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By Maureen O'Connell
Advertiser Staff Writer
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living Foundation and an internationally known "guru of joy," prefers to talk about spirituality rather than religion.
He describes the foundation, which he started in the early 1980s, as a "spiritual walk uniting people of all faiths and traditions" through a form of meditation that aims to relieve stress and prevent violence.
"Our vision is to have a violence-free and stress-free society," Shankar said earlier this week in a phone interview from Bali, where he was conducting a meditation program for participants from 20 countries.
Next week, Honolulu will be the first stop on his 12-city tour of the United States and Canada, hosted by the Art of Living Foundation, when he gives a talk Friday at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i.
Shankar said the message will be somewhat impromptu — inspired by his visit here — wrapped around general themes of peace and empowerment.
The message will also likely touch on the humanitarian efforts of the International Association for Human Values, co-founded by Shankar and the Dalai Lama. Its grassroots-based outreach programs range from disaster and trauma relief in Haiti in the aftermath of January's earthquake to prisoner rehabilitation efforts in Hawai'i.
Shankar described the efforts as interfaith pursuits that see "the world as one family — all living together in harmony and one feeling of belonging."
Citing Shankar's ability to "cut across religious lines" and offer a "tool to deal with urban angst," Forbes magazine recently named him among the five most powerful people in India.
He has also been referred to as the "guru of joy," the subject of a 2002 book by Francois Gautier, "The Guru of Joy: Sri Sri Ravi Shankar & the Art of Living" (published in 2008 by Hay House in the U.S.).
Born in 1956 in southern India, he began study of the Hindu Vedas at age 6, under Pandit Sudhakar Chaturvedi, a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi.
As a young man, Shankar worked with spiritual teachers such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the leader of the Transcendental Meditation movement and the "Beatles' guru," who influenced the band from Liverpool and other celebrities.
At age 25, during a period of silence, Shankar put together Sudarshan Kriya, a yoga-inspired breathing technique that would become the core of the Art of Living Foundation's meditation practice.
The foundation, established in Bangalore, India, is now reportedly one of the world's largest volunteer-based humanitarian and educational non-governmental organizations. In 1996, it was accredited as a United Nations NGO.
A year later, the International Association for Human Values launched its self-awareness, educational and outreach programs. Its three-stage disaster and trauma relief program — material relief, trauma relief and longterm rehabilitation — has provided food, medical care, vocational training and construction of schools, homes and training centers following disasters, including Indonesian floods in 2002, the south Asia tsunami in 2004, the Kashmir earthquake in 2005 and the Sichuan earthquake of 2008.
Art of Living programs were first established in Hawai'i in 1993. Since then, more than 1,000 people in the Islands have participated in courses that teach Sudarshan Kriya breathing, which strives for reduction in stress levels, clearer thinking and more even emotions.
In addition to workshops, the Hawai'i Art of Living chapter teaches breathing techniques in the Hawai'i prison system and is developing meditation training programs for Hawai'i hotel employees and administrators.
"Yoga and mediation originate from the Hindu tradition but they are universal in their approach," Shankar said.
While "they do not restrict you to any particular religion or faith," they "give you a spiritual uplift and mental well-being."
He continued, if you have a particular faith, "with your faith, you follow."