Indian Ink
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Indian Ink

My Guru doesn’t know I exist

A sceptic’s baby steps into meditation, guided by an online guru

This spectacular sculpture of Shiva is the world’s largest such creation (Photo by Adi Yogi from Pexels)

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I have never been one for Gurus.

In Indian culture, students are usually portrayed as subservient to a guru. That’s just not me. Besides, quite a few Gurus turn out to be frauds, while the rest are too intellectual for me. The one exception is Swami Vivekananda, a 19th-century sage, and possibly the first Indian sage fluent in English. How do you not like a guy who says, “You will be nearer to heaven through football than through the study of the Gita” (Soccer is called ‘football’ outside the US; Gita is a religious text of the Hindus).

Anyway, for the last few years, I have been living about half an hour away from the Isha Yoga Centre in south India. This ashram is famous not just for its yoga and meditation courses but also for the spectacular architecture of its many structures, which are a huge tourist draw by themselves. The Yoga Centre is a part of the Isha Foundation, a mega non-profit human service organization with over 300 worldwide centers and an astounding nine million volunteers.

Sadhguru who heads the Foundation is no run-of-the-mill Guru. He hobnobs with global leaders in politics and business and is a regular speaker at major international forums like the UN as well as top universities. His books have been New York Times bestsellers. He’s ranked among the top 50 influential people in India, is an outstanding eco-warrior who has led a massive campaign to revive the rivers of India, been directly responsible for the planting of zillions of trees, and is a recipient of the Padma Vibhushan (India’s highest civilian award). He also runs schools for kids and operates many services for the local farming community, paints, and writes poetry, besides being involved in a whole load of other things that simply need to be done.

Like this morning, I heard him talk about helping the local farmers set up a Farmer Producer Organisation (FPO) so they could cut out the exploitive middlemen and get a better price for their produce. But then he found that though farming income is not taxable in India, FPOs are. So he got in touch with the Indian Prime Minister, and got him to allow tax exemption up to ₹100 crore income for FPOs. And now he’s asking to have even this limit removed. Why I find this so impressive is the context. Close to 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide due to poverty over the last two decades. I could never figure out what to do, and here’s a guy implementing solutions.

This is the big difference between Sadhguru and all the other gurus I know of. He’s doing things for people and the planet on a scale that I have always dreamed of doing. Helping those poor farmers is just one instance. Anyone who does things you dream of, is one you respect, no matter how grudgingly.

Despite knowing all this, to me, he was just another Guru, maybe more famous and charitable, but dogged by the usual controversies.

Having second thoughts

Then earlier this year, my UK-based brother asked me why I didn’t check out this Guru in my backyard when people from the far corners of the globe were traveling all the way just to see the Guru and the Isha Yoga Centre.

That resonated with me. I hadn’t taken advantage of being able to pop in and out of the Isha Yoga Centre. I mean it takes the same time to visit the local mall. Even purely from a tourism viewpoint, it was a no-brainer. Not visiting the place, was like cutting off my nose to spite my face.

Temple Phobia

There was another reason for my avoiding visiting the Yoga Centre. As is customary in India, my wife and I had our wedding at a temple, which in our case was the Guruvayoor Temple, famed for hosting the original deity of Krishna, a much-beloved Indian God. At dawn on the chosen day, we landed up at the temple gates. You usually wait at the closed gates until the priest gets everything ready. Once they let you in, you get to have a quick passing darshan (view) of the deity. Anyway, there was a lot of devout folk patiently waiting outside the temple gates, both young and old. Then the gates opened, and all hell broke loose. The healthy young men pushed aside the old ladies standing in the queue ahead of them, and trampled over them in their desperate rush to see the deity and get his blessings.

As far as possible, I have since avoided temples and crowds.

Fascination for meditation

As a kid growing up in India, I had mixed feeling towards meditation. My teenage self just couldn’t digest the idea of sitting down and trying to think about nothing. It sounded insane and painful. On the other hand, tales of Indian sages meditating and developing superpowers fascinated me. Which kid didn’t want to be Superman? So I tried it.

