Friday, February 26, 2010

The Mahabharata on India as a British Gift to Us

During the lunch break of a training programme for corporate executives earlier this week, one of the topics that came up for informal discussion around the lunch table was whether India as a nation is a creation of the British or not. One view expressed was that it is since India as a nation did not exist as a single entity before the British conquered our land and made it part of the empire.

Of course, this is a widely held view and one that the British wanted us Indians to believe, or rather insisted that Indians accept and be grateful to the British for. However, the facts are very different. While it is true that ancient India was divided into several independent states and was ruled by different kings, this is true of the history of most modern nations in the world. But in spite of this, the concept of a unified India did exist, with geographical boundaries that correspond to the present state of India, apart from the parts that have since become separate nations, like Pakistan and Bangla Desh, for instance.

For those who have doubts about this, I am giving below the description of India as given in the Mahabharata, an epic that was written in the 4th millennium BC according to one widely held view and much later according to another, though not later than the Gupta period. In the Mahabharata description, India is called Bharatavarsha, which is a name still used, more so in its shortened form Bharata or Bharat, which is one of the two official names for India today.

The excerpt given below is from KM Ganguli’s translation of the Mahabharata. The translation was done in the last years of the 19th century. KM Ganguly died in 1896. The excerpt quoted is Chapter IX in the Bhishma Parva of the epic. I am quoting the chapter in its entirety. I have made some minor changes in spellings, necessitated mostly by Ganguly’s frequent use of ‘v’ where it should have been a ‘b’ or ‘bh’, as in Suvala/Subala and Rishava/Rishabha, for instance.

Incidentally, this is a topic I have had to discuss several times in the past. Years ago when I used to teach in an Education college, I had to counter the same argument by many of my students there. The myth that India is a creation of the British seems to be an enduring one.


Dhritarashtra said,--'Tell me truly (O Sanjaya) of this Varsha that is called after Bharata, where this senseless force hath been collected, in respect of which this my son Duryodhana hath been so very covetous, which the sons of Pandu also are desirous of obtaining, and in which my mind too sinketh. O, tell me this, for thou art, in my judgment endued with intelligence.’

Sanjaya said,--'Listen to me, O king. The sons of Pandu are not covetous about this country. On the other hand, it is Duryodhana that is covetous, and Sakuni the son of Subala, as also many other Kshatriyas who are rulers of the provinces, who being covetous of this country are not able to bear one another. I will now tell thee, O thou of Bharata's race, of the tract of land known by Bharata's name. This land is the beloved one of Indra, and, O thou of Bharata's race. This land, O monarch, that is called after Bharata, is also the beloved land of Manu, the son of Vivaswat, of Prithu, of Vainya, of the high-souled Ikshwaku, of Yayati, of Ambarisha, of Mandhata, of Nahusha, of Muchukunda, of Sibi the son of Usinara, of Rishabha, of Ila, of king Nriga, of Kusika, O invincible one, of the high-souled Gadhi, of Somaka, O irrepressible one, and of Dilipa, and also, O monarch, of many other mighty Kshatriyas. I will now, O chastiser of foes, describe to thee that country as I have heard of it. Listen to me, O king, as I speak of what thou hast asked me.

‘Mahendra, Malaya, Sahya, Suktimat, Rakshavat, Vindhya, and Paripatra, --these seven are the Kala-mountains (of Bharatvarsha). Besides these, O king, there are thousands of mountains that are unknown, of hard make, huge, and having excellent valleys. Besides these there are many other smaller mountains inhabited by barbarous tribes.

‘Aryans and Mlecchas, O Kauravya, and many races, O lord, mixed of the two elements, drink the waters of the following rivers, viz., magnificent Ganga, Sindhu, and Saraswati; of Godavari, and Narmada, and the large river called Yamuna; of Dhrishadwati, and Vipapa, and Vipasa and Sthulavaluka; of the river Vetravati, and that other one called Krishna-vena; of Iravati, and Vitasta, and Payosyini, and Devika; of Vedasmrita and Vedavati, and Tridiva, and Ikshumalavi; of Karishini, and Chitravaha, and the river called Chitrasena; of Gomati, and Dhutapada and the large river called Gandaki, of Kausiki, and Nischitra, and Kirtya, and Nichita, and Lohatarini; of Rashasi and Satakumbha, and also Sarayu; of Charmanwati, and Vetravati, and Hastisoma, and Disa; of the river called Saravati, and Venna, and Bhimarathi; of Kaveri, and Chuluka, and Vina, and Satavala; of Nivara, and Mahila, and Suprayoga, O king; of Pavitra, and Kundala, and Rajani, and Puramalini; of Purvabhirama, and Vira, and Bhima, and Oghavati; of Palasini, and Papahara, and Mahendra, and Patalavati, and Asikni, and the large river Kusachira: of Makari, and Pravara, and Mena, and Hema, and Dhritavati; of Puravati, and Anushna, and Saivya, and Kapi, O Bharata; of Sadanira, and Adhrishya, and the mighty stream Kusadhara; of Sadakanta, and Siva, and Viravati; of Vatsu, and Suvastu, and Kampana with Hiranwati; of Vara, and the mighty river Panchami, of Rathachitra, and Jyotiratha, and Viswamitra, and Kapinjala; of Upendra, and Vahula, and Kuchira, and Madhuvahini: of Vinadi, and Pinjala, and Vena, and the great river Pungavena; of Vidisa and Krishna-vena, and Tamra, and Kapila, of Salu, and Suvama, the Vedaswa, and the mighty river Harisrava; of Sighra, and Pischala, and the river Bharadwaji, of the river Kausiki, and Sona, and Chandrama; of Durgamantrasila, and Brahma-vodhya, and Vrihadvati; of Yaksha, and Rohi, and Yamvunadi; of Sunasa and Tamasa, and Dasi, and Vasa, and Varuna, and Asi; of Nila, and Dhrimati, and the mighty river Parnasa; of Pomasi, and Vrishabha, and Brahma-meddhya, and Brihaddhani.

‘These and many other large rivers, O king, such as Sadonirmaya and Krishna, and Mandaga, and Mandavahini; and Mahagouri, and Durga, O Bharata; and Chitropala. Chitraratha, and Manjula, and Vahini; and Mandakini, and Vaitarani, and Kosa, and Mahanadi; and Suktimati, and Ananga, and Pushpaveni, and Utpalavati; and Lohitya, Karatoya, and Vrishasabhya; and Kumari, and Rishikullya and Marisha, and Saraswati; and Mandakini, and Supunya, Sarvasanga, O Bharata, are all mothers of the universe and productive of great merit. Besides these, there are rivers, by hundreds and thousands, that are not known (by names), I have now recounted to thee, O king, all the rivers as far as I remember.

‘After this, listen to the names of the provinces as I mention them. They are the Kuru-Panchalas, the Salwas, the Madreyas, the Jangalas, the Surasena, the Kalingas, the Vodhas, the Malas, the Matsyas, the Saubalyas, the Kuntalas, the Kasi-kosalas, the Chedis, the Karushas, the Bhojas, the Sindhus, the Pulindakas, the Uttamas, the Dasarnas, the Mekalas, the Utkalas; the Panchalas, the Kausijas, the Nikarprishthas, Dhurandharas; the Sodhas, the Madrabhujingas, the Kasis, and the further-Kasis; the Jatharas, the Kukuras, O Bharata; the Kuntis, the Avantis, and the further-Kuntis; the Gomantas, the Mandakas, the Shandas, the Vidarbhas, the Rupavahikas; the Aswakas, the Pansurashtras, the Goparashtras, and the Karityas; the Adhirjayas, the Kuladyas, the Mallarashtras, the Keralas, the Varatrasyas, the Apavahas, the Chakras,the Vakratapas, the Sakas; the Videhas, the Magadhas, the Swakshas, the Malayas, the Vijayas, the Angas, the Vangas, the Kalingas, the Yakrillomans; the Mallas, the Suddellas, the Pranradas, the Mahikas, the Sasikas; the Valhikas, the Vatadhanas, the Abhiras, the Kalajoshakas; the Aparantas, the Parantas, the Pahnabhas, the Charmamandalas; the Atavisikharas, the Mahabhutas, O sire; the Upavrittas, the Anupavrittas, the Surashatras, Kekayas; the Kutas, the Maheyas, the Kakshas, the Samudranishkutas; the Andhras, and, O king, many hilly tribes, and many tribes residing on lands laying at the foot of the hills, and the Angamalajas, and the Manavanjakas; the Pravisheyas, and the Bhargavas, O king; the Pundras, the Bhargas, the Kiratas, the Sudeshnas, and the Yamunas, the Sakas, the Nishadhas, the Anartas, the Nairitas, the Durgalas, the Pratimasyas, the Kuntalas, and the Kusalas; the Tiragrahas, the Ijakas, the Kanyakagunas, the Tilabharas, the Samiras, the Madhumattas, the Sukandakas; the Kasmiras, the Sindhusauviras, the Gandharvas, and the Darsakas; the Abhisaras, the Utulas, the Saivalas, and the Valhikas; the Darvis, the Vanavadarvas, the Vatagas, the Amarathas, and the Uragas; the Vahuvadhas, the Kauravyas, the Sudamanas, the Sumalikas; the Vadhras, the Karishakas, the Kalindas, and the Upatyakas; the Vatayanas, the Romanas, and the Kusavindas; the Kacchas, the Gopalkacchas, the Kuruvarnakas; the Kiratas, the Varvasas, the Siddhas, the Vaidehas, and the Tamraliptas; the Aundras, the Paundras, the Saisikatas, and the Parvatiyas, O sire.

