Rakesh Wahi recounts a deeply personal journey that culminated in an opportune meeting with the Dalai Lama.
Life is an interesting journey made up of events, experiences and interactions that collectively teach you some important lessons. All of them consciously or unconsciously have an impact on your life; some more than others. There are some events that impact the inner core of your being.
One such is the loss of a parent. This is a nightmare for any child irrespective of age. I lost my father, Col SP Wahi, on February 13 2017. He had lived his life to the full and left his mark on everything he touched – a true legend.
Grieving is a process and we all deal with grief in our own way. Going through the Hindu rituals around my father’s cremation took its toll on me. I had been through many such rituals, watching other sons grieve their fathers, but living my own was heart-wrenching.
The flight to New Delhi from Johannesburg was 16 hours including a stop-over in Dubai that seemed like eternity.
Even at 58, I was numb, with memories flashing through my mind, but most of all, with the fear of not knowing what to expect. My thoughts were with my mother and two sisters as I know how close we all were to my father.
The most important lesson from this was how a family comes together dealing with the loss of a father, the head of the family. We rallied around our mother through the personal emotions and yet put on a brave front as we dealt with the thousands of well-wishers who poured in to join us in mourning.
As we started going through the motions of accepting what had happened, an invisible, remote-controlled switch flipped inside me, rebooting me to become a vegetarian and teetotaler. These were my mother’s choices all her life; but it wasn’t just these choices but my thinking that was rebooted, to go back in her service.
Was this divine intervention for realigning your relationships, or was there something psychologically more profound with one day having to deal with another loss? I have no answer to this question yet.
What, however, followed from this rebooting was a desire to begin planning a schedule for my mother so she could continue her life as usual whilst coming to terms with the irreparable void.
My mother has been extremely religious all her life and is a devout Hindu who believes in embracing all rituals. Her faith and philanthropy brought her close to many religious leaders including Mother Teresa. The one place she had visited 19 times on pilgrimage was the Vaishno Devi temple in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.
This has been her calling, to worship the Indian goddesses Saraswati, Lakshmi and Mahakali, all enshrined in Vaishno Devi. Along with my wife and two sisters, I decided to take her on this pilgrimage, for what would be her 20th visit to Vaishno Devi. I had passed through Jammu many times during my military career but as one seldom swayed by rituals, I never deviated from the path.
This was perhaps my calling.
Vaishno Devi was, as expected, a blissful experience. There is a message when He chooses to test your faith and endurance, and He did test ours. The weather took a nasty turn and a helicopter charter from Katra (a small town in Jammu and Kashmir) was not to be, on our return.
My mother, who turned 80 this year, managed the walk down from the temple to the helipad at Sanjichhat and then to Adhkuwari, from where we got her a palaki (palanquin). The four-hour turnaround took us 10 hours.
This was a highlight, but what followed was even more so – a confirmation that the Dalai Lama was in residence at his monastery in McLeodGanj in Dharamsala (a hill station in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh),and had agreed to give us an audience on September 28.
This date has always proven auspicious for me, as,coincidentally, a number of my life’s turning points have happened on or adjacent this date. For instance, on this day, 30 years ago, I had finally stepped out of my military fatigues.
This year, on the same date, we were ushered into His Holiness, the Dalai Lama’s ante-room for a private meeting for the family with him. A stream of monks and visitors before us had been granted an audience, so we waited anxiously for our turn.
Meeting the Dalai Lama is no longer easy, owing to his numerous commitments and busy schedule.
As His Holiness entered, a few assistants milled around and a photographer frantically clicked away. As briefed, we each held a white satin shawl in our hands that he placed around our necks and then touched our heads in blessing.
When it came to my mother, he put the shawl around her neck and placed her hand on his head to seek her blessings, after which he touched her head.
This departure in protocol showed the mark of a great human who recognized another enriched soul.
In the one hour we got with him, he spoke about his beliefs. His first thoughts were on secularism and the reason he continued to live in India – because of tolerance, and the need for all humans to show tolerance to others. He said religion is a subset of spirituality and being good is more important than being religious – “Follow your faith but do not fail to do good as that helps mankind.”
He spoke briefly about his views on Buddhism in China, where 300 million Buddhists live. He expressed the hope that someday the intolerance would end and people would embrace this noble way of life.
What he was most disappointed about was how the western world had moved away from the basic norms of family and spirituality into a society entrenched in materialism; the loss of basic human values where ever it occurs is a misfortune, he said. He traveled extensively to remind people of their responsibilities, to restore faith and practise spirituality.
His final words to us were about optimism, and inner peace.He advocated seeing everything through a positive lens to be at peace with oneself. This was the only way to progress and to remain strong.
“Life is not complex if you stay positive, stay at peace and do good,” he said. Simple but profound words that make a difference in our lives; we all know these only too well but in our everyday pursuits overlook what is indeed important.
He blessed us by giving us copies of his book, and obliged us by posing for many photographs. Before we left, my wife, Saloni, spoke to him about Tonglen (something she has been reading and practising) and he was surprised someone knew about this teaching. He blessed her and immediately asked his staff to present two books to her that he personally signed.
What resonated most for me was his belief about actions being louder than words. Being good, doing good and helping others are a way of life that should be our religion and not just rituals.
This was the belief of my late father and perhaps this opportune meeting with His Holiness completed a circle in my life for which it was destined.
I have always said that you meet people for a reason and that they come into your life for a reason. There is immense pride in me to have met Madiba (the late Nelson Mandela), in 2006, and now His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. I take inspiration from these selfless humans who have chosen a path that has afforded them an opportunity to touch the lives of millions.
– The writer is Co-Founder of the ABN Group that includes FORBES AFRICA and CNBC Africa.