THE EARLY YEARS
He made new friends in a bustling place
Who thought he was such fun.
But how could they have known
When days melted into years,
He would become the exalted one.
In 1955, Gurudev moved into his tayaji’s (paternal uncle) house in Shahdara, Old Delhi. Unwilling to be a burden on his relatives, he did odd jobs like selling pens and toffees and working as a bus conductor to be self-reliant. Gurudev would also volunteer for laborious household chores to repay the debt of gratitude he owed his uncle’s family. He would often carry sacks of grains weighing 15-20 kg on his back to the grinding mill. Even when the weight became difficult to bear, he would keep chanting his mantras and soldier on.
Throughout his life, Gurudev worked conscientiously to repay his karmic debts. The hard manual labour that he undertook willingly for his uncle’s family was a means to this end. It is believed he stopped consuming food paid for by others in his late teens. He would regularly cook his meal–a simple combination of a vegetable, some jaggery and roti (Indian bread)–to avoid incurring obligations.
The consumption of salt and cereal obligates the consumer to the person who has paid for the salt and cereal. Specifically, when salt is consumed, it spreads to every vessel in the body, thereby amplifying the degree of obligation. As part of a customized spiritual curriculum, Gurudev also advised some of his disciples to refrain from consuming salt and cereals paid for by others.
One morning, as he strolled in the neighbourhood, Gurudev saw an older woman trying unsuccessfully to milk her cow. He offered to help her. When he gently tapped the cow a few times, it started giving milk. Thereafter, Gurudev became the lady’s good luck charm whose help was sought every time the cow needed milking. During a casual conversation, the lady inquired about where Gurudev was studying. He informed her that as he was new to the city, he didn’t know anyone who could guide him on matters academic. So, he was biding his time doing little of consequence. On hearing this, she asked him to meet her husband for guidance. Her husband turned out to be the principal of PUSA Institute. And it was on his suggestion that Gurudev enrolled in a 2-year technical course at the Bharat Sevak Samaj (BSS), a development agency set up by the Government of India. On completing the course, Gurudev joined the All India Soil and Land Use Survey, The Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), PUSA, under the Ministry of Agriculture, as a soil-surveyor in 1958. He was 20 years old when he received his first salary of Rs 150.
One of the first people Gurudev befriended at work was a young man named Kishanlal Nagpal whom Gurudev fondly called Naaga. Destiny dealt Nagpal ji a benevolent hand when an inadvertent error led to his employment in the same department as Gurudev. Nagpal ji had filed his job application as ‘K.L. Nagpal’. Unbeknown to him, the son of an influential politician with the same initials and surname was vying for the same job. At the time of job allocation, the department officials incorrectly assumed that Nagpal ji was the politician’s son and hired him for the job, thereby setting the stage for Nagpal ji’s introduction to the man who was destined to change his life.
These incidents were a few among many coincidences designed to be pieces in an intricate jigsaw puzzle of the graphic that was Gurudev!
When Gurudev needed a place to stay, he asked Nagpal ji if he could move into the latter’s apartment. Nagpal ji lived with his friend and landlord, Dwarkanath ji, an employee of the Central Works Department (CWD), in a tiny 120 sq. ft. room located in the bustling enclave of Paharganj in Delhi. Dwarkanath ji insisted on meeting Gurudev to gauge if he would make a suitable roommate. A few minutes into the eventful meeting, Dwarknath ji felt an instant connection to the young man sitting in front of him. He recalled, “When I first started talking to Gurudev, I was very impressed. He was intelligent and understood everything. He was wonderful to talk to, and I felt our temperaments were in sync. So, I agreed and we started staying together.” An arrangement was reached where they would contribute an amount of Rs. 30 towards a monthly mess fund.
Gurudev lived as frugally as his meager income allowed him to. Since his job took him to remote places where he would often cook for himself, Gurudev had honed his culinary skills. The three friends would eat plain parathas (Indian bread) made by Gurudev or Nagpal ji for breakfast and lunch. Sometimes, they treated themselves to a dinner of pakoras (Indian snacks) from a dhaba (roadside restaurant) near their apartment. However, on most nights, dinner was a simple mixture of some dal (lentils), curd, and rice mixed with leftovers from the previous night.
Gurudev was a man of simple pleasures. Every weekend, he would make plans with his roommates to visit sites in and around Delhi. Being a cinephile, he liked watching late-night movie shows of the latest releases at Sheela or Khanna Cinema. While Nagpal ji was always game for a celluloid adventure, Dwarkanath ji had to be coaxed into accompanying his friends to the theatre. Being an early riser, Dwarkanath ji would invariably fall asleep during the movie. Gurudev found a novel solution for this quandary. Dwarkanath ji was forced to sit between Gurudev and Nagpal ji, so that he could be pinched awake from both sides if sleep beckoned!
