A conversation with Mr Ashok Kapoor
Mr Ashok Kapoor is an investment banker and has a MBA and a PhD in Economics. He has taught and written on Economics and now lives with his wife Susan in Princeton, NJ, USA. He was kind enough to review some portions of my upcoming book and below you find excerpts of his interview of mine on 01-Sep-13 at the residence of Dr Meena Murthy.
Ashok: I am broadly aware of what you have done and have great admiration for it. I also had a chance to read the introductory excerpt of your upcoming book. I will like to raise some broad questions to you and then share some of our observations. As a former professor I have written a lot and share a sense of what you are wishing to do. My first question: if you are speaking with a ten-year old child, the example that you gave in your chapter of doing the rounds in the Ob-Gyn ward, the senior physician identified you and encouraged you to do, and you said we must understand the whole person – how a brief moment can have a subsequent impact on one’s entire life. If this 10-year-old turns to you and asks why have you done what you have done, what would your answer be?
Balu: My honest answer would be that I felt it was my calling. Two years earlier to that, I had no intention of doing that in my life. My only dream was to come to the USA and this seemed the most logical career path for a person whose both siblings lived in North America. What changed was my introduction to Swami Vivekananda and his philosophy. It sounds like a divine providence, it was meant to be. I was at an impressionable age and you are inspired to do something different. Vivekananda’s works gave me purpose in my life. To me his work was very powerful, it was very action-oriented. Once your read Swamiji and his works, not only does your life change but you also feel an enormous sense of courage in your convictions and a sense of obligation to make a difference in your life. With this type of preparation, when this incident in the Ob-Gyn ward happened, I felt that life would be worthless if I didn’t speak up.
Ashok: To continue with that illustration. It’s like a farmer has a field and there are all sorts of soil conditions. You need to have the right combination to grow. There are many people who have read the same message, so what was the unique aspect of you that made you respond the way you did.
Balu: I don’t think it was about me. From my cultural background, it is easy for me to rationalize that this is simply the way it was to be. I would call it my Karma. I might look special, but I don’t think it was anything in me that was special. It was years of preparation, not just those two years. I feel that every person has their own way of preparing themselves. What we see is what our mind can rationalize, what we don’t see is the many years of preparatory work that goes into that. Not just of one lifetime, but may be many lifetimes.
Ashok: Would you say then that you were unique?
Balu: I wouldn’t say that I was unique. May be I had a unique perspective of the work I was reading. May be it was also the age I was reading it. You are searching for role models, things you want to imitate. Suddenly Vivekananda’s life and the practicality of his message was what I wanted to imitate. What I saw in him was what my mind was comfortable in absorbing. I saw the message of living for others the most comfortable one. May be now I can interpret it more deeply but even then it is mainly that I want to live for others.
Ashok: There is a very famous social anthropologist, Joseph Gamble, who said that many of his students would come to him and talk to him about what should they do and what should they pursue as a career. He would answer, “I can’t tell you that but do something where you follow your bliss”. And you obviously discovered your bliss at that moment and over your lifetime. In your opinion, when you have so many people who can both benefit from your voyage of discovery and journey of what you have done, what would say are the one or two important lessons that others can pick up?
Balu: In many of the Leadership Workshops that I run around India and the US, I ask people that if in this moment of time, if God were to appear in front of you and say I will give you what you want, but you must die for it, what would that be? Very few people have an answer to that question. I think in my life, I found an answer. If you haven’t figured out what you are ready to die for, you haven’t figured out what you are ready to live for. I think at that point I was ready to die for others, so that meant I had to find a way to live for others.
Ashok: So these twenty or so workshops a year, and you very seldom found people who could answer that question, why do you think that is so?
Balu: I think people don’t have the courage to look at the question and look inside themselves for the answer. We are always looking outside ourselves for the answer. They are afraid of finding the answer they might get and face the reality that life has no meaning for the way you are leading it today. This takes a lot of courage, isn’t it?
Ashok: The answers lie within you, not externally. Very few people want to find out what the answers are. Why is that?
