Sadhguru: Version 2

When a story is incomplete it can distract the attention of the audience and even discredit the storyteller. Our brains seek clear patterns, and if parts of a picture are missing, it compensates by adding its own colors and shapes to make it whole. In the story of Jaggi Vasudev, now Sadhguru, I wondered about the missing parts: what was his life like growing up in Mysore? When and whom did he marry, and where are the nuggets from his spouse's life in the chain of events in his life? And how did Jaggi Vasudev become the widely traveled and influential Sadhguru from the relatively unknown young man he was, riding fast motorbikes in a sleepy town in South India?

A reader of my essay reminded me that there is indeed a book that deals with these matters and more, and that I better read it. But for such a reminder I might have postponed buying a copy of Arundhathi Subramaniam's book, Sadhguru: More than a Life and I would have denied myself or delayed the opportunity of mulling over the contents of a fascinating tale, well told.

In India, even good journalists end up writing hagiographies of political leaders, industrial magnates, and of course, gurus and godmen. I wondered therefore if Subramaniam, a well-known poet, would be bringing her aesthete's fine-pointed pen to pry open the layers of the mundane and the esoteric in Jaggi Vasudev's life or wield merely a felt-tipped marker to broad-brush the man's life as would a mere fan and a "disciple." While there are a couple of sections in the book, including the one on the creation of the "Dhyanalinga," where the narrative feels gauzy and the details amorphous, overall it is a story of an extraordinary man very well told.

But this begs the question: what would draw a poet of Arundhathi's caliber to cast her critical gaze on a man like Jaggi Vasudev? (Warning: readers should not confuse Arundhathi Subramaniam with Arundhati Roy, the more well-known, self-promoting, radical activist/author of The God of Small Things). Poets, especially talented poets, writing in English in India, have big egos, carry a satchel full of suspicions about the traditional and the local, and more importantly know what not to write about if they are to be noticed in the English-speaking/publishing world. And if they are to be invited by universities abroad to read, write, and mesmerize they better write what is agreeable to such a clientele: you cannot be writing about gurus, except as a category of seductive charlatans, beguiling conmen, or religious bigots.

It is therefore a truly surprising and courageous effort by Subramaniam to listen to the life story of a Godman, and narrate it celebratorily, sympathetically, even in wide-eyed wonder. But there may have been a price to pay, for one can't find a thoughtful, detailed, critical review of this book, published in 2010, in any of India's newspapers and magazines that have otherwise acknowledged her wiles and skills as a poet. That, of course, is a reminder of and a commentary on the deracination of the English-speaking, urbanized, Westernized, and secularized Indians for whom religion and spirituality, especially of the Hindu kind, cannot be touched, or seen to be touched, at least in public with anything but disapprobation. They may have their superstitions, their chosen gods, their moments of clutching of deities in times of despair, or even a surreptitiously visited family astrologer, but for these fancy pants, the Shiva linga is a phallus symbol, and India's saints and sages nothing but old, boring tropes in the Hindu hinterland.

Of course, even Subramaniam and the Sadhguru play safe in India's messy religious landscape, with Subramaniam expressing doubts about, if not contempt of Hindu temples, Brahmins, and rituals. Such simplistic and safe asides are now perfunctory in the secular/progressive Indian world. Nothing of Gods and conmen, let alone the violence and fetishism in the world of Christians, Sikhs, Muslims, and Buddhists find mention in the talks of the Sadhguru or the writings of his biographer, which is rather worrisome. The Sadhguru too is dismissive of Hindu priests, rituals, temples, and customs. But he is mum about the rest of the world's religions and religious inclinations. We will have to let that be, for now.

Instead, it is curious to look at what took Arundhathi to the Sadhguru. A four-minute publicity video for the book gives some insight, but one has to read the book to gather the reasons for this effort of a kind of spiritual love and longing. And if the quest for God or for spiritual succor is an illness that only a few are afflicted with, then it is good that among those are good writers and poets. "I thought gurus happened to other people," writes Arundhathi, specially identifying middle-class Indian men and their "docile, status quoist" wives. But she should know that in India, as elsewhere, it is the vast masses of the poor, and especially women, who flock to temples, mandirs, and mosques, and who raise their hands and shout "hallelujah" on Sunday mornings in churches—small and mega—even in these United States of America. The poor have an affinity for God, and those who promise them a "showing" get their attention and alas, also a lot of their money. The Benny Hinns of the West, with their touring circuses, well-muscled security men, loudspeakers the size of trucks, and strobe lights with multi-million wattage travel the world preying upon the innocent and needy, while their Indian counterparts, whose shows have very little production value comparatively, draw even larger crowds with similar promises of heaven, goodness, and the grace of God. But even in India, the land of snake charmers and God charmers, the likes of Sadhguru are rather rare. And they don't usually attract the attention of "contemporary urban women" like Arundhathi Subramaniam.

