By Suma Varughese
Mumtaz Ali, otherwise known as m, is a greatly respected Vedanta teacher and spiritual mentor to thousands across the world.
Perhaps the most striking thing about M, as he is usually called by the many students who know him as a Vedanta and yoga teacher, a spiritual instructor and founder of Satsang Foundation, is his name, Mumtaz Ali. In a syncretic land like India, a Muslim imparting core Hindu wisdom is really par to the course, but in the vitiated times we live in created by divisive politics, there is usually a pause and then a rush of pleasure at the thought of this unlikely coupling.
Yet Mumtaz Ali does not see himself as a posterboy for Hindutva. He wears his identity lightly, and sees himself as a human being, absorbing wisdom from all available sources from Sufism to Hinduism.
M’s spiritual journey is thrilling and began in the most mysterious way at age nine, when a strange being approached him in his home in Trivandrum, Kerala, and pronounced himself as his guru. Wearing a white loin cloth, the long-haired fair-skinned visitor told him that he would not meet him again for many years but that all means for his spiritual tuition would be provided. Sure enough, different people manifested at different stages in his life and led the boy, who by now had already attained the experience of inner bliss, onward. In his second year of college, he ran away to the Himalayas and in due course met his master, who he calls Babaji, once again.
Clearly, a man with a destiny, M was instructed by his guru to teach Vedanta and yoga and accordingly set up the Satsang Foundation and Satsang Trust, in Bangalore. In between becoming a spiritual teacher, M dabbled in many activities, serving as a trustee for the Krishnamurti Foundation for a few years. He met and married his wife, Sunanda, there and soon after began his other passion, setting up schools for rural education. He has one in Madanapalle, a small village in Andhra Pradesh, and has recently started his residential fee-paying school that hopes to raise children to develop their mental, physical and spiritual potential. He has written two books, Jewel in the Lotus (Sterling), and Wisdom of the Rishis, the latter published by the Satsang Foundation. A singer and painter who makes a livelihood from his paintings, M is clearly a protean personality. Excerpts from an interview conducted with him in Bangalore:
What does enlightenment actually mean? What are its characteristics?
Since there are so many different enlightenment approaches in India, it is difficult to answer that question.
Would you say that there are different forms of enlightenment?
I think so. … you know when people talk of vedanta, they only talk of advaita vedanta. But there are so many, like dvaita which is also vedanta; then there is the visisht advaita of Madhavacharya and there are many inbetween. In the same way, enlightenment has different definitions.
For Madhavacharya, for instance, enlightenment means that the heart has become purified, the atma has been cleared of all dross, and it can enjoy the bliss of worshiping Krishna. The individual soul in essence shares the same characteristics as Narayana but it can never become Narayana.
Madhavacharya gave a beautiful example to illustrate his view. There is water everywhere, in the cup, the river and the sea. It is water all right so it is part of Narayana. But individual souls are like the cells of the human body while Narayana is the whole. He also said, even though it is all water, it is quantitatively different. You cannot run a ship in a cup of water. That is why it is called vishisht advaita, yes and no.
Whereas, in advaita vedanta, Shankaracharya says there is no such thing as the individual soul. There is only the Supreme Brahman. So when the illusion is removed, there is only one. For him that is enlightenment. Then there is enlightenment for the Buddhists. Complete blowing off of the candle, shunyata. For the Sufi, enlightenment is enjoying the bliss of communion with the Supreme.So there are so many definitions…
Some commonalities must be there…
Nobody disagrees that the soul’s dross, which is covered with impurities, has to be purified.
Presumably dropping the ego…?
That is not part of Madhava’s philosophy. It is purely Krishnamurti and Buddhism. You can have some other kind of ego but you cannot drop the ego because you cannot function without it. Anyone who is functioning has to have a semblance of an ego. You have to say that I am, otherwise how can you function?
But what about the self-centerdness?
Self-centredness, yes. So you can say unselfish ego. I have never seen anyone whose ego has totally gone. Especially the sanyasis, who have a stronger ego than ordinary people like you and me. I love Kabir. He said, I looked for evil and I could not find it anywhere. I looked within my heart and could not find any good there. How many of our so-called enlightened people are prepared to say that? Nobody. I haven’t met anybody. (laughs) Honestly.
What is your definition of enlightenment?
From my point of view, I am very careful about calling myself enlightened. First, one must realize one’s own limitations. The first step to self-realisation is to understand one’s own self. Where I stand. How do I relate to the world, how do I act in different circumstances, what are my motivations, above all. Unless we figure that out, we cannot get out of this. The person is slightly enlightened when one has learnt to see oneself as one is – not as the Supreme Being, but as one is. Then as one moves forward, and sees oneself in all one’s dimensions, relationships, networking, patterns, then perhaps there is a chance that it will fall. But it does not mean that one becomes totally egoless. I think there are good egos and bad.
But is there no chance that the person may be established in egolessness?
I can see traces of ego in myself.
