A Classical Checkmate: How Two Players Triumphed over Countless Slayers

"Yes, I am in the phone book, and you can knock on my door. Everybody has access to me, anyone who wants to see me. In fact, the people who come to visit on Sunday mornings are often very ordinary folks. Not big stars or anything like that. Some are my old colleagues from advertising days. Others are those who simply feel friendly towards me as a result of the films of mine they have seen. In the end, I think it's rather stupid to raise a wall around oneself."

- Satyajit Ray (in conversation with the renowned film critic and author Bert Cardullo)

For our arrogant stars, conceited producers, snobbish filmmakers, self-centered journalists, and even many Ray admirers, the target audience - of viewers and readers alike - is merely a small, insignificant cog in a large wheel. Wish they learn from a true master!


Suresh Jindal’s highly engaging first-person account of the making of Satyajit Ray’s magnum opus in Hindi, Shatranj ke Khiladi, is a reader’s delight. The film astutely portrays the historic city of Lucknow against the backdrop of British invasion lurking in the elusive treaties of friendship offered by the East India Company. Munshi Premchand sketched one of the most astute parallels between British aspirations and the legendary game, as also, the picture of an 1856 Lucknow drugged in celebration of art and culture under the short-lived regime of Wajid Ali Shah, the tranquil percolating to the lowest echelons of society. He remarks in a line “yaha tak ki phakiron ko paise milte to ve rotiyan na lekar afhim khate ya madak pite” (Even the beggars seemed to prefer opium & liquor over food whenever they had money at hand)

Through the genius of his superlative idiom, Premchand exposed the fake morals of his central charaters - Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali, both landlords & friends and reeling in the hypnotic spell of chess, shunning the world around them – the world of family chores, marital duties, cheating wives, social pressures, marching troops, everything else but the chessboard. Fearing mandatory participation in the war against the Company in the light of the growing adversity, they flee to the outskirts and simulate their relaxed surroundings, only to drown back in the game of chess. A trivial dispute in the game soon takes the shape of a war and all of a sudden, family honour is found at stake. Accusing each other of swindling, fraud, borrowed royalty and inferior roots, both lose their lives in a terminal combat, a mutual checkmate of sorts. Through the conflict of the two, Premchand highlights the irony of their beliefs - it was the false pride of individual honour, not the larger cause of their state that was found worthy of sacrifice.

Ray retained the paradox in a cinematic flavour – equally focused on the royal checkmate of Wajid Ali Shah tottering in the fake support of the East India Company. The character of General Outram probing his deputy Captain Weston to examine the pros and cons of the king, his tastes, his lifestyle, his women and his art, wrapped in one delightful scene, is undoubtedly the hallmark of this film… one that had V S Naipul shower the famed compliment “It’s a like a Shakespeare scene. Only three hundred words spoken, but terrific things happen.”

Largely narrated through a verbatim reproduction of letters exchanged between the producer and director - some matter of fact, others fervent – Jindal's book helps us appreciate how the film progressed from ideation to fruition, through a winding route of ghastly twists and turns.It gives us a first-hand view of Ray’s intellect and instinct in surmounting the film’s key challenge, ahead of the peripheral ones, which was about locking horns with the abstraction inherent in portraying the idea of addiction to an intellectual game like chess, which would inevitably invoke silence and inaction on the screen. What could be more fatal for a visual medium? How Ray countered the challenge is for all of us to see, admire and learn by watching this film again and again. But the book immensely helps us put our instinctive audio visual learning in perspective, guided by the perceptive notes of the master himself.

Jindal, the producer of this enduring work, must be profusely thanked for having proactively approached Ray, especially after having delivered an unexpected hit like Rajanigandha, which, although offbeat by Bombay standards, would have surely helped him carve a niche in mainstream Hindi cinema. Instead, he chose to tread a truly off-the-wall path laden with landmines. This was a project that not only demanded deeper pockets and a big heart, it also called for unimaginable grit and gumption in fighting the demons of cultural and regional sensitivities during shoots, as also the conceited custodians of established cinema, both at home and abroad. But he stuck his guns and emerged victorious. Hats off to his courage and conviction that raised the bar for film producers worldwide and proved his unflinching faith in the astounding ability and agility of Satyajit Ray.

Jindal’s book is replete with seemingly little things that tell us a whole lot about Ray and his sole Hindi feature:

Like Saeed Jaffrey was the only actor Ray was keen to cast from the start as Meer Roshan Ali

Like Asrani was one of Ray’s initial choices to play Wajid Ali Shah, so was Madhur Jaffrey as Mirza’s Sajjad Ali’s wife.

Like Amjad Khan was Suresh Jindal’s recommendation, so was Shabana Azmi as Mirza’s wife. This is hugely refective of Jindal's competence in matters of casting; how many would have seen Wajid Ali Shah in Amjad, especially following his 'Sholay' stardom. Jindal was also instrumental in reducing the length of two elongated scenes.

Like Ray wrote a three-page letter apologizing to actor Barry John for the postponement of the filming following Sanjeev kumar’s heart attack and Amjad Khan’s accident. (Wish Barry had extended a small fraction of that courtesy, albeit in a different form, by lowering his exorbitant acting school fees.)

Like the film was plagued with a host of thorny issues – during the making as also at the time of release and even post it, many of which were potential showstoppers, what with distributors backing out and peers and adversaries creating different flavours of nuisance value. It's only a miracle that it got made in the end, and we should thank our stars for it as viewers ahead of critics, journos, analysts and jury members.

Like one of few backers of the film from the Bombay circuit included director Prakash Mehra and mega stars Amitabh Bachchan (who did the narration for free) and Vinod Khanna.

Like Ray ate no fruit, he preferred light meals (this trait rhymes well with his devotion to filmmaking, the fruits of which he hardly relished in material terms.)

Like Ray and Jindal were to make a film with Amitabh Bachchan but the project fell through for reasons beyond the control of both gentlemen.

As Jindal rightly observes, “There were many aspirants for Satyajit Ray’s crown.” Many people including some of his best known peers can’t accept the fact that Ray’s towering profundity and hovering versatility could go neck-deep in all areas of filmmaking (Richard Attenborough splendidly described it in his TV interview during the making of ‘The Chess Players’). Besides, he was a gifted painter, writer, designer, illustrator and composer with an impressive body of work spanning disparate worlds - from children’s literature to adult fiction, from composing music to creating fonts. To top it all, he was a simple man with an austere lifestyle by film fraternity standards. His marked aversion to public platforms obviously offered no scope whatsoever for weaving juicy news bytes linked with his name. For the ‘impoverished specialists’ among our filmmakers, filmgoers, experts and enthusiasts, Ray continues to be a formidable challenge. Precisely why they invariably fall short of the commensurate effort to delve deeper into the subtleties of Ray’s consummate work.

It’s far easier to capture Ray in clichéd adjectives like "Classical" (whatever that means) or simply masquerade as Ray loyalists to appear intellectual. There’s a vast army of Ray colleagues who deem the hypocorism ‘Manikda’ to be a necessary and sufficient evidence of their Ray authority. And then we have a few adventurists who claim absolute knowledge of Ray’s limitations in laughably obscure terms. Like those who claim that Ray was not original and hence was lured by literary revisions. Why don’t they take a closer look at the quality of his adaptations instead? His alterations were invariably born out of a purely cinematic need that he instinctively felt integral to take the story forward on screen. That’s originality at its sublime best.

