The Delhi Project
Binay-da was reluctant to see me leave Calcutta for New Delhi. I postponed that trip, accordingly, and remained near him for several months. Our discussions centered on the work and how to develop it. The alternative to starting afresh, as I wanted to do, was to concentrate on clearing out (as I put it) the clogged drains.
Even while cleaning out dirty drains, however, the focus of one’s attention can be on cleanliness; it needn’t be on dirt. We can try to be solution-oriented, not problem-oriented. Binay’s mind was problem-oriented.
He talked for hours of how “useless” this person was, what a “parasite” that person was, what an “enemy” that third person was. He took delight in declaring over and over, moving his thumb back and forth in a gesture of determination, how he would “smash” this one, “force” that one to obey his will, get rid of that other one. “These are all useless people, Brother,” he repeated again and again. He spoke mockingly of people who, in my view, deserved sincere respect. There was no one in the work, in his opinion, worthy of anything but our contempt. They were all slackers, time servers, self-seekers, petty schemers, bereft of the slightest hint of spirituality.
I was there to help him. When he expressed doubts about this path, I was there to encourage him to fuller understanding. Whenever I felt myself tempted to plead that he stop loading me to the gunwale with negativity, I found myself having, instead, to bolster his faith, in the process expressing sympathy and understanding for his problem with doubts.
After weeks of these harangues, and no glimmer of a suggestion as to how we might improve matters except by “driving the rascals out,” I felt there was nothing more I could do. Certainly I didn’t enjoy these endless denunciations of everything and everybody. I was becoming more and more depressed. New Delhi appeared to me our only hope.
Delhi it was then, and Binay agreed to let me go there and try my luck.
More than luck was needed, as it turned out. When I arrived in New Delhi, I sought out friends and told them of my plans. They put me in touch with a man they knew, a Mr. Ratti, who was on the council (or whatever it was called) for Delhi State. Mr. Ratti laughed scornfully when I told him of my plan.
“Delhi is a government town, completely,” he informed me. “Nothing can be done here without the government’s permission. And the government’s priorities are strictly set. Schools and factories are needed. Hospitals are needed. Businesses are needed. Residential communities are needed. Who needs ashrams? The country is crowded already with too many ashrams. India is a secular state. You will find no one anywhere in New Delhi to support you in your ideas.”
“What about land outside the city?” I inquired. Friends had taken me to see land in the direction of Gurgaon. It seemed far enough outside the city limits.
“All land surrounding the city has been designated as a ‘green belt’ area. No construction of any kind is permitted there.”
My “inspiration,” if it may be called that, was to do anything rather than return to the downward spiral of negativity in Calcutta. Did I feel inner guidance to work here, against such a host of contrary indications? No, I had to admit to myself, I did not. But in the absence of inner guidance, what was I supposed to do? Should I simply give up? To give up was, to me, unthinkable. Thus, I came to a decision which was to have a lasting influence on my life.
I committed myself to a massive undertaking without prior inner guidance. What I have learned from that experience is instead to take one step at a time, listening inwardly all the while until something inside me “clicks” and I really know what to do. Otherwise, to try arduously but blindly for too long becomes tantamount to presumption.
It isn’t that what I was trying to do was wrong. Certainly I was doing it with good intentions. But I think Master didn’t want to give me inner encouragement on a course that, he knew, was destined to end in personal disaster for me.
Facing nothing but rejection no matter where I turned, I reaffirmed a conviction I have always had, supported by repeated experience in my life, that seemingly impossible events can often be brought to pass by the sheer power of will.
“By my will,” I declared with concentrated determination, “I will make this dream a reality!”
I had been invited to live in the home of Dr. and Mrs. T. N. Bhan, at Kashmiri Gate in Old Delhi. They had a small cabin in their garden. I was invited to live here. Rani Bhan and her son Indu helped me in my campaign to interest the government in my project.
I was informed that 2,000 other societies had tried unsuccessfully to get land in the green belt area. My reaction to this disheartening news was a stronger-than-ever resolution to succeed.
Land on the outskirts of town was unavailable, since it was in the green belt area. Well, I didn’t want land on the outskirts anyway. For a population mostly dependent for locomotion on buses, walking, and bicycles, the outskirts were too far away for any viable public activity.
A certain wealthy man, Shree Gupta, visited the home of the Bhans one day. “Swamiji,” he began, “I have the perfect place for you. It is a yoga ashram on Mandir Lane, just next to the Birla Temple, and very close to the center of the city. It is also in the green belt area, which curves into the city at that point in a sort of loop.”
To be in the green belt and at the same time within the city was very attractive.
