By Suma Varughese
Even as the world is consumed by consumerism, some daring people are busy working to forge tomorrow’s world by spiritualising the way they do work. Meet the Cultural Creatives of India, as they slowly and steadily transform the culture we inhabit
You can smell it in the air, you can hear it in the wind, you can almost touch it with your hands—the New Age is almost, very nearly, here.
It seems odd to make this prediction when the world is going ape over consumerism. When the buzz revolves around the nth car model to have entered the country or the opening of the latest mall or multiplex. When car loans, house loans and personal loans facilitate the marketing mantra to buy, buy, buy. When everything and everyone is a brand and the stock market rules.
Aah, but in Life Positive, you see, we are privy to what is as yet behind the scenes. Even as life plays out Act X, here at LP we can see the lead players and supporting cast of Act Y gearing up for their turn. From where we are, huge changes are slowly and subtly changing life as we know it on its axis. Paradigm shifts are nineteen to the dozen. And everywhere there is convergence. Science and spirituality are slowly coming together as scientists, like seekers, come to grips with consciousness. Concepts like servant leadership, responsible business practices and sustainable technology are integrating the welfare of industry with the welfare of employees and environment. Traditional and native health systems are proving an alternative to allopathy, and integrating the body, mind and soul of the individual. Organic farming is bringing together individual health and that of the planet. And a thirst for the meaning of life is creating a tidal wave of interest in spirituality, linking man to the cosmos.
The inspiration behind the New Age is, of course, the legion of truth bearers, masters and sages who show us the way by precept and practice.
But here in this story we honour the foot soldiers, those who take forward the philosophy and implement it within their own work, and thereby change the system itself. It is easy to meditate and do seva in one’s spare time, while pursuing the same unethical and unspiritual practices in one’s work. The real challenge is to infuse one’s spirituality into all areas of life, especially work.
The New Age can never really emerge as long as it remains shrouded within the cloisters of private life. Unless the values it promotes such as a focus on the larger good, seeing work as sadhana and eschewing the profit motive for the service motive, are implemented in the workplace, large scale change will never occur. The New Age can only come about when the way we do politics, business, governance, education, or practise law, medicine, and the arts, arise from spiritual principles.
When this happens, politics will not be about power, it will be about service; business will not be about money, it will be about creating products for the welfare of society and creating wealth for society; education will be not be about livelihood skills but life skills; medicine will be oriented towards health and not illness; the media will no longer glory in bad news and sensation, but highlight positive changes and ideas that can transform society; and the arts will paint a glowing picture of man’s highest ideals and aspirations.
Such an age is not yet in view, but the people whose profiles we carry in the following pages are proof that it is possible.
They are representatives of the thousands of anonymous system-changes all over India who work indefatigably to make a difference at work. Businessmen focusing on the welfare of their employees, doctors attempting to bridge the shortfalls of allopathy with alternative practices, artists and writers who stand steadfast by their vision no matter how little they make out of it. There’s a term for such people: Cultural Creatives—people who are creatively changing the culture of the land.
It isn’t easy to select just 13 out of the thousands of Cultural Creatives fertilising the land. So we adopted a few criteria. Gurus and other spiritual leaders we set aside despite their powerful influence, because, most of them are not actually changing the bricks and mortars of society, although may be the source behind the change. The thousands of yoga teachers, Reiki masters, alternative healers and others of their ilk are doing wondrous work but within the New Age circuit. We excluded them unless their influence or contribution has been sensational, as in the case of Dr Madan Kataria or Dr Isaac Mathai.
The people we have focused on, by and large, are those who operate in mainstream activities like business, law, the arts and publishing, and transform the way they are practised by holding steadfast to their vision and values.
Our list cannot claim to be the ultimate selection of New Age heroes. It is subjective, based on who we thought measured up, and limited by the number of people we know or have heard about. If we have missed someone particularly worthy, we apologise and ask you to write to us so we can write about him. For each system changer needs to be honoured. By showing the way and going the way, he/she makes it easier for us to follow suit.
