The Fakir

What Ancient Mendicants Can Teach Us About Life, Leadership and the Pursuit Of Happiness

Pandemics have no silver linings, I keep telling myself. I also remind myself that I need to do whatever I can to help people as they navigate these uncharted and dangerous waters. I keep hoping and praying for the well being of everyone on this planet. Having said that, house arrest has forced me to use the pandemic as a powerful reminder of the things I should truly care about — the health and well being of my friends and family and my own spiritual quest for salvation. Perhaps, it helps you do the same.

If anything, the CoVID crisis puts our entire lives into perspective. A perspective that focuses our attention on the things that should truly matter to us. If you think about it, the pandemic has reminded us all about the true treasures in our life i.e. friends and family. That there is a pandemic outside is besides the point. These people should receive more of our care and attention. The pandemic also helps us temporarily suspend our constant pursuit of material pleasures (trips to shopping malls and discretionary spending are on hold) bringing us closer to a more spiritual and minimalist way of life. Within the confines of our home, the quest turns inward.

Personally, I have utilized the situation created by the pandemic to spend more time with my family. It has also catalyzed a spiritual journey. To help me on my spiritual journey, I look up to role models that don’t care about material pursuits. In a way, these role models called ‘the Fakirs’ are above pithy pursuits and truly engaged in the pursuit of salvation. They live the life of a hermit.

The Fakirs have always inspired me during my bad times. The Fakirs are ancient mendicants (from South Asia and the Middle East) who focus their entire life energy on attaining salvation. They rely on alms to feed them and to meet basic life needs. In other words, they strip themselves of material desires and meditate. In doing so, they remind all of us about the true purpose of an individual life.

I share my learnings from these role models with all of you in the hope that they inspire you during these troubled times. When all else is done and we have discharged our worldly responsibilities, the only thing that should matter to us is our own individual salvation.

Who Are the Fakirs?

As a child, I would notice wandering mendicants stop at the gates of my grandfather’s ancestral home. That home was a beautiful colonial style ‘Bungalow’ with a huge garden outside covered at the edges by giant and beautiful trees. I would give these mendicants food, fruits, a few articles of clothing and a warm shawl to help them fend off the cold. It was a strange sight — a fully grown man with dreadlocks, a long beard and sometimes a walking stick carrying a cloth bag. I would often ask them if they need money. They would ask me for a little money so they can get by a few days until they knock on another house. I once asked a fakir if he would like gold coins and he laughed at me. He said ‘A fakir like me doesn’t care about gold coins. I have given up the pursuit of wealth long ago’. It was an mind altering experience that left a lasting impression — I realized, very early in my life, that money is just a means to an end and not the end in itself.

As I aged, I realized how liberating that thought is. All the money in the world can help me lead a good life but it is worthless in front of forces of nature such as a debilitating disease or a mutating virus.

Emperor Jahangir receiving a petition from a fakir.

The word fakir is derived from the Arabic word — ‘faqr’ (meaning poverty). The fakirs are found in Middle East and South Asia. More than a type of person, a fakir embodies a life of frugality and a singular goal — salvation. Wikipedia describes a fakir as someone who is thought to be self-sufficient and possesses only the spiritual need for God. Fakirs are not just Sufi Muslim ascetics. Rather, you can find variations of their way of life across India and the Middle East under various names i.e. yogis, dervishes or monks. In a way, even Buddhist monks have a very similar orientation towards life. One can find Hindu monks (ascetics) at Varanasi (Benares) in India living an extremely frugal life.

There are 5 lessons the fakirs have taught me about life, leadership and true happiness. I found them particularly useful as guiding principles in creating a healthy mindset each passing day that I am in self quarantine.

Living In The Moment

The Fakirs live in the moment. Their focus everyday is on continuing their journey and on gathering alms to survive everyday.

When I asked a fakir, who came to my grandfather’s bungalow asking for alms, what his average day looks like — he said I will meditate, eat and pray.

A very simple schedule that truly relies on being one with your own breath and your own life force. They live one day at a time. This might sound familiar considering all of us are living each day as it comes. However, most of us quickly lose focus and our minds all over the place.

Learning from the Fakirs (yogis), I have made yoga and mediation an everyday routine to help stabilize my mind and to be truly peaceful inside.