Unfortunately, I was an absolute disaster at meditation.

Forget about mastering it, I couldn’t stop my restless mind from wandering for even a minute. It rankled. How could I, an Indian, be so poor at something so quintessentially Indian?

I did have one unexpected success in those years. This was when I was forced to look for my own cure for a painful recurring migraine headache which wouldn’t respond to any of the usual medicines. So I put together all my half-baked ideas of meditation, and developed my own version of ‘shower meditation.’ What’s remarkable is it actually worked, and completely cured me of those tormenting migraine headaches.

That whetted my appetite for meditation but there were no more successes. It was not for lack of trying. My last attempt was a year ago. A trainer from the ‘Art of Living’ school charged me a bomb, took a couple of sessions, and then disappeared after gifting me a magic mantra (phrase). Maybe I was just incompetent. I don’t know.

But hope springs eternal. Maybe I’d find the Holy Grail at the Isha Yoga Center. Maybe I can try out a guru, instead of always being in DIY mode.

If you can’t go to the mountain, then…

While I was thinking about this, the Covid lockdown hit India. I wasn’t going to be going anywhere for a long while.

Turns out Sadhguru was having the same issue, as he was forced to stay back at the Yoga Centre and cancel his hectic travel program to the different corners of the world. If the guru can’t go to the world, then the world must come to the guru. Sadhguru began to give a live webcast from his Center at the foothills of the Velliangiri mountains every evening, hosting entertaining discussions about diverse subjects.

With time to spare, I tuned in.

A man of convictions

My curiosity redoubled after listening to Sadhguru’s chats. People who can surprise me with their thoughts are rare. This one has the ability to do it, and he does it time after time. As the lockdown progressed, listening to his daily chats while doing my daily workout became a habit, till he discontinued the daily chats after around 40 straight days.

After that, I chanced upon some pre-Covid videos about Sadhguru’s visits to universities in India and around the world. There, under the ‘Youth and Truth’ banner, he takes questions directly from youngsters, some of whom are hotheads with an ax to grind. I couldn’t help but be impressed by Sadhguru’s feisty spirit to take on all comers, and his ability to think on his feet.

Why does he take that hot seat? Let me make a guess. Sadhguru believes the planet is under threat and change is only possible if he can sensitize the youngsters to their lives being intricately linked with the world’s. As against the current movers and doers of industry who ruthlessly ravage the planet and feed our mindless consumption with never a thought for tomorrow. That’s my understanding but I may be wrong.

One thing is certain. This is a man willing to stand up for his beliefs.

A Global Guru for the Digital Age

Sadhguru is well on his way be the first global guru, one with a following of millions. Unlike the gurus who preceded him, many of these followers will never have seen Sadhguru in real life, which makes him quite unique.

Sadhguru (Photo from Wikipedia)

Sadhguru understands the possibilities of this new world and its technology. He points out that if Jesus lived in this era, his message would have gone out to the whole world, instead of just a few people within hearing range.

You will find tons of interviews and chats of Sadhguru up on the net. They tackle a diverse range of subjects. Many of them have millions of views. This isn’t some rockstar with catchy music or a YouTuber with some cool skills. He’s just a cheerful, white-bearded Methuselah-like character, dressed in exotic robes topped by a turban. His words however resonate with millions around the world.

I think only the videos published under the ‘sadhguru’ name are by him or his Foundation. The rest are by random people, some his fans, some out to make a quick buck on YouTube. Sadhguru doesn’t seem to mind if they make money from ads. He says they help him get his message across to more people.

Net-Savvy

Covid must have hit the cash flow of the Foundation hard as attendance for courses at all of the Yoga Centres abruptly came to a grinding halt. This didn’t seem to faze Sadhguru as he knows how to generate funds online.

Instead of reducing his Foundation’s services, he increased it with a drive to feed the poor farming community in the locality of the ashram who were threatened by starvation due to the Covid lockdown killing their livelihood. This service suddenly expanded when hundreds of migrant workers from the nearby city who were also in dire straits started turning up for food.