‘There are other kingdoms, O bull of Bharata's race, in the south. They are the Dravidas, the Keralas, the Prachyas, the Mushikas, and the Vanavasikas; the Karanatakas, the Mahishakas, the Vikalpas, and also the Mushakas; the Jhillikas, the Kuntalas, the Saunridas, and the Nalakananas; the Kankutakas, the Cholas, and the Malavayakas; the Samangas, the Kanakas, the Kukkuras, and the Angara-marishas; the Samangas, the Karakas, the Kukuras, the Angaras, the Marishas: the Dhwajinis, the Utsavas, the Sanketas, the Trigartas, and the Salwasena; the Vakas, the Kokarakas, the Pashtris, and the Lamavegavasas; the Vindhyachulakas, the Pulindas, and the Valkalas; the Malavas, the Vallavas, the further-Vallavas, the Kulindas, the Kalavas, the Kuntaukas, and the Karatas; the Mrishakas, the Tanavalas, the Saniyas; the Alidas, the Pasivatas, the Tanayas, and the Sulanyas; the Rishikas, the Vidarbhas, the Kakas, the Tanganas, and the further-Tanganas. Among the tribes of the north are the Mlecchas, and the Kruras, O best of the Bharatas; the Yavanas, the Chinas, the Kamvojas, the Darunas, and many Mleccha tribes; the Sukritvahas, the Kulatthas, the Hunas, and the Parasikas; the Ramanas, and the Dasamalikas. These countries are, besides, the abodes of many Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra tribes.

‘Then again there are the Sudra-abhiras, the Dardas, the Kasmiras, and the Pattis; the Khasiras; the Atreyas, the Bharadwajas, the Stanaposhikas, the Poshakas, the Kalingas, and diverse tribes of Kiratas; the Tomaras, the Hansamargas, and the Karamanjakas. These and other kingdoms are on the east and on the north.

‘O lord, alluding to them briefly I have told thee all. Earth, if its resources are properly developed according to its qualities and prowess, is like an ever-yielding cow, from which the three-fold fruits of virtue, profit and pleasure, may be milked. Brave kings conversant with virtue and profit have become covetous of Earth. Endued with activity, they would even cast away their lives in battle, from hunger of wealth. Earth is certainly the refuge of creatures endued with celestial bodies as also of creatures endued with human bodies. Desirous of enjoying Earth, the kings, O chief of the Bharatas, have become like dogs that snatch meat from one another. Their ambition is unbounded, knowing no gratification. It is for this that the Kurus and the Pandavas are striving for possession of Earth, by negotiation, disunion, gift, and battle, O Bharata.

‘If Earth be well looked after, it becometh the father, mother, children, firmament and heaven, of all creatures, O bull among men.'


So this is how Sanjaya describes Bharatavarsha to Dhritarashtra in the Mahabharata. As even a casual reading will, mountains, rivers and nation-states from every part of what we call India today, and many that are outside the boundaries of today’s India, have been mentioned in the list. This India described in the Mahabhrata is definitely not a British creation.

There are numerous other arguments to prove that India as a nation existed millennia before the British ‘gifted’ it to us. But of them, maybe some other time.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Religion and a Child’s Handful of Grass

I love Walt Whitman as a poet. Here are a few lines from his Song of Myself, which I find hauntingly beautiful.

“A child said ‘What is the grass?’ fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners,
That we may see and remark, and say Whose?”

The poem does not end here, but continues beautifully. However, this is enough for my present purpose, for my particular interest at the moment is in those last four lines: “Or I guess … and say Whose?”

When the child comes to the poet with a handful of grass in his hands and the question “What is the grass?” many answers comes to the poet’s mind. One of them is from the medieval times – the days of knights and their lady loves, of chivalry, honour, bravery, courage, courtliness and romantic love.

As you read those lines, an image emerges in your mind. Of a beautiful, lady of courtly bearing driving by in her carriage, of her seeing a knight on the way and being attracted to him, and of her dropping her handkerchief for him to pick up. The handkerchief is her gift to him, something to remember her by – a scented gift and remembrancer. The handkerchief bears its owner’s name – her name – in one corner of it. And she drops it on purpose, designedly. She wants him to pick it up. And she wants him to see her name – initials – and ask make enquiries about its owner, about her.

And she wants more. She wants him to follow her, to court her, and to make love to her. She wants him to make her his lady love – every knight in the chivalrous times had a lady love – and she wants him to make her his lady love. She wants him to face dangers in her name, undertake adventures inspired by her, and fight battles for her sake. She wants him to love and adore her so that every step he takes is for her sake, every breath he breathes becomes for her sake.

The beautiful young woman in Whitman’s poem is God, the Lord. “I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,” he says, speaking of the handful of grass the child brings to him. The handful of grass is the handkerchief that God has dropped so that man will it pick it up, look at the name in the corner, remark, “Whose?” and search for its owner, court him and live and die for him.

In its long ages of search for God, humanity has developed innumerable paths leading to him/her. And on each path, the relation between the seeker and God, the devotee and the Lord, is unique.

The Sufis see God as the Beloved. Sufism is the path of Love leading to God. It is bhakti at its highest. The Sufis court God as a man courts his ladylove. In the Sufi interpretation of Laila Majnun, perhaps the most famous love story in the world, Majnun is the devotee and Laila is God, love for whom intoxicates him, haunts him day and night and drives him to madness.


It is frequently said that religion is born of vairagya, that the quest for God begins when one develops dispassion for the world. Most monastic traditions follow the path of dispassion for the world. A sadhaka on this path has to reject the world altogether. And reject it with all that is good in it and all that is bad in it. He turns away from everything by seeing the defects in all things – by maintaining doshadrishti. He meditates on those defects so that his mind is not drawn toward these.

The Bhaja Govindam says, speaking from the standpoint of the male aspirant: naaree-sthanabhara-naabheedesham/ dRishtvaa maa gaa mohaavesham/ etan maamsavasaadi-vikaaram/ manasi vichintaya vaaram vaaram. Seeing the full breasts and the deep navel of a woman, do not get enticed and deluded, since these are nothing but modifications of flesh and fat. Reflect over this [truth] again and again.

In his need to turn the spiritual aspirant away from the world, Bhaja Govindam attacks all relationships, including family relationships that are otherwise considered sacred, and says: yaavad-vittopaarjana-saktah/ taavan nijaparivaaro raktah/ paschaaj jeevati jarjaradehe/ vaartaam ko’pi na pRcchhati gehe. So long as you are capable of making money, your family is attached to you. And after than when you live in your broken down body, no one takes the least interest in you.

Spirituality based on vairagya leads to world denial. Religions that stress vairagya become life denying and world negative.

But there is a different kind of religion too. A religion that see the world as filled with the glory of God and sees God as the source of that beauty and splendour.

Krishna’s religion belongs to this kind. The whole of the 10th chapter of the Gita, called the Vibhooti Yoga, the Path of Splendour, speaks of this kind of religion. He asks us to seek God in everything that is splendorous and says:

“Among the Vedas, I am the Sama Veda; I am Indra among the gods; among the senses I am the mind; and I am the intelligence among living beings. And among the Rudras, I am Shankara; among the Yakshas and Rakshasas, I am the Kubera; among the Vasus I am Lord of Fire; among the mountains I am the MERU … Among the great Rishis I am Bhrigu; among words I am the one-syllabled OM; among sacrifices I am the sacrifice of silent repetition; and among immovable things, I am the Himalayas…”

Concluding his long list Krishna says:

yad yad vibhūtimat sattvaM śrīmad ūrjitam eva vā |
tat tad evāvagaccha tvaM mama tejo 'mśa-saMbhavam ||BhG_10.41||

“Whatever is glorious, prosperous or endowed with energy in any being, know that to be a manifestation of a part of My splendour.”

God could be seen in and through his glory expressed in the creation.

As in most of his other teachings, Krishna, the Veda Purusha, is restating in his own terms, modern for his age, the ancient teachings of the Vedas.

The Vedas see God in everything; and they particularly love to see God in everything that is splendorous. Thus the God of the Vedas is addressed in the following words, in this prayer in which Agni is seen as God:

“Thou O Agni, art Indra, the hero of heroes. Thou art Vishnu of the mighty stride, adorable. Thou, O Brahmanaspati, art Brahman who possesses wealth. Thou, O Sustainer, tendest us with wisdom.”

“Thou, O Agni, art King Varuna whose laws stand fast. Thou as Mitra, wonder-worker, art adorable. Thou art Aryaman, lord of heroes, enriching all. O thou God, thou liberal Amsha in the celestial assembly.”

“Thou, God Agni, art Aditi to the offerer of oblation. Thou, Hotra Bharati, art glorified by the song. For conferring power, thou art the hundred-wintered Ila. Thou, Lord of wealth, art Vritra-slayer and Sarasvati.” [RV II 1-11]

Agni is everything that is glorious; God is everything that is glorious.

The Shatarudriya, which is part of the Yajur Veda, says:

“Prostration to Rudra, who protects with His outstretched bow, the Ruler of all fields (temples, bodies and all creation). Prostration to the Charioteer (Director of all things), the Invincible One, the Lord of all forests, (vegetation life). Prostration to the Crimson-hued One, who, existing (even) in trees, is the Supreme Protector of all ...

“Prostration to Him who is in marshes and lakes; prostration to Him who is in rivers and reservoirs; prostration to Him who is in wells and pits; prostration to Him who is in rains and in oceans; prostration to Him who is in the clouds and in lightning.

“Prostration to Him who is in the autumnal clouds and in the heating sun; prostration to Him who is in the winds and in the stormy downpours of the deluge; prostration to Him who is in the wealth of cattle and land.”

Seeing God in his splendour as manifested in the world is a way taught by our ancient masters, including the Vedic rishis and Krishna himself.

Rather than hating the world and rejecting it, a healthier path to God and God realization is seeing his glory in everything. In the sunrise, in the glory of the midday sun, in the sunset; in the innocence of childhood, in the passion of youth and the serenity of old age. In summer, in winter, in spring and in the rainy season. In man, in woman, in animals, birds, in trees, in plants, and in the grass.

Which is what the Shvetashvatara Upanishad does when it addresses God and says: “Thou art the woman, thou art the man; thou art the youth, thou art the maiden; thou, as an old man, totterest along supported by thy staff; thou art born with thy face turned everywhere. Thou art the dark-blue bee, thou art the green parrot with red eyes, thou art the thunder-cloud, the seasons, the seas. Thou art without beginning, because thou art infinite. Thou art he from whom all worlds are born.”