“How do you propose I get this property,” I inquired. “Isn’t it already functioning as an ashram?”
“It is,” he agreed. “Nevertheless, I have studied their by-laws, and I’ve learned that it would be a simple matter to take it over. Their decisions are made by a majority vote of its members. No restrictions are placed on who may become a member.
”What I propose to do,“ he concluded, ”is buy up enough memberships to vote the existing leaders out of office, then give the ashram over to you.“
I was appalled at this want of scruples. I knew such things happened in the business world, but I would be no party to any such plan. I declined his offer, not even with thanks.
Shree Gupta, however, as it turned out, could not imagine I would seriously refuse his offer. Proceeding with his scheme, he bought up the necessary number of memberships, voted out the existing leaders, then came to me one day with the proud announcement: ”Swamiji, the ashram is yours!“
Again, and all the more forcefully because of my disappointment in having had no other promises of success, I rejected his offer. I’ve no idea what has become of that ashram since then. I don’t believe I ever saw Shree Gupta again, though I have one other recollection of him, an amusing one.
He and his wife came one day to tea. Referring to her, who fortunately understood no English, he announced, ”She was a cow in her last life.“ I glanced over at her. She was sitting relaxed, her features fixed in a vapid smile while her jaw worked gently in a manner not unreminiscent of a cow chewing its cud.
One thing did impress me favorably about Shree Gupta’s proposition, however: the area in which the yoga ashram was located. It was amazingly tranquil considering its proximity to the heart of the large city. Across Mandir Lane from the ashram there was a large, beautiful tract of land, useful for nothing at all in its present condition. If no land in the green belt area was available, I thought, why could I not at least try to get this ideal piece and forget about the outskirts? I resolved to do my very best.
I gave serious thought, not to my own needs, but to those of the government of India and, even more specifically, the city and state of New Delhi. New Delhi, I reasoned, was not only the economic and political hub of the country, but also the heart of a new country that aspired toward international recognition and respect, especially from wealthy countries in a position to help her with gifts and loans. Prestige was important to the government leaders, particularly to Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister. If I concentrated on the international aspects of this project, might it not exercise an appeal for them beyond any I could excite on behalf of an ordinary ashram? If so, could I not devise some means whereby both needs would be satisfied-ours, and the government’s?
How could it be made a reflection of something Master wanted? Well, I reflected, he had written in the first edition of Autobiography of a Yogi that he hoped someday to have a ”yoga university,“ flying the flags of all nations as symbols of international cooperation and good will. His very last speech, the evening of his mahasamadhi (conscious earthly passing), had been a plea for international cooperation-for taking the best of each nation and uniting that good for the greater welfare of all mankind. This was a bit grand, perhaps, as an initial concept for our ashram, but a work devoted to this ideal, as Master’s surely had always been, would not be expected to spring out immediately in full-blown perfection.
It came as second nature to me to think of ever new, more expansive ways of manifesting Master’s teachings, as long as those ways were in tune with things he himself had done or at least aspired to do. It would take vision to build his work in India. My concern was only to keep that vision true to the essential mission of spreading Kriya Yoga.
International? Why, we were international. It would only be emphasizing our strengths to draw attention to that which was already a fact.
Would Kriya Yoga fit into this scene? Yoga was India’s greatest contribution to the world. In any discussion of international unity, Kriya Yoga could be offered proudly as central to this ideal.
Might subjects other than Kriya Yoga, introduced by people more outwardly attuned to international harmony, dilute our own special emphasis? No, why should they? Ours could be a place that made a focus on yoga its special contribution to a larger good. It would be absurd to use our ashram as a center for teaching anything and everything. From our own central focus in Kriya Yoga we could relate meaningfully to other groups possessing different interests.
Master had said repeatedly, ”We are not a sect.“ What better ground than this fact to help draw India out of its ancient inter-sectarian rivalries?
As I contemplated these ideas, I grew increasingly enthusiastic thinking of the good that could spread outward from this Delhi project.
Contemplating the importance to the Indian government of international approval, I visited the ambassadors from various countries and solicited their expressions of support. A few of them answered positively. Each positive reply became another arrow in my quiver.
I then went to the chief ministers of various ministries in the central government. Their approval, I felt, could be vital in persuading the Delhi government at least to listen to my proposal. A number of these men expressed sympathy with my idea, thereby adding more arrows to my arsenal.
To awaken further interest, I described the international nature of my own background: born in Rumania, educated in Rumania, Switzerland, England, and the United States; fluent in several languages; conversant in others.
