The cool guru

Sadhguru is in communion with native Americans after a 9,477-mile motorcycle ride

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev | Courtesy Isha Foundation Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev | Courtesy Isha Foundation

Interview/ Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, founder, Isha Foundation

In October, many people were amused at the sight of a 63-year-old yogi, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, riding a motorcycle across 19 American states. He was on a 9,477-mile journey to explore the lives of native Americans, and met their leaders as well as some of his famous followers like the actor Will Smith. “Can’t believe he is crossing America on a motorcycle. It is so cool,” said Smith’s daughter, the singer Willow, gazing at the guru at her residence.

Sadhguru has often been called the coolest guru in the world—one who rides motorbikes, plays golf and flies airplanes. The son of a doctor, he rode up the Chamundi Hills in hometown Mysuru at age 25, flumped on a rock, lost sentience and woke up days later, enlightened! He travelled across India and then decided to share his inner experience. In 1983, he conducted his first yoga class in Mysuru, with fewer than 20 participants. Soon, he was holding classes across south India, travelling on his motorbike and living off his poultry farm. The fees from his students went to charity.

Nine years later, in 1992, he established the Isha Foundation on the foothills of the Velliangiri mountains, near Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Today, the foundation has 250 centres and 11 million volunteers worldwide.

In January this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Sadhguru was part of the ‘Champions For One Trillion Trees’ platform. He has been promoting tree plantation through ‘Project GreenHands’ and ‘Rally for Rivers’. Cauvery Calling, the first phase of the rally, encourages farmers to plant 2,420 million trees in the Cauvery basin in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. He actually wants to plant 50 billion trees in India’s river basins. Planting them on private lands, he says, will enrich the farmer and ensure the survival of the saplings.

This year Sadhguru started the Devi series of talks on how the feminine is still worship-worthy in India. Edited excerpts from an interview with him:

Q\ While launching ‘Devi: Fire of Feminine’, during this year’s Navratri, you said the feminine was suppressed around the world, but it continues to prevail in India. But there is deep-seated patriarchy in India, and crimes against women are increasing.

A\ We are mistaking the current sociological and criminological situation with the cultural qualities that we have. Today, across the world, people believe that a woman is not worship-worthy. That she cannot be God because she comes from a certain level of impurity. India is the only place where the feminine is still worshipped; this must be highlighted because it is very important for the future development of societies in the world.

Well, terrible crimes have happened in the last few years in the country. But we have a way of highlighting every negative thing that happens, for political, ideological or religious reasons.

A hundred years ago, a man got married by the time he was 20 and a woman when she was 16. Today, women are not married till they turn 25 and men till they turn 30. But, human beings have a biological need, which you do not want to address. Even in families, you do not want to address how your boys and girls should deal with their sexuality. If we do not have the courage to address anything, then these incidents will happen.

Human behaviour is not controlled entirely either by one’s consciousness or conscience. Society and family presence also control human behaviour. Today, the moment a young man leaves his village and comes to the city, he has no family or society. All he does is work for ten to twelve hours, and then goes and stays in some of the most horrible conditions. When his urges take him over, he puts a drop of alcohol into himself—which we are selling in such great gusto because it is the main resource for many state governments. The guy loses all discretion and does terrible things.

And, then, we created a whole lot of films. Through the seventies and eighties, in Hindi cinema, there were expert actors called rape specialists. In every film, rape was part of the masala. But nobody wants to take responsibility for that. You inspire a whole generation to do those kinds of horrendous acts and now you are surprised?

Just look at the kind of television serials and commercial advertisements we are creating. It is quite disgusting how people are shown handling their emotions. If they get angry, they take their plate of food and smash it into someone’s face. So, the youth is talking the same language. They are not reading any great literature or receiving any spiritual teaching. Their learning is through social media and media. It is very important that these are conducted responsibly.

It is a tremendous thing that still, in every village in India, a woman is seen as worship-worthy. We must keep it up. It is important that this attitude comes up in every culture because this is also a kind of temperance in society.

Q\ How is the Cauvery Calling project progressing?

A\ The Cauvery Calling project is going on track in spite of the pandemic. Our volunteers are a highly dedicated force of young people, both men and women, who are doing a fantastic job. They have been on the ground in spite of the pandemic. Unfortunately, four of our core volunteers who were working in the villages of Karnataka got infected. But they have recovered and they are back in action.

