Lessons from auto driver Arumugam

Last week, my wife Bindu and I had been to Mayiladuthurai, a buzzling, crowded town on the banks of the river Cauvery in Tamil Nadu to attend a wedding. Getting off the train that is reputed to be late most of the times, we took an auto to get to a Hotel that was not too far away. Though I was startled at the high fare quoted by the auto driver, we decided to take it as the price one pays to have a quick shower and rid oneself of the tiredness of an overnight journey in a ‘not-so-clean’ railway compartment. As we drove along, I picked up a conversation with the elderly auto driver. The small talk revolved around the weather, the upcoming Diwali festival and we slowly graduated to my question of the fare being on the higher side. What inspired me was his honest answer. He mentioned that it was not every day that he is able to charge more than the normal fare, nor does he have a need to do so. With Diwali being around the corner, he felt that he needed the extra money to give himself and his wife a good Diwali. He told me about his life’s journey and how he had begun to start driving an auto more than forty years ago. Not having a good education meant that this was the only vocation that he could start off on. He had two sons and he had made sure that they got a good education. Both of them were engineers and were employed in well-paying jobs in Delhi and Chennai. While he was proud of them, he had not let their monetary support stop him from earning his livelihood. He was quietly putting away all the money that they sent him to be left behind for their use after his passing. He was afraid that if he retired, it would mean an emotional and a physical death and was determined to continue to drive his auto, earn his livelihood and be financially independent. His only regret in life was in not fathering a daughter. In his own simple way, he described how his wife was not just a wonderful home maker, a great mother, a loving wife but continued to be an extraordinary daughter to her parents even after so many years of marriage. And he felt that he would miss that kind of selfless love that he had hoped to receive from a daughter.

While his life may not sound different from that of several others, he let me know that most auto drivers in the city earned as much as he did. But very few of them had moved up the social or economic ladder. His simple explanation was that one’s skills may enable one to earn money, but it was one’s habits that ensured what you did with the money. He counted himself fortunate that his upbringing and his wife’s influence ensured that he invested the money he earned on his children’s education, while most of his fellow rickshaw drivers spent it on tobacco and alcohol. While his own happiness grew, he felt that his friends only built their indebtedness and misery. Living a disciplined and determined life was his recipe for success. This by itself is neither a novel or paradigm shifting message. What made Arumugam (that was his name) different was the quite sense of inner peace and contentment that he displayed as he went about narrating his life’s journey. There was neither a sense of arrogant attainment nor a sense of inadequacy in his demeanor or words. All that was there was a sense of equanimity that many of us keep aspiring for. The message of simplicity, transparency, discipline, self-esteem, pride, determined optimism, respect (for his wife) and concern (for friends & colleagues) was something that he had so well packaged for me in this 10-minute conversation. Something that I felt no classroom-based university education could ever give me.

Pilgrimage to Ridgley Manor,USA

A few years ago, Vish a friend who had lived for a long period in the US and had come back to resettle in Mysuru and I were talking about Swami Vivekananda and how his message had inspired me. Our talk drifted to how Swamiji was a tireless worker and how so much was done by him in such a short time. We started talking how the Vedanta Society in New York was established by Swamiji in 1894 even before he set up the Ramakrishna Math in Belur. Vish suddenly asked me if I had visited the Ridgley Manor in the state of New York, a place that Swami Vivekananda had visited in April 1894.


          The entrance to the Retreat                                The Manor house

Ridgley Manor was the farm house that Francis Legget (husband of Betty McLeod and the brother-in-law of Josephine MacLeod) had built in Stone Ridge, a few hours’ drive from the city of New York. While I had read all about how Swamiji had visited this place three times and how he had once spent 10 weeks recuperating here, I had not known that the property was now in the possession of the Ramakrishna Math and they had made this into a Retreat Center. Since this little discussion, I have always been wanting to visit this place every time I visited the USA but could never do so. I had mentioned this to Arun Karpur (a good friend and someone who has taken on the role of ensuring that I have a comfortable and safe stay in the US every time I come) and he too was excited and wanted to join me. We had been planning on this trip for over three years now and could make it only this year. The two days (Sept 29 & 30, 2018) spent here is something that I will cherish and remember for the rest of my life.

