After putting away his carry-on baggage in the overhead cabin Raj settled into his window seat. He looked out of the window of the Air India Boeing aircraft in an unfocussed gaze. Raj seemed oblivious to the commotion and excitement among boarding passengers around him. Even the unusual bumpy take off, the severe air turbulence the plane encountered or the eventual reaching of a peaceful cruising altitude did not cause even an iota of change in Raj's glazed expression. A casual observer could have wrongly surmised that perhaps Raj was buried in some deep sorrow or worry. But in reality this couldn't have been further from the truth. This was a man full of determination and resolve'of somebody who finally had found the courage to do what his heart had been telling him for quite some time'. To his friends who had come to bid him a farewell at JFK airport he had described this trans-atlantic flight as' 'the journey to realize my potential'. Raj was going back to India for good to re-establish a deep connection with his roots.
As he now sat gazing through the window, 30,000 feet above the earth's surface, he reflected on the last 10 years of his life. He vividly recalled his arrival to the United States in 1992 to pursue a Masters in Engineering at NYU, full of dreams and expectations. Like many others, he wanted to make it BIG in the Promised Land of freedom and opportunity. This motivated him to excel in academics, eventually landing him with a fantastic job in the Big Apple. Raj was, quite literally, living the American dream. He then recalled the moment that changed his life on the festive Christmas Eve of 1995 when he was sitting, all by himself, in his apartment, enjoying his 6-pack. He could not say what exactly happened. Whether it was destiny or alcohol he did not know ' all he knew was that his outlook to life turned unexpectedly and irreversibly in that moment. It just dawned on him that he had a bigger purpose in life than the one he was currently living. Before he knew, he had spontaneously gone through a warp-speed morphing transformation that day. Now, looking back and realizing the enormity of that momentous change gave him Goosebumps.
After that fateful day in 1995 his vacations and travels had become journeys to finding himself. His aggressive workaholic passion was replaced by an almost eerie acceptance of things and life itself. He searched for a Master or Guru who could guide him in his quest ' and in the process explored many mystical traditions worldwide. Finally as destiny had planned, he chanced upon his Master ' a simple uneducated humble man living in a village in southeastern part of India. Even though, culturally, he had not much in common with this Guru, the man's simplicity, immensity and unbounded grace had simply humbled Raj. He was drawn to this man like a druggie to his much-needed fix. He became a disciple of this Guru, and now that he recalled, it was never a conscious choice for him. This is what it was meant to be! Strangely, his Guru did not give him any instruction per se. The only thing Raj's Guru told him was to trust in his own inner self, which he would eventually realize is the real teacher inside, and the rest will take care of itself.
With this instruction as the fresh guiding beacon of living, Raj started out on an introspective journey of self-exploration. He started to get absorbed in himself and became more and more distant from the breakneck speed of the corporate world in New York. His interests shifted to helping others and finding contentment with what came his way. To help channel the new-found love he felt for others, he founded a not-for-profit organization that aimed at helping educate economically under-privileged children in India. The not-for-profit organization soon gained momentum and opened over 50 chapters worldwide. He quit his job and started to manage this not-for-profit organization full time. It was as if the script of his life was amazingly being changed and re-written instantly in front of his eyes in almost a fairy-tale fashion.
However, he soon realized that he was not deriving the satisfaction from his current managerial role in the not-for-profit organization. While he recognized that fundraising and managing charity were important activities, he personally did not feel the fulfillment in the role. All this was too impersonal and he preferred working directly in the field back in India. He decided that it was time to move to a more active role, working on grassroots-type projects. It took him two-years of intensive planning and preparation during which period he trained and finally handed over the reigns of the not-for-profit organization to a competent successor, Gwen ' one of his close friends and ex-girlfriend from NYU days.
Having very good planning and management skills, Raj immaculately planned his return to India. He made three preparatory visits to India to help identify, define and cast his new role as a grassroots social worker. He got the funds and approval for his first project in the villages around the town of Anakapalli, in close proximity of where his Guru also lived. He got himself a decent office space with a telephone/internet connection, and hired two bright well-qualified youngsters who would serve as his assistants. Most importantly he got the blessings from his Guru for success in this venture that meant so much to him. When his friends and well-wishers in the US tried to dissuade him from this 'crazy' line of thinking he would simply smile ' inside he felt as if he was already 'on-the-job' in the villages in India. Indeed, he knew in his heart that this was his calling. As he now continued gazing endlessly at the vastness of the sky and ocean from his window seat of the Air India aircraft, he felt that this vista in front of his eyes was signifying the unbounded potential that was waiting for him'He was ready!
