Golf with the Guru

Beyond the limitations of experience: SadhguruJaggi Vasudev.

Beyond the limitations of experience: SadhguruJaggi Vasudev.   | Photo Credit: Photos: Mukund Padmanabhan

Twelve holes with Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev reveals many sides of his character to Mukund Padmanabhan— pragmatic, obscure, and childlike.

Gurus and godmen can be notoriously secretive about their past, but Jaggi Vasudev is happy nattering about his childhood. We have just teed off and Vasudev, armed with a neo-modern Nike Sumo driver that propels the ball with a metallic tink, has hit a giant slice that heads unerringly into the bushes. It seems impolite not to offer the Sadhguru a second shot, particularly one that has played only “21 rounds of golf precisely” in his entire life.

His second shot is a huge hook to the left, but it will do. The son of a physician father with a transferable job, Vasudev suggests he had a regular middle class kind of childhood. “I loved to hang-glide and race mobikes,” he says of his time in Mysore. When he graduated in English literature, he was occupied with such things as music, sports, trekking and taking his Yezdi (and later a Yamaha 350) for long trips.

Since they reach out to today’s urban middle class, new age gurus cannot afford to appear too unbending and orthodox. But the Frisbee-throwing, Beatles-loving, Davos-visiting, Kafka-quoting Vasudev pushes the definition of cool well into uber.

In some ways, he positions himself as an anti-guru. He is telling me that he is not into religious texts (“reading a couple of chapters of the Gita can’t qualify you as a guru”) and has never learnt formal meditation, when he is spotted by a group of women — ground staff who maintain the fairways and greens at the golf course. “I knew it was you,” cries one of them, clearly overwhelmed, as she prostrates before him.

Others, sobbing loudly and looking adoringly, follow suit, dispelling my belief that he is a wholly middle class phenomenon. “Didn’t think they would recognise me,” he says. In dark glasses, a floppy hat, olive green shirt and sneakers, it does take some doing. Or does it? “Must be the beard,” I suggest tentatively. He smiles sportingly as he runs his fingers through the forest of curls.

Having consumed more strokes than I care to remember to reach the 10th green, the Sadhguru proceeds to make an astonishingly good putt. “Very good,” I congratulate him. “This is different. This [putting] is only a mind game,” implying — not inaccurately — that while the golf swing involves the science of mechanics, putting is all in the mind. Science and the mind will occupy a fair bit of our discussion and we walk down the fairways, rummage through the rough, and consume masala dosas at the golf hut.

Around 10 years ago, he says he was subjected to a scientific experiment, had electrodes put on his body, and asked to meditate. He told them he didn’t know how to meditate, but can sit still, which he did for some 20 minutes. “Then, they started pulling out the electrodes, knocking on my knees and elbows and looking at me weirdly. “What’s up?” I asked them. “‘Our machines say either you are dead or your brain is,’ they said”. He pauses before chortling, “I replied I prefer the first possibility. The second is too insulting.” The story is intended to emphasise the limitations of science and how life cannot be “contained in a few physical parameters.”

Seeing anew

His message, he suggests, is not derived from a body of religious or cultural work. It is basically to take his own experience — born out of a sudden, unexpected and life-changing mystical revelation atop a rock in the Chamundi hills — and to present it as a “science” after stripping it of the influence of such things as culture, language and religion.

So, he’s not a Hindu guru? Hindu, he replies, is a cultural and geographical identity rather than a religious one. “Anyone born in the land of the Indus is a Hindu.” He goes on to add: “This is the only culture on the planet which is a godless one, one in which there is no concretised idea of god. We worship whatever we feel like — a tree, a rock, a cow, a snake, a mother. One survey says there are 13 million gods and goddesses in this country.”

Pointing to an object, he continues: “You can worship that stone on the golf course and nobody will think that is absurd. Being reverential is important, not what you are reverential about. It’s about how to take a human being to his full potential, that’s all.”