With Arun

With Arun on the porch on which Swamiji was photographed (see photo collection below)

This place is also special because three direct disciples of Bhagwan Ramakrishna spent time together – Swami Vivekananda, Swami Turiyananda and Swami Abhedanananda.

Swamiji's visit

Sister Nivedita too visited this place and stayed during one of the visits of the Swamiji. All this and more can be read in the wonderful journey of Swami Vivekananda captured by Marie Louise Burke (Sister Gargi) in the chapter “The Great Summer,” which is a part of the fifth volume of the six volume work SWAMI VIVEKANANDA IN THE WEST: NEW DISCOVERIES.


The couch that Swamiji liked to take his rest and the bed used by him

Visiting this place and reliving the moments, thinking how it must have been then transported me to another dimension. The place is one endless stream of holy vibration and one can only experience it. Words are surely inadequate to describe what I went thru on those two days. Seeing the couch that Swamiji used to sit on, the bed that he slept in, the room that he stayed in and more than anything – his favourite spot for mediation.

Meditation site Oak

Swamiji loved meditating under a large oak tree (the original tree is no longer there, but another one exists in its place) and this spot has been carefully preserved. Meditating on the same spot was and will continue to remain a life-changing experience for me.

All this might seem emotive and sentimental, but for someone whose entire life and existence is driven by the energy and inspiration drawn from Swami Vivekananda, this visit is life-giving. Spending time in a place where you can feel and perceive Swamiji’s presence – this was my way of re-charging not just my spirits but also reaffirming to myself the purpose of my existence.


Remembering the Mahatma today – An article that appeared in today’s Vijaya Karnataka, 2nd Oct 2018

Vij Kar Oct 2 2018 Gandhi

Read the English version of this article here…

The entire nation will be celebrating the whole of this coming year remembering Mahatma Gandhi as part of his 150 birth anniversary celebrations. For many like me born in independent India, Gandhi and his life were introduced to us as part of our school curriculum. To us, he was the ‘father of the nation’ whose birthday we celebrated each year and remembered him for securing us our freedom from the British. This limited view of Gandhi is what I carried for a long time till I began to understand him, his life and his message a little deeper.

My life’s work in the space of human development, especially among the indigenous tribals of Mysuru district was inspired by the transformational message of Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi. If Swami Vivekananda asked the youth of India to have Seva (service) and Tyaga (Sacrifice) as our National ideals, it was the message of Ahimsa (non-violence) and Satya  (Truth)that attracted me to Gandhi. I saw in him someone more than the freedom fighter that my teachers had described him as. He was a politician, a strategist, a philosopher a humanist, a spiritual seeker, a scientist, a shrewd manager, a difficult husband & father, a social worker, an activist, a saint and a patriot all rolled into one. It was difficult for someone like me to comprehend the magnitude of his life, his personality and the fact that he meant so much to so many different people. Einstein’s words that people in the future would scarcely believe that such a person in flesh and blood walked upon this earth, resonated with me.

For Gandhi, the ideals of Ahimsa and Satya were not something borrowed from the scriptural wisdom of ancient India. For him, practice of these values was spiritual sadhana on the one hand and political action on the other. The shrewd strategist that he was, he fashioned the practice of them into powerful weapons to be used in his fight against the British. Gandhi’s demanding expression of these ideals that he believed in, made him someone that one could easily admire but rarely imitate. He redefined political morality and public probity to such high standards, that the politicians of today pale in comparison to what he stood for. Gandhi believed that morality was not a fancy aspiration but an essential ingredient for the exercise of political leadership.

