Thursday, December 24, 2009

Daivi Leadership

The Daivi Leadership model is based on the daivi sampad discussed in the sixteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita. It is also based on the life of Krishna as a leader and on his teachings. Besides these, in developing the Daivi model of leadership, I have used insights from the wisdom of the Vedas and the Upanishads as well as from Indian leadership philosophy as discussed in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Arthashastra, Tirukkural and other ancient Indian literary works. The Daivi model of leadership is a contrast to the Asuri model of leadership, which I have developed from the asuri sampad as discussed by the Bhagavad Gita and leadership thoughts in the texts mentioned above. These two twin leadership models form the extreme ends of a continuum, the Daivi Leadership being the best and the Asuri Leadership being the worst. In the ultimate analysis, Daivi Leadership focuses on light that ennobles the life of all people involved, whereas Asuri Leadership focuses on power for its practitioners, utilized for dominating others and creating wealth through exploitation. Eventually however, Asuri Leadership leads to all-round misery.

I have been teaching both the Daivi Leadership model and the Asuri Leadership model for the last couple of years at XLRI School of Business and Human Resources, Jamshedpur. These models are taught in detail as part of my course in Indian Philosophy for Leadership Excellence. What follows is a brief summary of the Daivi Leadership model.

The Bhagavad Gita lists daivi sampad as fearlessness, purity of heart, generosity, sacrifice, compassion, absence of covetousness, vigour, fortitude, etc. Asuri Sampad is described as hypocrisy, arrogance, self-conceit, anger, harshness, ignorance, etc.

As other types of leaders have, the Daivi Leader too has a powerful vision and mission, which in the case of the daivi leader is a noble one. He is passionate about his mission and his commitment to his mission is total. The Daivi Leader shows the willingness to sacrifice his name and his life itself at the altar of his cause.

While the Daivi Leader is highly moral, his morality is often different from that of the society to which he belongs because he functions from a higher moral plane. He also raises his followers too to a higher moral plane, as the transformational leader does.

The Daivi Leader shows the same deep commitment to his followers as he shows to his mission and never abandons them. He treats their needs as their needs and their problems as his problems. He sees his happiness in their happiness, his success in their success. He considers as good not what pleases him but what is good for his followers and sees their welfare as his welfare. His care for his people is that of a pregnant woman to the child in her womb. Just as she constantly thinks about that child and lives for it and does nothing that will harm it even if she loves to do it for herself, he too lives for his followers and does nothing that will harm them.

The Daivi Leader has all the qualities that the Bhagavad Gita lists as daivi sampad and suffers from none of the evil qualities the Gita speaks of as asuri sampad. He is highly autonomous and has both great strength and vulnerability. He does not believe in hiding behind masks or playing helpless but accepts himself as he is.

In spite of problems facing him, the Daivi Leader retains his self-mastery. This helps him in retaining his serenity, which is a basic requirement for clear perceptions, unerring intuitions and right decision making. He has the energy and freshness of youth, has the quality of flowing, is childlike and is highly creative. Because of his originality and creativity, he is an expert in thinking outside the box.

For the Daivi Leader, his mission comes before his ego. For this reason, he is willing to accept injuries to his ego in the process of achieving his mission. He is also willing to serve, without occupying positions of authority, as the servant leader does. He can let go of things, which makes him very flexible where required. Because of his flexibility, he knows when to be firm and when to yield. He knows when to assert himself and when to gracefully surrender in the interest of his mission. Though he is generally gentle with people because of his sensitivity, he can also be tough if the situation requires it.

While being passionately in love with the world and life, the Daivi Leader also knows how to withdraw into himself and remain contented in the solitude of his inner sanctuary.

He is interested in what the Upanishads call preyas – immediate satisfaction, short term goals – but never loses sight of shreyas – long term good, which is his real interest. In the same way he is interested in both abhyudaya and nisshreyasa – prosperity in the material sense and prosperity in the spiritual sense. He sees life as a sacred yajna, a holy sacrifice, and looks upon his leadership too as such. He has both the passion of a devotee and his humility. In work he is a karma yogi.

The Daivi Leader trusts people and in their essential goodness. Because of his trust for people, he creates an atmosphere of trust in his organization. The Daivi Leader’s presence is that of a sattvic person – unlike the tamasic person who sucks up your energy and leaves you drained, and unlike the rajasic person who both energises you and makes you restless, the Daivi Leader energises you and at the same time help you reach your inner serenity. Like Krishna in the Mahabharata, at his highest level, he is gunatita, beyond all the three gunas.

Nyasa – the sense of detachment and renunciation – is part of the Daivi Leader’s attitude towards people and life. While he passionately cares for his people and is intensely concerned about them, he is not carried away by his care and concern. He is able to detach himself from them and is able to look at them objectively and make clear assessment of them and their situations.

The Daivi Leader is motivated more by the need to give than by the need to get. He is not driven by deficiency motivation. At the organizational and at the personal level, he has the three purusharthas of dharma, artha and kama – virtue, wealth and pleasures – balanced.

Speaking of the effectiveness of Daivi Leadership, ancient India had achieved great economic, cultural, educational, ethical, philosophical and spiritual heights and high standards of living for its people. This was possible because of the Daivi Leadership it practiced.


Friday, December 11, 2009


I was reading Romain Rolland’s Life of Sri Ramakrishna this morning when I came across this fascinating incident from the life of the great master. The incident involves Sri Ramakrishna’s guru Tota Puri coming under the influence of Maya and the the sage of Dakshineshwar, the disciple, laughing at it with the merriment of a child.

Tota Puri, the naked saint, as everyone familiar with the life of Sri Ramakrishna knows, is one of the two teachers of the saint of Dakhineshwar, the other being Bhairavi Brahmani. While the Brahmani’s instructions to Sri Ramakrishna were mostly in tantric spiritual practices, Tota Puri was the master’s teacher in Advaita.

Speaking about Tota Puri, Ramain Rolland says: “Towards the end of 1864 just at the moment when Ramakrishna had achieved his conquest of the personal God, the messenger of the impersonal God, ignorant as yet of his mission, arrived at Dakshineshwar. This was Tota Puri – an extraordinary Vedantic ascetic, a wandering monk, who had reached the ultimate revelation after forty years of preparation – a liberated soul, whose impersonal gaze looked upon the phantom of this world with complete indifference.”

Sri Ramakrishna is then twenty-eight years old. When Tota Puri sees him first, Sri Ramakrishna is seated on one of the steps of the temple at Dakshineshwar, lost in the ecstasy of a vision. Tota Puri tells him, “My son, I see that you have already travelled far along the way of truth. If you so wish it, I can help you reach the next stage, I will teach you Vedanta.”

Sri Ramakrishna answers that he must first seek the permission of the Divine Mother [Kali] and can accept his guidance only if the Mother permits it. He runs to the temple and comes back in a short while – yes, she has given him her permission. Ramakrishna becomes Tota Puri’s disciple.

Tota Puri was a wandering monk who had taken the vow of never staying at one place for more than three days. But fascinated by his extraordinary disciple, he breaks his vow and stays at Dakshineshwar for eleven months, instructing Sri Ramakrishna in the highest spiritual practices.

Speaking about the final stage of his sadhanas, the master says: “Nangta Baba [the naked saint, Tota Puri] taught me to detach my mind from all objects and to plunge it into the heart of the Atman. But despite all my efforts, I could not cross the realm of name and form and lead my spirit to the Unconditional state. I had no difficulty in detaching my mind from all objects with the one exception of the form of the radiant Mother [Kali], the essence of pure knowledge, who appeared before me as a living reality. She barred the say to the beyond. I tried on several occasions to concentrate my mind on the precepts of Advaita Vedanta, but each time the form of the Mother intervened. I said to Nangta Baba in despair: ‘It is no good. I shall never succeed in lifting my spirit to the “unconditioned” state and find myself face to face with the Atman.’ He replied severely, ‘What! You say you cannot? You must!’ Looking about him, he found a piece of glass. He took it and stuck the point between my eyes, saying: “Concentrate your point on that point.” Then I began to meditate with all my might, and as soon as the gracious form of the Divine Mother appeared, I used my discrimination as a sword, and I clove Her in two. The last barrier fell and my spirit immediately precipitated itself beyond the plane of the ‘conditioned”, and I lost myself in Samadhi.’

Sri Ramakrishna thus reaches the highest peaks of spirituality under the guidance of Tota Puri.

Something extraordinarily fascinating happens on a subsequent occasion.

The Nangta Baba was contemptuous of all rituals, prayers, hymns, dances and so on and he expressed his contempt openly. But over time, the beauty of Sri Ramakrishna and of his prayers and rituals began working their charm on Tota Puri. Certain hymns sung in his melodious voice moved Tota Puri so that hidden tears came into his eyes. The man who had scornfully rejected all emotions had now begun to come under their influence.

Let me quote Rolland here, “There are contradictions, often unobserved by their owners, even in the strongest minds. This scorner of cults had the weakness to adore a symbol in the shape of fire: for he always kept a lighted one near him. One day a servant came to remove some brands, and Tota Puri protested against such disrespect. Ramakrishna laughed, as only he knew how to laugh, with the gaiety of a child. ‘Look, look,’ he cried: ‘You also have succumbed to the irresistible power of Maya!’


That is Maya.

One of the definitions of Maya is ‘the power that makes the impossible possible.’ Even the greatest masters become subject to her unawares. That is the reason why the Adhyatma Upanishad says:

yathāpakrshtam śaivālam kshanamātram na tishthati |
avrnoti tathā māyā prajnām vāpi parāngmukhām || Adhyatma Up 15||

“Just as the moss in a tank momentarily displaced resumes again its original position in a minute, so too Maya envelops even the wise, should they be careless even for a moment.”

Here is a beautiful story told by our Pauranic lore.

Sage Narada is walking across a vast desert with God as his companion. The silence between them is broken by a question Narada asks, "Tell me Bhagavan, what is the secret of Maya?"

God smiles and makes no reply. They continue their walk.

After a while God tells Narada, "The sun is hot today, and I am thirsty. Ahead you will find a village. Go there and fetch me some water."

Narada sets off. Arriving at the village, he approaches the first house he sees and knocks at the door. A beautiful young woman answers. The moment the sage looks into her eyes he forgets why he has come there.

The woman ushers Narada into the house, where he is warmly welcomed by her family. It is as if everyone in this gentle household has been expecting him. The sage is asked to eat with the family, and then to stay the night, which Narada accepts gladly, enjoying the family's warm hospitality and secretly marveling at the young woman's loveliness.

A week goes by, then two. Sage decides to stay on, and he soon begins to share in the household chores. And then one day, unable to resist the temptation any more, Narada asks for the woman's hand in marriage. The family has been expecting this, it turns out. Everyone is overjoyed.

The sage and his young wife settle down in her family's house, where she soon bears him three children – two sons and a daughter.

