The Patient's Dilemma:
A modern Gita
Length: 21,200 words
Note: This is fiction! Any models used have been profoundly changed and
The patient's dilemma
A modern Gita
by Ashutosh Vardhana
1. Summary of plot 4
2. Departure 6
3. History 7
4. Parents and children 8
5. Judgement 13
6. The ideal gift 15
7. Hospital 16
8. Family in action 18
9. Learning from example 23
10. Vigil 26
11. Morning 27
12. Divine chaos 29
13. Who cares 32
14. Nevermore 36
15. Night thoughts 37
16. Flight at dawn 39
17. The Guru speaks 41
18. Aftermath 46
19. Muni 49
20. Nashto mohas 51
21. Glossary 55
22. Rejected (Alternative) Titles: 56
The Patient's Dilema
REM Note for Literary Agent, Publisher
This piece is was written entirely from a Hindu perspective
and for a Hindu public familiar with certain attitudes, scriptures etc,
hence my use of a Hindu pseudonym. Its purpose was not to explain the
Hindu way of thinking and the problems arising out of this way of
thinking to a Western public.
I do not know whether this piece is good or bad, and whether
it has any potential for re-shaping or casting into a different art
form (play, film), for improving within more or less its present
length, or for shortening, e.g. by making it more elliptical (e.g.
following the example of "Tirano Banderas" by Ramón del Valle-Inclán
(1926) and similar authors), cutting out the outpouring of emotion
(which may appear sentimental or be embarrassing for some readers).
I therefore make the following remarks with some diffidence:
1 I do not want (unless persuaded) to use this material to
write a piece which explains aspects of Hinduism to non-Hindus. If
non-Hindus might enjoy this piece and find it interesting "as it
stands" (i.e. perhaps with artistic improvements, but not in the
direction of explaining things merely because of the non-Hindu
audience), then I would be happy and make the changes suggested.
2 If the piece required explanations (apart from notes) merely
for the benefit of a non-Hindu audience, explanations which are not
required for a Hindu audience, I would not want to make these changes,
because it would alter the character of the piece entirely and, in my
opinion, spoil it. (Consider Arundhati Roy's "A God of Small Things",
which deals with its subject matter without explaining the caste-system
etc to a non-Hindu audience.) I want to remain within the Hindu
universe of discourse. I do not want to "point with a finger" at
Hindus, as if I were an astonished onlooker.
3 If I had to explain Hinduism to a non-Hindu public, I would
choose a different topic for the purpose, presumably one in which
Hindus AND non-Hindus play a role.
4 I do not know what form of literature the piece belongs to
as it stands. It is too long for a short story, it is too short for a
novel. Somehow I feel that it does not have the appearance of a
novella; or has it? There is the characteristic "turning point", it
deals with one incident only, and its length also is that of classical
19th century novellas. The frame narrative, too, especially on a train,
makes it similar to certain novellas, e.g. by Maupassant.
4 There are certain aspects of the plot which could be
expanded; e.g. one could try to explain why the children grew up as
they did and how the family breakdown occurred which contributed to
some of the conflicts. But that would be an entirely different story
(also a different title) and I am at the moment not particularly
interested in investigating or inventing the events which could have
made the participants of this story into what they are.
My interest was only in the duties of the guru and the
disciple in this particular situation (and they have certain parallels
with the conflict that forms the subject of the Gita, hence the
sub-title "A modern Gita"), and having written this more than a year
ago I have almost forgotten the story. Somehow I have the feeling that
the subject matter has been exhausted with this story and that it
cannot yield any more material (e.g. for a novel) - unless of course
one used the novel form to present the pre-history of this event. But
the pre-history is irrelevant for what this piece discusses.
Somehow this was a painful experience and I am not too keen to
roll it all up again, unless it be to make minor technical
improvements, e.g. cutting rather than adding. Or let somebody else
turn it into screenplay.
That said, I should be very grateful to hear what you have to
say and at least CONSIDER your suggestions.
End of note. endREM
1. Summary of plot
An old Hindu priest, astrologer, Sanskrit scholar and guru
living in Leicester, England, suffers from a congenital heart defect
and is slowly dying. He is offered an operation which will greatly
improve his health and extend his life span. He has a devoted disciple,
Ashok, who cares for him, and five resentful adult children who have
grown up in England, do not understand the Hindu tradition, and for
mysterious reasons bear a grudge against their father and neglect him.
After many weeks of pondering the pros and cons, the Guru decides to
undergo the operation. His children do not show much interest in his
medical condition and do not aid him in his difficult decision. Two
days before the operation, Ashok takes him to the hospital and stays at
his bedside day and night. Final tests are made to determine if he is
still fit for the operation, and they show that he is stronger than
expected. When the Guru speaks to the surgeon, he confirms that he is
ready to undergo the operation. Three hours later, on the evening
before the operation is due, his family descends on him. They suddenly
see a chance of gaining status by putting on the act of concerned
relatives and challenging the professionals. Having taken no interest
in their father's health for many years, they start questioning the
details of the operation and making their father insecure while
refusing to give any clear-cut advice. They merely reiterate: "You must
decide", which can only mean: "Do not have the operation for which you
have come here." This is 12 hours before the operation is due to start.
A dispute arises between Ashok, who favours the operation, and the
family. Ashok is accused of bullying the Guru into having the
operation. The Guru, as yet undecided, hears of the dispute and the
attack on the one person who truly cares for him, unlike his biological
children. During the night preceding the operation he decides against
it and in favour of a slow decline. He fears that, in the event of the
operation failing, his beloved disciple will, for the rest of his life,
be accused by his family and his own conscience of having caused the
Guru's death. He also wants to give his uncaring children, who he
thinks have suddenly become aware of their duties as children, a chance
to make up for their past neglect by looking after him properly while
"death is eating him in small bites", rather than killing him in one
fell swoop as the operation might have done. When he arrives home
again, the facade of love displayed at the hospital is forgotten. The
children declare that their father does not love them, therefore he
cannot expect more than minimal care from them. The Guru's gamble on
his children has failed. Ashok accuses himself for not having spoken up
more forcefully in favour of the operation, for not having accepted the
risk of being blamed for his Guru's death. While the Guru is asleep,
Ashok sneaks out to discuss his plight with one of the Guru's friends.
The Guru phones him and reminds him of the virtue of doing one's duty
regardless of outcome, to accept destiny, to accept that life is chaos,
that chaos is divine, and that there are many routes through life, none
of which is the only or perfect one. Ashok accepts the teaching. A week
later the Guru is invited by the Surgeon to explain his seemingly
irrational decision against the operation. Ashok has learnt from his
previous timidity, decides to take a risk and speak up strongly. He
quotes the same scriptures used previously by the Guru. But they show
that we must not accept destiny without battle. The Gita contains two
doctrines: (1) To fight the battle, (2) To accept destiny. The doctrine
of destiny must not lead us into passivity. Even making no decision is
to make a decision and results in responsibility. We cannot escape from
responsibility. We have to make positive decisions. We have to fight
the battle with the best weapons and with all our might. But we cannot
be sure of the outcome of the battle. We might win, or we might be
defeated. Only now the doctrine of destiny is applicable. It helps us
accept the outcome of the battle (but not to avoid battle), especially
if it is defeat. Even that defeat is only apparent. In fact both defeat
and victory is only one step forward on our road from birth to death.
