“That my singing has made so many people happy makes me happy.”

 ‘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 features a beautiful conversation that Vaani and I had with one of India’s most talented and loved singers – S.P.Balasubrahmanyam (simply SPB or Balu Sir to many)!!
What do you do when you meet – finally meet – the man, listening to whose voice you have grown up? A voice that has stirred the most aesthetic, spiritual and romantic emotions in you – every single time that you have heard it?
Well if you are Vaani, you just let go, you melt and dissolve in the magic and beauty of the moment, and you tear up. “I can’t believe this is true….that I am in your presence,” gushed Vaani while shaking SPB’s hands, even as he welcomed us warming into his tastefully done up living room.
I was more reflective. I found a sliver of time between the hellos, welcomes and thank-yous that we exchanged, to let “Manram Vantha Thendrallukku, Manjam Vara Nenjam Ilayo”  from Mouna Ragam (1986, Mani Ratnam, Ilayaraja, Vaali) seep through my inner consciousness. It is my absolute, all-time favorite SPB number. And I sent a prayer in gratitude to the Universe, to Life, for creating and nurturing this man, so that his exceptional voice could light up our lives!
SPB: Picture Courtesy – The Hindu/Internet
69-year-old SPB will start his 50th year in playback singing on 15thDecember this year – he made his debut in 1966 with a Telugu song in the film Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna. So I ask him the most logical question: Does he feel happy, accomplished…?
He beams his famous, big, adorable smile. He then leans forward and says, “Yes!!! 49 years is a long time. But let me tell you truthfully, I did not come into this industry with any goal. I had no idea. Nor any ideals. I had then thought that I will not last beyond a couple of songs. But I have survived here, somehow pulled along…you can say! So, I often reflect on these past years with a sense of immense gratitude; I am grateful to the Almighty for giving my lifetime a sense of purpose. That my singing has made so many people happy makes me happy. I feel I am blessed.”
SPB adds that he is also grateful for his father’s native wisdom. When he had approached his father, soon after testing the waters in playback singing, not sure if this would be the right career to earn a living, asking if he should go back to leaning on his training in engineering, his father only told him “not to ride two horses at the same time”. “His advice was suggestive, not directive. I chose singing because it made me happy while engineering did not give me that sense of joy. I taught myself to sing better and continue to learn to sing better with every new song and every new music composer I work with. I sing both for my inner joy and to earn a living. It is so humbling when people come to me and tell me that they feel I have sung a song especially for them. Hearing this makes me fulfilled and happy,” explains SPB.
Vaani suggests that he is being very modest, referring to his confession that he is an “untrained singer who is still learning”. “Amma,” he clarifies, “I have only one qualification. I know what I don’t know. I am very happy when I am able to deliver what my captain, the music director, wants out of me. The day I can’t do that, I will quit singing.”
SPB: Picture Courtesy – The Hindu/Internet
That’s an exacting standard to live by for anyone. But here’s a man who’s lived by it for half a century – for almost as long as Vaani and I have been on this planet – and is still singing at his peak. How does he do it? What’s the secret of his longevity in the business and of his continued relevance across at least three generations? “I start each day with a simple question – how can I enjoy myself today? I don’t worry and I don’t entertain any insecurities. I work hard when I am I asked to sing. And when I am not singing, I am living my Life fully – hanging out, having fun!” he reveals.
SPB wears his Life on his sleeve. He is disarmingly honest and humble: “I am not a perfect human being. I am just another human being. I had a smoking habit which I gave up some time ago. I am a social drinker. I have never been prudent with my finances – until recently I even had commitments to fulfil. Just because I am a singer, just because I have a public profile, I can’t be a hypocrite. Nor can I be a sanyasi. I don’t want to. I am happy being who I am. And I have no problem with people knowing who I am.”
