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Seeking Moksha in a Ford Fiesta is about an amazing 3,000-mile road trip through the heartland of India. Operating at multiple levels, the book is both about 21st century India at a cross roads and its ancient spiritual roots. The road trip is also the setting to explore issues relating to spirituality, particularly the idea of liberation (moksha) and bondage.
In January of 2014, the author travels to India from New Zealand with his wife to visit his spiritual mentor. Rather unexpectedly, they are taken on a ten-day road trip by their spiritual mentor in a borrowed car with another couple from Malaysia. Starting from Chennai in South India, the group travels through Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha before returning to Chennai. They visit ancient cities and temples, meet interesting people and have mishaps on the way.
The group gets lost in jungles, endures multiple breakdowns, is touched by the nobility of common folk, and gets a first-hand experience of mysticism and the extraordinary spiritual heritage of India. The author describes the hotels, the food and the astonishing serenity and beauty of parts of India untouched by economic development that they experience along the way.
The group visits the ancient cities of Kashi, Gaya and Puri. The author has a mind-blowing mystical experience at the ancient Shiva Temple in Kashi (Benares) and discovers from first-hand experience why Kashi is so special and sacred for the Hindus. The group witnesses fiery-eyed devotees of Shiva in Kashi, watches Buddhist monks meditating under the Bodhi Tree in Gaya and encounters a horrible Hindu priest at the famous Jagannath Temple in Puri.
The author sees 21st century India at a cross roads. Poor governance, rampant corruption, poor roads, awful infrastructure, environmental pollution, extremes of wealth and poverty raise questions about India’s progress since it independence from British rule in 1947. There is widespread cynicism but also a clamour for change. There is optimism among the people as the country is poised for change in government.
The book is also about the challenges that a genuine spiritual mystic faces in 21st century India. At the start of the trip, the author’s spiritual mentor is disillusioned because there are few takers for what he genuinely wants to give – how to attain liberation from worldly life and be happy. People are more interested in material wealth, marriage partners, children, jobs, promotion, better health and a comfortable life. The author finds his practical philosophy refreshingly modern yet rooted in the ancient wisdom traditions of India.
The author discovers that God is not an entity or being that you are ever likely to meet face-to-face. It is just another name for the inherent goodness within each of us. Moksha or liberation is just getting in touch with the goodness or God within and cheerfully facing life with all its ups and downs. The key to happiness and contentment may not lie in material wealth, religious scriptures or relationships. It is acquiring freedom within. The wisdom traditions of India suggest a way to attain it.
The author concludes that life has no purpose other than just experiencing life. As the ancient Indians, including the Buddha, discovered long time back, our goals, aspirations, desires and expectations can entangle us in misery and sorrow. We are all wayfarers and the journey is our destination.

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Acknowledgements

Many people made this book possible. I am grateful to Siva Shankar Baba for organizing and inviting me on the road trip. His continued support while writing the book was a great source of inspiration.

I wish to specially thank my wife, Jayashree, for her encouragement and support while writing the book. She was a companion in the road trip, read the draft chapters and offered comments.

I would like to thank Guna Sonamuthu, Saro Gunaseelan, Venkatesan Srinivasan and Latha Srinivasan for their help and support during the road trip.

I am grateful to Ravikumar whose car we borrowed for the trip.

Thanks to Anu Srinivasan in Melbourne for commenting on the draft chapters.

I am particularly grateful to Sangeethaa Nallanchakravarthy for her assistance in editing and proofreading the manuscript.

Prologue

Seeking Moksha in a Ford Fiesta is about an amazing 3,000-mile road trip through the heartland of India. Operating at multiple levels, the book is both about 21st century India at a cross roads and its ancient spiritual roots. The road trip is also the setting to explore issues relating to spirituality, particularly the idea of liberation (moksha) and bondage.

In January of 2014, I travelled to India from New Zealand with my wife to visit our spiritual mentor. Rather unexpectedly, we were taken on a ten-day road trip by him in a borrowed car with another couple from Malaysia. Starting from Chennai in South India, we travelled through Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha before returning to Chennai. We visited ancient cities and temples, meet interesting people and have mishaps on the way.

We also got lost in jungles, endured multiple breakdowns, were touched by the nobility of common folk, and got a first-hand experience of mysticism and the extraordinary spiritual heritage of India. I describe the hotels, the food and the astonishing serenity and beauty of parts of India untouched by economic development that they experience along the way.

We visited the ancient cities of Kashi, Gaya and Puri. I had a mind-blowing mystical experience at the ancient Shiva Temple in Kashi (Benares) and discovered from first-hand experience why Kashi is so special and sacred for the Hindus. We witnessed fiery-eyed devotees of Shiva in Kashi, watched Buddhist monks meditating under the Bodhi Tree in Gaya and encountered a horrible Hindu priest at the famous Jagannath Temple in Puri.