All roads lead to Benares, all steps take us to death. Every step is a
step forward, every step means progress.
Ashok who is bound to serve his Guru does him the greatest
service yet by reminding him in his hour of weakness of his own
teaching. Ashok dares to speak with a prophetic voice. Guru and
disciple agree to accept the risk together, to accept a renewed chance
for the operation, and to live or die with the consequences in the
knowledge that they have done their duty.
In passing, Ashok tells how he learnt love and service from
his sister disciple, how they cleaned the Guru's kitchen which had
deteriorated into a pig-sty, how they admired the apparent chaos in a
temple, why chaos is divine and the Western preoccupation with order
may be deadly.
Story starts here
"Look at this photograph", my old friend Ashok said to me
after we both had taken our seat in the train from Leicester to London.
"This is a happy, or if not happy then at least an ideal, Hindu family.
My Guruji in the car about to be taken to hospital for heart surgery.
Me at the steering wheel. The sun is shining. His family out in the
street to wave him good bye and giving him encouraging and loving
smiles. His youngest son seems to be close to tears though. He has been
cooking his father's food for the last year or two and looks after his
house a little.
Guruji's wife died quite a few years ago. He has two sons and
three daughters. All are assembled here in their father's honour,
except Prakash, the eldest son, who lectures on Indian Philosophy in
Oxford. Quite an ascent from a poor terrace house in Leicester to a
post in Oxford! He could only come on the following day. It's a brainy
family this. Here is his son-in-law, there his daughter-in-law and
there one of his grandchildren. Everybody out in the Leicester sunshine
seeing us off.
I am happy to have this photograph. It will remind all of us
of how much happiness there can be in a united family. Not happiness
over the risk and the pain that he was about to face, but happiness
over the improvement in his health for which we were all hoping.
I am happy to have this photograph. If you do not believe in
the power of maya, this photograph shows her at work.
This was a Monday in May, counting as Guruji's first day in
Yes, he is only ten years older than me. We are both no longer
young. But over the years, he has become also a friend and a father to
me, and I a son, without some of the problems which occur between
parents and children when the children are attached to their parents by
destiny rather than by choice, as I was.
What is wrong with Guruji? Why did he need an operation? Oh,
that's a long story. He has a congenital heart defect and as a result
of the knock-on effect, his health is now rapidly deteriorating. His
condition was correctly diagnosed only after many wasted years of wrong
suspicions, and it took some further years of exploration before an
eminent cardiologist advised him that an operation could greatly
improve his quality of life, even though it could not cure him
entirely. An operation was offered, he accepted in principle and was
put on the waiting list. That was in autumn last year. He expected to
have several months to make up his mind, prepare his house, organise
aftercare, but within a few weeks (some time in November) he was given
an appointment for the operation. He had only five days' notice. He was
shocked. He did what no National Health Patient on a waiting list has
ever done before, he asked for the operation to be postponed. The
doctors were surprised, and now he had to wait for a long time.
Meanwhile, however, he could ponder the issue properly, take
advice from friends and family, and make up his mind about the
operation and its risks in peace.
In January 1997 Guruji told me that he had at last decided in
favour of the operation and informed the hospital. We were now waiting
for a fresh appointment. I saw his condition deteriorate and was
waiting with increasing anxiety. In his weak state, each cold, each
infection, might lead to his death. And there was his almost continuous
pain and suffering. In the end I asked his friend, Dr Rajgor, to remind
the hospital of the urgency of the case and chase them to give Guruji
an appointment soon.
At last he got it. He was told to come to the hospital on
Monday, 5 May. The operation would take place on Wednesday, provided
his condition had not deteriorated too much. The cardiologist (Prof.
Henderson) and the surgeon (Mr Jones) wanted these two days to get an
up-to-date picture of his health. Everybody's intention was to proceed
with the operation unless there were medical circumstances making it
As I live in London now, I had to travel to Leicester to be
with Guruji. I came to his house on Saturday, 3 May, in order to keep
him company during his last two days at home and help him prepare. It
was also agreed that I would be by his bed-side, hospital regulations
permitting, so-to-speak "round the clock". He would receive love and
attention and encouragement (more than a nurse can offer) during the
difficult weeks he would have to spend in hospital. I would sleep in my
caravan parked just outside the hospital, so that I could be with him
early in the morning, leave him late at night, and run any errands for
him that he might require. He had introduced me to the hospital staff
as his son so that they would give me access to him under circumstances
when it might be refused to an ordinary visitor.
4. Parents and children
His five biological children should be mentioned here, three
daughters, two sons. Their relationship with their father was
difficult. I do not want to try a thorough assessment of this
relationship here. That would require a novel. Suffice it to say,
therefore, that the unseen fault presumably lay on both sides. It
always does, even if one can only see one side, as I see Guruji's.
Which parent does not sometimes think that he had made mistakes in the
way he conducted his life and in his approach to his children!
But it is not my task to criticise or even assess my Guru. I
have to learn from him and serve him as best I can.
Children also always make mistakes in the way they treat their
parents. The older they get the more they are responsible for their
actions. But they are not utterly free to love or not to love. Their
experiences with their parents have established emotions, of love, or
of resentment, of fear or unease, which make it impossible for them
behave towards their parents as these might wish.
My Guruji loved his children dearly and could easily have
listed many things he had done for them, the sacrifices he had made for
them, and how he truly had their happiness at heart. All parents could
do that. But one does not list such things. The moment you try to prove
your love by listing tokens and giving evidence of love, love itself
disappears like a bubble. It cannot be defined and cannot be proved.
Perhaps the reason is that all tokens of love can be simulated - or
argued away. Perhaps they become true tokens of love only when they are
accepted. If that is so, then love is always reciprocal. Unilateral
love is not love. Therefore I must simply say, without giving examples:
Guruji loved his children. I know.
A person who loves wants some response. He wants to be loved.
He is not asking for a trade. But he needs love, and he wants it
especially from those people whom he, by nature and tradition, is bound
to love, his children, and from whom, by nature and tradition, he
Unfortunately, the children cannot always give it.
In our culture, it is the duty of the children to be
absolutely dedicated to their parents, just as Ashok must be absolutely
dedicated to his Guru, and in return, both children and disciples get
the absolute dedication of their father and their Guru, both of whom
assume the role of God, who cares for all of us.
A father cannot disown his children nor a guru his disciple,
however ungrateful they may be, however much they may fail in
performing their traditional duties, which are virtually the same for
Children (or disciples) have to practise all the general
virtues (truthfulness, unselfishness, respect, loving kindness) in
relation to their parents (guru), which they have to in relation to
God, and more to parents and guru than to any other person.
Usually parents (or genuine gurus) do not fail in their duty
to love their children and take care of them. Nature induces them to do
so. But for children it is not always so easy, because children also
have the overpowering urge to establish their own identity and to
strive for independence. They are likely to be relatively, not
absolutely, dedicated to their parents, especially if they have grown
up in this country and therefore have many aspirations which their
parents do not share.
Parents have to train their children, give them orders, deny
them requests, and the wishes of parents and children can therefore
conflict, especially if the children, as so often, want to move in an
unexpected direction; if they want their liberty, if they want to do
things their parents do not want them to do. There must therefore be
conflicts between parents and children, and the question is how they
are resolved. Who compromises? Who gives in?
