Vedic Woodstock: Celebration not Dissipation
by Sandhya Jain on 22 Mar 2016 24 Comments

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? 

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top