A lesson in “seva” from the Swamiji I never met

If you can inspire even one person in this lifetime to serve and be caring, you can claim to have lived a productive and useful Life. And Swami Dayananda, who passed on earlier this week, touched and inspired so, so many people.
Swami Dayananda (1930 ~ 2015)
I have never met Swami Dayananda. My parents-in-law Venks and Padma were both long-time followers of Swamiji. Their children, including my wife Vaani, too knew Swamiji pretty closely. In the 14 years that Venks stayed with me and Vaani, after Padma’s passing in 2001, he would diligently make an annual contribution to Swamiji’s Arsha Vidya Gurukulam in Anaikatti near Coimbatore. I knew this because Venks depended on me to ensure that his contribution, via a postal money order, reached Anaikatti. As my spiritual evolution progressed, Venks and I would often have long conversations and he would share anecdotes of what he had learned from meeting Swamiji or from attending his discourses. So, in several ways, Swamiji’s teachings found their way to me. But I never got the opportunity to meet him – the one time in recent years when he visited Chennai, much before his health began to fail, I was traveling.
But Swamiji touched my Life, and my precious family’s, in the most profound, yet in the most inscrutable, of ways.
Seeing my daily blog posts, three years ago, one of my friends on Facebook, a lady who I had never met back then, reached out to me. She is related to someone we know. And because she liked reading my blogs, I had added her as a friend. The post that had prompted this lady to reach out to me dealt with an episode during our grave, ongoing financial crisis, our bankruptcy. In that post I had talked about how I was learning to be calm in the eye of the storm. A criminal complaint had been filed against me for cheating and I was likely to be arrested. We had no money to run the family. So, there seemed no way out but to go with the flow. Seeking bail or remedial legal measures were out of the question – given that everything cost money! Besides, this complaint had been filed against me in a different Indian state – where we knew and had no one. I had written about how it is important to let go, especially when you don’t know what to do.
The lady, who lives in the US with her family, pinged me on Facebook Messenger and asked me if she and her husband could speak to me and Vaani. I thought she wanted to discuss the learnings from on my blog post – there are many people who reach out to me seeking and sharing additional perspectives; so, I agreed. Over the call, the lady’s husband asked me if I would mind if they wired us some money. I was flabbergasted. We had just a couple of thousand rupees on hand at that time; Vaani and I were in fact wondering how we were going to get groceries and keep the kitchen going, when this generous, completely unexpected, offer came our way. I thanked the gentleman profusely. In fact, I broke down as I expressed our gratitude, while accepting his offer.
But I soon gathered myself to ask him, “Why, why Sir would you want to help someone who you don’t even know personally? After all, Vaani and I are just rank strangers, you know us only through someone we mutually know. Also, I can’t really say when I can commit to repaying you.”
“No, no, don’t even talk about repayment. Please don’t embarrass us,” protested the gentleman, saying, “We are followers of Swami Dayananda. We are doing this because he has taught us and inspired us to practice seva – the art of serving others with no expectation of any returns. You are good folks going through a rough patch. We are happy we can be of some help.”
That money which came in from this couple lasted us a few weeks. It helped me and Vaani brave the onslaught on the criminal complaint front, because the home front was taken care of with this inflow.
Yes, all spiritual teachers share what they have learnt with their followers. Often they distill the essence of the scriptures, which they have mastered, in their teachings. But very few teachers will have the ability to inspire people to imbibe and practice the spirit of service. Swamiji, I understand now, did that not once or twice, but all his Life. And he managed to do that to a lot, lot many people.
From that couple who selflessly touched our Life, we have learnt to carry forward this spirit of seva, service. Someday, we hope we too can be angels in disguise to someone, just the way this couple has been to us. When that day comes, hopefully soon, we will look up at the sky and thank Swamiji, yet again, for teaching us that the true meaning of Life is ‘seva’!

Shaandaar! Zabardast!! Zindabad!!!

