THE MAVERICK MYSTIC
An encounter with Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev requires an open mind.
Not because he is a spiritual leader who will question your deepest held beliefs but because he conforms to no conventional image of spirituality.
Of course there is the lush white Santa beard and flowing robes that signal a spiritual leader in India. But there is, also, an unapologetic predilection for big bikes and golf courses, SUVs and helicopters, jeans and caps, and the occasional cup of coffee or seafood meal.
Sadhguru says he deals in practicality rather than imagery – his choice of vehicle, for instance, a Toyota Land Cruiser, is about needing a rugged, comfortable vehicle for his long daily drives – sometimes hundreds of kilometres – on rough village roads. The helicopter saves time. The golf blends exercise with the chance to talk privately with people. He enjoys reading Rushdie. The modern lifestyle, he will tell you, is in no way at odds with spirituality, contrary to what detractors believe. “If you don’t eat well, live well, dress well, that’s considered spiritual. There’s a poverty consciousness among people.”
He was initiated into yoga at age 13 and says he never missed a day in a dozen years. Then, at the age of 25, he went up Chamundi Hill on a quiet day and had an ‘awakening’. The man who returned was transformed, feeling a heightened connection and awareness with everything around him. Similar experiences followed, till finally he came to a consciousness within of his purpose.
That purpose today is the Isha Foundation, a spiritual behemoth that operates centres in 165 cities across the globe. At the core of it all is the Inner Engineering program designed to help you take charge of your life. In keeping with the rest of Sadhguru’s trainings, it’s pragmatic – they don’t call it a teaching, but a technology – and you can take the course online if you’re unable to go to a centre for the entire week, but with one caveat: the final two days need to be at one of 10 core Isha centres to be initiated into the Shambhavi Mahamudra at the heart of the program.
Expectedly, there are as many detractors as devotees but those that do believe project Sadhguru as a modern day savant, with significant emphasis on the modern. The Isha Foundation, run entirely by volunteers, treats him like god but you are assured that this is entirely voluntary. Thousands speak of their lives being transformed irrevocably. Yoga is at the core of his teachings but this is an interpretative version of yoga, such as the ‘inclusive economics’ classes for corporates to introduce a sense of compassion and inclusiveness into their lives and work.
The programmes are popular in places as wildly different as Tennessee, where Sadhguru built the gigantic Isha Institute of Inner Sciences, and Beirut, where Sadhguru commands a significant following. It’s headquarted in Coimbatore, but there are core centres in Australia, Canada, England, Singapore, Malaysia and Uganda, among others. Followers also speak of his concerted efforts on environmental and humane issues: his mahasathsangs in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, while spiritual gatherings of over 300,000 people, are also used as platforms to promote tree-plantation drives. He has launched yoga programs for life-term prisoners in Tamil Nadu. He has spoken at the UN Millennium World Peace Summit in 2001 and, for four consecutive years from 2006-2009, at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He founded Project Greenhands, a grassroots ecological initiative as well as Isha Vidhya, a rural education project. Earlier this year, he was voted among the 100 most powerful Indians for his contribution to the fields of environmental protection and ecological concerns.
The carefully-crafted multiple identities serve to keep people guessing and Sadhguru mildly amused; the duality that seems to be contradictory to many is, for others, his most appealing quality – those who see in him the promise that, for the first time, spiritual and slick aren’t at odds with each other.