Robin Singh tells Nikita Mukherjee how he gave up a life of comfort and luxury to give back to the world—much more than what he has taken from it
Since the last few decades, our world has been slowly turning into a very cruel place where the meaning of compassion and empathy has got lost in the fragments of changing times. A lot of catastrophic events like wars and pandemics have taken place, which has changed the course of humanity. Moreover, the current times we live in have placed a seed of delusion in our minds, where fulfilling materialistic desires is more important than living together in harmony and peace. Money and power have corrupted the human mind and have distanced all of us from our virtues.
A while back, I was surfing through social media when I came upon a page called ‘Peepal Farm,’ where the pinned post was that of a young, enigmatic man telling his life story. I started watching the video and was completely moved by his profound words and philosophy. The guy in the video was Mr Robin Singh, founder of Peepal Farm. His non-profit organisation is a natural, organic farm in the Himalayan foothills, near Dharamsala, India, and deals with animal rescue and organic farming. I was intrigued by his journey from being a tech geek in the US to a social worker with the motive of ending the suffering of animals in India and, therefore, decided to make his story reach as many people as possible. So I contacted him to know more about him and his work. Over a telephonic conversation which lasted for more than an hour, Mr Singh gave me more insight into his life and work, and taught me a thing or two about how we all can bring about change and make the world a better place in such tumultuous times. Below is an account of that conversation:
Q. Tell us something about yourself and your life before Peepal Farm.
I started my career when I was 17 years old by getting into hacking. I got caught while doing that, so that is something I am not really proud of. It helped me meet a guy who was running a software company. He said I can use my skills for making money and doing good work by creating websites. So, while I was doing a lot of freelancing, I sent an email with the wrong email ID. Through that email, I got in touch with a guy named Danny from Arizona, USA, in 2000-2001 and started working with him. For a couple of years, Danny was very frustrated because of the distance between India and the USA and persuaded me to come over to Arizona and work together. I took up his offer even though I had never planned on going there. Eventually, I ended up going there in 2003 with my wife, whom I married in 2002. Over there, I started a company called Digital Delivery that I was running till 2011. So, around 2008, I had an option of either running the company in a chilled way and let it go on its own, or I could make it into a 100-million-dollar company. I chose the former option as I didn’t want to work much and still be able to earn. That was the goal. I had achieved that goal, and by 2011, I was financially free. I had everything I ever wanted. I had a nice house, a nice car, and I could travel anywhere in the world and live a life I wanted to live without having to work many hours every week. That gave me some time to pause and think about what exactly I was doing with my life, and I realised that I was foolish and that was no way to live.
Q. When was the exact moment in your life when you realised that you are not satisfied with what you have?
When I achieved everything I ever wanted. I can’t pinpoint an exact moment. It’s a phase because you have everything you ever desired for and, suddenly, you realise there’s nothing left after achieving these things. Today’s generation only wants money, power, and success, but the truth is that 90 per cent will fail. Not everyone can be successful and financially strong. This is how the system is structured. There can only be a few winners. Some achieve it and become the boss, while others try to be winners all their life. Not everyone can run a company and employ a thousand employees to work under them. Now, these employees are the ones who try to become the boss and spend their whole life doing so, yet they don’t succeed. This is the sad part of the story, and what’s even sadder is that the one guy who wins realises that all this is completely empty. He reaches the top of the mountain of dirt to grab that one rose, only to realise that he has lost the sense of smell because once you are there, you are like “Now what?” It’s a panic response where you completely start feeling clueless and end up doing things out of restlessness. It’s not a well-thought-out life. Money helps you get things, but it does not solve all your problems. Intellect and drive solve problems.
Q. What was the turning point in your life when you decided to start Peepal Farm?
It was not a point, it was a phase. You could say that it was an accumulation of experiences. In 2011, when I got fed up with my life, I was not happy. I wanted to find happiness and returned to India in early 2011. I left my company and thought about various things which could make me happy. I thought of being a traveller, became a hippie, tried a few things for 18 months, after which I decided to go to Auroville as I always wanted to do so but never got a chance earlier.