Western culture, these days, has much more to say on
children's rights and individual liberty than on their duties towards
their parents. The ancient Honour-Father-and-Mother has worn quite
thin, and European parents do not expect much from their children. They
rely on the National Insurance, the National Health Service and Old
People's Homes, and see nothing wrong with it. Since they expect
nothing, few conflicts can arise over whether these expectations of
love and care are fulfilled. And since there are no conflicts of that
type, the children have less reason to kill in themselves that love
which the parent could otherwise use as a lever to demand from the
child a degree of service and dedication which the child does not want
to give. To demand love is therefore the surest way of not getting it
and of utterly destroying it. Did this happen in Guruji's family?
The force with which our tradition formulates the duties of
ideal children can raise the expectations of parents greatly,
especially if the parents are great lovers of the ancient tradition, as
a Pandit is likely to be. They can be raised so high that the parents
demand as of right what the children should give them out of a sense of
love or duty. The children might refuse it, at least in part,
especially if they have grown up in a Western environment, which knows
nothing of such unconditional and total love and dedication.
It is not easy for a child to love if the parent demands love,
to be grateful if the parent demands gratitude.
The father is dissatisfied with his child who wants to love
him because the child does not follow the father in every respect. The
child senses the dissatisfaction and feels that his tokens of love have
been rejected by the father.
The child thinks that his father is never content, never
satisfied, always condemns him. Relations between father and child
become increasingly strained, and whatever love there is on the part of
the child becomes extinguished. It may be replaced by indifference, or
by hatred. The child feels, wrongly perhaps, but he does, that the
parent does not love him, does not want him to succeed. The child does
not see how the father himself also wants to be loved. The child sees
only one way out of the conflict, to separate himself completely from
his father and forget that the relationship ever existed. The father
does not understand what is happening.
Has he not always loved his child? Is he not now suffering for
the love of his child? Has he not paid for his child's studies? Has he
not arranged an expensive wedding for his daughter, exactly as she has
always wanted. Why are they accusing him now? And what of?
Has he not sent money to help his son, the son who refers to
him as "that man" and would not talk to him or accept anything from
him. Instead he turned to his sister who herself had no money. She came
to the father, and through this secret channel that father supported
the son, while the son abused him for being a fraud, a charlatan, a
But how can one enumerate the tokens of love! Love simply is
there and has to be felt regardless of tokens. And in sad cases like
this one, the children simply cannot perceive it. Let the father do
what he likes, all this is seen as attempts to buy love. And that
cannot be done.
Guruji loved his son. How often did he not speak to me about
his worries. He saw him involved in acrimonious disputes with his
brothers and sisters and feared that he might have no-one to talk to,
having manoeuvred himself into an extreme state of isolation.
He worried: What will happen to my children after my death. My
one daughter suffers from depression, two are unmarried and are
desperately lonely. Will my sons be taken for a ride by women who are
only out to exploit them, as happened during my life time?
Guruji was offered a new house where he could live in comfort.
But he said he could not leave his children, adults though they were:
"One of them suffers from depression. As long as they live in my house,
I must be there for them. I cannot abandon them. This is my duty as a
father." He followed the Hindu tradition of unconditional
responsibility. He did his duty and could only suffer in silence if his
children did not do theirs. He was not entitled to pursue his rights.
Is he not always thinking of his child and of his well-being?
Why should this child, so much beloved, be so cruel and tell his father
to his face so many hurting things which he would not even say to a
stranger? Why should he try to demolish utterly the father's
self-confidence, the father's pride in his achievements, especially as
a father? Is he not like a woman teasing a man about his potency, and
thereby causing and perpetuating his impotence? What has been said once
is difficult to forget. And fear and misgivings become deeply ingrained.
The father does not understand in his own children what he
would readily understand in others'. He has been hurt too much. The
children, even as young adults, are too young, too deeply hurt. They
are not yet able to forget since the father is still alive and the pain
is renewed every day, the demand for submission, perhaps silent, is
repeated every day, and submit they will not. The demand for love feels
like a demand for submission. And the father waits in vain for what his
son cannot possibly give, least of all when it is demanded or so
eagerly hoped for. "It is your duty to love me. I am your father".
"What is that to me! You are the pollinator, needed for my conception,
that is all. Did you beget me out of love for me, who did not even
exist at the time? Why should I be grateful for an act you committed
because it gave you pleasure? You have had your pleasure. Now you are
paying the price."
Nor can the father submit: does not the tradition say that he
should be honoured and obeyed!
When he is dead, when the children have escaped his
expectations, his demands, when the pain and disappointment have worn
off, then perhaps they will be able to forgive and to understand. By
then they will have seen similar mechanisms operating in other
families. They will have learnt to compromise, even in the face of
somebody else who could not compromise. They will have mellowed by
their own suffering, not the suffering of their childhood, but that
melancholic suffering that permeates all life. Life, in which nothing
is perfect, in which everything goes wrong, and which we must accept,
like our parents, with an understanding smile. But that attitude of
acceptance is not possible for one who is still young and sees life in
terms of future successes rather than in terms of much inevitable
failure and disappointment.
But when the children at last have learnt the limitations of
their father, have seen that he was as unfree as they were, that none
of us are able to make really free decisions, when they are then able
to forgive and have a kind word for him, for him as a fellow sufferer,
as we are all sufferers in this life without even knowing why, then it
is too late for the words of love and understanding which parents and
children, as fellow-sufferers rather than as victims and oppressors,
might say to one another, and comfort each other for the fact that both
were born on this earth, and both were born into the same family, there
to play out their roles.
This is how I, Ashok, the disciple,
who, 45 years ago, also was at odds with my father,
I, who also hated the word "gratitude"
because it meant a demand which I thought was unreasonable and which I
was unwilling to give into,
this is how I, Ashok, the disciple,
try to reconstruct what may have been going on over twenty years or so
between my Guru and his children. I cannot fully understand it because
I did not participate, because I came on the scene only after these
attitudes had already been firmly set on both sides. And yet I can
understand it because I am not their father, they are not my children.
It is always easier to admit the possibility of fault on both sides of
a dispute if you are not a party to it. But I dare not raise the issue
with my Guruji because I fear that he will become agitated and will not
understand the destructive truth: it is not my task to teach him, and
my affection does not allow me to embarrass him. It is my task to learn
from him and support him. It is my task to behave as his children
should have, and would have, behaved if things had not gone wrong
somewhere in the distant past.
How can I talk about such things to my Guruji, even though I
can see that both sides do have a point! I would like to see him happy
by helping to restore harmony between him and his children. But what I
analyse here in talking to you, I cannot say to him without stirring up
a hornets' nest. Such feelings between parents and children, cemented
by so much misunderstanding, are beyond rational discussion and
control. I can do nothing, except be a new son to him, and serve him
with all the attention and affection which he would have wanted from
his natural children.
"Our community" is always that part of the community which is
conservative and knows how ideal and traditional families should work.
This community is quick to judge anyone who steps out of line. In this
community many parents have succeeded in bringing up their children
without destroying the bond which enables children to be independent
and yet love their parents. Did they demand less of their children?
Were they better able to compromise? Not to expect the impossible?
If you set your ideals too high, if you expect too much from
your wife and your children, you are more likely to fail than if you
are vulgar and ignorant.