For Gandhi, human existence was an extraordinary opportunity not to be wasted in ordinary pursuits. Seeking God was the very purpose of such an existence and he uniquely transformed his own personal spiritual journey into a quest for societal progress. Gandhi understood that ‘man’ was the building block of society and ensuring a value driven existence at the personal level will necessarily transform into a healthy society. He used symbolism to very powerful effect in communicating the centrality of this message. Whether it was Charaka (spinning wheel) & home spun khadi, natural medicine, his concepts of need vs greed, his food habits or daily tasks reflecting self-reliance – he ensured that one needed to start with oneself before expecting any major social transformation. Today, all that we are left with are the symbols bereft of the philosophical message that Gandhi gave us.

Gandhiji intelligently addressed the issue of inspiring people to engage in social upliftment and national reconstruction. His famous quote ‘The best way to find oneself is to lose yourself in the service of others’ wonderfully captures this intent of his. To the more discerning, he made living for ‘others’ a ‘spiritual pursuit’. The transience of human achievement and the impermanence of material wealth were of critical consideration to this thinking. What he attempted to demonstrate by his lifestyle was to show us a higher reason to live and a higher state to reach within the limitations and boundaries of a human existence. He has, in very simple terms given us a higher ideal to strive for and in this striving he found answers to the material problems of the suffering millions too. In doing so, he had assured us that an indomitable power would come to us and we will be able to throw away all our concerns for ourselves and place ourselves as servants of society and use our inner energy and will to transcend the problems of our human brethren.

Gandhi believed that poverty was the worst form of violence and wanted the person in the last mile to participate in the economic well-being of the nation. When we are celebrating India’s growth story, we need to understand that our dream for India should not be mere 8% growth alone, but development that is inclusive, participatory and encompasses India’s rural areas. Without romanticizing Gandhi, we need to understand how rural India has been left out of our growth story and how the Indian economy today has become urban-centric and urban driven. While Gandhian cottage industry has lost much of its relevance, his economic beliefs in ‘small being beautiful’ has not. We now need to integrate his thoughts in making sure that the toiling millions are not left out of the economic bandwagon. His ideas of micro-enterprises need to see the light of the day as Rural Social Business units that are driven by the land based economy. Beyond mere economic growth and creating jobs & business ownership, such enterprises will also ensure improved social status of rural communities, reduce urban migration and enhance the quality of life in rural areas in line with what Gandhi had hoped.

Another oft repeated cliché in today’s India is ‘Satyagraha’ (a form of non-violent protest made popular by Gandhi who used it as a political tool in his fight for independence) and many have started equating common street protests and narrow political dissents to one of Gandhi’s most powerful methods. The essential difference is that Gandhi based his Satyagraha on a spiritual platform and never saw it as an instrument of blackmail or manipulation. Gandhi saw it as a demanding responsibility and not mere sloganeering or waving the National flag. He saw it as a means of moral transformation and self-purification. In Gandhi’s views, a true satyagrahi lived his values deep from within and displayed no hatred or dislike towards any person or system. All that the Satyagrahi has is a deep and engaging love for truth and keeps expressing his views till he can achieve his intended end by not just peaceful means but also by constant self-analysis of his methods and actions. In the Gandhian understanding of peaceful non-violence, there was no space for self-aggrandizement or for the theatrics that we keep seeing in the public arena today. Gandhi was clear in not just the meaning but also the spirit of ‘Satyagraha’ and was always conscious that ‘Satya’ and ‘Aagraha’ went together.

Celebrating 150 years is the time for us to go beyond mere intellectualization of Gandhi and his message or building a Swacch Bharat (Clean India Campaign). Keeping aside petty political debates over who are the natural inheritors of his philosophy, it is time for our politicians and people to pause and reflect on what made Gandhi, the Mahatma. We need to be constantly aware of our commitment to love, peace, non-violence and truth on an individual level and strive to live it in all small actions that we perform. Living his message on a daily basis for all our lives is the only way to realize the India of Gandhi’s dreams. And that can happen only when we awaken the Mahatma in each one of us.


From here and there…

Many a friend has asked me about my regular visits to the US and about the teaching I do here. One oft repeated question has been, ‘What are the major similarities & differences that you see between the two countries? ‘ And knowing my background, another question usually asked is about my continued commitment to the causes I espouse back home in India and how it relates to my visiting the US?