One year has now passed since Raj's return to India. As he sits in his office ' he looks around and smiles at the apparent 'lack' of amenities around him. The ceiling of the room is showing cracks, the telephone works intermittently and power cuts are a daily ritual. The so-called 'Internet' connection that he had arranged was a pie in the sky ' it never really materialized out from the virtual cyber world. To a westerner these working conditions would have seemed utterly intolerable. But Raj is quite at home here. He is a man who did not care for all the 'stuff' anymore. He is exuding an unbelievable aura of contentment and joy. The source of this wellspring of happiness lies in his inner feeling ' the exhilaration that comes from knowing that you are finally making a difference. In the last year, Raj has spent countless tireless hours putting together a free non-formal evening education school program for 30 villages, serving mainly underprivileged kids. He recruited and trained local teachers, who could talk, understand and teach in a language that the rural population understood. His vision and planning bore immediate fruit - the rural education program had become an instant success, beyond Raj's wildest expectations. Given his training in corporate marketing strategies, he leveraged this budding success to great advantage. The local and, eventually, national media, bought into what was a truly compelling story ' a foreign educated/trained individual was, against all odds, redefining the landscape of rural India through sheer grit and determination. Within days of this story hitting the print media, the national television news channels came down to Raj's 'campgrounds' to do a feature story. Raj, with the corporate finesse he had learnt in the US, catapulted himself to fame almost overnight. And the rest, as they say, was history. As he now sat in his crummy office, he smiles because he knows that the Federal Government of India is slated to appoint him to head a commission for administering non-formal education among youth throughout India. He is finally going to be in a position to make a BIG difference in lives of many many people. What more could he have asked for?
Now Raj's life has leaped forward by another nine years. His gray hair, balding forehead and wrinkles on the face are telling signs of aging. After a whirlwind tour of India overseeing many rural empowerment initiatives, Raj has just flown into Vishakhapatnam, the port city in Southeastern India. An entourage of secretaries, assistants and members of the press surround him. He is now a national figure and a close-confidant of the Prime Minister and Education Minister of India. He heads the Prime Minister's commission for rural empowerment and serves as an advisor on many national and local committees dealing with development of rural areas. Today he is here to re-visit his old roots from where he had started - the villages around Anakapalli. The occasion is the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the non-formal education programs he started here. Even though he is no longer based in this geographic area, the program he had initiated itself has taken roots. Last reports showed that, under the auspices of this program, over 25,000 children in the area had learnt how to read and write in this ten-year period. As his car pulls into the village where he had first started his journey into social work a decade back, he is thrilled to see the festive and celebratory atmosphere. He could not help but feel elated at his monumental success from those humble beginnings, in this very short period of ten years.
The anniversary celebration begins with a cultural program in which school children perform a song-dance ballet that illustrates the importance of education in lives of the rural people. Following this inspiring performance, Raj is asked to formally inaugurate an impressive brand-new community center that will serve as an administrative headquarters and a focal point for cultural and social interaction among the residents of the 30-villages in the district. After the inauguration Raj comes onto the stage and gives a short and to-the-point congratulatory speech to all the workers and organizers for their tireless efforts. He talks about the past achievements and future plans. Finally, as a courtesy, he asks the audience if they have any comments or suggestions. Expecting no response from the audience, Raj starts to wind-down his speech. Just then an old woman gets up from the audience and interrupts him and says in a measured tone ' 'Are you sure you would like to know what the impact of this program is?' Raj immediately and instinctively responds ' 'Yes, of course.' The old woman then tells Raj' 'Then come with me; but please don't bring all these people with you'. A hushed silence has gripped the audience and the organizers, as they see Raj coming down from the stage. By now Raj is convinced that this lady has something valuable to share. Per the old woman's invitation, Raj follows her as she walks slowly out of the arena towards the outskirts of the village. On reaching the outer limits of the village, she stops, and then sits under a tree. She beckons Raj to sit next to her.