But imagine a father with great love for our traditions, but
with a wife who has a more modern outlook and with children brought up
in her likeness. The father's ideals will be destroyed, he will try to
enforce his lifestyle. He will be frustrated. How will he behave to his
wife and children in his frustration? Will he turn violent? So many of
our sages are irascible, always ready to put a curse on anyone who
crosses them, even inadvertently. They do not have the calm of the
Gita, they do not accept with an equal mind whatever comes by chance.
If our famous sages are so weak, how much more so an ordinary young
Pandit, who sees that he cannot create the ideal family because, in
order to do so, he needs the co-operation of a wife and of children who
are not under his control.
If you want to achieve perfection, you have to do it alone.
That is the reason why our sages recommend brahmacarya. You can be a
sage when you have a family, but it is extraordinarily difficult.
Those who are breaking away from the tradition and adopt
Western ways to a greater or lesser extent, no longer make a point of
saying that they belong to "the community". You are part of the
community if you adhere to traditional values. Disciples do this by
choice. Children cannot choose their father and his values. They do not
always conform. Disciples do and can. The community judges my Guru's
children (all of whom are now adults and two of whom are married) very
harshly. For them they are simply "bad children" who are neglecting
their ailing father, a modern King Liri, treat him harshly, hurt him
with their words, do not do any of the things which a well-brought up,
loving Hindu child would be expected to do, which is much more than is
expected of an English child. Especially they are expected to give
without being asked. For English children it is enough if they respond
when being asked.
Guruji's children feel that the Community condemns them and
are therefore doubly hurt, by the perceived rejection they receive from
their father and by the criticism they receive from the community,
which, they say, does not know their father as he is or was with his
I know that my Guru can be uncompromising. I want to make him
happy. Therefore I praise the achievements of his children wherever I
can. His life, after all, should be continued in them. He was very
proud when his eldest son got his post in Oxford. I studiously point
out any service which they do for him, when they washed his clothes or
made his bed, even if only occasionally (and is not that the trouble!),
that nicely cooked meal he cooked, that glass of water she brought,
that toast which she produced today, the fact that they give him my
telephone messages. I treat the smallest thing as a good sign and as
praiseworthy. Is not a small gesture better than nothing? When I praise
them I do not ask about their manner or their motivation. He has also
seen these gestures. But he has also observed that if she made him
toast today, she did not do it on the last five days, and today not for
him but only because she had other visitors. He notices whether the
gestures are made caringly or mechanically.
I prefer to fudge these issues. For me fudging is a virtue.
This is my eternally optimistic character. I try to make him see
somebody else's action in a better light than it deserves. I think such
a fudge is beneficial for everybody concerned. But he is oh so
clear-sighted. He will not let me get away with it. He will spot the
fudge and instantly uncover the unpleasant truth. He will apply the
standards of the Gita about good gifts, indifferent gifts and bad
gifts. I will then give in. What is the point in arguing? Probably he
is right. I only wanted to give him an anaesthetic, an escape, an
illusion. I believe in the beneficial power of some well-meant
deception or self-deception. He is concerned only with absolute truth.
And so are his children. They fling THEIR absolute truth straight in
his face, and that hurts.
What does the Gita say about gifts, you ask.
6. The ideal gift
The Gita gives many examples of how actions are to be
evaluated. They are classified as sattvic (good), rajasic
(indifferent), and tamasic (bad). This classification helps us assess
and improve our own behaviour.
The Gita talks about gifts, but the same concepts apply to any
A good gift is one which is given without expecting anything
in return, out of a feeling of duty, for instance filial duty, given in
the right place and at the right time and to a deserving person. (Gita
This is what Guruji expects from his children. What he
receives falls well short of it. If he has to beg for every drop of
water and every morsel of food, for every helping hand, then what is
given is not a generous gift, not a good gift. Even the word "duty"
here, is only the Indian equivalent for what the West calls "love". The
rota arrangement falls short of what the Gita means by "duty". That is
why Guruji declines to ring the "room service bell". He does not want
room service. He regards it as demeaning. He wants care. Is that
Gita 17:21 says: Gifts made in the hope of a reward or of
future gain, or made when it hurts to give, are indifferent.
These are the gifts made by selfish people. Much of what
Guruji receives may be of that kind. His children minimise their effort
and organise it well because they manage to do it only with difficulty.
They are reluctant rather than generous: "it hurts them to give".
Such food can feed Guruji's body (for which he cares but
little) but it cannot make him happy. He wants his children to do the
proper thing. Is he expecting too much?
Finally the Gita lists: gifts which are made at the wrong time
or place, to an unworthy person, without proper ceremony or with
contempt. Such gifts are bad; they have no value whatsoever. (Gita
You see, Guruji is concerned with the spiritual value of what
his children do. But they, having adopted the culture of the West, do
they even understand what it is all about?
Guruji sees too clearly. Is that good? But perhaps even I
would see so clearly, could not be bribed and deceived if I were in his
I have to speak harshly about Guruji's children. And it is
therefore only fair to say that they have their reasons, their
explanations, their excuses.
Now you know a little about the family in this happy
photograph. I had stayed with Guruji for the weekend. Now it was
Monday. All his family had by now assembled; two still lived in his
house, one in the neighbourhood, two had come from Oxford and
Nottingham. His son-in-law and daughter-in-law were also there. He sent
me away to do some last-minute shopping. While I was away, he called
his children one by one and spoke to each of them in private. Then he
assembled them all and spoke to them jointly. I do not know what he
said to them. But he knew that he might not survive the operation, and
whatever he said therefore were his final words and his final blessing
for them. As he got into my car, there was a rare show of family
feeling. While in the past his children would not even acknowledge him
when passing him in the street, they had now all come out of the house
and smiled and gave him a splendid send-off. Perhaps he would have
wished such a family spirit all his life. It very much looked like a
united, friendly family.
We arrived in hospital. The cardiologist, the surgeon and
various doctors and nurses attended to him, took specimens, carried out
tests and reiterated the risks.
They were very cautious to start with: a 20% risk (as opposed
to 10% if he had accepted the operation last November) of not leaving
the hospital alive. An expected benefit of a vastly improved quality of
life, less breathlessness, less danger of infection, if the operation
was successful. Here too a 20% risk, that he might survive the
operation but that the expected benefits might not occur. He confirmed
that he was willing to accept the risk and just wanted the potential
benefits spelt out again.
The doctors were protecting themselves by putting the risks so
high. Guruji had been warned. As the day progressed, the cardiologist
and surgeon were becoming increasingly optimistic. Guruji's heart
turned out to be much stronger than expected. The risk was less than
they originally believed. It might now be as low as 15 or 12.5%. Guruji
was happy, and so was I because I had felt all along that the risk was
worth taking and I had seen him suffering during the years preceding
So came Tuesday, the second day, the day before the operation.
I emerged from my caravan before 6 and managed to wash myself in a
hospital toilet. The cardiologist was to see Guruji at 7.45h to give
him a summary of the results of the tests of the preceding day. They
were positive and I was happy. The doctors pointed out that Guruji had,
of course, the option of withdrawing from the operation until it was
carried out, and he started thinking. I was at his bedside all day long
just looking at him, but never dared to ask a question because I knew
that I must not influence his decision in any way. Even a question such
as "Have you made up your mind?" might indicate to him that I wanted
him to maintain the decision in favour of the operation, or otherwise.
I did not want to be responsible. Therefore for hours I looked at him,
but I said nothing. The decision was to be his and his alone.