Years pass. When his wife's mother and father pass away, the sage takes over as head of the household. He opens a small shop in the village and it prospers. Before long he is an honored citizen of the community. Giving himself up to the age-old joys and sorrows of village life, Narada lives there contentedly for many years.

Then one night during the monsoon season a violent storm breaks overhead, and the river rises so high from the sudden rains that the village begins to flood. Narada gathers his family and leads them through the dark night toward higher ground. But the winds blow so violently and the rain pelts down with such force that one of his sons is washed away by the torrent.

Narada reaches for the boy, and in so doing lets go of his second son. A moment later a gale tears his daughter from his arms. Then his beloved wife is washed away into the roaring darkness.

The sage wails helplessly and claws at the sky. But his cries are drowned by a towering wave that rises from the depths of the terrible night and washes him headlong into the river.

Everything goes black. Hours pass. Slowly, painfully, Narada comes to his senses, only to discover that he has been washed onto a sandbank far down the river. It is daytime now, and the storm has passed. But there is no sign of his family anywhere, nor, for that matter, of any living creature.

For a long time the sage remains lying on the sand almost mad with grief. Bits of wreckage float past him in the river. The smell of death is on the wind.

Everything has been taken from him now; everything has disappeared into the swirling waters. There is little to do, it seems, but weep.

Then, suddenly, the sage hears a voice behind him that makes the blood stop in his veins. "Narada," the voice asks, "where is the water you went to fetch?" The sage turns and sees God standing at his side. The river has vanished, and once again he and God are alone in the empty desert. "Where is my water?" God asks again. "I have been waiting for you to bring it now for several minutes."

The sage throws himself at the Lord's feet and begs for forgiveness. "I forgot!" Narada cries again and again. “I forgot what you asked of me, God! Forgive me!”

God smiles and asks, "Do you now understand the power of Maya, Narada?”


That’s the power of Maya. Even great sages like Narada and Tota Puri are subject to her.

Is there no way out then?

Yes, say the great masters. Surrender to her, accept her as the Divine Mother, as the mother of the universe, and live your life as a celebration of her lila.

Not blinded by that lila, but with your eyes open.


Romain Rolland: The Way of the East, The Way of the West

Reading The Life of Ramakrishna by Romain Rolland this morning, I came across a beautiful passage which I felt I should share with my readers. For those who are not familiar with Romain Rolland, he is a Frenchman and a Nobel Prize winner for literature, whose magnum opus is the giant Jean Christophe, acknowledged as one of the greatest works of modern literature. Rolland’s original book on Sri Ramakrishna is in French and what is given below is from an English translation by E. F. Malcolm-Smith, Ph.D.


“The age-long history of the spirit of India is the history of a countless throng marching ever to the conquest of supreme Reality. All the great peoples of the world, wittingly or unwittingly, have the same fundamental aim; they belong to the conquerors, who age by age go up to assault the Reality of which they form a part, and which lures them on the strive and climb; sometimes they fall out exhausted, then with recovered breath they mount undaunted until they have conquered or been overcome. But each one does not see the same face of Reality. It is like a great fortified city, beleaguered on different sides by different armies, who are not in alliance. Each army has its own tactics and weapons to solve its own problems of attack and assault. Our western races storm the bastions, the outer works. They desire to overcome the physical forces of Nature, to make her laws their own, so that they may construct weapons therefrom for gaining the inner citadel, and forcing the whole fortress to capitulate.

“India proceeds along different lines. She goes straight to the centre, to the Commander-in-Chief of the unseen General Headquarters, for the Reality she seeks is transcendental. But let us be careful not to put Western ‘realism’ in opposition to Indian ‘idealism’. Both are ‘realisms’. Indians are essentially realists in that they are not easily contented with abstractions, and that they attain their deal by the self-chosen means of enjoyment and sensual possession. They must see, hear, taste, and touch ideas. Both in sensual richness and in their extraordinary imaginative power they are far in advance of the west.

“How then can we reject their evidence in the name of Western reason? Reason, in our eyes, is an impersonal and objective path open to all men. But is reason really objective? To what degree is it true in particular instances? Has it no personal limits? Again, has it been carefully noted that the ‘realizations’ of the Hindu mind, which seem to us ultra-subjective, are nothing of the kind in India, where they are the logical result of scientific methods and of careful experiment, tested throughout the centuries and duly recorded? Each great religious visionary is able to show his disciples the way by which without a shadow of doubt they too may attain the slave visions. Surely both methods, the Eastern and the Western, merit an almost equal measure of scientific doubt and provisional trust.”


What Romain Rolland says is no more than the truth. Yet it is fascinating to watch a man like Romain Rolland seeing so clearly this truth about Indian that vast sections of us Indians miss ourselves.

To appreciate fully the magnitude of Rolland’s perception, we must remember that his words were written when India was a slave nation to the West, a colony of the British. It indeed needs great perceptiveness on the part of a Westerner to see this and great courage to say this about a slave nation.


Weakness and Strength

Sometimes your biggest weakness can become your biggest strength. Take, for example, the story of one 10-year-old boy who decided to study judo despite the fact that he had lost his left arm in a devastating car accident.

The boy began lessons with an old Japanese judo master. The boy was doing well, so he couldn’t understand why, after three months of training the master had taught him only one move. “Sensei,” the boy finally said, “Shouldn’t I be learning more moves?” “This is the only move you know, but this is the only move you’ll ever need to know,” the sensei replied.
Not quite understanding, but believing in his teacher, the boy kept training.

Several months later, the sensei took the boy to his first tournament. Surprising himself, the boy easily won his first two matches. The third match proved to be more difficult, but after some time, his opponent became impatient and charged; the boy deftly used his one move to win the match. Still amazed by his success, the boy was now in the finals.

This time, his opponent was bigger, stronger, and more experienced. For a while, the boy appeared to be overmatched. Concerned that the boy might get hurt, the referee called a time-out. He was about to stop the match when the sensei intervened. “No,” the sensei insisted, “Let him continue.”

Soon after the match resumed, his opponent made a critical mistake: he dropped his guard. Instantly, the boy used his move to pin him. The boy had won the match and the tournament. He was the champion.

On the way home, the boy and sensei reviewed every move in each and every match. Then the boy summoned the courage to ask what was really on his mind.

“Sensei, how did I win the tournament with only one move?” “You won for two reasons,” the sensei answered. “First, you’ve almost mastered one of the most difficult throws in all of judo. And second, the only known defence for that move is for your opponent to grip your left arm.”

The boy’s biggest weakness had become his biggest strength.


One Glass of Milk

One day, a poor boy who was selling goods from door to door to pay his way through school, found he had only one thin dime left, and he was hungry. He decided he would ask for a meal at the next house.

However, he lost his nerve when a lovely young woman opened the door. Instead of a meal he asked for a drink of water. She thought he looked hungry so brought him a large glass of milk. He drank it slowly, and then asked, “How much do I owe you?” “You don’t owe me anything,” she replied. “Mother has taught us never to accept pay for a kindness.” He said...”Then I thank you from my heart.”

As Howard Kelly left that house, he not only felt stronger physically, but his faith in God and man was strong also. He had been ready to give up and quit.

Years later that young woman became critically ill. The local doctors were baffled. They finally sent her to the big city, where they called in specialists to study her rare disease. Dr. Howard Kelly was called in for the consultation. When he heard the name of the town she came from, a strange light filled his eyes. Immediately he rose and went down the hall of the hospital to her room. Dressed in his doctor’s gown he went in to see her. He recognized her at once. He went back to the consultation room determined to do his best to save her life.

From that day he gave special attention to the case. After a long struggle, the battle was won. Dr. Kelly requested the business office to pass the final bill to him for approval. He looked at it, and then wrote something on the edge and the bill was sent to her room. She feared to open it, for she was sure it would take the rest of her life to pay for it all. Finally she looked, and something caught her attention on the side of the bill. She read these words... “Paid in full with one glass of milk.”



An article in National Geographic several years ago provided a penetrating picture. After a forest fire in Yellowstone National Park, forest rangers began their trek up a mountain to assess the inferno’s damage. One ranger found a bird literally petrified in ashes, perched statuesquely on the ground at the base of a tree. Somewhat sickened by the eerie sight, he knocked over the bird with a stick. When he struck it, three tiny chicks scurried from under their dead mother’s wings. The loving mother, keenly aware of impending disaster, had carried her offspring to the base of the tree and had gathered them under her wings, instinctively knowing that the toxic smoke would rise. She could have flown to safety but had refused to abandon her babies. When the blaze had arrived and the heat had singed her small body, the mother had remained steadfast. Because she had been willing to die, those under the cover of her wings had lived.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


Here is a story by an unknown author that I have loved dearly ever since I first read it some years ago.


As I walked home one freezing day, I stumbled on a wallet someone had lost in the street. I picked it up and looked inside to find some identification so I could call the owner. But the wallet contained only three dollars and a crumpled letter that looked as if it had been in there for years.

The envelope was worn and the only thing that was legible on it was the return address. I started to open the letter, hoping to find some clue. Then I saw the dateline--1924. The letter had been written almost sixty years ago. It was written in a beautiful feminine handwriting on powder blue stationery with a little flower in the left-hand corner. It was a "Dear John" letter that told the recipient, whose name appeared to be Michael, that the writer could not see him anymore because her mother forbade it. Even so, she wrote that she would always love him. It was signed, Hannah. It was a beautiful letter, but there was no way except for the name Michael, that the owner could be identified. Maybe if I called information, the operator could find a phone listing for the address on the envelope.

"Operator," I began, "this is an unusual request. I'm trying to find the owner of a wallet that I found. Is there any way you can tell me if there is a phone number for an address that was on an envelope in the wallet?"

She suggested I speak with her supervisor, who hesitated for a moment then said, "Well, there is a phone listing at that address, but I can't give you the number." She said, as a courtesy, she would call that number, explain my story and would ask them if they wanted her to connect me. I waited a few minutes and then she was back on the line. "I have a party who will speak with you."

I asked the woman on the other end of the line if she knew anyone by the name of Hannah. She gasped, "Oh! We bought this house from a family who had a daughter named Hannah. But that was 30 years ago!" "Would you know where that family could be located now?" I asked.

"I remember that Hannah had to place her mother in a nursing home some years ago," the woman said. "Maybe if you got in touch with them they might be able to track down the daughter." She gave me the name of the nursing home and I called the number.

They told me the old lady had passed away some years ago but they did have a phone number for where they thought the daughter might be living. I thanked them and phoned. The woman who answered explained that Hannah herself was now living in a nursing home.

This whole thing was stupid, I thought to myself. Why was I making such a big deal over finding the owner of a wallet that had only three dollars and a letter that was almost 60 years old? Nevertheless, I called the nursing home in which Hannah was supposed to be living and the man who answered the phone told me, "Yes, Hannah is staying with us.”

Even though it was already 10pm, I asked if I could come by to see her. "Well," he said hesitatingly, "if you want to take a chance, she might be in the day room watching television."