Sadhguru uses his website and a dedicated app to sell yoga and meditation courses to fund his Foundation’s many activities. To generate more funds during the lockdown, he began painting. He sold the first one for a huge sum, which is a tribute to the goodwill he has generated.

When times are hard, what do marketers do? Offer a discount, right? Sadhguru reduced the prices on his Inner Engineering course. Giving it away for free to Covid warriors (doctors and medical workers) is a nice gesture.

Need more funds? Come up with new products. Sadhguru announced an innovative new full-day course, where he will show you the right way to live from the time you wake up till you go to bed.

And now, he’s talking about this specially crafted and consecrated band that they are making. You put it around your wrist or ankle and it’s supposed to protect you. The catch is you will have to buy it.

So what’s going on?

The way I see it, Covid has dried up the massive revenues that Sadhguru used to generate via his many programs at their many Centres. The Isha Foundation desperately needs those funds to run its many services. Sadhguru is probably trying to find new streams of income to keep things going.

To be honest, I don’t really believe that protection stuff as of now. But I still may buy a band as I believe it’s in a good cause.

What can Meditation do for you?

Since I was considering going to Isha Yoga Centre, I wondered about Sadhguru’s take on meditation. Now meditation is a complex subject with many aspects. All I wanted to know was what it can do for an ordinary person like me. Here’s my understanding of how Sadhguru sees meditation.

We have all seen great matches where a top player suddenly loses a match against an opponent, simply because his own mind gets in his way. (Federer losing two match points and then double-faulting on a breakpoint in the 2011 US Open semifinal loss against Djokovic, comes to mind).

Sadhguru says that’s what is happening with most of us in our lives. Our own mind gets in our way and prevents us from fulfilling our potential. Meditation makes you conscious of what you are doing so you can stop your mind from being an obstacle to you. Or to put it in Sadhguru’s own words.

“If you do not do what you cannot do, that’s no problem. But if you do not do what you can do, you are a tragedy.”

That sounded good. So how do I go about it? Sadhguru has a whole lot of programs on the Isha website. I decided to try out the beginner programs, some of which are free, and some are available online. If it works, I may try out the more advanced ones.

Convincing myself to apply for a Guru

There are some things about Sadhguru that make it easy for me to relate to him, and some that have the opposite effect.

I’ve always liked associating with people who know more than me, and Sadhguru knows infinitely more than me.

He has a unique ability to simplify things. Simplifying things is extremely hard and anyone who can do that gets my full attention.

As a writer, I appreciate Sadhguru’s command over the English language. It’s not his native language and so he occasionally makes elementary mistakes. Like I once heard him mix up ‘precautions’ and ‘cautious’ to come up with ‘precautious.’ But it’s only people who are willing to make mistakes that learn. It doesn’t take away from his current level of mastery of a language that is not his mother tongue. I have seen comments on his videos by some westerners who can’t follow his Indian accent. However, I’ve also seen earlier videos where his Tamil accent was quite strong. It no longer is. Says a lot about how he’s consciously and rapidly evolving.

For some reason, Sadhguru doesn’t communicate in Hindi. He probably prefers English as it appeals to a larger, global audience. He is a multilinguist. I have seen videos where he speaks fluently in Tamil (the Isha Yoga Centre is based in the Tamilnadu) and I presume he can do the same in Kannada as it’s his mother tongue. Sadhguru also knows Sanskirt so Hindi should be a piece of cake. Does he avoid speaking Hindi because, like most south Indians, he dislikes it when Hindi is imposed upon us, and also wants to make a point about India being a multicultural nation? I would like to think so.

I’m a very logical person. But quite a bit of what Sadhguru talks about cannot be explained by logic. However, I have always believed science is an evolving field. If I could go back 100 years and announce that humans had landed on the moon, people would think I was drunk or worse. So when Sadhguru gets into esoteric stuff, I just put my logical brain on hold and listen with an open mind. To give an example, chanting the word ‘aum’ in a certain way is supposed to have physical and mental benefits. The science of today doesn’t agree. I’m willing to try it out as I have nothing to lose. If it works, I win as I learn something new. In an odd way, that’s logical.

