A Tale of Two Picchais: “Śivapiccai” Mudaliar and Sundar Picchai

The Hindu cultural sensibility must exercise immense caution before celebrating the material successes of Americanised or Westernised Indians who have lost touch with their roots.
A Tale of Two Picchais: “Śivapiccai” Mudaliar and Sundar Picchai

THE AUTODIDACTIC PROCESS OF THE ILLUSTRIOUS D.V. GUNDAPPA is an education in and by itself. His formal educational qualification stopped at failing the matriculation examination, and nearly half a century after his passage to eternity, he has spawned what can only called the DVG genre. To couch this legacy in crass commercial terms, the DVG genre continues to light the stoves of thousands of Kannadiga homes not to mention providing employment to scholars, and writers, some of whom cadaverously feed off him with impunity. DVG’s school was the School of Life in its all-encompassing spread and unfathomable depth. He was undoubtedly a voracious reader but that was entirely incidental and instrumental in light of what he sculpted with all that raw material. His Jñāpakacitraśāle volumes, an inimitable genre that his genius carved out endure as the permanent testimony to the lessons he drew from this School of Life. It is an inexhaustible sweet-water well comprising the profiles of 283 people from almost all walks of life. Fulfilled is the soul that repeatedly draws from it and drinks deep.

One of the crown jewels of the Jñāpakacitraśāle volumes is the equanimous and serene profile of the life of Śivapiccai Mudaliar. Nothing I can write can even come close to DVG’s vivid painting in which Śivapiccai Mudaliar comes alive and beckons you to embark on a journey with him.

Nobody knew Mudaliar’s real name. Nor would he reveal it. Śivapiccai was a moniker given to him. The word piccai in Tamil (derived from the Sanskrit Bhikṣā) means alms. Mudaliar regarded his life as a picchai given to him by Shiva; hence, “Śivapiccai Mudaliar.”

A mason by profession, a personal tragedy affected him so deeply that he donated his substantial house, landholding, property and wealth to his sister. When the whole transaction was over, this was all he retained with him: fifteen rupees, the clothes he wore, a blanket, two old dhotis, two towels, a heavy stone, a leveler, a small Mason’s Square, and a measuring stick 1 ½ feet long. Armed with this enormous wealth, he boarded a train and was set for life.

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This was his typical method of travel: he would disembark at say, Jolarpet after boarding from Bangalore. He would enter the city and go to a place where a house-construction was in progress and there he would inquire, “Do you have a job for a laborer?” If there was indeed a job, he would work for two or three days. He would eat either at a hotel or cook by himself, save three or four rupees, tuck it into the waistband of his dhoti, and move on from there.

When he boarded a train, he would usually not determine the destination. He would discuss with his co-passengers and find out which places en route, had the requisite facilities for boarding and lodging. Then he would get down at such a place he felt he should visit. If there was a temple there, he would visit it and have a Darshana of the deity. If he felt like staying back there for a few days, he would do so. Else, he would proceed onward.

Śivapiccai Mudaliar’s primary goal was to visit various Tīrtha-kṣētras and other holy destinations. In order to fund this profound endeavour, he worked as a daily laborer to that proportionate extent. To those well-known to him, he described it as his ‘programme.’

If his dhoti-waistband was bereft of coins, he would get down to work once again. If it was full, he would set out in search of temples and Tīrtha-kṣētras.

In this manner, Śivapiccai Mudaliar visited all the great pilgrimage centers of our country. He went thrice to Varanasi and Rameshwaram. He also visited Prayaga, Puri, Pandharapur, Kanchipuram, Tirupati, Kalahasti, Palani, Madurai, Srirangam, Ahobilam, Bhadrachalam, Srisailam, stayed at each place for three or five days, and served the deities there.

And then DVG describes Śivapiccai Mudaliar’s work ethic with a mellifluousness that renders us speechless.

"He was strict about the time of starting his work, time of completing work, and the time taken to execute it. If the town didn’t have a clock, one could fix the time by observing Picchai Mudaliar starting his work or completing his work for the day. In his entire life, nobody ever asked him, “Why are you so late?” or “Why are you leaving in such a hurry?”

"Every day he would wake up at 5 am. He would recite a few Tamil stotras and prayers, cook his meal and pack it in his lunchbox before setting out. He would first visit the Someshvara temple, walk around the inner shrine in a pradakshina, bow down to the deity, and then get down to work.

"Such was the exceptional skill of Picchai Mudaliar in his chosen profession. Even from a distance, he was capable of estimating the correct placement of the door frame. That was the subtlety and precision of his eyesight; it came from years of experience. Keeping aside one’s conscience, even if one works for a hundred years, one cannot attain such precision on immediate sight. If one wishes to become skilled in a particular task, one has to execute it with integrity.

"If he held a trowel in his hand, it would move with great dexterity without slipping. He would tell the youngsters who worked with him, “See, both of us started working at the same time. Half a day’s work is finished now. How much has your wall grown, and how much has mine? See for yourself.” Mudaliar would work continuously without standing around or speaking more than necessary. At noon, he would keep his trowel down, wash his hands and head out with his lunchbox.

"Once I asked him, “Why do you go far away to eat your food? Why don’t you eat here? If need be, I can vacate a room for you.”

"Mudaliar replied, “That’s not needed sir. I’ll go near the temple. It’s not far away. There’s water in the temple tank, large trees all around and flowering plants. IN THAT COOL SHADE I SIT DOWN AND FOR A FEW MOMENTS I EAT WHAT SHIVA HAS GIVEN ME AS ALMS.

This was his inner world."

