On a quest to unite humanity, a spiritual leader traverses the length of the country gathering support from all quarters
Hundreds of people, men and women, from different religions and nationalities, are marching peacefully with a spiritual leader – Muslim by birth and Hindu by initiation. The padyatris are from a cross-section of the intelligentsia, mostly the urban elite. They include IAS and IPS officers, financial analysts, tax officers, teachers and housewives, besides NRIs including academics, businessmen and software engineers.
The oldest is an 84-year-old air commodore from IAF followed by a 70-year-old scientist from TERI University. There are a few RSS recruits now coexisting with those who have Left leanings. Mesmerised by the yogi’s every gesture and word, the crowd is ready to do anything for him.
At first glance, this sight might look like a page taken from some Latin American novel of magic realism. But as you delve deeper, you soon realise this magical setting is a reality.
A Muslim youth’s spiritual yearnings leads him to a Hindu guru under mysterious circumstances and he is soon groomed into a yogi. He goes on to recall his previous life as a Hindu ascetic.
That was half a century ago. Today, he is a spiritual guide to many, and is popularly called Sri M. And currently he is walking through the entire stretch of India – from Kanyakumari to Kashmir – on a mission to unite people.
Sri M, now 67, began his Walk of Hope or Aasha Yatra from Kanyakumari on January 12 – the birth anniversary of another spiritual leader and social reformer Swami Vivekananda.
He has a permanent retinue of 70 people, mostly Hindus, a handful of Muslims and others.
The Walk of Hope, which has completed 11 months and passed through seven states so far, will end in Srinagar in the first week of May.
Walking through Narsinghpur in Madhya Pradesh, the caravan of nearly 100 padyatris led by Sri M is stopped every now and then by poor villagers, and also greeted by enthusiastic RSS workers with garlands of marigold.
Thundering ‘Jai Sri Ram’ they walk a short distance with padyatris and disperse chanting ‘Bharat mata ki jai’.
Sri M and his padyatris do not shout slogans. He breaks his silence only during receptions on the way as he explains the objectives of the padyatra.
“My walk is my talk,” he says at a meeting in Jhansi Ghat near the banks of the Narmada in Narsinghpur district.
“You must wonder why so many people should leave the comfort of their homes and walk 20 kilometres every day. We are doing this to take a message to you. And we will do it better if we walk rather than zip past in cars or airplanes... We are all born of the womb of a mother and after our death we would all go under this earth. So, we have to remember that we are human beings before we call ourselves Hindu or Muslim or Christian or anything else,” he says in Hindi.
In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP government has declared him an official guest. Consequently, bands of RSS workers keep joining the yatra throughout the itinerary in the state crying ‘Jai Sri Ram’. But this does not stop Muslim and Christian groups from joining in. Nor does this perturb Sri M. “If they don’t shout ‘Jai Sri Ram’ in the birthplace of Ram, where will they do?” he asks padyatris who question such sloganeering as non-secular. “We can’t have so many restrictions or we will have no one with us,” he says.
On a sunny day in early November the padayatra meanders through alleys in Narsinghpur to enter a Jain temple followed by a dargah. The following day – which happens to be Sri M’s birthday – he offers puja at the river bank and proceeds to cut a cake with nuns and priests at a church.
It is a beautiful tableau of togetherness, woven by this weaver of modern times echoing another weaver born Muslim and raised a Hindu , Kabir Das.
The story of M
M was born in Kerala in a Muslim family as Mumtaz Ali Khan. One evening, the nine-year-old met a stranger in the courtyard of his home. This is how the story goes as narrated by Sri M in his bestselling autobiography, Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master.
The stranger put his hand on the child’s head and asked him if he recalled anything. When the boy answered ‘no’, the dhoti-clad man said, “sab thik ho jayea” (everything will be fine). The boy ran home and when he turned back the stranger had vanished.
That day changed the life of little Mumtaz, and his quest for truth began. Finally, at the age of 19, shunning the “golden cage” of material well-being and security that his family represented, he left for Rishikesh.
Wandering in the Himalayas in a desperate bid to find the one who will show him the path, he met the same stranger who had blessed him as a child. The incident was like a miracle.