It’s no surprise then that Ray’s followers commend him, and his detractors condemn him invariably for the wrong reasons. Even in the occasional discord over beliefs and principles, the stance against Ray invariably stands on shaky ground. With the exception of artistes like Utpal Dutt, we don’t have many names who held their own in Hindi movies. And hard as they might try, they can’t blame the formulaic, larger than life Bollywood norm for the dilution. Contrary to popular perception, Ray was appreciative of the redeeming features of Hindi cinema including its factory-like but inventive approach to musical compositions. Ray cast several competent Bombay artistes like Amjad Khan, Sanjeev kumar, Leela Mishra, Farida Jalal, Agha, and David for Shatranj Ke Khilari.

The Benegals, Sens, Gopalakrishnans, Nihalanis and Ghoshes can call their films masterpieces. But the best they can do is to make documentaries on Ray. Among his contemporaries, only the peerless activist director Ritwik Ghatak commanded an equally distinct, though totally different, style of filmmaking.

Coming back to Jindal's book, about fifteen of its pages have been devoted to recounting the turbulence primarily caused by people issues, latent friction that usually erupts at the slightest provocation when people from distant Indian states with markedly different cultures come together under one roof. Peep into the dark recesses of every Indian establishment – whether old economy or new-age, primitive or hi-tech, governmental or private, fading or sunrise, not-for-profit or commercial – and you will find umpteen conflicts rooted in the forced ‘unity in diversity’. In the author’s case, it was a suicidal wining dining meet that caused the mayhem, machinations and mudslinging in a cascading fashion. We can very well imagine the unbearable strain to the producer and director, amid other pressing challenges and blows like the heart attack that Sanjeev Kumar suffered and the near-fatal accident that caused a spate of health issues for Amjad Khan, both events happening in quick succession and upsetting the shoot schedules.

No quarrel with a book being no holds barred, but why should the author be selective about naming the trouble-makers, especially when the episodic conclusion seems to imply that Ray went soft on his crew regulars and hence merits commensurate elaboration. Either one abstains from citing names in toto, or one does the exact opposite – there’s no middle road, at least we believe so. The book explicitly mentions a few names while refers to others as ’ring leaders’. It even lets go the supposed perpetrator of this ugly wrangling, who was Jindal's 'trusted crew member from Bombay’ by his own admission. And there's not much to help us understand what made the author take an extreme step rooted in withdrawal, that too from a project that was initiated at his behest, a project for which Ray had dutifully cast aside the long list of his doubts and apprehensions, all in good faith.

In hindsight, it is always easy to point out the futility of hosting a ‘drinks and dinner’ session for such an unpredictable bunch of guys on either side. Jindal’s gesture, we presume, was an attempt to build a deeper camaraderie at the workplace. He could surely not have anticipated the nuclear explosion of the ‘inebriated bonhomie’.

Frankly, we would have loved to know a little more about the film instead: how Ray developed his screenplay without harming the soul of the Premchand original, how were the principal (and even support) characters conceived and cast, what happened to the elaborate discussions with litterateur Amrit Lal Nagar for roping him in as dialogue writer, how was a typical shoot day when Jindal was on site, how were the interactions between the Bombay stars and the Bengali crew, what was the nasty quote of star actor Shashi kapoor in the India Today magazine, why was Hrishikesh Mukherjee “eager to throw a spanner into the works in the early stages of the production” as Ray reveals in one of his letters, what were the highlights of the growing affinity between Ray and Sanjeev Kumar (which the reader can only second-guess from how Ray’s letters initially refer to him as “Sanjeev” and later by his pet name “Hari”.) Like how Shatranj ke Khiladi needs to be read between the lines, a good part of Jindal’s book also needs to be read between the lines, moving from one letter to another.

The book’s greatest contribution to the world at large is Jindal’s detailed account of how Ray’s Alien script ‘inspired’ Steven Spielberg the way it shouldn’t have, a fact that most Indian directors, producers and stars either dismiss or downplay, blessed as they feel in raving about Spielberg and his clan.

Jindal’s book is surely an odyssey, of the kind Richard Gere has us believe on the blurb, save for a few inconsistencies including the fluctuating quality of Jindal's idiom and humour that needlessly mar this endearing vignette in book form. Rather than a biography of Ray, for which way better resources are available including Andrew Robinson's profound work 'Inner Eye', we would have liked a bio of the author, a prolific individual himself, maybe a chapter devoted to his formative years, of upbringing, education and employment, which could have better housed the candid and pithy accounts of his UCLA student experience in a radically evolving US of the 60s, as also the life and times in vintage Bombay, one known for its (well) organized crime, honourable Mafia, ingenious Aunty’s adds, and democratic Matkas. Amid the main theme, these vivid elaborations seem rather abrupt, if not out of place. And rather than forcibly register extraneous names (like Suresh Malhotra, the author’s best friend who was married to Anjali, sister of Neera, Shyam Benegal’s wife. Phew!), we would have liked to learn more about Padma Shri Pamela Cullen, so also about names like KHM Subramanian who are deprived of footnotes. (Not to talk of the instances where footnotes appear subsequently, not at the first mention of the name.)

Both Jean-Claude Carriere’s foreword and Andrew Robinson’s introduction are apt and purposeful; in fact, Robinson's introduction unfolds the film's essence and significance better than what Jindal elaborates. But Andrew, you seriously think the Hindi potboiler Lagaan is a sophisticated portrayal of the clash of cultures between the British Raj and India? If yes, the law of polarity more than helps us fathom why you should find fault with artist Ram Mohan’s animation work in Shatranj Ke Khiladi, calling the cartoons “brasher than one would like.”

The Veracious Velkars of Good Ol’ Mumbai

Noted architect, accomplished author and committed activist, Pratap Velkar is undoubtedly one of our most cherished living legends. His first book Lokmanya Tilak and Dr. Velkar is a timeless gem blessed with a discerning foreword by noted journalist and author Arun Tikekar. This is not your everyday biography, it is a treasure trove of invaluable information on Mumbai of Tilak’s time, a vivid account of the city's participation in Lokmanya’s political movement.

The book recounts the essence and significance of the symbiotic relationship between Lokmanya Tilak and the author’s father Dr. Motiram Balkrishna Velkar; it also throws perceptive light on the lives and contributions of several selfless activists and mavericks who toiled under the stewardship of Lokmanya Tilak, including Dr. Velkar, Dr. D. D. Sathe, S. V Lalit, Dr. N. D. Savarkar, and Dadasaheb Karandikar.

At the outset, the author provides a brief history of the Pathare Prabhu clan as also that of the Mumbai metropolis where the Prabhus settled for good. What follows is a fluid description of landmark events and movements steered by legends like Vishnushastri Chiplunkar, Lokmanya Tilak, Shivram Mahadeo Paranjpe, and the great revolutionaries Chapekar Brothers as also key happenings including

• the highly potent and purposeful social and political events of Dr. M. B. Velkar’s student days, prime among them the W C Rand and Lt. Ayerst assassination, and the subsequent trial and execution of Chapekar brothers that left a deep impact on Velkar, then a school student.

• the herculean efforts of Dr. Velkar to inculcate nationalistic sentiments in fellow Mumbaikars of his time, especially the people of his Pathare Prabhu clan who, barring some great exceptions, were invariably known for their laid-back and insular notions of well-being and community development, as also their imprudent “more loyal than the king’ allegiances to the powers-that-be (which have sadly resurfaced with a vengeance among their so-called modern-day scions)

• the unconditional faith that Dr. Velkar had in Lokmanya’s vision, mission and leadership, and his tight rope walk as a practicing physician and a fierce social activist & Tilak follower.