This year we had the goal of planting eleven million trees. We thought we would not be able to fulfil the goals this year, but we are short by just another 6 to 7 per cent, which we will complete this month. The northeastern monsoon in Tamil Nadu will facilitate that. And next year, our goals are being raised to a much higher level.

We have got the policy changes that were necessary to make this tree-based agriculture a success.

One challenge was that, for three to four years after planting the trees, there is a little bit of an economic loss for the farmer before his income increases. Fortunately, we persuaded the government to give a subsidy for these four years. For every surviving tree, the government is giving a subsidy of Rs125. Without this significant bridge, we could not have made it a success.

We involved political leaders from all parties, even at the panchayat level, to propagate this. They understand how significant this project is, that this is not an experiment. We have been doing this for nearly 20 years now in Tamil Nadu, and there are about 70,000 farmers whose income has multiplied anywhere from 300 to 800 per cent in the last seven years. Now we are focusing on the Cauvery belt which covers 83,000 square kilometres.

Another impediment was that, even if you grew a tree on your own land and cut it, the police or forest department officials could come and arrest you. So no farmer wanted to have a tree on his land. We have successfully pushed for a change in this law. Trees are moving from the forest department to the agriculture department. This is very important. Today, you can cut the trees that you grow and transport them anywhere in the country. You can even sell them on a digital platform set up by the environmental ministry. You need to register the tree properly.

Mystical bond: Sadhguru with Chief Izzy Black Spotted Horse of Lakota (native American) tribe | Courtesy Isha Foundation Mystical bond: Sadhguru with Chief Izzy Black Spotted Horse of Lakota (native American) tribe | Courtesy Isha Foundation

India is importing over Rs70,000 crore worth of raw timber and over Rs1,20,000 crore worth of timber products every year. Now, our farmers can grow and sell timber; this is an insurance for them. One simple way to prevent farmer suicides is to have trees growing on his land, so that when other crops fail, the market falls, or something happens in his family, he can take care of himself by just cutting one tree.

A whole lot of armchair environmentalists will bristle up and say, “Oh, this is encouraging cutting trees”. See, you cannot grow a tree on your head; you need land. Eighty-four per cent of our land is in the hands of farmers. So, farmers are growing the trees and cutting them. In India, timber products and forests must be delinked. Our forests cannot be exploited any further, and there is no question of increasing forest cover in the country because the population pressure is so high. If we want timber, we must grow it. This is the only way to do it.

The United Nations agencies see this as the best way to go ahead, and they are partnering with us. Now I am in the US trying to generate funds for the project because planting 242 crore trees is not a joke. People do not seem to understand this. Though our organisation is entirely volunteer-based, the cost of labour, transportation, campaigning and encouraging the farmers need an enormous amount of funding. But, I feel that once we complete 15 to 20 per cent of the plantations and farmers see the economic benefit, the momentum will be unstoppable.

Q\You have mentioned the need to stay fitter during the pandemic. You said none of your volunteers in India and abroad, so far, were infected with Covid-19. How does one stay happy, healthy, balanced and safe during such a situation?

A\ We have over eleven million volunteers across the world. So there may be people who were infected. I was talking about people living in the yoga centres, which includes nearly 4,000 people in India, and some in the US. Nobody, out of them, has been infected till now, though we are actively engaged in the local community. We travelled across 19 states of the US, including some native American reservations which were highly infected, but the entire team has come back without a single infection. This is because our protocols are very tight and every one of them has practices which greatly enhance one’s immune system.

The chief minister of Tamil Nadu, in one of his speeches, mentioned that the area where we are working “does not seem to be affected” because there are hardly any infections in the 47 villages there. All it takes is behaving sensibly and keeping our immune system strong. Slowly, the whole world is realising that this is the only answer.

Responsible and conscious behaviour, and a strong immune system, is the only solution against any infection. We are teaching a very powerful system of kriya, called simha kriya, to millions of people around the world right now. We are also offering certain simple aspects of yoga, called upa-yoga, and inner engineering, free of cost online, to medical personnel and Covid warriors. Hundreds of thousands of people have gone through this. These are some simple tools you can employ to keep the body in such a way that it knows how to resist whatever comes.

