Friday, November 18, 2005

The rejection of means

"Thou shalt not have other gods before me."

I was born in a so-called Sikh family. All my grandparents and both my parents were born Sikhs. The customs of Sikh culture, the ceremonies of birth, marriage and death, the akhand paaths, going to gurudwaras, doing ardaas, bowing in front of the Adi Granth, having prashad, eating langar, wishing each other Sat Sri Akal etc. were the things I went through right from childhood.

In 1980s, When I was in school, Punjab was going through its worst years of terrorism. I became an advocate myself of militant Sikh separatism, having had a facile introduction to Sikh grievances and having read some radical literature. It was a stupid, ill-thought-out and childish stance and I became a bully, and a believer in my own superiority.

That soon disappeared as I learnt the horrible things being done in the name of Sikh autonomy and when the terrorists tried to enforce Khalsa uniforms (orange turbans and black trousers) in schools, that finally made me realize the harm in violent and coercive means to freedom.

I never went in for the devout form of Sikhism anyway, in which one recites the hymns and scriptures every day for hours.


Due to the influence of my father, I also became during that time a worshipper of power, manifest in the totalitarian aspects of Soviet Union (my father considered Soviets a great success) and of Nazi Germany (which I picked up on my own). I drooled over their leaders and hungrily absorbed anything which I learnt about them and turned a blind eye to their excesses and inhuman treatment of the dissenters in their regime.

That also did not last long, for I had an episode of infatuation in my last year in school and I became the worshipper of romantic love, longing and poetry. I read poems by Kahlil Gibran, listened to sad songs of separation and became a pacifist outwardly.

I left school in 1991 and had to think of what I wanted to become in life.


As long as I can remember, I have been a technophile. I loved tinkering with equipment, especially electronic and digital devices. The next two years were spent in the happy service of science when I studied with gusto the fundamentals of mathematics, physics and chemistry. Due to my great natural interest in these subjects, I easily cleared the IIT entrance examination and was on my way to become a computer engineer, which I had always wanted to become.

At IIT, however, I faced a certain disillusionment. I found that I had little time to spend on my natural interest in computer technology and I was made to competitively study and memorize subject matters in which I had no interest.

I gave up on excelling academically in IIT and instead chose to devote my energies to becoming a computer expert, a hacker, not necessarily an expert in algorithms but an expert in the real world computing machinery.

Computers were my Gods during that period and the great programmers of the world were my heroes. I used to spend days, nights, weekends, vacations in the computing labs of IIT Delhi.

At the end of the second year, however, I took a course in logical thinking in western philosophy and found it my second nature. I also formed friendships with radical and liberal people in the institute who were not towing the establishment baggage of technological progress, of national praise and of the pursuit of wealth.

I became deeply interested in Eastern religions and started assimilating the thoughts of mystics, metaphysicians and saints from the east. I then underwent a course which was named "Science and Humanism" and it was taught by a long time practitioner of Buddhist meditation who was also a teacher of mechnical engineering at IIT and that course had a deep effect on me. I became convinced that the world was in a mess, that the solution was to change oneself fundamentally, and that the way was through awareness and meditation.

I went to the Dera Baba Jaimal Singh in Beas (also called the Radhasoami Dera) to learn about the only meditative practice widely prevalent in Punjab. My Nanaji (maternal grandparent) was an initiate in this sect but I found it the sect to be wanting in the depth of their insights. Mostly it was a rehash of scriptures from around the world.

After this, I went deep into non-regional spirituality. I underwent Buddhist meditation retreats, studied J Krishnamurti, became quiet, turned vegetarian, frugal and weak.

During the last year in college, I considered dumping all my background and becoming a small farmer in a remote village in India. But I guess that was just a youthful fantasy of inner grandeur.

I also studied modern western philosophy, including Wittgenstein, the positivists, the western mystics and the new age scientists who linked modern scientific theories with ancient spiritual insights.


After college, I seriously considered the possibility of becoming a school teacher in a school in Benares. It was a school started by J Krishnamurti to let the children and teachers evolve themselves spiritually.

I started on a pilgrimage of India. During that journey, I went for the interview in the Rajghat school in Benares, was asked to come and join, but wasn't too sure myself as I found the teachers lacking the fire of inner inquiry and the atmosphere a little stifling.

I continued my journey visiting the holy places in India. While in Chennai I received an email from a friend in the US asking if I would like to come to the US to work as a computer engineer. I thought about it a little, still warm from the advice given to me by the principal of Rishi Valley school, Radhika Herzberger, that I should earn enough money to support myself in my spiritual quest before jumping in.

I decided to go to the US, but for the next 5 months, studied all kinds of things and travelled around while waiting for my US visa.

I went to the US in February 1998.


While in the US, my spiritual quest manifested itself in dissatisfaction with my mode of living, in which I was spending most of my day in earning money by writing computer programs. The discontent kept simmering and it finally boiled over after an year and I returned to India in February 1999. For three months I went around the country once again, searching for my next phase, but didn't find anything which locked my attention. My family was also against my retirement after only one year of working and my brother needed financial support for his upcoming studies in the US, so I grudgingly went back to the US.