• Tilak’s home rule movement and Mumbai’s involvement in it, notably the idea of booking a Tilak special train to participate in the 1916 Lucknow Congress that Dr. Velkar and Dr. Sathe germinated and successfully implemented to the tee (a tradition that continued for the next four years, to attend the subsequent Congress sessions)

• the 1918 special session of Congress and the historic protest during the Willingdon Memorial meet of December 11, 1918 which saw Barrister Jinnah at his nationalistic best.

• Tilak’s 1919 England visit as the president of home rule league which had him and Dr Velkar sharing the same accommodation (60 Talbot Road, Bayswater, London) as also traveling together in P & O Egypt ship that left the English shores on November 6 and reached Ballard Pier, Mumbai on November 27. (Dr. Velkar chose to travel with Lokmanya rather than stay back in England to pursue the coveted MRCP degree, and he made the most of the journey time, relishing every bit of the edifying conversations with the great man.)

• Tilak and Montagu-Chemsford reforms, Tilak Fund, and Tilak purse

• The last days of Lokmanya Tilak at Sardar Griha, Mumbai and life after Tilak

The outcome of Pratap sir's physical and intellectual labour is for all to see, only if we care to open our eyes and look back. In documenting the contribution of mavericks like the doctor duo of his father and Dr Dinkar Sathye, both fierce Tilak loyalists and committed activists affectionately addressed as the Mumbai-based Jai-Vijay duo of Lokmanya, Pratap sir had to preserve several weathered files, documents and notes – his father’s correspondence and newspaper clippings - spanning two generations.

This book also cherishes the work of several lesser known karmayogis of that era, including the two dynamic siblings of the great V D Savarkar (one a literary genius and the other a dental surgeon but both equally active in the national struggle), Tilak-follower Dadasaheb Khaparde, Bhosla Military School founder Dr. B S Munje, 'Sandeshkar’ Achyutrao Kolhatkar, fearless martyr Anant Laxman Kanhere, committed Pathare Prabhu volunteer Dinanath Vittal Rao, only to name a few.

Even the annexures to the book are full of little known but illuminating facts - Tilak's command over language and his astounding people skills, his inclusive approach to public speaking, his sparkling sense of humour, his outstanding liberalism (which defied his 'orthodox Brahmin' image), the sheer diversity of his followers, his journalistic principles and editorial conviction, the clarity of his thoughts and beliefs, and scores of amusing anecdotes and happenings during Tilak's England visit.

Dr. Velkar was no ordinary activist. In 1903, while still a teenager, he formed the Pathare Prabhu Knowledge Improving Society, a body of young minds committed to nationalistic thought and action. The society regularly hosted talks and lectures of great thought leaders to inspire the common people to shun their regressive tendencies and become more holistic about crucial issues of national significance. In 1990, at his behest, a grand Pathare Prabhu exhibition of artistic creations held at Thakurdwar, Mumbai had noted reformer Gopal Krishna Gokhale as the guest of honour, not some Britisher, as was the wont till that point in time. A few prejudiced old timers, unhappy with the new wave, asked him contemptuously "Why Gokhale, why not Tilak, who you rave about in public?" Dr. Velkar's reply was epic "You won't be able to digest Tilak's extremism. Instead, Gokhale's soft ways would suit you fine."

In 1914, Dr. Velkar incepted the Pathare Prabhu Progressive Association for cherishing the teachings of Maharashtra's saints, imparting technical education, and contributing to the national movement. In 1917, he formed the Pathare Prabhu Volunteer Core which helped maintain decorum during Congress rallies and key events and also provided timely aid in difficult times like during the Influenza epidemic of 1918.

As an active member of the Mumbai Municipality, his profound interventions upheld the cause of the common people: whether in the context of First Tenants Bill, Victoria Garden restoration, ensuring regular water supply to Mumbaikars, voting by Ballot, providing sanitary houses for laborers, or the inception of a cooperative bank for South Mumbai merchants. His recurring fear that the ghastly Communal Award will end up dividing India if not arrested in time proved prophetic, immediately post 1947.

Today, Dr. MB Velkar Street of Kalbadevi, Mumbai continues to remind us of Dr Velkar's contribution, albeit not many travel companies and tour operators would include it in their glossy MUST VISIT recommendations.

I consider myself fortunate to have read this book, which was reviewed by my father for Maharashtra Times way back in late 1990s; Pratap sir’s letter conveying his heartfelt sentiments to my dad is a prized bookmark housed within the book's insightful pages, a souvenir for posterity.

For more about this father and son duo - the Veracious Velkars of Good Ol' Mumbai - as also to know about Pratap Velkar's other books, visit http://historicaldocumentsofpratapvelkar.blogspot.com

Sadly, nobody seems to be managing this site, emails to the ID furnished on the site fetch no replies and the information furnished here has unknowingly taken the form of a dump. We hope someone from the family will eventually take the lead in conveying the essence and credence of this rich Velkar legacy to the public at large.

We were indeed fortunate to have a telecon with Pratap sir, and we found him inimitably agile and full of life. His warmth is priceless, which no blog or website can ever think of replicating.

Thank you, Pratap sir, for the highly potent literature you have gifted us. Your contribution, like your father’s, is exceptional.

Chittaranjan Locomotive Works of the Spritual Realm - III

Note: This thought piece is a three-part personal tribute to an unassuming master in our midst, yet it is universal in significance given the sheer perspicacity and pertinence of his wit and wisdom. The locomotive of his conviction steers several intellectual carriages ripe with invigorating insights and infinite possibilities across different disciplines and domains. A dialogue with him is never overbearing, given his trademark lyrical elaboration on even the most clinical phenomena. It's the dignified poise of his freewheeling narration that makes even an intricate subject like spirituality so very delightfully inclusive. If my tribute inspires some of the readers to develop the keenness to probe deeper even into the seemingly obvious, I would consider the effort sanctified, way more than fulfilling.

Part 1 can be accessed at https://coastaldelights.blogspot.com/2019/08/chittaranjan-locomotive-works-of.html

Part 2 can be accessed at https://coastaldelights.blogspot.com/2019/09/chittaranjan-locomotive-works-of.html


Can you briefly summarize your employment stints? Is it right to say your aversion to settling abroad was inbuilt? How do you look back on your career as an IT professional? Any special memories, trials and triumphs that come to mind?

Yes, looking back on it now, I can say that my aversion to settling abroad must have been inbuilt. And as far as my professional career is concerned, I should mention that for the first five years of my career, I worked as an Industrial engineer in the Management Services Department of a large chemicals and fertilizers company.

I had key charge of the Project Management Cell of a mammoth project – the project of building the world’s largest urea fertilizer plant. It was a grass roots project involving not only the setting up of a fertilizer factory but also a host of activities related to building the external infrastructure such construction of approach roads from the nearest towns, the construction of a 26 km long railway line, the laying of gas pipelines to the gas terminals, the laying of a 22 km long water pipeline, the construction of a 4km submarine outfall system into the sea to ensure that dispersion of treated effluents wouldn’t affect marine life, the construction of a jetty for handling the transportation of oversize equipment, the construction of two townships and a labor colony, etc. All this was in addition to the construction of the factory itself which comprised 3 urea plants of 4500 tons of capacity per day, 2 ammonia plants of 3000 tons capacity per day, a steam generation plant and 2 captive power generation units generating 30 MW of power per day, an effluent treatment plant, water treatment plant, urea storage silos and handling plants, a railway siding in addition to facilities such as fire stations, 2 heavy water plants that were added to the project midway, admin and engineering buildings, etc.