Q\You undertook a 9,477-mile motorcycle journey in the US, through 19 states, to explore the history, culture and lives of native Americans. Why did you choose the US for the journey?

A\ Almost 18 years ago, I was in a place called Central Hill Lake. While I was in a small cottage there, I just walked into the forest and encountered something very strange. It was almost like a frozen native American spirit. This experience was probably the most painful experience in my life. I have never seen any being in that kind of pain—shame, resentment, deceit, anger, all this put together. After that, I started inquiring about it and I found out that that region is called the Trail of Tears. The Cherokee Nation was removed as a part of the Removal Act, and people were made to walk to Oklahoma in bad weather. Thousands of them died, so it is called Trail of Tears. That is when I decided to set up a centre there.

Our 4,000-acre centre is at the head of the Trail of Tears. It is a beautiful place on one level, but it was not the beauty but the pain which drew me to that place. Since then, I have been looking at their culture and about the various tribes. Most people would not know that there used to be over 500 native American nations in the US alone. Today, they are all there in a nominal way. So I have been looking at making this trip, but my schedule never allowed. Now, because of the virus, I had the time. And because they had no written languages, only spoken word, if you want to know these cultures—as they usually say—’It’s blowin’ in the wind’. So, I thought, there is no better way to travel than on a motorcycle.

Today in modern society, environment is in the textbook, but for these people, environment is in their hearts. They are not living on this earth; they are the earth. They live this in every way. Unless that happens to modern societies, unless we have ecological concerns in our hearts, we will only talk about it as an abstract science that does not concern us. I think this message and this culture is very vital for this generation and the next, if we want to do something significant about addressing the ecological concerns that we have.

Q\ During this journey you met Hollywood actor Will Smith, who has been following you for a while. How was your experience of talking to him?

A\ I had heard his name, but I did not know who Will Smith was. Later, I saw one of his films, Ali [biopic on boxer Muhammad Ali], because I like Muhammad Ali. Before I saw the film, I had seen pictures of Will in suits. The first thing that came to mind was, “This is the wrong actor to play Muhammad Ali. Would he have the muscles when he goes bare-bodied into the boxing ring? Can this actor do justice to Ali?” But he looked good as Ali. I said the same to Will, and he said, “Sadhguru, I had to train for one-and-a-half years before I went into the movie.”

So that is all I knew about Will, because in the last 25 years I have not followed films in any sense. I did not know how popular he was. He has been wanting to meet us for the last two years. Many times, appointments were fixed, but I was in and out of Los Angeles. I could not see him. Now that this virus has brought a little relaxation to my schedule, and he was also eager to meet, we met.

Q\ Your book, Karma: A Yogi’s Guide to Crafting Your Own Destiny, is coming out next year. What is it about?

A\ Karma has become part of the English lexicon now. Everyone talks about karma these days, even in the west. I have been looking at people’s understanding of karma. In India, people are saying, “Aiyo karma!” That means they understand it as their fate. In the west, they think it is some crime-and-punishment kind of business. So I thought that it would be best to put it in the proper light because this is the most dynamic way to approach your life.

Karma means action. You are performing physical, mental, emotional and energetic action every moment of your life, in wakefulness and in sleep. This incessant action accumulates in the form of a certain type of memory. All of it is not conscious memory; over 95 per cent is unconscious memory. This is like you are creating an unconscious software. As it builds up, this memory will start determining your tendencies, the way you behave and the way you make choices. Everything is determined by what kind of karmic information you gather over a period of time. Fundamentally, your life is your karma. When we say this, it means that your life is entirely your making.

Well, creation has happened; we did not make the creation. Creation has given us these faculties and capabilities. But your experience of life is entirely your making, whether you are joyful or miserable. If you do not understand that your life is your karma, then you will become bitter and hateful, and lose all your sense of joy and peace. Only when people really understand this, will they create the life that they want for themselves; otherwise, they are just one endless complaint.

How you experience any situation is entirely your making. If you determine this one thing, you will have wonderful people around you. Once there are wonderful people, you will have a wonderful humanity around you. Once you have a wonderful humanity, you will have a fantastic world around you.