Vedic Woodstock - Celebration not Dissipation

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The  sheer scale of The Art of Living’s World Cultural Festival on the  floodplains of the Yamuna in Delhi evokes comparisons with New York’s  Woodstock (1969) that drew nearly four lakh people for an exposition  of ‘Three Days of Peace & Music’. Woodstock is revered as the  most iconic moment in the history of Western popular music, the high  noon of Rock and Roll and the counter-culture generation that has  been commemorated in films, music and songs.

It  was an epoch-making event. The artists and bands who performed  included the legendary Jimi Hendrix; Johnny Winter; Carlos Santana;  Credence Clearwater Revival; Joe Cocker; The Grateful Dead; The  Jefferson Airplane; Arlo Guthrie; Joan Baez; Janis Joplin; Crosby,  Stills, Nash & Young; Ten Years After; The Who - the cream of the  1960s music world. Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar was there; he called it  a “terrifying experience”.

Swami  Satchidananda delivered an invocation extolling the concert as a holy  gathering. Glenn Weiser (Woodstock  1969 Remembered)  recalls, “I listened to him and thought that it was bullshit. This  was going to be a huge drug party, pure and simple, and to masquerade  it as a spiritual gathering seemed phony to me. I had been reading up  on Yoga and Zen, and I knew the difference between the austere  contemplative traditions of the East and what Woodstock was shaping  up to be”.

Drugs  and alcohol flowed throughout; brotherhood and love enveloped the  gathering; many became medical cases. Though the participants arrived  pre-loaded with drugs (which takes some planning), much of the  ‘grass’, hashish and alcohol was free. Some couples reportedly  had sex in the open.

Since  then, Woodstock is associated in public memory with drugs, sex, and  music. Ryan Kent (Lehigh University, Class of 2003) admits that “acid  tents” had to be set up for the thousands needing medical treatment  for tripping on acid, smoking opium, snorting cocaine, using  psychedelic mushrooms, and much more. Drugs united the young wanting  to change a culture viewed as too conservative and corrupt; they  opposed the Vietnam War and racial inequality.

In  the end it achieved nothing. The Vietnam War was ended by President  Richard Nixon for pragmatic reasons. Drugs remain an American social  evil, like guns, and racial tensions today are at an all-time high.  The US Army had to airlift food, medical teams and performers to keep  Woodstock going and there is no saying how much “official”  patronage it actually enjoyed.

Woodstock  received undeserved (and questionable) adulation from the American  media, which highlighted the peaceful nature of the event and  concealed the sex, drugs and alcohol orgies. Even the movie, Woodstock,  glossed over this aspect, thus misleading youth to join the so-called  revolution whose deleterious legacy blights American society to this  day.

Contrast  the Indian extravaganza. A similar number of people (four lakh),  including guests from 155 countries, attended Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s  “Kumbh Mela of culture” to commemorate the 35th anniversary of  The Art of Living (AoL). Around 36,000 artistes from around the world  performed before an enchanted audience on possibly the world’s  largest stage, even as the event was beamed live to millions across  the nation and the world. There was chanting of Vedic mantras and  some contemplation, but mostly it was brilliant theatre as musicians  played in perfect harmony and hundreds of dancers pirouetted in  perfect unison. It was an impeccable choreography of spiritual  exuberance. No one took ‘time out’ for drugs, alcohol, sex.

Yet  the event was dogged by media hostility and killjoy activists  determined to scuttle it till almost the last moment when the  National Green Tribunal (NGT) finally stopped supporting what  increasingly stank of anti-Hindu prejudice. The AoL had planned the  programme for months and secured permissions from different agencies.  Yet when physical preparations were in full swing, and foreign  dignitaries had confirmed participation, activists began urging the  NGT to cancel the function on grounds that it was being held in an  ecologically-sensitive zone, ignoring the Akshardham temple,  Commonwealth Games Village, a DTC bus depot and a Delhi Metro station  on the floodplains.

The  NGT could have waited for the function to be over before assessing  the real (irreparable) damage, if any. Instead, it stoked the  controversy by imposing arbitrary fines with unrealistic deadlines,  until someone doubtless intervened and made it see reason. The hue  and cry failed to deter most dignitaries though Zimbabwe’s  President Robert Mugabe left, feeling security was inadequate.  Unfortunately, President Pranab Mukherjee succumbed to the raised  decibels and declined to attend, making the Cassandras optimistic  that they could abort the event.

Yet,  there was deafening silence in 2006 when Greek composer and musician,  Yanni, performed on the drying riverbed at Agra, with the Taj Mahal  as backdrop. The dignitaries who attended were mainly from the  Congress and then, too, the Army was roped in to build pontoon  bridges for the safety of the crowds.

Prime  Minister Narendra Modi, possibly a key factor behind this grand  showcasing of India’s cultural-spiritual continuum, rightly  chastised the negationists, “If we keep criticising ourselves, why  would the world look at us”. Certainly the event matched Mr Modi’s  style of wearing India’s ‘Hindu culture’ lightly on his sleeve,  in contrast to the secular appropriation of culture as mere  performing arts without spiritual content.

In  the week since the festival ended, AoL volunteers and contractors  have been busy cleaning the venue and disposing the garbage in  designated landfills or sewage treatment plants. One does not know  who is assessing the ecological damage, but no rational explanation  been offered for the Rs 5-crore penalty. Since AoL is cleaning up,  does it still have to pay the fine? Must it create a biodiversity  park on the floodplains, and is that ecologically desirable? How will  farmers who have traditionally been growing crops on this land react?  Clearly the NGT has not thought these issues through.

There  remains the larger question of the Yamuna. Three Yamuna Action Plans  have come and gone with nothing to show and zero accountability  regarding fund utilisation. The AoL asked its volunteers to prepare  an enzyme (kitchen waste and jiggery fermented for three months) in  huge quantities and pour this into the river at one spot, to reduce  its alkanity and improve its oxygen levels. Strangely, the NGT told  the organisers not to pour the enzyme, but they had probably already  done so. This raises the question – is the NGT equipped to serve  the cause of the environment?

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