Live Life fully alive. Be awesome. Be terrific!
My wife Vaani and I have been telling Dasrath Manji’s story, for eight years now, in all our workshops. We inspire and invite managers to learn from Manjhi’s tale of grit and focus no doubt, but we also help them connect with another key learning – living a Life of Purpose. Manjhi found his Life’s Purpose, to break down the mountain in the Gaya district of Bihar, which separated his native Gehlaur from the nearest town Wazirganj. Until Manjhi’s feat, his village-folk had to either climb the 25ft-high mountain by foot to cross it or had to go around it, taking a circuitous 55 km route. Manjhi broke down that mountain with just a hammer and chisel – he did it alone, over 22 years! A feat that is unparalleled in human history. The road Manjhi helped pave between Gehlaur and Wazirganj reduced the distance between the two places to 15 km!
Dasrath Manjhi (left) and Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Manjhi
So, when we saw Ketan Mehta’s just-released biopic on Manjhi – Manjhi: The Mountain Man (Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Manjhi admirably) – the story wasn’t new to us. In fact, we came away thinking that the film fails to do justice to the simple moosahar(one who eats rats; the name of a community of rat-eaters in Bihar) who chose to serve selflessly. His form of service was to pave a road through a mighty mountain that caused his wife Phaguniya’s death. While the film takes, naturally so, cinematic liberties, like the romance between Manjhi and Phaguniya or the evil acts of the Thakurs and the mukhiya, it somehow falls short of showcasing Manjhi’s purposefulness. He is shown as someone who remains rooted to his cause more from his tryst with the mountain. Perhaps that’s Mehta’s view and we must respect that. But what I liked about the film is that it delivers two memorable messages:
1.     Manjhi’s mantra of “Shaandaar! Zabardast!! Zindabad!!! – Terrific! Awesome!! Alive!!!” is very inspiring. This what Siddiqui’s Manjhi (not sure if Manjhi Original ever spoke those words) tells anyone who asks him how is he doing. He is shown soldiering on against a remorseless mountain in inhuman conditions, but every time someone stops by to ask him how’s he doing, he has only the mantra in reply – “Shaandaar! Zabardast!! Zindabad!!!” It is an infectious mantra no doubt. And something we can practice in our daily lives too.
2.     Mehta’s film shows us how Manjhi too faces his dark moments. When he thinks he cannot go on. When he finds the world out there is cold, its people beastly and inhuman and the mountain unrelenting. But then this is the time when Manjhi dips into his inner being. This is where he meets his Phaguniya who eggs him on to last one more day and to plough on. We too face our mountains. Our mountains are often mere molehills, when compared to Manjhi’s, but we imagine them to be insurmountable peaks standing obstinately in our way. So we too crumble. We too want to badly cry out of the game. We too say we can’t go any further. And that’s when, as this film points out, we must invest in Manjhi’s method of looking within. When we seek within, we will find the energy, the motivation and the reason to plough on – in any context or situation we may find ourselves. Remember: if we listen to what the world has to say, we will get nowhere. The world has only opinions. But the Universe is full of energy. And it is the same energy that powers the Universe that powers you – and me – too. So, when we dip into that energy, we will always find a way to move forward.
I am not sure you or I will have a chance to, or may even want to, break down a mountain like Manjhi did. But if we can learn from the Mountain Man’s Life to be terrific, be awesome, be alive to Life, every single day, and live a Life of Purpose, well, we would surely have lived this lifetime more meaningfully than we are doing just now!   

A gentle reminder to make the world a better place

If you make an effort, you can practise simple acts of kindness, to touch a Life daily – and make a difference!
Over last weekend, I lunched with Rajan, my dear friend, who, at 70, continues to be young with his thinking and in spirit. A consummate adman, an expert in Rural Marketing, a man with a big heart and a great sense of humor, Rajan is all this and more. And that’s why he’s simply unputdownable! Post his retirement, some years ago, he took to writing seriously and has written three books already – including his autobiography. Despite a few upheavals with his health in the past few months, Rajan plows on – his energy levels undiminished,  with an insatiable zest for Life! His wife passed away about a year ago and he’s coped well. He prefers cooking most of his meals himself, although his son’s family lives in the same building, and was, in fact, asking my wife if she could share some interesting Gujarati recipes! But what excited me most was Rajan’s new mission. “I make it a point to see how I can help people with my time, ideas, resources and experience. I want to touch someone’s Life daily. It gives me great joy to serve someone, to make a difference, however small. I wish I had dedicated my whole lifetime to doing this. But I am happy that I am able to do this at least now! It is never late,” he declared. That morning, he had made it simpler for four other friends to join the lunch we were at, by driving them up and offering to drop them back.
Rajan’s missionary zeal to touch lives daily, through small, even if mundane, acts appeals to me. Most important, it helps us shift the attention and focus from ourselves to others around us. Given the quality of Life we all lead, with too much to be done in too little time, we end up thinking and working for the welfare of only our families. We don’t lack the intent to be useful or to serve, but we simply don’t have the time. Which is when a perspective such as Rajan’s is most helpful. My takeaway is that if we can, during the course of our everyday schedules, do something to help another person live their Life better, we would have made a small difference. Our acts can be random and small – helping an elderly person with getting her shopping bags to her car, making way for a lady to sit on the bus, calling a friend who’s going through a crisis or feeding someone on the street by buying him or her a hot meal. We don’t even need to make a special effort. Just look around, in our own circles of immediate influence, we will find people who need help but are not asking for it. They don’t fall into any specific income or social brackets – they are just there, fellow voyagers, like you and me, who are struggling with their own daily challenges through Life.
Mother Teresa (1910~1997) has said this so beautifully: “If you can’t feed a hundred people, feed one.” Rajan left me inspired and I am grateful to him for this, if I can call it, gentle reminder. And I am sharing this here in the hope that if any of you feels equally inspired, you too can join in the mission. When more of us come together, over time, with consistent effort, we can make our world a better place!

