“Aham kills your inner beauty and joy”

‘The Happiness Road’ is a weekly Series on this Blog that appears on Sundays where I share my conversations with people while exploring their idea of happiness!
This Sunday I feature actor-dancer Vyjayanthimala Bali, who, at 82, celebrates Life in each moment!
Picture by Vaani Anand
“It is not what happiness is. It is what happiness does,” declares Vyjayanthimala Bali, as she sits down in her study, adding, “Being happy with your Life, the way it is, makes you deal with it better.” Her study is full of awards, citations and souvenirs, showcasing a lifetime’s work in movies, in politics and as a dancer. At 82, Vyjayanthimala, is enviably fit and so full of Life. Her big, beautiful, expressive eyes radiate an indescribable sense of inner joy. And her million-watt smile can revive the most heart-broken soul. Where does all this energy come from? “From simply being happy,” she replies. “Whatever is beautiful makes me happy. Life is so beautiful, it is full of beautiful people. So, I see all of the beauty around me and that keeps me happy,” she explains.
Vyjayanthimala’s Life has been an interesting one. The reigning goddess of Indian cinema through the 50s and 60s (the first actor from the South to make it big in Bombay) and then a successful stint in politics (she has been a member of both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha) in the 80s and 90s. Yet, she never clung on to either profession. I ask her how she was able to let go of her celebrity-hood. Wasn’t it difficult? “Not at all. Cinema and politics were mere opportunities that came my way. I liked them and so I took them up. But when I stopped enjoying them, I left them. My dance is who I am. It is as a dancer that I am the happiest. The only constant in my Life is my dance,” says Vyjayanthimala. Her husband, Dr.Chamanlal Bali, who passed away in 1986, inspired her to continue dancing. “Quitting films was a conscious decision I took with Dr.Bali. I wanted to be a homemaker. I wanted to get away from all the limelight. Which is why I have avoided making a comeback although there have been numerous offers for character roles. But Dr.Bali always told me I must never quit dancing. I am so grateful for his foresight and encouragement. Without my dance I will not be who I am,” she reveals.
Picture by Vaani Anand
Over the last several years, Vyjayanthimala has been researching on ancient temple dance forms. She continues to stage productions each year – there was one at Bangalore’s Chowdiah Hall in September and there’s one at Mumbai’s famed Shanmukhananda Hall in November. “As I research, I find that one lifetime is just not enough to live and learn about everything that there is. This Life is like a drop in an ocean. I realize that I am no achiever, I am just a pursuer. I am a student. I am still learning. You see, apart from making me so fulfilled and happy, it also takes me closer to the divine. The wealth of knowledge in this vast Universe makes me wonder why there is so much aham (ego) in people. Ahamkills your inner beauty and joy,” she observes.
How does she want to be remembered? She doesn’t answer the question directly. But she responds with her characteristic spontaneity, simplicity and clarity: “Dr.Bali taught me that true happiness is about making others happy. True happiness is in giving. I practise this at two levels. I acknowledge everyone I know and meet at a human level. For instance, on a day-to-day basis I never say no to people asking to take photographs with me; I always stop to smile at a security guard in a building or at airports. When you acknowledge and respect people for who they are, it makes them happy, you see. Second, I offer myself, and everything I have, to the divine in my audiences through my dance. The happiness I feel dancing, being myself, I share through my dance. That’s it. I think of nothing else.”
But, obviously, like everyone else, she too has to deal with problems, crises, worries, challenges. How has she managed to face and live through her low phases? “I have learnt not to keep on and on at it when things don’t go the way I want them to. I don’t focus on my worries and problems all the time – that will only magnify them. I have discovered that as long as there is Life, you have to keep moving on. There are no full stops in Life, there are only commas. That’s the best way to live,” she shares.


In her hey days as a movie star, Vyjayanthimala was considered as one among the pantheon of female Hindi film actors – among Nargis, Meena Kumari, Madhubala and Nutan. She was worshipped by both her male co-stars and her audiences for her blemishless beauty and charisma. But, as she saw me and Vaani off at the door of her Alwarpet home, I thought to myself – this is not Vyjayanthimala, the yesteryear star and celebrity. Here is someone who personifies what Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 ~ 1962), the former US First Lady, had to say: “Beautiful young people are accidents of nature. Beautiful old people are works of art.”

From what you learn from your Life experiences, you can only get better at the art of living

There is no success or failure in Life. There are just experiences and there are the lessons you learn from those experiences.
Yesterday, at a workshop I was leading, a manager asked me: “How do you retain your hunger for success while not getting too desperate with whether you succeed or not?”
That’s a very interesting question.
Success and failure, victory and defeat, win and loss – all these are social labels. In reality, all of us have only choices, to act in a given situation or not to act. When we act and the outcomes match our expectations, we call it success. When the outcomes fall below our expectations we call it failure. But the truth is that our choice of action – or inaction, as the case may be – is far more important than the outcome itself. Which is why the Bhagavad Gita invites us to focus on our efforts, on the action, and to leave the results, the outcomes, to Life.

