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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

A thump from the Dalai Lama

March 7, 2010

Ravi Velloor muses on all the 'god-men' he has known.
Straits Times (Singapure)
March 6, 2010

INDIA's god-men are back on centre-stage after a
rash of scandals involving women.

 From the extent of their influence over their
flock it is clear that India, which has shed its
anaemic "Hindu rate of growth" to stand on the
verge of rapid economic expansion built on
consumerism, still yearns for people who can offer spiritual solace.

As the Frenchman Emile Durkheim, one of the
fathers of social science, observed long ago,
man's disappointments are infinite when his
desires are limitless. Durkheim would call it a state of anomie.

Anomie is the state India is in, and hence: Men
of God! Please hold my hand through these uncertain times.

A civilisation as ancient as India's is a
repository of an ocean of knowledge. It is
impossible to master all of it, but the most
successful gurus, even those who have attracted
controversy, have successfully tapped into a portion of it.

Internationally, the most famous Hindu holy men
of our age were Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, sometimes
called the guru of free love, and Maharishi
Mahesh Yogi, the guru who introduced the world to
Transcendal Meditation more than 50 years ago.

I never got to see either of them, although in
Rajneesh's case, I missed him by an hour as he
returned to his homeland after being ejected from
the US. There, he had lived an opulent lifestyle,
complete with a stable of Rolls Royce limousines.

Around that time, I met the god-man
Chandrasswami, whose friends reportedly include
the Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi and the
Sultan of Brunei. He was particularly close to
the late PV Narasimha Rao, India's prime minister from 1991-1996.

A journalist who was part of the Swami's innter
circle took me along one day to see the Swami,
who lived in a spacious upstairs apartment in
South Delhi's Safdarjang Development Area. I
stayed silent throughout the two hours we spent
there, trying to keep scepticism off my visage.

Towards the end of our time, Chandraswami looked
in my direction, perhaps puzzled that I had no favour to ask.

"Any problem?" he asked. I responded in the
negative. "Come back if you have problem," he
ordered. I thanked him and departed.

Interestingly, Singapore was where I met some of
the most interesting modern day religious figures.

As always, I found them to be ordinary, normal
people whose strength really came from being able
to conceal their own worries even as they
absorbed and advised on the problems of others around them.

In the late 1990s, the hotel tycoon Hari Harilela
of Hongkong, celebrated a personal anniversary by
throwing a huge party at his Holiday Inn Hotel off Cavenagh Road,

For some reason I was invited to the banquet and
found myself sharing a table with one of the
Harilela brothers and an old man with a flowing
beard who looked vaguely familiar. Everyone
seemed to treat him with great courtesy.

George Harilela introduced him as the family
guru, Swami Satchidananda. At that moment it
dawned on me this was no less than the guru who
inaugurated the Woodstock Music festival in 1969,
rock music's most famous day.  On that day an
entire generation listened as Satchidananda,
surrounded by icons such as Jimi Hendrix and
Richie Havens, called music "the celestial sound
that controls the whole universe."

The swami was in his mid-70s during my encounter
with him. Later, a hotel manager mentioned that
he'd requested  a massage, perhaps to aid his blood circulation.

Some years later, a friend who lived off
Singapore's Tagore Avenue invited me to her home
where the spiritual figure Sri Sri Ravishankar,
propounder of the Art of Living, was in residence
during a visit to Singapore.  Ravishankar, now an
international figure who travels to trouble spots
like Iraq and Kashmir to spread his message of
peace, was my contemporary at Bangalore's St.
Joseph's College. I treated him with appropriate
reverence but I found him not open, or interested, to debate.

The next day as my wife and I shopped at the NTUC
supermarket in Thomson Plaza I saw my friend
bustling in, looking anxious. What's the panic, I
asked.  "Swamiji loves Philadelphia cheese and I
am out of it," she said, flitting from shelf to shelf.

Then there was Mata Amritanadamayi. Maa Amrita,
as she is known. She is also called the "hugging
saint", and she has risen to great spiritual
heights from her birth in a lowly fisher caste.
During her visits to Singapore, hundreds of her
devotees would gather at a hall on Tank Road,
waiting to be blessed by her and to feel the warmth she exudes.

When I went to the Andaman Islands and the
southern Indian coastline a year after the
devastating tsunami I found her foundation had
done immense good work in her name. Many
fishermen who had lost their livelihoods had been
given brand new fibre-glass boats, putting them
back on their feet. Since then, however, my
admiration for her work has been tempered by a
wariness about the people who speak in her name.

The reason for this was the violence some of her
purported followers unleashed on a friend of
mine, Ashwani Khurana, who made his millions in
the lottery business and was once India's biggest taxpayer.

Maa Amrita has an ashram in South Delhi's Green
Avenue, where Ashwani has a bungalow. Local
residents, who include the former Delhi governor,
have tried to keep it free of honking and huge
billboards. When devotees put up a huge billboard
pointing the way to the ashram, Ashwani objected.
For his pains he was beaten to within an inch of
his life. Maa Amrita, had she known, would surely
not have sanctioned this outrage.

One person for whom my admiration us undiminished
is the Sai Baba. The number of presidents and
prime ministers who have called at his door are
legion. The Sai Baba has his share of gimmicks,
of course, such as materialising holy ash or
toffees. But then I suspect this is more to
assuage his followers. Indians expect their gurus
to perform miracles.  Despite his vast influence,
he has never tried to meddle in politics and his
foundation has done immense work in education and medical care.

But among all the holy figures of the world that
I have met - I have kissed Pope John Paul II's
ring -- there is none more human than the Dalai
Lama. He is the only religious person whose photograph sits in my wallet.

Jane Perkins, a British journalist who lives in
Dharamsala, the Himalayan town where he is based,
once told me a story of how impish the Dalai Lama could be.

On an international flight, Jane relates, a young
woman sitting next to him in First Class
apparently watched stupefied as she watched His
Holiness tuck into a beef steak. Unable to
conceal her curiosity, she turned to His Holiness:

"Aren't you the Dalai Lama?" she asked. His
Holiness looked at her. "Yes, I am," he said.

"But you are eating a beef steak," the woman
sputtered. "Not all Tibetans are good people," he
responded, eyes twinkling with mischief.

There is no one like the Dalai Lama for sheer charisma.

Two years ago, I was in his office in Dharamsala,
waiting for His Holiness to address the media. I
sat in the left corner of the front row, next to
the door from which he would enter. Behind me a
British television journalist had set up her
camera, the lens just above my right shoulder.
She had warned me not to rise, lest I block her camera.

But how do you not stand up when such a presence
approaches you? As His Holiness approached along
the corridor I began to rise instinctively. The
woman behind me put a restraining hand on my
shoulder and I sat back. But six feet away from
him I couldn't control myself. I began to get up.
This time the woman behind me was rougher,
thrusting me down even as I tried to wriggle aside.

His Holiness noticed this and as he passed me, he
stopped, grinned, and gave me a resounding clap on the shoulder.

He then walked to his seat.

For days after that I walked around in a
trance-like state; I've never felt so good about being struck by somebody!
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