Balu: They are frightened of the answer. You are essentially questioning the purpose of your existence and people are nervous operating from zones of incompetence. I don’t think we prepare our children to work from these zones. People don’t feel prepared for that, and so they are uncomfortable doing so. They are trained to master the external world. I was fortunate to have a spiritual mentor in a monk called Swami Achalananda, who challenged me to answer these questions. Since we aren’t trained, we only do what we are comfortable with.
Ashok: What you are really highlighting is that there is a total system where the focus is not necessarily to look within themselves. But for those who can and those who have the unique purpose where the message can resonate internally, discovery of the bliss doesn’t necessarily mean blissful. It can be a very hard path. It is not so much that there is comfort but that you are comfortable with this path. You go with the grain, not against it. Were there ever moments where you ever had your faith tested?
Balu: I wish I had finished the book now. I don’t want to make it look like I found the answers to all my questions within myself. I only mean that I have to come to terms with my defects and human frailties. When I have had my doubts and lost my path and had my faith challenged, I found a lot of solutions and answers in Vivekananda’s works. Throughout Swamiji’s works and in the Bhagawad Gita, what your hear is ‘Don’t take what we say for granted. Try it out. If it works then keep it for yourself, if it doesn’t then throw it away.’ I enjoyed that freedom. There is a constant evolutionary process of inner growth. The deeper you go, the clearer things become but there is still more. For example, maturation seems too final to me. I had a very physical way of testing it, I was living in a small room in our school campus abutting the forest. I had returned late from a visit to Mysore city and had diarrhea, and needed to reach the water pump. I had to go through a wilderness patch in the dark with snakes and everything. I was so tired; I thought what I am doing here? It is times like this when you question your faith. That night, I thought about my situation. I think essentially a weak body also translates as a weak mind. Those experiences were extremely important to me since they became referencing benchmarks. The more difficult part is the non-physical part. I lost my way due to adulation and praise and credibility about my work, and you get carried away and start believing that you must be great. I think getting lost at the ego level is a bigger danger than the physical dangers. That things should be all about me rather than my work was dangerous. On the one side I hated myself but I also knew it was the fuel for my life now. I was disgusted with myself. This kind of work without a strong spiritual platform is very dangerous for one to perform.
Ashok: What would you regard to be your failure?
Balu: From a leadership perspective, I think allowing the people I was serving to become dependent on me was my biggest failure. Development work was all about empowering others, and I never understood it. I ended up doing the opposite, creating a system where I built people who would depend on the organization rather than empowering themselves. If I could live my life again, I would consciously build others instead of myself. The second failure I see personally is with the type of background I have, I think I took too long to come to terms with my own insecurities. May be it was meant to be this way.
Ashok: There is so much that you have captured in your remarks, and the way in which it can benefit a lot of other people. The challenge really is that you come from a normal middle class family in India, by serendipity you discovered all that, but there was something that resonated in you. What do you think are the one, or two, or three, important but simple lessons of your voyage of bliss that can be communicated to others?
Balu: To me, to be very simplistic, life is actually very short. It is worth living it only if you give it up to something greater than us. All of us make a life for ourselves; that’s not special. Every opportunity to make a difference to somebody, just do it. You don’t have to give up mainstream life and live in the forest. I for long led a life that others simply couldn’t lead, but somewhere it dawned on me that its hard being Gandhi, he is not imitable. What the world needs is a Gandhi in all of us. It is in being extremely ordinary that we can live the life we want while still helping others. A constant reflective life…without reflections we simply don’t go deep enough. We all need to find our own answers through reflection and diving deep within.
Ashok: You know what you just said, “a life that is lived without reflection is a shadow of life.” It reminds me of our son-in-law who is a lawyer. He works in the area of Waterloo, he was telling us the story of an older lawyer who yearns for the days when he would receive an inquiry letter from a client. He would think for two days and write a response. Today it is all e-mail and you are supposed to read and respond right away. When we look at cultures of societies around the world, we try to understand what are the characteristics of different cultures where I can get a more simplistic idea of what is normal and reasonable time in those cultures. The reflective part…internet time has different norm to it, that basic human dimension, not altered by internet time, is still seeking that reflection. My brother-in-law, a priest, gave me a definition of spiritual. Spiritual means living for something that is far greater than yourself. Thank you for sharing all that you did.