I thanked him and drove over to the nursing home. The night nurse and a guard greeted me at the door. We went up to the third floor of the large building. In the day room, the nurse introduced me to Hannah. She was a sweet, silver-haired old timer with a warm smile and a twinkle in her eye. I told her about finding the wallet and showed her the letter.

The second she saw the powder blue envelope with that little flower on the left, she took a deep breath and said, "Young man, this letter was the last contact I ever had with Michael." She looked away for a moment deep in thought and then said softly, "I loved him very much. But I was only 16 at the time and my mother felt I was too young. Oh, he was so handsome. He looked like Sean Connery, the actor."

"Yes," she continued. "Michael Goldstein was a wonderful person. If you should find him, tell him I think of him often. And," she hesitated for a moment, almost biting her lip, "tell him I still love him. You know," she said smiling as tears began to well up in her eyes, "I never did marry. I guess no one ever matched up to Michael..."

I thanked Hannah and said goodbye. I took the elevator to the first floor and as I stood by the door, the guard there asked, "Was the old lady able to help you?" I told him she had given me a lead. "At least I have a last name. But I think I'll let it go for a while. I spent almost the whole day trying to find the owner of this wallet."

I had taken out the wallet, which was a simple brown leather case with red lacing on the side. When the guard saw it, he said, "Hey, wait a minute! That's Mr. Goldstein's wallet. I'd know it anywhere with that bright red lacing. He's always losing that wallet. I must have found it in the halls at least three times."

"Who's Mr. Goldstein?" I asked as my hand began to shake.

"He's one of the old timers on the 8th floor. That's Mike Goldstein's wallet for sure. He must have lost it on one of his walks." I thanked the guard and quickly ran back to the nurse's office. I told her what the guard had said. We went back to the elevator and got on.

I prayed that Mr. Goldstein would be up. On the eighth floor, the floor nurse said, "I think he's still in the day room. He likes to read at night. He's a darling old man."

We went to the only room that had any lights on and there was a man reading a book. The nurse went over to him and asked if he had lost his wallet. Mr. Goldstein looked up with surprise, put his hand in his back pocket and said, "Oh, it is missing!"

This kind gentleman found a wallet and we wondered if it could be yours?" I handed Mr. Goldstein the wallet and the second he saw it, he smiled with relief and said, "Yes, that's it! It must have dropped out of my pocket this afternoon. I want to give you a reward."

"No, thank you," I said. "But I have to tell you something. I read the letter in the hope of finding out who owned the wallet." The smile on his face suddenly disappeared. "You read that letter?"

"Not only did I read it, I think I know where Hannah is." He suddenly grew pale. "Hannah? You know where she is? How is she? Is she still as pretty as she was? Please, please tell me," he begged.

"She's fine...just as pretty as when you knew her." I said softly. The old man smiled with anticipation and asked, "Could you tell me where she is? I want to call her tomorrow." He grabbed my hand and said, "You know something, mister, I was so in love with that girl that when that letter came, my life literally ended. I never married. I guess I've always loved her. "

"Mr. Goldstein," I said, "Come with me." We took the elevator down to the third floor. The hallways were darkened and only one or two little night-lights lit our way to the day room where Hannah was sitting alone watching the television. The nurse walked over to her.

"Hannah," she said softly, pointing to Michael, who was waiting with me in the doorway. "Do you know this man?" She adjusted her glasses, looked for a moment, but didn't say a word. Michael said softly, almost in a whisper, "Hannah, it's Michael. Do you remember me?"

She gasped, "Michael! I don't believe it! Michael! It's you! My Michael!" He walked slowly towards her and they embraced. The nurse and I left with tears streaming down our faces. "See," I said. "See how the Good Lord works! If it's meant to be, it will be."

About three weeks later I got a call at my office from the nursing home. "Can you break away on Sunday to attend a wedding? Michael and Hannah are going to tie the knot!"

It was a beautiful wedding with all the people at the nursing home dressed up to join in the celebration. Hannah wore a light beige dress and looked beautiful. Michael wore a dark blue suit and stood tall. They made me their best man. The hospital gave them their own room and if you ever wanted to see a 76-year-old bride and a 79-year-old groom acting like two teenagers, you had to see this couple.

A perfect ending for a love affair that had lasted nearly 60 years.


I had thought that I would post this story without any comment from my side, so beautiful is it. Yet I am tempted to say one or two things.

When the young man in the story meets Hanna in the nursing home, she has already lived a life of disappointed love for sixty years. Yet he finds her “with a warm smile and a twinkle in her eye.” I found that touching and beautiful – and inspiring.

Someone once said a profound truth: After thirty, you are responsible for your own face. True, the face we are born with is genetically inherited from our parents, but the face we live with after thirty is of our own making. Hannah has a warm smile and a twinkle in her eye because she has lived the last sixty years of her life in love in spite of her deep disappointment.

And that was her choice. She could have chosen to live in hatred and darkness all these years. Hatred for her mother who prevented her from marrying the man she wanted to marry and darkness born of the bitterness her mother’s decision caused. And could have ended up like Miss Havisham of Dickens’s Great Expectations or even worse.

Heaven and hell are both here and now, and not somewhere else, after death. And it is we who choose to make our life heaven or hell – Chitragupta who decides whether we should live in heaven or hell resides in our own heart.

Also, sometimes our greatest blessings come to us in the guise of misfortunes. Losing the wallet is a misfortune for an old man but it is that misfortune that opens the gates to his greatest joy. He finds his beloved whom he had lost sixty years ago and had never met again, never even knew was alive.

There is a Chinese story of a poor farmer whose only horse ran away. That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. "Your farm will suffer, and you cannot plow," they said. "Surely this is a terrible thing to have happened to you."

He said, "Maybe yes, maybe no."

The next day the horse returned but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came to congratulate him and exclaim at his good fortune. "You are richer than you were before!" they said. "Surely this has turned out to be a good thing for you, after all."

He said, "Maybe yes, maybe no."

And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses. He was thrown and broke his leg, and he couldn't work on the farm. Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the incident. "There is more work than only you can handle, and you may be driven poor," they said. "Surely this is a terrible misfortune."

The old farmer said, "Maybe yes, maybe no."

The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of his broken leg the farmer's son was rejected. When the neighbors came again, they said, "How fortunate! Things have worked out after all. Most young men never return alive from the war. Surely this is the best of fortunes for you!"

And the old man said, "Maybe yes, maybe no."

You never know, really.

I find it amazing that Michael and Hannah had been living in the same building, presumably for years, and yet neither of them knew of the existence of the other. Perhaps the miracle of his losing his purse and the young man finding it was needed to bring them together.

What a beautiful reward for the young man who took the trouble to look for the owner of the old wallet and return it!


The Power of Belief: 2

In his book Timeless Healing: the Power and Biology of Belief, Dr Herbert Benson, M.D., talks about a study made by Dr Stewart Wolf in 1950. The subjects of Dr Wolf’s study were women who experienced persistent nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. These women were administered a medicine and were told that the medicine would stop their vomiting. The medicine given to them was the syrup of ipecac, a substance that actually causes vomiting. It is a drug that is commonly used for inducing vomiting in case of food poisoning and so on. As a result of the medication, however, the women’s nausea and vomiting ceased. Because the women believed they were getting anti-nausea medicines, they reversed the powerful medicine. “Even though many of us stock our medicine cabinets and first aid kits with ipecac to bring about vomiting in case of poisoning,” says Dr Benson, “these pregnant women with documented stomach distress thwarted the action of a drug that should have made them even sicker. With beliefs alone, they cured themselves.”

Dr Benson discusses another similar study conducted in 1988 in London. “For three or four decades”, says Dr Benson, “dentists have used ultrasound frequencies transmitted through a small hand-held device called a transducer to massage to patient’s face after [dental] surgery to reduce pain and swelling and to hasten healing. But dentistry does not know of any physiologic reasons why this technique works.” In the study, some patients were given the ultrasound transducer facial massage by the doctor according to the usual practice. Another group was given a mock massage by the doctor, with the transducer kept at zero frequency. Both groups were assured prior to surgery that the use of the ultrasound would reduce postoperative pain and swelling. When the results were compared, both the groups were found to have 30 percent less swelling compared to the control group which was not given the massage.

Once again we see here the power of belief in action.

Just as beliefs can heal, beliefs can also cause diseases and death.

Voodoo and other forms of black magic are examples of belief causing death of people. Another physician, Dr Herbert Basedow reports a case of voodoo he witnessed among tribal Australians. Death happens because the witch doctor ritually points a bone at a man and the man believes he would die because his culture tells him that he would die when the witch doctor does this.

Here is the report from Dr Basedow:

“The man who discovers that he is being boned is, indeed a pitiable sight. He stands aghast, with his eyes staring at the treacherous pointer, and with his hand lifted as though to ward off the lethal medium, which he imagines is pouring into his body. His cheeks blanch and his eyes become glassy, and the expression of his face becomes horribly distorted ... He attempts to shriek but usually the sound chokes in his throat and all that one might see is froth at his mouth. His body begins to tremble and the muscles twist involuntarily. He sways backwards and falls to the ground, and after a short time appears to be in a swoon; but soon after he writhes as if in a moral agony, and covering his face with his hands, begins to moan . . . His death is only a matter of comparatively short time.”


Beliefs can be empowering or self-limiting.

Most leaders are empowered by their beliefs. They have enormous faith in themselves and their vision and mission.

Mahatma Gandhi was a leader who drew enormous power from his beliefs. In his Autobiography, Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of independent India and a leader of the freedom movement, discusses his own reaction, and the reaction of other national leaders, to Gandhi’s decision to go start the Salt Satyagraha.

Subsequent to the Lahore Congress and the decision to celebrate 26th January as the Independence Day of India, Gandhiji decided to begin nationwide Satyagraha again. He wanted to begin it by breaking the salt law, which Gandhi said was what made salt, which is an essential requirement for even the poorest of the poor, expensive. But for the law, he said, salt could be had either for free or at a nominal rate by everyone. It is the tax imposed by the British that made salt expensive. Such was the state of affairs in the country that because of its unaffordable price, many poor people were not in a position to use enough salt in their food. Gandhi believed that salt should be free, as air and water are – that is how God has created it. It is for this reason that Gandhi believed that there is no worse tax than the salt tax and if you explained to people breaking the salt law as the next step in satyagraha, the common man would easily understand it and so would the world.

However, apart from Nehru, hardly anyone in the top leadership of the freedom movement was in support of Gandhi. Those who did not agree with Gandhi included Rajendra Prasad himself. Prasad and others felt that the British government cannot be forced unless pressure was put on it and breaking something as simple as the salt law would not put any pressure on the government. Also, another objection was that breaking the salt law and making salt was okay with people living close to the sea – but how are the people in places like Bihar and UP, which have no beaches, to break the salt law? People who lived close to the sea were a minority in India and the majority of Indians lived away from the sea.