Everything is God and in everything God could be seen. Everything should remind one of the splendour and glory of God. Everything is “the handkerchief of the Lord,/A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,/Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners,/That we may see and remark, and say Whose?”

Here is something beautiful that Osho says:

“Those who say that the world is ugly and renounce it are absolutely wrong, because if you renounce this world, deep down you are renouncing the creator. Don’t renounce. A woman’s face is beautiful, because it reflects [the glory of its Creator]. A man’s face is beautiful, the body is beautiful, because they reflect. The trees are beautiful, the birds are beautiful, because they reflect. The reflection is so beautiful – what to say about the original? So a real seeker is not against the world. A real seeker loves the world so much, he loves the reflection so much that he wants to see the original.”

When you seek the woman who dropped the handkerchief for you, you are not doing so because you hate the handkerchief, but the handkerchief is so beautiful, the scent so alluring, you want to see the woman who dropped it so that you would pick it up.

Religion can be life assertive, rather than life negative. And in today’s world, you need religion that is life assertive rather than life negative. What we need today is not a religion that tells us there is no beauty in the world, but one that tells us that all beauty has only one Source and helps us see that immense, incredible, indescribable Source of all beauty.

The religion of the poet, the religion of the lover, is more relevant today than the religion of the ascetic.

Perhaps that is how it has always been.


Note: The illustration on top shows Laila and Majnun. Translations from the Gita are from my Gurudev Swami Chinmayananda’s The Holy Gita and translations from the Vedas, by Dr AC Bose.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Women & Sufism

Sufism has been a subject of deep interest to me for more than three decades. The position of women in Sufism is widely misunderstood. Therefore, when I came across this excellent article by Camille Adams Helminski, I thought of sharing it with my readers. The following is the complete text of the article, published on with the same title as above. For more on the subject, please visit

Since the beginning of consciousness, human beings, both female and male, have walked the path of reunion with the Source of Being. Though in this world of duality we may find ourselves in different forms, ultimately there is no male or female, only Being. Within the Sufi traditions, the recognition of this truth has encouraged the spiritual maturation of women in a way that has not always been possible in the West.

From the earliest days onward, women have played an important role in the development of Sufism, which is classically understood to have begun with the Prophet Muhammad. Muhammad brought a message of integration of spirit and matter, of essence and everyday life, of recognition of the feminine as well as the masculine. Though cultural manifestations have covered over some of the original purity of intention, the words of the Qur'an convey the equality of women and men before the eyes of God. At a time when the goddess-worshiping Arabian tribes were still quite barbaric, even burying infant girls alive in favor of male offspring, this new voice of the Abrahamic tradition attempted to reestablish the recognition of the Unity of Being. It tried to address the imbalances that had arisen, advising respect and honor for the feminine as well as for the graciousness and harmony of nature.

In the early years of this new revelation, Muhammad's beloved wife, Khadija, filled a role of great importance. It was she who sustained, strengthened, and supported him against his own doubt and bewilderment. She stood beside him in the midst of extreme difficulty and anguish and helped carry the light of the new faith. It was to Muhammad's and Khadija's daughter, Fatimah, to whom the deeper mystical understanding of Islam was first conveyed, and indeed she is often recognized as the first Muslim mystic. Her marriage with Ali bound this new manifestation of mysticism into this world, and the seeds of their union began to blossom.

As the mystical side of Islam developed, it was a woman, Rabi'a al-Adawiyya (717-801 A.D.), who first expressed the relationship with the divine in a language we have come to recognize as specifically Sufic by referring to God as the Beloved. Rabi'a was the first human being to speak of the realities of Sufism with a language that anyone could understand. Though she experienced many difficulties in her early years, Rabi'a's starting point was neither a fear of hell nor a desire for paradise, but only love. "God is God," she said, "for this I love God... not because of any gifts, but for Itself." Her aim was to melt her being in God. According to her, one could find God by turning within oneself. As Muhammad said, "He who knows himself knows his Lord." Ultimately it is through love that we are brought into the unity of Being.

Throughout the centuries, women as well as men have continued to carry the light of this love. For many reasons, women have often been less visible and less outspoken than men, but nevertheless they have been active participants. Within some Sufi circles, women were integrated with men in ceremonies; in other orders, women gathered in their own circles of remembrance and worshiped apart from men. Some women devoted themselves to Spirit ascetically, apart from society, as Rabi'a did; others chose the role of benefactress and fostered circles of worship and study. Many of the great masters with whom we in the West are familiar had female teachers, students, and spiritual friends who greatly influenced their thought and being. And wives and mothers gave support to their family members while continuing their own journey towards union with the Beloved.

Ibn Arabi, the great "Pole of Knowledge" (1165-1240 A.D.), tells of time he spent with two elderly women mystics who had a profound influence on him: Shams of Marchena, one of the "sighing ones," and Fatimah of Cordova. Of Fatimah, with whom he spent a great deal of time, he says:

"I served as a disciple one of the lovers of God, a gnostic, a lady of Seville called Fatimah bint Ibn al-Muthanna of Cordova. I served her for several years, she being over ninety-five years of age... She used to play on the tambourine and show great pleasure in it. When I spoke to her about it she answered, 'I take joy in Him Who has turned to me and made me one of His Friends (Saints), using me for His own purposes. Who am I that He should choose me among mankind? He is jealous of me for, whenever I turn to something other than Him in heedlessness, He sends me some affliction concerning that thing.'... With my own hands I built for her a hut of reeds as high as she, in which she lived until she died. She used to say to me, 'I am your spiritual mother and the light of your earthly mother.' When my mother came to visit her, Fatimah said to her, 'O light, this is my son and he is your father, so treat him filially and dislike him not.'1

When Bayazid Bestami (d. 874), another well-known master, was asked who his master was, he said it was an old woman whom he had met in the desert. This woman had called him a vain tyrant and told him why: by requiring a lion to carry a sack of flour, he was oppressing a creature God himself had left unburdened, and by wanting recognition for such miracles, he was showing his vanity. Her words gave him spiritual guidance for some time.

Another woman for whom Bestami had great regard was Fatimah Nishapuri (d. 838), of whom he said, "There was no station (on the Way) about which I told her that she had not already undergone." Someone once asked the great Egyptian Sufi master Dho'n-Nun Mesri, "Who, in your opinion, is the highest among the Sufis?" He replied, "A lady in Mecca, called Fatimah Nishapuri, whose discourse displayed a profound apprehension of the inner meanings of the Qur'an." Further pressed to comment on Fatimah, he added, "She is of the saints of God, and my teacher." She once counseled him, "In all your actions, watch that you act with sincerity and in opposition to your lower self (nafs)." She also said: "Whoever doesn't have God in his consciousness is erring and in delusion, whatever language he speaks, whatever company he keeps. Yet whoever holds God's company never speaks except with sincerity and assiduously adheres to a humble reserve and earnest devotion in his conduct."2

The wife of the ninth-century Sufi Al-Hakim at-Tirmidhi was a mystic in her own right. She used to dream for her husband as well as for herself. Khidr, the mysterious one, would appear to her in her dreams. One night he told her to tell her husband to guard the purity of his house. Concerned that perhaps Khidr was referring to the lack of cleanliness that sometimes occurred because of their young children, she questioned him in her dream. He responded by pointing to his tongue: she was to tell her husband to be mindful of the purity of his speech.

Among the women who followed the Way of Love and Truth, there were some who rejoiced and some who continually wept. Sha'wana, a Persian, was one of those who wept. Men and women gathered around her to hear her songs and discourses. She used to say, "The eyes which are prevented from beholding the Beloved, and yet are desirous of looking upon Him, cannot be fit for that vision without weeping." Sha'wana was not only "blinded by tears of penitence, but dazzled by the radiant glory of the Beloved."3 During her life she experienced intimate closeness with Friend, or God. This profoundly influenced her devout husband and her son (who became a saint himself). She became one of the best-known teachers of her time.

One of those who rejoiced was Fedha, who was also a married woman. She taught that "joy of heart should be happiness based on what we inwardly sense; therefore we should always strive to rejoice within our heart, till everyone around us also rejoices."4

For the most part, the words of women in Sufism that remain from centuries past come from traditional accounts of their comments or from poems that developed around their words. Though the Qur'an strongly encourages education for women as well as men, women sometimes received fewer opportunities for instruction than men in similar circumstances. In this article I will not attempt to address the evolving role of women in exoteric Islam, as it is varied and complex. We must recognize, though that women in general around the world have often faced prejudicial treatment because of their gender. Within Islamic society as well as within our own, difficult treatment of women has occurred -- in some cases obvious, in some cases insidious. Though local cultural overlays and male-dominated Islamic jurisprudence may have increased restrictions on women in various areas, the Qur'an basically enjoins mutual respect and valuation of the human being regardless of sex or social situation. Within Sufism, this more essential Qur'anic attitude has prevailed.

Furthermore, the cultures in which Sufism existed tended to convey more material orally than in written form, and women in particular may have had less of a tendency to write, preferring instead to simply live their experience. Nevertheless there were women who did write of their mystical experience in songs, in journals, and in critical exposition. As Western scholarship translates more of these works, more of the story of Sufism is becoming accessible to us.

As this story unfolds, we are discovering the lives and work of many Sufi sisters. Among these was Fatimah or Jahan-Ara, the favorite daughter of Shah Jahan, the Mogul emperor of India (1592-1666). Fatimah wrote an account of her initiation called Risala-i Sahibiyya, which is known as a beautiful and erudite exposition of the flowering of Sufism within her heart.

