Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
Name of the Book: Guiding Souls—Dialogues on the Purpose of Life
APJ Abdul Kalam with Arun K. Tiwari
Publisher: Ocean Books, New Delhi (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Year: 2015 (first published 2005)
Price: Rs. 150
Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
I knew that he was a scientist and that he was known as “the people’s President”, but I had no idea that the late APJ Abdul Kalam, former President of India, was also deeply interested in spiritual matters. That is something that I discovered only recently, on reading this book, an exchange of ideas between Kalam and his friend and co-author, Arun Tiwari.
Who am I? Why am I in this world? These are questions all of us ask—or, at least, ought to ask—ourselves. The answers to these seeming puzzles, Kalam tells us, involve getting in touch with our real selves and realising our profound interconnectedness with the whole of the universe. In the ‘grand drama’ of the cosmos, he says, each of us has some or the other role to play. There is tremendous pain in the course of this drama, he admits, but that should not blind us to the presence in it of abundant love, beauty and joy, too. While playing our respective roles in the drama, we must not forget, Kalam reminds us, that we came into this world empty-handed and that we shall depart from it in exactly the same way.
Quoting from texts from various different spiritual traditions, Kalam suggests that self-realisation is what all of them talk about. Moving from egocentrism to seeking to align our actions with God’s will through prayer, remembrance, introspection, and self-observation can enable us to fulfill the purpose of our life, Kalam opines. This purpose, he writes, is a process of the ‘unfolding of the soul’. It is not a question of forcing ourselves to go against our selves. ‘Our true spiritual nature,’ Kalam says, ‘does not need any kind of modification or alternation. It is primordially pure and complete.’ However, he adds, ‘we need to work on ourselves […] in order to become sufficiently open and clear to even have a glimpse of this nature.’
This process of self-realisation, which is the essence of the quest in all the major spiritual traditions of the world, consists of ‘waking up’ to reality—the reality of oneself. The spiritual path, we learn from Kalam, consists of both unlearning as well as learning. There is much we need to unlearn, he says—many assumptions, concepts, beliefs and ideologies that we have imbibed from childhood onwards. Our acculturation is often our bondage, which distorts our vision of reality, and that needs to be addressed.
Skillfully facing the trials of everyday life is also an indispensible part of the spiritual journey, Kalam writes. ‘There is no merit where there is no trial’, he says. Our real enemy lies within—the ego. The spiritual journey consists of going beyond the egocentric obsession with ‘I’ to becoming an instrument of God’s peace. The ‘I’, Kalam says, is illusory. When one realizes this, what remains, he writes, is the unfolding of the infinite potential of humanity through a body-mind connection.
To those who seek to change the world, Kalam has a word of caution: It is only when we get our own lives in order that we can have a beneficial impact on others. Only if we ourselves embody and radiate positivity can we influence others and thereby do our bit to make the world a more joyful and peaceful place. Kalam reflects on the positive contributions made by a number of people in this regard, holding them as models we could be inspired by. He cites, for instance, the Emperor Ashoka, highlighting his advocacy of non-violence. He praises the saint-poet Thiruvalluvar for his wisdom. He lauds the contributions of several ancient and modern Indian and other scientists. He hails the Muslim Caliph Umar for his simplicity and humility. He celebrates Guru Nanak for declaring “There is no Hindu, nor any Musalman” (which Kalam terms as ‘an announcement of supreme significance’), for exposing the incongruities and fruitlessness of ritualism, and for stressing virtuous living. These and many others that Kalam refers to provide us fine examples of people who led meaningful lives by helping in the evolution of humanity. They deeply impressed Kalam, but the one who left the deepest impact on him, he narrates, was his mother, Ashiamma, whom he calls a ‘graceful, pious lady.’
Leading a truly meaningful life is about ‘finding God in the human heart’, as Kalam puts it. Realising our true selves—the purpose of life, according to various spiritual traditions—is something that requires both self-reflection as well as social engagement, Kalam suggests. The ‘voyage of inner exploration’ leads us to realize our connection with the rest of humanity, guided by compassion: ‘independence from narcissism is self-realisation’, as he beautifully puts it.
Towards the end of the book, Kalam provides us a glimpse into his own inner journey in the following words:
“My inner journey is many things. It is a journey of adventure and discovery—from Rameswaram Island [in Tamil Nadu, where he was born] to Rashtrapati Bhavan—I covered a very long distance. It is a journey of maturation and completeness—from physics to aeronautics to satellite launch vehicles to guided missiles to nuclear weapons to management of human affairs, inquiring into faiths, unity of minds: The domain kept expanding. It has been a journey of truth and authenticity; a journey of love, devotion and passion; a journey of compassion, giving and service. It has been a journey of realisation of the nature of the soul and reality; a journey of insight and learning; a journey of fulfillment of life and human potential; a journey of inner freedom. Journey, journey, journey….till the end.”
Journey, journey, journey….Yes, that is what life is all about! Earlier this year, Kalam went on yet another journey, but this time it was a very different sort—the journey that all of us will one day embark on, too. He journeyed back from this world to where he (and all of the rest of us) came from, but not before inspiring many people to reflect on the meaning and purpose of their lives, including through this book.