Finally, as far as religion goes, I’m a sceptic and a Hindu. This is the only religion that allows you to believe in one God, or hundreds of Gods, or not believe in God, all at the same time. Hinduism embraces such contradictions and Sadhguru understands this. The other day, he got animated in one of his talks and went off about someone bringing ‘bloody god’ into the discussion. That’s the kind of spiritualism I can live with.

Some things still make me uneasy though. Like when people fall at Sadhguru’s feet in worship. I’m not the falling-at-the-feet type and am never going to be one. Also, I doubt if I can overcome my aversion to crowds and visit the ashram. However, Covid has changed the rules of the game. So that’s a bridge I don’t need to cross till I reach it.

Finally, though I like Sadhguru’s way of thinking and talking, I realize that not everyone will. But that’s subjective, and nothing anyone can do about it.

Thoughts about an online Guru

This one is a cop-out. It’s easier to deal with an online guru. There are no confrontations. If you mess up, you don’t get fired. If you don’t like stuff, you turn off the screen. The guru may not even know you exist and follow him.

Then again, I once heard Sadhguru talk about people who put up mental barriers to protect themselves but end up locked in their own prisons. He says it’s painful for him to see such people unknowingly shutting themselves off from grace and ultimately wasting their lives.

‘Wasting my life’ sort of describes me. I can do a lot more than I have done.

All right, here’s my compromise. Maybe I can start off with Sadhguru as my online guru. Then down the line, if I feel up to it, I’ll switch to a regular Guru status, Covid permitting. I can live with that.

What’s Sadhguru’s message?

As he put it himself, someone once asked him if he was a tree planter. He replied, “No, I help people flower.” That’s a pretty good job definition.

Taking the jump

Impressed with how the Isha Foundation volunteers were feeding the lockdown-affected poor folk in our area, my wife pushed me to contribute something to them. Of course, I had to extract my money’s worth, even if it’s for charity. So I decided to sign up for Sadhguru’s Inner Engineering Online course. The way I saw it, it was a win-win. I get to try out the course, Isha gets some funds.

My wife and daughter have also signed up. Kids are kids so that last is a moonshot. I did it because I feel that if I had known what Sadhguru talks about when I was younger, I might have charted a different course for my life.

That was that. I had officially signed up for a Guru, albeit one who does not know I exist. Anyway, I dived right into the Inner Engineering Online course and finished it in a week or so.

What is Inner Engineering about?

Ok, this is a tough one. I strongly recommend you listen to what Sadhguru himself has to say on the subject. So why am I attempting to answer it?

To be frank, I’m writing this for me. If I have to put down in words what I learned with an acceptable level of clarity, I will need to really rack my brains. That will help me get a better understanding of what I learned. Ok?

It’s too early to say if Inner Engineering worked for me. In any case, the results are not really tangible. What Sadhguru says is simple, but it’s not like ‘two plus two is four.’ You have to feel and experience it for understanding to happen. If not, everyone would be applying it, no? Also, some of the things Sadhguru says are things I thought I knew but I didn’t really.

Let me give an idea by the way he redefined misery. As I said, it’s a simple thought but hard to explain. Still, I’m going to try.

As Sadhguru put it, when we are miserable, we are actually just stuck in a cycle of thought which we can’t seem to break out from. To illustrate…

The Idiot Say a person you respect or love calls you an ‘idiot’ in public. If you didn’t know English, it would not bother you. So the word by itself is harmless. You only feel miserable because you decide to let yourself feel the meaning. In other words, it’s all happening within you, and not outside you.

Now you get stuck in a cycle of thinking about having been called an idiot by that person. And what you will feel like when you meet that person again. So you sink deeper into your misery. It’s not the person who called you an idiot that makes you miserable, but you who decide to stay miserable or not.

The Moment In a later session, Sadhguru points out there is only one moment that exists, and that is the moment that is happening right now. The previous moment doesn’t exist anymore, nor does a future moment exist. Using the ‘idiot’ example, the moment you were called an idiot no longer exists, and the moment in the future where you meet the person again (who called you an idiot) also does not really exist.