I see 21st century India at a cross roads. Poor governance, rampant corruption, poor roads, awful infrastructure, environmental pollution, extremes of wealth and poverty raise questions about India’s progress since it independence from British rule in 1947. There is widespread cynicism but also a clamour for change. There is optimism among the people as the country is poised for change in government.

The book is also about the challenges that a genuine spiritual mystic faces in 21st century India. At the start of the trip, our spiritual mentor was disillusioned because he felt that there are few takers for what he genuinely wants to give – how to attain liberation from worldly life and be happy. People are more interested in material wealth, marriage partners, children, jobs, promotion, better health and a comfortable life.

The book is also his practical spirituality that is refreshingly modern yet rooted in the ancient wisdom traditions of India.

A couple of disclaimers are in order.

First, Siva Shankar Baba has had no influence over the content of the book. The views and opinions expressed are solely mine.

Second, the book is not an endorsement of the products of the Ford Motor Company, which I am sure, is a fine company that doesn’t need my endorsement.

1. In the Jungle

It is nearly midnight of 3rd of January, 2014. It is absolutely dark outside. On a cloudless night, the clear star-studded sky looks absolutely awesome. We are still on the road, crawling around 30 kilometres per hour. We were supposed to reach our destination around 8 pm. We have no idea where we are and how far we have to go. Guna is driving the car - a 1.4 litre, diesel-powered Ford Fiesta Classic. The poor guy has been driving for more than ten hours, with occasional toilet stops. He is doing very well, navigating the car carefully through a dirt track liberally peppered with pot holes and boulders. There is no one else on the road, except for an occasional truck lurching along the dirt track with its headlights blazing on full beam. We seem to be in some kind of a forest. It is eerily silent outside. Occasional fleeting shadowy forms seem to be peering at us from behind the trees but we are not sure if there is anyone out there.

Babs is in the front seat. He seems lost in contemplation. Saro, Jayashree and I are in the back. Strangely, we feel very secure, oblivious to our surroundings. Guna has driven in India before, but mostly in south India on regular roads. He has just retired as a general manager from ExxonMobil in Dubai, where he probably drove a Mercedes on six-lane highways. He now lives in Malaysia with his lovely wife Saro. It is really Babs’ fault that we are on that dirt track. Earlier during the day, as we were departing, he was advised not to travel on that route. Babs was uncharacteristically dismissive, insisting that this would be a shorter route. Of course, none of us want to bring that up now. We are his guests and, besides, Babs has travelled more than the three of us put together. He has probably gone around India a few times. He has visited Badrinath/Kedarnath more than 30 times, been to Mount Kailash about 12 times, seen almost all the countries in the world, been to the Arctic and has even flown over the Antarctic. He is a freak.

Initially, it seemed Babs was right because we were on an asphalt road that seemed reasonably fine but it ended abruptly and morphed into the dirt track on which we are traveling now. Babs can’t really be faulted because the dirt track is one of India’s national highways, the NH 221.

NH 221 stretches for about 330 kilometres, connecting Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh to Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh. The highway is 155 kilometers long in Andhra Pradesh. It runs north through Tiruvuru, Kottagudam, Badrachalam and Nellipaka in Telengana before entering Chhattisgarh past Chinturu. We left Badrachalam a little after noon and are heading towards Jagdalpur. Babs can’t really be faulted for thinking that it is a shorter route. If you went on Google Maps and typed Badrachalam to Jagdalpur, the geeks at Google tell you that the distance is 257 kilometres and assure you that it can be covered in four hours and 25 minutes in a car, without traffic. They are right about the traffic. There is none. What they probably don’t know is that there is a 78 kilometer stretch of NH 221 connecting Konta on the Telengana-Chhattisgarh border with Sukma in the Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh that is only a dirt track. And they are probably unaware of the fact that Dantewada lies in one of the most troubled parts of India - the infamous Red Corridor.

The Red Corridor is a region in the eastern part of India covering parts of Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal states. It is characterized by greater levels illiteracy and poverty compare to the rest of India. It experiences what the Indian government quaintly refers to as left-wing extremism. According to the estimates of India’s premier intelligence agency called the Research and Analysis Wing, there are about 20,000 Maoist-insurgents engaged in armed conflict with the Republic of India. The Maosits are allegedly fighting the evil consequences of liberalization, privatisation and globalisation. Over a ten year period, around 10,000 people have died as a result of the conflict. Another 150,000 have been rendered homeless. The Prime Minister of the country in 2006 described the Maoist insurgency as the single greatest threat to the country's internal security, even greater than Islamic terrorism.