Aisha of Damascus was one of the well-known mystics of the fifteenth century. She wrote a famous commentary of Khwaja 'Abdo'llah Ansari's Stations on the Way (Manazel as-sa'erin) entitled Veiled Hints within the stations of the Saints (Al-esharat al-khafiys fi'l-manazel al-auliya').5 Bib Hayati Kermani belonged to a family immersed in the Sufi tradition. Her brother was a shaikh of the Nimatullahi Order, and she became the wife of the master of the order. After her marriage, she composed a divan (collection of poems) that revealed her integration of both the outer and the inner knowledge of Sufism.

Among the Bektashis, an order in which women have always been integrated with men in ceremonies, many women have continued the tradition of composing sacred songs (illahis). In 1987, a songbook entitled Gul Deste ("A Bouquet of Roses") was published in Turkey. It brings together sacred hymns written by women and men of the Bektashi tradition from the nineteenth century to the present.

Sufi women around the world today continue to teach and share their experience personally as well as in written form. In the Sudan, for instance, there continue to be shaikhas (female shaikhs) who are particularly adept in the healing arts. In the Middle East, women continue to mature in many Sufi orders. In Turkey in particular, the teachings continue through women as well as men, perhaps even more so now than in the past because of Ataturk's proscription of the sufi orders early in the century, which drove much of Sufi practice into private homes. One luminous lady, Feriha Ana, carried the Rifai tradition in Istanbul until her recent death; Zeyneb Hatun of Ankara continues to inspire people in Turkey and abroad with her poems and songs.

In central Turkey, the mother of a friend of ours one day heard someone knocking and answered her door. A man stood at her threshold with a message. He had come to ask her to lead a Naqshbandi women's circle. He explained that his shaikh, who lived quite a distance away, had seen her in a dream and had sent him to the place that had been indicated. When she protested that she did not know his shaikh and felt inadequate for such a responsibility, the man replied, "Do not worry. Our shaikh has seen your purity. He says that whenever you have a question you should hold that question in your heart, and in your dreams he will bring you the answer." Thus began her apprenticeship.

Sufi schools spread from the Middle East to Europe long ago, and new waves continue to arrive. Irina Tweedie, author of Daughter of Fire, recently conveyed an Indian branch of the Naqshbandi line back to her native England. Her work is being continued here in America through the Golden Sufi Center of California.

A popular strain of Sufism that has been very welcoming of women is the Chishti Order, which was brought to America by Hazrat Inayat Khan. Of the many women involved, Murshida Vera Corda is perhaps the best-known; her work with children in particular has been a great inspiration to many parents.

One branch of Sufism that has become better-known in the West in recent years is the Mevlevi. Within this tradition, which was founded upon the example of Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi, women have always been deeply respected, honored, and invited to participate in all aspects of the spiritual path. Rumi's family itself had a long tradition of recognizing the spiritual beauty and wisdom of women. It was his grandmother, the princess of Khorasan, who first lit the spark of inquiry in Rumi's father, Bahaeddin Weled. Under her care, he grew to be the "sultan of the learned" and a great spiritual light in his time. Rumi's mother, Mu'mine Hatun, a devout and saintly lady, was very dear to him. She died shortly after Rumi's own marriage to Gevher Hatun, the daughter of one of Bahaeddin's closest disciples. Gevher Hatun had grown up beside Rumi, listening to his father's discourses. This beautiful woman, who was known to have the heart of an angel, was the mother of Sultan Weled, to whom Rumi's own teacher, Shams-i-tabriz, conveyed many mysteries. In his Conversations (Maqalat), Shams himself stressed the equal capacity of women to be intimate with the Ineffable and to "die before death."

Mevlevi shaikhas have often guided both women and men. Rumi had many female disciples, and women were also encouraged to participate in sema, the musical whirling ceremony of the Mevlevis. (Women usually had their own semas, though they sometimes performed together with men.) One of Rumi's chief disciples was Fakhr an-Nisa, known as "the Rabi'a of her age." In recent years, seven centuries after her death, it was decided to reconstruct her tomb. Shaikh Suleyman Hayati Dede, who was then the acting spiritual head of the Mevlevi Order, was asked to be present when she was exhumed. He later told of how, when her body was uncovered, it was totally intact and the fragrance of roses filled the air.

Of course such women have always existed and have brought much light into this world; one might ask how anyone could think otherwise. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world and many spiritual traditions, this has been questioned. Within Sufism, however, women and men have always been respected as equals on the spiritual path. Everyone is expected to establish his or her own direct connection with the divine, and women are no different from men in this capacity.

Within Sufism, the language of the Beloved and the recognition of the feminine helps to balance some of the old cultural stereotypes that were sometimes used in expository writing and which the Western media have chosen to highlight. Rumi often speaks beautifully of the feminine, presenting woman as the most perfect example of God's creative power on earth. As he says in the Mathnawi, "Woman is a ray of God. She is not just the earthly beloved; she is creative, not created."

It is precisely this creativity and capacity for love and relationship that suits women so well for the Sufi way of opening to relationship with the divine. As we come to recognize the magnificence of the benevolent Source of Life, we can come to see ourselves in harmony with it. Each surah (chapter) of the Qur'an begins with Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim, which means "In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful." Rahman speaks to the fundamental beneficence inherent in the divine nature, Rahim to the particular mercy that manifests. Both words come from the same root, which is the word for "womb." God's mercy and benevolence is always emphasized as being greater than His wrath; the encompassing generosity and nurturance of the divine is the milieu in which we live.

As women, we come from the womb and carry the womb. We give birth from the womb and can find ourselves born into the womb of Being. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is very much revered in Sufism and Islam as an example of one who continually took refuge with the divine and opened to receive divine inspiration within the womb of her being. As women, we have great capacity for patience, for nurturing, for love. A contemporary male Sufi teacher once described an ideal guide as one who is like a mother -- one who is always there, without demands, willing to instruct and set limits, but also willing to stay up all night to nurse a suffering child.

Sufism recognizes that committed relationship and family are not contrary to the flowering of spirituality, but rather are wonderful vessels for spiritual ripening. The beauty of partnership, children and family are great blessings, containing the inspiration, the breathing in, of the divine. As we deepen our capacity for relationship and fidelity in the human sphere, we also increase our capacity for relationship with God.

We need to stand together in the light. The way is opening in our own time for greater recognition of equal partnership. We have much to learn from each other, and male and female need to recognize each other so that we can come to balance within ourselves as well as creating balance outwardly in the world. The male attributes of strength and determination also belong to women; the feminine attributes of receptivity and beauty also belong to men. As we look to the divine in each other, encouraging each other to rise to the fullness of his or her own divine nature, we push against our limitations until they dissolve and a gift unfolds. As we learn to witness the miracle of creation, a time comes when "wheresoever you look, there is the Face of God; everything is perishing except the One Face."

Whether we choose celibacy or committed partnership, whether we are female or male, the same work remains of polishing the mirror of the heart, of being in remembrance moment by moment, breath by breath. Each moment we reaffirm the inner marriage until there is no longer lover or Beloved but only Unity of Being. Little by little, we die to what we thought we were. We are dissolved into Love, and we become love, God willing.

As Rabi'a says:

In love, nothing exists between breast and Breast.
Speech is born out of longing,
True description from the real taste.

The one who tastes, knows;
The one who explains, lies.
How can you describe the true form of Something
In whose presence you are blotted out?
And in whose being you still exist?
And who lives as a sign for your journey?6

1Ibn 'Arabi, Sufis of Andalusia, tr. R.W.J. Austin (Sherborne, Gloucestershire: Beshara Publications, 1988), pp. 25-26
2Javad Nurbakhsh, Sufi Women, tr. Leonard Lewisohn (London: Khaniqah-Nimatullahi Publications, 1990), p. 162
3Margaret Smith, Rabi'a the Mystic and Her Fellow Saints in Islam (San Francisco: Rainbow Press, 1977 [1928]), pp. 146, 148
4Nurbakhsh, p. 165
5Ibid., p. 147
6Charles Upton, Doorkeeper of the Heart: Versions of Rabi'a (Putney, VT: Threshold Books, 1988), p. 36


Monday, February 15, 2010

The Butcher, the Harlot and Zen

A butcher’s job is considered one of the worst in any society. In India, where ahimsa is one of the highest values and vegetarianism is a way of life based on this principle of ahimsa extended to the entire living kingdom including that of animals, it is looked down upon as few other professions are. And yet the Mahabharata portrays a butcher as a saint, an awakened one – and awakened not through asceticism practiced but by virtue of his commitment to his job – selling meat and doing other things that his circumstances have decided for him.

The story begins with a brahmana ascetic called Kaushika [In the Bhagavata version of the story he is called Kapila. In the Kathasaritsagara, he is just a brahmana, without a name. My narration here closely follows the Mahabharata version.] Kaushika was seated under a tree one morning and was narrating the Vedas when droppings from a crane perched on the tree happened to fall on him. Deeply annoyed, he looked at the crane in fury and as his eyes fell on the crane, it fell down dead on the ground in front of him. Kaushika was deeply disturbed by what had happened – he was a brahmana and a brahmana does not kill. But that is what he had done. Unknown to him, however, there arose in his mind another feeling: I am so far advanced in my tapas that an angry glance from me can kill. His ego, the demon which the entire Indian culture says is our one and only true enemy, eliminating which is the purpose of all spirituality, asserted itself with a thousand fold more strength than a minute before.

A while later the brahmana was on his daily rounds of bhiksha, alms. He reached a home and the lady of the home requested him to wait while she came back with the bhiksha. Inside the house she started cleaning the vessel used for giving bhiksha and at that time, her husband came home. Forgetting all about the ascetic and the bhiksha for him, the woman started serving her husband. She gave him water to wash his feet and face and then serving him a meal, stood beside him fanning him.

It was only after her husband had finished his meal that she realized that she had asked the ascetic to wait. She came rushing to him and apologised. However the brahmana had by then grown furious. Seeing his burning eyes set on her, the woman said, “Please, O revered brahmana, hold your anger. I know all about the powers of a brahmana’s anger. But true brahmanya is in holding anger and not in making innocent people subjects to it. My husband was thirsty and hungry and my first duty was to him. And the moment I finished that, I have come rushing to you.”