Sada, the golf course’s coach, has recognised the Sadhguru and chooses to walk along, providing him with impromptu lessons. He tweaks his grip, adjusts his stance, modifies his backswing and although Vasudev says he will “never be able to hit the ball this way”, he is soon making better contact than ever before.

While he seems to enjoy being taught, he doesn’t like referring to his discourses as teaching. “Yes, I have no teaching, no philosophy. All I have is methods, which you can call a technology. If you ask me to say in one sentence what my central message is, I would say, ‘Do not settle for the limitations of your experience. Try to break it and move to the next level. If you do that, you will know there are many levels of reality outside and within yourself. Don’t settle for who you are right now.”

But why not? He throws the question back at me. “Don’t you want to play golf a little better tomorrow?” We all want a little more of what we know best — money, love, power, knowledge. “There is something within us which does not like boundaries. If we find unconscious expression of this, we call it materialism. If it is conscious, we call it a spiritual process. You can either walk with your eyes open or closed. I am saying why not keep them open.”

Talk of materialism makes me wonder about Davos, where Vasudev has addressed the World Economic Forum for four successive years. What’s a Sadhguru doing in a gathering of the business elite? “See, the 2,000 people who come there control 80 per cent of the world’s economy. If I can influence them even 10 per cent, problems such as the lack of nourishment and education can be solved. We have the resources, capability, technology to address every human problem on the planet. The only thing missing is the lack of inclusiveness.”

Will to change

So poverty and backwardness are not systemic problems but arise out a lack of will? Absolutely, suggests the Sadhguru, turning anecdotal and recounting stories. One of them is about Klaus Schwab (“now a dear friend”), founder of the World Economic Forum. Schwab, the story goes, asked if there was one thing the Forum could do for him to change the world, what it would be. “I told him give me the 24 heads of state of the major nations for five days and I will solve the basic problems. That’s all it takes — we need to touch the leaders on the planet.”

There is another story about a private meeting with Bill Clinton during Hilary’s presidential campaign, during which the Sadhguru asked: “How does it matter to us who becomes President. Won’t the same games go on? You have spent $600 billion on Iraq. Every child could be nourished and educated with a fraction of that.” Apparently, Clinton’s tone changed and he agreed with Vasudev, which the latter interprets as yet another sign that the rich and the powerful are slowly beginning to understand they have the capability of changing the world.

Vasudev’s conversation is punctuated with remarks that reveal a taste for the dramatic quote. “Look at our industries,” he laments. “The biggest one is armaments, next comes pharmaceuticals and then alcohol. The first puts you on the way to death, the second pretends to pull you back, and the third gets you there for sure!”

We have already done 12 holes and it is time to go to work. But the Sadhguru, who is totally engrossed with his golf lessons, chooses to play some more. As I leave, I cannot help thinking that — as his website rather smugly declares — he is indeed “an arresting blend of profundity and pragmatism”. There is an unconventional plain-speaking side that is hard to miss. On the subject of Lord Krishna, he is quoted as saying: “If Krishna lived today, he would make you all very uncomfortable. Your wife would want to go dancing with him. So would your daughter and your 80-year-old mother.” There is also a more predictable esoteric side, which manifests itself in arcane talk of inner transformations and mastery over the mechanisms of life. As I watch him continue to chip balls on to the green, I feel there is also a very childlike side. “I don’t get to do this very often,” he says in explanation of his decision to stay on. “I’m going to make the most of it.”

The man and his vision

Jaggi Vasudev is the founder of the Isha Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that runs yoga centres around the world. The Isha Yoga Centre and Ashram near Coimbatore was founded in 1992 and conducts self-awareness programmes for people from all walks of life.

He was the spearhead of the project Green Hands, which aims at increasing the green cover of Tamil Nadu. He has been invited as a speaker to the World Economic Forum for four successive years and served as a delegate to the United Nations Millennium Peace Summit and the World Peace Congress.

‘I have no teaching, no philosophy.

All I have is methods, which you can call a technology.’

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