Gurudev (R) and his friends Nagpal ji (L) and Dwarkanath ji (M) shown at the Qutab Minar, Delhi
Besides inventing unorthodox methods of keeping people awake, Gurudev’s sense of humour would leave everyone in splits. He would delight his friends with spot-on impressions of people they knew and amusing anecdotes of some they didn’t. People loved being in his company, so much so that Dwarkanath ji’s elder brother would insist on visiting his younger sibling only when Gurudev was present.
The easy camaraderie that Gurudev, Dwarkanath ji and Nagpal ji shared was infectious. Soon, Jain Saheb, a colleague, and a neighbour named Kundanlal Sahani, also joined in the fun. The quintet spent their evenings at Dwarkanath ji’s tiny apartment eating pakoras and partaking in the bonhomie. Whenever they were in the mood to hear the soulful voices of Lata, Mukesh and Rafi, Gurudev’s magic touch would come to the rescue. Dwarkanath ji owned an old radio that refused to work. But whenever Gurudev would tap the relic’s rusting body, it would start to play to the bemusement of his friends.
Gurudev exuded such warmth that Kundanlal ji and Dwarkanth ji would leave work to spend time with him at his camps in Himachal Pradesh. Gurudev went the extra mile as a host to ensure his guests were well looked after. The recreational activities at the camp were chess or card games which Gurudev always won. Sensing that lady luck had taken a shine to Gurudev, his colleagues would request him to play on their behalf. He willingly did, turning tides in their favour. However, after becoming a Mahaguru, Gurudev became anti-gambling and anti-betting.
Being an extremely generous man, Gurudev didn’t think twice before extending a helping hand to people. However, his kindness was often taken advantage of. When Dwarknath ji pointed this out, Gurudev said, “I am aware of that. But when someone asks me for help, I cannot refuse them no matter what his or her intention maybe.”
Despite the exuberant exterior, Gurudev’s spiritual inclinations were evident to his roommates who woke up in the middle of the night to find him meditating under a blanket. Dwarkanth ji also remembered other incidents that reaffirmed that Gurudev wasn’t an ordinary man.
As Dwarkanath ji and Nagpal ji were believers in Shiv, they would force Gurudev to accompany them on visits to a Shiv temple situated close to their apartment. While they would enter the temple to pay their respects, Gurudev would insist on waiting outside. His roommates found this odd as they knew the mantras Gurudev chanted were Shiv-mantras.
I found the answer to why Gurudev never entered temples through personal experience. While Gurudev and I waited to board a train to Delhi at a station in Bina, Madhya Pradesh, I was overcome by a wave of spiritual overenthusiasm and the buffoonery of sheer dogmatism. Even though Gurudev sat right next to me, I decided to light a diya (oil lamp) to honour him at a small roadside temple under a tree nearby. As I lit the flame, my body convulsed because I had involuntarily magnetized the power of the little temple within me. Had it been a bigger temple, I may have grown steeples on my head! Gurudev probably felt a sense of ownership of the Shiv temples and did not want to magnetize their energy and hurt their energy-balance.
Dwarkanath ji also observed whatever Gurudev would predict would come true. As he and Nagpal ji hailed from Agra, they decided to take a day trip to the city. When they informed Gurudev of the plan a day before departure, he was upset at being excluded from it. He casually remarked that they wouldn’t be able to visit the land of the Taj without him. Dwarkanath ji shrugged off Gurudev’s words as those of an annoyed friend, confident that the trip would materialize as they had confirmed berths.
The duo left for the train station the next morning, only to find that the train was delayed by five hours. Dwarknath ji and Nagpal ji knew that they wouldn’t be able to return in time to attend work the next day, so they head back home. Dwarkanath ji remembered with mirth that Gurudev welcomed them back with a knowing grin and a few of his favourite Punjabi words.
Despite these strange incidents, Gurudev’s friends had trouble reconciling the image of their fun-loving, cigarette smoking friend with that of a serious spiritualist. When Gurudev informed Jain Saheb that he was destined to become a Guru to many, the latter found the prospect so unfathomable, he doubled over with laughter. Familiarity was the veil that prevented Jain Saheb from realization. Yet, fate had other plans. Years later, after Gurudev became a Mahaguru, Dwarknath ji and Nagpal ji became devotees of their former friend, while Jain Saheb evolved into one of his most powerful disciples.
Gurudev’s magic touch that made cows lactate and radios play would be put to great use in the future when he would pull our ears to make us sing to his tunes!
In the years leading to his advent as a Mahaguru, Gurudev would greatly temper and eventually control his fondness for music and cinema. Through diligent self-observation, Gurudev overcame sense gratification. As a Mahaguru, he encouraged us to do the same. Yet, he would also say, “Ek aib rehana chahiye (You should let one vice remain).” For many of us that vice was a drag off a cigarette or consumption of tobacco. This was a technique he recommended as we worked towards overcoming attitudes, vices and weaknesses of a graver nature. It also served as a counterbalancing energy and an ahuti (small token of acknowledgement) to the negative pressures that would create impediments in our spiritual path. And when we succeeded in circumventing the graver vices, he wanted us to give the last vice up as well.