Investment banker type” is shorthand, among the less well-paid, for a person who builds his or her life on bourgeois safety, creature comforts, flashy toys and frantic networking. It’s not a compliment, especially after 2008. Bhaskar* is a middle-aged financial engineer on Wall Street whose life has the familiar patina of glamour, and is pitted with the usual problems: difficult relationships, cultural hopscotch, inner turmoil. But meeting an investment banker type like Bhaskar is like going from the sauna into the ice pool — a healthy shock to the system.
What makes him different is that he does not shun or judge the new, the unfamiliar and the radically different. While travelling in the Himalayas, he met a 6’6” man with bloodshot eyes who claimed to have waited 5,000 years to give him a wrought-iron bracelet and three books to read. Instead of running hell-for-leather, he shared a bottle of whisky with the man, and rode pillion with him on a motorcycle to Malana, where the good stuff grows. The next time he was in Bombay, he followed the man’s advice and made a trip to Girnar, in Gujarat, and talked the aghoris there into letting him participate in their rituals. It freaked him out, the way they meditated while sitting on corpses, and drank out of human skulls, but it didn’t dampen his curiosity and desire to learn more about advaita, or non-duality.
Aghora is seen as the dark side of Shaivism; a book on the subject by Robert Svoboda is subtitled “At the Left Hand of God”. Aghori sadhus travel in packs but keep to themselves, partly because they’re quite asocial and partly because others keep away from them. They look frankly scary and behave even more scarily, what with tantric rituals, hanging around cremation grounds and, most controversially, ritually consuming the flesh of corpses. “People say aghoris are transgressors, but they’re not doing it for the sake of breaking rules,” Bhaskar says. “They’re practising getting over that duality. There’s no good, no bad.”
Bhaskar was fascinated by the fact that the Babaji he met had a real life — was a physics PhD from Carnegie Mellon, had worked in a college for a while, could ride a motorcycle. The man knew a lot of stuff about Bhaskar that he had no business knowing. Not that Bhaskar is any wide-eyed babe in the woods. He consistently challenged what the man said, but enough of it checked out for him to be intrigued.
“I’m not a practitioner,” Bhaskar insists, “I’m just curious.” Needless to say, just looking that way would be enough to get you fired. His family didn’t take well to his interest either, especially since, he later discovered, his kundali says that he will run off with sadhus. He no longer talks about it much to them. But he still reads about and around the subject, and would love to investigate it further. He reckons there’s a part of him that yearns for solitude and monasticism.
Yet, he’s a man rooted firmly in the world, big and bluff and possessed of an intelligence that is both laser-like and stormy. He’s aware that his professional life, at the intersection of computer science, finance and mathematics, sits uneasily with some parts of the rest of his life. “These worlds are both esoteric — they keep your mind occupied and engaged. Otherwise they’re totally different and contradictory.”
A man of Bhaskar’s intellectual and emotional range is, in today’s world of short attention spans and snap judgements, both an endangered being and a precious resource. A look at the newspapers on any given day suggests that we’re happier to dig in and defend our positions to the death, than step forward and wrap our heads around an alien point of view before accepting or rejecting it. But wrapping your head around an alien concept, not one you know and are comfortable with, is the essence of intellectual engagement.
It’s more than a shame that just when the world, thanks to information and communication technologies, has developed its greatest capability ever for interdisciplinary intellectual cross-pollination, professional and social decorum has gotten inversely more demanding of conformity (even if Wall Street is fairly high on cocaine and Viagra). Long live the Bhaskars of the world.
I ask him if he would try anything once. Yes, he says, but there are things he will not try. Like what? He sips his coffee and looks out of the window. “Like I don’t think I’ll try to open a shop in Khan Market. I wouldn’t do that.”
This is the first of a fortnightly series of columns
*Name changed upon request