So when you are miserable, you are actually being miserable about a moment that no longer exists on one hand, and a moment that has not come into existence on the other hand. At the moment, there’s nothing hurting you but you are still feeling hurt, which when you think about it, is quite insane. His point is if you focus on the moment, and realize there’s nothing really hurting you, you can break the cycle of misery.

Experience The thought seemed pretty obvious. But that same evening, my teenage daughter flared up at me for some reason, and I forgot all I learned and snapped back at her, and then spent the next hour being miserable.

Obviously, there’s a long way to go before I become the finished product. Sadhguru had a humorous take on this. He says your dear ones see you meditating and decide to poke you to see if it has taken. ‘Poking people’ are very important as they are ‘quality control’ people. They help you know whether you can apply the lessons you just learned. I failed miserably!

Initiation The seven sessions of Inner Engineering Online tackle different aspects of learning how to manage yourself, and a few meditation techniques to help do this. Sadhguru says the online course covers thoughts and emotions. To complete the inner engineering course, you need to do the second part of the course, which covers your body and energies. This can’t be done online as it involves hands-on learning called ‘initiation’, at an offline Isha Yoga Centre. This is not going to happen at the moment because everything is hands-off due to Covid. I was told by an Isha volunteer that I will be informed when the completion courses start up again.

I don’t know what you make of this. Maybe I wasn’t successful in meditation but I think there’s now a little distance between me and myself. I was able to see where I failed for the first time and be aware of what to do to avoid failing.

I have been working on the meditation parts since I completed the course, but my mind is still wandering as usual. I notice I’m now able to break my cycle of misery faster and get back to being myself. As Sadhguru put it, if you have a 10% improvement after the course, you are good.

I’m feeling good, and intend to work on meditation without expectations thought I must confess I hope that someday I become enlightened.

Even beggars can dream.

So what is Enlightenment?

Ok, here’s my oversimplified understanding of it. I define ‘myself’ as the individual who lives within the boundary of my body. For enlightened folk, the definition of ‘myself’ expands to include everything. Their body is not their boundary. Their ‘self’ includes you, me, and every other living being. They have become aware that there is only one life in Universe. The life that flows in everything is that same one life, and we are all a part of that one life. This is the literal translation of the word ‘Yoga.’ It means to join or unite or to become one (and not the twisting of the limbs into odd shapes). In a way, it’s a very Matrix-like thought.

There’s only One, and you are that One.

And this where the superpowers come in. Once you become enlightened, you become aware of things normal people are unaware of.

I found this hard part to believe. Having said that, science cannot explain everything. Like if I stare at someone who has their back to me, they will often suddenly sense it, and turn around to look me in the eye. Is there a sixth sense that science is not aware of? So yes, I keep an open mind when I hear Sadhguru casually expounding about a ‘energy system’ which seems to be similar to the respiratory or circulatory systems. It’s just that we unenlightened folk, are completely unaware of it.

So why do I want to become enlightened? Let’s leave aside the superpowers for now. Usually, when I learn something or figure out how to crack a puzzle, it’s a moment of pure joy. Enlightenment is an endless learning, which means endless joy. In fact, Sadhguru describes enlightenment as being in a permanent state of pure bliss. Who would not want that for themselves?

Unfortunately, there’s a catch.

Whatever I said about enlightenment is just ‘book knowledge.’ It’s just something imaginary for me, but meaningless in reality. The only way to actually know it is to experience it, and meditation seems to be the only way to do that. Damn, I always seem to be ending up at this mind block!

Still, I have been working on my meditation right through the lockdown. I confess I’m not seeing much progress. But I remind myself that I once suffered from a chronic, extremely painful, and life-sapping migraine headache. It had tormented me for years but I cured it with my own DIY meditation. If I could do it once, I can do it again, right?

Besides, I’m pretty good at doing things for years without any rewards. Just look at me plugging away here at Medium, despite its non-inclusive policy towards writers living in poorer countries. It’s five years now, and there’s still no sign of Medium including me in their charmed circle of paid writers. But I just keep at it, don’t I? Yes, there’s hope for me.