The Insignificance of Self

Live the moment and forget constantly thinking about what your future and by extension your legacy will be.

Moral of the story — don’t take yourself that seriously. At the end, what I take away from Stewart Brand, Jobs’ mentor is this: Take a long enough time horizon and even Einstein and his legacy will be forgotten. Ask yourself this — after a millennia or ten thousand years, will it even matter what your legacy was? Percy Bysshe Shelly has written a beautiful poem ‘Ozymandias’ on the meaninglessness of a legacy.

The Fakirs understand that the search for salvation is probably such a subjective journey into your own self that it requires no one else but you and you alone — a lonely journey with a singular aim that varies from person to person. They dedicate their entire lives on attaining an individual goal, — their own emancipation. They don’t worry about a legacy.

I leave you with another perspective — the universe has many galaxies and perhaps a few planets with life on it. In the grand scheme of the universe, we appear smaller than atoms. However, we spend our entire lives contradicting Copernicus and thinking we are the center of the universe whereas we should be spending our times focusing on creating a better, wiser version of our own selves with each passing day. So, please take time to laugh at your own selves — we are significant but not that significant that we while away our present thinking about how the world will remember us. Take a long enough time horizon and the world’s memory will be a blank slate with no record of your existence.

The Power Of Detachment

Detachment can come in many forms. The Fakirs represent the ultimate form — they don’t have any worldly relationships. Consequently, they are also free of responsibility which frees them up to focus on their spiritual work.

We, on the other hand, cannot be that detached. However, we can limit our relationships to a handful of people that truly understand us and detach ourselves from relationships that drain us and take us away from a more meaningful and happy life.

Detachment can equally apply to material pursuits. Once we have enough to satisfy our needs, we can start becoming less greedy. Again, it is a very subjective balance I am talking about but I am sure most of you can truly identity with the struggle.

Detachment provides liberation and frees up our time to focus on more important needs.

An Illusion Called Control

Fakirs meditate for a large part of their lives because they truly understand that the only thing we can control is our own response (and not our reactions for reactions are often immediate and not well thought out) to events outside our control. Self-awareness and control are key to dealing with most life events. A calm mind a powerful friend and a disturbed mindset our most deadly enemy. As John Milton said in Paradise Lost — The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

Bronze figure of a Yogi in Dhyana(meditation) by Malvina Hoffman

‘As leaders and as heads of a family, we often want to control every aspect of our lives. For a long time, I thought we could control all aspects of our lives only to realize that there are random events that are totally out of my control. I call such happenings a product of my luck. It was very refreshing for me to hear a billionaire — Eric Schmidt say ‘Almost anyone who’s successful has to start by saying they were lucky’.

Our real worries in life and in business often come from the left field. These are problems we never thought would ever arise. Often, this problems are low probability but very high impact. To simplify things, we can call them Black Swan (once in a blue moon) events. Secondly, seemingly innocuous events can quickly snowball into an ever expanding storm — a butterfly effect. Finally, It is very hard to discern which innocuous events will trigger an avalanche at the outset.

All in all — we can only control our own selves and very little else- a lesson the Fakirs live by everyday.

When The Curtain Comes Down

There is a controversy on a Steve Jobs essay written during his last few months battling for his life. Some of the words from that essay are : ‘You can employ someone to drive the car for you, make money for you but you cannot have someone to bear the sickness for you’. Controversies aside, these words hold a lot of meaning and a universal truth.

All the wealth in this world can be naught against a force you can’t control.

However, a life led with a spiritual purpose, of having helped others in times of need and of having loved without condition can provide a meaning to death.

This is a very somber note to end on but is one of my greatest learnings from the Fakirs. They typically do not marry and give up the trappings of the modern world very early because they know that wealth is not a permanent accompaniment. The pandemic, which has a very ugly side, truly reminds me to rise above materialistic thoughts and spend more time loving my friends and family. It is most certainly not a positive way to focus but it is a situation forced upon all of us. We can only do our best to turn it to our advantage.

Most of us have much less control on things than we think we do. The only path forward is to focus inward to take control of our own destiny. That is the way of the Fakir.

Writer @ The Intersection of Finance, Tech & Humanity. Stories of a Global Language: “Money”. Contributor @ Startup Grind, HackerNoon, HBR. Twitter@akothari_mba

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