Yogis now live at the same velocity and material comfort as any of us. So what’s their spiritual draw? A sceptic spends an event-filled week inside Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev’s ashram in the Velliangiri hills in Tamil Nadu. And returns with some answers
By Gaurav Jain
Just A Practical Guy
SIX IN the morning and he’s on the golf course. It’s drizzling and extremely windy, but he wanted to talk to this guy, so they play eight holes. He finishes 3-0 or something. He’s very competitive, but most of the time he plays alone.
At 8.15 am, he heads to a nearby Coimbatore house to shower. These people are Telugu, so there’s pesarattu for breakfast, and then he drives out for the day. He likes to eat light while driving, given his speed. Because heavy stomach and this this this, it doesn’t have good impact on you. It’ll do wrong things to your organs. People don’t understand this.
He drives straight from Coimbatore to Bangalore, with people meeting him while he’s driving. This is his usual thing — he’ll take somebody in his car for a quick meeting. Ahead another car is waiting with somebody else, and he’ll drop off the first person and pick up the next.
Three hundred and fifty kilometres in four hours. Average speed: 87 km/h. He doesn’t stop, just gas station to gas station. Never takes a driver. Find somebody who can drive better than him and he’d let them drive! He can’t bear people who drive with fear and not with skill.
Everyone thinks it’s a Lexus… it’s a Toyota! A black Land Cruiser. Range: 650-700 km. He had it painted matt black when he bought it second-hand. The guy he got it from wanted to be seen in a Lexus and so imported its front guard. Now he’s been trying to get a Toyota one, but it’s difficult.
He could take the faster Salem road — it’s a four-lane highway now — but there’s a 25-30 km unfinished section and you can lose an hour there, easy. So he drives through the mountains instead, going through Dinbumghat and Chamrajnagar, and then a smaller route, villages and little-little towns and all those names he did a long time ago. Malavalli! My god, he was last here 32 years ago. He likes this drive.
Next to his seat there’s a bottle of mineral water, a hanky and a packet of paper napkins. There’s also his trusty menthol inhaler (his staff places it wherever he sits). There’s always this little nude white tube he’s frequently sniffing. They take off the packaging since he doesn’t want to be seen endorsing a brand. He loves the smell.
There’s also a small photo of his late wife just below the steering wheel on his left. It’s turned slightly so only the driver can see it.
When he drives through the Himalayas, it’s 135 km/h. Nothing has travelled that fast on those roads. People ask: How do you do it? He’s got a video of every bend in his memory. People don’t remember anything because they never pay attention.
He drove this car in Tibet. All the way from Kathmandu to Kailash and back. Only the Tibetans and the Chinese police drive there. What they do in five days, he does in three. They said it’s impossible. He said, “You just watch.” Manasarovar to Nepal in one day. Okay? He started at 3.30 am and had to clear the border by 6 pm. His two escort cars arrived after 8-9 hours. Now when he gets down from his car there, all the drivers stub their cigarettes and stand politely. Not because of who he is but because they see — he’s a driver. That’s their way of respecting him.
So, Bangalore. He goes straight into the urgent meeting. No lunch, nothing. He thought they’d offer, but nothing! The rest of the meetings happen as he drives — he needs to move again. Mysore.
He drove a Maruti 800 for 1.35 lakh km in one year. You understand? He just rubbed it out. Now he’s not the same man. He’s older. If he drives an 800 now, his body will break. He needs something comfortable, a little faster. Options? He drove a Maruti Gypsy and broke it. It’s an SUV only in name, it doesn’t drive. He drove a Tata Sierra, which ran well for some time but then started giving trouble. Then he went for a Tata Safari, which doesn’t have that kind of power. But he used it for almost four-and-a-half years. Then someone gave him a Land Rover. A beautiful car. But the damn thing stops anywhere. Through 5-6 years, it gave him hell.
Then he decided: Okay. You know, people say: If I’m 80, I’ll buy a Toyota. The most unexciting car on the planet. But the Land Cruiser is a damn reliable car. He decided to go for it. The new ones are too expensive, so he bought an old 2001 model. He can buy a Ferrari. Or if he asks someone, they will buy him a Ferrari. The only thing is the potholes — what he needs is a Land Cruiser. The kind of travelling he does, he needs something that can take on everything. And it’s fast. He wants to do it the way he wants. His choices are not about what’s niche. They’re about what’s most practical.