Until your time comes

Dealing with death requires a deeper understanding of Life – through an awakening from within.

Our most normal reaction as children to death is total puzzlement. When we asked someone in the family why someone is ‘not waking up’ or ‘not coming these days’, we were told ‘the person has become a star in the sky’ or ‘gone to God’. Therein begins our misunderstanding of death. Slowly, as we grow older, while we begin to appreciate, albeit subconsciously, the certainty of death, and its tendency to arrive unannounced, we loathe it, we fear it. Anything that we fear will torment us. And death is no exception.

A friend passed away yesterday – consumed by cancer of the stomach. He was in his late forties. Seeing his picture in the obituary of The Hindu this morning, an eerie feeling crept into me. Is this it, I wondered. One day, you are there; and the next day you are gone? If this is an unchangeable reality, an eventuality, about Life, why and how is it that some are able to handle death, when it comes calling in their families, calmly while some others suffer endlessly in sorrow?

The answer lies, like with Life itself, in accepting Death for what it is. Osho, the Master, as always, is helpful in promoting our understanding: “Death is always close by. It is almost like your shadow. You may be aware, you may not be aware, but it follows you from the first moment of your life to the very last moment. Death is a process just as Life is a process, and they are almost together, like two wheels of a bullock cart. Life cannot exist without death; neither can death exist without Life. Our minds have an insane desire: we want only Life and not death.”

All desires will bring agony when they are not met. You ask for a cappuccino in a restaurant and you get an espresso instead. You are angry. You want a raise. And your boss says no. You are angry. In the case of desires such as the cappuccino and the raise, your anger__and resultant agony__may result in your desires being fulfilled. But let us say you live in Chicago and you desire that there be no winters? Or you live in Chennai and desire that there be no summers? Is there any point in having desires that are NEVER going to be fulfilled? To have a desire that death must not visit you, your family and your social circle is meaningless, absurd and sure to cause you a lot of suffering. Instead of fearing it, accept, embrace and welcome death. This is the only certainty that Life can offer you. The only guarantee. That you will die. So, what this knowledge calls for is celebration. Not grief. Each time you encounter death around you__to someone you knew, or knew of, or just heardabout it in the news__remember that it is Life’s way of nudging you awake, to remind you how precious, how fragile and how impermanent your own Life is. It is a wake up call to live fully and intelligently. We will do well to know that, as departures keep happening in our lifetime, we are all in the same queue, and until our time comes, we must live, share, love and serve.