So, I would simply rephrase the manager’s perspective. I would say that we must exercise our choice of action and learn from the experience that leads to the outcome. It is when you are attached to the outcome that you invite ego and suffering. You turn egoistic when the outcomes match or exceed your expectations. You suffer when they don’t. So why go through this up and down cycle? Why not simply be focused on the action and leave the outcomes to happen in their own way? And whatever is the outcome, the way it is, simply accept it – without qualifying it as good, bad or ugly. At the end of the day, nothing is good, nothing is bad, nothing is won, nothing is lost, no one succeeds, no on fails. Life is just a series of experiences that you learn from you. And through your learning, as long as you are continuously learning – and sometimes unlearning too – you can hope to get better and better, and better and better, and better and better, at the art of living! 

Empty yourself and feel abundant

Life’s an amazing paradox. When you fill yourself you feel an eerie emptiness. And when you empty yourself you feel a joyful fullness!
Think about your Life deeply. What are you filling it with? The more you fill yourself with fear, guilt, grief, ego, anxiety, greed and desires, the more empty you feel. You can’t just escape the emptiness. You may call it by any name: mid-life crisis, not enjoying your job, unhappy with your partner, feel lost with how to raise your children, whatever. But you do feel empty. The irony, however, is that to rid yourself of this emptiness, all you need to do is to empty yourself. When you empty yourself of all wasteful emotions, like those listed above, or many more, you are emptying yourself of your self. This is when you are enriched, filled with love and are full of peace. This fullness is what is called bliss. Emptying yourself of your self means to get rid of the ‘I’!
Several years ago, when my business started going horribly wrong, I sat in my hotel room in Bengaluru and shared my worries with a good friend, Deepak Pawar, a highly acclaimed media photographer in India. He’s much older to me and I have always valued his perspective. What was causing me immense grief was the way my team was behaving with me. There were resignations, a case of embezzlement and even blackmail from a colleague who threatened to share company data with competition if his salary was not paid. This was tragic for me. We had not only given this gentleman employment but had also supported his MBA program and his coaching in spoken English. As I shared my woes, describing my Life as being ‘empty, meaningless and thankless’, with Deepak, he said, “For your Life to be full and meaningful, you must shed yourself of your ego AVIS.” I was devastated by his remark. I shot back: “Sorry Sir, with due respect to you, I disagree. You are saying I have an ego. I don’t. I have worked hard to grow my business and I have done so with humility. My team is family to me. This colleague of mine who is today threatening me, I have groomed him. I have trained him. I have educated him. I have always sat with him and guided him on how to plan his career professionally. I have done so much for him and you are saying…” Deepak cut me short. He smiled and said, “Just see the number of times you have said ‘I’ in your defense just now AVIS….That ‘I’…that’s your ego speaking….that guy, the ‘I’ in you…you must empty yourself of that ‘I’…and you will find meaning and a Life full of peace and happiness!”

To me that moment, that nano-second, was the ‘CTRL+ALT+DEL’ moment of my Life. With that enlightening perspective, Deepak opened my eyes, helping me see clearly, why there was so much emptiness in my Life. Osho’s masterly perspective on this too helped me immensely: “Emptying oneself means emptying of all content – just as you empty a room of all the junk that has gathered there, over the years. When you have emptied the room of all the furniture and all the things, you have not destroyed the room, not at all; you have given it more roominess, more space. When all the furniture is gone, the room asserts itself, the room is.” What’s interesting is, as I discovered, when the ‘I’ goes out of you, all the parasites that thrive on it, off it__fear, guilt, grief, anxiety, greed and desires__run after it too. The feeling you get with emptying yourself, and therefore filling your Life with abundance and bliss, is truly liberating. It has to be experienced to be understood. It has to be lived! 

Even mundane events can teach you a lesson or two on intelligent living

 Some of Life’s most trivial events offer an opportunity to learn to drop your ego.
Both our domestic helps quit on the same day last week. It was a very bizarre turn of events. They were well paid – despite our enduring bankruptcy – and the work conditions were above normal standards, meals, local conveyance and work-related incentives. But, as it turns out, they quarreled with each other and both quit saying they will not work with the other! Worse, both of them continue to be unreachable and I believe each of them assumes that the other is still working with us! This development comes at the most inopportune time for us. My father-in-law, who suffered a stroke two weeks ago, has been very ill and is being looked after in our home with 24-hour nursing care. The agency supplying the home nurses has been very inefficient, irresponsible and unresponsive. Resultantly, many a time, we are left without a nurse or with the same nurse doing more than one shift. The stream of (non-family) visitors calling on us to look up my father-in-law only confounds an already stressful situation.
This may appear to be a very trivial situation – a commonplace occurrence in most of our homes! But when I examined the event closely, it offered me some deep spiritual insights. 