Rajendra Prasad and others argued that the idea of making salt freely from the sea without paying tax for it to anyone might inspire people like the Noniyas [Salt-makers, a community whose traditional profession is making salt], but it will not inspire the others. “Will the educated people be inspired by the idea of each one breaking the law and making salt?” they asked Gandhiji. Everyone requested Gandhiji to choose some other symbolic act for breaking the law because something like making salt would be a definite non-starter. Rajendra Prasad himself suggested that the best thing, at least for Bihar, would be breaking something like chowkidari tax, which everyone had to pay.

In spite of practically everyone disagreeing with him and opposing him, Gandhiji’s belief in his scheme remained unshakeable. And on the basis of his faith, the salt satyagraha began. As history tells us, the salt satyagraha caught the imagination of the nation and the world and was a total success. It moved the masses at all levels as nothing else that Gandhi and the Congress had done before.

There is another interesting side to this story, related to belief. Prasad who saw no chance of the salt satyagraha succeeding had, in spite of his seeing no chance for the satyagraha to succeed, complete faith in Gandhi and his beliefs. He had learnt, says Prasad in his Autobiography, that Gandhiji saw far beyond the perception of others like him and because of this, he had developed implicit faith in Gandhiji’s beliefs. On the strength of this faith, Prasad and others supported Gandhiji on the salt satyagraha, which eventually turned out of be the greatest success so far in the history of India’s freedom struggle.

The success of the Dandi March and the salt satyagraha is a testimony to one man’s faith in the impossible and the faith of the other people in one man’s ability to make the impossible possible.


The power of belief could be used in one’s favour, as Gandhiji did, or against one, as some of us do. Losers use the power of belief against themselves, and winners use it in their favour. Losers believe they are helpless and totally dependent on their environment and as a consequence they become helpless and totally dependent on their environment. Losers surrender to what they call fate or destiny, and avoid becoming responsible for their own lives. Losers are paralyzed by the fear of the unknown and refuse to try out new things. They become, as Born to Win, the Transactional Analysis classic by Muriel James and Dorothy Jongeward says, “repeaters, repeating not only their own mistakes, but often those of their families and culture as well.” Winners, instead, challenge self-limiting beliefs – their own, and those of their families and communities, and at times, of the entire world.

All leaders believe in the impossible and make the impossible possible through their belief. It is perhaps for this reason that great leaders appear God-like to us. One of the definitions of God in the Indian culture is the one who makes the impossible possible. He does this, says the Indian vision, through his power called Maya, which is defined as aghatita-ghatana-patiyasi - the power to make possible what has never happened before. In leaders we call this power charisma.

All great leaders know that the past does not equal the future. Past failures do not paralyse their wings. Or else they would be like the little bird that failed the first time it attempted flight and never flew again.


A Simple Touch

She was a young mother of three children, aged fourteen, twelve and three, and she was herself attending college. In her Sociology class, her professor gave the class an assignment – the last project of the term, a project called smile. The class was asked to go out and ‘smile’ at three people and document their reactions.

She herself was a very friendly person and always smiled at everyone and said hello. So she thought the project would be easy.

Soon after the project was assigned, she went to McDonald’s one crisp March morning along with her husband and her youngest son. That was an occasion for them to share special time with their son.

They were standing in line, waiting to be served, when all of a sudden everyone around us began to back away. Even her husband did. Overwhelmed by a feeling of panic, she turned to see why they had moved.

As she turned around, she smelled a horrible 'dirty body' smell. There, standing behind her, were two poor homeless men. As she looked down at the short man, close to her, she saw him smiling at her.

His beautiful sky blue eyes were full of light as he searched for acceptance. He said, 'Good Day' as he counted the few coins he had been clutching.

The second man fumbled with his hands as he stood behind his friend. She realized the second man was mentally challenged and the blue-eyed gentleman was his salvation. She held her tears as she stood there with them.

The young lady at the counter asked him what they wanted. He said, 'Coffee is all Miss' because that was all they could afford. (If they wanted to sit in the restaurant and warm up, they had to buy something. He just wanted to be warm).

Then she really felt it - the compulsion was so great she almost reached out and embraced the little man with the blue eyes.

That is when she noticed all eyes in the restaurant were set on her, judging her every action.

She smiled and asked the young lady behind the counter to give her two more breakfast meals on a separate tray. She then walked around the corner to the table that the men had chosen as a resting spot. She put the tray on the table and laid her hand on the blue-eyed man's cold hand.

He looked up at her, with tears in his eyes, and said, 'Thank you.' She leaned over, began to pat his hand and said, 'I did not do this for you. God is here working through me to give you hope.'

She started to cry as she walked away to join her husband and son. When she sat down, her husband smiled at her and said, 'That is why God gave you to me, Honey, to give me hope.' They held hands for a moment and at that time, they knew that only because of the Grace that they had been given were they able to give.

That day showed her the pure Light of God's sweet love.

She returned to college, on the last evening of class, with this story in hand. She turned in 'her project' and the instructor read it. Then she looked up at her and said, 'Can I share this?' She slowly nodded as the instructor got the attention of the class.

She began to read and that is when she, the young mother, knew that we as human beings and being part of God share this need to heal people and to be healed. In her own way she had touched those two men, the other people at McDonald's, her son, the instructor, and every soul that shared the classroom on the last night she spent as a college student.

She graduated with one of the biggest lessons she would ever learn: UNCONDITIONAL ACCEPTANCE.


All leadership is transformational leadership and all leaders are transformational leaders. For, if you cannot touch and transform people, you are not a leader at all.


How to Stop the Mad Mind

Here is something beautiful from Osho.

Osho: There is a Sufi story...

Junaid was going through the market-place of the town with his disciples. And it was his way to take any situation and use it. A man was dragging his cow by a rope, and Junaid said ’Wait’ to the man, and told his disciples ’Surround this man and the cow. I am going to teach you something.’

The man stopped – Junaid was a famous mystic – and he was also interested in what he was going to teach these disciples and how he was going to use him and the cow. And Junaid asked his disciples ’I ask you one thing: who is bound to whom? Is the cow bound to this man or is this man bound to this cow?’ Of course, the disciples said ’The cow is bound to the man. The man is the master, he is holding the rope, the cow has to follow him wherever he goes. He is the master and the cow is the slave.’

And Junaid said ’Now, see.’ He took out his scissors and cut the rope – and the cow escaped.

The man ran after the cow, and Junaid said ’Now look what is happening! Now you see who is the master; the cow is not interested at all in this man – in fact, she is escaping.’ And the man was very angry, he said ’What kind of experiment is this ?’ But Junaid said to his disciples ’And this is the case with your mind. All the nonsense that you are carrying inside is not interested in you. You are interested in it, you are keeping it together somehow – you are becoming mad in keeping it together somehow. But you are interested IN it. The moment you lose interest, the moment you understand the futility of it, it will start disappearing; like the cow it will escape.’

People come to me and ask ’How to stop this mad mind?’ I say ’There is no need to stop, all that is needed is that you become disinterested in it and the rope is cut.’ That is the meaning of sannyas: become disinterested in the mind. That is the meaning of real vairagya, detachment. It has nothing to do with renouncing the world, but it certainly has something to do with cutting the rope to the mind. Just become disinterested in the rubbish and slowly, slowly you will see a gap arising. The cloud that used to surround you always is getting farther and farther away and, one day, suddenly it is no more there.

And when you are left without mind, that is the state of spiritual perception, that is the state of darshan, that is the state when you can see, you have eyes; otherwise your eyes are so full of smoke you cannot see.

Source: "The Sun Rises in the Evening" - Osho

Maybe Yes, Maybe No

There is a story of a farmer whose only horse ran away. That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. "Your farm will suffer, and you cannot plow," they said. "Surely this is a terrible thing to have happened to you."

He said, "Maybe yes, maybe no."

The next day the horse returned but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came to congratulate him and exclaim at his good fortune. "You are richer than you were before!" they said. "Surely this has turned out to be a good thing for you, after all."

He said, "Maybe yes, maybe no."

And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses. He was thrown and broke his leg, and he couldn't work on the farm. Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the incident. "There is more work than only you can handle, and you may be driven poor," they said. "Surely this is a terrible misfortune."

The old farmer said, "Maybe yes, maybe no."

The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of his broken leg the farmer's son was rejected. When the neighbors came again, they said, "How fortunate! Things have worked out after all. Most young men never return alive from the war. Surely this is the best of fortunes for you!"

And the old man said, "Maybe yes, maybe no."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Power of Belief

It was on 4th July, 1991, while the U.S. was celebrating Independence Day, that Chittiravel, a Tamil speaking Sri Lankan, was arrested as a suspected LTTE supporter in his hometown and taken away by the Sri Lankan police.

When he was first taken to the camp, he was forced to enter a large water tank, in which he was questioned and repeatedly dunked under water throughout the night. Finally he was stabbed in the thigh and removed from the tank. Then his torturers packed the large knife wound with salt and chilli powder and tied his thigh tightly. He was hung from a beam during continuing interrogation while his torturers burned the skin of his legs in many places with cigarettes. They had been drinking and repeatedly demanded, ‘You tell the names of the Tigers.’ Later, while his legs and arms were chained, one of the men knocked out four upper front teeth with a single blow of his fist. He also sustained a large wound on the left side of his skull.”

Chittiravel’s woes do not end here, but only begin with these. His “thumbs were then tied together behind his back and he was hoisted high off the floor, hanging from the rafters. While suspended, he was severely beaten with a large akappai [a wooden utensil for stirring large pots of rice]. As the beatings continued for a long time, the rope frayed and he fell to the floor.

Chittiravel suffered bilateral hip fractures. In the course of continuing years of detention, scarring of the fractured hip joints, which never healed properly, resulted in a chronically frozen pelvic girdle. After six months, Chittiravel was transferred several times, and in the third year of incarceration, he was released from a fifth place of imprisonment.”

Years ago, like many other devotees of Veeramma Kali [Mother Kali in the heroic form], the presiding deity of his hometown, he had taken a vow to walk on burning coals every year, firewalk being a fairly common vow that devotees of the Mother Goddess took wherever Tamil people are to be found. He had done it several years successively before his arrest. However, the bilateral fractures of both hips he had suffered as a result of the tortures in the detention camps had resulted in a permanently frozen pelvic girdle, crippling him for life. Chittiravel could not walk now – he could only move sideways, stretching out one leg at a time, and that too with great pain and discomfort. But this did not stop him from keeping up with his vow and performing a feat the very thought of which scares most of us.

Remember when we are talking of firewalking, we are not talking of a man quickly running over a tiny bed of dying or dead embers, his feet and legs wet, actually stepping over the coals once or twice – though even this is not something most of us would dare to do. Firewalkers actually walk at normal speed through a long bed of burning embers to fulfil their vows.