At Auroville, I met this woman named Lauren. She was very old, anaemic, and broke. Despite that, she was helping 40-60 stray dogs by collecting the leftovers of food from nearby restaurants. I felt very ashamed thinking that even though she has nothing, she is helping others and is somewhat happy. I have everything a person wants, and I’m still thinking that I am not happy. This was the time I told myself that I have to change the focus of my life from just receiving to giving. Lauren inspired that. I already had those seeds planted in me by my mother as her ancestors were all freedom fighters, and my mom used to talk a lot about Lord Buddha and Baba Nanak. She would have liked me to walk that path. That meeting with Lauren watered those seeds inside me. I wrapped up my life in the States and joined Lauren in 2013.
Q. How did you start Peepal Farm?
We started with animal welfare which was direct and on the ground. It was a sterilisation program in Delhi as we mainly dealt with dogs. Meanwhile, the philosophy was developing—reducing the damage caused by us and compensating for it. I was already a vegan as I wasn’t consuming any kind of meat or dairy products, so I thought to myself that I have already reduced my damage somehow. I decided that I have to utilise whatever life I get because I get that life by eating food, using resources like petrol, etc. All of that comes by causing some harm to nature. For farming, jungles are chopped off; for petrol, rigging and digging is done. Due to industrialisation, animals get affected and people get homeless, so there was this weight I carried, thinking that I should repay all these favours I have taken from nature.
While we were doing this sterilisation drive, we realised that with every dog we helped, there were millions of other animals we were not helping. So, the change in philosophy that came was to take as less as you can from your life but try to give the maximum. The next thing that we focussed on was that we had to inspire others to do the same. Only then was this initiative going to scale up. A single person cannot move a mountain; many more can do the work. So, we thought that this initiative should be more like a movement. We needed a revolutionary ground to start, and that’s how Peepal Farm came into being.
We continued to do what we were doing but, along with this, we tried to involve and inspire other people as well to participate in this cause. This was our first strategy. We started a volunteer programme and, every year, at least 100 volunteers joined, stayed, and learned with us. Even before we came up with the idea of Peepal Farm, I and Shivani, my wife, were looking for a suitable place for building our home. At that time, we only thought of having a spectacular farmhouse. But when the idea of Peepal Farm came up, we decided that instead of a house with a swimming pool, there will be a cowshed. Instead of an entertainment room, there will be a clinic. Instead of a master bedroom, there will be co-working space for volunteers. It is a 1.5-acre farm, and all of it is dedicated to growing food, housing volunteers, and helping animals. Through involving and inspiring, we housed more than 500 volunteers within five years. The construction on-site began in December 2014, and in August 2015, Peepal Farm became functional.
After getting such great results, we decided to move on to storytelling, and, with that, we are reaching millions of people today. Even if 6000 people among those 60 million change, it would be a huge thing for us. Recently, a gentleman mailed me saying that he was a proper Muslim who followed his religion ardently. He recently saw my post on Bakr-Eid and, on that day, he realised that before being a Muslim, he was a human being and, on humanitarian grounds, should not eat meat. That was life-changing.
Q. Was the transformation from being a corporate geek in the US to literally a modern saint ending the suffering of animals and promoting an organic way of living difficult for you?
It was difficult. Change is always difficult. I would say, doing a new thing step by step is the best move towards change. Leaving everything at once for a change is not the right way to go because it makes things very difficult for you and especially for people around you. I have a rebellious nature, so if I don’t like something, I do everything in my power to change it. But unlike me, there are a lot of people who struggle when they try to bring about change immediately. So if you are starting to learn something, do it step by step and do it on a daily basis. That’s very important. You should take one step at a time.