In Bangalore, a man who meets him is someone who has expensive cars. It’s not an issue for him to get into an old car… this man feels privileged just to meet him, but is hurt to see him driving such an old car. The man says, “You tell me what you want. I’ll buy it.” He smiles and says he has what he needs. What’s the problem? He just wants something reliable. And if he works on the engine for two days, he’ll make it 20 percent more than what it is now.
He needs to hit Mysore by 9 pm to see some projects coming up outside the city. He and his associates find the directions to one site to be wrong. Not to worry. He bulldozes through. This is why he’s driving a Land Cruiser!
By now, it’s 10 pm. They head to a restaurant, an outdoor kinda place, better than a dhaba. He has rotis and vegetables. People don’t recognise him, he’s in disguise since he’s only in his dhoti — no shawl, no turban.
His family’s still in Mysore — dad, brother, sister. He drops the associate at his family’s place, where a car is waiting. Spends about 10 minutes with the family, then he’s off. He has a conference call at 11 and he wants to be on the road.
This one’s a monthly marketing meeting with the US and UK teams for a new online course. The connection snaps when he gets to the mountains. When he hits the plains, he has the option of dialling back in… but now it’s drizzling again and he’s driving really fast, so he waits to get home.
He started from Mysore at 11, he’s back at his place outside Coimbatore at 2.10 am. Three hours 10 is bad for him. He’s made this route in 2 hours 40 many times. But he’s driving a 2001 model and that’s all it can do.
Now he’s trained to fly a helicopter since it’ll save time. He hasn’t found an appointment for the medical, though. October he’ll get it. Last time he went up, he saw the damn cell phone tower was sticking out, painted red and white. He told them to move it, it doesn’t matter if the service isn’t too good, move it out by 100 metres. He’s also refused to put a lightning conductor because it’ll stick out. It’s a big risk in a place like this.
Someday if you come, he’ll take you on a ride over his place. If you look from above, it looks like the whole thing has just grown out of the ground. It’s like a termite mountain.
Soon he’ll be able to fly out, yeah. Swooping out over everyone since all will be done then. He’s ready for what comes. He wants it. He’ll walk into it. Once more. Up, up, there he goes. He is on the move again. He is moving. He is rising. He is floating. He is flying. He is Sadhguru.
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It’s eerie to walk into a silent watery vault with the promise of a mercuric zap. You’re encouraged to touch the linga, so I approach
Our course is in Sadhguru’s global HQ — Isha Yoga Center outside Coimbatore. We are 104 rich and almost rich Indians, NRIs and foreigners. Sadhguru conducts this course himself only twice a year here. You can also take his courses online — Put the kids to bed, turn the TV off, and settle in for an eyeopening, engaging evening of wit, humour, logic and clarity.
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I Am Not My Mind. I Am Not Even My Body!
SUNDAY NOON in the Velliangiri foothills of Tamil Nadu. We’re past the flutes, past the Chinese twanging. More than a hundred of us, me included, all of us dancing in this massive hoary echoing bazooka of a hall. Right down the middle and spread out in neat rows, in the middle of nowhere in yes-yes land, all of us spread out to make catacombs with our floating limbs. Desperately swaying to the poncy thrum of mountain music. Stretching and parsing and darning and watching — no, sorry, we’re to have our eyes closed. Sadhguru’s asked us to dance. Slowly. Follow the music. The sensations. The fluctuations… of… our… minds. Don’t rush it. Oh lordy!
Now we’re back to sitting in front of him on white cushions on the floor. He sits solidly on a slightly raised platform with a leg drawn up, the other on the floor. Two huge lights focus on him from above. We have to follow his chant: I am not my mind. I am not even my body. I am not my mind. I am not even my body.
I try: I am not my mind. Inhale! I am not even my body. Exhale! I open my eyes.
Again: I am not… CAACKASLAM! One of the overhead light’s covers has crashed a few feet from the guru’s toes.
He’s not bothered. The group chants. I chant. A swami scurries to and whisks the insulting plastic away.
I am not my mind. I am not even my body. I am not even a light.
Now, The Man
JAGADISH VASUDEV was born the youngest child in an affluent Mysore family in 1957. His father was an ophthalmologist with Indian Railways and often transferred his wife and four children with him. Jaggi grew up with a passion for the outdoors and little interest in studies. Many of his intensest interests today remain patterns from the carpet of youth — biking, trekking, snakes, yoga, the construction business.
