A glossy black laptop displays columns in pink, yellow and white. Down the corridor is a conference room, with the organization’s key projects displayed on one wall. Filing cabinets line another. This ground-floor apartment in Kankurgachi, Kolkata, could be the base of operations for any small start-up. Except it is not.Behind a desk in the central office sits Acharya Saumyendranath Brahmachary, 63, clad in white dhoti, khadi kurta and a knitted cardigan, interpreting Vedanta, the Hindu philosophical tradition, in terms of everyday concerns.
He deplores the way in which the Gita has been, in his words, consigned to the status of a deathbed accessory. For it is, he says, “a book of life which is useful not at the end of your life, but in your prime working years.” But mostly the acharya smiles cheerfully as he doles out toffees to visitors and co-workers, every now and then taking calls about his religious trust’s property dealings, educational and other activities.
Saumyendranath Brahmachary, Acharya
Like his surroundings, the teachings of the guru of Dev Sangha Ashram—based in Deoghar, Jharkhand—aren’t quite conventional. The acharya talks about the Indian education system, globalization and the recent Copenhagen climate summit just as confidently as he delves into religious nuances.
For the acharya is but another avatar of Soumen C. Mukhopadhyay, a gold medallist from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur (batch of 1968), and once the youngest plant manager at paint manufacturer ICI India Ltd.
“Our ashram believes in resurrecting the rishi culture of ancient India where there was no contradiction between—but rather a harmonious blending of—material flourish and spiritual upliftment,” he says.
His mother and grandfather were disciples of the previous acharya, Shrimat Narendranath Brahmachary, and Mukhopadhyay spent most of his boyhood vacations with him, calling the guru Dadu (grandpa). It was Narendranath’s affection and pragmatic wisdom, he says, that attracted him, although he was hesitant to commit. So he studied hard, graduated from one of the country’s most sought-after institutions with a degree in mechanical engineering, and got a job with a multinational firm. But the deep regard between the two remained, and as the older man grew ill, Mukhopadhyay agreed to his initiation, or diksha.
His guru insisted he continue to work until the age of 32, so that he might be economically independent even as he answered his higher calling. “Dependence on alms ties the spirit down,” the acharya quotes his predecessor as saying.
Guru cool: Saumyendranath Brahmachary’s batchmates initially thought he was mad to become a brahmachari.
Mukhopadhyay was tipped as a potential general manager when he quit ICI India in 1978 to become a brahmachari, or lifelong celibate. “I could afford a different mode of life,” he says.
He then left for five years’ sadhana (meditation) and two years’ pilgrimage across India. The biggest gain from this journey, he says, was a secular insight into the country.
“It is only when you visit as a common man that you see the real country, come into intimate contact with its people,” adds the acharya, pointing out that in Hindu epics, kings must travel as commoners before they ascend the throne. If not a throne, Saumyendranath Brahmachary certainly found his vocation—that of a guru.
Today, the acharya speaks with ready wit about contemporary politics and reminisces about his teachers at IIT. On another day, he might be found lecturing on decision-making, self-development, stress management, leadership, motivation and communication at one of the Indian Institutes of Management, the Indian Institute of Coal Management, Ranchi, or the National Judicial Academy, Bhopal.
His students appreciate his pragmatic, non-judgemental advice on their careers, not to mention his willingness to let them lead their lives sans strictures. “Like the way he always made time for smoke breaks in the middle of classes,” says Arpita Kuila, his former pupil at the National Institute of Human Development, Kolkata, and now a senior human resources manager with a leading business process management company.
Despite his own defection, the acharya warns against the ease and regularity with which engineering graduates now head into management, information technology and other lucrative careers. “A day will come when thoroughbred engineers, either for the profession or for the teaching, will no longer be available,” he fears.