In the early afternoon his eldest son, Prakash, arrived from
During the day various doctors and nurses came and asked: "Are
you still thinking?" Yes, he was still thinking. But the decisive
moment came when Mr Jones, the surgeon, himself arrived at 3 p.m. and
summarised the situation, explaining the technical details of the
They would close two holes in his heart, repair a defective
valve, all of which shunts the blood in the wrong direction, detach a
number of veins in front of the heart where they are connected to the
wrong heart chamber and connect them to the correct side. They would
not detach and reconnect the veins at the back of his heart because
this would make the operation much longer, put more strain on him and
therefore increase the risk.
Finally the surgeon asked the decisive question: "Do you want
to go ahead with the operation as we have discussed it?" Guruji said
Yes. The surgeon said: "All right. In that case you will be my second
case tomorrow. We will operate on you at about 11 or 12."
So there we were. The decision had been confirmed. I pressed
Guruji's hand in encouragement.
8. Family in action
All Guruji's children had announced that they would visit him
in hospital on that Tuesday, well knowing that this might be the last
time at which they could see him alive. But so far nobody had shown up
yet. Guruji's youngest daughter, Savitri, had taken Tuesday off work in
order to visit her father in hospital. But why had neither she nor
anybody else arrived yet? Did they not want to spend the whole day with
him if this was such a special occasion? We wondered. Had the
excitement about Pitaji's great step worn off so quickly. Between 5 and
6 gradually they all arrived, including some other old and loyal
friends. I withdrew from Guruji's bedside because I did not want to
intrude between him and his children. I wanted to give them every
chance to be private and intimate, even though in the past many of them
had rather neglected him. But this was perhaps their last chance. I
should not stand in the way.
While family and other visitors were standing and sitting
around his bed, the surgeon's registrar arrived and asked, quite
needlessly (since Mr Jones, the surgeon, had already been told), if
Guruji had decided in favour of the operation.
The registrar should not have asked that superfluous question
and thereby opened up the whole problem again, a decision which Guruji
had found so hard to make. And he should not have asked it in front of
children and visitors.
But they were all there and they all suddenly felt called upon
to participate in the decision making process, in discussing a decision
which had been made long ago, about which they had known, and a
decision which they kept declaring was Guruji's alone to make.
They had known for six months about the technical details of
the operation and about the risks and had taken very little interest in
it. Now all of a sudden they started putting on a show of being the
caring family. Daughters and sons were trying to find the surgeon and
the cardiologist and started talking to the nurses because they wanted
to find out about the operation and its risks. What was the surgeon
trying to do? They started claiming (wrongly) that the doctors were
trying to bully Guruji into having the operation. They kept
re-iterating that Guruji alone had to make the decision for or against
the operation. Nobody else had the right to do it for him or to advise
Yet, was it not quite clear, that they were bullying him into
not having the operation by making him, with their tremendous
agitation, uncertain of the decision he had already made. If your life
is at stake, as his was, it is very easy for an outsider to shake your
determination, to undermine your courage.
If you have made a decision and declared it to the surgeon and
then people keep repeating to you: "Oh, Pitaji. It is you who has to
make the decision, and you alone. We do not want to interfere," then
that very buzz is interference. It is telling the patient that he
should change his mind. That is bullying.
I kept out of their way and watched the goings on from the
distance. I knew everything about Guruji's medical condition since I
had accompanied him to all his medical consultations for the last nine
years, at least four times a year. Only on three occasions had one of
his children shown enough concern to come with us. And now here they
were, on the evening before the operation, when the patient should be
resting and should be encouraged in the rightness of his decision,
should be made optimistic and not doubtful and fearful, here they were
at that last moment, when the surgeon and the cardiologist had already
gone home, asking for, and challenging, details of the planned
operation. An obvious sham.
Suddenly they felt how important they were if they could fuss
over their father, whom they had neglected for so many years and whom
they did not love, how good it felt if, in the name of family
solidarity, they could challenge the doctors and nurses and tell them
that they had no right to bully their beloved father. This gave them
power over the professionals. All of a sudden they could feel important.
I also suspect that they had seized on this subject because
they had nothing else to say to their father. They do not normally have
even brief conversations with him unless it is to sort out essential
problems. What then should they talk about him in this hospital where
they had come as a matter of duty and had several hours to kill? So
they milked the topic at hand: The decision about the operation.
I was talking to Prakash in the corridor some distance away
from the bed and watched all the excitement, the brothers and sisters
rounding up the staff and trying to ask them excited questions. Young
Savitri, all flushed and eager, was rushing past us: "I must find that
Surgeon, he must be somewhere, I am not going to let them do that to my
father. I want to know what is going on. I insist. What are these
people up to?"
I felt a surge of irritation as the spoilt little brat came
out with these arrogant remarks.
"You will not find him," I said, "It is too late. He has gone home. You
should have come earlier. And what do you mean by saying 'What is going
on?'? Nothing is going on. Your father made his decision before he came
to the hospital. This afternoon again he told the surgeon categorically
that he wanted to go ahead with the operation. Your brother Prakash and
I were both present. Nobody has been trying to bully him. A question
was asked: Your father said Yes without hesitation. Anyway, how come
you are so concerned on the very evening before the operation. You had
taken the whole day off work to visit your father. Yet you arrive only
in the evening when shops and offices are closed. Why then did you not
go to work? Why did you take time off? You knew that final tests were
being carried out. If you had cared, you could have been present all
day and hear the doctors discuss the operation with your father. You
could have known and discussed the technical details with your father
for the last six months. Nothing will be done tomorrow that was not
discussed and decided six months ago. How come your concern for your
father has developed so late and so suddenly?"
Savitri grew livid with anger. "You will not stop me from
finding out. Who are you to speak to me like this? The relatives have a
right to know, and the decision is his, and his alone." With this she
Five minutes later she came back. In an even greater rage.
I am half a head taller than her. She therefore had to look up to me,
trying to destroy me with her laser eyes and spewing her venom at me
"I have just spoken to my father. He himself told me that you are
bullying him into having the operation. There you are. You are not
qualified to interfere anyway. You have not studied medicine, so don't
try to stop me doing what I have decided to do. I will protect my
father from people like you. Let me make this clear to you once and for
all. We are the family, you are not. What right do you have to be here
at all! We will not allow you to kill our father. Neither you nor the
doctors will be allowed to bully him. We will protect him. We will not
let you get away with it. Get your hands off my father. Leave him
alone! Just remember that in relation to him you are nothing!"
Her brother Prakash, himself at present in disgrace with his
fiery sister, stood by my side and watched this scene in amazement.
I restrained my anger and tried to make myself taller in order
look down upon her and to affect the proper condescending tone.
"Now it is my turn to speak, My Dear. I do not want to use
unparliamentary language, I would if I could, but we are here in a
hospital and I do not want to make this matter worse by having a
slanging match. So I simply insist that your father can never have said
that I bullied him into having the operation. I never gave him a single
word of advice about it until he had made his decision. I did not even
ask him about his final decision today. Your brother was present this
afternoon when your father told the surgeon quite firmly that he wanted
Apart from this I am delighted that you care so much for your
father. But why does this concern show itself so suddenly and so late,
on the eve of an operation about which you have known for over six
months? Why does it show itself at a time when a patient should be
supported and allowed to be calm and composed?