Serve to connect with the Godliness in you

During the course of a business discussion yesterday, we talked about leaders developing ‘a servant attitude’ towards their teams. A manager present at the meeting wondered aloud: Isn’t projecting a ‘servant attitude’ something negative?
The manager’s premise is symptomatic of what ails society today. We have all become so obsessed with what we get than what we can give. Let’s remember that the larger purpose of being born human is to be able to serve, to touch another Life and to be able to make a difference. But because most of us are caught in this trap of focussing on what we deserve, we rarely recognize the opportunity and potential that exists in each moment, to serve, to create value and to make this world a better place.
To serve, to give, is a blessing. It will enrich the giver immeasurably when the act of giving is selfless and spontaneous. True service is not to be done out of pity, as a charity. It cannot be done to fulfil your ego either – to  ‘feel good’. When you see people serving communities through charities or social service organizations, they are doing immense good no doubt, but much of it is also to ‘earn a good name’. Again that’s not true service. In the context of true service the giver is indebted to the receiver – for having got the opportunity to serve in the first place. This is what having a servant attitude to leadership and to Life is all about. It is being grateful for the opportunity, the experience, to give, to make a difference. In effect, serving is humbling. That’s the reason why almost every religion and scripture celebrates true service as an act of worship, as a means to ‘realize’ God.
I am not sure God exists outside of us. But if an important port of anchor for many of us is indeed God, I can, from my own experiences, share a little secret: You do connect with the Godliness resident in you __ and in all fellow beings __ when you serve, when you offer yourself to, another!

Offer this lifetime to serve Life!

There is a famous book by one of my favorite authors Robin Sharma titled, “Who will cry when you die?”. I like to ask the question differently: “How will you be remembered after you are gone?

We will all be remembered after we are gone. Make no mistake about that. Have no doubt. The “how” of it is what you__and I__have a choice with. You can either make your lifetime memorable and have people remember you as one who served, who inspired and whose Life is the message. Or you can fade away, as a friend of mine wryly says, having been “a burden on the planet” – having lived a self-obsessed Life and having been totally “un-useful”.

The other day I was, out of sheer curiosity, watching Tamil film actor Prakash Raj host the inaugural episode (his first ever) of the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” reality show’s Tamil equivalent on Star Vijay. On the show, he celebrated a contestant who had dedicated his entire Life to support a marginalized, tribal community. Prakash Raj then went on to say what a big difference it makes when people reach out and touch the lives of people who are helpless, and in dire need. He narrated his own story of the day, years ago, when his father had passed away. He was a struggling upstart in the Kannada film industry then. He said he did not have any money that day to cremate his dead father. He recalled how, when he sat wondering what would happen, someone came by and bailed him out. Simply out of the blue. It turned out to be noted Kannada star and director Ravichandran. Ravichandran gave Prakash Raj Rs.5000/-, without him asking, and saved him, as he disclosed, “embarrassment and a lifelong burden of guilt”. “I will always be grateful to Ravichandran Sir for what he did for me and will always remember him as a great soul,” said Prakash Raj.

Veer Bhadra Mishra  – Mahant Ecologist
That’s a learning I picked up from the past week on how we can make a difference in an individual’s Life! And then there are those who touch the entire ecosystem. The Hindu this morning carries an obit titled ‘Warrior for a River,’ by Omar Rashid, of Prof.Veer Bhadra Mishra, noted environmentalist and mahant (head) of the famous Sankatmochan temple in Varanasi. Mishra inherited the position of mahant of the temple when he was barely 14, after his father’s death. But he has, since 1982, been involved in leading the Sankat Mochan Foundation, a non-profit, non-political body, that works for keeping the river Ganga clean and free of pollution. Most Indians revere the Ganga and consider it holy. But almost all Indians know that it continues to be among the most polluted and contaminated water bodies in not just India, but the whole world. Mishra’s raison d’etrewas to clean up the Ganga and restore it to its once pristine state. Rashid reports that Time magazine declared him the magazine’s “Hero of the Planet” (1999) for bringing the plight of the Ganga to the world’s attention and inspiring other river activists. “For his commitment to the river, he rightly won the epithet ‘Ganga Putra’ (Son of the Ganga). Varanasi will also remember him for his “Ganga-ethics” and his personal relationship with the river, which motivated him to say: ‘I am part of Ganga and Ganga is part of me.’”, writes Rashid, hoping that the day will come when Mishra’s dream of the Ganga being free of even a drop of sewage will be realized!

All of us have this good gene in us that inspires us to want to work outside of our own myopic view of the world and climb out of our own needs’ spectrum. Yet we are also so very caught up in the whirlpool of seeking deservance that we fail to seize the opportunity to serve. A simple way to get started is to flip the paradigm and stop wanting to be only successful and instead aim to be useful. Stop saying you deserve (more) and instead try to look for ways to serve (more). This lifetime is a gift. And you may want to be remembered for having used that gift judiciously for helping make this world a better place. Offer yourself to serve Life! There’s no other God than Life. There will be no other opportunity than NOW!