As she wipes the sweat from her forehead with the sleeves of her blouse, she begins her narration. My grandson, Raju, lost both his parents to the deadly plague when he was two. As fate would have it, I had to take on the role of his caretaker at a very old age. But with my limited means, and due to infirmities of my age, I was unable to fulfill the role adequately. I had just hoped that he would somehow be able to pick up a skill or trade allowing him to earn a livelihood for himself and his family. But then you came along and I saw an opportunity for my 10-year old grandson to be educated and actually make something of his life. Raju, therefore, joined the first batch of students in the school you started ten years back. He was bright and committed, and picked up the learning material with relative ease. His hopes and aspirations started to grow with every new lesson he learnt at school. He started to dream of becoming somebody his grandmother would be proud of. Last year after finishing school, he told me that he wanted to go to the city of Delhi to find a worthwhile career for himself. Even though it was not easy for me to see him go, recognizing his enthusiasm, I supported his decision and gave him most of my savings as start-up money. He left and all of a sudden I was all alone. I channelized my energies in praying to God ' to guide him to tread the right path. He wrote to me a couple of times in the first month of his reaching Delhi. But after that I never got any news of him ' and then as her face fell she said ' not until last week when I got this letter. She took out a letter that was tucked and folded neatly inside her traditional Indian dress, and gave it to Raj.
As Raj read the letter the world around him started to spin. He felt nauseous and sick. The letter was from Raju's friend informing the grandmother that Raju, frustrated from the lack of opportunities, had committed suicide by jumping into the river. This friend ended the letter by saying ' 'Dreams become death warrants if there is no way of fulfilling them'. With tears in his eyes, Raj looked at the old woman. He was speechless and did not know what to say. After several moments of silence, the old woman finally broke the silence and spoke ' 'Raju's case is not an exception. Most parents in the village are struggling with these so-called educated kids as they all want to move out of the village. These youngsters feel that villages offer no real opportunities for them. With all the education they have acquired each one of them aspires to go the cities willing to abandon their families. For what? Only to feel frustrated and kill themselves? I just wanted you to know the real truth behind the curtain of pomp and show that was being displayed there. You asked for suggestions. I don't have any suggestion or any answers. You are the intelligent one and I am sure you will find the answers you need. I am just an uneducated old woman who knows that this is not what should be happening. Isn't it?' Saying these words with an air of finality, she got up and slowly walked away disappearing into the darkness. Raj did not have the strength to stop her. He was left sitting in a blackhole of loneliness, guilt, shame and regret. He felt helpless. All of a sudden, he, the one who had been helping thousands, was the one who needed help now.
He was shaken out of his stupor by the words of his personal assistant telling him that it was time to head back to the airport for their flight back to New Delhi. Speaking incoherently, Raj told his assistant to disperse the meeting and asked his group to head back to Delhi as per schedule, while he wanted to stay back here for the night. Knowing that Raj was in an unstable mental state, the assistant was reluctant to leave him alone. But when Raj insisted, the assistant reluctantly followed the orders he had received, while Raj went back into his darkness and gloom.
Raj did not even have the energy to think through this situation. He was at a loss of direction and needed to go to somebody who could help him. He finally got up and started to walk along the dirt-road going away from the village into the forest. After walking for over one hour, he finally could see the lamp burning in the hut that stood all by itself in the middle of the jungle ' where his Guru lived. He stumbled to the door of his Guru's hut. The Guru was sleeping and woke up from the sound of the footsteps, which sounded loud in the backdrop of the deep forest silence. The Guru did not seem surprised to see Raj and welcomed him with loving and tender warmth. As he sat to drink some water, the Guru looked at Raj lovingly, making Raj simply break down. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he began narrating all the happenings. He finally ended by asking the Guru, 'What did I do wrong? Am I the one who caused this? Why? Why? Why?' The Guru did not utter a single word all this time. When Raj was finally done, the Guru simply got up and laid down a mat on the floor next to his own mat. He put a pillow and blanket and said, 'You have had a long day. Sleep now. Let's worry about all this tomorrow'. Hearing these words, Raj realized how tired he was. For the moment he forgot all his worries, and collapsed onto the mat slipping into the temporary comfort of slumber.
The next morning as soon as Raj got up he remembered the nightmarish experience of the previous day. Unlike a bad dream that disappears on waking up, the reality of what had happened continued to haunt him. He felt depressed and dejected. The Guru made an appearance at this juncture and gave Raj a bucket, a fresh set of clothes and asked him to go to the well for his morning ablutions. Raj obediently followed the instructions and when he came back he found his Guru was ready to serve brunch. They both sat down and got intensely engrossed in the extraordinarily delicious meal the Guru had conjured. It was only after they had finished eating that Raj again looked expectantly at his Guru for an answer to his dilemma. The Guru kept quiet and remained silent with his eyes closed. Then he spoke softly 'I don't know the answer to your questions. You will find your own answers and those alone will be the right answers.' Pointing at a huge, majestic tree that stood a few 1000 feet away from the hut, the Guru said ' 'Whenever I have struggled with any problems, I have found going in the presence of that tree a great help. Perhaps you can try the same?' Raj was taken aback by his Guru's strange suggestion but coaxed himself out of his initial feeling of skepticism. Trusting his Guru, he decided to give it a try anyway.