He began learning yoga at 13 and says he never missed a day for the next dozen years. He loved snakes, devised a way to earn pocket money by catching them for neighbours and kept two dozen cobras and vipers around his bed at the poultry farm he started after college; today, his ashram and temple are littered with snake-figured sculptures. His passion for motorbikes remains, though now there are also SUVs and helicopters. After the farm’s success, he joined an engineer pal in a construction business, and even today the 54- year-old is most animated when discussing the trouble of obtaining construction licences in Tamil Nadu. He loves geometry and geography and has always been obsessively involved in the architecture and design elements of Isha buildings — he designed his main Dhyanalinga temple without cement or steel, and continues to tweak ideas like doorknob designs on his BlackBerry. He’s always been an adventure junkie with a flair for entrepreneurship.
Then there are the less intelligible myths about the man, most of which Jaggi himself never mentions in public — they’ll scare people away, he admits in private. For a glimpse, turn to his biography Sadhguru: More Than a Life by the poet Arundhathi Subramaniam. According to Jaggi, one day in 1982 the 25-year-old went up Mysore’s Chamundi Hill and came down a mystic. He rode up on his Yezdi bike to kill some time and sat on a rock. “I had my eyes open, not even closed,” he told Subramaniam. “I thought it was about 10 minutes, but something began to happen to me… Suddenly I did not know which was me and which was not me… The air… the rock… everything had become me. The more I say, the crazier it will sound… When I came to my senses, it was 7.30 in the evening.” He says he had a similar experience a week later at the family dining table — this time, seven hours lapsed. Next, it was 13 days. His friends asked if he was taking hallucinogens. He says his appearance changed — the shape of eyes, voice — and people began to fall at his feet or ask him to predict the future. He soon pulled out of his business, fearing he’d manipulate people. “It was easy for me to read minds,” he said later. “I still can. But what’s the point? It’s like playing golf with a five-year-old… It isn’t a matter of ethics. More a matter of aesthetics.”
He also considered planning his “exit” from life since there was nothing more to do. But then, he says, he realised this had happened to him for a purpose — to establish the Dhyanalinga temple, and remembered his previous attempts at it in three past lives. He also understood he would leave his body at 42. After a year of musing and meditation, Jaggi decided to teach yoga, as a way of sharing what was happening to him and to recruit people for his mission. In 1984, he met and married Vijji, who at 21 worked at a bank and was divorced from an abusive husband. Jaggi says when he first saw her in his yoga programme, he realised she’d been his sister a lifetime ago, and had returned to help him in his mission.
Subramaniam’s book is a remarkable and vexing read. She writes with high eloquence and low scepticism, and her story reads like a superhero blockbuster script. Every second page is littered with Jaggi and his group’s mystical activities — seeing disembodied bodies, recognising past lives, tracing rebirths, miraculous healings of himself and others, sensing when someone is in trouble or need, people leaving or almost leaving their bodies, meditating to concentrate and fuse their ‘energies’, etc — everyone involved with him is wrapped into a tight ball of predestination — as Jaggi once said to his followers: “Same place, same people, same work.” Notably, he never discussed his mysticism in our five-day programme.
One day soon after Jaggi established the main ashram at the Velliangiri foothills, he returned from a mountain hike to announce: “I am not your Jaggi anymore. I am Sadhguru.” A Sadhguru means an unlettered guru, a guru of himself. It also means a guru who knows nothing, he often jokes. Eventually, Sadhguru established the Dhyanalinga and ‘consecrated’ it with the required ‘energy’, didn’t die at 42 and has gone on with his energetic teaching and building work.
Today, Isha Foundation claims to be run by over two million volunteers in more than 150 cities across the world. There are two main ashrams, one in Tamil Nadu and another in Tennessee. Apart from its spiritual programmes, it also runs a rejuvenation spa and a home school in its Indian ashram and maintains various social outreach efforts, including health and medical programmes for rural communities. In 2006, its Project Green Hands programme set a Guinness World Record when it organised the planting of 8,52,587 trees across Tamil Nadu in three days.
SO WHAT’S your DJ name?” The befuddled brahmachari looks up and smiles. What else does one do with cheeky guests?
When their application is approved, each brahmachari at the Isha Yoga Center is christened afresh by Sadhguru. The 150 or so resident brahmacharis do their yogic practice twice a day. Rest of the time they’re staffed in various sections, from the temple to the photo archives to the rejuvenation centre. They live a spare life, sparer than their guru, who points out that he isn’t a brahmachari. They dress in pale, peach-hued loose clothes. They don’t watch TV, read books or follow the news.