Though I left my work in the States at once, I didn’t start Peepal Farm in one go. I started by feeding stray dogs, worked with Lauren who taught me a lot of things, did a sterilisation programme in Delhi, and then I could fulfil my dream. It took me seven years to establish Peepal Farm. Change always happens in transition. Things take time, and you have to embrace the discomfort. I cried a lot of times doing this work. There were times when I regretted leaving my work in the States. I think, in India, adjusting is tough especially for the people who think differently from the stereotyped mindset of our country. Nobody dares to say a word to successful people, but if any other person starts moving away from the stereotype, society gives them a tough time.
Q. In a world where everyone is running after materialistic needs and power, taking such a step is hugely remarkable. How do you plan to encourage others to walk on a compassionate and empathetic path, just like you did?
There are two things: Firstly, you have to become very strong-willed. You should have conviction in you. The bad thing about the modern lifestyle is that everyone has their own way of living it. I don’t agree with that. Yes, there are different ways of living life but not every way is right. So, you should have a very strong conviction that what you believe in is right and then remember that you are living precisely for that. You have to be that person who ignores what others say and think that the purpose you are serving is above all. You derive strength from your purpose. Then if anyone says anything, it won’t matter.
Suppose you are determined that you have to serve cows when you see that people commit atrocities against them. You see the sufferings of those poor creatures, and that’s when you realise that no matter what others say, you have to fulfil your purpose of serving those cows. You know that their pain matters to you, so you will derive your courage from that. I don’t want to be old-aged and bedridden and think that I didn’t help the cows back then. That fear in you gives you the strength.
Q. How, do you think, can we end the suffering of animals and adopt a lifestyle where helping others is not the only motive but feeling good about ourselves is also a priority?
It depends on how your circumstances stand. You start small. Keeping water for dogs, birds, and other kinds of animals in need to drink during summers is a great start. Then, you can start feeding dogs. If you fear doing that, you can ask other people who feed dogs for help. You can volunteer in animal rescue, put rags outside your house for dogs to sleep, and stop or minimise eating meat and dairy products. These are some of the many ways you can stop harming and start helping animals. Firstly, stop the harm; secondly, figure out how to help and; finally, encourage people around you to take these three steps. Only then will this movement become a success. It should work like a chain reaction.
Q. I have always believed in the concept of ‘coexistence.’ But the majority of the population are either ignorant about it or else they just don’t have the knowledge. How do you think we, as a community, can build this concept in society and educate everyone about the importance of coexistence?
I would like to say in very crude words, ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ People who don’t think or know much, and also don’t want to learn anything, reproduce bad copies, and eventually, the moral fabric deteriorates. If you know about the Indus Valley Civilisation, they were more progressive than us. We have to expose kids to compassion in the education system because most of the parents don’t know it themselves; so then, what kind of morality and ethics will they teach their kids? We have to educate children from the very beginning about being compassionate and empathetic. We have to reform our education system and teach children about moral values along with the usual academics.
Once someone turns 30, change hardly takes place because the person is frustrated by then. People give excuses about food chains for eating meat. It’s not that they really think about the food chain and consume meat; it’s just that they like the taste of meat. We are living in a modern world and not in prehistoric ages where we are hunting to survive and maintaining the food chain in that way. We have access to organic food, so why make these excuses?
Q. The world is slowly turning dystopian where hearing unfortunate and catastrophic news every now and then has become very commonplace. What do you think is the root cause of this problem, and what can we do to uproot this?
I think people are not leading their lives properly. They don’t have a philosophy of life. They are just living on autopilot without a purpose. That is the root cause of all problems. I don’t focus on things that are beyond me. Similarly, people should focus on the things they think they can change and not think about the bigger problems. Thinking about grand problems just tire you. It is like moving a mountain; the mountain won’t move at all, and you will tire yourself out. But if you try to move a rock, you will get tired but the rock will at least move a bit. As they say, every drop makes up an ocean. Similarly, small changes lead to a bigger change. So, focus on those problems which you can do something about.