The first one is that at the bottom of it all, Life is impermanent and illogical. Our domestic helps abruptly stopping to work, only reinforces that truism. What happens to you and in your Life need not necessarily be a function of how good you are. Anything can happen, absolutely anything, whether or not you caused it or contributed to it in any manner. The second one is that not everyone needs to share your value systems. The person who runs the nursing agency has no sense of customer focus and is only intent on demanding a steep fee for a service that he hardly delivers! Trying to make him see reason, I discovered, is futile. So, the only way forward in such a situation is that when the value systems don’t sync, you simply move on. Third, you can’t control people and their behaviors. At best you can control the way you react to people and situations. This is the only way to retain your inner peace and sanity. And finally, when you resist whatever is happening to you – whether it is fair or not, right or wrong, is hardly relevant in Life’s scheme of things – you will suffer. For a good four days, despite my evolved perspective of Life, I struggled to accept the reality that confronted us; that we were dealing with a bunch of people who were illogically, irrationally, playing truant with us! As long as I resisted this reality, I found myself stressed. But then when I sat down over the weekend and thought through all the developments peacefully, calmly, and accepted what we were faced with, I was able to regain my equilibrium.  

I finally concluded that this domestic crisis of sorts was actually a very humbling experience. It helped me drop my ego. Why do I need to demand that we must be treated better? Why do I insist that we deserve better? Why expect? I realized, yet again, that only when all expectations cease, can there be complete inner peace.  

Have an ego? Try hailing an auto-rickshaw in Chennai!

When you understand ego, you will be able to deal with it and your Self better!  
Cartoon Courtesy: Surendra/The Hindu/Internet
I have come to believe that if you really want a crash course in learning to handle ego, you must try commuting using an auto-rickshaw within Chennai. No matter what your net worth or self-worth is, the auto-rickshaw drivers will cut you down to size. They will be, often without provocation, nasty, irreverent and downright greedy and abrasive. The most humiliating part, the unkindest cut if you may want to call it so, is when you are trying to tell the driver (before boarding) what your destination is, and he simply drives away – no explanations, not even a glance at you, forget a “Sorry, I am headed in a different direction!” … It can be very humiliating and surely the fastest way of ridding yourself of your ego.
Last evening, I was, yet again, subjected to such a treatment trying to hail an auto-rickshaw. And that brought me to reflect on Osho’s, the Master’s, perspective on ego. Osho says the ego does not exist. He likens the ego to darkness. He says just as darkness is the absence of light, which disappears the moment light arrives, the ego too will be powerless if there is self-awareness. He says ego is just that state when there is absence of self-awareness. If you know your true Self, says Osho, you will never have a problem with ego.
On a simpler plane, the ego is the feeling that your mind whips up that you are in control of your Life and of everything and everyone around you. So, when someone, like an auto-rickshaw driver in Chennai, behaves in a discourteous, and often obnoxious, manner your mind pumps up your ego to demand “How dare you?” But a Chennai auto-rickshaw driver cares a damn – neither for law, nor for humanity. He will simply rubbish you. Which is why I say that spending time on the streets of Chennai trying to hail auto-rickshaws, over a period of a few weeks, can help you learn to manage your ego better. To be sure, you will learn to appreciate and value the truth that you control nothing.
Understanding ego is a very important aspect of intelligent living. This whole feeling that you are in control makes you a hostage of your ego. Ilayaraja, the music maestro, was once on Radio Mirchi, talking about the ego. I remember him saying this, so beautifully: “Show me one human being who says he is the one causing the digestion of all that he eats. Everything, absolutely everything, is controlled by a Higher Energy. We don’t even have the ability to control the digestion of the food that we imbibe.” I can totally relate to that perspective. This does not mean we must become defeatist in our approach to Life. This only means that we become more aware.

Know that there’s a Higher Energy leading you and your Life. By all means do whatever you can and must in each situation – but for a moment, never imagine and believe that you are controlling the situation. The more aware you become, the more you understand ego. And the more you understand ego, the more you realize that your Life was never in your control in the first place. How do you control something that you have no control over? The game of Life will be played no matter what you do or don’t do. The best you can do is to simply play along and flow with Life – pretty much the way you will end up learning to hail an auto-rickshaw in Chennai!!!