I am keen to know how SPB remains anchored, grounded – anyone with a Padma Bhushan, 6 National Awards and several Filmfare Awards, with 40,000 songs and with such devotion from an ever-growing fan following can get carried away, right? “I was inspired to take up singing by listening to Mohd. Rafi; I have worked for composers like K.V.Mahadevan, M.S.Viswanathan, Laxmikant Pyarelal, Naushad, O.P.Nayyar, Panchamda, Ilayaraja and A.R.Rahman; I have sung alongside greats like S.Janaki, P.Susheela, Lata Mangeshkar and so many, many more accomplished artistes…how can anyone have an ego if your career has evolved among such legends? In front of them I am a nobody. If I am a  somebody it is because of them, their love, their support and encouragement,” he says, playing down my question.
SPB counts the following among some of his Life’s greatest moments:
·      Touching Mohd.Rafi’s feet, in a break between takes, during a recording at Prasad studios: “I was recording in the neighboring studio and rushed to try and see him. There was a break in his schedule. I went up to him and touched his feet. He look at me and asked ‘Aap Kaun Hain?’…I was too timid to introduce myself although I was an established singer by then. I said, ‘It doesn’t matter’. Truly, to me, in his presence, who I was really didn’t matter. I smiled gratefully and quickly left the studio.”
·       Having O.P.Nayyar over for breakfast at his Kodambakkam home in Chennai: “O.P Sir told me that he never goes to anyone’s house. But he promised to come home provided we served him vadai and sambar. After breakfast, he stayed on…soon he was composing music with me and we spent a couple of hours just singing and making music…isn’t that experience priceless?”
·     Featuring in Naushad’s biography, “Naushadnama: The Life and Music of Naushad” (Raju Bharatan, Hay House, 2013): “Naushad loved me for delivering an 8+-minute song in a single take for Teri Payal Mere Geet (1993, Rehman Naushad, Govinda, Meenakshi Seshadri). In his biography, I feature in one para where he talks about me being ‘the most hard-working and professional singer’ he has ever worked with. He lauds me for being ‘self-trained’. To me, that compliment is equal to getting the Bharat Ratna.”
·       Knowing R.D.Burman as a friend and as a composer: “I was coming back to Sea Rock Hotel late one evening, after a full day’s recording in Mumbai. As I was entering the hotel, I heard Pancham’s voice call out ‘Balu’. I turned to find him sitting on a ledge outside in the dark. Pancham was out of work in those days and playfully chided me for not calling him when I came into Mumbai. He then pulled out a bottle of Black Label whiskey…we went up to my room and we made music even as we drank. I am blessed to have had his friendship and love in my Life.”
SPB: Picture Courtesy – The Hindu/Internet
He’s played many professional roles in his Life: singer, composer, actor, producer, voice-over artist, TV show host…which of these does he love doing the most? “Undoubtedly it is singing that I love. Music is my sacred, divine, Life source. It has given me everything. It has given me work and it has given me the strength to work. It is what makes me happy every single day,” he avers. So, how did he then allow surgeries – twice – for polyps on his vocal cords; didn’t he feel insecure, didn’t he fear losing his precious voice? “Everyone from my family to friends to even Lataji (Mangeshkar) advised me against having ‘metal interface with my vocal cords’. But I decided to go ahead. You have to do what you have to in Life. Honestly, I never felt fearful of the procedure. I just reconciled to the fact that at the end of the surgeries I would either have my voice or I wouldn’t have it. Fortunately, I had my voice intact and within a few days of the last surgery I was back to doing my riyaaz.”  
My takeaway from the conversation we had with SPB is this – do what you love doing, do it very well, live in the moment, enjoy each day, fear nothing, worry about nothing and you will be happy all your Life. I guess that’s too simple a way – in a single line – to summarize the Life and work of a man whose voice has stirred and enriched our souls for 49 years! But that’s really who SPB is. Simple, professional, humble, gifted, and above all, blessed.