The reason I mention all this is to give an idea of the scale of the planning, scheduling and execution activities that the Project Management Cell had to cater to. All this was related to time management. There was also an elaborate cost-control system that was put in place along with a project incentive scheme. For one starting out on a career, it was a rare opportunity to be able to work on such a project and to bring the quantitative and techniques one had learnt in college into practical application. From the vantage point of the Project Management Cell, I could visualize the project taking shape across the globe with thousands of activities dovetailed one onto another until they coalesced into concrete form in a fertilizer plant in Maharashtra, India. I still remember the day when I was in the field at 3 am in the morning along with the field staff, putting my hand along with theirs, to turn the control valve of the urea reactor to see the first production of urea prills from the world’s largest fertilizer unit. It was a moment of exhilaration to be part of a historic event after having striven for it for 4 long years. The project was the first large public sector project to be completed within both the time and cost targets – no mean achievement for a project of this mammoth size.

After working for 5 years in the area of project management, I moved to the IT field and was given charge to setup the entire IT infrastructure of the fertilizer unit, both hardware and software. Again, it was the kind of opportunity that a person seldom gets at such an early stage in his career. Those were the days of IBM 1401 and ICL 1900 batch-processing computers which I knew would fade out in the coming decades.

Weathered I-card of the first job

I proposed an architecture for an on-line transaction processing system which was then looked upon as a very risky proposition, especially as there were no commercially available relational databases in India at that time and one had to design even things like transaction atomicity and data-integrity schemes as part of the software plan. The corporate office rejected my proposal saying that it would jeopardize the functioning of the entire unit. But I had a scheme in my head and I was confident that it would work, so I made a presentation to the Chairman & Managing Director (CMD). The CMD, himself an Industrial engineer and a dynamic personality, gave me a patient hearing and approved the proposal. One year later, in April 1985, we rolled out the implementation. It made waves all across the public sector corporations and soon we had a stream of visitors from Cabinet Ministers in Delhi, from bureaucrats to CEOs, and from prospective clients of the hardware vendor who had sold us the computer system. This was just the beginning. The system was rolled out at the corporate office too. In the years that followed, the system went through two upgrade cycles and by 1997 we had implemented the country’s first and only distributed database system along with server-clusters and multi-phase commits – the implementation was selected as a model by Ingress Corporation.

The one thing I was lucky to always have, not only in my first job but throughout all my employment stints, was a wonderful team to work with. And I believed in two things: letting the team members know the goal we were working for along with how it would fit into the larger goal of the company and in expressing my confidence in their abilities and capabilities to meet the goal. It always worked, resulting in enthused teams and members that performed beyond normal expectation.

But not everything was hunky-dory in my first job. I also had to undergo a severely testing time during one of the upgrades to the IT system. There was a technical flaw in the Ingress Gateway implemented on the computer hardware (a Data General machine) resulting in acute performance degradation. The Ingress vendor and even the Ingress support center threw up their hands and we were left with a problem that threatened to escalate into a major crisis. During this time, I was also a member of a committee for procuring process control equipment due to my involvement, and a certain amount of expertise I had acquired in distributed process controls, with ammonia and urea plant control systems.

I had refused to put my signature on one of the committee’s recommendations because I could see that the item – a training simulator – was grossly overpriced so much so that one could procure the actual equipment instead of the simulator at a lower cost. What I hadn’t realized was that it was a scam and that its roots lay in the central government in Delhi. The file came back to me again and again for my signature and every time I sent it back with an objection. Soon, I began to face attacks from unexpected directions. I was asked questions about the technical problem we were facing in the Ingress Gateway with ample hints that I had taken bribe to accept an inferior system. At the same time, the trade union leaders began to create problems in the IT department with unreasonable demands and there was even an incidence of sabotage in which the power supply was burnt down. On another occasion, I had to face a mob of around 30 workers who broke the furniture and flower pots in my cabin. After I refused to put my signature on the file yet another time, an enquiry was instigated against me for malfeasance in the procurement of the Ingress database and computer purchase. For around 3 months, I was working for more than 15 hours every day, on one hand for the mitigation of the technical problems in the system and on the other hand facing up to constant attacks on me and my integrity. I went through the enquiry and came out of it unscathed, and also without giving in to the demands of the union. Meanwhile we had found a workaround for the technical problem by building a set of C-routines that connected to the database backend by bypassing the native Ingress gateway. I managed to walk out of the fire successfully but it did have repercussions on my health for some time.

My second job was in one of India’s largest print media companies, as General Manager of its IT set-up. In my first job, I had worked with an attitude of service, quite content with my salary even though it was meager amount. Now, all of a sudden, I was earning three times the amount! Also, the new job was a change from the public sector environment to a private sector environment and, after having worked for 18 years in the public sector culture, I was expecting the change to be traumatic. I was surprised however how easily I fit into the new company’s culture. And one of the first things I had to do was something that was almost unheard of in the public sector: it was to fire a senior employee of the IT department. The sad part of it was that he was a knowledgeable person, deeply conversant with the nuances of the business as well as technically proficient; but the surgery had to be done, for he was given over to Machiavellian ways and was hand-in-glove with a relative of the owner of the company who was scheming to build his own sheikdom in the business. Again, I was surprised at how unemotionally and clinically I was able to perform the surgery. But the fellow had family problems, so I actually helped him get another job!

With that hurdle over, I set about rebuilding the IT team and in planning for rolling out a set of new applications that would enable the business, especially the three areas that were crucial for a print media house: advertisement management, circulation management and newsprint management. Soon, we had a new CEO tasked with revamping the entire corporation. It was an exciting period in which I found myself playing a key role as a technology facilitator for enabling the business in a radically new way, changing the company from a print-media company to a truly multi-media news delivery company. In the year 1999, it was a bold and pioneering move, and the project was named Project Octopus.

Alongside, a company transformation exercise was undertaken, and it was nicknamed FIRE. Within 6 months, the changes that began to come in, both in terms of the circulation on the field and in personnel attitudes, were remarkable, and we were all set to take the lead in the Indian market. But one day, suddenly, the dream came crashing down. There was a disagreement between the CEO and the owner, and the CEO quit the job. For the next 6 months, the IT plans that we were working on hit a roadblock as the funds for it were not released. Ironically, during this period, I was given a raise of 30% in my salary! The whole idea of earning a good package when the funds that were required for implementing the projects were not available was something I couldn’t stomach. I quit the job.

My next job was with an IT startup company. I accepted an invitation to join a friend and a well-known IT professional in his endeavor to build a dream company, as its Executive Director. I was now moving from an in-house IT set up on to the other side, as a director of an IT vendor company. It didn’t make much a difference to me, but the change was initially traumatic for an entirely different reason. I was used to enterprise systems in which I would always conceptualize the IT plans in alignment with the business needs of the company, but here I was, among a group of geeks who discussed TCP/IP, threading and whole lot of technical stuff and with very little business sense in them. But the trauma disappeared by a strange quirk of fate – by the confrontation of a severe crisis that threatened the very survival of the company.