Finally, realizing that Delhi State, albeit under the general supervision of the central government, was focused more locally, I considered the rationale behind the green belt area itself. The green belt was intended as lungs for the city. Lungs, however, suggest trees, not barren open spaces. There were few trees in the green belt, and most of them little more than spindly sticks, surrounded by a few listless shrubs.
There was one park in the green belt, however: Buddha Jayanti Park, clear evidence in itself that the government was not absolutely opposed to any development that might further its idea of providing lungs for the city. Only in Buddha Jayanti Park was there any greenery worthy of mention: flourishing trees, broad lawns, flower beds-acres of natural beauty.
I wrote a letter to Bhagwan Sahaya, the chief commissioner of Delhi State. In my letter I addressed the city’s, not my own, needs. I pointed out that the green belt was, for the most part, anything but green. ”As far as I can tell,“ I continued, ”it serves the city mainly as a public latrine.“ I went on to discuss Buddha Jayanti Park, and how that park, at least, succeeded in providing Delhi with lungs. ”Even a state as wealthy as Delhi State, however,“ I went on, ”could not expect to finance the development of parkland throughout its thousands of acres. The obvious solution, then, is to allow individual institutions to undertake the development of certain approved areas of the green belt.
“I am aware,” I continued, “of the government’s ban on the construction of buildings in the green belt. However, even Buddha Jayanti Park could not exist had it not been permitted to erect certain minimal construction: a restaurant, for example, to feed the visitors who come there. These buildings are really no more of a threat to the city than the rocks they replace. What they make possible, however, is the natural greenery that exists for acres all around them.
”If, therefore,“ I concluded, ”you consider allowing certain approved institutions to develop certain parts of the green area into places of public inspiration or enjoyment, it would be necessary to allow them also to construct certain minimal facilities, subject to your approval, in order to carry on their own activities.“
I mentioned in my letter, of course, the numbers of ambassadors and chief ministers who had already found my proposal attractive.
Bhagwan Sahaya telephoned me a few days later and asked if he might see me. We fixed an appointment, and I went to his home in a hopeful mood.
”I like your proposal,“ he told me. ”India, however, is plagued with too much sectarianism. How could I be sure that this place you’re asking for, assuming we grant you permission to develop it, would not degenerate into yet another bickering sect?“
”Well, our founder declared many times publicly that we are not a sect.“
”Words are cheap. Can you give me anything more substantial than that?“
”Well,“ I replied, ”we welcome people from all religions to our talks and satsangs. Paramhansa Yogananda in fact called his work in America a ‘church of all religions.’“
”I don’t know of an ashram anywhere that isn’t happy to welcome people from other religions to its functions,“ he replied with a sardonic smile. I realized I’d have to think quickly. I hadn’t anticipated this question. Then I said:
”We would allow groups from other ashrams to hold meetings at our facilities.“ This seemed a safe offer, even a desirable one. It would be wonderful if other ashrams could be inspired to join hands with us in a kindred spirit of universal good will. As for the ”bickering sects,“ I didn’t think they would come, given their fiercely territorial spirit. I saw no danger to our own integrity, therefore, in this open-handed proposal. We would gain, I thought, from such a wholesome interchange, provided we ourselves remained centered in our own practices.
Bhagwan Sahaya considered the matter a few moments longer. Finally he said, ”Very good. I can sway the Delhi commissioners to your idea. Only one obstacle remains. Because this idea of a green belt comes down all the way from the highest levels of our government, Pundit Nehru himself will have to be convinced before we can proceed any further.“
”Fine,“ I said. ”Then would you speak to him on the matter?“
”Oh, no,“ he replied. ”That is something you will have to do.“
”I! But I can’t even imagine how to meet him.“
”I’m sorry, but I can’t help you there.“ He implied that to do so would be sticking his neck out farther than he dared. What he seemed to be saying was, I’ll give you what you want provided you go first to the moon. I was reminded of those impossible tasks fairy tale princes were given if they wanted to marry the princess. Considering that, in those stories, the penalty for failure was invariably the loss of their heads, the comparison seemed to me not entirely unapt. The penalty for failure to see and convince Nehru would still be the final and complete rejection of my proposal.
I See Nehru
The Bhans were, like Nehru himself, Kashmiri Brahmins. In India, communities like this are more close-knit than comparable groups in America. Rani Bhan knew an elderly cousin of Nehru’s. She suggested we pay her a visit.
The cousin received Rani affably. After some discussion on a variety of homely topics, the subject was raised of an introduction to Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi.
”I’ll be happy to put in a word for you,“ said the cousin. And so it was arranged that I meet Indira Gandhi.
An appointment was made, and Indira Gandhi received me, though with obvious reluctance. To her mind, she was only seeing me as a favor to her elderly relative.
