Profession: Film producer, former VP of the Indian Motion Pictures Producers’ Association
Location: New Delhi, India
What was your childhood like? Did you identify as a Hindu? My father was a devout Jain practitioner, and my mother was Hindu, but she was basically agnostic; she didn’t practice anything at all. I was brought up in an independent India where there was a complete emphasis on secularism, especially at the elite schools I went to here in Delhi. Emphasis was more on science and technology and such. We were discouraged from being religious—like in the West, actually. So there were no rituals in the house, no chants, no brahmins coming in; we had no spiritual practices except for maybe some small puja on festival occasions like Diwali.
What changed for you? I went to study electronic engineering in America in 1960—UCLA and one year at Berkeley. It was there that I encountered Buddhism through D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, [and] Hinduism through Krishnamurti. I took a Transcendental Meditation class from Maharishi [Mahesh] Yogi. I started becoming more proud that this was my heritage. It was the whole Sixties thing, you know. So actually I discovered Indian spirituality, and its value and its respect, in America. In India we were taught to denigrate it. Religion, especially Hinduism, was the cause of our slavery, the cause of our backwardness, the cause of our domination by foreign powers, first the Muslims, then the English.
How did that play out when you returned after college? When I came back to India, I joined the film industry. The swami to many in the film industry at that time was Swami Muktananda because he was nearby at Ganeshpuri, just two hours from Mumbai. So I started going to his ashram. But though I read a lot, I was still what I call a “weekend spiritualist.” I didn’t take any intensives. I just went there to bow to him, to seek his blessings, and ask favors of him—you know how we use our gurus, “Do this for me”—and then I’d go back to work.
When Baba passed away, somehow I couldn’t connect with his successor, Gurumayi, which was perhaps my own shortcoming. Then the ashram changed: it became very formal, very restrictive, very closed to Indians. It got taken over by Westerners, and Indians were second-class citizens. Anyway, there were my own ego problems. So I took refuge with His Holiness.
You became a student of His Holiness the Dalai Lama? As I said, I was a weekend spiritualist. Then in 1994, I was engaged to work on the first Buddha film with the Indian industrialist B. K. Modi. I know the Modi family well, and so he asked me to be coproducer on the Indian side. I thought I would make a little in-house documentary for the foreign crew who were coming; they didn’t know the story of the Buddha. So I went to Kushinagar, Rajgir, Bodhgaya, Lumbini. Then I said, “Look, the most famous Buddhist is the Dalai Lama,” so I went to Dharamsala, and he was giving the Losar teachings. Only one floor of Namgyal Monastery was built; the upper floor was just an open terrace, and the students were there lying around writing in their notebooks, reading, drinking tea. The sky was so blue, the snow was there on the mountains, beautiful sunshine, and I said to myself, This is a very cool place, man! Hindu ashrams are a bit more formal; you have to really look reverent and devotional. But here you can eat your biscuits, write letters. And then one of the foreigners gave me one of her earphones, and I realized, My God, he’s actually teaching, and these books are the texts.
Then he said, “We all know we are going to die, but we don’t know when we’re going to die.” When I heard him say that phrase, I said [snaps fingers] This is my guru. I now realize this phrase is one of the most basic meditations we do, but when you meet your guru, even a slight change of light on the face will give you that connection.
The first real teaching I went to was “Mind Training Like the Rays of the Sun” in 1998, and I decided from there that this is serious business. Buddhism is not an easy path; it requires a lot of application, unless you want to look at it theistically. For ten years I went to every teaching of His Holiness except four, all over India. I was fed up with the film business; the career was okay, but I was tired of it.
What do your Hindu and Muslim friends think about your adopting Buddhism? My family said, “Good, if it’s benefitting you, please go.” Generally there is no objection. You will find the guru who is connected to you. As Indians, our approach is, if there is any spiritual teacher in any tradition who people are saying is benefitting them, then we should not denigrate him. That’s the root of our Indian tolerance, actually. Which we also have in Buddhism with the 84,000 types of mind. His Holiness constantly says this: you choose the path that’s good for you.
So what about that elite group of intellectuals and others? Is Buddhism growing here? I don’t think it will grow in India. In terms of serious studies, I think at the moment the Indians are not at that stage. Every culture has a stage of materialism. The West had it after World War II. Right now the way I look at it is, the main thing in India is materialism. I don’t look at it negatively at all, because greed drives progress. So India is at that stage now. People who are coming from poor backgrounds, just getting a motorcycle—spirituality is not the priority.
So you think India has to go through the whole cycle? There’s no learning from others’ mistakes? In Indian tradition, of all our great spiritual beings, Hindu or Buddhist, Rama was a prince, Krishna was a prince, Buddha was a prince, Mahavira was a prince, Naropa and Atisha were princes. So that just goes to show that it’s only after you’ve tasted of the temporal pleasures and you find that you are just as tortured and hollow as before, then do you seek inside. Serious spiritual seeking comes either when you have absolutely nothing to lose, like a sadhu, or when you have completed material security.
Are you going to make any more films? It always remains an open question in our business!
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