill in tailoring, making candles, and bags.
We believe that an empowered and trained woman, free of trauma and stress, can bring about strong change in her community. Studies have shown that women are more likely to invest in their families rather than merely on themselves. That is why micro-financing tends to focus on women. There are many success stories. We find that support of men in helping women achieve a better life standard is crucial. When we offered vocational training to women in Iraq, for example, many times women were not able to come out of their homes because of bombings, curfews, etc. Their husbands, brothers, sons accompanied them to our centers, many times sitting and waiting until they finished their training. If they were not willing partners, women would not have had the opportunity to get trained.
In all the schools that IAHV builds, girl child education is a top priority, as is actual enrollment of girls. We have educated 4,373 girls since 2005. We match our vision with practical, sustainable action. We empower women to take over the healing of their own communities. We make sure that women are prepared to train other women, so the healing can continue after the first "generation" of participants. How does the founder’s and the institution's values translate into the work you do?
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s approach is community driven development through 5Hs which is what progress is about: health, homes, hygiene, human values, and harmony in diversity. To implement this, we train rural youth & we trained 61,460 youth so far -- in leadership programs. They focus on poverty alleviation as defined by the UN Millennium Goals. We have adopted 34,400 villages in India and the youth we have trained are active in these villages. Just a few days ago, there was this very inspiring article about a village that is a real model for our approach. Many villagers have taken the training. And what has happened there is remarkable. A clean village with toilets for every home and what is needed is built by donations from the villagers themselves. There is a store with everything on the shelves and a box where people put money, all with no one to supervise it. And when we build the homes, we give the key to the woman, not the husband. It shows our trust that the woman will keep the family together.
We have been very active in Iraq since 2003. We sent in medical doctors and trauma specialists. Our locally trained Iraqi women teachers offer trauma relief programs. There are five centers and about 8000 women have gone through the program. Stress is a huge problem in war zones. After the basic stress programs, we did vocational training, and those who had lost hope turned their lives around. Getting them back to work was key. What was important was having a space where they could act with more compassion and stand on their own feet. The Prime Minister’s office did a survey and the Art of Living was chosen as one of the top 25 NGOs working there, out of over 2000. Now the challenge is to sustain it. Do you have similar programs elsewhere?
IAHV and the Art of Living Foundation go into all conflict areas. We were one of the first organizations to arrive after the tsunami, and we are still there. We opened many orphanages. We were in the southern United States right after Hurricane Katrina, and we are still there. We are also in Haiti. How did you become involved in Haiti? Is there a contingency plan? A war room for planning such interventions?
No, it is far more organic and fluid!
We are very active in Haiti. We had people there before the earthquake, as we have people in most places. There were phone calls almost immediately, connecting people, as everyone wanted to do something. Our members found ways to collect and send supplies. But in the early days following a natural disaster, people are usually in shock, and cannot eat or sleep. We focused on treating the mental state as a first priority. You may not be able to transport supplies immediately, but you always have your breath, as long as you are able to breathe. So our trauma relief experts were able to give people help and relief in just a few minutes. Then we moved on to other things: sending aid, building schools, and training local people.
Our approach everywhere is to focus on training local people, because they can help their communities best. In most of our programs, Iraq, India, Haiti, we train local people who then lead and implement the programs. Where do you see this work leading? What is the overall vision?
The key is personal transformation. It permeates from the families and communities. The art of living is experiential: you can only talk about it so much, you have to experience it. Once you have done it, you understand and it is transformative. The path can be unexpected. After my father died, I was so young and so much attached to him that the family kept the truth from me, for a long time. But I learned to read, almost on my own, and saw a document that made clear that my father had died. I kept that to myself but one day I did let my mother know that I knew and we moved on from there. But I never really had a chance to mourn for his loss. Then, in my 30s, while I was doing my breath exercises, it suddenly came out. It was an amazing release. I had been skeptical, but one by one my questions and doubts have been answered. The process of learning and seeing it is a gift.
We are the largest volunteer based organization in the world. Even the core staff are largely volunteers, because we do work here as a service organization. We are inspired to do the work. There are other approaches which may be on a larger scale, but the question is how sustainable they are?
There is no set agenda, certainly none that I am aware of. Everyone is inspired from within. The question is how to reach that certain space, a reference point, and tap into the source and show that the space exists for everyone. With that there will be a more peaceful world. Looking at the more classic conflicts in the world, how are your organizations involved?
We are working in most conflict areas in the world. We work with terrorists, in Kashmir, and with the Naxalites. There are videos of Naxalites speaking of their experience with Art of Living, and how it has transformed them. We are involved in Iraq, Kashmir, Kosovo, Sri Lanka, and many other places.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar went to Sri Lanka to serve as an intermediary between the refuges and Sri Lankan President. Both sides trusted him and asked for his help. He is able to build trust as a spiritual leader, and because it is clear that he cares for them all, cares for each individual.
After 9/11, someone from Pakistan had a plan to blow up Heathrow Airport, and he was in prison in India. There he took an Art of Living course, because some states mandate them in prisons. When he was going to be released on bail, he refused to leave the jail until he had finished the course. He said the course transformed him totally and this was covered widely in the media. What is our vision for the future of women? of women in peacemaking?
It will only get better. IAHV works to bring women back up to the leadership table. We empower women to have a voice in their homes and in their communities, by working through trauma and imparting practical skills. Beyond that, we work with the community to grant them immediate employment opportunities, so they're not on their own. That, I think, would lay the groundwork for IAHV's vision for women - to be equal actors in bringing about peace in their communities. To have the power and the opportunity to be an equal player in these changes. What special gifts do you think women bring to the work of peace?
Professor Colman McCarthy at American University made a comment while I was studying there that left a lasting impression. He said that he has found that women relate much more easily to non-violence because they are so much more affected by violence than men.
Let us not jump to the conclusion that just because women have not been equally represented in the official peacemaking process or from the hierarchy of religious institutions that it will continue to be so. Our daily efforts, the seeds we plant, are buried deep and we will water them daily with our faith in each other. By keeping the bigger picture alive we will change the equation. We know that energy flows where attention goes. What suggestions do you have for the symposium next week?
It would be wonderful if the group could show support for the historic, bipartisan legislation called International Violence Against Women (IVAWA) that is now before the Congress. An example (from an earlier speech):
One person who has gone through IAHV’s leadership training is Rita Singh, a 29 year-old woman from Bihar. Naxalites, a terrorist group, killed her husband in front of her eyes. Instead of punishing the guilty she set out to reform them. She says “The killing of my husband shattered me completely and even made me contemplate suicide. This is when I was introduced to the Art of Living Programs that gave me a new direction. It made me want to reach out and transform lives, including that of the accused.” While she has been successful in reforming her husband’s killers, as a result of the training, she also brought a difference in the lives of more than 600 prisoners at the Motihari jail. This is one of many success stories of women who have gone through IAHV’s leadership programs.