It might seem unlikely for a spiritual guru to reach rockstar levels of fame and adoration but that's exactly what's happened to India's Sadhguru. He's the founder of the Isha Foundation, which "is dedicated to raising human consciousness, and fosters global harmony through individual transformation."
At his centers in India and Tennessee, he uses yoga "in all its depths and dimensions" for anyone "to attain physical, mental and spiritual well being."
On holidays, his ashram in India, the Isha Institute of Inner Sciences, gets 50-60,000 visitors. Rally for Rivers, his campaign to save India's endangered rivers, has attracted 162 million participants. He's wise but not dry, surprisingly fun and hip and full of ancient and commonsense wisdom on all aspects of life.
I caught up with him on a visit to New York City for an enlightening and entertaining chat.
Let's start with a light, easy question. What do you think about the state of the world today?
If you don't watch television, and if you're not on social media, it's just fine.
But what if you are on social media?
Well, I think it's still just a decade old, so people have to learn to swim through that. And see how to absorb social media. If they take in every word that's written there or said there, they'll go crazy, of course.
What do you think the average person can do to make the world a better place?
Make themselves into better human beings, first of all. It's always the good people who are fighting and killing and doing everything. Good Christians are fighting good Muslims, good Indians are fighting good Pakistanis, good Americans are always looking for someone to fight with. The better you think you are, the more you have the tendency to fight somebody who you think is bad. The greatest mistake humanity has made is trying to produce good people. What we need is joyful and sensible people.
When someone is joyful, they're always wonderful to everything around them. But when they are miserable, they will share their misery in some way. One way or another, they plan to infect others. But when a human being is joyful, you can trust that he will be pleasant. When he is unhappy, he will do miserable things. You may call it a crime, you may call it ambition or something else. Essentially everything, whether it's war, ecological disasters — it's all in pursuit of human happiness, not realizing that all of human experience comes from within. Joy or misery come from within. Pain and pleasure happen from within. Agony and ecstasy happen from within. Once you're blissful, it simply means that you have no compulsions about anything. Then — only then — human intelligence will function. Right now, it is enslaved to their compulsions.
Their thoughts, their emotions, their activities — compulsive activity. Because we are compulsive, we don't know how much to do, we don't know when to stop. Because it's compulsive, we have to do it, no matter what.
"The greatest mistake humanity has made is trying to produce good people. What we need is joyful and sensible people."
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I know I feel compulsive.
So, right now, in affluent societies, artificial intelligence is coming. They're inviting me to all kinds of AI conferences and asking, "What will happen to our jobs?" And I say, "You won't have a job. And anyway, I don't see you going to your jobs with great joy. With great misery you're going and you're saying, 'Thank God it's Friday.' So, if you don't have a job, isn't it fantastic?"
They say, "No, what do we do?" Just live. A job was just an ancillary [thing] to see that you're provided for. Now you have everything machines will do and provide for you. But people don't know how to just be. We are the only creatures on the planet who are referred to as human beings. We don't call a tiger a "tiger being" or an elephant an "elephant being." Because this one creature is supposed to know how to be. If you knew how to [be], you would definitely keep yourself in the highest level of pleasantness. If you are in the highest level of pleasantness, would you do the most wonderful things that you could do? That's all you can get out of a human being. If everybody is doing their best, it's a great place.
How can people bring more joy into their life? Not to keep asking you for instructions for people...
When you frame the question itself, you are asking how to bring joy. You cannot bring it because it is not anywhere. It's not in the supermarket. There is no joy in you. There is no misery in you. There is no love in you. There is no hate in you.
In this moment, you can make anything out of yourself. This is what the beauty of being human is.
One of the greatest things that's been ever said was by Adiyogi, the first yogi, over 15,000 years ago. He said, "the significance of being human is, you can determine the nature and pace of your evolution." That's the most significant thing for me.
Do you think most people realize they can do that?
No, they don't. They think they can milk it from the world.
Have you ever been miserable in your life?
I'm not given such privileges for anything or anybody to call misery to me. [But] am I capable of being miserable? Definitely. If I want, I can be. I can go sit in a Broadway play and cry with them and laugh with them.
No, when they're miserable, you cry with them. That's misery. But, because you're doing it consciously, it's of immense value. If misery or even joy is happening to you compulsively, it will then bring enslavement along. What you ultimately suffer is enslavement. Whether human beings know it or not, there is an intrinsic value for freedom. It is not taught to you from outside. It is not because of values enshrined in your constitution. We have a program called "Inner Freedom for the Imprisoned." Our programs are now mandatory in all the Southern Indian prisons for the last 18-20 years now. We also did some programs in the United States. At that time, I used to personally go and teach myself 10-day, 2-hour programs in the prisons.
