Shivi Verma interviews Aditya Ahluwalia, the founder of Life Positive and unravels the inner world of a corporate leader who bases his decisions and actions on spiritual fundamentals
The readers of Life Positive know Aditya Ahluwalia, the chairman and founder of Life Positive as a tall, silent, and graceful presence at the Life Positive expos.
Ever since I joined LP some six years ago, I too have been mystified by his calm, serene, and composed demeanour. I used to wonder, how it was possible for someone to run a big company and yet be as even-tempered as a sage. Though I knew that being the founder of LP he would be having a spiritual foundation, I also know that it is not easy to walk this path and embrace all its teachings. At a time when minor triggers can throw the sincerest seeker off-balance, managing a corporate firm and still being able to coolly withstand the stressors that come with it is by no means a mean feat.
After becoming the editor of Life Positive and working closely with him, I realised that he also has a warm and fun side to him, but this doesn’t in any way take away from his spiritual accomplishments.
Therefore, I requested him to grant the readers of Life Positive an interview to let them have a glimpse of his inner world and what went into the making of a personality like his.
Please tell us something about your early life, upbringing, and education.
I belong to the Ahluwalia family. My mother was a Sikh who was born and brought up in Kolkata, West Bengal. She moved out of Kolkata for the first time after her marriage with my father. Since it was my mother’s maika, many of my summer vacations were spent in this city because of which I have a unique affection for it.
Ours is a clannish, close-knit family and many people don’t know much about this clan. There is an Ahluwalia biradari (fraternity) too which supports an Ahluwalia in case he/she is faced with a financial crunch, a health-related emergency, or is in need of a loan to go abroad to study.
I don’t really know much about my paternal grandparents because my grandmother had died at an early age and my grandfather had become a saint. He lived near Nahan, not far from Ambala, and I probably met him about three–four times in my life. Once, we were passing by Nahan, and my father suggested that we go and meet him. When we went to visit him, the only reception that we got from him was a message, “It’s okay that you have come, but try not to visit me in the future.” He was a doctor who practised medicine like they do in a charitable organisation and did not want any attachment or contact with his immediate family members.
My maternal grandfather too had died much before I was born, but I knew my maternal grandmother very well. She was the one responsible for laying my religious foundation. She used to spend time with me in the evening, telling me stories from the Sikh tradition, discussing the sacred Sikh texts, and taking me to the gurudwara.
My father changed many jobs as a young boy. He sold watches in Kerala at a time when Sikhs were unheard of in that region. He was also a racehorse jockey at the Kolkata race course. At the time of my birth, he ran an electronic shop in Rourkela. But he was basically a writer and a journalist most of his life. He published a publication called Jathedar from Jalandhar, which was basically a mouthpiece of the Akali Dal at that time. My entire family moved from Jalandhar to New Delhi when I was about nine years old.
I completed my schooling from Mother’s International School, New Delhi, and my economics honours from Hansraj College of Delhi University, after which I received my diploma in computer science from NIIT. This is the extent of my education.
How did you start Life Positive magazine?
After I completed my education, I worked for two companies in a period of five years before starting my own business in the telecom sector in 1989. Whenever I went abroad in connection with my business, I used to see many publications in the genre of spirituality and wellness. There was a bookstore called Bodhi Tree—I believe it still exists—which stocked books and magazines from the spiritual genre, with entire magazines dedicated to different disciplines of spirituality like yoga, tantra, or reiki, almost 25 years ago. I was surprised to note that nothing like this existed in India, the birthplace of spirituality. Serendipitously, in 1995, I met Parveen Chopra who was working for India Today. He had just finished a cover story on the resurgence of the New Age in India and, together, we decided to start a publication based on the same values. So in 1995, we came up with the idea and in 1996, we launched the magazine.
Why is it that even though you were born, brought up, and educated in India, and run a business here, you live in the US and keep travelling back and forth?