The holy man, known as Maheshwarnath Babaji, a yogi in the Nath tradition, took him under his wings and after imparting three and a half years of rigorous spiritual lessons initiated him into the Nath tradition, christening him as Madhukarnath.
At this stage, the young man had a revelation about his past life; he discovered that he was a spiritual seeker in the Himalayas under the tutelage of Sri Guru Babaji. Then he was known as Madhu and had apparently spurned a Pathan spiritual seeker’s request for guidance.
The distraught Pathan had apparently killed himself and the young yogi too took his own life in repentance. However, his guru had promised
to help him in the next life.
He was reborn as Mumtaz Ali Khan in the family of Pathans in Trivandrum.
In the Himalayas, Mumtaz aka Madhu was now with the divine guide. He lived with him for three and a half years, wandering barefoot through hills, forests, rain and storm. The young man re-learnt or recalled all the wisdom of the sages he had known from previous lives.
His guru then asked him to go back home, work, marry and have a family. He was told that he would teach people later.
His guru passed away in 1984 but left his essence within his disciple. So far so good.
But to have a Muslim who spouts Sanskrit verses from the Gita and Upanishads, with his ears pierced in the tradition of the kanphatta Nath yogis and followed by people from all religions and political leanings is not something that is an ordinary occurrence.
It was enacted once before in India in Varanasi with the saint and poet Kabir Das who was born Muslim and brought up by Hindus and had followers from both religions.
However, the man himself is shorn of the aura provided by the supernatural trappings of the ‘myth’ surrounding him.
He comes across as a plain-speaking educated Indian who wants to remind people a simple thing they already know as Indians that “we are tolerant people. We have always accepted everyone and so there is no room for intolerance in India.”
He and his wife Sunanda Ali run two schools in Andhra Pradesh, Satsang Vidyalaya – a free school for tribal children in Madanapalle – and, The Peepal Grove School – a residential school providing alternative education – in Chittoor district. Both were associated earlier with J Krishnamurty Foundation as trustees and teachers.
What M means
Sri M’s speeches at the small meetings on the way during the Walk of Hope are mostly on the same lines. He introduces himself by explaining why he calls himself M. “You may wonder why I am called M,’’ he asks a gathering of students at a government school on the way from Mirzapur to Varanasi.
“My parents named me Mumtaz Ali Khan. Then my guru named me Madhukarnath. My guru himself was Maheshwarnath.
“So M means all of these. But what it means most of all is ‘manushya or manav’ [man],” he says.
“So M could be anyone among you,” he says and the children clap.
He also recalls during his speeches how it was a command by his beloved guru given decades ago that is today transformed into the Walk of Hope. “My guru once told me that I would lead a group of people from one end of the country to the other to spread the message of harmony. I said I would rather walk alone. Then my guru chided me and said that I should just do what I was told.’’
Goals of the yatra
Sri M is very clear. “We want a movement. We want more people…’’ he told his padyatris at one of his private meetings in November in Rewa, Madhya Pradesh.
This was the first time he was talking about having people’s movement.
He said: “I don’t care who the people are. I want people.
“Only when there is an open platform with no restrictions of any kind can people of different faiths and beliefs come together,” he explained to padyatris.
When Mahatma Gandhi died in 1948, a year after independence, he left his project of Hindu-Muslim unity incomplete. Sri M, who was born a year later, now hopes to finish that agenda through his personal example of tolerance aided with a charisma that comes with his spiritual stature.
He has an explanation for his charisma that seems to draw people to him without making any effort.
“My guru was a magnet. I was nothing when I met him. But staying with him, he turned me too into a magnet. It is all his doing,” he said at a satsang much before the Walk of Hope began.
Most of those who walk with him see him as a saint, an embodiment of divinity itself.
“I don’t want to be compared with Gandhiji,” he says adding, “As for divinity, if there is a spark of the divine in me it is there in everyone else too.”
One of the padyatris walking with him is Krishna Kulkarni, great-grandson of Gandhiji. He feels that the Walk would certainly help in taking the message of unity to people. “It is a continuation of what Bapu did,” he says.