The firebed on which they walk barefoot is often more than five meters long, more than a metre wide and a full metre deep, as in the famous Uduppawa firewalking festival. The embers are prepared from tamarind wood, which burns slowly, producing fierce heat. A huge amount of tamarind wood is cut down and gathered in advance, and for hours fire builders heave logs into the massive fire built up, making flames leap to the skies. By evening even approaching the firebed becomes a daunting task, so hot is the whole place where the massive bonfire has been burning for hours. The bed of embers is, of course, pure fire, pulsing red, looking like a crouching vengeful fire dragon, as someone put it. Each piece of coal in the metre-thick bed of live coals is the size of a large potato. The bed smoulders furiously, every now and then sending up sparks and flames leaping out. It is over this that people serenely walk, to the accompaniment of fiercely beaten drums and loud, intoxicated chanting of mantras. The walker often balances a ritually sanctified pot on his head.

Like hundreds of other men, women and children, Chittiravel continues to walk over this scorching trench every year, to keep his vow to Veeramma Kali. The deformed man, bent from the waist, his legs not fully in his control, steps onto the fire with one foot, pulls his other leg near the first one, then stretches out the first leg as far as it would go sideways, pulls up the second leg near it, moves again the first leg, thus slowly moving across the entire length of the five meter-long, one metre-thick inferno as the entire population of his village shouts the name of the goddess in intoxicated ecstasy.

Chittiravel, like other firewalkers in his village, emerges from his firewalking completely unscathed by the fire.

He believes Mother Kali guards him through the firewalk and he is guarded.


Belief is an unbelievably powerful force. What we can do and what we cannot do are defined by our belief systems. Things become possible when we believe they are, and remain impossible so long as we believe they are not.

To give just one example, for ages people held the belief that it is impossible for the human being to run a mile in less than four minutes. In1954, Roger Bannister broke this imposing belief barrier. He believed he can, and he broke the barrier. Within one year, 37 others broke the four-minute barrier. And the next year, 300 others broke it.

It is their beliefs that make men and women what they are. Their beliefs about what they can and what they cannot decide what they can and what they cannot do. And their beliefs about who they are decide who they are.

This is a secret the world has known for a long time. While wise people use this knowledge to their own advantage and the advantage of others around them, clever, cunning people, the asuri types as Krishna calls them in the Gita, use this knowledge to weaken and exploit others.

Listen to a statement about India and Indians, made by Macaulay in the British Parliament on February 2, 1835:

"I have travelled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them to be, a truly dominated nation".

And that is precisely what Macaulay and the British did. They made us look down upon ourselves, made us believe we are worthless, everything that is ours is inferior to what belongs to the white man. All on a sudden, our country, which produced twenty percent of the world’s wealth – more than what the United States of America does today – became to us a nation of beggars. Our glorious past – a past unsurpassed in glory by any other country in the world – became a thing to be ashamed of. Our languages, our literatures, our philosophies, our religions, our ways of thinking and living all became matters of shame for us. Precisely what Macaulay wanted had happened, almost overnight: we lost of self-esteem. We lost belief in ourselves. And we became a truly dominated nation.

We are still to fully come out of this tragedy that fell on us.

Just as there is only one thing that made us fall, there is only one thing that can help rise up again to claim our lost status: belief in ourselves.

Fortunately, we have begun moving fast on this journey to the rediscovery of belief in ourselves.

It was a long, long time ago that the Bhagavad Gita said: śraddhā-mayo'yaṃ puruso yo yac-chraddhaḥ sa eva saḥ ||BhG_17.3||. “Man is made of his faith; as a man’s believes, so is he.”

Let’s hope that in our long journey ahead, we never again lose faith in ourselves, belief in ourselves.


Attachment and The Tibetan Book of the Dead

One of the books I purchased while I was in Kerala recently was the just published Complete Short Stories of M Mukundan, a huge, nearly one-thousand-page volume of 157 short stories. I bought the book on a day I visited three book fairs in Thrissur: one inside the Sahitya Akademi premises, a second one in the Paramekkavu Devaswam hall, and a third one at the Thekkinkadu Grounds. Three book fairs, all within walking distance of one another! And all three fairs were crowded with visitors. It is not for nothing that beautiful Thrissur is called the cultural capital of the very educated Kerala!

This morning I read the first story in Mukundan’s collection, a story called Maunam. This is one of the nine stories in this volume that have not appeared in any previous collection. I am not a systematic reader, and love reading without much plan, but it so happened that this time I picked up the first story to begin with.

Now that I think of it, I wonder if my choice was unconsciously influenced by the title Maunam, meaning silence. Silence is something I love boundlessly and have sought throughout my life. I have memories of seeking solitude and silence in the deserted primary school near my house after the school hours were over and during the vacations. I was a young boy then and I would climb over the wall or crawl under the gate and spend hours all alone there. Another place I frequented was the upper floor of the tall gopuram of the temple where few people ever went, and a couple of other lonely places. I do not remember any occasion when I was restless at these places – their serenity always enraptured me and I was always ready to surrender myself to it.

Maybe I was also influenced, again unconsciously, by the fact that I have soon to give a session on silence to a group of corporate executives coming from all over the country as part of a training programme in corporate communication.

Mukundan’s Maunam, of course, has nothing to do with corporate communication or the world of business. It is the story of an old man.
The first thing that fascinated me in the story was the age of the old man. One of the things that the author tells us about the old man is that he was not even willing to think about death, in spite of his age. Mukundan adds that several acquaintances of his, people of his age, were already dead and gone.

Guess how old the old man is? One would imagine him to be in his eighties, or at least in his late or mid seventies. Isn’t that the age we associate with death today? Isn’t that the age when old men and women today find the people they grew up with have left them one by one? Isn’t that the age today when they accept the inevitability of a death soon to come?

But the old man in the story is not in his eighties, or seventies, or even in his sixties! He is all of fifty-six years!

No, this is not an error on the part of Mukundan.

I do not know when Maunam was written, but it appears it was written a long time ago. Maybe, it is one of Mukundan’s early stories. I wish the publishers had given the date of the original publication of each story, as they have done in some other collections. Mukundan has been writing for a long time now – forty-five years. He was born in 1942 and his first story appeared when he was twenty-one. Maybe Maunam was written sometime in the sixties.

In the nineteen-sixties, a man of fifty-six was an old man. In several government services, people retired from their jobs at fifty-six, because the government considered after that age a man was not in full command of his faculties and could not work satisfactorily, he should go home and spend the rest of his life in ease and comfort! As a young boy I remember considering sixty an impossibly old age. A man attaining sixty years of age was an important event that needed to be celebrated and was celebrated then. I remember our family celebrating my father’s sixtieth birthday – his shashtipoorti. At sixty you were really, really old – at least in popular perception. Perhaps a comparison would be to something like what it is to be eighty years old today.

Reading Maunam made me look back at those old days and smile. For I myself used to be in awe of people who had crossed sixty.

How the times have changed!


Maunam is a story of death. The old man in the story, Narayanan Nambiar, dies towards the end of the story.

As his soul learns in the ICU of the town hospital that death is about to come, it realizes with a shock that it is about to lose the nest it has occupied for the last more than half a century. The soul flutters about frantically inside its cage of flesh and blood. It then runs about desperately among the billions of cells that form his five-foot-six body. The soul is now in a state of panic. Nambiar has a massive cardiac arrest and his soul clutches on to him desperately with its hundreds of invisible hands.

Nambiar dies. The soul, flung outside his body, flutters around him in dread. Its days of being in Nambiar’s body and experiencing his joys and sorrows, his angers and retaliations, his kindnesses and compassions are over. Now there is nothing left before it but the beginningless void.

The soul goes and perches on Nambiar’s dead body. It showers kisses on his cold chest and on his cheeks that had a day’s growth of hair.

Throughout the obsequies, the soul hovers around Nambiar’s body. Taking its seat on a ray of sunlight, it watches Nambiar’s body being reduced to ashes in the funeral pyre.

Weeks are over since Nambiar’s death, but his soul refuses to go away. It seeks refuge in his naphthalene-smelling clothes kept neatly folded in the almirah. It crawls about in silence among the other things associated with him – like his framed photograph on the wall, his ear-studs and ring kept in his wife Janu’s tin trunk.

One day the soul finds the clothes are no more there. It switches its perch on to the studs and the ring. Soon it finds the studs and ring too are gone. It then moves on to occupy the framed photo. Lying there it dreams of the scent and the warmth of the body that it has lost forever. It showers tender kisses on the neck, the cheeks and the head in the photograph.

A monsoon wind brings the photo crashing down from the wall. The glass shatters on the ground to a thousand shreds. The photograph, minus the glass, is picked up and put on the top rack of the almirah. There cockroaches feast on it and eventually all that is left of it is just a few white spots. The paper is now flung away and lies in the gutter. But still Nambiar’s soul refuses to leave it. Eventually the first rain of the next season carries that too away and it disappears forever.

There is nothing left now that belonged to Nambiar. Still, says the story, the soul refuses to move on. Instead, it haunts the men and women who carried Nambiar’s memories in their hearts.


I remember reading sometime back a very different short story by Madhavikkutty which too talks about the soul of a dead person hovering around, watching everything that happens and listening to the talks of family members. Years back the Hindi magazine Dharmayug had brought out a theme based special issue on incidents like this. Several books like Life after Life, Life after Death, and Tales of Reincarnation also talk about such experiences. Movies have been made on this and similar themes, one of the most famous ones in recent years being Dragonfly, which inspired the Hindi movie Saya.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a book I love deeply, published in English by Oxford University Press with an Introduction by Carl Jung, talks about what exactly happens when someone dies, what happens to the dead man’s mind and consciousness in those moments and in the moments following death, what happens to these a day later, two days later, three days later and so on. The book, based on the experience of yogis who were able to retain their memories through death and afterwards, speaks about the bardo state, which is the state of bodiless consciousness after death. It discusses the changes the mind and consciousness undergo from day to day, the experiences they have, and how the mind and consciousness seek, find and re-enter a new body. Most souls, the book tells us, are able to find a new body appropriate to their needs – appropriate to their psychological inclinations, their ambitions and aspirations, their compelling needs, the scripts they had written in their inner depths during their previous existences in human bodies, their karmas, vasanas and samskaras – within forty-eight days.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a training manual. Its purpose is to train the mind to retain consciousness in the moments of death and during the bardo state so that the dead individual can avoid some of the painful experiences in the post-death state and also wisely choose its next embodiment. Originally people in Tibet used to be taught the book when they were young and given training in retaining their consciousness in their moments of death. Later on as Tibetan culture degenerated, the book was reduced to one of rituals the significance of which few people understood.

The rituals performed in Hinduism at the moment of death are based on this understanding. They centre around destroying the body as early as possible, so that the mind and consciousness do not cling to it, and then urging the soul to move on, on its onward journey.

One of the dual functions of the shraddha ceremony too is this reminding the soul not to cling to its previous existence on earth and to move on, the other being telling the departed ones how dearly we still hold them in our hearts.