According to one estimate, the Red Corridor covers about 40 percent of India. The government, however, claims that it only affects 83 of India’s 640 districts. In 2009, the Indian government launched an Operation Green Hunt. Newspapers carried sensational stories almost daily about successful operations against the militants. Pictures of suspected militants strung up on bamboo poles with their captured caches of arms and ammunition were published. Many of the dead were probably civilians, and the harsh tactics seem to have polarized the local population because the Maoist militants continue to enjoy local support.

The Indian government has deployed more than 285,000 personnel from the Central Reserve Police Forces (CRPF) along with another 100,000 from other para-military forces. The Maoists seem better organised and motivated. They are killing a soldier every three days. Meanwhile CRPF soldiers seem to be killing themselves. Official data from the Indian government shows that 536 CRPF personnel committed suicide in the last five years. Ironically, that is about one soldier every three days. Clearly, despite superior numbers, the Indian government effort is faltering.

Chhattisgarh is seen as the epicentre of the conflict. In 2013, about 250 Maoist insurgents attacked a convoy consisting of political leaders of the Indian national Congress in the Darbha valley of Sukma district. They systematically slaughtered 28 people including some prominent politicians. In fact, the attack took place on NH 221 - the very road on which we are traveling. According to India Today, the stretch of road we are traveling, is dotted with rebel strongholds like Chintanlar, considered the Maoist capital, and Jagargonda, which is almost completely cut off and surrounded by thick forests. This region is a favourite spot for rebels who often plant improvised explosive devices on the roads to target security forces. We learn later that the dirt track on which we drove may have had land mines planted under it. However, on the midnight of January 3, 2014, we are blissfully unaware of what lies underneath us.

Earlier in the night around 7 pm, as soon as we enter Chhattisgarh, the road which had been reasonably fine till then deteriorates into the dirt track. Unsure of what lay ahead, we stop next to what appeared to be a row of shops by the roadside. There is a man in one of the shops speaking on a mobile phone. It is hard to tell as it is dark. Babs shouts to him in Hindi, Yeh road kab sudharega (When will this road become better)? The man shouts back, Jab chief minister marega (When the chief minister dies). Clearly, there is not much love and affection for the chief minister in those parts. I am not surprised that they have a problem with Maoist insurgency. The infrastructure sucks. 66 years after independence, India which has aspirations to be an economic super power cannot provide decent roads for its people.

Babs decides to keep going. That is a trait of Babs I admire. He never turns back.

It is now well past midnight. Guna is getting pretty tired and stressed. I am secretly grateful that he is doing the driving. The driving conditions are absolutely atrocious. Babs suggests a toilet stop. Babs, Guna and I head for the trees. Saro and Jayashree haven’t had a toilet break. There were no decent toilets for the women on our route. Babs suggests that they go behind the bushes. Like half the women of India, Saro and Jayashree fertilize the soil for the good people of Chhattisgarh behind a bush in the open under a wonderful star-lit sky. 66 years after independence, India can’t provide decent toilets either. We get back into the car, relieved and contented. Guna starts the car and we crawl for another half an hour.

And then the inevitable happens.

We have a flat tyre.

The car suddenly lurches to one side and we know immediately the left front tyre has had a puncture. Now I know that we are in a full-fledged emergency situation. The women are beginning to get anxious. There is no one on the road. Guna’s stress level goes up several notches. But Babs remains unperturbed. I am beginning to wonder how hard it would be change the tyre under those conditions. The spare tyre is buried under our bags in the boot. We would have to empty the boot in any case. We need light. Luckily, I am carrying a torch in my bag. Jayashree and I have survived more than 30 high-intensity earthquakes in New Zealand between 2011 and 2013. We are a little more resilient. We see a distant truck approaching in the opposite direction. Jayashree suggests to Babs that we ask for help. Babs says that it is a good idea. Both of them stand in the middle of the road and frantically signal the driver. Mercifully, the truck stops. Babs asks him for help in changing the tyre. The man in the truck wants to know why Babs is traveling on that road with women. Babs tells him that we were not expecting the road to be so bad. Meanwhile another truck is approaching us on our side. It stops and a couple of men get down and approach us. The truck driver who is on the opposite side asks them to help us as he is in a hurry. He says he has a long way to go. The two men in the truck behind us offer to help.