Many people’s movements have been witnessed before, starting from the Bhudan movement, the JP movement and more recently the Anna Hazare-led anti corruption movement. They had a political element. Sri M strongly rules out political goals for his movement. “Our movement is open to all. All political parties and all religions are welcome to join us. We have no political goals.”
And yet, he says he won’t shy away from politics. “If I get a Rajya Sabha seat I won’t run away. I think it would be good to have someone take a neutral position in parliament...” he says.
After the padyatra
The yatra will end in May in Srinagar.Then what? His fellow yatris are already wondering about a life after this as they have got used to walking with the master daily. Many of them have been initiated into yoga and meditation and regard him as their guru.
Walking with the padyatris for about three weeks through three districts in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, it was not difficult to see why. None of them felt exhausted or complained of pain.
Sri M has an explanation. Talking at a school in Dagmagpur bordering Benaras, he said: “People ask us how we walk 18 to 20 km daily. We don’t eat any special food. It is just vegetarian diet of roti and dal. But I believe that I’m not this body. I’m the spirit. And for the spirit nothing is impossible. And what is in me is there in each of us.”
A commoner and a saint
Sri M manages to maintain the air of a common man rather than that of a saint. And it is his sense of humour which helps him in maintaining this front of non-solemnity. Sometimes politicians are at the receiving end of his humour. Narrating one such incident he says, “Lalu Yadav is reading my book. He asked Ravi Shankar Prasad about the Walk of Hope. He immediately opened his bag and handed Lalu my book.
“Recently Prasad called me after BJP lost in Bihar. So I told him that it was his fault. When he asked how, I said, ‘Why did you give my book to Laluji? That helped him’,” he says laughing.
In Mirzapur his wife joins him for ten days during vacation in school. Later in Varanasi he is joined by his daughter Aysha who has come from Mumbai where she lives with her husband Akash Chopra, the grandson of filmmaker Ramanand Sagar. “I try to come as often as I can,” she says.
He says in his satsangs: “I’m in the same boat as you, as I have a family and other responsibilities and I don’t live in a cave... But maybe I can manage the oars better…”
The logistics of the Walk
The entourage has been walking through the summer heat, the monsoons and now the winter fog. The caravan includes a customised bus, three vehicles with over half a dozen toilets in them, a team of cooks who prepare meals thrice a day at the halting point.
The padyatris are mostly accommodated in schools and hostels and occasionally in hotels. They pay a small fee of '500 per day for the transport, accommodation and food. Those who can’t afford get donors. There are no charges for walking and those who join in between and manage their own accommodation don’t pay. Often villagers and schoolchildren join the padyatra and the numbers swell.
The padyatris are transported to the halting point after the day’s walk ends around noon. In the evenings they are taken in the bus for satsang or interaction with the locals.
The Manav Ekta Mission (MEM), which manages the road show, has a team of dedicated volunteers who had been working on it since 2014.
Says Balaji Kashyap, MEM convenor: “Our team recceed the whole route thrice since 2014. We already know where we would be staying in states we would be visiting two months from now.
“On our first visit we just see the route; the second time we contact locals and also find out the possible places suitable for halting after every 20 km. In the final round we identify schools and institutions where we could stay. But generally we wait for local people to volunteer. We are not here for propaganda but to connect with people.” Balaji is one of the oldest associates of Sri M.
This strategy seems to work as people who have never heard of MEM or Sri M are seen making efforts to make the padyatris comfortable. The Daffodils school in Mirzapur, UP, is a case in point. The couple who runs the school made the Walk a part of the curriculum and the children joined in.
The padyatris stayed in the school hostel for a week. The school also organised Sri M’s meetings at dargahs, gurudwaras and churches.
Having covered 340 days and 5,000 km, the Walk of Hope will complete 7,000-odd km in Srinagar in May.
“In the spirit of Manav Ekta we would like to cross the border and shake hands but we will keep that for the future,” says Sri M.
“I will be taking a break after this walk but padyatris would help form Manav Ekta groups in different states and leave them self-sustaining under local leaders,” he says about the future plans.
Meanwhile, M has been meeting leaders of not only religions but also political parties and movements.
