Chance Encounter With 96-Year-Old Dada Vaswani

Nov 21, 2014

I had met him once before. Also by chance.

Last November, I was sick and my body was weak, but Sheetal felt deeply called to have me accept Dada Vaswani's invitation to attend a public program. It meant that I would have to cancel my flight and instead, spend the entire night sleeping sideways on a moving bus. Sheetal, however, is a long-time partner in service, so I went with his intuition.

Our gang of 6 was cordially seated in the front row, with more than a thousand folks behind us. The plan was to attend the gathering, give a short talk, and take the bus by night. Right before the event starts, Dada Vaswani walks in and a devotional fervor grips the room. Someone informs him of the day’s program, and points to me as a guest. He immediately motions organizers to bring another chair and have me sit next to him(!); as I head towards him, he gets up from his chair (which is quite an ordeal since it requires the support of multiple people to lift him up) and gently whispers in my ear, "I’m so grateful to have met you." I was immediately taken by his humility. When he spoke on stage, he whole-heartedly endorsed the work of ServiceSpace: "I just met Mr. Nipun Mehta a couple minutes ago, and their work is what the world needs today. May it continue to grow further and further." In leadership positions, people are told to do extensive background checks before they provide blanket public endorsements. Dada breaks that code in entirety. :) As all of us departed that night, he blessed us again like a loving grandfather.

That short interaction remained one of the highlights of my trip. It was hard to exactly say why, but he touched me deeply.

At the time, I didn't know his story. He graduated from college at 17, and his masters thesis in Physics was reviewed by a Nobel Laureate. By 19, however, he had met his spiritual teacher and became a monk. Until the age of 48, he was in training under his teacher; and in the subsequent 48 years of his life, he has tirelessly promoted oneness, non-violence and compassion. Sadhu Vaswani Mission runs schools and social welfare programs, and Dada is particularly known for his insightful talks and for authoring more than a hundred books. His simple messages reach multitudes. And he emphasizes that, "It is essential to develop intellect and to acquire manual skills, but the most important is the training of the heart. Love and service are what the world needs most now." For his teacher's birthday, he asks the community to go meatless for the day: "The 18th century gave rights to man. The 19th century gave rights to slaves. The 20th century gave rights to women. The 21st century will give rights to animals." Having dialogued with most major religious leaders around the world, and without personally being attached to a particular doctrine, he is an ardent champion of interfaith harmony: "Each one of us is spirit. On the spiritual plane, unity is not to be worked out. It is already there. On the plane of religion, we still have to work it out."

This month, I was in India again. In Pune again. Sheetal felt like visiting again. Except this time, there was no public program, no talk, no appointment with Dada. In fact, there was a chance that Dada might not even be in town. We were just going to stop by and join a group chant, en route to another nearby meeting.

It turned out Dada had fallen sick the day before, had to cancel his travel plans and hence happened to be local. Out of gratitude for many devotees who had convened to chant for his health, Dada came out on a wheelchair to be with them for a couple of minutes.

Being 96 years old, he has limited capacity to interact, and we ended up being the only visitors allowed to meet him privately that day.

No one knew how long our audience would be -- anywhere from a moment to a few minutes was our guess. We were guided to a private room. It was his private room, but with utterly simple plastic furniture and no fanfare whatsoever.

What ensued was a profound dialogue that spanned the next forty-five minutes! Profound not solely because of content, but because of presence. Initially, we just sought his blessings, but when he didn't signal us to leave, I figured I'd make the most of the occasions and seek his wisdom. So I asked some questions. Five or six people from his inner circle were also present. Since the Vaswani Mission routinely uses DailyGood articles, KarmaTube videos and Smile Cards, they readily offered an introduction. And their explanation said a lot about their values: "Dada, they also like to do small, small acts of service in the world."

If I had to encapsulate Dada's personality in one word, it would be humility. His presence felt electric yet effortlessly contained. He didn't leak any energy. What made it all really profound was that he held himself as caretaker, servant and trustee of this sacred resource. That constant experience is what seemed to ground his humility. Next to him, one felt so empowered to take delight in being small, last, nobody.

