Two hundred Frenchmen, in their suits and ties, with their wives in Chanel skirts and high heels, did so at an event organised by the Indian ambassador, Mohan Kumar in Paris, for Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living Foundation. And amazingly, quite a few of them did enjoy the impromptu meditation, something they had never done before in their lives.
Sri Sri was in Paris at the invitation of both the French Parliament and the Senate, an honour not bestowed on the Dalai Lama himself. Was it the ripple effects of the Rafale deal, a cash bonanza that the French government badly needs in these times of recession? Indeed, during the question-and-answer session that followed the meditation at the Indian embassy, a journalist asked Sri Sri, if he, a man of peace, was not rattled by his country buying these weapons of war and destruction. His answer took the reporter aback, “Compassion is for the strong. India needs to defend itself.” When pressed further, he elaborated, “Ahimsa is a state of mind. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna to fight. There is nothing wrong in defending yourselves.”
At the prestigious Chambre des Députés (House of MPs) the following morning, one of the parliamentarians asked a pointed question about Kashmir being a ‘disputed’ territory. Sri Sri smiled and said, “Well, you the French have to fight an independence movement in Corsica, but not one second have you thought about letting this beautiful French province secede. In the same way, Kashmir, which is not even an island, like Corsica, has always been part and parcel of India. Do you know that Shaivism was born and blossomed in Kashmir and that it was even at one point a high place of Buddhism?”
But some of the French MPs were not convinced and one of them asked Sri Sri about human rights in Kashmir. He first pointed out that 350,000 Hindus in Kashmir were chased out by terrorists from their ancestral homes and had become refugees in their own country. Then he added, “French people can buy houses in Corsica, but do you know that no Indians can buy properties or start businesses in Kashmir, while Kashmiri Muslims have opened carpet and shawl businesses everywhere in India?”
“Do you think it is fair?” he asked the French MP, who kept quiet. And he concluded. “We need to rethink this strategy and this is for the Indian Government to decide and skilfully do, through education of Kashmiris.”
The next day, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar addressed the Senate. Terror and some French Muslim youth joining the ISIS seemed to be in the minds of many senators. “Obviously,” Sri Sri remarked, “you need to educate these youth on peace, and even more, they should be taught about all the other religions of the world, right from kindergarten. In India, one in seven persons is a Muslim. But we do not have the same incidence of radicalism as in France, as we are a multi-religious society.”
But if they refuse and become terrorists, he said, “Terrorists should be fought hard and terrorists should be jailed. It is there that the Art of Living can act and help, by having special meditation and pranayama courses for jails, which have a great power of transformation.” He played the video of a young American Muslim who had joined the ISIS, repented after doing the Art of Living course, and was saying that “the meditation techniques of Sri Sri had changed his outlook on Islam”.
Next came the ever-pressing refugee problem that is baffling French politicians and has become a major issue in the coming general election. “It is important to accept immigrants, as they face chaos and danger in their own countries but only on a temporary basis. We should have open borders, but refugees should not be a burden and refugees should return to their own countries when safety is re-established. We have to encourage these refugees to respect and honour the French culture, participate in the socio-economic effort, while keeping their own identities.”
Later, at the French Art of Living Center in rue des Boulets, near Place de la Nation, Sri Sri spoke about the Vedas. “The French have a scientific temperament and Vedantic thought is inclined to that. The French people love liberty and Vedic thought keeps liberty at its base—even atheists can be part of the Vedic culture, so it gives utmost freedom of thinking. Yet it is open to criticism and reform and change and it can contribute to France for solving its problems of depression, anger, frustration and emotional disturbances.” When someone in the audience objected that it was contrary to Christian values, Sri Sri said, “I would say that you take the good things from wherever they come. Besides, spirituality is beyond border and nationality and it connects people everywhere.”
At night there was a satsang and meditation in the Salle Wagram, near the Champs Elysées. There, Sri Sri spoke a few words in French, “Bonsoir, comment allez-vous?” (Goodnight, how are you all) to an ecstatic crowd of 2,000 people and promised, “I will come back.”
François Gautier, a former international correspondent for Le Figaro, is the correspondent in India for the French magazine Valeurs Actuelles. His book In Defence of a Billion Hindus (Har Anand) is to be published soon