Steve Jobs visited India along with his friend Kottke in 1973 in search of a crash course on enlightenment. Unfortunately, one of most promising gurus of the time, Neem Karoli Baba, had died a few days before the duo made it to his Ashram in Kainchi in Uttarakhand. They met a few other babas but the crash courses didn’t turn out to be very effective. Steve recalls his realization at the end of the trip in his famous quote, “We weren’t going to find a place where we could go to for a month to be enlightened. It was one of the first times that I started to realize that may be Thomas Edison did a lot more to improve the world than Karl Marx and Neem Karoli Baba put together”.
Among the three people Steve mentioned I have no expertise on two: Karl Marx and Neem Karoli Baba. However, I have a huge respect for Thomas Edison – I consider him to be the father of systematic innovation and have written a dozen articles in this blog referring to Thomas Edison & his contributions. I also know a few things about another baba: Ramana Maharshi – who fits the bill of a spiritual teacher who didn’t do much, didn’t speak much, didn’t travel much, didn’t wear much etc. – I guess you get the picture. In this article I want to visualize a hypothetical tennis match between Thomas Edison and Ramana Maharshi where points are scored based on “improvement to the world”. Shall we begin?
Before we begin, it may be good to look at a few things that were common to both Edison and Ramana. First, both were school dropouts. Edison had 3 months of formal schooling while Ramana went to school till age 15. Second, both were gifted with deep sleep. Three, both gave more importance to experiential learning to knowledge-from-the-books. Now let’s turn to the differences especially in how much they “improved the world”.
Let’s start with Thomas Edison, for the simple reason that he is umpire-friendly. It is much easier to count the score. In a career spanning sixty one years (1868-1930) Edison filed 1093 patents. That makes a batting average of 1 patent every 20 days. He made huge contributions to bringing practical incandescent bulb, gramophone and movie camera to the world. He made several improvements to telecommunications and storage battery. His legacy General Electric is one of the largest and most admired companies in the world today. He has inspired countless innovators – most notable being Henry Ford who remained his lifelong friend and Steve Jobs. With such an impressive scoring line-up, the question should be more like “How many Ramanas do we need to match one Edison?” Nevertheless, let’s go ahead and give Ramana a fair chance.
Let’s look at Ramana’s “career” from the point he started living in a cave called Virupaksha Cave in 1900 on a mountain called Arunachala at Thiruvannamalai where his “not-doing-much” started. Ramana lived there for 16 years after which he and his disciples built an Ashram at the foothills of the same mountain where he lived for the rest of his life till 1950. Ramana mostly wore a cloth diaper and preferred silence to talking as a medium of communication. His notable contributions to worldly matters included cooking – he was the chief chef of the Ashram for several years and architecting the Ashram design. You must be thinking this doesn’t look like much of a match so far. Be patient. As we noted earlier, Ramana is not very umpire-friendly.
An important aspect of Ramana’s day-job was having dialogues with visitors to the Ashram – either through silence or through words. Some people would come from nearby places, others would come from places as far as US. I don’t know the total number of unique visitors who met Ramana. More importantly, was meeting Ramana making any difference? Sometimes ‘yes’ and sometimes ‘no’. Again this ratio of “yes-visitors” to “no-visitors” is not known. And even if we take the total number of “yes-visitors” to be a million (perhaps a gross exaggeration), Edison can win the match hands-down just with his light bulb. Well, on what basis do we give Ramana any points? So let’s ask, “What is the crux of his teaching?” At least we will give him some points for that and make this match less embarrassing.
This is where the game becomes really tricky. Because the crux of Ramana’s teaching is concerned with the umpire himself i.e. the scoring system in my mind. Ramana felt that the biggest problem in the world was that the umpire ("I") falsely identifies himself with the scoring system. Steve Jobs himself was a super-umpire. He not only had opinions, his opinions thrived on super-villains (like Bill Gates). However, I really appreciate Steve for an important and yet overlooked keyword in his quote: "may be". I would like to stay with "may be" until I really understand the "I who wants to keep the score" very well.
Hope you enjoyed the match!
I read Steve Jobs quote in “iCon: Steve Jobs, the greatest second act in the history of business” by Young and Simon, Wiley-India, 2008, pg 25.
For more on Ramana Maharshi, I recommend Arthur Osborne’s “Ramana Maharshi and the path of self-knowledge” or David Godman’s interview with Maalok.