See, if you go into a prison, it is a well-organized society. Your meal is never even a minute late. It's always on time. People open doors for you. Everything is done for you. Everything is comfortable. If you walk into any prison, you will see most people who live there are extremely fit compared to the society that you see outside. Physically very fit, well-fed, well-nourished. It's a great place. But I've never walked into a prison and walked out without tears in my eyes because there is just pain in the air. It's simply — you cannot articulate what this is. One must have sensitivity to feel that. The only thing is somebody is barring the door, that's all. Anywhere people go and lock themselves in their own homes, it's just that somebody else is barring the door. Just that one thing: lack of freedom. Everything else is organized for a lot of them, better than their homes. And they don't have to do any work, they don't have to worry about money, state hospitality.
[But] if you breathe that air, you will feel like crying. That's how important it is. So essentially, compulsiveness means just that. You're slowly locking yourself up in your own prison and you're not suffering misery. You can enjoy misery, you can read a Shakespeare tragedy and enjoy it, right? You're not suffering misery. You're suffering the lack of freedom that compulsiveness causes within you. That's when a human being suffers the most.
Why do you have an ashram in the United States, of all places? I'm happy you do, I'm just wondering how you chose it.
Geographically, if you burrow a hole from India right through the core of the planet, you will end up in the United States.
Yeah, right the opposite. People have been asking me to open a center, and an ashram at thousands of different places, and I said no. Because I'm not a real estate person. For me, my real estate is in the minds and hearts of people. Infrastructure should exist only to the extent necessary. But these two countries are major centers. In India, anywhere between 8000-12,000 people visit every day, on average. On weekends, it doubles. On holidays, it's 50,000-60,000.
Here in the US, we have a 3500 acre ashram now. The idea is to build infrastructure for inner well-being of the human being. This is called Isha Institute of Inner Sciences. They tell me about 150 years ago, 93 percent of the US population was illiterate. Today, there is 100 percent literacy, if not education, at least literacy. So, how does this happen? Somebody invested in schools and teachers. So why is it that inner well-being doesn't happen? There's no infrastructure, either human or physical infrastructure. So, we built the largest meditation hall in the Western Hemisphere here. It's a 44,000 square feet columnless dome. In India, we have an 84,000 square feet columnless meditation hall. So, what is missing for inner wellbeing?
Everybody thinks going to a bar in the evening and drinking will make them happy. Others think teasing somebody else will make them happy or accumulating money will make them happy. I am not saying you should not do these things. These things you should do out of choice, not out of compulsion. Because compulsiveness imprisons you. Imprisonment makes you suffer. You don't know why? Go to the streets right now and watch. Most of them are driving their dream cars, all right. What even royalty could not have 100 years ago, common people have in their lives today. They're driving chariots with 500, 600 horses. Even emperors could not do that. But, are they happy? No, they are driving miserably.
"Most of them are driving their dream cars. What even royalty could not have 100 years ago, common people have in their lives today. They're driving chariots with 500, 600 horses. Even emperors could not do that. But, are they happy? No, they are driving miserably."
Do you believe in astrology?
Today, there's enough science to tell you that every form around you has a reverberation of its own, including your own physical body. Where the moon is tonight has a certain influence on you. You know that. Columbus knew that on a full moon night or a new moon night, the entire ocean is trying to rise. Call it a tide. If the entire ocean with millions of tons of water, is trying to rise, and when 70 percent of your body is water, you think nothing is trying to rise? It is rising.
So, today we dig the same earth and make a spacecraft out of it, using it for higher presentation. So, are you a higher presentation compared to the inanimate objects?
This whole process is just this. Some people think they are the ones to sit on a tall building and they are at height while some want to sit on a huge pile of money. And some want to sit in a tower of power. But essentially, human life, the only thing that matters is the profoundness of your experience. There's really nothing else. People are trying to achieve it in so many ways. As we already looked at this, human experience essentially comes from within. This one thing, if you take charge, now all compulsiveness will go away. Now you become very conscious about what you do and do not do, because there's no compulsion about anything. If only two percent of human beings came to this level of awareness and consciousness, human genius will unfold in a tremendous way.
What percentage of people, if any, are at that place?
