Neem Karoli Baba’s life was strewn with the miraculous at every step. The accepted laws of physics, and of time and space, did not seem to apply to him. He never employed these extraordinary powers for aggrandisement or gain. He was an emanation of many presences and personages whose spiritual seeking had come before him. I am personally both mystic and sceptic, reluctant to yield my rationality. Yet, there are mysteries that are best left alone, and so it is with my faith and belief in Maharajji.
Neem Karoli Baba, Maharajji to his bhaktas, was a puzzle and a paradox. He left no teachings, no formal legacy, and yet devotees around the world are constantly forging intense connections with him. The barriers of language, culture and religion break down before the compassion, love and sense of fellowship his followers continue to share.
I had the great privilege of meeting Neem Karoli Baba when I was a child of six. He appeared strange, as did the other grown-ups he was sitting and chatting with – except for my grandfather, Dr CD Pande, who was, as ever, comforting and loving. This was probably around the year 1962. The Baba had established himself as a beloved, if mystifying, spiritual figure and presiding deity of Kumaon. His transformative presence imperceptibly changed the way a rigid, caste-bound and hierarchical society addressed its spiritual needs. He invoked the inner resources of agape, caritas and emotional generosity, and fused together a community of believers who continue to congregate and maintain the bond across generations. He was a renowned Himalayan seer with strong roots in Kumaon, but also someone who drew the devotion of disciples and devotees around the world, whose lives he had touched. He may no longer be in his body, but his spiritual energy continues to enlighten people.
Who was this personage whose living presence endures and irradiates the hearts of those he chooses to bless? To my mind, he is the essential Himalayan master, timeless, formless, informed by mysteries humans cannot seek to grasp.
A friend once described him as the patron saint of Silicon Valley. It seems a moniker at odds with the frail, vibrant, often mischievous guru in his woollen plaid blanket. He is also described as the quantum saint, and he did indeed seem to have changed the trajectory of conventional linear thinking of an astonishing array of intellectual entrepreneurs. In my travels, I have encountered devotees of the Baba in distinct but scattered footprints across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe. His spiritual aura found resonance with the dreaming minds of a new generation of techno-magicians, who imbibed a deep dose of his crazy wisdom in their youthful journeys to the East.
His most well-known devotee in the US was Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), the Harvard psychologist, whose work created a bridge between Eastern and Western philosophies. Larry Brilliant, the inaugural director of Google.org, took Google’s Larry Page and Jeffrey Skoll, co-founder of eBay, on a transformational pilgrimage to the Kainchi Ashram, nestled on the foothills of the Himalayas, to meet his guru. Steve Jobs arrived at the Ashram in 1974, too late to have a physical darshan of the saint, who had left his bodily form in 1973. Jobs was reported to have a photograph of Neem Karoli Baba beside him in his last days. Mark Zuckerberg spent time in the Ashram as well.
The living legacy of Neem Karoli Baba is perhaps best exemplified in the life and outstanding achievements of Larry Brilliant. Inspired by Maharajji, Larry and Elaine (Girija) Brilliant played a key role in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) smallpox eradication programme. In the extract below from his book Sometimes Brilliant, Brilliant tells us of the arduous goal of seeking a job in the WHO at his guru’s instructions:
But I kept going back anyway, every time he asked me. Trips to Delhi from Kainchi were gruelling, a dozen hours if everything went right. Trains were late or cancelled regularly; bus rides on mountain roads were terrifying. Delhi was an obstacle course of beggars, with the craziest drivers in existence and cows and other animals wandering the streets. It would have been great if Maharajji could have sent me there just once, on the right day to see the right person so I could land the job.
But mystical traditions are filled with stories of teachers testing and training and sometimes tormenting their students. A classic example is the story of Milarepa, the 11th-century Tibetan saint Wavy had told us about, who subsisted on nettles during meditation. Milarepa had been a robber and a murderer, so his teacher, Marpa, made him build and tear down tower after tower – a humiliating process that lasted years, but would purify the obstacles to spiritual development, that is, Milarepa’s inner stew of rage, violence, and revenge. I am not Milarepa and I am not a saint, but walking into the WHO office over and over again and explaining that my guru had told me to come work for them might have altered my biochemistry. I think Maharajji wanted me to achieve non-attachment to success. A spiritual apprenticeship can be confusing, even counterintuitive. Those long, exhausting trips, constant rejections, and the daily reminder of my unworthiness, the roller coaster of doubt and the balm of Maharajji’s reassurance, were all part of the preparation. What developed in me at that time was faith – delicate, wavering, tenuous, but faith, nevertheless.
Sometimes people say that faith is the opposite of doubt, but I don’t think that is true. To me, the opposite of faith is rigid certainty. Doubt is the constant companion of true faith; like God, it is more verb than noun. Faith is the ride, not the station, as Indians describe it. No one can avoid doubt, scepticism, fear, and uncertainty on the journey to faith if they are honest with themselves. Obstacles are the training ground.
Indeed, faith is the journey, not the station. Faith is the step in the dark which is not there. After Brilliant joined the WHO, after he became a world-renowned epidemiologist and visionary philanthropist, he looked back and reflected on his journey in his book.
At certain moments, the ordinary rules of cause and effect are suspended. Living in a sacred space, surrounded by sacred images, following a guru, a teacher, or a prophet who seems prescient and nudges you towards a specific path – impossible things happen. Since you cannot explain them through reason, you must acquiesce to unreasonable theories.
After that, everything begins to make sense again, but in an unexpected way: all impossible things begin to seem quite possible after all.
Neem Karoli Baba’s grace extended far beyond the celebrities he attracted. He was and is the spiritual head of countless Indian families, and his smiling face and blanket-clad form is prominent in framed photographs in homes and public places across Uttarakhand and the rest of northern India. Who was this saint who left such an ineradicable footprint in the hearts and minds of millions?
Excerpted with permission from “Neem Karoli Baba and Siddhi Ma,” Namita Gokhale, from Mystics and Sceptics: In Search of Himalayan Masters, edited by Namita Gokhale, HarperCollins.