The first rains of the North-East monsoon drench Chennai as we leave his home. On our ride back in an Uber, an FM station plays a rare SPB number, the title song Ninaithale Innikkum, from K.Balachander’s 1979 movie of the same name (M.S.Viswanathan, Kannadasan). I think of the 90-minutes we had just spent with SPB and I exclaim to Vaani, “How serendipitous!” This is one memory which, when we think back at any time in the future, will be among our most precious ones – “Ninaithale Innikkum”!   

“I see pain as the source of my happiness; it is a sign that I am alive!”

‘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 am pleased to introduce to you Malathi Holla – international para athlete, Life enthusiast and perhaps the most resilient person on the planet!
When Vaani and I finish meeting with Malathi Holla, the following lines from Balu Mahendra’s Sadma (1983, sung by Suresh Wadkar; picturized on Kamal Hassan and Sri Devi – listen to original song here) hum in my head:
Aye Zindagi Gale Laga Le…
Aye Zindagi Gale Laga Le…
Humne Bhi, Tere Har Ek Gham Ko, Gale Se Lagaya Hai, Hai Na?
Translated, these lines mean:
Hey Life, embrace me!
Haven’t I embraced all the pain that you have sent my way?
At 57, Malathi Holla epitomizes the spirit of Gulzar’s unputdownable lyrics and her Life itself, despite all the upheavals she has seen, is beautiful, harmonious and soulful – quite like the maestro Ilayaraja’s music for this song is, making his Bollywood debut memorable!  
Malathi was afflicted with polio when she was 14 months old. Additionally, she has a condition called contracture –where the nerves in her body get bunched up in a ball and have to be unknotted surgically. The effect of contracture, especially in the pelvic region, is very painful – the whole body curves up, like an arch, with the legs getting bent backward and the back moving forward. She has had 33 surgeries in all so far but she hardly displays any angst or bitterness. On the other hand, she oozes positivity and radiates happiness. This, despite the fact that she has had a forgettable childhood – her own mother, not knowing how to cope with the rigor of raising a special child, treated Malathi like an outsider. But Malathi ploughed on, burying her grief and choosing to be without resentment or malice. She trained, on her own steam, to become a champion athlete representing India in various international sporting events including the Paralympics – in 100 metres and 200 metres wheelchair racing and in discus, shot put and javelin throws – and winning 421 medals in all; 389 golds, 27 silvers and 5 bronzes! She was a senior manager with Syndicate Bank until recently and currently runs the Mathru Foundation, an NGO, that supports 13 children with special needs to get basic education and take up mainstream careers. In 2009 a biography of Malathi – A Different Spirit, written by Dr.Anantha Krishnan – was released.
I ask Malathi how is she able to stay anchored, positive and so outrageously happy – despite all that she is still going through?
“I simply enjoy the pain, AVIS. This is my idea of happiness.” – that’s Malathi’s short answer. But I press on. And she gives me this long answer: “I can’t walk. I have been confined to a wheelchair. I have a perpetual physically painful condition. I have not experienced parental love. Now what can I do about all these things – there is physical pain and there is emotional pain? Can I get rid of the pain by going on grieving about it? So I simply accept my Life for what it is. Pain is painful when you see it as pain. I keep reminding myself that I can at least feel the pain. There are so many people out there, who are in conditions that are far worse than mine. They can’t even feel the pain. That’s why I count my blessings and enjoy my pain. I see my pain as the source of my happiness; it is a sign that I am alive. So I am happy!”
But isn’t she tired of pushing her way through Life? She has had to fight for everything – apart from competing in sports, she has had to fight the Indian government’s myopic view that sportspeople with special needs don’t need to get mainstream recognition. It took her 18 years, but she eventually convinced the government and was awarded the Arjuna award in 1996. She was also awarded the Padma Sri in 2001. So, at her age, isn’t she wondering how she will cope with the future? Malathi is nonplussed: “I am not one who ever thinks of the future. I want to live in the moment. And I live in the moment.”
She tells us that anyone can be resilient. It is not a capability that only a chosen few can acquire. It is in you. You are resilient the moment you choose not be a slave of the circumstances. If you can be unmoved by what is happening to you, you can be strong in any situation. “Every problem has a solution. There are no problems without solutions. There is a way – you must look for it, that’s all. And in situations when I can’t find a solution, I simply accept whatever is the situation, condition or problem. This way I am perennially peaceful with myself and my world,” she explains.
She then makes a phenomenal point: “You must ensure that you don’t mix up your situation with your idea of who you are. I am not my physical condition. I have a post polio residual paralysis condition, that’s it. When you see your Life this way, you will realize that we are all legends. Each of us has the right and the opportunity to be a legend – provided we are willing to walk on the path of acceptance, letting go and keeping faith in the larger cosmic design. I know this – I am the legend of happiness.”
Malathi Holla
Photo by Vaani Anand
Vaani and I met Malathi at the Taj Vivanta coffee shop in Bangalore – we chose that venue because it was wheelchair friendly. When we finished, we were keen to know how we could help Malathi get back home. That’s when we saw a live expression of her ‘different spirit’. Her eyes lit up even as she politely turned down our offer to drop her back: “Come with me. Let me show you how I get around this city.” She wheeled herself down the ramp in the hotel’s porch. And proceeded to her car – a specially designed Maruti Zen. She opened the car’s door and before we knew it, she had hoisted herself on to the driver’s seat and worn the seat belt. She flicked open the boot and request the hotel staff to put her wheelchair back in there. She beamed her million-watt smile at us, gestured a ‘thumbs up’ and, before driving away, said, “Send me the pictures on WhatsApp! What a beautiful technology isn’t it? What a beautiful world we live in, what a beautiful Life this is. We are all blessed, aren’t we?”
As I finish writing this piece, that number from Sadmais still humming in my head. Malathi’s is indeed a different spirit – a spirit that we must all invite into our lives; to guide us too, to being happy despite our circumstances!