”Please state your business quickly,“ she said, quite haughtily. ”I am busy packing for a trip to Paris tomorrow. I’m supposed to address a conference there.“
”Do you speak French?“ I asked, demonstrating interest in her plans.
”Yes,“ she replied coolly.
”Where did you learn it?“ continuing our discussion in French.
”Somewhere you wouldn’t have heard of, at a small school in Switzerland called Beau Soleil. It is in the mountain village of Villars.“
”Beau Soleil!“ I exclaimed, amazed. ”Why, I went to school almost next door to it, in the village of Chesières. We used to walk by your school every day on our ‘promenades.’ It was there that I, too, learned French.“
She thawed completely. We chatted awhile longer, in French. She then said she’d be happy to recommend to her father that he spare me some time. Our talk ended by her taking me out into the garden and ”introducing“ me to two cute tiger cubs that had been presented to her father and her as a gift.
Things had begun to look brighter.
Realizing how important a recommendation from a secretary could be in the life of a busy executive, I made an appointment to see Nehru’s secretary. The secretary was favorably impressed with my proposal, and promised to put in a good word for me with his boss.
Another happy coincidence occurred. As an example of pure serendipity, Jayprakash Narayan, the former number two man in the government, happened to visit New Delhi at that time. I knew him, having met him a year earlier, again fortuitously: We had traveled together in the same train compartment from Calcutta to Benares. I hadn’t known who he was at the time, but we’d got into a discussion on cooperative communities-a subject that interested me deeply-and he’d appreciated my ideas. I paid him a visit now. Expressing pleasure at seeing me again, he concluded:
”I shall speak to Punditji on your behalf. If he is as well impressed with you as I am, I don’t think you will encounter any problem.“
There was one thing more I did, hoping it would assist me in convincing Nehru. Realizing that, busy as he was, a picture would speak more instantly about my project than any abstract discussion, I painted a large design of how I hoped the property would look when it was developed.
In the painting I waxed fanciful, imagining an almost Disneyland-like series of hills made to look like miniature Himalaya mountains (the land already had the necessary hills), concrete-insulated caves for residents to minimize the visual impact of residences on the land, a temple (which I depicted also for the cover of a promotional brochure), and trees and grass everywhere.
Rani, her son Indu, and I, armed with my large painting, went to meet Nehru as he came out on his daily way to the office. He paused briefly, looked at the painting, said a few words, then remarked that he would arrange to see me.
A meeting with Nehru was less promising than it sounds. He was known to be extremely quixotic. One never knew whether he would be in a gracious mood, or shout at one never to plague him again with such utter nonsense. A further problem was that he was known to be antagonistic to religion in general.
The day of our meeting proved inauspicious for him, but auspicious for us. News had reached him of the death of a dear friend. Instead of his frequently irascible mood, he was quietly thoughtful. He heard me out, then asked a few pertinent questions. He smiled when I spoke of my deep convictions against sectarianism, which I saw as a cancer in the body of the world’s religions. Altogether Nehru gave me forty minutes of his time, which, I was told later, considerably exceeded the time he normally gave to ambassadors. At the end of our discussion he said, ”Your idea attracts me. I shall make it a point to walk the property. If it meets my approval, you shall have my consent.“
And so, with almost miraculous suddenness, what had so long seemed an impossibility had become an actual probability. People who had been shaking their heads, grinning their skepticism, began really to sit up and take notice.
Nehru did in fact walk the land a few days later. Shortly thereafter, he gave the project his formal blessing.
And there you have the entire story behind what ended up being the greatest test of my life.
For decades, SRF representatives have replied to inquiries with the stock answer: ”If you only knew what he did!“ There is nothing more anyone could tell you than what I have told here. I myself know the whole story much better than anyone else. If my actions seem as outrageous to you as they did to my fellow disciples, then I have no further explanation to offer you. I must accept your condemnation as at least your judgment on the matter.
SRF members have sometimes written me anonymously to say, ”No corporation would put up with what you did.“ Since they all write the same thing, it seems safe to assume they’ve been coached. Well, to them, whoever and wherever they are, I have this to say: I am the president of a fairly large and successful corporation, international in scope: a place called Ananda. If anyone representing us abroad showed so much loyalty, dedication, and creative zeal, I would wine him (non-alcoholically, of course), dine him, and thank him with tears in my eyes. It is with spirit like this that Ananda has grown and, with Master’s grace, flourished over the nearly thirty years of its existence.
A photograph had been taken of me meeting the Dalai Lama. It seemed perfect for promoting the new project. I told my Indian friends to look for it to appear soon on the cover of ”Self-Realization Magazine.”