As part of my business, I already had a flat office in New York City. My elder son, who lived in New Delhi, suffered from multiple ear infections and had had a couple of surgeries done on him. When it was time to do his third surgery, I asked the doctor what the cure was and the doctor said that moving out of New Delhi was the only cure since the pollution was causing the ear infection. At that time, I was looking to move to other parts of India, and then it suddenly struck me that I already have a house and an office in NY—so why not just move to New York?
What is your spiritual foundation, considering that you are the founder of a publication like Life Positive?
My naani was hugely responsible for laying my spiritual foundation. She did not have any sons. She would move from one daughter to another during a year and spend a lot of time with us. My mother was one of her favourite daughters. But when I was in my mid-teens, I was faced with a tragedy for which I did not get answers from my religion. At that time, I turned an atheist. I stopped believing in God and used to think, ‘How could God do this to me? How could this event happen in my life?’ But after some time, since my foundation in religion was quite strong, I became an agnostic and conjectured, ‘Ok, maybe God exists, but as long as there is no proof, I am not going to believe in Him.’
So how did things change?
At that time, fortunately, I studied in a school called Mother’s International school, which had a nice library filled with spiritual books. During that time, I went through all the scriptures like the Bible, the Koran, the Gita, and read books by philosophers like Bernard Shaw, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Sri Aurobindo, and Swami Vivekananda. At that time, Sri Aurobindo appealed the most to me. The answers I was seeking started coming to me. And that’s when I decided to move from religion to spirituality. Of course, I understand that religion is very important to many people, and it has its due place in society, but I realised that it was not meant for me. I needed to move away from religion; therefore, I moved to spirituality.
Do you consider yourself a practising Sikh anymore or not?
I have not been a practising Sikh since the age of 15 or 16. But I resonate with the teachings of all the religions. When I say this, I don’t mean to say that I believe in everything which is written or preached, but the basic tenet of Sikhism or, for that matter, any religion is part of the spiritual message by the Divine. So I am not denying the messages that have been propagated, but for me, to be religious means to exclude others from myself, and that is not the path for me.
How has LP affected your personal life, thoughts, career and decisions?
Through LP, I came in contact with many positive, highly-evolved souls—people with strong spiritual energy, who influenced me in ways big and small. Being a Sikh by birth, I was a strict non-vegetarian. It wasn’t possible for me to go out and not have non-veg food. But now, I have turned vegetarian.
Did it happen with some effort or was it a natural organic process?
There was no effort. I just decided to quit eating meat and that’s that.
One day I was meditating and began questioning my habit of eating meat. After that meditation, I decided never to eat flesh. As a matter of fact, I was supposed to go for my nephew’s birthday on the same day. I thought that my sister must have cooked non-veg for me, thinking how much I love it, and if I refused to eat, she would be very disappointed.
But as soon as I entered her house, I saw that a big havan was being performed. I was greatly relieved to see that only vegetarian prasad was being served to the guests. For me, it was a sign from the Universe that my decision was the right one.
Which spiritual practice do you follow in your daily life?
I think, for a person who desires to evolve, the practice is every minute, every second, every moment. You cannot practice for an hour or half an hour a day and think that you are done. I don’t think that’s the luxury we have. I was having a discussion with a pretty big industrialist friend of mine and he mentioned to me that he prays for half an hour a day and that nothing is changing within him. He doesn’t feel any different from what he was before.
I said, “You are in business, so if you did business for only half an hour a day, do you think that something major will happen in a year? It does not happen that way. You do business 24x7. You think about it all the time. Even when you are doing your spiritual practice, half the time your mind is going towards your business. Every moment, you think of your business, and that’s the reason your business is growing. So how can you expect your spirituality to grow if you pray only for half an hour a day? It has to be a practice that has to be lived every moment and every minute of your life.
Are you conscious of your higher Self every single minute of your life, while interacting with people and making decisions?