"My master was humble. He was a very learned man, a great writer, philosopher, and an educationist. Once when he presided over a big meeting in Mumbai and held a press conference, they asked him who he was. Are you a poet? Are you an educationist? Are you an author? Are you a saint? He said, 'I am a zero.' He paused for a while and added, 'I'm not the English zero as the English zero occupies space. I am the Sindhi 'Nukta'. In Sindhi, zero is written like a dot. So that was the ideal placed before me," Dada once explained. Then, all that remains is to serve all and love all, unconditionally. "My master would joke that the man who gives only to those whom he considers deserving has good reason to pray that the Lord, in judging him, will not follow his example."

I asked him questions that held subtle edges, and he darted back with crystal clear responses.

"Should we focus on internal purification or outer service?" "Both. Ultimately, they're the same." Can we change the world? "No. Yet it is very important that you try." What is more important -- power of one or many? "What seems like many eventually turns into one." Does our Guru and spiritual lineage matter? "Not much." Do we have free will? "Yes, but a wise person will surrender his free will." What's the difference between consciousness and awareness? "Awareness + Ego = Consciousness. We must drop the ego." What will happen to the Mission after you pass away? "That's not my concern. I'm not the one making this happen now, and it won't be me in the future. I just try to be zero."

Dada didn't blink much (perhaps not at all), during our conversation. With a penetrating gaze, he looked at me as if he could see me inside and out. Often, there would be long, silent pauses. I would usually feel compelled to break the silence with a question, but that didn't alter the increasing intensity. During one of those pauses, I thought I'd remind him of our first encounter: "Dada, we met once before, back in November last year." With compassionate confidence, he replied: "We have met many times in the past." He uttered these words in such a way that the devotees behind him found themselves tearing up, and I myself was deeply moved.

Long pause again.

"Dada, what do you think about tears? Sometimes we cry out of emotion but sometimes out of compassion?" I shared how I was tearing up during the chants in the previous hour, particularly moved by the drummer, a young man whom I felt was truly playing from the heart (that man was indeed an unprofessional drummer, who was playing just to serve others). Dada smiled and explained that tears of attachment roll out of the inside of our eyes, while tears of a divine aspiration roll from the outside. Pressing further, I asked him about Boddhisattvas (figuring that he must've spoken about it with the Dalai Lama). At this, he paused a bit, locked his eyes into mine, with the quiet composure of a 96-year-old man sitting with a hunched back, he recited a poem by Shantideva. One deliberate word after another.
May I be a guard for those who need protection,
A guide for those on the path,
A boat, a raft, a bridge for those who wish to cross the flood.
May I be a lamp in the darkness,
A resting place for the weary,
A healing medicine for all who are sick,
A vase of plenty, a tree of miracles;
And for the boundless multitudes of living beings,
May I bring sustenance and awakening,
Enduring like the earth and sky
Until all beings are freed from sorrow,
And all are awakened.

Wow. No words can describe the ambiance. I think everyone in the room must've been in tears, although I had forgotten about the others at this point.

Whenever I get in this state, my heart naturally overflows with gratitude. So I asked him, with whatever limited humility I was capable of, "Dada, I can't pretend to know what your work is, but how may I be of service?"

Then, he did something that blew me away. He cupped his two hands in front of me, as if holding out a begging bowl, and gently said, "I request your tears of compassion."

Long pause. This time, on my account. No questions were arising, no answers were arising. We just looked into each other's eyes.

I really didn't know what to say. Finally, I stumbled out with, "I'll do my best, Dada." I didn't want to cry right then, but I sure felt like it.

None of us, even his coordinators, had anticipated such a long meeting. He still wasn't signaling for it to end, but I felt a bit conscious and initiated our goodbye gratitude. With his vintage humility and grace, he adds, "Please forgive me. I would like to stand up but my old age won't allow me to." To which I replied, "Dada, fortunately for me, I can not only stand up but also bow down."

I touched his feet.

We had many other back-to-back meetings scheduled right after this unplanned interaction, so the show went on. But a part of our minds stayed still that whole day. The next morning, Sheetal shared that he still hadn't recovered from the encounter with Dada. Rajesh, one of Dada's closest coordinators who has been privy to many such meetings, later wrote that it was a meeting that he will never forget for the rest of his life: "I felt like I was being read a holy scripture." A pretty accurate description.

"Spirituality is not taught. It is caught -- by associating with those who are truly spiritual," Dada says. I think I know what he means.

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