This is where Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg went when they had problems

Vinod Joshi, the secretary of the trust who is in charge of a small temple and ashram settled in a picture-postcard valley called Kainchi near Nainital, Uttarakhand had received a call from Larry Brilliant, an American physician and former director of Google’s philanthropic arm Google.org few years ago. Recalling the instance, Joshi, the short and cheerful man with sparkling eyes, who has spent his life in the service of his spiritual guru Neeb Karori Baba at the ashram told “Larry said some Mark would be coming to the ashram for a day.”

Joshi had no clue who Mark Zuckerberg was, as Facebook was not the behemoth that it is today. While he does not remember when he received the call, he does remember that Zuckerberg had flown down to Pantnagar, which is about 65 km from Nainital. He then drove to the ashram of Neeb Karori (mostly called Neem Karoli) Baba, who died in 1973 but still continues to charm many of the high-profile Americans.

During the Indian prime minister’s US tour last week, the Baba’s halo shined bright when Zuckerberg mentioned to Narendra Modi that he had on the advice of Apple founder Steve Jobs visited a temple in India during the early days of Facebook.

At a town hall meeting at Facebook headquarters, Zuckerberg told Modi, “…he (Jobs) told me that in order to reconnect with what I believed as the mission of the company I should visit this temple that he had gone to India early on in his evolution of thinking about what he wanted Apple and his vision of the future to be.”

“So I went and I travelled for almost a month, and seeing people, seeing how people connected, and having the opportunity to feel how much better the world could be if everyone has a strong ability to connect reinforced for me the importance of what we were doing and that is something I’ve always remembered over the last 10 years as we’ve built Facebook.”

Zuckerberg spent 2 days at the ashram

Zuckerberg came with just a book in his hand and even without a change of clothes says Joshi. “He was wearing a trouser which was torn at one knee,” he told Economic Times. As Pantnagar was hit by a storm and flights could not take off, Zuckerberg had to spend two days at the ashram instead of only one day.

Situated beside a bubbling broom, the ashram is surrounded by tall pine-forested mountains, which itself is small for a saint who has an elite following that includes Hollywood star Julia Roberts. It consists of five shrines, of which one is dedicated to his favourite Hanuman. Many of the Baba’s devotees believe that he himself was the human incarnation of monkey God. The sage used to live in a white building with square columns opposite the shrines. Joshi says “We call it the White House.”

There is a small wooden platform enveloped with a dark woolen blanket scattered with fresh flowers on its verandah – the Baba used to spend most of his day seated on it. There are pictures of the ever-smiling Baba sitting or half lying down with his left palm supporting his head all over the place. He is always seen wearing a blanket.

He wears a Burberry-check blanket, even in the shrine where the Baba lives on in a life-size marble statue. As the evening aarti (lamp service) winds down at the shrine, an ET correspondent tells Rameshwar Dass who is standing at the back of a small crowd of worshippers that the statue is life-like. “Well, almost,” Dass replies with a mischievous smile, his eyes crinkling up crows’ feet on the edges. “He looked quite different.”

A former New York-based photographer, Dass was Jim until the sage gave him his new name. In 1970, when Jim first met Neeb Karori Baba, he stayed for two years by his side.

Baba spoke about Christ

Dass says “The atmosphere around him was very powerful. It was like a spiritual pressure cooker.” When asked what is that attracts foreigners to the sage, thinking for a moment Dass says, “He talked to us a lot about Christ. He used to say that Christ and Hanuman are the same. That Christ never died.”

He says that it was as if he was seeing Christ, when the Baba talked about him. “Tears used to flow from his eyes.” The Baba never gave scriptural lessons or sermons except that he recommended them to be of service to others says Dass. “The idea of service appeals to Christians like us.”

He remembers one of the Baba’s earliest disciples, Ram Dass making fun with him about a giant statue of Hanuman at another ashram of the Baba in Nainital. “Ram Dass said, ‘What would my friends in the US say if they saw me worshipping a giant concrete monkey’,” Dass says with a hearty laugh. It was Richard Alpert or Ram Dass who made Neeb Karori Baba very popular among the elite Americans.

While on vacation from Harvard, Alpert, an American psychologist, met the Baba with fellow psychologist and psychedelics researcher Timothy Leary. He lived many years with the sage and wrote an interestingly designed book ‘Be Here Now’ on him and Hindu philosophy. Written like a graphic novel, the book had an effect on many readers in the US who began to connect with a commune and foundation Alpert had set up in New Mexico.

Alpert, Jim and Larry Brilliant’s evangelism continues to draw followers to the Baba. When the ET correspondent was to take Joshi’s leave, he showed him an email from Brilliant about Steve Jobs. Brilliant, who is also a science adviser to Warner Bros. and president of Skoll Global Threats Fund set up by eBay founder Jeff Skoll, said that Jobs till his last had kept pictures of the saint by his bedside.

“I met Steve when we were all young and the world was full of promise and so, of course, we went to India as spiritual seekers,” he writes in the email. “Girija [Brilliant’s wife] gave him our only blanket from Maharaj ji when Steve was very ill.” Even though Neeb Karori Baba is no more, it is evident that he still continues to be a comforter to many.

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