The IT boom on which the startup was based went bust! We had obtained the first tranche of funding from a venture capital company and there was little chance that we would get the second tranche in the prevailing situation. And the CEO had faced so much flak from the venture capitalist that he was averse to even talk to them. Soon there were salary cuts, to the extent of 75%. It was around the same time that my father had to undergo a major surgery. It was a trying time for me. Also I felt that it was not fair to subject the young employees of the company to these kinds of salary cuts. I decided to take things in my own hand. I started a concerted effort at collection follow up - to recover the money shown in the books as accounts receivables. Next, I met the venture capitalist and convinced him to release a part of the second tranche to help us while we looked for business from the Indian market (as against the foreign market that was originally planned as our prime market) until we had broken even. I was given 6 months time to achieve the break even. I personally undertook marketing activities to obtain orders. It showed results. Soon the situation improved sufficiently to pay reasonable salaries to the employees, and we were not only able to break even in 6 months but had enough in our order books to see us through for the immediate future. It was also the right time for me to quit, having brought the business to some reasonable level of comfort.

Brunch time

I joined an IT company that was an off-shoot of a large Indian bank. A unique feature of this company was that it was not merely a services company but also a software products company. I had always believed that Indian IT software companies should strive to not merely offer software services but also acquire intellectual property, and this company’s directions seemed to align with my convictions. It also had the financial clout to backup such an endeavor due to its banking background. But soon I was dismayed by the way it was conducting its business. There was no dream it was trying to fulfill except that of obtaining returns on its investments. New acquisitions were done without giving adequate thought towards assimilating the acquired companies into the organization. It focused too much on performance indicators on paper while its policies and functioning failed to get the best out of the human resources it had. It even followed some pernicious practices like taking infeasible orders brought by sales personnel who had promised the moon to the clients and then stopping the salaries of the team members of the delivery team when the profit margins hit the zero mark. The change that I sought to bring about in the area under my control did not go down well with the top management and I even earned the reputation of being ‘anti-management’. I spent five years in the company before I felt I had had enough of the corporate life and quit the job to pursue my interests in the spiritual field even though I had more than 6 years left to reach my retirement age. I did some consulting for a couple of years after that but quit that too in order to focus entirely on what I wanted to do.

Send-off time: Last corporate stint

What is your take on Indian IT? I have personally never been able to overlook the dark side of software development (More about my lament can be accessed from https://www.indiainfoline.com/article/opinions/paradise-lost-115101900027_1.html)

I think the Indian IT industry had a lot more opportunity than what it has actually managed to capitalize on. As I mentioned earlier on, the industry failed to acquire intellectual properties and focused almost wholly on providing services. Selling software services did bring in revenues but it was essentially a ‘coolie service’. I would put much of the blame for this state of affairs on NASSCOM, the body that was instituted to define the policies which could have made an enormous amount of difference to how the industry would shape up.

And yes, I agree with you about the dark side of software development. I would also add that many programmers in the ‘coolie’ software industry thought they were mini gods striding the earth and that they were entitled to be bestowed with monetary largesse. The story of Indian hardware industry too is a sad story. I believe that the country had capable hardware companies in the early days – such as DCM and HCL – that had made their mark in the field but the government policies in respect of customs duty, etc, inhibited the growth of the industry and literally transformed it into a trading industry. Much has been written about the Indian IT industry by people more qualified than me to do so, so I will not dwell on this topic any longer.

What were the typical workplace challenges you faced in the tug of war between pursuing your spiritual quest and fulfillment of material obligations?

The one thing that I always yearned for and couldn’t get enough of during my professional life was solitude. For a seeker on the path of spirituality, it is important to spend time regularly in solitude. But I must say that much of the blame for this state of affairs has to be laid on me: I take my commitments seriously and tendency to become a workaholic. Having said this, the spiritual path is not all about pursuing the spiritual goal in solitude. Such pursuit constitutes the path of nivritti and it is possible only for whose sadhakas in whom the desire for worldly objects has wholly dissipated. For those of us that still harbor desires for material objects, the pursuit of the spiritual goal is about how we navigate our material pursuits – essentially the pursuit of kama and artha – so that it does not hinder the progress towards the final spiritual goal. It is called the path of pravritti and it is about how we make our choices when confronted with situations where there is a conflict between what is pleasant and what is right. The path of pravritti does not forbid one from pursuing pleasure or wealth but it demands that one shall temper one’s material pursuits so that it does not lead to transgressions of the boundaries of virtue. It is the noble path known in Indian culture as the path of the aryas.

Spiritual workshop in a Mysore temple precinct

The word ‘arya’ does not signify a race as has been made out by Western Indologists but signifies nobility in one’s thoughts and actions. The organic structure of Indian society, which was designed to uphold the arya way of life, has now been corrupted and has been replaced by a societal structure in which all human pursuits are made to sub-serve the pursuit of the shallow ideals of humanism and capitalistic economics. In such a situation, the best one can do is to abide by the principles of universal virtue, such as truthfulness, contentment, compassion, etc, and to maintain one’s personal integrity. By personal integrity, I mean acting in consonance with one’s own nature (swadharma) including the stations and positions one holds in society without allowing the pull of one’s personal emotions or the lure of personal benefit to influence the directedness towards the goal that one’s holding of the station or position demands. To the best of my abilities, I have tried to live by these principles. I may not have always been successful in living up to its highest ideals and would admit to small indiscretions but I do not believe I have allowed myself to sink into any act of moral turpitude. As far as the smaller acts of discretion are concerned, I can only hope that they do not become major impediments to my spiritual progress.

You have traversed different planets in the course of your career, from an independent start up to a PSU corporation, from a leading national media set up to a typical software solution firm, offshoot of a banking entity. How do you look back on the mixed bag of experience?

I have no regrets about the way my professional career has panned out. Before I began my career, I had been contemplating on taking to a life of sannyasa, so I didn’t come into my work life with any vaulting ambition to make money or to climb corporate ladders. And given that the thread of spirituality has stayed with me until now, I can look back on my professional career with some amount of dispassion, like a historian surveying the events of the past, and appreciate that it makes an interesting collage. I have had my ups and downs and have learnt a lot during my experiences about the way the world is today.

From a spiritual angle, I look at it as my inexorable destiny – also called prarabdha karma – working itself out. And when things were very bad with insurmountable roadblocks on the way, or the prospect of ruin facing me, there has always been the hand of Providence that has opened out avenues from unexpected directions and paved the way for me to cross the hurdles and move ahead in my life. I am particularly happy that despite the senior positions I have held since the year 1998 – positions that demanded a lot of my time and attention – I was still able to engage extensively in discussions and debates on philosophical and spiritual topics. These engagements have been useful to me in doing the service that I have undertaken to do at this stage in my life, namely the launching of an initiative for reviving the intellectual tradition of India.

Which were the global/local trends, ideas or movements that influenced you, or shaped your ideals and aspirations? Fashion or lifestyle trends, music bands, philosophical movements, paradigm shifts, and technological breakthroughs etc.

Yes, I mentioned about being caught in the wave of the seventies. I did not mention that during this time, and for some years later as well, I was into building audio systems. I had learnt a fair bit of electronics and acoustics and built many audio systems, often selling one system at half the cost I had incurred in building it so that I could build the next better system. But what began as a hobby soon turned into a search for perfection in sound-reproduction. I got caught in an audiophile movement in which a few crazy people were seeking to achieve that subjective tonal purity of sound which, more often than not, cannot be encapsulated in formal technical specifications.

So, after having built many audio systems using transistors and ICs, I reverted back to good old valve amplifiers and heat dissipating class A amplifies, I moved from CDs back to vinyl records and from multiple driver speakers systems with cross-over networks to full-range drivers sans electronics to achieve better linearity. Then one day, I threw it all up in disgust – for I realized that I wasn’t listening to music anymore but was seeking some imaginary perfection in the reproduction of sound. My involvement with building audio systems came to an end, but it raised for me the question: what is it that we look for in music and the arts? What is the relation between the essential content of a piece of art and the material form through which it manifests? Years later, when I was deeply into philosophy, the question led me into an exploration of the topic of universals and particulars and to study of a bit of the Dhvanyaloka.