The Source: The Executive Chairman of Excel Industries G. Narayana (63), Guruji to all, is a dynamo of activity and inspiration, which he attributes to an experience that befell him at age 42. At that point, this engineer cum MBA had set up his own companies after a phenomenally successful stint in industry. Unfortunately, one of them floundered and Narayana got his first taste of failure. He repaired to his native place, Manthini, by the banks of the river Godavari in Andhra Pradesh.
One morning, while bathing in the river with a cousin, his eyes fell on the old temples on the bank, and he wished aloud for a momento. Immediately, his cousin replied that he had felt something under his feet. Shortly thereafter, he pulled out two Shiva lingams. “A fantastic experience. I felt I had touched another dimension,” raves Narayana. But it didn’t end there. That evening, he found his cousin deep in a commentary of the Gita. The lingam experience convinced him to give it a hearing. And lo, Krishna was telling his devotee that if he were to put his faith in him, he would pull him out of the river.
The auguries were favourable. Prompt as ever, Narayana got down to business. Not having access to the man who wrote the commentary, he adopted the book as guru. For the next 18 days, he read one chapter a day, practised its message, and abjured onions, garlic, sex and liquor. Gita yoga, he calls his practice. He emerged from his sadhana a transformed man. “I wrote the 19th chapter of Gita—on management yoga,” he says with characteristic aplomb. “My life changed, my problems were solved. I turned around my company. Then I turned around other companies. I turned around Excel in six months. Spirituality came. Upanishads, Bible, the Vedas. Everything I transfused into management.”
The Contribution: Narayana has played a seminal role in rooting business practice in Indian culture and spirituality. In 1990, he, Swami Jijatmananda of the Ramakrishna Mission and S.K. Chakraborty of IIM, Calcutta, and a few others met and resolved to popularise the concept of management through Indian ethos. “Textbooks were needed so I wrote them,” he says nonchalantly, proferring several of his books, with titles like Noble Leader (A Journey through Dhammapada), The Responsible Leader (A Journey through Gita), Strategic Leadership (A Journey through Chaanakya Sutras and Kautiliya Artha Shaastra). Incidentally, his books have neither copyright nor price, for knowledge, he believes, should be free.
His belief in human potential is absolute. The message, ‘you can, you can’ to be given continuously,” he says. “If you believe people can do, they can do fantastically. Give them inspiration, knowledge, resources. Back them up.”
He cites the case of Prabhakar Thosar, an adviser with Excel, whom he summarily commanded to translate the Gita into Marathi. The bewildered Thosar stammered out his inability, which Narayana promptly dismissed. “Write the first verse in front of me,” he beamed. And Thosar did! He went on to translate all 700 shlokas into Marathi. In a touching tribute to Narayana published in a souvenir to commemorate the opening of the Guru Narayana Centre for Leadership, by the Baroda Management Association, Thosar writes: “The joy of my creation was stupendous and inexplicable… Revered Guruji had greater confidence in my capability than I did.”
Narayana spouts numerous concepts and ideas, all his own. “God,” he says, “means Group, Organisation, Direction. Form groups, organise and direct them, and the impossible becomes the possible.”
“Yoga,” he observes, “is nothing but aligning result, relationships, realities and realisation through action, relations, knowledge and responsibility.”
He dares even to correct the great Stephen Covey. “Pro-active is not enough!” he thunders. “One must be pre-active, pro-active, process-active and post-active.”
He adds: “I have a mantra which I make everyone recite: “Positive, active, timely, effective.”
The Influence: Apart from Excel, which he turned around from a Rs 40 crore company in 1989 to a Rs 418 crore company in 1997, he is associated with other companies like Yash Paper Mills at Ayodhya, Aryan Paper Mills, Duraware at Aurangabad and La Opala at Kolkata. Wherever he goes, he spreads the seeds of spiritually-oriented management. When invited to attend the World Congress for Peace in Bangkok, he wrote a book to commemorate the occasion, called Humanity to Divinity, tracing the commonality of all religions.
Prolific, big-hearted, loving and loveable, Narayana is a phenomenon rarely experienced. Writes Suresh Pandit, management consultant: “He definitely has been sent on earth to give a new direction to mankind.”
An avatar in the boardroom? Perhaps.