This time, I was there to have fun, not to save for my future. I bought a motorcycle, started touring the western US, made new friends who were into radical ways of living, attended meditation retreats, went to Canada and Mexico, took a 15-day long hippie bus tour of the entire breadth of the US, and became ready to retire from active life.

I returned to India for good in January 2001, having saved enough money for a lifetime of simple living.


I was ready to plunge deep into meditation and spirituality, and to prepare my body for the arduous journey which I knew would involve long periods of motionless sitting, I underwent a six month period of training in yoga asanas at various ashrams in India.

During this phase, I came to know of an enlightened sage in a small city in Madhya Pradesh and I went to meet him. That was to set the direction of my spiritual search.

I found him to be full of insights about the mind, its deceptions, about awareness and the fundamental problem of suffering in life. I became his disciple, and started practicing long sessions of inner awareness and silence.

However, being an independent person, I could not digest his exhortation to surrender my will to him. At times I wanted to do nothing else but give my life to him, at other moments I had grave doubts about my destiny and the way of surrender.

His basic teaching, with which I fully agreed, was that the world was an unsatisfactory plane of existence, and the consciousness which has become tied to being identified with the body is trapped in the illusion of life and death. As long as this illusion remains, suffering continues in the form of birth, life and death and rebirth in various forms.

And what was the way to detach the consciousness from the body?Awareness, being a spectator and a witness of oneself and the world rather than the doer and the enjoyer. But being the witness could only take oneself so far, ultimate release came through surrender of one's self and will to the guru.

I became passionate about love, silence and inner awareness. I became convinced that the guidance of a guru was the key ingredient in the recipe for enlightenment.

I started dissociating from the world of the senses. I changed my diet, my habits, I stopped any enjoyment of the worldly and sensory pleasures. I became austere and serious, full of love for everybody who came in contact with me. I started regarding the body as only a means to be free from the cycle of rebirth. I considered all life to be nothing but sorrow.

But my occasional enjoyment of a sunset, of a colourful bird, of a tasteful meal, of a cold bath, of an intelligent talk with someone left me with a doubt whether dissociation was really the way. I took to heart an aphorism of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj: "Whatever pleases you, holds you back." And my teacher had pointed our several times that even a pinpoint worth of worldly pleasure was enough to hold the consciousness to the body.

I was torn between the world of the senses and the world of pure love and awareness. I considered this doubt as my failing, that my mind and ego wanted to remain in this world and that it was the enemy of my enlightenment (as has been pointed out by mystics throughout the ages).

I started practicing the observation of the mind's capacity to enjoy and practiced each moment my becoming the observer instead of the enjoyer or even the doer.

But slowly and slowly, my discontent with my guru's teaching of surrender, and his retrogressive views on society and science, came to the fore and bereft of devotion, I soon found a lot of shortcomings in his thoughts, teachings and way of life. Finally I told him that I was going to leave him for a better teacher and he became withdrawn and distant. Strangely, the moment I told him that I was going to leave him, someone died in the ashram just 30 feet away from us. And as I left the ashram the next day, a great dust storm suddenly formed itself and fierce winds started blowing. Maybe it was just a coincidence but I was a little scared that I was leaving my guru and my life and countless next births would be wasted in a confused search and lost wanderings.

So three years after my initial contact with him, I came back home, not knowing what I was to do next but having confidence in my ability to get through this directionlessness and despair.

Through these years, I had already studied and rejected the more orthodox means of spiritual salvation, including idol worship, chanting, selfless work, intellection and the study of scriptures, pilgrimages, new age techniques of reiki, pranic healing, yoga, concentration, and so on.

Association with the enlightened (sat-sang), and the path of surrender (bhakti and samarpana) had also failed for me. I do think that my teacher was genuinely enlightened, and I still think that surrender is one of the easiest ways to enlightenment but I had been unable to surrender my intelligence and my independence to my guru. I was unable to love his tangible self to the point of self-forgetfulness and to love his intangible Self was not good enough for my teacher.

After a few months of despair, I again started my search. I was convinced that intelligence and awareness are the keys to becoming happy, that sheer intelligence led to intellectual games and that developing the attitude of a witness made one unable to function properly in the world.


I was searching on the internet for other people's stories and experiences after they had left their gurus and fortunately I found an extremely interesting page called the Actual Freedom website.

It was a critique of spiritual enlightenment as a valid goal and a critique of the spiritual ways and means of becoming happy and peaceful in the world. The website contained mostly the experiences of a man who called himself only Richard. He was born in Australia and had been living in spiritual enlightenment for eleven years before finally discovering that enlightenment was a delusionary state and it only led to dissociation from the world whence one finally becomes one with the so-called Absolute in an altered state of consciousness (ASC) in which the feelings of love, compassion, oneness reigned supreme.