I would say that that’s the aim. Some days are better than others. On certain days I am more in touch with my higher Self and make decisions guided by it, whereas other days are not that great. Sometimes, three–four months are absolute bliss and at other times, things seem to fall apart.
How do you maintain your balance between the material and the spiritual? Spirituality can make people very reclusive, and only after a great amount of practice does one achieve a state of inner balance.
There is a saying which I like: ‘Make even your sins the stepping stone to Godliness.’ Therefore, everything can be a stepping stone on the spiritual path. I believe that when you transcend something, it doesn’t mean that you exclude what you have transcended. It is a part of your being in any case.
So for me, it has never been that much of a struggle in terms of reconciling with something I should not have done. I do not mull over it too much. If I make a mistake, then I go over it, learn from it, and resolve not to repeat it.
Which aspect of your personality is stronger, the businessman or the seeker?
I think it’s the seeker one which is stronger in me.
Does it ever come in the way of your decision making as a businessman? It is considered that one has to be quite shrewd to succeed in business.
Well, I think what you are referring to is how one has to step on others sometimes to succeed in business—by hurting others or causing them pain, right? I believe if one has to hurt others to succeed in business, then even from a moralistic point of view I would not do it, let alone the spiritual part. There is no reason why one should step on others to make profit or to grow.
Yet, at the same time, if I have to fight somebody in business, then I think that I have a spiritual armour which makes me more protected and more blessed than my rivals. Therefore, if I feel that what I am doing is right and am siding with the truth, then it doesn’t matter who I am fighting with. I will have stronger faith in my ability to succeed than the person who is fighting me because I know that I am fighting for what is right.
What is the reason for your sangfroid? One has never seen you raising your voice on your colleagues.
In spirituality, it is easy to preach and think of not losing one’s temper, but the real deal is to practice it. My practice is that if you can do something to change a situation, then do it, and if you can’t do anything to change it, then accept it. What other option is there? Why should I lose sleep over it and get angry or upset about it? With this belief, I move forward.
Do you fear that your leniency might lead to slackness or inefficiency from your employees?
If someone is not putting in his best efforts, they are damaging themselves more than me because they are blocking their own growth. Which means that if they are getting into a habit, then they would do the same in any other organisation they go to. And they won’t be able to grow as much as they would like to.
My expectation from all those who work with me is that they should be sincere in their job and do everything to fulfil it. They are not school kids who should be punished. For that matter, even school children don’t respond well to punishment; they rebel or go the opposite way. Strictness will only cause them to hide things and you won't come to know what is actually happening.
Have you done some form of sadhana, or has this equilibrium always been a part of your personality?
I have practised pranic healing, tarot, and moksha pata. I have attended lots of workshops organised by Life Positive too; but besides that, I have not done any intensive sadhana. However, once in two or three years, I do go on a retreat for three weeks to rejuvenate myself.
How do you deal with disappointments in your professional life?
If you are detached, you will take things in your stride. Ups and downs are a part of life.
Do you ever fear losing all that you have?
No. If I lose all that I have, it would mean that it’s time to go for my sadhana—to the mountains somewhere in a cave, and spend the rest of my time in spiritual pursuit. It will be a blessing from God.
Please share a memorable anecdote as the publisher of Life Positive.
I was at a retreat in Bangalore about four to five years ago. Life Positive had come out with a special issue on love. At this retreat, I kept a few copies of LP (that I had carried with me) at the reception. While I was quietly sitting, having tea, a lady came up to me from nowhere and asked, ‘Can I talk to you for a minute?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ Then she told me that she had just read the magazine and somebody had told her that I was its publisher. I nodded in agreement. She continued, ‘You know, God cannot be everywhere; that’s why he makes people like you!’ It was very overwhelming for me. For a moment, I didn’t know what to tell her. There have been a couple of times when people have told me that LP has actually saved their lives. They were about to commit suicide, but they changed their mind after accidentally reading the magazine. Incidents like these give me the impetus to continue to publish Life Positive regardless of the hurdles that come its way.
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