Then there was another movement that had an impact on me. It was not really a movement but more of a phenomenon that happened during the first half of the twentieth century. It was the phenomenon of the Vienna Circle. Started by Moritz Schlick, the Vienna Circle was a group of physicists, philosophers and mathematicians that met regularly to discuss and debate fundamental issues of logic, science, language and mathematics. It consisted of people like Ernst Mach, Kurt Godel, Rudolph Carnap, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, Albert Einstein and the like. The outcome of the work done by the Vienna Circle has had far reaching influence on both philosophy and science right up to this day. Even though I don’t agree with many of its conclusions, the model of the Vienna Circle, where a group of eminent scholars meet regularly to discuss fundamental issues, has impressed me no end, and I believe such a model would be worth emulating in the Indian context for debating the fundamental issues of our time based on the foundations of Indian thought and Indian philosophy.

Another movement that has held my interest was the philosophical movement to flesh out the meaning of history as well as to define the contours of historiography, especially the movement that began in Europe in the post-Kantian period. Again, I think it would be interesting to investigate these questions from out of the framework of Indian philosophy. Something similar, based on the framework of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman world, was undertaken by the twentieth-century philosopher-historian Eric Voegelin.

CN with daughter Akshara

Could you cite any career accomplishments that gave you spiritual delight or a semblance of it? In other words, any professional pursuit where the two disparate worlds seemed to merge into each other?

Any activity in which there is absorption and dissolution of the subject-object duality – called ‘laya’ in Sanskrit – may be considered as a kind of spiritual activity. I have experienced this sometimes even in my professional life. But I wouldn’t really call these as spiritual experiences except in a trivial sense. For the absorption to be truly a spiritual experience the experience has to be of not mere absorption but the attention has also to be constantly fixed on the Noumenal Ground from which the forms of the universe arise and subside. Such fixedness in the Noumenal Ground is possible for only those who have achieved a great degree of perfection in the spiritual path. It is the state of being a sthitha-prajna. The ancient philosopher-kings such as Janaka and some of the emperors of the Ikshvaku and Chandravaunshi lineage were such sthitha-prajnas, continuing to execute their worldly activities even when remaining fixed in the spiritual source. For most seekers on the path of spirituality, this would hardly be possible.

But spirituality is not all about having special experiences. It is also about that inner transformation by which the spiritual dimension enters the realm of our mundane activities. This is the path of pravritti-dharma by which we strive to sacralize the worldly activities by regulating our actions in accordance with the intrinsic natures of the stations and positions we occupy in this world. It brings about an inner strength and poise that paves the way for the spiritual fire to ignite within us and thereby to experience the delights of the Numinous Region. I believe that when a significant number of people in a society follow the path of pravritti, we will have Ram Rajya, the reflection in this world of the archetype of the Perfect State as imprinted in Eternity.

CN with his mother

Could you also share a personal fact file of yours?

My mother, now 90, lives in Bangalore. So, I keep shuttling between Mumbai and Bangalore. I met my wife Vijaya in RCF and we eventually got married. Our daughter Akshara works as a PeopleSoft Consulting Manager in California. I have two sisters; both are doctors long settled in the US. I must say my aversion to settling abroad has been more than compensated by other members in the family.

Chittaranjan Locomotive Works of the Spiritual Realm - II

Note: This thought piece is a three-part personal tribute to an unassuming master in our midst, yet it is universal in significance given the sheer perspicacity and pertinence of his wit and wisdom. The locomotive of his conviction steers several intellectual carriages ripe with invigorating insights and infinite possibilities across different disciplines and domains. A dialogue with him is never overbearing, given his trademark lyrical elaboration on even the most clinical phenomena. It's the dignified poise of his freewheeling narration that makes even an intricate subject like spirituality so very delightfully inclusive. If my tribute inspires some of the readers to develop the keenness to probe deeper even into the seemingly obvious, I would consider the effort sanctified, way more than fulfilling.

Part 1 can be accessed at https://coastaldelights.blogspot.com/2019/08/chittaranjan-locomotive-works-of.html

How did IIT happen? Who/what was instrumental in the choice of stream? How would you sum up the IIT experience?

I hadn’t heard of IIT until I came across some of my classmates filling in the application forms for the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE). I was handed a form to fill if I wished. I did so and wrote the JEE about six months later. Then one day my father woke me up in the morning and informed me that my roll number had appeared in the paper, in the list of those who had secured admission to IIT. That was how IIT happened. As regards the choice of stream, it followed naturally from the interest in aeronautics and astronautics that I had developed while at school.

The IIT experience had different aspects. In the first few years, I was caught up in the new wave that was sweeping in from the West, a wave built on the angst of a yearning to return ‘back to the Garden’, as famously sung by Janis Joplin in the song ‘Woodstock’, and fuelled by an aversion to the greed-driven rule-based order of the establishment. During this phase of my life, I did many things that would have shocked my old acquaintances and family: I experimented with ‘grass’ or marijuana, I hit the road on hitch-hiking trails, and I was carried away on the wings of Western folk-rock music – of the genre produced by Crossby, Stills Nash & Young and others. I must say that the sixties and seventies produced some exceptional music artists with a kind of creative genius that you don’t see in present-day artists; they produced music for the soul that captured the angst of the age and sent a whole generation of ‘children of the flower’ into raptures. But it didn’t last - it couldn’t last - because it lacked both the epistemic foundations as well as the disciplining force that are required to make a movement sustain itself. But it produced many creative people that went on to do fundamental work in frontier areas of human knowledge.

B-Tech was then a 5-year course, and the subjects of my chosen discipline, aeronautics, were introduced in the third year. But a strange thing happened when I began to attend classes on these subjects, some of which I had studied even when I was in school: those same subjects that had produced such ardor in me when I was in school failed to hold much interest for me now. Something seemed to be lacking in the classes. For one, the classes were drab and the lectures sent me to sleep. But more importantly, it was the romance that was missing – the romance of building flying machines that had captured my mind when I was in school. It came home to me then that the exploratory pioneering age of flying was over and that aeronautical engineering had now become a discipline catering to building artifacts of public utility. Looking back on it with the perspective I now have, I realize that it was not really flying and building physical flying machines that had inspired me but that it was what flying symbolized – the azure sky of freedom – that had lured me into the field. I suppose, somewhere deep within my being, there was an inspiration to become, to use the words of Nietzsche, an aeronaut of the spirit. For the rest of my B-Tech days, I drifted not knowing what I really wanted in life. When I passed out of engineering, I had a bachelor’s degree in hand and no motivation to work. I was selected for a job by DRDO in the first campus interview I attended but I wasn’t sure if this is what I wanted to pursue in my life. I wrote the entrance exams for admission to the Masters programs of IIT and IISc and was selected for Masters in Aeronautical and Management in both the institutes. I had also been selected for MS in physics at IISc but didn’t take it up because I couldn’t find a guide for the specific area of theoretical physics that I wished to pursue. Eventually, I enrolled for Management studies (micro-management aka Industrial Engineering) at IIT Madras, only to secure more time to decide what I wanted to do with my life, and not following any real interest in Management.