He found that there are two false selves inside every body. The ego, which is the social identity formed after birth, and the psychic Self, which is nothing but the basic instincts and feelings forming themselves into a psychic Being or Soul. The death of the ego results in spiritual enlightenment where one is nothing but the Soul and one becomes one with the universe, and which leaves the inner Being and the instincts intact. And then he experienced the death of his soul in what he calls a prolonged Pure Consciousness Experience (PCE) which was devoid of any feeling of is-ness or Being but which was an experience of pure awareness and sensation without any identity, either as a soul or an ego.

He finally saw that enlightenment promised happiness and freedom but instead delivered only an altered state of dissociation and self-centered bliss where one considers the whole world as one's creation. He called the second state, the one in which both the ego and the Self are absent, the state of actual freedom in which one finally lives as a physical body, in this physical world, experiencing sensations and living in happiness and harmlessness. This freedom belongs in the physical world, not in a metaphysical one; that is why he called it actual freedom rather than spiritual freedom.

Going through his website, I also remembered a few episodes in my life where I had experienced a carefree happiness devoid of any self-concern and also devoid of any bliss or compassion towards the sorrow of the world.

I found his ruminations about the various aspects of human condition extremely fascinating. I had an email conversation with him about celibacy and sex in which I finally discovered the extent to which I had been trying to suppress my instinctual sexual drive with spiritual and moral codes. The instincts, I found, are not to be suppressed or transcended, they are to be obliterated altogether from the body.

And as I had the living experience of being with a dissociated enlightened master for three years, and as I had had moments of dissociation from the body myself, I could easily understand his remarks about how enlightenment failed to fundamentally transform human nature and that even after enlightenment one remains a Self intact with all the instincts and polar opposites of love and hate, of trust and suspicion, of compassion and anger, of aggression and pacifism.

I do disagree with him on some details, but fundamentally I found his insights and experiences, coupled with my own spiritual experiences, compelling and worth a dedicated and sincere effort towards actual freedom.


So I am thirty now, having traversed a whole terrain of inner evolution and struggle for meaning.

As of now, I consider only the ongoing experience of happiness, freedom and harmlessness as a valid goal for every moment that one is alive. And this freedom and happiness only results from a ceaseless awareness and investigation of one's conditioning and instincts.

These days I am happier than ever. I am no longer hankering after enlightenment with austerities and long meditation sessions and I enjoy every living moment of my life.


Suraj said...

Beautiful experiences, you've had. I didn't know about your sikh extremism parts though. Actual freedom and your 'cool' attitude is something I would cherish having learnt for the rest of my life :)

samar said...

May be you can check the book(travalogue) by Paul Brunton(search in secret india)... ..

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Radhika Herzberger is the Director, and not Principal of Rishi Valley. She's a great person.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I've been looking into AF recently and even started practicing. I still wonder "how long" it would take for a meditation/concentration-less approach like this (after all, many AF-ers have developed some decent concentration skills to help in their AF practice?).

You didn't write about your 8 years of Vipassana in this post?

What are the details on which you disagree with Richard?

Anonymous said...

Harmanjit, Good job on your blog.
I am sure you must have learned more from the responses since you opened the blog.
Atleast some minds might have started thinking after coming to your blog. surely you have ticked the wrong buttons of some of the guru's :).

do contact me if you need some more real stories of gurus you have monetioned. This gurudom funda has been successful with lot criminals and they are portraying as guru's saints bapus of india. What makes me laugh is the kind of names they choose for themselves so people can be influenced under their disguise. I have done lot of research on some of these guru's over last 15 years.

Looking forward to talk to you soon.

Anonymous said...

Hi Harmanjit,

Let me start by introducing myself...My name is Sumit Sabharwal, I am Tarun Upadhayay's bro-in law....

I was sent the link to your Vipassana Critique today, after i told my sister that i have signed up for my first retreat...I enjoyed reading the same, so was generally browsing thru your blog...I must say, this article is inspirational!!

Your blog has a wealth of knowledge and has already been added to my favourites!

Looking forward to reading and learning a lot more here..


Anonymous said...

I only feel sorry for you.Going around in circles.Narcisstic.Go back to technology.Write a great program.Thats no worse than any meditation. A PSALM OF LIFE

Tell me not in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou are, to dust thou returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow
Find us farther than today.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world's broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, - act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o'erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sand of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solenm main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

HW Longfellow


Anonymous said...

You must never think that any of the eighty thousand sacred teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha’s lifetime or any of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas of the ten directions and three existences are outside yourself. Your practice of the Buddhist teachings will not relieve you of the sufferings of birth and death in the least unless you perceive the true nature of your life. If you seek enlightenment outside yourself, then your performing even ten thousand practices and ten thousand good deeds will be in vain. It is like the case of a poor man who spends night and day counting his neighbor’s wealth but gains not even half a coin. That is why the T’ien-t’ai school’s commentary states, “Unless

Shakti_Shetty said...

I can relate a lot to this life-article of yours... loved every bit of it.. the traveling part was the most enticing one for me... having the opportunity and luck to travel...see a nation on bike.. beautiful! ... the endless pursuit of happiness that ends at the very place it shoot off.. Home!

Happy Homecoming to you.. enjoy the best of it..and keep writing... my best wishes for you.