How does it manifest?
Sometimes I feel proud to have founded an institution. Sometimes, that thought does pop up. And there are times when people tell you, you are great, wonderful. I think all one’s life one has to watch this ego. If one lets go of this watchfulness then it is possible that one can get caught. One can get established in watchfulness. That is very important. My master used to say, it does not matter what people think about you. Let them think anything. That is watchfulness. The Upanishads also declare, he who thinks he know, knows not.
You have associated with Krishnamurti and been part of the Foundation. What do you think of him?
There are many valuable things in our tradition. To ask people to discard all that is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. I had a discussion with Krishnaji once. He said that he had not read any of the scriptures. I said fine. Then he gave a public talk in Madras, where he said, ‘Throw away all your holy books into the river. There is nothing in them.’ That evening I said, ‘Sir, there is a contradiction in what you are saying. You said you had not read these books. Then you said, ‘Throw them away, there is nothing in them’. If you have not read them, you cannot say, there is nothing in them.’
Then he said, ‘I don’t need them.’ I said, ‘That is another matter. You should explain that you don’t need them. You are a well-established person and people take what you say seriously.’ The good thing is that he said ‘You are right.’ I appreciate certain points of this person, but I am very fearful of Krishnamurtites. There is a new brand of fanatics called Krishnamurtites (laughs). When a preacher from a village comes and talks beautifully on the Bhagavad and says, Lord Krishna says this. Okay, you criticize him because he does not have originality, what does he know. Then you have a discussion, and finally you say, Krishnaji said so. I say, what is the difference between that man and you. He says, Krishna said so, and you say, Krishnaji said so.
Chaitanya Mahraprabhu once said, The Supreme Reality can be with form or without form, or with and without form at the same time. You deny that and you are denying the infinite capacity of the Supreme Reality. I subscribe to that.
How did your spiritual journey begin?
I met my master at age nine My life changed completely. He touched me for a few minutes on my head. I started getting what I needed for my spiritual growth. I met many spiritual masters and teachers. In my second year of college, I ran away to the Himalayas. I was the only son of my parents. I knew that they would not give me permission.
Eventually, after many adventures I reached Badrinath. While exploring around, I reached a place called Vyasa guha. A strange force rooted me to the spot and refused to let me go further. Taking this as a sign I walked in and met the man who I had last seen at age nine! He looked so much like Mahatvar Babaji.
He had long hair. He wore a big rudraksh, and carried a small kamandulam. I called him Babaji. He claimed, and I have no reason to doubt this, to be a close disciple of Mahavtar Babaji. I spent three-and-a-half years with him. He had no ashram, no banner, no organisation. He had two or three disciples who would come and meet him off and on.
Whatever I possess of spirituality I acquired during that time. I may have added on a few things since but the basic thing I got there. He broke something inside. Life became completely different. It’s both joyful and a crown of thorns. Your enjoyment is not confined to your own geographical location. You are overpowered by others’ happiness too.
But it is the same thing with sorrow. You deeply experience the sorrows of others. However, one has learnt that sorrow is not something to run away from. So that becomes an enjoyment in itself. A sweet sorrow. But it can be overpowering when someone feels very badly hurt. Then you want to do something about it.
But can you do anything when you feel so intensely?
You try to do something. To somehow get the sorrow out of the person. After this experience, there were very few prejudices left. There may be some but few. Therefore one sees very clearly. You say only what you feel. You don’t want to pretend because you have nothing to hide. Also, meditation becomes effortless. I learnt the kriya yoga from my master and that is what I teach my students. I also teach the Sri Vidya upasana. I initiate a few, but there are no number games.
But still you have students.
It’s like this. When Babaji passed away in 1985, he told me not to teach for a while. In ’92, one night, he appeared in a dream and said, ‘Tomorrow, start talking.’ The next day, a jeweler friend of mine told me to address a small group of theosophists. It turned out, there were 150 of them. A few people suggested that we meet every Sunday. I wondered what name to give instead of my name and somehow the initial M suggested itself. People started calling me M, sometimes Shri M or even Mister M (laughs). I prefer M because it is neutral. In time we founded the Satsang Foundation.
What does the Foundation do?
Its basic work is to initiate self-transformation.
We also have a chapter of the Satsang Foundation called Manav Ekta. I am planning next year to go on a padayatra. I want to go to Gujarat. I want to hold prayer meetings every evening like Mahatma Gandhi did. To heal the pain. Another activity that the Satsang Foundation does is to start educational institutions. We have about a hundred children to whom we offer free education until the class of seven. We run it on donations from people. I make my living through painting.
What is your own state of mind?
The mind is quiet and peaceful. It is not a passive peace because I am always on the move. I am unruffled in most situations. Consciousness is steady and quiet. On this path there is no end. What we are seeking is infinite. But there is no incompletion. One is forever expanding. You can’t say it is ended. Ended means decay. Everyday, one sees a new aspect.
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