Addressing a meeting in Jayapura village near Varanasi that is ‘adopted’ by PM Narendra Modi for development as a model village, Sri M says: “I am a friend of the prime minister and have told him that I am visiting his adopted village.”
The prime minister has been in touch with Sri M from the beginning of the Walk of Hope and called him when he entered Gujarat.
Sri M has been meeting other leaders too. He met Anna Hazare in Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra and Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi more recently.
He also had meetings with Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi in the course of the Walk.
But his most memorable meetings will remain those with young school children in India’s countryside. He tells them school after school: “I am sowing a seed of unity... You have to nurture it with water and great care. One day the seed of Manav Ekta would be a big tree and you would sit under its shade and enjoy the fruits of peace love and development…”
We’re human first before being Hindu, Muslim or Christian: Sri M
You recently said that you want a movement. What would be the objective of such a movement?
It is unity, Manav Ekta. Our mission is to remind people that they are human beings before being Hindu or Muslim or anything else. That we are all born of a mother and we are all heading for our graves. Is there anyone who has a different destiny?
We all know these things. But we tend to forget. We are just trying to remind them.
Last time we had a movement against corruption, which failed. How will you sustain this one?
Just because it failed once, shouldn’t we try it again? We have to go on experimenting. Just because of failures you can’t stop experimenting. That is cowardice.
Once you bring people together, what are the issues you hope to address? Environment, agriculture, education?
All of those issues are relevant. We want to empower people. But before all that they have to come together. Unity is the main thing. People are talking of this issue and that issue but society is falling into pieces. Once we are together, we will look at other issues little by little.
Do you want it to remain a civil society movement or include government?
Governments have so much power. We have to involve them to change their attitudes. Wherever we are going, states are participating. The Kerala government, followed by Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, and MP. Now in Kanpur, Akhilesh Yadav is joining us and Samajwadi Party wants to make it a big programme. Let everyone participate.
When BJP patronised the Walk in MP did it not make it appear as having a right leaning?
For the first time at a place in Madhya Pradesh I saw Bajrang Dal shouting slogans, “Hindu Muslim Sikh Isai, hum sab hai bhai bhai” [Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian, we are all brothers]. The problem is not with this or that group. Tolerance begets tolerance. I have been asked to address a CPM meeting in Kerala on January 3. They plan to introduce yoga for the cadres. They asked me to inaugurate it. I think it is a good thing that communists are taking to yoga. It is better than drinking liquor… That is what many so-called intellectuals today end up doing.
Maybe these parties want to exploit the plank of Manav Ekta…
Exploit is not the right word. The media loves to see it like that. What is wrong in participation? Look at the national media. They are not interested unless there is sensation. Subramaniam Swamy was advising our people recently to get our own people to throw stones at the yatris to get media attention. He himself then added that I would not do such a thing.
Do you see Manav Ekta Mission become a political pressure group?
We are not a political party. We haven’t registered ourselves with the election commission and hence we are not standing for elections. People wonder when they meet us why we are having this programme when there are no elections coming. It is difficult for them to believe that we have no political agenda.
So you want it to be an apolitical movement, the kind Mahatma Gandhi built?
I won’t compare myself with Gandhiji. As for politics, if I was asked to be a Rajya Sabha MP I would not refuse. I think I should not shy away from an opportunity to take a neutral position in parliament. But I would certainly not bother to fight elections.
You left out east India completely from the padyatra. How will you make up for this?
We don’t know. But even this route is taking us a year and a half. We may walk through Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and the northeast later in a second round of Walk of Hope. But all that can happen only after we take a break for a year.
Are yatris with you on your agenda of social movement? As most of them see you as a spiritual guru and hope for only spiritual growth.
Nirvana. But I can assure you they are not in it just for nirvana. As I have been telling them too that the inner journey is linked with seva, the service you do for others… If you don’t care for those around you, what kind of spiritual growth are you making?
I say in every meeting that the divine lives in every being, that every being is a walking talking temple. While god can be worshipped through puja and prayer, the only way you can worship the divine in another being is through seva or service. If each of us bears this in mind, there is no room for trouble.
(The article appears in the January 1-15, 2016 issue)