A very small percentage, maybe about one. Many great beings have come close but when they spoke, hardly 10 people heard. Just imagine, when Buddha came, he spoke and hardly 10 people heard. And Jesus came, only 12 people did and one of them freaked out on him. Today we can sit, hear and speak to the entire world. Never before was this possible. So this is the best time ever in the history of humanity if you want to turn people around to a higher level of function. But are we using the technology toward our well being? People are selling drugs, people are pushing all kinds of things. Unfortunately, children are being sold on the internet. They tell me about 1.2 million children under 15 years are being sold on the internet. If you are selling our children, this means you've hit rock bottom.
About 12 years ago I was in the United States and met some kind of expert on the internet. I asked what are people looking for on the net? He very casually said, "Sadhguru, about 70% of the data is pornography." I said, "You can't be right. It can't be 70%. There's so many things in the world to see." Then I checked with a few other people and everybody says it's around that much. So since then, I've been loud up there and today I can say it with much glee that, at least in India, if somebody is looking for pornography or drugs, Sadhguru pops up, telling them how to become conscious. I am loud and out there now. it's not to my taste but it's the need of the hour.
Can you talk a little bit about the link between our mental well-being and physical well-being?
There is scientific and medical evidence to show that only when you're in a pleasant state of experience, every organ in the body and your brain work at its best. There's no question about it.
I actually ask this question in New York and in London: "How many people in New York City can sit here in the evening without a glass of wine — peacefully?" They say it's less than 5 percent. I went to London the same weekend and they said less than one percent. Human experience has a chemical basis to it. You're feeling joyful, there's a chemistry to it. You're feeling miserable, there's a chemistry to it. You're depressed, there's a chemistry to it. That's why you're trying to fix it with chemicals. Pop a pill and it feels good. So today we're using chemicals to be healthy. 70 percent of America is on prescription medication. To be peaceful, we're on chemicals. To be joyful, we're on chemicals. To be ecstatic, we're on chemicals.
I just got a report from Times of India saying that there is a 38 percent increase in alcohol consumption in India in the last three years, 38 percent. Why is this? Because we think that human experience can be manipulated from outside. So inner engineering is a fundamental technology. I'm insisting it's a technology because it's not a philosophy. It's not a belief system. It's not an ideology. It's not even a teaching. Right now you have a phone...But inner engineering is looking at the most sophisticated piece of technology. But have you even read the user's manual?
Somehow, you're blundering through it and you think [your body] should work well. It doesn't work well. It's a very subtle mechanism. If you learn to sit properly, breathe properly, and do a few things properly, you will see being enthusiastic and joyful is natural to you. In the US, if you go to sit on a seat, you can only sit like a dead dog. If you just sit differently, believe me, many things will change about you. Your entire body will work much better if only you learn to sit properly. Most people cannot sit properly because rigor mortis has set in already by the age of 20. When you die you become stiff and when you're alive but you're stiff, what does that mean? You're dying in installments and a living death is difficult. If you're fully alive, it's fantastic. If you're dead, it's good for others. Half alive means it's torture. Physiologically, psychologically, emotionally if you keep yourself half alive, it is torturous. If you want to torture you, we won't kill you, we'll keep you half alive. That's torture, it's called waterboarding. That's the worst thing but people are doing it to themselves, they're half alive. Inner engineering is to invigorate life in you in such a way to create a chemistry of blissfulness in you. Once your chemistry is blissful, life situations happen in so many ways.
"Some people want to sit on a huge pile of money. And some want to sit in a tower of power. But essentially, human life, the only thing that matters is the profoundness of your experience. There's really nothing else."
And what part does meditation play in that?
I try to stay away from that word because in this part of the world, you close your eyes and sit, people think you're meditating. You might have just mastered the art of sleeping in vertical postures.
So the word meditation doesn't really say anything specific, it's too spread out. Let's put it this way, meditation is not an act. It's a quality. If you cultivate your body, your mind, your emotion and energy to a certain level of maturity you become meditative like the fragrance of the flower.
It is not a thing by itself, it is a consequence. If you enrich the plant, the flower will blossom, fragrance will come out, not just because you spray perfume on it. So if you keep the fundamentals of this life mechanism proper, you will become meditative. It's a quality you carry, not an act you perform. So inner engineering is that dimension where scientifically we're teaching people exactly how to cultivate the body, how to cultivate the mind, emotional energy to a level where being blissful is natural to you.
People ask me, "Sadhguru what is the significance of your work?" I said "Tears." Every day millions of people across the world shed tears of love and ecstasy on a daily basis. This is my significance. I bring tears to people.
Photography: Julia Gillard