The woman could see the brahmana was not satisfied with her answer. He was staring at her as though he wished to reduce her to ashes. Rising up her head she told him, her voice still polite, “Please, do not think I am a crane that will fall down dead at your anger.”

The ascetic was now dumbfounded. What had the woman said? Did she really say that, or did he imagine it? How did the woman know about what had happened to the crane? Apart from him, nobody knew of it and he had certainly not told anyone of it.

All on a sudden all his fury left him. This was no ordinary woman standing before him. He felt humble before her. “How did you know about the crane? What power do you have that you saw what happened under the tree this morning? What is the secret of your power?”

The woman said, “If you want answers for your questions, please go to Dharmavyada who lives in the city of Mithila. [In some other versions of the story, it is Kashi.] He will give you all the answers you need. I am just a simple woman who does her duties sincerely.”

The man bowed before the woman in humility and straight away took the path that led to Mithila, the capital of the legendary king Janaka, the wisest of all kings in ancient Indian literature.

There, when he asked about Dharmavyadha, he was directed to a butcher’s shop. Shocked by the sight of what he saw there, he stood away from the shop and waited. The butcher saw him and approaching him, greeted him, “So you are the brahmana the woman sent to me?” he asked and once again Kaushika was taken aback. How did the butcher know the woman had sent him?!

The butcher took the brahmana to his home, telling him a butcher’s shop was no place for a revered brahmana to come to. He made Kaushika wait there a short while, while he served his parents. Then he explained to the puzzled Kaushika the source of his power, his attainments.

Whatever he has attained, he told him, he has attained through total commitment to his dharma. As a butcher, he has a dharma and he showed total commitment to it. And as a family man he has another dharma, and he showed total commitment to it too. There is nothing one cannot attain through total commitment to one’s dharma. This is true of him as well as of the woman who had sent Kaushika to him.


Another profession universally condemned is that of a harlot, perhaps the worst profession a woman can follow in any society. The condemnation of the prostitute is no less in Indian culture than in any other culture. And yet amazingly, Indian culture tells us the story of a prostitute who attained to the highest spiritual heights – through her practice of prostitution.

Her name was Bindumati. The story tells us that one day Emperor Ashoka was taking a walk along the Ganga in Pataliputra. A couple of his ministers were with him, as was Bindumati. As they were walking along the river, an idle thought occurred to Ashoka and he spoke it out. “I wonder,” he said, “if anyone can turn the current of the mighty Ganga backward.”

There was total silence for a moment or two. The ministers were about to laugh at the emperor’s joke when Ashoka heard the prostitute speaking. “I can,” she said, looking straight at Emperor Ashoka.

Ashoka was stunned. The ministers were stunned. The woman must have gone mad! Who can make the Ganga flow backward!

But Bindumati looked serious. She was waiting for the emperor’s permission.

“You can turn the Ganga backward?” Ashoka wanted to make sure he had heart it right.

“Yes,” said Bindumati. “That is, if I have your permission.”

“Show me,” said Ashoka. “Show me now.”

And, says the story, Bindumati closed her eyes and stood in utter silence for a few moments. The emperor and the ministers watched her and then looked at the Ganga. And they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The Ganga was slowing down. The greatest miracle of their life was happening right before their eyes. Soon the Ganga became absolutely still. Like a long, endless lake. There was not ripple in the river, not a movement in the water.

They all turned back and looked at Bindumati with unbelieving eyes. And when they looked back at the Ganga again, the water had slowly begun flowing backward. And soon the roaring, mighty river was rushing backward with the same power with which it had rushed toward the sea minutes ago!

“How could you do that?” asked the emperor. It was more a shout than a question. A shout of wonder, of utter disbelief. “What sadhana have you practiced to attain this amazing power?”

“None,” answered Bindumati, in a voice as serene as could be. “None other than practicing my dharma as a prostitute. I practice the dharma of a prostitute with total commitment.”


These are truly amazing stories! Easily among the most beautiful stories in the world!

They belong to the category called teaching stories.

What do these stories teach us?

That the highest sadhana is total commitment to our dharma. Total, absolute commitment to our profession.

Total commitment to whatever life brings to us. Total commitment to whatever we are doing.

There is a beautiful Zen saying: “Even if the sun were to rise from the west, the Bodhisattva has only one way.” Commenting on the saying, the celebrated teacher Shunryu Suzuki says “The Bodhisattva’s way is called the single-minded way... His way is in each moment to express his nature and his sincerity.” [Zen Mind, the Beginner’s Mind]

Giving all of yourself to whatever you are doing – that is the single-minded way. Paying single-minded attention to whatever you are doing at the moment so that your mind does not wander into anything else at all.

When that happens, whatever you do acquires a rare quality.

Whatever we do acquires a rare quality because whenever this happens, we are in what contemporary psychology speaks of as the flow state. The flow state is the one in which all your actions are effortlessly excellent.

That is how a samurai attains excellence in action. By giving himself totally to what he is doing at the moment and by that entering into the flow.

I remember a scene from the movie The Karate Kid [Part I]. The old teacher there, “Mr Miyagi,” is building a wood cabin. He picks up a nail, three or four inches long, places it against a beam, and gives one single hit with his hammer. The hit looks effortless, but the nail goes fully inside – all four inches of it, not a centimetre less, and not a centimetre more.

That is what happens when you are in the flow state.

In the flow state you are totally single-minded.

Ekagrata. Relaxed ekagrata. Effortless ekagrata.

Because all your energies flow towards one single goal. With no disturbances, with no distractions.

Krishna calls the minds of such people vyavasayatmika buddhi.

That single-mindedness is the Bodhisattva way. And even if the sun rises in the west, the Bodhisattva does not act in any other way.

This is called Zen. Zen in action. Zen at its highest.

Achieving the Zen mind is the purpose of all meditation.

A meditator is always in Zen. He is in Zen when he is awake. He is in Zen when he is asleep. He is in Zen when he is in his meditation seat. He is in Zen when he is in the market, in his office, in a conference, wherever he is.

A true meditator has no other way. Even if the sun rises in the west.


I have a beautiful picture with me, downloaded from the Net. In that picture you see Shiva sitting and preparing bhang. And there is a beautiful look in Shiva’s eyes. The look of a man lost totally in whatever he is doing.

Shiva is in Zen while preparing his bhang.

Indian culture tells us the story of how Shiva burned Kama, the lord of sexual love, to ashes.

The Asura Taraka was tormenting the world with his power and the gods were helpless – there was only one person who could destroy Taraka, and that was a son born to Shiva and Uma, who was Shiva’s wife Sati reborn after her death through self-immolation in a fire she created using her yogic powers. She had done that in a fury against her father, because she did not want to live in a body she received through him. Uma, who remembered her past life as Sati, wanted to attain Shiva as her husband again. Unfortunately though, Shiva had taken to meditation after the death of Sati and was beyond the reach of the world.

Uma goes to where Shiva is sitting in tapas, the story tells us, and begins serving him. But Shiva is unaware of her presence, though a long, long time passes.

The Gods consult among themselves. Shiva has to be tempted, or else there is no hope for the Gods. Kama, shaking in terror of Shiva, accepts the job of creating temptation for Uma in Shiva’s mind. He comes to Kailasa, Shiva’s abode, and there waits for his opportunity. One day Shiva’s open eyes fall on Uma’s body, and that moment Kama shoots his arrows of desire at Shiva.

For a moment, Shiva is shaken by the power of desire. And then the next instant he recollects himself, realizing what has happened. He opens his third eye and Kama is reduced to ashes in an instant. Shiva goes back to his meditation.

When Shiva is in meditation, he is totally in meditation. Even the lord of desire cannot pull him out of his meditation.

To continue the story, years pass and Uma eventually wins Shiva as her husband, not through her beauty, but by the power of her tapas. And, Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava tells us, once the God who had burnt to ashes the God of sexual love becomes a lover, he becomes a total lover. Now he is just a lover, giving all of himself to his lovemaking. Shiva and Uma make love for ages without cessation and eventually the world comes to the brink of extinction because of their passion and the Gods have to interfere again.

There was yet another time we see Shiva giving himself up completely to an activity that he is doing: when he dances. We see Shiva dancing the tandava several times in his stories, the most famous of which is after the death of Sati. Shiva picks up her charred body and putting it on his shoulders, begins to dance his tandava. He is so completely in his tandava, that the Gods have to interfere once again to stop him and save the world from destruction.

When he makes bhang, he makes bhang. When Shiva meditates, he meditates. When Shiva makes love, he makes love. When Shiva dances, he dances.

Zen is when you give of yourself totally to whatever you are doing at the moment.

That is the way of the siddha – the man who has attained. And that is the way of the sadhaka – the man on the path to attainment.

Incidentally, the word Zen is of Indian origin. It is the Japanese form of the Sanskrit word dhyana, the Hindi word dhyan, Chinese chan or chen, meaning meditation.


Mere Paas Maa Hai: While There is Still Time

There was a very disturbing documentary shown on HBO recently: The Eleventh Hour. The documentary was about what we have done to the earth during the last one hundred and fifty years or so, where we have taken her in our greed and thoughtlessness and what we can do to save her and prevent our own extinction as a species. The same as the subject of the recent Copenhagen Summit. The documentary was aired at prime time: the 9.00 pm slot, the time reserved for the best shows. The Eleventh Hour deserved that slot.

I happened to see recently, through the generosity of a friend of my wife, another documentary on the same subject, or more or less the same subject: a documentary called Gaanv Chhodab Nahin – We Shall Not Give Up Our Villages. While the documentary on HBO discussed the whole earth, the focus of this documentary was on the tribal people of India, particularly of Chhota Nagpur, and what is happening to their land. The powerful refrain of the title song repeated throughout the documentary said: Gaanv chhodab nahin, jungle chhodab nahin, maai maati chhodab nahin, ladaai chhodab nahin. We shall not give up our villages, we shall not give up our jungles, we shall not give up our mother earth, and we shall not give our battle.