The drifting and the soul-searching continued during my first year in M-Tech. As far as studies were concerned, I did the minimum that was required to ‘go through the motions’. I had begun to read books on Relativity and Quantum theories as also on Cybernetics. It was the exploration into Cybernetics that took me down an unexpected path and culminated, in the year 1977, in a spiritual experience of such force and magnitude that its effect has stayed with me until now, nay it has defined the very raison d’être of my existence; for that experience was for me a momentous eruption of epiphany, a glimpse into a realm of the perennial, and a plunge into the wondrous land of philosophy.

CN at Gokarn after father's samskara

It would surely be difficult to summarize your spiritual voyage at one go but can you jot down the key milestones of your offbeat strides – especially your thoughts and experiments concerning Advaita and Shaivism.

The voyage began as an inquiry into the question: would it be possible to make a cybernetic machine that replicates the intelligence of a human being? After pondering over the question for some days, it struck me that the direction Cybernetics was taking, which was based on the Turing Principle, was not the right direction as it ignored the essential aspect of intelligence: the presence of consciousness as the first prerequisite for intelligence to arise. And then it struck me that consciousness cannot emerge from material processes at all; for if consciousness were to be produced from those very material processes which constitute the field of consciousness that the cognizer is conscious of, it would lead to mutual inter-dependence. These were not idle thoughts, the arguments for and against the proposition raced through my mind and left me with apodictic certainty that consciousness was an entity distinct from matter and that it could not be produced by material processes, that is, the material processes could not be the source from which consciousness arose, a consciousness which then went on to become conscious of its own material origins. One after another, ideas unfolded in my mind with such rapidity that I was wholly absorbed in the exhilarating exploration, to the point that I was practically lost to the world. Everything else had become insipid and uninteresting. It dawned on me then that I could not cognize a thing if the prescient notion of the thing was not already present within me, that is, I would not be capable of recognizing the color red unless a fundamental notion of red, or a value of what the color red is, was not already known to me a priori. And if this were so, it meant that the objects I saw in this world were in some way a crystallization of this notion into concrete form. In other words, matter could not exist without consciousness because they were the inherent notions present in consciousness brought forth into concrete forms. I had begun with the question whether consciousness could be produced from matter and had ended with an answer that matter itself could not exist without consciousness! A sort of a magnificent obsession took hold of me then. I decided to test out my ideas in 'practice'.

I sat in the padmasana posture and focused on the idea that the world which presented itself to me was a kind of valuation, a crystallized form of notions that were already present within me. I don't know how long I sat in that posture. Every thought that arose in my mind was subjected to a rational reduction: to an inherent value that existed within me including the thoughts of the objects of this world. After a while, the initial distractions began to subside, and a deep quietude began to pervade my being. The focus on inherent values as the heart of objects and ideas became natural. Then it happened, all of a sudden, without warning. A blaze of light shot through me and everything began to dissolve, the walls, the room, the world around me and along with it my own body. That split-second, that moment, was more intense, more living, more awesome than anything I had known in my life. It was like a blaze of a thousand suns exploding. The foundation of the world was knocked off, as it were, and there was no foothold anywhere. An intense terror took hold of me at the thought that my very individuality was dissolving, I woke out of the experience in a wild convulsion. But there was also a great elation in my heart. A great Living Presence seemed to be near as well, as all around me. I don't know how I passed the night, but the next morning I felt transformed. There was a deep feeling of humility in my heart, and an aversion to meeting people. I longed for simplicity, to go away from the great façade of deception that the world was perpetrating on itself. I went to the library and looked up books on religion. I got hold of the Upanishads. A thrill passed through me as I read its pages. Many of the passages seemed as clear and obvious to me as if they were my native thoughts. Soon I began reading whatever literature I could get hold of on philosophy and religion.

Well, this is how it began. Over the years, there have been many discoveries, sometimes gradual, sometimes a sudden uncovering of a symbolism or concept of the ancients, but they all have their roots in the experience of that day. There were also other spiritual experiences in the next three months but none as powerful as the first one; but there is one particular experience that that stands out from the rest. It was about a month or so after I had had the first spiritual experience when one day I was sitting on the bed when all of a sudden I became detached from the body and experienced myself as a distinct flame of unwavering consciousness, of the size of ‘a thumb’ within the body. And though I knew that consciousness had no spatial relationship with anything in the world, there was a definite sense of that which I now experienced as my self being located in the heart, slightly on the right side in the chest. Yet, the word ‘heart’ as I experienced it then had a sense of meaning as evocated through the expression ‘the heart of all things’ rather than of being the physical heart. This experience had a powerful effect on me because it coincided with what I had read in the Upanishads as also in a book describing the experiences of Ramana Maharshi just a few days earlier – that the self, of the size of thumb, resides in the heart, the cave of the intellect, and that it is experienced as being slightly on the right side of the chest. If there was any doubt left in me still that the Upanishads revealed knowledge that cannot be obtained from anything else, all these doubts were now dissolved.

The next phase of my spiritual pursuit consisted of extensive reading of philosophical works – both Indian and Western – as also of the world’s major religions. The readings of Indian philosophical texts were sometimes accompanied by sudden insights into some aspect or the other of the tenets and principles of the Vedic tradition. Sometimes, I would sit and stare at a word or sentence in the text because it would pierce my consciousness and reveal some deep hidden meaning. This has happened to me not only with Vedanta texts but also with those of Yoga and Nyaya. It was during this period that the various traditional schools of Indian philosophy seemed to me to be not six disparate philosophies but borne on the body of a single overarching philosophy in which each one of them appeared as an auxiliary discipline of knowledge. This integral view of Indian darshanas has not only stayed with me in all my subsequent years but has been substantiated by a careful reading of the texts. I spent more than a year in this phase before I joined up for my first job, primarily because I couldn’t continue to live off my father.

Once I joined up for a job, I got immersed in the activities of the corporate world. Even though the spiritual undercurrent was always present, for the next eighteen years there was no conscious spiritual effort on my part. I suppose it was the strength of my vasanas that made me get pulled so pervasively into the material world again. It took eighteen long years later for the next phase of my spiritual journey to begin. It was a phase marked by engagement and debate. From the year 1998 to the year 2000, I actively participated in the discussion forum of the Philosophers Magazine, UK, (TPM On-line). There were many academic professors and scholars on that forum – some of them incognito – and it gave me an opportunity to see whether my philosophical views would hold against the arguments of the academicians. Soon after, from the year 2004, I participated in two Vedanta forums – the Advaitin and Vadavali – and held extensive discussions with scholars of the Indian tradition. These debates and discussions helped me formulate ways in which I could put my philosophical thoughts into formal presentations.

This period also marked my explorations into the esoteric world of Tantra. It began with my contemplations on the nature of the masculine and feminine principles in nature, into what may be called the philosophy of gender. Coincidentally, at this time, I came across a group of maverick people and became an active member of a forum dedicated to Tantra Mysticism. It was here that I was introduced to Kashmir Shaivism. I had always been drawn to Shaktism and the doctrines of Kashmir Shaivism complimented this aspect of my spiritual make-up very well. If my explorations into Advaita Vedanta had moved along an intellectual thread, my foray into the world of Kashmir Shaivism was marked by experiential flights into the land of the poetical and mystical. Advaita Vedanta sought to reject the perceived world; Kashmir Shaivism sought to embrace both the perceived world and the Spirit on the crest of the motionless wave of Spanda. It was here that I learnt that there were many men and women in this world who live, unbeknownst to a large segment of humanity, at another layer of Reality.

En route an Himalayan trek

Your brush with spirituality was presumably accidental. Having said that, do you recall or recollect something from the past that may have engineered the inclination - say the meeting with your grandfather's brother.