A sight that I used to enjoy watching in the Himalayas was logs floating down the rivers, like the Ganga. I used to stand by the river and watch as scores of them hurtled down at great speeds through the torrential Ganga. In the words of the brahmana Ashman to King Videha, the Mahabharata tells us human relationships are like the meeting of these logs in the sea. The logs are felled at different places in the Himalayas, they come down different rivers, and they reach the sea. Imagine, the epic tells us, two logs meeting in the sea and then, after a brief meeting, parting again. Human relationships are no more than this.

Yatha kashtham cha kashtham cha sameyatam mahodadhau
Sametya cha vyapeyatam tadvad bhootasamagamah.

When the Mahabharata tells us this, the epic is telling us what the shraddha ceremony tells the departed soul, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead teaches the living individual. And for the same reasons. It is not really true that our meetings with one another in this world are things over which we have no control, as the logs have no controls over what happens to them once they are cast into the river. The Upanishads tells us that who our father is, who our mother is, who our relations are, what the environment we are born into is, are all decided by us and not by chance or by an all powerful fate over which we have no control. The Tibetan Book of the Dead says the same thing in greater detail than the Upanishads do. [Incidentally, the Book of the Dead, written in Tibet some eight or nine hundred years before Freud, speaks of the Oedipus and Electra complexes!]

But it is important that the dead one forgets his earthly attachments and moves on instead of clinging to them, as the soul of Nambiar does in Mukundan’s story. It is for this reason that the Upanishads, the Mahabharata and the Tibetan Book of the Dead all speak of relationships as temporary and as things to be not to be taken in greater seriousness than they deserve. To underline this point, the Mahabharata tells us: Each one of us has had thousands of mothers and fathers, and hundreds of sons and wives in our past existences – who do they really belong to, and who do we belong to forever?

Matapitrsahasrani putradarashatani cha
Samsareshvanubhootani kasya te kasya va vayam?

In his masterpiece, The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran says:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the Archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Attachments tie us down and reduce the chances for spiritual growth and awakening by not allowing us to move on.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of stories in our spiritual traditions that speak of the harms of attachment. One of my favourite among these is the story of Jada Bharata that the Bhagavata tells us.

Bharata was the son of King Rishabha, who was a just and wise ruler. As was the ancient Indian tradition, towards the end of his life Rishabha relinquished his kingdom and powers in favour of his eldest son Bharata and retired from active life. He wandered all over the land, not caring for anything, not caring even for his body, in a god-intoxicated state. He had become an avadhoota and his outer life became that of the blind-deaf-dumb man who roams the world naked, like an idiot, like a ghost, like a madman.

Bharata ruled the kingdom for a long time as wisely and competently as his father and other ancestors did and then, following the tradition, decided to relinquish it in his turn. He divided his kingdom among his sons and then went to Pulahashrama to live the rest of his life in spirituality there. His only joy now was the joy born of his devotions and meditation – the highest joy possible to man. And in that joy he forgot everything, including himself.

And then tragedy struck one day. The great Bharata, the former king who had given up an entire kingdom, all its wealth, all his powers, his wives and children and his subjects who too were like children to him, and had retired to an ashram seeking oneness with the Whole, developed attachment to a baby deer in the jungle.

As was his habit, Bharata was sitting lost in bliss one day on the bank of the river Gandaki when he was brought back to the world by the terrible sound of a roar nearby. It was a mighty lion. Opening his eyes and looking around, he saw a doe lifting up its head from the water it had been drinking from the river. The doe turned its head back and looked behind it, its eyes wide with mortal dread. The next moment, with its head still turned backward, without even losing the time to turn the head around, it took a mighty leap into the river. It had to save itself and the baby in its womb! And then it happened. As it landed in the river, in its terror and the strain of the leap, the doe delivered its baby into the river. Frantically swimming it reached the other bank, where it fell down dead from the strain and shock.

The king in the ascetic Bharata was awakened in that instant. He too leapt up from his seat and rushed towards the river. The lion had already moved away. The mother doe lay dead on the other bank. The baby deer was floating down the river. Bharata jumped into the Gandaki and taking mighty strokes through the current, reached the infant deer fast floating downstream. He carried the newborn baby deer to the safety of the banks.

The king’s heart melted for the orphaned baby. He dried the baby’s wet body and started caring for it. Left to itself, the king knew it wouldn’t survive one single day in the jungle.

The king now started looking after the baby deer. The baby deer followed him wherever he went. At night it slept close to him, sharing his body’s warmth. On his walks Bharata’s eyes now looked for tender grass wherever he went. His thoughts were now constantly of the helpless, tender baby that fate had brought to him and left in his care. And soon, he started loving the baby deer as he had once loved his children.

Love, compassion and caring are among the noblest emotions a human being can feel. These are what make us human. And yet, Indian spiritual wisdom tells us, these should not lead one to attachment. Love, care, show compassion, but do it with detachment. Total commitment, but with detachment – that is the way to live wisely. Practice the human dharma, but be an asanga.

Unfortunately, this is as difficult as walking on the edge of a sword – on asidhara. But all attachments have to be cut firmly with the sword of detachment – asangashastrena drdhena chhitva, as the Gita puts it.

The ascetic Bharata failed. He soon grew attached to the baby deer that he had saved from the stream. He soon forgot what constantly occupied his mind earlier. The days of god-intoxication was now no more than a distant memory. His mind was now constantly occupied with the baby deer. Its needs, its wants, its comforts, its safety – these are what occupied his mind now. Asana-shayana-atana-sthana-ashanadishhu – while seated in his ashram, while lying down on his grass mat in the ashram, while wandering in the jungle, while eating, while drinking, awake, asleep, dreaming, his mind was constantly with the deer.

Remember Bharata was an old man. He had retired to the jungle as an old man and had been living there for years when the baby deer came into his life. One day he fell sick, and realized the end of his journey was close by. By then he had started living for the deer totally. As he lay awaiting his death, his final thoughts naturally were about his deer. What will happen to it? Who will look after it? Will it be safe in the fierce jungle?

The story tells us that because his mind was so preoccupied with the deer due to his attachment to it, in his next birth Bharata was born a deer. The ascetic’s attachment stood in the way of his spiritual progress and rather than taking him into a still advanced state of consciousness – into a higher birth – in his next life time, he was reduced to a deer.

Bharata’s journey does not end here, of course. But that does not concern us here.


There are several beautiful Buddhist stories that tell us of rebirths in lower life forms due to attachments. One of my favourites among them is the story of Ba Saing from Burma, the present Myanmar. I have written about this elsewhere on this blog under the title Reincarnation: The Persistence of Memory. Another such story I love is from Sri Lanka, which talks of how a man was first reborn as a snake, then as a dog, and then as a calf, all due to attachment to his adulterous, murderer wife, all in her own house. Eventually he is reborn as her own son, though this time he is born with past life memory, which the Buddhists call jatissara nana, through which he is able to escape his attachment to her and free himself of her.

One of the central messages of the Gita is that we should be free from attachments while still being fully committed to our dharma. The birth of the Gita itself happened because Arjuna refused to fulfil his dharma, or found himself incapable of fulfilling his dharma of fighting the Mahabharata war, due of his attachment to his grandsire Bhishma and his guru Drona and other near and dear ones.


Friday, October 23, 2009

Teacher as the Creator, Teacher as the Destroyer

I have been talking to teachers and teacher trainees for years now in the context of teaching and training, and during these talks, I have always loved telling them stories. While a few of these stories are born of my own personal encounters with life and people, many others are by authors from across the world. Here is a story I love deeply for its profound wisdom as well as for its immense power. A story like this works silently with us, transforming us with its magic. No one goes through the story – and allows the story to go through them, as my guru used to say – remains the same, so beautiful is it.


Jean Thompson stood in front of her fifth-grade class on the very first day of school in the fall and told the children a lie. Like most teachers, she looked at her pupils and said that she loved them all the same, that she would treat them all alike. And that was impossible because there in front of her, slumped in his seat on the third row, was a little boy named Teddy Stoddard. Mrs. Thompson had watched Teddy the year before and noticed he didn’t play well with the other children, that his clothes were unkempt and that he constantly needed a bath.

And Teddy was unpleasant. It got to the point during the first few months that she would actually take delight in marking his papers with a broad red pen, making bold X’s and then marking the F at the top of the paper biggest of all. Because Teddy was a sullen little boy, no one else seemed to enjoy him, either.

At the school where Mrs. Thompson taught, she was required to review each child’s records and put Teddy’s off until last. When she opened his file, she was in for a surprise. His first-grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is a bright, inquisitive child with a ready laugh.” “He does his work neatly and has good manners...he is a joy to be around.”

His second-grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is an excellent student well-liked by his classmates, but he is troubled because his mother has a terminal illness and life at home must be a struggle.”

His third-grade teacher wrote, “Teddy continues to work hard but his mother’s death has been hard on him. He tries to do his best but his father doesn’t show much interest and his home life will soon affect him if some steps aren’t taken.” Teddy’s fourth-grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is withdrawn and doesn’t show much interest in school. He doesn’t have many friends and sometimes sleeps in class. He is tardy and could become a problem.”

By now Mrs. Thompson realized the problem, but Christmas was coming fast. It was all she could do, with the school play and all, until the day before the holidays began and she was suddenly forced to focus on Teddy Stoddard.

Her children brought her presents, all in beautiful ribbon and bright paper, except for Teddy’s, which was clumsily wrapped in the heavy, brown paper of a scissor grocery bag. Mrs. Thompson took pains to open it in the middle of the other presents.

Some of the children started to laugh when she found a rhinestone bracelet with some of the stones missing, and a bottle that was one-quarter full of cologne. She stifled the children’s laughter when she exclaimed how pretty the bracelet was, putting it on, and dabbing some of the perfume behind the other wrist. Teddy Stoddard stayed behind just long enough to say, “Mrs. Thompson, today you smelled just like my mom used to.”

After the children left she cried for an hour. On that very day, she quit teaching reading, writing, and speaking. Instead, she began to teach children. Jean Thompson paid particular attention to the one they all called “Teddy.” As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive. The more she encouraged him, the faster he responded. On days where there would be an important test, Mrs. Thompson would remember that cologne. By the end of the year he had become one of the smartest children in the class and. well, he had also become the “pet” of the teacher who had once vowed to love all of her children exactly the same.

A year later she found a note under her door, from Teddy, telling her that of all the teachers he’d had in elementary school, she was his favourite. Six years went by before she got another note from Teddy.

He then wrote that he had finished high school, third in his class, and she was still his favourite teacher of all time. Four years after that, she got another letter, saying that while things had been tough at times, he’d stayed in school, had stuck with it, and would graduate from college with the highest of honours. He assured Mrs. Thompson she was still his favourite teacher.