Frantically, the rest of us begin clearing the boot. I retrieve my torch and it is absolutely priceless in those conditions. I am grateful to the earthquakes. We stack the bags in the front and back seats. Guna brings the jack out and instructs the men how to use it. Having been in ExxonMobile for many years, Guna knows all about cars and tyres. We take the spare tyre out and put it on the ground. I hold my torch while the men jack up the car. In the darkness at the back, Jayashree trips over the spare tyre on the ground and falls. She seems unhurt. The men seem pretty competent. They seem to know their job. Within minutes they have the flat tyre out. As they fit the spare tyre, we put the flat tyre in the boot and begin to reload the boot. Babs thanks the two men and offers them money. They refuse to take it.

Around midnight, on a dirt track in Chhattisgarh India, we encounter humanity among the common folk.

The men tell us that the area is not safe. They offer to follow us to ensure that we are safe. We get into the car and Guna begins to drive. He is quite stressed by the events. We are comforted by the headlights of the truck following us.

NH 221 to Jagdalpur goes through the Kanger Valley National Park in the Bastar division of Chhattisgarh. In the Hindu epic Ramayana, this region was part Dandakaranya. The word aranya is Sanskrit means forest. Dandakaranya was the forest abode of the demon Dandak. The original Ramayana was written by the sage Valmiki, who wasn’t a sage to begin with. He was a dacoit, who turned into a sage. You could even say that he was an insurgent. Ramayana is about the trials and tribulations of Prince Ram, who is banished to the forest on the eve of his coronation as the King of Ayodhya. His wife Sita and brother Lakshmana accompany him. Ram, Sita and Lakshman spend 13 years in the Dandakaranya. Ram fights various shape-shifting demons and protects the sages in the forest. Sita is kidnapped by the demon Ravan from Dandakaranya and taken to Lanka, presumably the erstwhile Sri Lanka. Ram and Lakshman go in search of her, enlist the support of a monkey army, discover that Sita is in Lanka, build a bridge to Lanka, and fight with a demon army of Ravan. With the support of Hanuman, Ram slays the demon Ravan and re-united with his wife, He returns victorious to Ayodhya, taking an aerial route. In Valmiki’s version of Ramayana, Ram doesn’t know that he is God till the end. I am thrilled that we are passing through Dandakaranya. I happen to believe that nothing ever happens by chance. I wonder what brings us to Dandakaranya and why we are there. I am sure there is some spiritual significance to our presence there but I have no idea what it is. I am sure Babs knows but it seems a little discourteous to ask him about this at 1 am in the morning.

Chhattisgarh is about 135,000 square kilometres in area and has a population of about 26 million people. The state is home to some of the most beautiful scenic places in India, particularly the Bastar region, which was once Dandakaranya. Jagdalpur, where we are headed, is the administrative headquarters of the Bastar region. Wikipedia describes it as being well known for its greenery, lush green mountains, deep valleys, dense forests, streams, waterfalls, caves, natural parks, monuments, natural resources, herbs, exuberant festivity and peaceful solitude. Perhaps, the bit about peaceful solitude is a little exaggerated. 12 percent of forest reserves of Chhattisgarh are protected as national parks. These include the Kanger Valley National Park, Indravati National Park and Guru Ghasidas National Park. The state also boasts numerous waterfalls, including Chitrakote, Tiratgarh, Chitradhara, Tamra Goomar, Mandawa and Kanger Dhara waterfalls. Chhattisgarh is also home to the second longest natural cave in the world. The Kotumsar Caves are about 35 meters below ground level and stretch for about 1.4 kilometres. With so much scenic locations, the state should have been a haven for eco-tourism. But it attracts few tourists.

Chhattisgarh has the potential to be the economic engine of India. It produces about 20 percent of India’s steel and cement. According to one source, it has the potential to generate 40,000 megawatts of thermal and hydro-electricity and can cater to the country`s power needs for at least 100 years. It is rich in mineral resources, including diamond, gold, iron-ore, coal, corundum, bauxite, dolomite, lime, tin, and granite. It is the sole tin-ore producing state in the country. According to an article in the American journal Foreign Policy written by Jason Miklian, the Toyota Prius, Beijing’s high-rise buildings and the Boeing Dreamliner are made with minerals dug up from Chhattisgarh. Together with Jharkand, another similar state in India, Chhattisgarh has an estimated US$ one trillion of mineral reserves. These two states should be rich like Switzerland or Singapore. Yet the people in these states are dirt poor.

According to the Indian census of 2011, the human development index of Chhattisgarh was the lowest of any Indian state. It has a high incidence of poverty. 80 percent of the population depends on agriculture for its livelihood. Only 27 percent of the population has access to closed toilets. Teledensity is less than ten percent compared to 100 percent in places like Delhi and Himachal Pradesh. The state has very poor road and rail links. The local population has not benefited at all from the vast riches that lie under its lands. Around one-third of the population of Chhattisgarh is