So don’t write me off. I might just be the next Superman.

Controversies and counters

This post would be incomplete without touching upon a few of the controversies that hover over Sadhguru, and his side of those stories.

The major one is that Sadhguru was responsible for his wife’s death. The other side of this story is she consciously meditated herself to oblivion. I searched the website and found Sadhguru’s own account of the event. And then one of those odd coincidences happened. At the same time that I was searching for the info, the Isha Foundation published a video about just that. This one is too raw for me to comment on, except to say we learn by experience but sometimes that experience comes too late, and life may not always give you a second chance. Not even if you are Sadhguru. I feel for him though. Enough said.

The other major controversy is that Sadhguru built the Isha Yoga Centre in a prohibited area. It’s reserved forest land, and also an elephant corridor. I watched a video in which Sadhguru defended this charge made by a girl at a law student forum. He says this is a long-running media story concocted by people who were indulging in lucrative illegal activities in the same area. They are upset at how the Centre disrupted these activities (I assume he meant stuff like poaching, smuggling, sandalwood tree felling, etc). He also points out that all Government authorities have agreed the Yoga Centre is not built on forest land which is also corroborated by Google Maps of the past. The government's agricultural records show the area to be farmland. As for the elephant corridor, he says it runs nowhere close to the Yoga Centre. He ended up saying that if anyone can prove that even one inch of forest land was occupied by the Yoga Centre, he would leave the country. The defense rests.

There are other controversies. Like I met a lawyer who says there are legal cases filed in the local courts by farmers who claimed that their land was grabbed by certain people who represent Sadhguru. So did the Yoga Centre acquire land by force through third parties?

This one reminds me of those old Western movies where a big mining company comes up against a lonesome old rancher who refuses to sell his land at any cost. Unfortunately, his land happens to be plonk in the middle of where the future mine should be. So the old man gets bushwhacked on a lonely road, and just when the evil miner thinks he’s won, Clint Eastwood rides up to save the day and marry the old rancher’s daughter.

Is there another side to this story? For argument’s sake, I can think of one. Sandalwood commands huge prices, and if a smuggler had his illegal business of stealing sandalwood trees stopped by the arrival of the Yoga Centre, he would be one very upset smuggler. He wouldn’t mind paying to remove the thorn in his flesh. So he might track down poor farmers who had legally sold the land to the Yoga Center and pay them to file a false case of land-grabbing.

Now, I just made up the above story, but it’s quite plausible and proves how easy it’s to make up stories for and against people. The thing is as Sadhguru pointed out at the student forum, in India, you can file 200 legal cases against someone. It doesn’t mean a thing. An ‘accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty’ in a court of law. In reality, if you have a lot of legal cases filed against you, people soon presume you are guilty. ‘No smoke without fire’ kind of thing.

Sadly, once it’s out in the media, the stink always clings to you. Ideally, there should be a law that says if you are proven innocent of an accusation, then your accuser has to publicly admit he or she was wrong. Something like that would make people like Donald Trump think twice before they blatantly lie.

Actions speaker louder than words

The truth is, in today’s world of fake news, it’s almost impossible to tell truth in a sea of facts, alternative facts, and lies that evolve into ‘truth’ through countless repetition. At one time, you could read between the lines to arrive at the truth, but even that is becoming harder.

What do we do? In cases like this, I put aside the controversies, and let the actions of the person in question speak for them. I see how Sadhguru and his band of selfless volunteers have devoted so much of their time and effort to help the poor and make the world a better place. And they do this without any thought of reward.

I don’t know the truth about Sadhguru. But I do know he does more good in a minute than I have done in my entire lifetime. In the end, that’s what matters.

So I’ll go on following Sadhguru’s talks, apply some of what he says, and support the Foundation however I can. And yes, once the lockdown is lifted, I may brush aside my aversion to religious places, make that long-postponed trip to the Isha Yoga Centre and get myself a real-life Guru. Fingers crossed.

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Zero, Yoga, Chili... there’s a little bit of India in everyone

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