Giving a New Face to the Police
The Source: Kiran Bedi’s decision to join the police force came when this career option was unheard of among women. But then she likes to face challenges and is always focused on her goal. The urge to do what is right comes naturally to her. The inspiration comes from her inner self and she is born with the strength to face whatever is in store for her with equanimity and diligence.
Says her daughter Saina Bedi: “She is a karma yogi. For her spirituality comes through her work. Though she believes in Shirdi Sai Baba and lights the jyot before leaving home, she is not ritualistic. She is amazed by the miracle of life and for her religion is humanity.”
The Contribution: Kiran Bedi has set an example for other police officers with her integrity and purity of thought. She was the first woman in India to become IG Prisons, put in charge of Delhi’s Tihar, the largest prison in the Asia-Pacific region. She proved to be a visionary, succeeding in giving a human face to the Indian police force, otherwise seen as a ruthless and corrupt lot. With her reform measures, Tihar jail became a role model for other prisons. Not believing in punishment but corrective, reformative method of policing, she introduced Vipassana meditation inside Tihar with amazing results.
Her experience as a police officer includes 26 years of tough yet responsive and interactive policing in different functions throughout India. She has also written a bestselling autobiography, titled I Dare, and embarked on social work.
Besides being true to her uniform, Bedi also played the role of a homemaker. Says Saina Bedi: “She has been the greatest blessing I could have asked for.”
The Influence: Kiran Bedi has won many awards and accolades including the prestigious Magsaysay Award and the Police Medal for Gallantry. A police officer with a difference, she has represented India at the UN, in USA, European and Asian forums on drug abuse, drug trafficking, prison reform and women’s issues.
The Future: Currently she is on deputation as the Chief Police Adviser at UN Department of Peace Keeping. Her future beckons her to live life to the fullest and as her daughter puts it: “She is too modest to admit but she will outlive her own destiny.” She has already become a role model for a generation of aspiring women in India.
Dr Issac Mathai
Promoting Integrated Healthcare
The Source: A combination of genes, family background, sincerity, and luck have conspired to make Dr Issac Mathai a grandstand player in alternative medicine. Assisting his mother, a homoeopathic practitioner in Kerala, from an early age gave him a firm grounding in the system that stood him in good stead when he went to England for his MD.
Working with the noted 101 Private Clinic of London, Dr Mathai’s ability to treat acute diseases with homoeopathy ensured his rapid ascent. By age 28, he was a consultant with the clinic, treating celebrities like Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, former Beatle George Harrison, Tina Turner and Sting. Today, he has clients in 30 countries.
At 101 clinic, Dr Mathai acquainted himself with several therapies like yoga, ayurveda and Chinese pulse diagnosis. Above all, he was conscious of coming from a land that practised five systems of medicine: allopathy, ayurveda, homoeopathy, siddha and Unani. “Most countries, like England, have only one or two systems at most,” he says. The field was set for the grand integration of medical systems under his able baton.
The Contribution: As a celebrity doctor, attracting the likes of Sarah Ferguson to India for treatment, Dr Mathai gave the practice of integrated medicine a new patina of respectability. He has also healed thousands of patients all over the world. Dr Mathai has also been active in organising international conferences that brought together leading practitioners from all over the world, to debate on the changing face of medicine and to popularise alternatives. In 2001, his International Holistic Health Association organised a Global Holistic Health Summit to create awareness of holistic medicine therapies. Luminaries like Deepak Chopra, Sri Sri Ravishankar and others from across the globe participated.
But Dr Mathai’s real contribution is the conceptualisation and creation of the world’s first integrated health centre, Soukya. Set amidst a 30-acre organic farm near Bangalore, Soukya offers the five systems of medicine enumerated earlier, together with 25 other therapies like acupressure, acupuncture, reflexology, naturopathy, yoga and Tibetan Medicine. After doing a holistic evaluation identifying issues, the line of treatment is prescribed.
“We also have allopathic consultants like neurologists and craniologists whose expertise we draw on when we need to, making Soukya truly integrated,” says Dr Mathai. Word of mouth publicity has got him patients from all over the world.
While Soukya is for the well-heeled, Dr Mathai is starting a holistic integrated medicine facility for the adjoining villages, consisting of out-patient facilities. In a couple of years he plans to make it a residential operation, where 30 per cent of the rooms will be free of charge for those who cannot afford treatment. Even the rest will be affordable to all. He plans to replicate this model all over the country and claims that he has received many queries from state governments and mainstream hospitals.