Irrespective of the circumstance you are placed in, play on

Life is a great teacher. She will humble you till you learn your lessons. And then when you are humbled, she will enlighten you.
All of us live through our nightmares before we live our dreams. And if we are living our dreams, know that the peaks will give way to valleys, and then to abysses only to find that when we have hit rock bottom, the only way to go is up. Soon, we will reclaim our lost honor, succeed yet again with our craft and regain our glory __ only, the second time around, on the rebound, we are a lot more fulfilled, a lot less anxious and see each moment of Life, or what remains of this lifetime, as a blessing. This cycle of Life, with its inscrutable up and down patterns or down and up ways, plays itself out, time and again, from person to person, incessantly, ceaselessly.
One such co-voyager in Life, a genius in his own right, an emperor of his craft, is Tamil music composer Ilayaraja. During the 70s, 80s and well into the 90s, Ilayaraja, remained king. His was the music that mesmerized listeners and sold movies. For over a decade, well actually 15 years, no Tamil movie was released that did not have Illayaraja composing music. Such was his genius. Such was his command that he was unbeatable. Not that anyone even tried. And then came along A R Rahman, the prodigal genius, who with Roja, in 1992, swept the world away! His music was different and Ilayaraja’s hold on Tamil cinema was challenged deceptively. One tune at a time, one movie at a time. By 1997, Rahman had become staple in the entertainment business down south and Bollywood filmmakers too were counting on the Mozart of Madras (Rahman) to sell their films.
It was at this time that I met Ilayaraja at his home. A beautiful shrine-like place in T Nagar, in South Chennai, where music, moods, fragrances and floral patterns made the simple white walls and furniture in the house come alive almost surreally. Taking me to his studio on the first floor, Ilayaraja, playing a new tune he had just composed, asked me, “What do you think of it?” And I remember replying: “It’s out of this world.” “What to do,” bemoaned the genius, much to my shock, “the world does not recognize my worth anymore. Everyone wants the new kid, who learnt at my feet and today challenges me.” I was surprised. In fact horrified. I felt Ilayaraja must be proud, not jealous, of his protégé. I felt that the greatest compliment a ‘guru’ can get is when a ‘shishya’ (disciple) outsmarts him at his own craft. But I did not express my opinion; I went on with my meeting and left Ilayaraja’s home-shrine, a tad befuddled.
Kamal Hassan, Sridevi, Ilayaraja, Amitabh Bachchan, Rajnikant
at ‘Shamitabh’s’ music launch
Picture Courtesy: PTI/Hindu/Internet
What began then was, as I came to realize, Ilayaraja’s hibernation, which lasted almost 10+ years. No significant music composition offers, no clamor from interview seekers, no major titles or awards; at least, things were not the same as before! I am not aware how he spent those years. Maybe he sulked. Maybe he grieved. But if that was indeed his state, it well was his own creation. He was, is and will always be a musical genius, to me, and to millions of his fans across the world. That he had to make way for a next generation sensation called Rahman was only a reflection of the way Life is and works, and was no indication of any flaw with his craft. But maybe, just maybe, Ilayaraja missed this point. Until ‘Cheeni Kum’ (2007, directed by Balki and starring Amitabh Bachchan, Tabu) happened, where Ilayaraja made a phenomenal comeback. Balki, a senior professional in Indian advertising (Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of Lowe Lintas), says he got into filmmaking only to work with two of his idols__the Big B and Ilayaraja! And Ilayaraja re-used an old tune of his from the 1986 super, super-hit, Mani Ratnam film, ‘Mouna Ragam’ (follow video link here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5v1xOQmcQE) in ‘Cheeni Kum’, along with a couple of other unputdownable compositions. And slowly, very slowly, the King of Tamil music, a veteran of 999 (Tamil director Bala’s up-coming ‘Tharai Thappattai’ will be his 1000th!) films, and 5000 songs, is coming into his own again. He is perhaps, hopefully, in his second innings, realizing that he was always a winner. That the music in him never died. In January this year, Amitabh Bachchan, Kamal Hassan and Rajnikanth came together in Mumbai to launch the music for Balki’s latest ‘Shamitabh’, which again was composed by Ilayaraja. Talking at a public event in Chennai, some time ago, Ilayaraja said, “I don’t know how the music comes, if I find out, it will stop!”