Then four more years passed and yet another letter came. This time he explained that after he got his bachelor’s degree, he decided to go a little further. The letter explained that she was still his favourite teacher, but that now his name was a little longer. The letter was signed, Theodore F. Stoddard, M.D.

The story doesn’t end there. You see there was yet another letter that spring. Teddy said he’d met this girl and was to be married. He explained that his father had died a couple of years ago and he was wondering...well, if Mrs. Thompson might agree to sit in the pew usually reserved for the mother of the groom.

And guess what, she wore that bracelet, the one with several rhinestones missing. And I bet on that special day, Jean Thompson smelled just like...well, just like the way Teddy remembered his mother smelling on their last Christmas together.

They hugged each other, and Dr. Stoddard whispered in Mrs. Thompson's ear, "Thank you Mrs. Thompson for believing in me. Thank you so much for making me feel important and showing me that I could make a difference."

Mrs. Thompson, with tears in her eyes, whispered back. She said, "Teddy, you have it all wrong. You were the one who taught me that I could make a difference. I didn't know how to teach until I met you."


One of the truths I keep telling teachers is of the enormous power that a teacher wields. Her power is God-like.

An ancient Sanskrit verse that every Indian is familiar with says:

Gurur brahma, gurur vishnuh, gurur devo maheshwarah
Guruh sakshat param brahma, tasmai shree gurave namah.

[In Sanskrit, it is gurur brahma, and not guru brahma; and it is gurave namah, not guruve namah.]

Translated, the verse says: The guru is Brahma, the Creator; the guru is Vishnu, the Preserver; and the guru is Shiva, the destroyer. The guru is the Supreme Brahman itself. Before that guru, I bow down.”

What the verse says is literally true as far as the student is concerned. To him, the teacher is the Creator, the Preserver, and the Destroyer. She has the power to make him, to preserve him, or to destroy him.

I remember the days when my own daughter was a school student. On some days she would come home from school and dance in joy the whole day. Her reason for happiness: Her teacher had said ‘good’ to her. Her teacher had appreciated something she had done or said. That was enough to make her happy for the whole day. And if the teacher rejected her, or rejected something she said or did, throughout the day she would be in deep gloom.

A word of appreciation from the teacher, a smile, a pat on the back, stays with the child not only a whole day, but an entire lifetime. And so does a frown, or a word of rejection or criticism.

For, as every parent knows, the teacher is the most important person in the world of a young child. Her authority is far superior to that of the father or the mother. You may be the greatest authority on your subject in the world, but if the teacher contradicts you, it is the teacher’s word that your child would accept, and not yours. The younger the child, the more true this is. And it is in their younger years that children are most impressionable. That is the age at which children are made, or destroyed.

Transactional Analysis tells us of the enormous power of strokes. The positive and negative strokes we receive as children make or ruin us. We are made what we are by them. These strokes shape our life scripts, and we are what our life scripts are. Our strengths and weaknesses, our successes and failures, our self-image, the nature of our relationships with ourselves and with others, the nature of our intimacies or lack of it, our drives, our ambitions, our aspirations, are all, says Transactional Analysis, determined by these scripts. Every time a teacher praises or ridicules a child, the child adds something to his life scripts, which determines his destiny, makes him what he is. It is in this sense that I say teachers have the power to make the child, or to destroy him. Every teacher is really Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara – the Creator, the Preserver, and the Destroyer.


A personal experience.

Little Anu had just come back from Kerala when Miss Pisces, her primary school teacher who taught Drawing, asked her class to paint a well.

Green is the permanent colour of Kerala: the whole state is green round the year. But when the rains come, it becomes a mad riot of green. And Kerala gets incessant rains for months at a stretch. In the words of Arunadhati Roy, a Keralite, “By early June the southwest monsoon breaks and there are three months of wind and water with short spells of sharp, glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with. The countryside turns an immodest green. Boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom. Brick walls turn moss green. Pepper vines snake up electric poles. Wild creepers burst through laterite banks and spill across flooded roads.”
This is the Kerala that little Anu had seen.

Most homes in Kerala have a well. Her home in Kerala too had one. A very deep one, which gave cool water round the year. Cool water and plenty of exercise – you had to haul water all the way up with a bucket and a rope. The well had a laterite wall and this had a moss coating most of the time. However during the rains the wall, inside and outside, disappeared behind thick moss and ferns. Ferns and moss grew on the inner sides of the well too, much of the way down. And the water itself had a film of moss floating over it. Everything turned green.

And this is what little Anu painted when her teacher asked her to paint a well. The well she had seen in her home in Kerala. A green well.

Miss Pisces took one look at her work, held it up for the whole class to see and then said, “Look at Anu’s work! How stupid! How can a well be green? It has to be brown!” She paused for effect and then asked Anu, “Where do you have your brains, you stupid girl? In your bottom?” And she laughed, ridiculing the little girl before the entire class. Fifty titillated little girls joined her laughter at those last words, while little Anu hung her head in deep shame.

It took years for Anu to regain her self-confidence. Perhaps she still hasn’t fully. At critical moments, those words come back to her, “Where do you have your brains, you stupid girl? In your bottom?” Like when she is performing on a stage. Or when a speaker has said something in a meeting and she does not agree with it and would like to question it. She chooses to keep quiet instead.

Such words have a way of haunting you for your life.

Because the teacher is the Creator and the Destroyer.


It is amazing how callously teachers abuse students. A couple of years ago, my wife and I were conducting a short refresher programme for railway school teachers at Chakradharpur. It was a large group – as I remember, there were a hundred teachers or so. During an exercise, we asked the teachers to list on a piece of paper the abusive words each one of them routinely shouted at their students. The swearing words, the galis. When we listed all the galis, they filled four pages! And words like moron and idiot were the mildest of galis on the list. Almost sweet to hear compared to some others that were part of the teachers’ daily volley.

Teachers like Jean Thompson use their enormous powers constructively. Other teachers are like mighty giants who do not know their own strength and cause irreparable harm by destroying the very children they are expected to nurture and nourish.

The ancient masters who composed the words of that old Sanskrit prayer knew of the enormous power the teacher has to create, to preserve and to destroy. They meant exactly what they said. A teacher is Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The trimurtis, all in one.

Each of us has a choice before us: to be creators, or to be destroyers. Each one of us can choose to be a Jean Thompson, or a Miss Pisces.

I loved Jean Thompson’s final words very much – what she whispered, with tears in her eyes, when teddy thanked her: Her words were, "Teddy, you have it all wrong. You were the one who taught me that I could make a difference. I didn't know how to teach until I met you."


Incidentally, Shiva in that ancient prayer is not really a destroyer, but someone who destroys the evil so that the good can be born, who destroys the old and decayed, so that the young and healthy could be born. But when teachers destroy in their ignorance and callousness, they destroy the best: young hearts, young lives, hopes, aspirations, ambitions, innocence, power, creativity, resourcefulness and all else that is good in humanity that the child represents. They destroy life’s best promises, they destroy beautiful tomorrows.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

How Stanford University Was Born

I do not know whose words these are. But when I read them, I knew I had to have the story on my blog so that I can share it with others. Initially I thought of adding a few words at the end, relating this to a few other similar stories, but then I thought, no, I’d just let the story speak for itself. Here is the story then, without any more words from me.


A lady in a faded gingham dress and her husband, dressed in a homespun threadbare suit, stepped off the train in Boston, and walked timidly without an appointment into the president of Harvard’s outer office. The secretary could tell in a moment that such backwoods, country hicks had no business at Harvard and probably didn’t even deserve to be in Cambridge. She frowned.

“We want to see the president,” the man said softly. “He’ll be busy all day,” the secretary snapped. “We’ll wait,” the lady replied. For hours, the secretary ignored them, hoping that the couple would finally become discouraged and go away. They didn’t. And the secretary grew frustrated and finally decided to disturb the president, even though it was a chore she always regretted to do. “Maybe if they just see you for a few minutes, they’ll leave,” she told him. And he sighed in exasperation and nodded. Someone of his importance obviously didn’t have the time to spend with them, but he detested gingham dresses and homespun suits cluttering up his outer office. The president, stern-faced with dignity, strutted toward the couple.

The lady told him, “We had a son that attended Harvard for one year. He loved Harvard. He was happy here. But about a year ago, he was accidentally killed. And my husband and I would like to erect a memorial to him, somewhere on campus.”

The president was not touched; he was shocked. “Madam,” he said gruffly. “We can’t put up a statue for every person who attended Harvard and died. If we did, this place would look like a cemetery”.

“Oh, no,” the lady explained quickly. “We don’t want to erect a statue. We thought we would like to give a building to Harvard.”

The president rolled his eyes. He glanced at the gingham dress and homespun suit, and then exclaimed, “A building! Do you have any earthly idea how much a building costs? We have over seven and a half million dollars in the physical plant at Harvard.”

For a moment the lady was silent. The president was pleased. He could get rid of them now.

And then the lady turned to her husband and said quietly, “Is that all it costs to start a University? Why don’t we just start our own?”

Her husband nodded. The president’s face wilted in confusion and bewilderment. And Mr. and Mrs. Leland Stanford walked away, travelling to Palo Alto, California where they established the University that bears their name, a memorial to a son that Harvard no longer cared about.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Masters Who Wear Masks: 3. Pakkanar, the Pariah

Stories about Pakkanar, the legendary pariah saint of Kerala, were among the most beautiful stories I grew up listening to. Like Lai-Khur [] and many other masters, Pakkanar too lived wearing a mask all his life: a mask of ordinariness, and at times a mask of stupidity and ignorance, a mask of being limited by the caste and class that society had ascribed to him. In spite of these, though, at times he allowed the world glimpses of his spiritual wisdom and powers, and the stories are mostly about these moments.

The birth of Pakkanar is a legend in itself, part of one of the most popular legends of Kerala which every one born in Kerala hears as a child. In my case, it was from my father that I first heard the story as a child and then subsequently I read it as a teenager in Kottarattil Sankunni’s Aitihyamala [Garland of Legends], the collection of myths and legends about Kerala.

Pakkanar, the legend tells us, was the pariah son of the pariah woman who married the brahmana Vararuchi, one of the nine jewels in the court of Vikramaditya. The couple had twelve children, all abandoned at birth, each growing up belonging to a different caste, each becoming great in his or her own way, each giving birth to numerous legends. [For more details on this, please see my blog posting []

Eleven of the twelve children met once a year to observe the shraddha of their parents. They met at the home of the eldest of the twelve sons, Melattol Agnihotri [frequently spelt Melathol Agnihothri], a brahmana, each bringing an item of his or her own for the feast that was part of the shraddha rites. At the end of the rites, all sat together and had the feast in remembrance of their parents.

There are certain things that are acceptable in a shraddha feast, and certain things that are not. And in any case, many things have always been taboo for brahmanas as food, purity of diet being part of being a brahmana. Meat certainly was not an item of food for a brahmana – no kind of meat was.