While in scope of Gaanv Chhodab Nahin is local, in power the documentary is easily superior to the HBO one. In fact if The Eleventh Hour scares you with its truth and forces you to think, this documentary shakes you with its power. You hold your breath and watch Gaanv Chhodab Nahin and you do not want to speak for a long, long time after you have watched it and you don’t want anyone to talk to you for hours either. The questions the documentary asks hit you with the power of a thousand pound sledge hammer. If the message of the documentary is powerful, the visuals are more powerful and the sound track, a hundred times more powerful.

It was weeks ago that I watched the movie, but the questions still haunt me. Here is one, for instance: Were our ancestors fools that they worshipped this earth? The question asked against the visuals of tribals worshipping trees, mountains, rivers and the earth itself forces you to look again at our approach to life.

A small piece of movie dialogue that every Indian – at least every Indian from the North – is familiar with comes to mind. It is from an old film, one of the early films of Amitabh Bachchan. Deewar, I believe.

A scene towards the end of the movie. On the screen are three people: Amitabh, his brother, played by Shashi Kapoor, and their mother. And Amitabh, now rich through money acquired through murder and crime, asks his borther: “Mere paas gaadi hai bangla hai, bank balance hai. Tumhaare paas kyaa hai?” ‘I have a car, I have a bungalow, and I have a bank balance. What do you have?” And Shashi Kapoor, with all the dignity of the common man who has lived a life of integrity can assume, says: “Mere paas maa hain.” “I have Mother.”

That is one statement for which Amitabh has no answer.

We human beings have been on this earth for a long, long time. And we have lived in harmony with the world all this while. The earth, our mother from whom we are born, provided us with everything we needed: food, shelter, clothing, and everything else. For hundreds of thousands of years we lived as her children. And then, all on a sudden – I believe the precise date is that of the industrial revolution – our relationship with her changed. Earth ceased to be our mother, and she became a ‘resource.’ A resource to be exploited, to be consumed. And there was a mad rush to exploit her before others exploited her.

And today – after a short period of about two hundred years – the mineral resources of the earth are fast being depleted, our oil resources are running out, our rivers and oceans are polluted, much of our drinking water is toxic, animal, bird, tree and plant species are disappearing from the face of the earth at an alarming rate never to reappear again, our forests are disappearing, the air we breathe is poisonous over much of the earth, the greenhouse effect is making the snows on our mountains and on the north pole melt, ocean levels are rising, islands all over the world are slowly sinking into the seas and tomorrow much of our continents will follow.

Yes, we have a lot of things today. We have technology and all that technology can provide. We have the internet and the computer, which you and I are using at this moment. We travel now at speeds that were inconceivable to man earlier. We can talk to anyone at any part of the world at any moment – soon every individual on the earth will have his own cell phone. The middle class man today lives in comforts that were beyond the reach of the royalty a hundred years ago. Our food production has gone up by leaps and bounds. We have conquered diseases.

Yes, we have all these things.

But at the price of losing our Mother.

We are now seriously considering migrations into other planets because this earth will soon be inhospitable. We will have to lose our Mother and search for new mothers. And if we go there, to those mothers, with the same attitude towards the world and towards life, we will lose those mothers too at a far greater speed than we are losing this mother.
Mere paas maa hai, said Shashi Kapoor in Deewar. Soon we will not be able to say that.

I am not against gaadi and bangle and bank balance. I am not against wealth. I am not against technology. I am not against the internet and the computer. I am not against fast vehicles and instant communication. I am not against agricultural revolutions and conquest of diseases. I am for them.

But we should be able to achieve these without losing our mother.

Mother plus these – wonderful. Mother minus these – no.

More than five thousand years ago the Mahabharata told us: anRśamsah chared artham. Pursue wealth without cruelty. Pursue wealth without cruelty to people, without cruelty to the environment, without cruelty to mother earth: without cruelty to our animals and birds, without cruelty to our trees and plants, without cruelty to our rivers and mountains.

Perhaps it is still not too late if we listen to the advice of the Mahabharata. Perhaps there is still time.


Eric Von Daniken says that ancient civilizations too had advanced technology. He says the weapons the Mahabharata describes as being used in the epic battle that destroyed our culture in 3138 BC were real weapons and not creations of fantasy.

I would like to believe they were not real but creations of a magnificent poet’s – a rishi’s – imagination. I belief humanity has never had the technology we now have. Perhaps humanity has never had the wealth it has now either.

But humanity has not always been poor.

India, for instance, has remained rich for a long, long time. I am speaking here of millennia. For several millennia, India has remained either the wealthiest or the second wealthiest nation in the world – compared to the west that has been rich only during that last two hundred years or so.

Several estimates speak of India controlling twenty percent of the world’s wealth at the time of the arrival of European powers in India. The United States of America today does not control twenty percent of the world’s wealth.

And we were able to achieve this feat that appears to be almost impossible in harmony with the world, without being cruel to our world. Without threatening the world’s existence.

We could acquire wealth without losing our mother. We could have gaadi, bungla and bank balance and our mother too.

We made this possible because our approach to life and to creation of wealth was based on a principle that the Vedas called ritam. In its essence, the principle of ritam means life in harmony with the flow of the universe.

Our ancient texts give us three metaphors for the ways of producing wealth. The first is the angarika vritti: the firewood-cutter approach, or the charcoal-seller approach.

The firewood-cutter goes to the forest and cuts down trees and brings them down to the market to sell. In his hands, each tree ends up as firewood.

The charcoal seller burns trees down, collects the coal and brings it to the market to sell. For him each tree is nothing more than some amount of coal.

This is precisely what we have been doing for the last few hundred years. Cutting down an entire tree for the charcoal it can provide us.

Take for instance the cases of the native buffalo hunters of the Wild West in America and the European hunters who arrived there later. The Native Americans have been hunting the buffalo for ages, without depleting their number. There were always hundreds of thousands of wild buffalo all around. And then the white Europeans came on the scene. Within an unbelievably short period, the buffalos almost disappeared from the American wilds.

While the Native Americans hunted for food and clothing, and hunted in small numbers, the European hunters saw profit in the buffalos. Their hide was valuable. A valuable commercial good. And they hunted the buffalos down in their thousands for their hide.

Do not be an angarika, says the Mahabharata. Instead, be the malakara, the garland maker.

Maalaakaaropamo raajan bhava maangarikopamah.

It is garland makers that the Native American hunters were. And it is angarikas that the European hunters were.

The garland maker goes to plants and gathers flowers from there. But he never destroys the plants.

This is malakara vritti. The garland-maker approach to the production of wealth.

You take in such a way that you dot deplete your resource.

And yet even this is not ritam, according to the Mahabharata. This is not living in harmony with the flow world. The way of the malakara is wiser than that of the angarika, but even the malakara is not in harmony with the flow of the world, even he is not practicing ritam.

Ritam is when you become the madhukari – the honey bee. Ritam is madhukari vritti – the honey bee approach. Ritam is when you give more than what you take.

What the honey bee takes from each flower is a tiny drop of honey. But what it gives back to the plant is its life itself, making its survival as a species possible, through pollination.

The madhukari takes a drop of honey from the plant and in return, helps the plant life for all times to come. By taking a drop of honey, it sustains the plant, it makes its future possible.

This is ritam.

The Chinmaya Mission has a beautiful pledge, which says, in part, “...producing more than what I consume, giving more than I take...” That is madhukari vritti and that is ritam. And that is what we need today.

During a class discussion in a course in INDIAN ETHOS IN MANAGEMENT that I taught recently at Xavier Institute of Management and Research [XIMR, St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai], a question that came up was: to what extent are our corporate houses sincere in their CER activities – Corporate Environmental Responsibilities?

I think that is a question each corporate house should ask of itself. Are the CER activities for the credit points they can fetch or because we believe in them, credit points or no credit points?

Follow the Vedic principle of ritam, and once again, we can have gaadi, bungla and bank balance, and at the same time we can have our mother too.

Man needs both. Man needs his Mother. Man needs gaadi and bungala too.

Ritam is perhaps the most valuable lesson the modern world can learn from the earliest surviving literature of the world.

And we must learn it. For if we do not, we ourselves will not survive.

If for no other reason, we need ritam for our most selfish reasons.

There is a new term we use now: enlightened self interest.

Ritam is enlightened self interest.


Postscript: The Kolkata edition of The Hindustan Times of Today [Feb 15, 2010] contains a piece of news under the title: Sorry Honey, Pesticides Killing Bees. The news says: Our honeybees are disappearing. The blurb reads: A survey has shown that the honey bee population in the country has fallen by 40 percent in the last 25 years. What is killing the honeybees is the excessive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers in agriculture.

All major agricultural crops are dependent on honeybees. Apart from other losses, there will be no crops if the honeybees die.

And another piece of news I heard today says that in many places vultures do not eat the carcases of cows. This happens in the case of cows that have been given chemical injections for years so that they yield more milk. The chemicals make the cow’s body so toxic that when they die vultures instinctively shy away from them.

The list, I have no doubt, will be long, if one starts looking at it.

Warning signs to us not to forget ritam. Warning signs that tell us: anRśamsah chared artham – Pursue wealth without cruelty.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Das Energi: You Can Eat the Cake and Have It Also

There is a tiny book called Das Energi, by Paul Williams. At one time the book used to be an underground bestseller and I used to love reading the book – it is a book meant for repeated reading and reflection. One of the readers had this to say about the book: “Everything I had read earlier was telling me ‘how’; Das Energi was saying ‘why!’

Here are a few interesting quotations from the book.

“Participating in the energy flow is the only satisfaction there is in life.”

“Hard work is relaxing. It is easy as falling off a log. It is a pleasure to make full use of one’s body. It is a pleasure to make full use of one’s mind… It is a pleasure to be part of the energy flow. A body or mind that is seldom in full motion is a body or mind that can seldom fully rest.”

