Gurus Wear Different Garb

In India, gurus and Godmen come wearing a variety of garb, for the 1.1 billion Indians neither speak one language, nor worship God in one form. Different class, caste, ethnic, linguistic, regional, cultural, and educational affiliations make Indians one of the most diverse peoples in the world. How could one guru cater to and satisfy them all?

Thus, a book that I finished reading last week, titled Midnights with the Mystic, made me aware once again of the very fertile Indian ground that enables the birth of someone like Jaggi (Jagadish) Vasudev, known now as Sadhguru, who travels the globe, rides BMW motorbikes, and even soothes the anxieties of the very rich and powerful who meet annually at Davos to ponder the future of the world.

Very little of the details of Jaggi Vasudev's early life is available—either in his talks, on the Isha Foundation website, or in the books written about him. In Kannada, the language that Vasudev grew up speaking, which happens to be mine too, there is a saying that one should not inquire into the origins of a river or of a "rishi" or sage. Whether these gurus fight shy of revealing their lives for fear that their mystique will be diminished, or truly because they want their disciples not to get lost in the thickets of the ordinary and the mundane, we don't know. Thus, beyond the fact that he was born in Mysore, that his father was a doctor, and that he came under the influence and tutelage of the well-known Karnataka yogi, Malladihalli Raghavendra Swami, and that one of his grandmothers (or was it great grandmother?) was "God-crazy," we know very little of the many years that Vasudev spent in Mysore. I believe he might have been attending college, while I did too, between 1977 and 1978, because he is just a year younger than me. If indeed he completed his BA in English at the Maharaja College in Mysore, as it is reported, and I was working on my MA in political science on the nearby University of Mysore campus, our paths may have crossed in some nearby coffee shop. He was not Sadhguru then, and I was not a very happy camper at the University of Mysore dorms since some of the young men belonging to the politically powerful Gowda caste were rife on campus twirling their mustaches, stealing and opening letters that they thought contained some juicy boyfriend-girlfriend revelations, and jumping the line for hot water for baths!

Jaggi Vasudev, before he had revelatory experiences, supposedly loved to ride his India-made motorbike fast and furious around Mysore, started a poultry farm which proved very profitable, and even got into the construction business, which we are told is now leveraged for helping well-off disciples design and construct earth-friendly homes. Then, one day, while he was sitting on a rock on the Chamundi Hills that overlooks the city of Mysore, he felt a powerful, expansive feeling that changed him forever.

Cheryl Simone's book does not throw much more light on the life of Jaggi Vasudev. And despite the gushy blurbs on the back cover, I found the tract contained nothing more than a superficial inquiry into the challenges of life and being, in conversations spread over a period of five nights, at the lakeside home that Cheryl owns in North Carolina. Sadhguru does not reveal much about his life, and Cheryl even fails to ask him about his wife, Vijayalakshmi, who died in 1997 and to whom a shrine is devoted at the Isha Yoga Center—the headquarters of the foundation that the Sadhguru has built near Coimbatore, India. Nor does she ask him about his daughter, Radhe, and his relationship with her. So, for any reader interested in dialogues between master and disciple, and about the origins and detours of the master's life, Patrick Levy's Sadhus: Going beyond the Dreadlocks, is more satisfying.

The Sadhguru, however, has caught the imagination of the world, and has logged more miles jetting to different venues than Anand Baba, the guru who still guides Patrick Levy, will ever do traveling by train in India or walking the paths up Himalayan peaks. But this is where I have to revert to my first paragraph: gurus and Godmen come wearing different garb, cater to different kinds of seekers, and live and walk different paths. Jaggi Vasudev wears a flamboyant but unruly beard, from what I can make out from photographs and the many YouTube videos, as well as sporting aviator glasses. He is comfortable wearing blue and tan jeans as he is wearing Indian-style loose, white cotton pants. He is not the "typical" Indian guru, if one imagined an Indian guru as wearing nothing more than a loincloth, or only a little bit more in the form of simple white, or saffron-colored robes. Here again, one has to be cautious about pigeon-holing Indian holy-men: we know that J. Krishnamurti, the very well-known Indian philosopher/teacher who caught the imagination of the West in the early part of 20th century, and who traveled the world for more than six decades till he passed away in 1986, wore Seville-Row suits when he traveled in the West, and wore stylish Indian cotton clothes when he spent time in India.

Whatever he wears, and wherever he is guiding his students, Jaggi Vasudev seems to be in his element. His students remark about his zest for life. That is all well and good when most of us—whether successful or not—are burdened by anxieties. To unburden those anxieties and to learn about our bodies and minds, the Isha Foundation has a beautiful retreat and ashram in Tennessee. Just as at the Indian retreat, students get to learn yoga, and are helped by trained teachers to work through one's physical and other ailments. But Jaggi Vasudev, while helping one student at a time, has also set his sights on transforming the world, realizing however that even a Godman is limited in his abilities to will change. When he was asked recently in India about what he needed to change the world, he said that he would want the attention of heads of the twenty-four most powerful nations in the world for five days, and that if he transformed them they would be able to, in turn, navigate the world into safer waters. Let us keep our fingers crossed!

What would he tell them and show them? What are Jaggi Vasudev's special/unique lessons that enable his students to go back home happier than when they first went to meet him? One facility that he has is that he speaks well the language of modern, educated citizens of the world. He has traveled around the world, met with business leaders, politicians, and academics. Business schools have sent their students to learn from him. However, there is nothing new that he says because there cannot be anything new in human travails and what can be said about them! He does believe, however, that there is a change in guard from military leaders to politicians, and soon power will be shifted into the hands of those who hold and have economic power. And how should they wield power then? He says: "Power is a privilege that some human beings get. So when such a privilege and responsibility is placed in your hands, every action and every thought that it generates, every emotion that you can form, can touch and transform millions of lives. I think the kind of thought you generate, the action that comes out of you, has to be looked at from that perspective."

Hmmm.... I continue to be a skeptic about such global transformation. Sometimes, one doubts if there can be even an individual transformation, as the maverick Indian guru, U.G. Krishnamurti went around proclaiming for almost as long as J. Krishnamurti went around proclaiming the opposite!

First published on Patheos,

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