I am very impressed with your having succeeded in getting a
second class degree in pharmacology. This must make you quite an expert
in cardiology. I noticed you reading up on the subject two days ago.
But shouldn't you have done that much earlier? At the time when your
father made his decision, three months ago? Aren't you taking yourself
just a bit too seriously? Where were you during the last six years when
I accompanied your father to every check-up, every consultation with
four eminent cardiologists, at least four times a year? You could have
received, like me, private lessons in cardiology then?"
I do not remember what she replied to that but she must have
stormed off to continue her agitation, or perhaps I turned my back on
Meanwhile other visitors had arrived at the bedside and were
participating in the debate. Guruji was sitting there almost silently
and giving only the shortest of replies, as is his wont. How can a
patient ponder, reconsider a difficult decision, once made and suddenly
called into question, in such an atmosphere, with no peace, no
solitude, no time to think?
All the time he knows
that the clock is ticking away,
soon the surgeon will come.
Have you made up your mind?
It is already 7 o'clock,
the buzz of the visitors
continues around him,
no peace for thought
no progress with his decision.
I stayed away from the hornets, watching the hue and cry from
a safe distance. I must not be involved in the discussion, not risk
being accused of interfering, or of pushing myself forward where there
are no ties of blood. I do not need to, for I know the place I occupy
in his heart. There is no need for me to make a show of rights or
He told me later how he asked all his children, and even his
visitors, what they thought. What advice would they give? Should he, or
should he not, go ahead with the operation? All his children abstained;
they spoke neither in favour nor against: "It is absolutely up to you,
Pitaji. We do not mind. We will be content whatever you decide." Only
his daughter-in-law, Sushumna, she who is the most practical, rational
and efficient member of the family (lucky the son who married her!),
spoke in favour.
Oh, were these children not showing the democratic spirit!
Were they not playing it safe! They will not interfere with their
father's right to decide. But neither will they help a lonely man, who
asks for help, to make his decision. Are they considerate, or are they
cowards? One of them tells me: "Poor Pitaji is so confused. He cannot
make up his mind." It sounds like a weakness in him. But why is he
confused? He was not confused when he decided in January, after two
months of quiet thinking, to have the operation. He was not confused
when he said his farewell to his children two days before the
operation. He was not confused when I took him to the hospital. He was
not confused when the doctors told him that his heart was stronger than
expected. He was not confused when he confirmed to the surgeon himself,
at 3 o'clock on Tuesday, that he wanted to go ahead.
When did the confusion start? It started at 6 o'clock that day
when his family arrived, when they heard the Registrar ask whether he
had made up his mind and when they then felt like putting on the act of
the concerned and loving relatives. Loving family - after having
neglected him for years.
A decision has been made. A patient is in hospital for no
other reason but to undergo an operation. Then the eager family arrives
and says: "The decision is utterly up to you, Pitaji. We have no
interest in the matter. It would be presumptuous if we expressed an
opinion." Is this a neutral family? Since the decision had already been
made and all of them knew it, it can mean nothing but: "Do not take the
doctors' advice. Do not have the operation." Cum tacent clamant. By not
expressing an opinion but asking him to decide, they are telling him to
reverse the earlier well-considered decision. By being there in such
numbers and combining with naive visitors, they are putting pressure on
him to stop the operation.
Because they want him
to live longer?
They do not care, they do not give
They want to shine,
experience their moment of glory,
demonstrate through him,
the democratic, the caring family,
are more powerful
than the arrogant professionals.
to demonstrate their virtue,
their power and their glory
in defending their dear helpless father
against his enemies.
It feels so good
to raise up this dummy.
Oh, it feels so good
to be on the side of the righteous!
Oh, what fun
to put on this charade!
9. Learning from example
I had been with Guruji all day long, sometimes doing little
things for him. Bought some baby oil and massaged his legs and feet.
Giving him water and tissue when he had a fit of coughing. Giving him
an encouraging smile. Making him lie down when he was tired. Listening
intently and asking the odd question when one of the doctors turned up
at the bedside. Writing down in my notebook his blood pressure and
other measurements when they were taken. Returning the portable
telephone to the nurses' desk after he had received a call. Making him
feel cared for. Showing him that he was not alone. Showing him that,
even though his wife died many years ago, even though he was unsure of
the affection of his children, he was not alone in this world, that
there was at least one person who unconditionally cared for him.
We all need at least one such person who gives unconditional
love. Love which can be learnt through service as many a woman knows.
Otherwise the cold and the loneliness and perhaps the fear can be very
painful. Usually you get that love from your wife, you get it from your
Sadly for Guruji, he could not get it from any of these.
Luckily for Guruji, the tradition which may have contributed to the
destruction of his family, provided him with two disciples who could,
after many years of learning (looking after his cows, as the Scriptures
term it), give him that love.
How long have I been his student now? Perhaps 15 years. How
long have I been his disciple? For just over four years. I had known
him for a long time before I decided to devote myself to him and before
he accepted me.
He does not believe in having disciples. There are too many
false gurus and false disciples about, money makers and disciples who
follow the fashions. He advised many people, many, many became steady
friends. Many touch his feet when they meet him, but none became his
disciples. He made an exception only twice, with my "sister" Sita, who
was initiated one year before me, and with myself. He felt he could
make an exception with us. This would not be a sham. He would be a true
Guru and we would be his true disciples.
It was from her, his first disciple, who, as a woman, knew
what it meant to serve, that I learnt how to be a disciple. She had
been the Didi, the eldest sister, in a poor Kerala family with ten
children. She had been the second mother to her younger brothers and
sisters, she had washed their "nappies" (of course, they did not have
any in that poor household), had bathed them, fed them, cooked for
them, seen them off to school. Managed to get herself an education in
England, then supported some of her siblings while they were studying,
trying to lift them out of their poverty and make them independent.
Developed an intense desire for truth, wanted to study the scriptures,
learn Sanskrit. Wary of karma cola, of Guru mania, of Western pop
esoterics and the instant enlightenment industry. She was the one to
find Guruji. She was the first to call him "Guruji", which then simply
meant "Teacher". And over many years, even before she became his
"disciple", I watched her taking care of him as only a woman can. His
house was in an awful state. He was too weak to clean it himself. His
children, those who were still at home, were unable to do so for other
reasons. Were they too busy? Unable to see dirt? Not able to take care
of themselves? Suffering from depression and therefore not responsible
for what they were doing or not doing? Some of all. Guruji suffered it
all and he, whose tradition has cleanliness as one of the highest
religious virtues, had to live in a pig-sty. And he suffered it
patiently. No picture of a television guru here. No designer robes. No
halo of curly hair. No miracles. No flowing beard. No publicity
photographs. Just an utterly obscure but much loved and learned priest.