“The only way to enjoy the show, to enjoy life, is as a participant. Perhaps it’s the people who think they’re spectators who spread the idea that all pleasure must be paid for. Don’t pay for anything – life is free.”

“The first law of the economics of energy is: you get what you need.”

“We each have access to all the energy there is, all we can conceive of. Which is infinite energy, in the sense that a circle is infinite. Energy circulates like blood; at every moment blood is flowing through every cell in the body. Each cell gets what it needs. It makes demands, what it needs to. Those demands are never ignored.”

Recently when I read something by Osho in My Way: The Way of White Clouds, Das Energi came to my mind. I am giving below part of what I read in My Way. The book is a collection of questions put to Osho by a group of his disciples from abroad and his spontaneous answers to them. The questions were: How can we build up energy? How can we retain it? In what ways do we lose it? Can we gain if from outside sources?
The first thing: you are part of an infinite energy, a wave in an infinite ocean. If you can remember this you never lose energy, because an infinite source is always available. You are just a wave, and deep down the ocean is hidden.

Continuously remember it and feel it. Moving, walking, eating, sleeping – feel you are infinite. This is what the Upanishads say; always feel you are the Brahman, the Eternal. If you can feel this more and more, you will become aware that you are not losing any energy. The source becomes available. You become a vehicle.

Then do whatsoever you want to do.

By doing, nobody loses energy. This is one of the fallacies of the human mind that if you do something, you lose energy. No. If you have this idea that doing something I am losing energy, you lose energy, not by doing, but by having the idea. Otherwise, through doing you can gain energy – if you have the idea. If you don’t have any idea, then also no energy is lost.

When people are retired they start thinking that now they have less energy so they must rest and relax more; they should not do anything, otherwise their energy is lost. And then they die sooner than they would have died. Statistics say that the life span is reduced by ten years: a person who is working may have lived to seventy; retired, he will die at sixty.

Your body is a dynamo. The more you use it, the more energy from the infinite source is supplied.

If you don’t use it there is no need for any new supply. Then by and by the supply stops. Be more active, and you will have more energy. Be less active, and you will lose much energy. Through activity energy is not lost, through activity you renew it. You use the energy, then from the source more energy becomes available.

Look at the trees. The sun rises and from the leaves of the trees water starts evaporating. The moment a leaf starts evaporating water, from the roots new water circulates, because it is a long process. The leaf releases water, then just near the leaf dryness is created. That dryness immediately sucks water from the twig; then the twig is dry, the twig sucks water from its branch. This goes on down to the roots; then the roots suck water from the earth.

If the leaves think: If we evaporate water then we will die, we will feel thirsty – then this tree is going to die. Because then new sources will not be available, then the roots will not be able to function.

You also have roots into the infinite. When you use energy you suck energy from the infinite. Your roots start working.

A very fallacious idea is in the human mind, that through activity we lose energy. No. The more active, the more energy you will have; the less active, the less energy.

And this is true of activity in all directions of life. Love more and you will have more love to give. Become a miser and think: If I love more, then my love will be dissipated, and sooner or later I will not have any love anymore, so it is better to preserve it. Then your love will die and you will not be able to love.

Love, and more love becomes available; use more and you have more. This is the law of life. You can eat the cake and have it also. Compassion, love, activity, whatsoever the dimension, the same rule applies. Whatsoever you want more of, do the same. If you want to become an infinite source of love, then go on sharing love as much as you can. Don’t be a miser; only misers lose energy.

And we are all misers, that’s why we always feel dissipated.

But the idea can be dangerous, poisonous. If you have an idea, that idea works. Mind works through hypnosis.

Energy is not something stored there. It is being created every moment. If you don’t use it, it goes stale and dead. If you don’t use it, it will make you stale and dead. Then the flow has stopped. But if you go on flowing, more and more becomes available to you.

Jesus says somewhere – one of the most foundational things – he says: If you try to cling to life, you will lose it; and if you are ready to lose it, you will have it in abundance.

Always remember and be filled with the idea that whenever you give something, from the roots more becomes available to you, more is given to you.

God is the giver, the unconditional giver.

If you are also a giver, your hands will always be empty and then God can give you more. If you are a miser, your relationship with the divine is cut. Then you live as a small wave, always afraid of losing.

Live as the ocean. Be oceanic! Never think of losing, about anything. Nothing is lost, nothing can be lost. And you are not an individual; you only appear as an individual. The whole is joined to you; you are just a face of the whole, just a way the whole has happened. Don’t be worried about it. It is never going to end. This existence is beginningless and endless.

Enjoy, celebrate, be active, and always be a giver. To be a giver so totally that you never think of retaining or holding anything is the only real prayer.

To give is to pray. To give is to love. And those who can give, they are always given more.


Sunday, February 7, 2010

Zen and Alberto Moravia’s Ashtray

In Alice in Wonderland, Alice asks the Cheshire Cat “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” says the Cat.

“I don’t much care where–“ says Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” says the Cat.

“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” says the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

Some of us do not seem to reach anywhere in our lives because we do not walk long enough in any direction. Many of us end up being not far from where we started and some indeed even further behind, as though we have been walking backwards.


Alberto Moravia has for long been one of my favourite authors. When I read recently his story The Ashtray, in the short story collection Paradise, I remembered the conversation of Alice and the Cheshire Cat and of the way many of us live our lives.

The Ashtray tells the story of a woman of indeterminate age, but who, it appears, is not young any more. The story in the first person narrative begins with the woman standing in front of the mirror, her hand poised in the air, a wad of cotton-wool smeared with cleansing cream between two fingers. She has cleaned one half of her face, the left side, but is not able to make up her mind about cleaning the other half. Her brain tells her she should, but her instincts are not to finish the cleaning. She stands there looking at herself, irresolute and motionless, and through her mind pass thoughts about what she had done through the day that is about to end.

She has done a great number of things, she recalls, but brought none of them to a conclusion. She realizes her day has been like an ashtray which a neurotic smoker has filled, during many hours, with a quantity of cigarette-ends, some of them long, some of them short, some of them barely scorched. Her day has been filled with acts that she had left half, or only a quarter accomplished; and like the cigarette-ends, these acts, now that she comes to think of them, seems to her to be dead, cold, evil-smelling.

“I began the morning when the maid deposited my breakfast tray on my bed. I had intended: 1] to arrange the menu for the two meals of the day; 2] to read the newspaper; 3] to drink a cup of tea; 4] to eat a slice of bread with butter and honey; 5] to telephone to Clarice, a friend of mine, and ask her for a certain address. Instead of which, after starting a discussion about the first dish for lunch, I dismissed the cook impatiently and told her she must think about it herself. Then I poured out the tea and buttered the bread, but I drank only a sip of the first and ate only a morsel of the second because, in the meantime, I had opened the paper and had dipped – nay, had positively become immersed – in the account of a particularly strange crime.”

“Finally I also abandoned the newspaper halfway through because the telephone call came to mind. But, as I was dialling Clarice’s number, my eye fell on the alarm clock on the bedside table, and I saw it was late and that, as usual, I hadn’t time. Leaving the tea, the bread, the butter, the honey, the paper and the telephone on the bed, I rushed into the bathroom. But alas, the bathwater was now cold, it was positively icy. So I went under the shower. Suddenly the telephone rang; wet and half covered with soap I ran to it; too late, the telephone had stopped ringing. I dried myself as best as I could, made up my face and hurriedly dressed. Once I was in the taxi, however, I discovered that I had forgotten to put on any lipstick.”

Well, the story does not end here, but for the time being we shall take leave of this woman who is really not a stranger to most of us. She is not a stranger to most of us because this is how many of us live our lives too. Rather than focusing on a few things and finishing doing them, we tend to jump from one thing to another, and then to yet another and so on, leaving them all unfinished. We never seem to be able to focus on one thing at a time. The moment we begin doing something, something else appears to require our attention more urgently, and then we move on to that, and then from that to yet another thing, and so on.

When we do this, we are behaving like the man who digs a well five or ten feet deep and then before reaching water, abandons it and then moves on to a new place to dig another well – in the end the whole ground is full of wells, and none of them has any water. Or like a man who walks for a few minutes in one direction and then, changing his direction, walks in a different direction, only to abandon that too and to move on in yet another direction.

Speaking of the minds of such people, Krishna says in the Gita: “Many-branched and endless are the minds of the irresolute. But the minds of the resolute ones are single-pointed.”

vyavasaayaatmikaa buddhir ekeha kurunandana |
bahu-śaakhaa hyanantaaś ca buddhayo'vyavasaayinaam ||BhG_2.41||

It is only those with single-pointed minds that are able to achieve great things in life. It is only those with such single-pointed minds that become long distance runners in life.

There is no harm in having many goals in life. But one should learn to focus on one of those goals at a time. If we are able to do that, we end up growing stronger by the day, even the unseen powers of the world appearing to contribute to our strength, like streams joining a river headed resolutely for the sea, making the river stronger as it moves on. And when we are not focused on a single goal at a time, we end up being like a river that tries to flow in numerous directions all at once and in the process gets lost in the desert.


Zen is a Japanese philosophy that speaks of simplicity. One of the many things we learn from Zen that could be applied to our daily life and work is this principle of simplicity. Which at a very practical level means to declutter our life.

One of the lessons we can learn from Zen is to cultivate deep commitment to just a few things in life. When we do this, we will find that our entire life falls into place. What is irrelevant drops off and life assumes the quality of a beautiful poem, rather than the mess it is now.

Also, Zen teaches us, instead of constantly running from one thing to another, instead of being constantly busy, occasionally do nothing. Just “be” and do nothing. In fact, one of the most important forms of Zen meditation is called shikantaza and shikantaza means just sitting, doing nothing.

This simple sitting, doing nothing, can transform your life in ways that are difficult to imagine until you do that. It can make your life richer beyond your expectations. It can bring an elemental quality to your life – an elemental quality that only simplicity can give it. The elemental quality and simplicity of a Zen garden. And what makes Zen gardens more beautiful than the most elaborately planned, complex gardens is this elemental quality.

Once in a while just do nothing.