India, as Swami Vivekananda put it is the Punyabhumi (holy land) and the Karmabhumi (land of one’s work) for me. The last 35 years has seen me live and work amidst the most challenging circumstances in the area abutting the Bandipur Tiger Reserve; spend the last few years in Mysuru engaging in Leadership training and Policy Research; and teach & train on Leadership around the world including the USA. It has seen me found two non-profits and one of them has grown to be one of India’s largest and well-known development organizations and the other is creating its own name in the area of participatory research & citizen centric policy advocacy. India has not just been home to me and has laid the foundation for my way of thinking but has given me the very purpose for my existence. To me India, or if I were to relate emotionally, ‘Bharat’ – is a land rich in civilizational history. It has taught me to be a Hindu in its truest interpretation – someone who lives embracing the whole world as one and constantly tries to see God in everything and everyone. It is this spirit of Hinduism that has given me the understanding of not just tolerance but that of universal acceptance – of religions, ideas, ideologies and countries – with all their differences and similarities. It is the Indian thought and ethos that has given me the ability to see ‘separateness in togetherness’ & ‘togetherness in separateness’. It is these thoughts that help me not just embrace Global citizenship but continually give me the energy to live and spread the message of ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakam’ (the world is one family). Growing up in a typical Indian middle-class family gave me the values that helps me be flexible but yet grounded. It has taught me to be resilient in moments of distress & crisis while not rejoicing or getting overwhelmed with emotion when things go one’s way. The spirit of collectivism which is embedded in the National identity has helped shape my character and served as the foundation of my organizational work. And my source of strength comes from one of India’s greatest sons – Swami Vivekananda, but for whose life and message, mine would have not been worth living. It is from his message that I draw inspiration for all that I have done and continue to do. Whether it was the journey of finding myself in the service of others, in the idea of my building organizations or my economic thought, my social change theories or my views on human development – they all are expressions of this message of Swami Vivekananda. It is his message of reciprocity & interdependence that led me to explore what India has to offer to the world and what India could also receive from the World. This is what has led me to some of the things I am doing today – whether it is crafting leadership training and curriculum driven by the message of the Gita or our Upanishads; teaching in Ivy leagues or training Corporate leaders from around the world. For it is my belief that the world can be made into a better place only by extraordinary people who take it on themselves to exercise the kind of leadership that goes beyond the SELF and is willing not just to focus on ‘external nature’ but also look inwards into our own ‘internal nature’.

It is this conviction that is now driving me to visit several countries and the most visited is the United States. I find that the USA is still a country where we can find several similarities in terms of what India stands for and is challenged by in today’s current reality. Whether it is the spirit of democratic governance or that of ‘voice’ and its expression; the constant search for meaning amidst the rush for material comforts; or the struggle for balancing human development and the state of the environment…we have a lot to give and learn from each other. Swami Vivekananda always maintained that we need to learn practical everyday management from the West while giving them our Vedantic knowledge. While much of this continues to be true even today, I feel that we have a lot to offer in terms of leadership knowledge while at the same time looking for what we can learn from here. Though I have been coming here for more than 3 decades, I have never stopped being fascinated by the ‘eye for detail’ that people have when they are executing projects. Whether it is elaborate planning, meticulous execution or timely evaluation – I have been impressed by how and why they do all this. Though people here are trained to be self-led individuals, one cannot but be impressed by the spirit of community action that pervades. Whether it is the number of non-profits or the philanthropy that ordinary people indulge in or participating in several civic events voluntarily, or the love & warmth that generally pervades – we do have a lot to learn from all this. Whether it is dignity of labour, or the spirit of enterprise or the quest for perfection and the levels of trust in society, the way natural beauty & resources are preserved and conserved – it is up to us to pick what we want to learn from.