There are always exceptions, of course, and incidents and events in our life that are out of the ordinary bring pause. Tragedies, death, disease, and distractions happen to and afflict all of us, even to the stylish, articulate, well-connected, and well-heeled contemporary urban men and women. In those moments and times some of us may be tempted to seek relief, in the form of therapy (if your insurance allows it), or visits to the local wine and liquor store, a spa in Darjeeling, or a vacation in Bali. Something like that happened to our author, and traveling from New Delhi to Mumbai, after a vacation in Nepal, she "started dying." Coming out of that death "funk" she sought help in books, going beyond the merely fashionable treatises on existential anxiety to the works of and about Ramana Maharshi, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, and other mystics and sages. But after a while, books become repetitious, and they lose their ability to soothe. You can only take so much of "God talk," and so many accounts of miracles and mysteries before you begin to yawn, and trudge to the refrigerator for a soothing nightcap, or in the case of Subramaniam begin to look for someone who actually "knows" and who would guide her out of her misery, her loneliness, and out of the cul-de-sacs of the mind.

In May 2004, Arundhathi Subramaniam attended a talk by Sadhguru. Six years later, after many conversations with him, and those around him came the book. She still has problems calling him "Sadhguru" for "ceremonial nomenclature" makes her "uncomfortable." I doubt it is just the nomenclature; our modern, contemporary sensibilities demand that we identify every other person as our equal, and our egos, boosted/bolstered by authoring a book, earning a million, or a special graduate degree don't easily wish to acknowledge the worth or weight of someone more accomplished and able!

There is much in the book that satisfied my curiosity about Jaggi Vasudev's early life: stories of his parents, his siblings, his childhood, his truancy, his peculiar ways, and some out of the ordinary experiences, including his mentoring by the accomplished yoga teacher, medicine man, and social worker Malladihalli Raghavendra Swamy. Then there are the stories of Jaggi's mischief, political activism, loves and affairs, distractions and devotions, cigarette smokes, beer, and English movies watched. Anecdotes from Jaggi Vasudev's life resonate with those of us who grew up middle-class, in the South Indian state of Karnataka. But the pre-guru stage of his life, even though a tell-able tale by itself, takes on an extraordinary dimension, and what we then see is a young man who begins teaching yoga to a small group of people, initially in Mysore, and then in Coimbatore, mesmerizes them, goads them to superhuman deeds, marries a young divorcee, and creates a unique meditative space in the Velliangiri mountains close to the city of Coimbatore. The tales of past lives, past promises having to be kept and goals to be accomplished, and lovers, friends, teachers, and disciples from the past reappearing to help him do what he had to do and has done can either be dismissed as a fairy tale, a con man's tall tale, or manifestations of the extraordinary and the "real" that we, the ordinary ones, fail to grasp or don't have the capacity to understand.

Subramaniam is doubtful too, has misgivings, and is exasperated by the Sadhguru who is inconsistent in his answers, too flamboyant sometimes for her taste, too willing to let people fall at his feet, and who has now built a very large institution with some very large buildings, however aesthetically pleasing they may be. He travels the world now, dances with the wives of tipsy industrialists in Davos, and packages his words and himself in a variety of saleable media products. Schools, cottage industries manufacturing earth-friendly products, and other Isha Foundation ventures have become brisk and big business. However, ". . . every time I meet the guru himself, my ambivalence invariably drops away," writes Subramaniam. "There's nothing phoney here, no comforting platitudes, no smarmy PR-savvy spiritualism. There is a dynamism and stillness about his presence that I instinctively trust."

Subramaniam once asks the Sadhguru about the fateful nature of life, and if indeed there is any respite for those who are fated to slouch their way along the road of continual despair. "Many are called, but few are chosen, aren't they?" she asks him, quoting Matthew (22:14). "No, no . . . It is just that many are called but few choose," he responds. However, this is where the tale of and the remarks by the Sadhguru become inconsistent. If indeed he is the incarnation of Bilva, a devotee of Lord Shiva, who 360 years ago fell in love with a Brahmin girl, was hounded and killed, or that in another lifetime, he was Sadhguru Sri Brahma, and that his present day disciple and fellow conspirator, Bharathi, and wife Vijaya Kumari (Vijji) were his companions in their past lives, how can it be that he is not "chosen"? How can it be that some of us struggle to lift ourselves by our spiritual bootstraps but cannot get past the daily half-hour of pretend meditation? Who knows?

If consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, then we can forgive the Sadhguru of speaking from both sides of his mouth. There are yet other, more troubling inconsistencies about his life and his assertions that have been noted by his detractors. But it is time to conclude, with Subramaniam, that Sadhguru ". . . is a strange man—a very strange man—but . . . he's for real."

First published on Patheos,

Featured Review
Tag Cloud