By Nikita Doval Mint, New Delhi.
Of all the news that came from the town hall meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mark Zuckerberg on Sunday, perhaps none was more surprising than the Facebook CEO's revelation that he visited a temple in India to help his company tide over a rough patch in its early years.
"Early on in our history...we had hit a tough patch...I went to meet one of my mentors Steve Jobs who told me in order to reconnect with the mission of the company, I should visit this temple he had gone to," Zuckerberg said.
He spoke about how, during the month he spent in India, he saw how people connected and how it reinforced his vision for the social media company.
The revelation prompted several tweets, ranging from cheeky speculation on the possibility of Zuckerberg being adopted as a devotee by the Hindu right-wing to questions--from wannabe-CEOs perhaps--on where this magical temple is located.
Zuckerberg did not name the temple but the Steve Jobs connection leads one straight to Neem Karoli Baba, the spiritual guru whose ashram the late CEO of Apple visited in 1974.
It turns out Jobs and Zuckerberg weren't the only American tech entrepreneurs to visit the baba's ashram--at least three others have gone there. None (including Jobs) met the baba, though.
The baba, popularly known as Maharajji, had passed away in 1973 and, by all accounts Jobs had a rough time in India--he contracted scabies, had lice and suffered a massive bout of dysentery.
"The hot uncomfortable summer made Jobs question many illusions he had nursed about India," author Michael Moritz wrote in The Little Kingdom, The Private Story of Apple Computer. Moritz, a British journalist for Time magazine when he wrote his classic account in 1984, would go on to become a well known venture capitalist (at Sequouia).
Jobs later said, "Thomas Edison did a lot more to improve the world than Karl Marx and Neem Karoli Baba put together"--which makes his recommendation to Zuckerberg all the more surprising. But the baba's followers aren't surprised.
"Most of Maharajji's followers tend to be low-key in their devotion. This explains why he (Zuckerberg) did not take the name and simply mentioned a temple. They (the followers) are very ardent however as his teachings and their appeal cuts across religions," said Vivek Tiwari, a management consultant and a follower of the baba. Tiwari is actively involved with the sect which has 108 ashrams spread across the world.
Zuckerberg made the trip in 2008.
The temple he visited is housed within the premises of Kainchi Ashram, 38 km from the hill town of Nainital in Uttarakhand.
The ashram is dedicated to the baba whose followers believe he was a manifestation of Hanuman. The main temple in the ashram is devoted to Lord Hanuman.
The baba also happened to be the guru of Larry Brilliant, earlier director of Google's philanthropic arm and now with the Skoll Foundation. Brilliant joined the World Health Organisation (WHO's) successful programme for the eradication of small pox claiming the baba asked him to do so.
"One day, while I was trying to meditate, my guru yelled my name (he called me "Doctor America.") He said it was my destiny to leave the monastery, leave the mountains to join the WHO team that was being assembled in New Delhi to eradicate small pox," said Brilliant in his 2013 commencement address at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Brilliant has taken Larry Page, co-founder of Google and Jeff Skoll, a co-founder of eBay to the ashram.
However, in spite of such high profile followers the baba remains relatively unknown in India. His ashram, in Mehrauli, Delhi, though spread over a few acres of land, has only a spartan temple with small enclosures for different deities. There is a bust of the baba though it is the Hanuman temple that attracts most visitors. "I have been here since 1981; earlier there would be a lot of devotees but now most prefer to go to Chattarpur," says Devibaba, one of the oldest priests on the premises, referring to a large temple complex near-by.
Born Laxmi Narayan Sharma, Neem Karoli Baba's teachings revolve around three tenets: Love all, feed all and serve all. "He never propagated the idea of a temple; it was about helping other people. So even today if you go to an ashram anywhere in the world, there will always be food for you," said Tiwari.