The future: If the idea catches on, perhaps the day will come when allopathy will be softened and broadened by its exposure to alternatives, and alternatives will be strengthened by their exposure to the diagnostic devices and expertise of allopathy. Then, and only then, will the welfare of the patient be served.
Creator of the Tantra T-shirt
The Source: A talented but anonymous creative director working with the European-based advertising group BDDP, Ranjiv Ramchandani took a leap into authentic creativity when he and a few friends decided to produce a T-shirt that would explain the vast and multi-faceted palimpsest of India to the foreigner. Exuberantly labeling itself ‘India on a T-shirt’, Tantra was born in 1997 to almost immediate acclaim, especially among the very people it sought to explain. Its quirky visuals and witty captions struck an instant chord among the young, who, in a newly globalised world, were looking for an identity they could relate to. “It’s about language, about the brown race. We spoke in a language they could understand and we offered quality at an affordable price,” says Ramchandani.
The Contribution: Tantra has used a western apparel to popularise the idea of India. It made subjects like yoga, meditation, and all the other trappings of Indian culture, hip. It is, says Ramchandani, the epitome of desi-cool. “It’s about ideas. Before us no brand consciously personified idea on a T-shirt.” But more than that, Ramchandani and his colleagues are a symbol of a newly confident India, able to look at itself with humour and acceptance and say: “This is who we are.”
In the vast sea of brands that ride the me-too wave by imitating America and the West, Tantra stands alone in deriving mileage from its staunchly Indian identity. The result is a phenomenal popularity, fuelled almost entirely by word of mouth. In an MTV Brand equity seminar on ‘cool’, Tantra was chosen as one of the national icons.
Tantra is a way of wearing your patriotism on your sleeve, without being unduly heavy or pompous about it. Ramchandani recalls a letter he got from a soldier posted in the line of control. He was wearing a T-shirt from their line of Paki jokes, and he wrote to tell them that it made him feel so proud of India. Another Tantra lover working in a Delhi newspaper told him that his T-shirt from the line of Moustaches of India, had got him a lot of laughs. This warm endorsement and feedback from clients all over the world is the greatest testimony to Tantra’s impact.
His classic Om T-shirt, he says, has enduring appeal. Nor is its popularity restricted to the campus. Tantra T-shirts are worn by international celebrities like Sir Paul McCartney, Bill Clinton, Sting and Deepak Chopra. They were also displayed at the Bollywood festival held in Selfridges in London last year.
Ramchandani may not be strictly a New Age hero in the sense of living the spiritual lifestyle, but he is doing what for us in India is an important mileage in our collective growth graph. He is helping us to remain faithful to our Indian identity and operate from who we are. Instead of becoming an ersatz westerner, Ramchandani tells us that it is okay to be ourselves. The spiritual journey is all about becoming authentic and accepting ourselves as we are. Ramchandani has made our task easier.
The Source: For 20 years, as a music director and singer of devotional songs with over 1,000 concerts to his credit, Sen wondered why his music had so little impact on his audiences. As a student he had been brought up on the miracles that Tansen wrought, enticing deer to listen to his music and causing rain to fall. A chance visit to the doctor for a sore throat gave him an idea. Despite his attempts to avoid antibiotics, his doctor prescribed it for him, telling him that the city was too polluted to avoid it.
On his way back, Sen wondered if the mind too had become so polluted that mere music alone could no longer reach it. He recalled that there was a gap of close to a minute between songs. Enough time for the monkey mind to neutralise the effect of the music by dragging in its own agenda. What if, he thought to himself, he were to create a single-act play where there would be monologues and songs delivered without a pause? Out of that introspection was born Tulsidas, the story of the man who wrote Ramayana. He had no idea of performing it himself since he saw himself as a singer, but his friends and family persuaded him to attempt it. Besides, they told him pragmatically, no one else would touch a 2½ hour play that would run without a pause, requiring the actor to by-heart the whole script.
The Contribution: When he commenced the performance in 1998, it was not a monetary success, for the Hindi-speaking audiences baulked at paying to see a spiritual play, which by their lights ought to be free. But the response was very positive, because they returned with their family and friends in tow. “At least,” Sen thought to himself, “I am touching souls.”