A lot of the work, though, is done by volunteers. They clean the temple complex, organise yoga programmes and satsangs, cook, decorate — even manage public relations, like Kumar Govind does. Gentle, slightly rotund and frequently clucking for emphasis, 40-year-old Govind has been with Isha for 14 years. Before this, he used to be an engineer with BMW in the US. Now he lives in the Coimbatore ashram along with his wife and kids. His wife produces slick videos for Isha. Or take Neelu Eldurkar from New York, who spends six months in a year volunteering here. Her son is enrolled at the home school and she’s become one of Isha’s photographers.
‘I drive my own car, people still call me by my first name. I don’t act like a heavenly being. What else can I do to make it normal?’ asks Jaggi Vasudev
There are also volunteers who come for shorter terms. Roshan T from Hyderabad is an engineer (like seemingly everyone else here) in his early 20s. After college and a software engineer job in the US, he’s just moved to Delhi looking for a job. He did an Isha online course in the US and has volunteered for my group’s programme. He’s contemplating turning this into a permanent gig because of how happy it makes him feel. “I want to be associated with Isha now,” he says. “I am not sure if I want a job.” Isha is big in unexpected places, like Beirut. A Lebanese volunteer says, “My life is in two parts. Before and after the Isha initiation. I used to work in HSBC, I was a drug addict. I’m clean now. Isha changed my life.” There are no undercurrents of tension, no raised voices. The constant jollity, the singing and dancing, their gentle insistence to practice the yoga so you too see the benefits — it’s both pleasant and unnerving.
Programme participants also run the gamut — ours had, among others, the founder of a powerful Delhi law firm and his prim daughter, a psychiatrist from Australia, an American teacher, a surgeon who came because he is increasingly nervous in the operating theatre, a sullen young man whose family forced him onto this trip. Mr Agrawal from Delhi says he came here mostly for the Shambhavi Mudra. “I’m a very spiritual person. Though I usually wake up at 10 am,” he smiles. He’s been to many ashrams in Rishikesh, including the Osho ashram in Pune. “Osho would stare at you and pierce you,” he continues. “Some gurus just rip you out. Sadhguru isn’t like that. I like what he says. I’d seen some videos of his online so I came. My friend told me it would be relaxed like this. This is like a resort.”
Thy Celestial Romance
P IS a young chap from Patna who went to college in Nagpur. He now works there in ‘media’.
“Are you a writer?” I ask weakly. Bugs Bunny is scratching my head: It’s coitins for you, Rocky, coitins!
He looks puzzled, almost offended. “Billboards.”
“Billboards. You know, I organise big hoardings for ads.”
“Oh yeah. Yeah. Sorry. Yeah.”
P is an enthusiast. He came to the swanky ashram this year for the huge Mahashivratri programme. Above all, he loves the ashram’s efficiency. “He’s enlightened, yaar,” he says of Jaggi. “Just look at this place. All international standard.”
Late Sunday afternoon, P and I visit the temple complex. First we clump down the slippery stone steps to look at the subterranean Theerthakund pool — wow! Then the main Dhyanalinga temple with its massive linga — oh yeah! Finally, the Linga Bhairavi devi temple — yes ma’m!
That night I call my girlfriend and say, “I’ve decided. I want to be a Shiva bhakt too.”
“Oh?” she asks.
“It’s damn sexy.”
A pause. “You know we’re done if you return a cultist, right?”
A few evenings later when I finally manage to go for a dip in the Theerthakund, it’s almost closing time and I’m alone. Thirty feet below ground, I slip into the icy water. The walls and floor are granite, and I crane my neck to see the airy curved ceiling with stylised Guruvayur murals of the Kumbh Mela. The ‘rasalinga’ submerged in the middle is supposedly mercury “solidified at room temperature using the ancient science of Indian alchemy”. It’s eerie to walk into a silent watery vault with the promise of a mercuric zap. You’re encouraged to touch it, so I approach. The water is still. I stare at the yellow metal. Instead of the risen bob I touch the slippery black stone around it. For a moment I’m afraid, then I force my hand to touch the bald head. It’s startlingly soapy.
I see a man approaching from above and quickly leave. Now that I’ve waded in, the romance has dissolved.