This is what is happening to all of us. We are born winners. But we stop seeing our own worth, our own value because we expect Life to give us ideal performance conditions. And despite all the wishing that we__you and I__do, that can never be guaranteed. What can be known for sure though is that there’s a lot, a helluva lot, of talent in each in us. Our craft, our work, is our prayer. Irrespective of the circumstance we are placed in, let us keep playing on. Seasons will come, seasons will go, years will wear on, the body will age and wither away too someday, but eventually we will find that despite all of what has happened to us, the music within each of us remains intact. And all that happened, happened to humble us, to enlighten us, to enrich us, so that our music can light up the world!   

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!!!

On being the light yourself!

Your Life will be as dark as you imagine it to be.
Over these last few days of Diwali fervor, there’s so much talk about darkness and light, on social media that it’s assuming an almost banal proportion. People are mindlessly talking about dispelling the darkness around them with light – ostensibly with candles and diyas, and firecrackers. It’s almost as if a social media status or an utterance or wishing over SMS or WhatsApp can make anyone’s Life brighter. I am not being cynical. I am only calling for a greater degree of reflection. What about the darkness within? How will you dispel it?
This reflection requires that you first understand the meaning of darkness in a Life context. Almost all of us are steeped in worry, insecurity, anxiety, guilt, anger, grief and fear. This is the darkness that grips our soul. And the true message of Diwali is to trust Life and allow your faith to light you up from within. As our lives get challenged by events, people and circumstances, we often tend to worry over what will happen to us, we fear the unknown future – and these are what are causing us to feel that our lives are filled with darkness. In such times, we must learn to keep the faith – and learn to be the light ourselves. Metaphorically, when you find yourself in a dark, endless tunnel and you don’t see the light at the end of that tunnel, your faith can be your light!
Where does such faith come from? It comes from a deeper understanding of Life. It comes from knowing that if you have been created, you will be looked after, cared for and provided for – no matter what the circumstances may be. However, Life’s provisions are never to meet your wants. Yet all that you need will be available to you when you need it the most. I am reminded of a beautiful song from “Panakkaran” (1990, P.Vasu, Rajnikanth, Gauthami, Ilayaraaja), sung by Ilayaraaja. The song goes like this: “Maratha Vecheven Thanni Oothuvan…” meaning “The one who planted (created) the tree will water it too…”. If you follow Tamil, you can listen to the song here.

This song epitomizes the true nature of Life. It reminds us that all our worries, anxieties and fears serve no purpose. That what will happen will happen, no matter how much you worry. And no matter what happens, you will still be taken care of by Life, not the way you want to be, but the way you must be. When you don’t hold this faith in Life, when you don’t trust the cosmic design, you grope in the darkness that you have invited into your Life. So, truly, you are responsible for your Life being filled with darkness. The moment you start trusting that a way will always be born to take you onward, despite all the darkness, you will see the light. And surely you will be that light too! 