His next play, Kabir, broke all barriers, including the monetary one. Audiences of all classes and religions flocked to see the play about the well-loved indigent who preached unity of faiths and the divinity of mankind 600 years ago. “Kabir’s philosophy is simple. It is for the common man,” says Sen. He has done 176 shows of the play already, including in the US, Hong Kong, Surinam, Trinidad and Belgium. He solved the language problem by printing an English translation of the script and distributing it with the tickets, requesting the audience to read it before coming. In the US, Linda Hess, a professor at the University of California, translated the songs into English gratis. Slides were made and projected on the screens. The response was immediate and touching. “I got a letter from an Indian doctor settled in the USA, that after listening to my cassette on Kabir, he had decided to return to India.”
Sen is currently into his third play, on Swami Vivekananda, which too has been a brilliant success.
The impact that Sen longed for has more than happened. No one leaves his tour de force performances untouched. People rave about the quality of his singing. But the one most affected by his plays is, not surprisingly, himself. “Playing these characters has made me more courageous, more truthful. I am not afraid to say no to many proposals from films and TV serials. We in the glamour world are too insecure to say no to offers. Now I only do what I want to do, that will do justice to the talent given to me by God.”
He adds that he would rather impact the hundreds that drama attracts than have no impact on the thousands watching TV. “A mother is more important than a teacher, because although she may interact with only one or two children, the sanskar she implants in them can make a great impact on society.”
”How long,” he questions rhetorically, “can you do meaningless things?” As it goes, he says gratefully: “Every day of my life is a wonderful gift and I perform each show as if it is the last.”
The Influence: Although he is chary of taking credit for it, he points out that his Kabir coincides with a great explosion of interest in the 17th century poet. “When I started Kabir in ’99, there were only five cassettes of Kabir. Today, there are over 400. Rhythm House (a leading music shop in Mumbai) has a special rack for them. There are also more than 300 books on Kabir released in the recent past.”
As for his influence on theatre, he says modestly that he is only a drop in the ocean, but nevertheless, the double-entendre comedies that once dominated theatre, are now interspersed by spiritual themes such as the Gujarati play on the 16th Century bhakti poet, Narsee Mehta , IPTA’s revival of Kabir, and Naseeruddin Shah’s recent rendition of The Prophet. Take a bow, Sen!
Kantibhai C. Shroff
The Source: “One of the verses our parents taught us early in life was Isa Vasyam, Idam Sarvam (By the Lord is suffused all that moves in a moving world – Isha Upanishad). We interpreted this to mean that all are worthy of respect,” says the spry and lean Kantibhai Shroff (82), Chairman Emeritus, Excel Industries Ltd.
The Contribution: Serene as a yogi, Shroff exudes love for India’s ancient civilisation, for nature, and for his fellow human beings. These qualities have been instrumental in creating a unique culture in Excel, where everyone is made to feel as members of a family. Family nomenclatures rule—the founder late C.C. Shroff is Pappa. He himself is Kaka. And G. Narayana, brought in initially as a consultant, was nominated Guruji.
The family feeling is strengthened by admirable practices such as running a common canteen where everyone from the lowest worker to Shroff himself eat the same food at the same time. “The practice was started by my mother, who used to say that she was a mother to all and therefore all must eat from a common kitchen,” says Kaka.
There is a spirit of self-respect, freedom and happiness manifest in the company members, which comes from a culture where human potential is respected and maximised. Indeed, Excel’s Mission statement says: “Company is togetherness. We will work and contribute, learn and grow together in the spirit of Saha Viryam…”
In its 60 years of existence, Excel has never suffered a day’s strike. Says a trade union leader: “Although negotiations are hard and prolonged, there is never any rancour in the process. We are like members of one family. We get the darshan of the management every day at lunch. In which other company will this happen?”
“Who creates conflicts?” questions Shroff. “It is the top man. How stupid it is to have politics. There is no politics in the human body, which is an organism. An organisation is not so different. If you have intimacy, then society will be like the cells in the body.”