What he had to give was hidden inside him. And only those who insisted
could tease it out of him. "As the man who digs with a spade obtains
water, even so an obedient pupil obtains the knowlede which lies hidden
in his teacher." (Manu 2:218)
Sita came and visited him every week. She cleaned his house in
which everything that dropped on the floor was left lying where it fell
and trodden into the carpet, bread crumbs, rice, potato peelings,
breakfast cereal. She washed and folded and stored his clothes, she did
his shopping, she massaged his body, an ancient custom, not only in
India but in many other countries, such as the Philippines, which are
still civilised. One wonders: Is industrialisation the end of culture
I remember that she invited me one memorable weekend, an
Easter Weekend, many years ago now, when we were both off work. She
decided to clean his kitchen, with a vengeance. The cooker was
encrusted with dirt, the walls were dirty, everything was abysmally
filthy, all dirt had hardened because this kitchen had not been cleaned
for years. We donned our overalls and our rubber gloves, bought a huge
supply of industrial detergents, pads of steel wool, and started
soaking and scrubbing. We wanted to clean this kitchen, however long it
might take, square inch by square inch, which was the only way to do
it. We spent two days working in this kitchen, under the bemused but
quite commentless eyes of Guruji's children. They never asked what was
happening, never helped, never expressed surprise, never said Thank
You. What we did simply did not concern them, just as their father, in
whose house they lived, did not concern them, or the dirt in the carpet
and the encrusted cooker did not concern them. Much of the time Guruji
was there with us, watching with pleasure, teaching us the Gayatri and
other mantras and chanting them with us. This is how he showed his
gratitude, by teaching us while we were working. This is what is meant
by "looking after the Guru's cows".
Some years later Sita became ill. She was no longer able to
visit Guruji regularly, but she persisted with her Sanskrit studies.
She left Leicester and is now a student of Sanskrit at SOAS in London.
Now I see her at his house at least twice a year, at Ram Naumi and at
I also had moved from Leicester to London and could no longer
visit Guruji frequently. But I visited him in Leicester when I could. I
had learnt by observing Sita, and she had given me courage. I was
initiated at Ram Naumi one year after her, and I followed her footsteps
in looking after Guruji - even though with much less frequency. I knew
from her how much he enjoyed a massage, how it relaxed him, how it
helped him sleep. I had never in my life touched a man, except for a
brief handshake. But I learnt to touch him, first very timidly, then
with more confidence. I learnt, over the weeks and months, to massage
his cracked feet, his dried out swollen legs ('oedima' the doctors call
it, and Oedipus Swell-Foot suffered from a similar condition), his
hands, his arms, his back, his head. This is the debt I owe to Sita. I
learnt from her how to be a disciple.
The family were still milling around in the ward. They would
not leave before the end of visiting time. I went to a plastic
restaurant, took out a book and waited for a few hours. When I returned
to the hospital I saw the family standing outside. At the completion of
a job well done!
It was ten thirty, long past the end of visiting hours. They
did not see me, and I kept walking up and down waiting for them to come
out into the street so that I could enter unseen. They did not come for
a long time. When they had left, I went to the ward. It was a quarter
past eleven and the night nurse looked very cross when I arrived. I
begged her for two words with my father, and she allowed me two
minutes. He took me into the visitors' room in order not to disturb the
other patients. "What is the position?" I asked. "I am still trying to
decide", he said.
I took his hands. "Whatever you decide, you know I will be
with you in spirit. If you decide to have the operation, I will keep
out of sight tomorrow. I will give way to your children. They will come
and I do not want to be here and wait with them and increase the
tension. They have been very nervous already and I have even been
accused of bullying you into having the operation. Therefore it will
not be good if I sit with them tomorrow and participate in all the
agitation. If you do not see me, it does not mean that I have deserted
you. I will be in my caravan outside the hospital or in the cafeteria
and I will think of you and pray for you. I will be with you in spirit
all day, even though you will not see me in the flesh. I very much
wanted you to know that, when you go to the operation tomorrow. When
the operation is over, then of course they will all go home, and then I
will come back immediately and look after you. Is that all right, do
you agree?" He tried to persuade me to be present tomorrow but then
left it to me to decide. "I never said you bullied me. All I said was
that you were in favour of the operation."
At this moment (do they not always come five minutes too
soon!) the surgeon's nursing assistant came yet again. "Have you
decided?" - "No, I'm still thinking." "All right", and she left again.
Then the night nurse beckoned me to leave. "Good night,
Guruji. I will be back at 7.30 tomorrow morning when Professor
I was there at seven. Guruji was sitting on a chair beside his
bed reading the Gita. I looked at him questioningly. "There will be no
operation", he said. "I have decided against it." My heart stood still.
"Last night I was still undecided, and I had a very wakeful
night. I will tell you that it was your visit last night which turned
the balance and made it easy for me to decide."
My heart stood still: if only I had not come! "But, how, why,
He took my hands into his. "You gave me two new reasons
against the operation. I know you truly love me. You have done more for
me than anyone could possibly imagine. I thought, this operation may be
successful or it may fail. What does it matter to me if it fails. But
hearing what you said about the dispute with my children, I suddenly
realised that you would be accused for the rest of your life of having
caused my death. I did not want this to happen to you. And I had
another reason: you have been a true son to me. If I died as a result
of the operation, I would have lost my sixth son. I did not want this
to happen to me. Not as yet, anyway. I made up my mind during the
night. I phoned my children at five o'clock, told them about the
decision and told them not to come to the hospital today. Now death
will not take me suddenly but devour me piecemeal. I have given them a
chance to mend their ways, to put their money where their mouth is. I
will need care. That is the result of my not having this operation. I
wonder if they will give it to me."
I do not know what I replied. Oh, how I wished I had not come
last night, how I wished I had not spoken! I wanted to give him comfort
during the operation and explain my absence. Instead I had made him
abandon the operation in which I so much believed.
Why do words have a life of their own? They are like knives
which you throw blindly. You never know where they will fly, whom they
will hurt, how they will be understood, what effect they will have.
What is the point of speaking at all! Should we not always be silent?
As Guruji tends to be?
Had Guruji sacrificed his health and his life for me? I did
not want this sacrifice, and I tried to tell him so. I was still hoping
he would change his mind.
It was five to eight. Time for the first operation of the day.
His would have been the second, perhaps at twelve. I was sitting on his
bed talking to him intensely, I do not know exactly what I said but it
was related to his decision.
I was speaking slowly because I wanted, still, to choose my
words and arguments carefully; not to transgress; not to appear to be
interfering in a personal matter. And yet make my point with respect. I
was still pussy-footing around, expressing myself with so many
cautions. Why did I not speak fast and without weighing my words when
there were only seconds left!
As always when I was talking intensely, like last night, I was
cut short by an outside event. Here was the surgeon. Already dressed in
his gown. Why could he have come at this hour? What other purpose could
this visit have but to give Guruji a last chance to accept the
operation. "I hear you have decided against the operation?" Guruji
nodded. "So this is final? Your last word?" "Yes." "Fine. So you agree
if I take your name off the waiting list? There are 230 persons on it.
I will do that then. Good luck."
I raised my hand and tried to interject something, seeing it
was a last chance. "Sorry, I have no more time for discussion now. I am
expected in the theatre." And he was gone. And I bowed my head. Guruji
"Can we go home now?" I asked the nurse. "No, you have to wait
until you are discharged. You have to wait till the doctor comes who
dispenses the medicines. That will be at about twelve o'clock."
We had a long time to sit together. Very peacefully. More
peacefully than at home. The big decision had been made. There was
nothing to worry about any more. The bed was clean and tidy. There was
no telephone, no visitors yet. The sun was shining, it was early in the
morning. We were ready to start a new life, with new assumptions, new
He let me read the Gita to him to help me practise the
devanagari script. I noticed he was getting tired and made him get into
bed and sleep. Meanwhile I read a book by Ahdaf Soueif. I was amused by
a passage in which a group of people are listening to a religious talk.