The inclination to spirituality that manifested at a certain stage in my life may superficially appear to be an accident but I would say that such manifestations are almost always the result of subterranean currents flowing from a past that lie hidden to our present consciousness. The meetings with my great grandfather’s brother have certainly had their influence on me but I don’t believe the influence would have been possible if it were not for a veneer of consciousness that was already running through my life. I mentioned how the suggestion of Plato’s name had affected me. I have had other experiences too of a similar kind. When I was in school, there were times when I would mentally recede from the world and stand aloof from it; it was as if I had become a detached witness to not only the world’s events but even to my own thoughts. These experiences would last for a few minutes and then they would go away. I never spoke about them to anyone at that time. It was only much later when I had come into the path of spirituality proper that I realized their significance.

The most powerful intimations of my past came to me in the immediate wake of the eruption of my first epiphany. The next morning I didn’t have breakfast in the hostel mess as I normally did. I felt averse to meeting anyone, so I walked to a small village adjoining the campus to have some snacks and tea. After the previous night’s experience, I was feeling sanctified – as if I was awash with the divine waters of the Ganga – and as I walked along the path to the village, I had sudden flashes of memory: I saw myself as a wandering sannyasi walking along the banks of a river in Saurashtra. The scene was very vivid in my mind’s eye just as if it were a scene from a fairly recent past. This was not a solitary instance. Over the next few days I had flashes of memory wherein I saw myself as a yogi sitting under a tree in South India, as a Tibetan lama in the Himalayas and as a Christian monk in a desert with a gaunt dune-mountain in the background. There were also frequent flashes in which I saw myself in the radiance of Brindavan. All these flashes were not mere visions; they had the quality of being remembrances. I am sure many people would pass this off as auto-suggestions on my part arising out of my spiritual inclination but I remain convinced that they were intimations of my distant past. This conviction is corroborated by Indian philosophy which states that one carries over the knowledge that one has learnt as well as knowledge of the skills from one birth to another. I see myself as a wayfarer and the eruption of the fount of spirituality in my life as a continuation of a spiritual sadhana undertaken in my past lives. I do not know how many more lifetimes I have to traverse in this path, but I am happy to be on the path for without it life would not be worth living.

Did you have any favorites among philosophers during your reading phase? How many of them still make sense to you?

Those that have inspired me the most are the Vedic sages. However, Vedic sages are not philosophers in the ordinary sense of the world: they are structures of Reality rather than men and women. It may seem strange to most of us that names such as Yajnavalkya, Maitreyi, Nachiketa, etc, denote structures of Reality and not people but this is due to us treating Vedic language as equivalent to ordinary language. Unlike the words of ordinary language that point to objects in the world, the words of Vedic language point to universals – archetypes – out of which spring the world of concrete objects. So, the names of Vedic sages do not point to people but to archetypes out of which people bearing those names manifest in different cycles of creation. They are the archetypal teachers contained in the structure of Reality itself. It is for this reason that the words they utter are held to be pramana – the infallible source of knowledge about Reality. It doesn’t make sense therefore to speak of favorites among Vedic sages because they are outfitments of Reality that define the very contours of philosophy, both in terms of the supreme goal of the human quest for knowledge as well as the means by which it is obtained. It would make more sense to speak about favorites with respect to those philosophers – called bhashyakaras, vaartikakaras, etc. – that uncover the hidden meanings of the utterances of the Vedic sages for the benefit of humankind. Yes, I have my favorites among them.

Among the Vedanta philosophers, it is the three great bhashyakaras – Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya – for I do not look at their interpretations as resulting in three competing philosophies but as three philosophies for people of different dispositions to walk the path. And among the philosophies that constitute disciplines of knowledge that are auxiliaries to Vedanta, my favorites are Kaumarila Bhatta among the Mimamsa philosophers, Ishvara Krishna among the Samkhya philosophers, Jayanta Bhatta, Udayana and Gangesa among the Nyaya-Vaisesika philosophers and Bhartrahari among the Grammarians. I haven’t mentioned any philosopher of the Yoga school because I find no better explanation of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali than the exposition of Shankaracharya as given in his Vivarana.

Among Western philosophers, I would mention the names of Socrates (Plato), Parmenides and Spinoza, in that order. To a lesser extent, I would mention Kant, Husserl and Nietzsche. Nietzsche may appear like a surprise addition to this list considering that he is a nihilist but I find his deep luminous writings and power of metaphor most appealing, especially as they seem to spring out of powerful inspiration, which I recognize, and which is described by Nietzsche in these words:
"Has anyone at the end of the nineteenth century a distinct conception of what poets of strong ages called inspiration? If not I will describe it, - If one has the slightest residue of superstition left in one, one would hardly be able to set aside the idea that one is merely incarnation, merely mouthpiece, merely medium of overwhelming forces. The concept of revelation, in the sense that something suddenly, with unspeakable certainty and subtlety, becomes visible, audible, something that shakes and overturns one to the depths, simply describes the fact. One hears, one does not seek; one takes, one does not ask who gives; a thought flashes up like lightning, with necessity, unalteringly formed - I have never had any choice. An ecstasy whose tremendous tension sometimes discharges itself in a flood of tears, while one's steps now involuntarily rush along, now involuntarily lag; ... a depth of happiness in which the most painful and gloomy things appear, not as an antithesis, but as conditioned, demanded, as a necessary color within such a superfluity of light;.... Everything is in the highest degree involuntary but takes place as in a tempest of a feeling of freedom, of absoluteness, of power, of divinity."

With regard to the question ‘How many of them still make sense to me?’, I would say that all the pre-twentieth century philosophers that I have read still make sense to me; for even when I don’t agree with them, or with their philosophies, their writings reveal to me how they thought and how they grappled intellectually with the profound questions of human knowledge and human existence. But I can’t say the same with respect to twentieth and twenty-first century philosophers.

CN with his wife

Did you, at any point, feel the need for a Guru to guide you on the path of spirituality?

I have had a Guru in my journey. I don’t speak about it much because my Guru is not from the Vedanta tradition and this fact may not go down well with many members and scholars of the tradition that I engage in debate with. I have been told by my Guru that I will follow a subtle path. I take it to be the path of Pratyabhijna as described in Kashmir Shaivism; it is very close to that of Advaita Vedanta.

A Guru is a must on this path. In rare cases, when the seeker has stainless mental purity, the Guru may not be external and may be the seeker’s own Self. But such cases are so rare that we may ignore them as constituting the general rule. In normal cases, one cannot reach the goal without a human Guru. This is because the persona that we have come to acquire due to primordial ignorance must learn to bow down – and ultimately bow out – to the all-pervading Self, the Inner Controller. This persona revolves around the ego and it is enmeshed in a web of beliefs, dispositions and desires (vasanas) that it clings to and is averse to declaw itself from. When the question of letting-go of the vasanas faces us, we tend to cling to them even more and rationalize them and, more often than not, all this happens at a sub-conscious level. The Guru, however, is able to see them and he works through the shishya’s knots of ignorance – also called the ajna-chakra – which the shishya may not be conscious of. But this entire process works only when there is a spark of the divine, in terms of a higher power of discrimination (viveka), that has been kindled within the disciple; for without it the disciple is liable to abstain from exerting himself intellectually and may end up becoming a mere follower, like sheep in a herd. It is the spark of divinity that enables the seeker to walk the razor’s edge of the path, simultaneously forging ahead with his own self-effort while at the same time allowing the Guru to perform surgery on his knotted mind.

to be continued...