The company has rarely had to dismiss employees; just four in its entire history, and that too for thefts. “We are working for God,” affirms the saintly Shroff, whose simple attire and frugal eating habits (two spoonfuls of curd rice at lunch) are reminiscent of his great hero, Mahatma Gandhi. “We are His nimiths (means). The whole cosmic creativity is through that. If we can become a part of it, what a joy it is! Productive action is spirituality.”
Rebutting the profit motivation of traditional capitalism, he says roundly: “Profit is a byproduct of services rendered. In Excel, service is the motivation.” True. Excel, which began with an investment of Rs 10,000, is today worth Rs 4 billion.
This desire to serve is reflected in Shroff’s passionate concern for nature and the earth. “Our Mother Earth has been badly hurt by greed. She must heal.”
He considers his company, which manufactures agrochemicals and pesticides, as an instrument for plant protection. With typical wisdom, he studies and learns from nature: “About 30 years ago, I decided to create a green Kutch. To accomplish it, I studied nature. And I saw that in India, man and animal, especially cattle, are partners. What man eats, cattle don’t and vice versa. And cowdung is food for crops. This cycle of man, animal and crops is the true industry of this earth, which nature has been running for a few billion years.”
Although chemicals and pesticides would be considered environment unfriendly, Shroff was awarded Chemtech’s Environmentalist of the Year Award for 1983. This is because the company uses caution to introduce chemicals into the soil. Its officials interact with farmers and teach them safe farming methods. They also conduct research to minimise the effect of chemical fertilisers and have introduced eco-friendly measures such as integrated crop and pest management systems. Shroff has also won the Jamnalal Bajaj Fair Business Practices Award.
Today, more and more of his attention and time is devoted to rural and social rehabilitation in his beloved Kutch, where the company runs a number of social organisations, including Shrujan, headed by his wife, which encourages the brilliant handicrafts of that region.
The Future: Says Shroff: “The 21st century will see the rise of a new culture, one that is based on holistic principles, harmony and sustainable development. Only those who follow its principles will survive.”
Bringing ancient wisdom to our time
The Source: The thing about India and its philosophy is that at any given time there will always be someone so in love with it that he will give up everything else to focus on just that one thing. In 1903, that someone was Lala Motilal, a devout Jain and a scholar of English and Sanskrit literature living in Lahore, whose abiding commitment to Indian spirituality inspired him to start a bookshop that would focus on just three genres: Sanskrit because it is the mother of all languages, spirituality because it is the source of all cultures and civilisations, and knowledge-based books, because knowledge is the third strand of Indian society.
The Contribution: That vision, started on an investment of a paltry Rs 27, has today fructified into an institution which is synonymous with Indology. All over the world today, serious students or scholars of Indian spirituality home in on just one publishing house: Motilal Banarsidass (MLBD). MLBD has done more than any other publishing source in India today to keep alive the country’s ancient and ageless texts and popularise them through the publication of affordable editions. Their standards are rigorous, calling for a high level of scholarship and utilising the services mainly of academics and renowned authors. People in the know even say that their focused efforts have helped in the survival of India’s valuable heritage, leading to the current spiritual renaissance in the world as well as in India.
Such a commitment to a cause has paid off handsomely. MLBD has branches in several cities, and has forked out into various related activities and enterprises. One such is the establishment of MLBD Books International, which takes care of bulk overseas sale of MLBD books as well as Indological titles from other publishers. While the real MLBD focuses on such scholarly subjects as Indology, religion, philosophy, art and culture, the company has come out with a new imprint called New Age Books (NAB), to cater to the rise of popular interest in spirituality with books on parapsychology, astrology, ayurveda, alternative therapies, meditation and metaphysics. NAB has recently launched New Age Music to release spiritual CDs.
MLBD has published Indophiles like David Frawley and philosopher Karl Popper (Encyclopaedia of Indian Philosophies). Their most popular texts include books on Vedic Mathematics by James Glover, a branch of knowledge rediscovered by Bharati Krishna Tirtha, the Shankaracharya of Puri. In this connection, MLBD has organised over a hundred workshops/courses in association with the World Academy for Vedic Mathematics incorporated by the International Research and Resource Foundation for Indian Heritage. And among the series that have been acclaimed by scholars are Sacred Books of the Eas
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