On Monday, Sadhguru invites our group to the morning’s sound offering in the Dhyanalinga. We arrive early and take the good spots on the floor. Locals and tourists across classes soon arrive, many with small kids. A pair of urban hipsters. A child squalls for a second before its cry is abruptly cut off. Everyone shifts a bit. The 13-feet tall black linga in the centre rests on seven coils of a snake, and from the snakehead’s fangs in the front drops the thinnest trickle I’ve ever seen, dropping down into a shallow pool. You can hear it clearly in the crowded silence. I look up and see that the water is coming from a great bowl hanging from the ceiling over all of us, keeping the linga constantly wet.
Sadhguru doesn’t mind sitting on a lounge chair inside his temple. It is his place, I reason dubiously. It’s a large circular cavern, empty except for the main structure in the centre. All the lights have been switched off inside except four small ones over the doorway.
Two women begin sounding a hum on some bowls. Two minutes later, a young white man, presumably a brahmachari, joins in on his guitar. Then from somewhere a voice slinks up the air — a, aa, aa-aa, AAAA. It’s one of the female brahmacharis. Another one next to her also joins in. Oo-ooo. Ooyaa AAAA. Eeee OOOO. It’s all very soothing. Everyone is in posture, eyes closed, concentrating. Sadhguru is uncharacteristically slumped in his chair. YEEE Yummm! Sadhguru wipes sweat off his forehead and the sides of his nose. I can still hear the trickle falling into the thin pool: TRRRLLLHHH. Now more insistent thrumming and moaning music. Louder. Not too loud. Most people have heads bowed either up or down. A drum approaches and the monks fall silent. The drum stays just outside. I can still hear the trickle needling down, though fainter.
A man in the front row begins vibrating to the drumbeat, cross-legged and eyes closed. He sways dangerously. It’s contagious — the guy to his left also starts going up and down. Then the young girl in front of me, she’s part of our programme, she too starts up. She’s moving her torso, her hands and thighs, while somehow staying in one place. Her spine and neck pick up desperately as the drum goes hoarse. Her head bobs furiously.
Then suddenly the sound stops. Everyone files out and in a minute we’re out in the daylight. The vibrating lady is the last to get up. I haven’t seen the last of her.
The trickle is back.
Now, The Mystic
SO WHAT is it really like to be a Sadhguru for decades? What is it to live like one?
Sadhguru says he wakes at about 3.45 am irrespective of when he sleeps. It’s a good time for him to catch up on emails and call American associates, and do his standard yogic practice of 20 seconds to “reorganise” and “tune” his system, which he does a few times daily. “All I need is 20 seconds,” he tells me. “Sometimes I may stay a little longer. But that’s all it takes. I don’t have to do any particular practice.” Apart from this he takes some exercise like taking a walk, doing suryanamaskars, trekking or golfing. He’s a tall, broad-shouldered man with steady eyes, earrings and a Santa beard that shows black wisps if you get close. He sits erect and walks gracefully. On stage he’s always dressed in turban, kurta, shawl, socks and sandals. His nails are pared down. When he pulls his fingers through his beard the hidden mike there rasps.
Off stage, he’s often eager to shed the guru-garb and change into civilian clothing. And unlike most Indian gurus, he clearly recognises the value of appearing publicly as a regular guy — apart from the pious poses, his website offers plenty of photos of him on a bike, in jeans, throwing frisbees, playing volleyball, trekking in a hat and sunglasses, etc. He speaks with a curious American twang and sometimes swears mildly — “It’s a goddamn stone on your head!” “Your bloody dreams!” He advocates eating healthy and vegetarian and keeping off stimulants like tea, coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, but admits he enjoys an occasional coffee (as long as it’s not a habit) or a seafood dish (since it goes through the body “like a vegetable”, unlike other meats). He loves writers like Salman Rushdie and Kiran Nagarkar. He’s never been a brahmachari and has a daughter who recently graduated college. His youth’s allergy to organised religion continues till date.
But more than the man, what makes a guru? The Isha brochures and websites, the slick YouTube videos, the clumsily exuberant PR-speak, the reverent photos — none of them really do him justice.