For the next several days he would go and sit under the tree for hours, expecting to have a flash of realization or hear a miraculous voice pronouncing words of wisdom. But nothing like that happened. When even after a week nothing at all happened he came back to his Guru and complained to him on the futility of the exercise. The Guru smilingly replied, 'Go back and build a small hut near the tree. Spend time being in its presence. Just be there without any expectation. This may take time and don't expect it to happen overnight.' Raj immediately retorted in an incredulous tone, 'For how long should I do this?' The Guru laughed loudly and replied, 'As long as it takes. You will know. Anyway lets talk about this after a year'. Raj, in no hurry to leave the sanctuary of his Guru and reluctant to return to his work responsibilities that had brought him so much misery, decided to continue on the path suggested by his Guru.
Over a year has passed since the above conversation between Raj and his Guru. In this period, Raj has minimal contact with his Guru even though they have been living so close to each other. One day, the Guru decides that it was time to go and check up on Raj. He finds Raj sitting outside his hut gazing timelessly at the sky. There is an aura of deep silence exuding from Raj. After sitting in the presence of each other for sometime the Guru asks Raj, 'Have you found your answers?' Raj is unable to reply as he has simply lost all interest in speaking. He finally mutters in a hard-to-discern low voice, 'I am unable to even think of the questions anymore. The answers are therefore not even relevant'. The Guru prods him a bit more and asks, 'Did the tree give you any instructions or teachings? What have you learnt from it?' Raj smiles and replies, 'This tree has no instruction to give nor any teachings to teach. It just knows how to be itself'. The Guru is now intrigued by this reply and asks Raj to explain it further.
Raj continues, 'I saw that the tree gives valuable shade in the summer heat. Under its shade I saw all kinds of people and animals resting. I saw on occasions a merchant, a saint, a robber, and bandits, all coming to rest under it. The bandits sat in the shade and split their loot, the merchant used it to plan his business and the saint used it to meditate. When they were done with their ordained tasks and felt rested and renewed, they all left. But the shade of the tree continued to be still there even after they left. The tree never said that I will give shade only to the saint and not to the bandits. Nor did it stop giving shade when nobody was there. The tree never went looking for people to come and take advantage of its presence. Nor did it try to keep them from coming or going away. It just remained as it is ' being itself all along. Giving shade is its very nature and it has absolutely nothing to do with who uses, misuses or never uses it. And when the time came for the tree to shed its leaves, it did so with no remorse. It did not feel dejected that it was offering no shade or it never complained that it was not living its full potential. And when the conditions became conducive again it sprouted a fresh set of leaves'.
'In the season when it flowered I saw the beauty of lovemaking and its accompanying fragrance. It was not an act of darkness but of radiance. I saw that even the insects and many organisms rejuvenated from this overflowing bliss.' And when the fruits came, they brought fullness and completeness. The branches loaded with the fruits, bowed down in humility allowing the animals and passersby to reach the fruits more easily. Sometimes, I saw kids throwing stones at the tree to get the fruits. Despite this hurtful act of the kids, the tree rewarded them by showering them with its most valuable fruits, for them to enjoy. And when the time came for the tree to let go of its seeds, it tried to throw them as far as possible. I realized that it did it as a supreme act of sacrifice to ensure that the seeds would not be stunted growing in its own shade.
'The tree took all the harmful gases from the atmosphere and transformed it, renewing the whole world with invaluable supplies of fresh air and food. I also saw that what was in the form of the tree above the ground was only a small fraction of its true/complete existence. Finally I found that its roots lay in the depth and in its ability to be always anchored. As its anchoring got stronger and deeper, none of the storms happening on the surface seemed to have a major impact on it. The peace that the tree pours out comes from its depths ' something that remains beautifully hidden from the outer world altogether.
Raj paused and continued, 'Having said all this, the things I just told is NOT what makes the tree so great. In fact, it would be incorrect to think of the tree as a marvel of knowledge or a treasure- house of teachings. Its real essence is something that permeates anybody who comes in its presence. It happens automatically, effortlessly, and with miraculous ease. Even the tree itself doesn't know about it. That has to be experienced directly by anybody, and cannot really be described in words'.
The Guru, who had been listening intently to Raj's words, finally said, 'My most beloved child, you have indeed uncovered life's very essence. Life and living is not in what you do, but in how you be. Only in Being yourself you offer the greatest help to life. It is when you stop helping do you truly become help-ful ' A help that comes, not from imperfection of doing, but from the fullness of being. Be that'.'