Q. The young generation is playing a huge role in bringing about change in the established, orthodox society. Like you started Peepal Farm, there are others who are actively involved in non-profit organisations and movements which are paying off well and changing the face of the age-old culture we all belong to. What do you feel about this, and how would you encourage others to do their bit for a better society?
There are two types of people involved in this: One is the change-maker who dedicates their life to the cause, just like Bhagat Singh did for India’s Independence. They do not need inspiration; they are already inspired. They have the drive in them that they have to do something. They need encouragement and want people to believe in them. Many people like these reach out to me on a daily basis. Some young girls tell me that they want to do something good but their mother scolds them for feeding the dogs. So, these people need validation from somebody older who stands by them. The other type are those who are the masses. They do not think much of the cause but do it merely for the trend. So if there is any good cause, you make it worthwhile and accessible to them, and package it in such a way that they are convinced that it is not just a good thing but also makes them look good; then it becomes a trend. The first type are leaders who just need to be mentored, and then there are the masses who need reasons to feel good.
If you are up for something good and your elders are against it, the first thing is to convince them. A lot of times, people start supporting you once they themselves participate and realise the essence of a good cause. But this is not always the case. In such a situation, you have to leave them and take up your own path. Sometimes, you have to leave something behind to get somewhere. You do not choose relationships. You did not choose your parents. They were given to you by default, but that doesn’t mean they will be good for you always. Even Lord Buddha said, “Purity of heart lies in wanting one thing only.” If you have chosen your path, nothing is bigger in comparison to your mission. Even Lord Buddha and Baba Nanak left their house to fulfil their purpose. If the ones you left behind are destined to come around, they will come back no matter what. You are not severing the relationship; you are just distancing yourself for good. Sometimes you have to take hard steps.
Q. Do you believe in spirituality? Do you think that it holds the answer to all our problems and helps us make the world a better place?
My understanding of spirituality is very different from yours. I believe that spirituality is just looking within and not external. Spirituality is like introspection. Though I believe in introspection, I have a reductionist approach. Buddha was born a Hindu prince. After discovering the sufferings of life, many questions arose inside him and he went on to seek answers to them. He queried Hinduism, became an ascetic, and took up yoga. All this became very big and bulky for him. That’s when he realised and came to the conclusion—Do No Harm. I feel that introspection is a good way of bringing about change in others also. When you change, others around you change as well. But as a whole, spirituality is something I still don’t have a clear idea of.
Q. Since the current generation is all about consumerism and materialism, how do you think we can encourage the young generation to take up spirituality or, at the least, do something for the welfare of others and society?
There are two different things. First is to change your way. You cannot change your way trying to change others. There’s a very famous dialogue from an acclaimed movie which says, “Only when you have lost everything, you are free to do anything.” So, if you are thinking about everyone else’s happiness and opinions, then you lose even before you start. Your purpose will never get fulfilled this way. The fact is that people don’t want to hurt others but, sometimes, we have to do what we have to do. In the beginning, you have to do it all on your own. You have to derive your strength from your cause or get associated with a person who is already doing that. Find people who are alike and share the same thought process and drive as you do. Provide inspiration to those who are confused and scared about bringing about change, and lead by example. It should be like a chain reaction in your circle of influence. But what’s first and foremost is that you start and you walk the walk.
Q. A message for our readers?
Start taking small steps by stopping anything that you recognise as harmful to others, be it getting devastatingly angry, consuming meat, eve-teasing, etc. Just select one cause and start working on it. Do something good no matter how small it is. Collect plastic bottles in the house, fill them with clean water, and give it to rickshaw pullers who don’t have access to clean, drinking water. Then, educate those around you about these steps and spread it like a virus. For volunteering for work at Peepal Farm, connect with us on www.peepalfarm.org.
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