What exactly does it mean to be a mystic in modern India? It means being a raconteur, never mind that you’re repeating all your stories and jokes now. It means balancing the oldworld charm of flowing clothes with some modern kitting. It means not being too ethereal, so that you allow yourself to sweat on the football field or cancel an appointment because of feeling under the weather. It means being upset by the world but still having an engorging curiosity about the parrot noises of the contemporary scene. It means spouting scientific trivia in every second sentence while retaining a strong nostalgia for the old wisdom of Indian culture. It means being a master of presence but not overdoing your stately, almost slo-mo behaviour in public. It means never, ever being clumsy. It means wedging a space within Tamil Nadu’s heritage of scepticism. It means unobtrusively plastering your face everywhere except the temples. It means deflecting questions with a politician’s skill, and without that professional’s evasiveness. It means risking the occasional hokey set-up, such as arriving on a bullock cart. It means having a real appetite for praise and gifts. It means learning that you have to wear bright colours for photographers. It means dispensing advice that is coruscatingly commonsensical. It means injecting your followers with momentum. It means having nimble organisational skills. It means merchandise. It means making your ethics a part of your aesthetics, rather than the other way around. It means having a lunging empathy for everyone. It means a formidable memory and a fecund imagination. It means will to power. It means stamina. Above all, it means being a frank charismatic.
It also means scaring Gordon Ramsay silly on a bike ride behind an elephant herd
A Class Act
JAGGI’S CACHE, how much ever he dismisses it, is the juxtaposition of an ancient (and gentle) spirituality with his modern lifestyle and contemporary metaphors: from biking and sunglasses to Twitter and jet engines. The near-collisions jar and thrill us.
Detractors say he’s a wannabe dude. He explains it as simply practical living. He does admit, though, that “I am a little bit of a freak among these spiritual leaders.”
What he does have in common with most new-age gurus is his love for the non-ascetic life. So how does someone who runs an ashram of brahmacharis feel comfortable driving an SUV or flying round the world?
“If I drive a bullock cart, they’ll say he is archaic, ” he says. “What is luxurious about it? I don’t understand. Their idea of spirituality is poverty. If you don’t eat well, dress well, live well — that is spiritual. It’s only a poverty consciousness among them. The gurus they worship from the past — Buddha, Agastya, Vasishtha — all hailed from kings’ courts. People ask, ‘Oh! He drives a car, what kind of a guru is he?’ So if I have a chauffer, will I become a guru? So your idea of guru is someone who must be a nincompoop, incapable of doing anything except blessing you. No! I want to set this example. Being spiritual is not a disability. It is an empowerment. I am just doing what I am doing in the most practical manner.”
He speaks frankly about wealth being a basic ingredient for well-being but warns of money-making unchecked by a sense of inclusiveness — his solution is that people get in touch with what lies beyond the physical realm. He bemoans social disparities rather than personal consumption. This comfort with consumption and his willingness to not press the point works well for his affluent listeners. They don’t mind his wide-angled concepts like “My responsibility is limitless” and “I am a mother to this world”.
I ask him about his vaulting ambition, the plans for a new 1.2 lakh sq ft meditation complex and its 55,000 sq ft columnless hall, the plans for a new 66,000 sq ft Theerthakund with three rasalingas. He waves them away as merely necessary for a bursting-at-seams scenario of Isha enthusiasts. He claims he has no ambition, that he discourages his staff from establishing new centres and institutions since they tend to become “corruption spots” if not managed well, how he knows so many ashrams that have become slovenly. “If I wanted to make property,” he adds, “I wouldn’t do this work. I know how to run a business and make lots of property.”
And yet how does one walk past the signals? Is Jaggi cultivating a cult of himself rather than the practices he teaches? Visitors and some volunteers often mob him to try to get a touch. They sob desperately for his blessing. He elevates himself in any room — literally. There’s a dedicated brahmachari- photographer always trailing him, creating currency for his public life and posthumous life. His photo is everywhere, often with a lamp in front of it — website, merchandise, guest reception, dining hall. At the Sadhana Hall, the ashram’s main meditation venue, one part of the meditation practice is an aarti in front of his huge photo.
Jaggi defends himself by saying the place is run democratically and decisions are taken by committees rather than individuals. That the photos are not about idealising but about inspiring — “If there’s no photo that reminds you that this is an ashram, you might start thinking this is a restaurant” — that they remove his picture from a room if he’s there too, that he never allowed pictures until five years ago when everyone said they need a marker as reminder. He misses the point that all this still keeps everyone completely dependent on him. “I drive my own car, people still call me by my first name, even children,” he says. “I communicate with people wherever in their language, no acting like a heavenly being. I don’t know what else to do! What else can I do to make it normal? The pictures are only a reminder, an inspiration. People are here not because of the buildings but for me. If I don’t represent what they want, they won’t be here.”