While every country and civilization have its own share of ‘historical & ideological garbage’ and problems, it is up to us to focus on the positive and explore what mutual learnings each one has to bring to the table. It is always easy to criticize and blame, explain away why the ‘other’ is different and should not exist; why everyone needs to be & think like us’ to make things better – but finally we need to remember that we need to find ways to bring people together, not discover means to separate them every day and in everything that we do. Global citizenship can no longer by the cliché that it has now come to become; it has to be a way of life. And my conviction is that there are two countries that can make this happen – India and the USA – working together and crafting the narrative for this globally. It is when people & leaders from these two countries learn to see beyond their differences and come together with the common purpose of making lives better – not just for their citizens but for everyone on this planet – can we hope to find  peace & harmony, make development sustainable, reduce inequality & make  poverty obsolete and create all that is good & wonderful for all of us.


US launch of ‘Voices from the Grassroots’

The US launch of ‘Voices from the Grassroots’ will happen on the 26th of September at the ILR school, Cornell University, USA.  Cornell had also hosted the launch of my earlier book, ‘i, the citizen’ in 2015 and this can be viewed at ITC launch in US.  Incidentally, Cornell University Press has also published the Global edition of this book.

US Book release

Launch of my 6th book, ‘Voices from the Grassroots’

Writing a book is indeed a long drawn, at times painful and at most times a very fulfilling event. My 6th book ‘Voices from the Grassroots’ took a few years in the making. From being disparate blog articles written on the spur of the moment to stringing them all together took time. This would not have been possible without the support and constant push that I got from two of my interns – two people who worked with me for nearly a year. Somya Bajaj (now doing her Masters in Public Policy in Princeton) and Shwetha (now a researcher in Azim Premji University) did the initial work of curating and collating the articles. Shwetha also did the first round of editing and helped me shape the first draft of the manuscript. Several friends helped in the editing – from my wife Bindu, my sister-in-law Ms Vidya, Dr (Brig) Rajan, Sampath, Sangeeta Menon, Prof Govind Sharma, Lijo Chacko, Mahesh Jambardi and several others. Each person had a view and gave some very valuable inputs which have been integrated into the final book. It was also read by several students and people representing other potential reader groups and their inputs were factored in too.

The book was possible only because of the people whom I learnt from and have written about in this and my earlier book. Writing the various anecdotes was the first step. Filling in the emotions that I had experienced was something that words would not do adequate justice to. And that is when we thought about simple sketches to capture them. The soul of the book are in these sketches and they were drawn by two young people – Manasa Rao and her cousin Dashar.

My earlier experience of crowd sourcing the funds for ‘i, the citizen’ gave me the confidence to do the same for this book too. Again the support from friends and well wishers was more than encouraging. We had collected enough money to run the first print of 4000 copies. What was special for this book was the fact that the tribal women entrepreneurs of the Ragi products unit in Jaganakotehadi tribal colony also contributed their mite The book now had to go thru the design and the layout. This is where Rohit Shetti and his friend Deepak Mote worked their magic. Rohit always set high standards in everything that he did and it is reflected in this book too. The book was finally print ready.

Now that the book was ready, all that remained was the printing and the formal launch. I was keen on getting a printer who saw this not as just another job to execute but as a work of art. Sampath, a enterprising young man delivered on this without compromising on either the quality or renegotiating the deadline agreed to.


The launch was an event that I will always cherish. The former Prime Minister, Shri H D Devegowda couldn’t make it due to the ongoing parliament session, and the book was launched by Dr K Kasturirangan who also spoke eloquently about the book. Bhaskar Bhat, the MD of Titan Company Ltd was the guest of honour and Justice M N Venkatachaliah, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India presided over the function. All their speeches were touching and was uniformly appreciated by the very enlightened audience who had assembled. All in all, it was a memorable day and the event felt more like a ‘Satsang’ than a book launch. The video of the Bengaluru launch event can be seen here.

The launch of the book in Mysuru is now scheduled for the 14th of August at Windchimes and the entire event is sponsored by S K Sanjay who insisted that we have it in his place. Niranjana Vanalli, a well known writer and professor of journalism at the University of Mysuru and R Guru, the Chairman of NR Group will be the guests for the event. I also take this opportunity to invite all friends and well wishers to attend this event too and make us re-live the special warmth and joy that we experienced at Bengaluru.