DVG eventually lost touch with Śivapiccai Mudaliar. And then almost miraculously, he resurfaced right in front of DVG’s door much to his delight. Their conversation is etched in gold:

"Picchai Mudaliar must have been about seventy years old when I met him again. When I had asked him, “Mudaliar sir, when do I get to meet you again?” he had replied, “When the lord arranges for it. The day before yesterday, did I plan my visit here with the aim of meeting you? And did you come looking for me? The situation somehow aligned itself thus. That is the bond of ultimate debt; that is the Order of Shiva.” I asked him, “Where are you traveling next from here?” He said, “To the place where the Almighty takes me.”


For the full profile of Śivapiccai Mudaliar translated into English, read this on Prekshaa Journal.

As I remarked at the beginning of this essay, such experiences are precisely what transformed a formal-education-deprived DVG into a national treasure. Like the bee that does not distinguish between flowers but is resolutely focused on the nectar, DVG drank only the finest essence that each person and experience offered him. From a beggar couple in Shivajinagar to the Bikaner Maharaja.

The Contemporary Picchai

IN OUR OWN TIME, WE HAVE another Pichai. Sundar. Another name for Shiva. A former Indian. CEO of Google.

None should grudge his success if success is primarily defined in commercial terms. However, what should interest us is the underlying phenomenon.

Like other former Indians of his ilk, Sundar Pichai stands for a symbolic but familiar fusion of sorts. A product created when the cultural inferiority complex of middle-class Hindus meets and is overawed by and then imitates the worst tendencies of crass American capitalist materialism. As early as 1900, W.T. Stead had warned of the disastrous consequences if these tendencies were left unbridled.

A young and vigorous race has been let loose among the incalculable treasures of a virgin continent… the American tendency is to consume the whole of our powers in the process, leaving none for the cultivation of the higher soul…[THE AMERICAN] STRUGGLE FOR EXISTENCE MAY EASILY BE CARRIED TO SUCH A POINT AS TO MAKE EXISTENCE ITSELF HARDLY WORTH HAVING. The universal experience of the wisest and best of mankind speaks with no uncertain voice in condemnation of a life that has no leisure… This is an unlovely spectacle…very much like a vision of hell.

The fact that Sundar Pichai’s Google continually remains in the eye of the storm across the globe for its monopolistic and mercenary business practices is widely familiar. But that is the American way of doing “business” right from the days of Standard Oil, the Vanderbilts, the Schwabs and the Carnegies. An unhinged pursuit of Artha and Kama for its own sake. In such a system, not only is the notion of Dharma nonexistent, it is seen as an impediment.

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However, we are on the topic of comparative cultures and colonization.

A recent case in point is Sundar Pichai’s interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he claimed that he practiced something called the “non-sleep deep rest” (NSDR) method to “unwind.” In Pichai’s own words:

I found these podcasts which are non-sleep deep rest, or NSDRs. So while I find it difficult to meditate, I can go to YouTube, find an NSDR video. They're available in 10, 20, or 30 minutes, so I do that occasionally.

In turn, NSDR is supposedly a formulation of a certain Stanford academic named Andrew Huberman. Accordingly, there are supposed to be three NSDR “protocols” which include “Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR): Yoga Nidra, Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR): Hypnosis and Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR): Short nap.” Its benefits? “NSDR process can help people beat anxiety, stress and accelerate learning and achieve self-directed calm through mental focus.”

Go try and wrap your head around this gibberish.

Indeed, gibberish is precisely what you get when you take extremely sophisticated, profound and experiential spiritual practices evolved by our Rishis over eons and strip them of their core because…they’re “religious.” If you wish to understand the true brilliance of this core, Swami Sacchidanandendra Saraswati’s monumental Paramārthacintāmaṇi is the go-to exposition of the Avasthātrayamīmānsa.

The NSDR nonsense is essentially dependent on an external agency: another person or an electronic voice directing you to “take rest and relax.” Whereas the essence of most Hindu spiritual practices lays stress on the individual looking inward: meditation, puja, japa, Dhyana, etc are merely aids that must be dispensed of because no matter what NSDR you do, you still remain imprisoned. The crux of the Vedic realization is encapsulated in this beautiful Upanishadic verse:

atra pitā'pitā bhavati, mātā'mātā, lokā alokā, devā adevā, vedā avedā |

atra steno'steno bhavati, bhrūṇahā'bhrūṇahā, cāṇḍālo'cāṇḍālaḥ,

paulkaso'paulkasaḥ, śramaṇo'śramaṇaḥ, tāpaso'tāpasaḥ, ananvāgataṃ

puṇyena ananvāgataṃ pāpena, tīrṇo hi tadā sarvāñchokānhṛdayasya bhavati ||

In this State a father is no father, a mother no mother, gods no gods, the Vedas no Vedas. In this state a thief is no thief, the killer of a noble Brahmana no killer, …a monk no monk, a hermit no hermit. This State of his is untouched by good work and untouched by evil work, for he is then beyond all the woes of his intellect.

This is the real import of the aforementioned note about stripping the core.

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But the astounding material opulence of the Satya Nadellas and the Sundar Picchais of the world dazzle and blind the vision of Hindus in India who see them as emulatory models. “Material” is derived from “matter,” whose other synonym is “gross.”

Matter as opposed to spirit. Rather, matter which should be subsumed by spirit. That was the exalted life of Śivapiccai Mudaliar. He should be our ideal. Unshakeable, unswerving faith in a lofty precept. Regarding work as Karma Yoga. Unobtrusive. Frugal. Content. Therefore fulfilled.

I wonder what he would say about NSDR.

|| Satyam Shivam Sundaram ||

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