So: his lifestyle, his growth, his cultish figure, all are chalked up to practicality and pragmatism.
But Jaggi is also very willing to use this paradox of modernity/ spirituality for his image management. One piquant example is Forest Flower, Isha’s monthly newsletter. Each issue’s cover carries a traditional ‘guru’ photo while the back cover offers some sterling image of modernity and comedy. Sadhguru making faces at the camera wearing red, plastic devil horns. Sadhguru in sunglasses driving a bullock cart with feet propped up.
His twin nature presents one final advantage — a bulwark against every scepticism about him. He doesn’t fit the typical mould of Aastha channel — till he does. “See, the problem with people, what I can see,” he muses to me at one point, “is that I don’t fit into any of their ideas. When they just can’t figure me, they say all kinds of things.” His incrimination is also his best defence. His serpentine modernity eats its own tail.
THERE’S A small memorial to Sadhguru’s deceased wife next to his house. When I visited, flowers were rotting beautifully on the grass. Subramaniam tells the story of how his wife was inspired by another yogi to leave her body, and died as Jaggi was preparing for the Dhyanalinga’s consecration.
He’s calm when I bring up the old murder case that was brought against him for her death, though he quickly turns indignant. “Is an FIR filed? No. Have they arrested me? No. Have they interrogated me? No,” he responds. “Why would they not arrest me if there was some substance?” He says a case was filed eight months after his wife died, and the media went ballistic because a powerful banker who disliked him funded the campaign. According to him, despite this and the resulting political pressure, the DSP refused to arrest him because there was no case — they’d spoken to people at the ashram. He adds that she’d announced to many that she was planning to leave her body and there were witnesses when it happened. What surprised him was that she left a month before her announced date. “This country is replete with history of such things, okay,” he continues. “You’re ignoring everything because you’ve got this western education and your brains are in the UK. Your brains are in Greenwich Mean Time, not in India. A number of people on the spiritual path have sat down and left their body. I’m proud that she left like that. Over 2,000 people attended the cremation, what else needs to happen?”
The fact that the police never questioned him won’t soothe the suspicious. Such leeway is unlikely to make gurus look very egalitarian.
The Big Hoo-Ha
THE PENULTIMATE night is the big one. Tonight we do the whole Shambhavi Mahamudra for the first time.
Eyes closed, of course. Sadhguru sings occasionally. Huge drums sound periodically. Twenty one minutes. Sitting so there isn’t a chance at transcendence. My right leg has been dead and burnt long ago after falling asleep. As we sit, there are shrieks. Two female voices are moaning, sobbing, screaming. The one who’d been bobbing during the sound offering in the temple, she’s moaning and hopping vertically in the lotus pose. A volunteer rushes to attend to her.
As I sit here in the large cavern with the piercing sobs, wails, cries, sighs, I think I hear their suffering. (Later, Sadhguru tells me confidently they were cries of joy.) My one thought is how people are even more damaged than we realise in our wised-up ways. How much we carry inside under thin hides and don’t let on.
One sneaky commonality of many modern yoga gurus, including Sadhguru and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar all the way from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, is that their ecstasy-causing kriyas are often based on hyperventilation. Fast breathing that’s likely to make you dizzy, even cause panic attacks. Is the lotus- posed lady just feeling light-headed? Many participants are like people trying a joint for the first time. They worriedly wonder later that they didn’t feel anything. Where’s the kick? When I blink afterwards, I feel… light, dim, a bit morose, relaxed, flat. Little do I know, the real performance is still to come — it’s about to come alive.
Music. Young instructors and volunteers dancing, urging us. The foreigners join first. Some of us are still quiet. Several have run to touch Sadhguru’s feet. Some kiss his feet. He blesses them gravely. He hasn’t spoken a word so far. He walks away majestically until he’s out of most of our line of vision, then nimbly skips up the stairs to his office.
We all head to the outer deck where there’s more music and a singer. It’s an assumed celebration, and it’s working. Most people are happy. For the first time in the programme, everyone’s loosened up. Now they want to chat. One man asks another, “Was I shouting and screaming? Was that subconscious?” Nobody is clear on what they experienced, and when I press them they circle around it. The hopping woman has disappeared, but the other one is smiling. Sadhguru has re-emerged — he’s shed his sadhu clothes and is back into his regular guru garb. His kurta’s too-long sleeves are always neatly pressed into folds upto the wrists. Someone is working hard every day to iron them just right. Maybe this man’s putting it on, maybe not, but he’s not astonishing. These people are. Their hunger to believe, their ache, it’s pathetic. They are despicable.