However, Pakkanar made it a point to bring meat for the feast every year, which deeply disturbed Agnihotri’s brahmani wife and other high caste participants of the sacred Vedic rituals. The family knew of the great spiritual heights Pakkanar had climbed to and of his awesome powers. For this reason, Agnihotri’s wife did not say anything about Pakkanar’s sacrilege, nor did the others. She cooked whatever he brought and served it at the ritual feast, and the participants ate it.

While all meat was traditionally taboo to brahmanas, beef was something that no Hindu ate. To the Hindu mind, no greater sin existed than killing a cow or eating beef. However one year what Pakkanar brought was the severed teats of a cow, packed in a leaf. His intentions were clear, for the udder and the nipples are considered the most sacred parts of the cow.

What Pakkanar had done was the limit. Nothing could be more sacrileges than that! The antarjanam [brahmani] opened the packet and saw what was inside. Her whole face reddened with shock. The packet fell from her hands and a scream escaped her lips. Violent retching shook her whole body and she rushed outside the house. She needed to bring out everything in her stomach, such was her horror.

Eventually she managed to master herself. Coming back, she tied the cow’s teats back in the leaf and took the packet outside and digging a hole in the yard, buried it in it. Then she took a bath to ritually purify her and after that, proceeded with her cooking.

The ritual feast began and the ten brothers and one sister sat down together to eat. Under the antarjanam’s care, the dishes cooked with the items brought by each were served to all.

Pakkanar noticed that what he had brought was missing in what was being served. “Where is what I brought?” asked Pakkanar, turning to the antarjanam. She remained silent, her head bent, her eyes on the ground at her feet. She couldn’t tell a lie, nor could she tell the truth. And in any case, she couldn’t insult a man like Pakkanar, that too during the shraddha, however shocking what he had done was.

Seeing his wife remaining silent, Agnihotri repeated Pakkanar’s question. She continued to remain silent, and he grew insistent on knowing the truth. It was then that she told what had happened, beginning to shake all over remembering what she had seen when she opened the leaf packet.

Agnihotri became silent when he heard his wife’s words. He was confused, and did not know what to say. He knew it was wrong on the part of his wife to throw away what Pakkanar had brought for the feast – but a cow’s teats! He had never said a word about the meat that Pakkanar had been bringing year after year, but this was unimaginable.

In the middle of the complete silence that had fallen over the place, Pakkanar suggested, “Since you planted it in the yard, maybe it has sprouted by now. Why don’t you go and see?”

Cow’s teats do not sprout, of course. But such was Pakkanar’s presence that the antarjanam went to the place where she had buried the horrid packet. What she saw there was a new creeper she had never seen before – never seen there, and never seen anywhere else.

The vines grew thick everywhere, climbing one over the other, climbing over all nearby shrubs. And there was a green vegetable growing on the vines, hundreds and hundreds of it, a vegetable she had never seen before, a vegetable shaped like the teats of a cow.

Unable to believe her eyes, perspiring, confused, the antarjanam rushed back and told Pakkanar what had happened. Pakkanar was cool, as though nothing more than the most ordinary had happened. “Why don’t you pluck the vegetables and make a curry of it? I am sure you can cook and serve that to all?”

And that is what the antarjanam did.

The vegetable thus born of the teats of a cow, says the legend, is koval, or kovakka [kundru in Hindi]. Shaped like the teats of a cow, kovakka is a vegetable widely used all over India. The vegetable is a part of shraddha feasts offered in Kerala till today.

Pakkanar was not encouraging or even condoning the killing of animals, for food or for other reasons. His lesson was about what we consider sacred and profane, shubha and ashubha, about what we consider good and bad. Everything in the universe is permeated by God, and there is nothing but God in the universe, say the Upanishads: ishavasyam idam sarvam. Everything is equally sacred for the wise man who has eyes to see.

To the Indian culture, the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane is an important fact–at one level things are either sacred or profane. But at the same time, from the beginning of Indian culture, at a still higher level, everything is sacred since there really exists nothing in which the Divine is not present, there is nothing that is not the Divine.

I once had an interesting experience. Many years ago, an American professor of mine asked me for a prayer from Sanskrit to be used at the beginning of a training programme he was shortly to conduct. I selected a few mantras from the Shatarudriya [Rudra Ahhyaya or simply Rudra] and on his request translated them for him. When he heard my translation, he was shocked to learn that the Shatarudriya addresses God using such terms as the chief of thieves [stenanam pataye namo namah], the deceiving and the elusive one [vanchate parivanchate] and so on, along with other appellations for God of the kind he was used to.

It is central to Indian culture and philosophy that everything is sacred and good and bad are good and bad only at a lower level. From the standpoint of true wisdom, nothing is impure.

This is true not only philosophically and spiritually, but also at a social level. As the Gita puts it: “vidyavinaya-sampanne brahmane gavi hastini shuni chaiva svapake cha, panditah samadarshinah.” “The wise look upon the educated brahmana endowed with humility, the cow, the elephant, the dog and the dog-eater, all with the same attitude.”

God is in everything, God is everything. “Prostrations to Thee who art in the form of the artisans who make arrows and bows; prostrations to Thee who art the hunters and the huntsmen; prostrations to Thee who art the hounds and the keepers of hounds,” says the Shatarudriya. To the Shatarudriya, the carpenters and chariot-makers; potters and blacksmiths; fowlers and fishermen and everyone and everything else in the universe is God.”

The creation and the created are not different since the creator created the universe from himself.

One of the strangest mysteries about Indian culture is that the very same people who chanted the Shatarudriya ritually every day insisted that if even the shadow an outcast fell on them, they became impure and had to regain their purity through purificatory rites – at least a ritual bath.

Such was the spiritual heights to which Pakkanar had climbed that for him everything we ate was the same. In fact, for him, the eater, the eaten and eating, were all the same. And he wanted at least those who were closest to him, who he felt had the potential to realize this, learn this – if not the common masses who might not be ready for such knowledge, to whom such knowledge could be dangerous.


Another beautiful legend about Pakkanar speaks about his encounter with a group of brahmanas who were on their way to Kashi, the holiest of holy places. Pakkanar met them on the way and after greeting them as was appropriate for a pariah to greet brahmanas, asked them politely where they were going. When they said they were going to Kashi, Pakkanar said, “Could your lordships do me a favour? Could you take this stick along and give it a dip in the Ganga too?”

“Why do want the stick to be given a dip in the Ganga?” asked the brahmanas. It was indeed a strange request.

Pakkanar said he would tell them when they brought the stick back.

They took the stick with them, perhaps prompted more by the strangeness of the request and the audacity of the man who had made that request.

When one of the brahmanas dipped the stick in the Ganga in Kashi, somehow he lost hold of it and the stick disappeared into the river. The brahmanas were all upset about what happened, but they finished their ritual baths in the Ganga and after visiting a few other holy places en route, eventually came back. Pakkanar went to them and after greeting them in due reverence, enquired about his stick. Did they give it a bath in the Ganga? Have they brought it back?

They told him they were sorry but they lost the stick.

“Where did your lordships lose it?” asked Pakkanar.

“In the Ganga, in Kashi,” they answered.

“Oh, that’s no problem, then,” said Pakkanar with a smile. With that he went to the dirty pond that was close by and made a request to it, “Please, may I have my stick back?”

Legend says that the stick immediately rose up from the pond to the amazement of the brahmanas and Pakkanar picked it up.

The brahmanas then realized that Pakkanar was giving them a valuable lesson: every pond in the world is Mother Ganga herself, and all water is as sacred as the water of the Ganga.

Speaking of visits to teerthas, holy places, which is what the brahmanas were doing in Pakkanar’s story, the Maitreyi Upanishad says: “teerthabhranti adhamadhama” – endlessly roaming from one pilgrimage centre to another is worse than the worst kind of sadhana. Pakkanar, like the Upanishad , rejects all paths to the Supreme that are less than the straightest one.

Here are a couple of other quotations related to ritualistic sadhana from Maitreyi Upanishad:

‘Deho devalayah proktah, sa jeevah kevalah shivah.
tyajed ajnananirmalyam, sohambhavena poojayet.”

“This body is spoken of as the temple, and the inhabitant of the body is none other than Shiva himself. Cast away yesterday’s garlands [nirmalya] of ignorance and worship him – with the bhava [attitude] that ‘I am He.’”

“Mrta mohamayi mata jato bodhamayah sutah
sutakadvayasampraptau katham sandhyam upasmahe
hridakashe cidadityah sada bhasati bhasati
nastameti na codeti katham sandhyam upasmahe.”

“Dead is my mother called delusion and a son has been born to me, called knowledge. How can I perform the sandhyas when I am in sootaka twice over? In the sky of my heart the sun of consciousness keeps shining and shining. It neither rises in the morning nor sets in the evening. How can I then perform the sandhyas?”

Sootaka is a period of ritual impurity following a birth or death in the family, when Vedic rituals are should not be performed. Sandhyas are performed in the morning and the evening.

Pakkanar would wholeheartedly agree with what the Upanishad says. And it is the experiences and sayings of such sages as Pakkanar that validate the sayings of the scriptures. So long as we do not have our own experience of the truth, which alone is the ultimate proof of their teachings.


Here is another legend about Pakkanar my father told me when I was a child.

Like other pariahs, Pakkanar too lived by making winnowing baskets and other household utensils from bamboo and selling these door to door. Every time he and his wife finished making ten winnowing baskets, Pakkanar took them to the village. He would give the bunch of winnows for them to see in the first house and then ask a high price for the winnows. They would naturally refuse to pay his absurd price, and he would refuse to lower it and say angrily, “Well, in that case, return all my nine winnows.”

People would laugh within themselves at his mistake – he had given them ten, and he was now asking for all the nine of them back. They would quietly keep one winnow back and return nine.

Pakkanar repeated his performance in the next house. He had nine winnows now. At the end of the bargain, he would angrily ask for all his eight winnowing baskets back, which is what they would give him back. This went on until there was just one winnow left.

In the last house he will sell it for the normal price. Pakkanar and his wife were content to live on what they earned from that one winnowing basket.

Stupid, some of us would be tempted to say, especially the profit-conscious ones. But that is how Pakkanar was, and that is how many saints are, particularly the ‘eccentric’ ones. Pakkanar’s ways would not make sense to the normal, rational ones among us. But the fact of the matter is that he produced more than he needed, and lived on the minimum that he needed.

Pakkanar was practicing what Islam calls zakat. Only he was far more generous than Islam’s minimum requirement of one-sixth of your produce. And it was definitely not to those who were poorer than himself that he was giving away the products of his work. Or maybe the people who were cheating the man they thought was a stupid pariah, were really poorer than him.

That stupidity was Pakkanar’s mask. That and the limitations imposed on him by his caste that he decided to submit to. He did come out from behind his mask occasionally, as we saw, like other masters who hid themselves behind masks.

If he hadn’t, most of us would have never heard of his existence.


To be continued...