One of them gets up and steps over the heads and shoulders of the other
listeners to reach the door. When Guruji woke up, I read it to him.
12. Divine chaos
"I love this story," I said. "Not only for its own sake, but
because we are in England here. And whenever I read it, I cannot help
also imagining an Englishman reading it without warning and
preparation. He will be bewildered: 'What on earth is going on here? Is
this a giant? How can he walk over people's heads and shoulders?' Of
course, the people are sitting on the floor. One has to know that.
It reminds me of a time some years ago when I was sitting with
Sita in a mandir. We had been singing bhajans in the afternoon. Some of
the women had brought their children, who, from time to time, took off
on their own, started playing at hide and seek, or tried to catch each
other, or simply raced around the mandir, like cheeky Balakrishna, for
sheer joy of living. Isn't a temple a wonderful playground!
They were allowed to carry on like this for quite a while, but
from time to time one of the women, perhaps the mother, perhaps
somebody else, would catch some of the children, cuddle them, or try to
quieten them or make them sit down. At last, one of the men had had
enough of it. He grabbed three of the children and said to them
imperiously: "Now, that's enough. Behave yourself. This is a temple.
Sit down. Meditate!" Instantly the three sat down, cross-legged and
upright, and became quiet, for what seemed an interminably long time,
at least thirty seconds, perhaps even more. How I admire that absurd
and yet beautiful command! Just as absurd as the order: "Love me,
instantly!" Is not life beautiful when you accept its absurdity? When
you have incongruent things side by side. Singing bhajans and praying
to God, yet having the children racing around, seeking the utter
silence and concentration of meditation, and trying to trigger it by a
The bhajans were followed by arti, and after that, prasad was
eaten. It was a festival day, and prasad consisted of a full meal. The
mandir did not have a dining hall, so people remained sitting on the
white sheets in the prayer hall where they had been sitting all
afternoon, and there they consumed, from paper plates, rice, chapatis,
curry and sweets which everybody fetched from the kitchen. In India
they would not have eaten off paper plates but off biodegradable banana
leaves. The mandir was packed. Between the people on the floor were
their plates heaped with food. There were no corridors. Those coming in
balancing their plates in their hands and those who wanted to leave the
mandir had to tip-toe between the people eating contentedly and their
food on the floor, and if they were women they also had to control the
flow of their saris. They were indeed stepping over the heads and
shoulders of the congregation. Since it was feeding time, even the
children were fairly quiet. Sita saw the funny and beautiful side of it
and remarked with deep admiration: "Divine chaos!"
That was illuminating. It was more than ten years ago but I
have never forgotten that remark. It has become proverbial with me. I
have often pondered on it. Chaos is divine. Our chaos is not our
weakness, it is our strength. It is the essence of life. Affirming and
loving chaos is saying Yes to life - and to the traffic in Naples and
Compare it with the Western or Christian attitude to life.
Everything is aimed at the elimination of chaos. One never quite
succeeds but people keep trying. Sometimes they almost succeed, as in
Nazi Germany. Thank God in Italy and in England trains do not run on
time, the best guarantee against an Italian or English Auschwitz ever
being set up. The Nazis were so utterly convinced that they knew right
from wrong. They then used the technology of order to eliminate all
that was evil, such as Jews and chaos. Ordnung muß sein.
Look even at a church compared to a mandir. Everything
functions like clockwork. People are neatly arranged in rows, everybody
has his seat or chair. Everybody sits or gets up or kneels down exactly
as he is told, the readings and prayers for each Sunday are prescribed.
And they all love each other on cue, and exactly for the duration, when
the signal for the Pax Tecum is given.
The choir sings, like Coca Cola devotees, in perfect harmony
and the organ keeps the congregation in pitch, in rhythm and in order.
I wished, Guruji, I could take you to my mandir, the one I now
go to when I am at home in London. It is the most democratic place
imaginable. You should come and hear arti there. All right, they start
more or less at the same time, but everybody chooses his own pitch.
That means that in Western music there would be twelve different
starting points, and if there are twelve people in the mandir, I assure
you, no two people will choose the same pitch. This gives a new meaning
to the term "dodekaphonic music". If a Parisian had ever heard this,
the Rite of Spring at its first performance would not have raised an
eyebrow or lowered an auricle in the audience.
But Indian music has quarter tones as well, and usually there
are more than twelve people present for arti. They all can handle
quarter tones: that gives you twenty-four different pitches, truly a
primeval sound. I have had musical training and am well able to pick up
my pitch from somebody else, but on these occasions it is pointless to
pick it up from one person only to be in disharmony with somebody else.
Therefore even I howl in praise of God at whatever pitch comes
naturally. But God loves people who chant, or even howl, with devotion.
That's why he loves dogs. He created man in his image and dog in his
mirror image. In that mandir we all have devotion. We are not aiming at
beauty, not at effect, not at art, but only at sincerity, each on his
own. We assert our individuality. We all know that when pursuing the
road to moksha, each of us is entirely alone.
But in the world outside the mandir, law and order are à
priori virtues. Of course, the English are not ultimately responsible,
nor are the Germans, who are even better at it. No, it is their God who
led them astray. The God of the Bible started it all, and it ended with
the destruction of the primeval forests to be replaced by neatly
arranged plantations. God's first act in the Bible, his act of
creation, was one of destruction. In the beginning was God. In the
beginning was the divine chaos, and not only the earth was tohu wa
bohu. And God created order out of chaos. Chaos was life, order is
death. He separated the heavens from the earth, the sea from the firm
land, light from darkness, he put the sun and the moon and the stars
into a straight-jacket, and he created man to continue his work of
destroying the world, of making it orderly by subjecting it. He
threatened us with a paradise on earth: no crime, no television, no
whodunnits, no tears, with eternal laughter. We did not accept his
poison chalice, we did not want to be bored. We did not want a paradise
on earth. He gave us earth movers to deprive us of mountains and
valleys and gave them their charter - all in the name of simplicity and
order: "Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be
levelled, every cliff become a plateau, every escarpment a plain, and
every field turned into a motorway" (Isaiah 40:4). What joy it will be
to live in that level, orderly world. He set himself up as the sole
god. Ein Gott, Ein Papst, Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer.
We Hindus are luckier. We have our three million 3,265 gods to
take care of us. Quot homines, tot dei. Take your pick.
Could this God of the Bible not have contented himself with
saying: I exist, therefore I exist. I am chaos, therefore I am chaos.
He did not accept himself as he was. He had to make himself orderly
first, or so those who created him in their own image see it.
For me the chaos in our mandirs is a sign for the acceptance
of life, which is just as chaotic, just as unpredictable, as what
happens in the mandir. And we have to accept it, love it, sometimes cry
over it, and somehow muddle through. We do not try to reorganise it,
make it more efficient, more predictable. The Mahabharata is a
comforting book because it shows life in its utterly chaotic,
unpredictable and uncontrollable nature. If I read or remember the
Mahabharata then the specific events in my life shrink into
insignificance, just as when we consider the earth as a tiny speck in
the vast universe. That's why I find chaos comforting. That is my chaos
theory. What do you think?"
Guruji was tired. He saved his breath, as so often, and just
nodded. "You may have a point there."
At two o'clock we decided to leave without the medicines and
go for a nice Indian meal in a nearby restaurant, our traditional treat
after every check-up in this hospital. We returned to the hospital to
pick up the medicine and drove home.