Those few minutes of doing nothing are like the moments when the windows of your house are open and sunlight pours in through them. When we are constantly running from one thing to another, our windows are closed and sunlight, however glorious it is out there, is shut out from our house and our life.

We all need to get in touch with ourselves once in a while and this just sitting allows us to do that. We, sort of, grow roots into our being when we do that.

A beautiful story I have heard speaks of a distinguished explorer who was exploring the upper Amazon along with some of the primitive local people. Once, he says, he attempted a forced march through the jungle. The party made extraordinary speed for the first two days, but on the third morning, when it was time to start, he found all the natives sitting on their haunches, looking very solemn and making no preparation to leave. “They are waiting,” the chief explained to him. “They cannot move farther until their souls have caught up with their bodies.”

What a beautiful thing to say!

Our souls need time to catch up with us. And space. Lots and lots of empty space in our mind. It is only then that our souls can be with us.

Having empty spaces in our life is like having empty spaces in a room. The less the room is cluttered, the better it is as a space to live in.

But today we have forgotten to leave empty spaces within us. Our minds are crowded. Cluttered with a thousand things. We are exactly like the woman in Moravia’s story. All of us. Particularly some of us who occupy positions of responsibility. And we make a mess of our lives and the lives of those around us.

An idle mind is the devil’s workshop, goes the old saying. Maybe true, may not be true. But a crowded mind is definitely the devil’s workshop. When the mind is crowded, our hearts cannot breathe. And our souls suffocate.

Here is what an author says about creating empty spaces in your days: “Spending a few minutes doing nothing, sitting still, embracing the silence helps prevent you from falling apart. It gives you a chance to regain your perspective and to access a quiet part of your brain where your wisdom and common sense exist. When you sit still and do nothing, it allows your mind the opportunity to sort things out and settle down. It turns what usually looks like chaos into a more manageable moment and provides your mind with a chance to rest and regroup. Ideas and solutions will pop into your head that would never have done so in a frenetic state of mind. When you’re finished doing nothing or sitting still, it will often seem like life is coming at you a little slower, which makes everything seem a whole lot easier and less stressful.”


Since we began by talking about completing things, let’s go back to Moravia’s woman and see what she had done with the rest of her day. Remember she had gotten into a taxi in a hurry because she was late and in the taxi realized she had forgotten to put on any lipstick. Well, she goes to a bookstore and comes out irritated, without choosing what she wants to buy, then goes to a boutique and comes out from there too irritated without making a purchase because the salesmen in both places are too solicitous of her. She then goes to a bar and after ordering a drink, suddenly rushes out of the place without drinking it and without paying for it, because she sees a young man she would love to be with passing by outside in the street. She misses him, of course. She later has appointments with two lovers, two “incomplete” affairs again, and then she comes back home. That’s where she was standing unable to gather the will required to remove makeup from the other half of her face too as the story began.

When she goes to bed, her makeup is still there on the right side of her face. Her husband to whom she tries to warm up in bed, kissing his hand passionately, points this out to her.


Billu Barber

I had a poem in one of my school text books that asked rhetorically: Has the brave Krishna ever cried? Dheeranaya chentamarak-kannanundo karanjittulloo? Krishna as we see him in the Mahabharata is full of emotions – he can cry, he can pull his hair apart in frustration, and he can dance for joy, laughing uproariously. But Krishna as we see him in the Bhagavata is different – he cries only once in his life. That is when he meets as an adult and as the Lord of Dwaraka his childhood friend Sudama.

Tears come to some people easily, and to others not so easily. I belong to the first group. This is particularly so when I watch movies or a dance performance. I remember watching a Yakshagana performance based on the Bhasmasura story on the evening of 31st December last year and as I watched the dance of Shiva and Parvati there, I remember tears welling up in my eyes. On a recent stay in Mumbai, I remember becoming equally emotional on a different occasion, for reasons that are too personal to share here.

These are always tears of joy. It is feelings of love, friendship and so on that bring up the tears.

Watching today the final moments of the movie Billu Barber [Just Billu after the renaming of the movie], where Sahir [Shah Rukh Khan] meets his childhood friend Billu [Irfan Khan], it happened again.

I haven’t seen the entire movie. A few days ago I saw some half an hour of the movie – from the earlier part – and today I saw some half an hour of the end part. So I have missed much of the movie, but I knew enough of it to understand what exactly was happening.

Love and friendship can be so beautiful.


Here is the story of Billu from Wikipedia:

Billu (Irfan Khan) is a poor barber who lives with his wife Bindiya (Lara Dutta) and their two children, Gunja (Mitali Mayakar) and Ronak (Pratik Dalvi) in the village of Budbuda. He also spends time with his close friends Budbudiya (Rajpal Yadav) and Naubat Chacha (Asrani). Though struggling, Billu lives an uneventful life until Bollywood superstar Sahir Khan (Shahrukh Khan) comes to the village for a film shoot.

Billu has mentioned to his family that he knows Sahir from the past but has never elaborated how he knows the star. When his children talk about their father's friendship with the star, word spreads throughout the village. Virtually overnight, Billu, who had previously been scorned by most due to his lowly state, becomes the center of attention. People who had spurned him only the week before now call him a close friend so that he will introduce them to Sahir. Billu refuses and downplays the friendship. Even so, the powerful businessman Sahukaar Daamchand (Om Puri) demands to see Sahir and offers Billu expensive gifts in order to gain such a meeting. When Billu consistently fails to introduce the people of the village to Sahir, his situation changes once again. He is accused of lying about his friendship and everyone — including his wife and children — begins to doubt his character and integrity. Rather than defend himself, Billu remains quiet about the nature of his and Sahir's friendship.

On Sahir's last day in the village, the star speaks at a local school. He tells the children about his own impoverished childhood when he had nothing but a special friendship with another young boy, named Billu. It was Billu who took care of Sahir [including sharing his tiffin with him] and eventually helped him travel to Mumbai [by giving him his gold earrings, his only possession] where Sahir became a star. Billu, who is standing at the back of the event, leaves during the talk without revealing to Sahir that he is there. But the village people, realizing their error, take Sahir to Billu's house. Billu's children come home and apologize to their father. Then, Sahir appears, and Billu and Sahir are reunited.


As I watched the final scenes of the movie, I could not help recalling the story of the meeting of Krishna and Sudama [In the South Sudama is more commonly known as Kuchela, meaning the man in rags.]. It is one of the most moving stories from the Bhagavata and it has been an inspiration for men and women ever since the story was first told.

In the Bhagavata story, of course, Kuchela reaches Krishna. Here Billu fails to reach Sahir – he does not have the courage to. Or maybe, it is his humility, mixed with his insecurities. And it is Sahir that eventually comes to Billu – like Krishna coming to Sudama, rather than Sudama reaching him. I find Krishna coming to Sudama more beautiful than Sudama reaching Krishna. It is God that comes to the devotee, and the devotee never reaches him on his own. As the Upanishadic literature puts it, it is only to those He chooses that he reveals himself: yam eva esha vrnute tena labhyah; tasya esha atmaa vivrnute tanu’m svaam. I was happy to learn later that others have observed the similarities between the stories – or maybe that the original story was inspired by the Krishna-Sudama story.

The Hindi film is a remake of the super hit Malayalam film Katha Parayumbol [When the Story is Told]. The Tamil version of the movie is called Kuselan [Kuchela].


I love such friendships and loyalty to friends. Which is perhaps the reason why I loved the movie The Scent of a Woman so much, apart from the fact that I love Al Pacino as an actor. Pacino’s performance is brilliant in the movie, but what I loved more than anything else is the loyalty to friends that the young schoolboy in the movie displays and Pacino’s standing by him against the power of authority that wanted to crush that loyalty and punish the boy for it.

As the movie Billu reached its climax scene, I felt Sahir should give a slap to his childhood friend as they meet. Billu, for all his goodness, deserved a slap for his cowardliness and unassertiveness.

Or maybe, I am mistaken. A man in Billu’s position will see the superstar so high above him, he just wouldn’t be able to gather up the courage to approach him and reveal himself to him.

Though I have not yet seen the full movie, my feeling is that Billu makes no attempt to defend himself when the people of the village, and his own family too, question his integrity.

Which brings to my mind a beautiful Zen story.


A beautiful girl in the village was pregnant. Her angry parents demanded to know who the father was. At first resistant to confess, the anxious and embarrassed girl finally pointed to Hakuin, the Zen master whom everyone revered for living such a pure life. When the outraged parents confronted Hakuin with their daughter's accusation, he simply replied "Is that so?"

When the child was born, the parents brought it to the Hakuin, who now was viewed as a pariah by the whole village. They demanded that he take care of the child since it was his responsibility. "Is that so?" Hakuin said calmly as he accepted the child.

For many months he took very good care of the child until the daughter could no longer withstand the lie she had told. She confessed that the real father was a young man in the village whom she had tried to protect. The parents immediately went to Hakuin to see if he would return the baby. With profuse apologies they explained what had happened. "Is that so?" Hakuin said as he handed them the child.


A great master like Hakuin accepts whatever life brings with gratitude. Speaking of such people, Krishna says in the Gita: yadrcchaa-laabha-santushtah – he is happy with whatever ‘chance’ brings him. He does not reject anything that life brings to him, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant. Accepting everything, he lives like an ordinary man.

Zen is the philosophy of ordinariness. Awakened ordinariness. Billu the barber is not awakened, which makes all the difference. But for that all important thing, Billu has every quality of a Zen master. Perhaps Billu is an unawakened Zen master, whatever that means.

Ordinariness can be so beautiful – incredibly beautiful.

The Tibetans have a word that cannot be translated into any other language. An incredibly beautiful word. Drala. Drala means the beauty of ordinary things, the magic of ordinary things.

The magic of extraordinary things is ordinary magic. It is the magic of ordinary things that is extraordinary magic. The magic of ordinary things is the only true magic.

Billu is the celebration of ordinariness. Or, the celebration of the magic of ordinariness.