Concert. Lamps. Dinner.A cool breeze. Light drops of rain. I judge everybody and run away.
And Now, The Clairvoyant
ACCORDING TO the guru, a mystic is someone who sees things more clearly, and since others don’t understand this, they find it mystical. He adds, “Not many people have what I have — clarity, not just mental but of perception — so I am a mystic. I’d like to become a normal guy.” He compares his reported clairvoyance with the defamiliarisation of technology — if you saw him talking on the phone with a hidden Bluetooth device, you’d find that mystical too. Or how anybody can look into a microscope, but it takes a trained eye to recognise what’s on the slide.
In our private conversations, as I reluctantly sat at his feet, he said things like he could look at me and tell what ailment I have, and will have in 10 years (but he wouldn’t, since that would be “unaesthetic”). Or how he wears a snake-headed ring on one foot since metal dampens the spirit and restrains him from the temptation to leave his body. Or how in a new place, he just needs to stay in contact with an undisturbed object and he can understand the place’s history. Or how he avoids some business meetings since he can ensure the deal happens however he wants it. Or how he can be with someone far away in spirit, to the point of moving an object in front of them if needed. “Unfortunately,” he concluded, “modern man understands life in a physical manner… [But the] nonphysical area is more important. Are you scared of losing your mind or losing your body? We have to go beyond physical boundaries. If it’s non-physical, it’s available all the time, you are just not aware of it. This may sound like mumbo jumbo. You might think I’m crazy or a con.
The density of self-mythologising is boggling. But after wrestling through all my hot indignation and self-doubt and benefits of doubt, here’s where I landed: I’m comfortable with the concept of aesthetic grace — okay, ‘energy’, if you must — of objects, architecture, even mountains, sure, as long as they’re inanimate objects. But I freeze up when that is extended to apply to a person. For Isha followers and millions of modern people — including millions of rich, educated and gratefully hedonistic Indians — Sadhguru’s claims are only slight exaggerations of their beliefs in ghosts, Reiki, rebirths, etc. They approach it from the opposite direction — for them, the rather literal ‘energy’ of a person produces the aesthetic splendour of objects, rather than the other way around (never mind how so many great artists are actually wretched people). This is the nub of the irreconcilability — the gap across which these two groups yawn at each other.
A more galvanising conversation proved to be with a brahmachari the day after our programme ended. We spoke on a bench overlooking a lush garden for several hours. The stillyoung man had been here for almost a decade. He was patient, measured, dignified, chatty, gregarious, articulate, restrained. He spoke wittily of, among other things, Rajinikanth, Karunanidhi, college, his adolescence, meditation, how his parents don’t call so much anymore and how he thinks it’s for the best. The goal, he said to me in tolerant tones, is oneness with the world — to feel everything as part of you. His guru claims he does, and I don’t know what to make of it. But Jaggi supposedly attained it in an unasked-for moment — for the brahmacharis here, I cannot fathom a similarly flashy afternoon. What I do think they are reaching (some online sniping from volunteers notwithstanding) is a level of civilisé.
In the middle of my conversation with the brahmachari, though, I suddenly realised what I’d been resisting so strongly all week, what was so unacceptable to me — the notion that he and his comrades and their guru could be more sensitive than me. That they felt things more, were responsive to much more than me. Sadhguru had hinted at this in our discussions when he railed against the modern person’s arrogance. Sitting there on that bench, I recoiled at myself a bit.
Perception, epiphany, transcendence — they all derive from attentiveness, alertness, openness, wakefulness. No wonder everyone here is so perky.
Look at these mountains and these low-slung scudding clouds, thickly white against the climbing leaves. They are undeniably magnetic. You can just admire them aesthetically or you can conceptualise their ‘energy’. Finally, this whole place is a ‘concept’. Everything rests on the performance of the concept, and Jagadish is a very contagious performer.
A few weeks ago, the guru returned from the US to find that the rains had washed out the bridge leading to his ashram. No one had crossed in three days. Despite fearful calls, he rammed his Land Cruiser forward into the water. When he came out the other side, he could hear the villagers. “Oooh,” he remembers, “the villagers all clapped and screamed because they think it’s a miracle that Sadhguru is crossing. But it’s just that I am empowered. I am empowered with a 4.2 litre engine.”
Gaurav Jain is Literary Editor with Tehelka.