Stay Humble, Stay Grounded: Life lessons from 3 legends

However high you rise, whatever you achieve, remain anchored.
Someone I know called me the other day to tell me that she had achieved a rare distinction – rarely accorded to any Indian. While I appreciate that she felt elated about her success – and she, undoubtedly, is entitled to that feeling – I couldn’t escape the streak of, evidently insolent, pride in her. It was almost as if she was telling me, “Look at me. See what I have accomplished. Very few Indians have ever done this.” 
I have no problem if people feel good about their own achievements. But to be bombastic about a success defeats the opportunity to be joyful about it!
Amitabh Bachchan: Picture Courtesy – Internet
Dr.A.P.J.Abdul Kalam: Picture Courtesy – Internet
One of the hallmarks of great achievers is their ability to stay grounded no matter how successful they are. On last night’s Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) show, a young contestant wanted to know what kind of daily routine the show’s superstar anchor, Amitabh Bachchan, led. “I lead a normal Life like you,” said the venerable Big B, “I go for a morning walk, I eat a simple meal of dal and rotis, I go to work and I blog in the nights. All my stardom is just part of my work. I don’t live any differently than anyone else.” I was not surprised with his answer. Bachchan’s humility is legendary. Years back, in the early ‘90s, when I was posted in Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala) for India Today, I had a chance to meet Bachchan at a Children’s Film Festival reception. I walked up to him and introduced myself. He extended his hand to shake mine and said, “My name is Amitabh Bachchan.” I was taken aback. I told him that everyone here, of course, knew him and there was no need for him to introduce himself. He quickly replied, “I wasn’t sure I was known around here. It is always better to not imagine that people will know you.” Amazing, isn’t it? The other person who oozes humility is former Indian President Dr.A.P.J.Abdul Kalam. I remember reading somewhere that when he became President, a former colleague of his from ISRO (India Space Research Organization) called him up over phone to congratulate him. Kalam’s friend is said to have started the conversation thus: “I wonder how does one greet the President of India?” Obviously, the reference was to whether Kalam’s name was to be prefixed with a ‘Your Excellency’ or an ‘Honorable Sir’. But Kalam is believed to have quipped, with his famed humility and wit, “Well, you just say ‘Hello’!”
Ilayaraaja: Picture Courtesy- Internet
I have come to understand that the difference between high-achievers and others is that the former are very evolved. They realize, soon enough, that all their fame and glory is not something that is entirely their doing, that their talent and success are a blessing from a Higher Energy, that everything is transient – including their success which makes them so famous. Music maestro Ilayaraaja says it beautifully, “None of us achieves anything. Everything happens through us.” Such a simple yet brilliant perspective to living!
In fact, I have learnt that when we realize that Life happens in spite of us, and not because of us, we awaken. And it is only the awakened who can stay anchored – and stay humble and grounded!

Know your true Self. Know your God. Be free!

When you know your true Self, you will know God and you will be free!
This morning’s papers run a story saying the famous music composer Ilayaraja’s son, Yuvan Shankar Raja, has embraced Islam. It would have been good had the story merely reported a happening, an event – even though, strictly, that is avoidable! But one paper goes on to speculate if Yuvan’s father had an issue with his choice. And that, I believe, was totally uncalled for. What choices people make with regard to their Life, especially in the context of their religious leanings, is, really nobody’s business!
The story, however, got me thinking on a different plane. There’s often this confusion between religion and spirituality. Most people use these words interchangeably.
Conceptually, they may well be right. But in reality and practice the two take different approaches – albeit to the same end!
Spirituality is the flowering of internal awareness. It is deeply personal, intense and liberates the seeker. You set out on the spiritual journey – seeking God, seeking answers to many existential questions, seeking to know why pain and suffering have to be endured – but you really end up finding yourself, your true Self.
Religion attempts to deliver all of this, but fails miserably. Not because religion is bad or ineffective. In fact, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Judaism, Jainism – you name them, each of them is so beautiful. They are profound and empowering. But the champions of religion, the high priests, are devious and divisive. Promising salvation and deliverance unto an external God, they divide humanity and drive people to becoming mindlessly ritualistic. Which is why people have an issue with other peoples’ religious choices. Think about it: people don’t have an issue with what shirt you are wearing, but why do they get alarmed with the mere mention of your religious preference? All the fanaticism about finding God and trying to establish one religion as superior to another is the cause for all disharmony in the world. Religion doesn’t make your Life any better – it binds you and holds you hostage, making you “fear” God! In fact, the way it is championed and practised today, religion makes bad spaghetti out of a very good concept. The truth is, you – and I – were not born with a religious affiliation. You were born human. You have the same amount of blood – 5.5 liters, just the same as anyone else. And that blood is red in color – for everyone, irrespective of what religion they follow!
It is said that religion is for those who want to go to heaven – and spirituality is for those who have been to hell! There’s a great meaning in that seemingly light-hearted truth. Again it’s a matter of personal choice. If you want to understand Life and experience bliss, if you want freedom from suffering and you want lasting inner peace, then understand your true Self. If you want balms for your pain, if you want just a reassurance that “you will be taken care of”, if you want to “feel good” and bask in the presence of godmen and godwomen – follow the rituals that your religion’s leaders prescribe. Neither path is wrong. Neither approach is right. Ultimately, what works for you is always the best!
I simply love Swami Ramkrishna Paramahamsa’s (1836~1886) words in this context: “Even if you have faith in the 330 million Gods that you worship, and no faith in yourself, there’s no salvation for you!” This really sums it all up. Your search for meaning, be it through a pilgrimage to the world’s holiest sites, or through a simple, inward journey, will ultimately bring you to yourself! Your true Self. In knowing and understanding that Self, you encounter your God. And you will be free!