Trying an ascetic life
At age 17, I was at a cross road of my life. I have observed the effect of polio on my sister, death of my Uncle (my father’s brother in law-Latif- who lived in Kenya) and near death experience of my sister. In addition, when I was 10, my mom suffered a serious depression that progressed into psychosomatic paralysis. That two-month long episode was the most difficult period for all of us. She was unresponsive to anything! She lay on the bed, paralyzed with shaking arms like she had Parkinson’s disease. Looking at us but not saying anything. Several doctors visited us and all had the same diagnosis-she is having a psychosomatic episode but there is no cure. My father invited another expert Hakim from Dadu city, where he had a grain business. The Hakim treated her with herbal medicine and after a short while my mom progressively improved. I would sit with the Hakim and ask him questions. He was a homeopathic doctor and believed on balancing the nutritional microcomponents of a human body.
It was time for me to apply for the Medical Schools or become an ascetic. I had been studying many other religions, since in Pakistan one only got to learn Islam and all other religions were taboo and their followers were “infidels”. It does not mean that common folks discriminated other. However, I have observed at the SDA hospital the folks believed on Jesus like he was in front of them. His pictures were everywhere! Many of engineers in my father’s Mills were Hindu and they prayed in front of statues and pictures of their gods with elephant like nose and many arms and unusual body parts. I also knew few Zoroastrians (fire worshippers) who were my classmates in the high school and I went to their temple and they were very content with their faith. My father had introduced me to few Jews who were the major sellers of alcohol in Karachi in those days. They owned huge liquor stores. I knew a little bit about Judaism and well aware that they were the most close to Islam in their faith but had not met one until I was about 15. Even though Pakistan was a Muslim country, the non-Muslims were allowed to practice their faith freely and there was no obvious discrimination against them. It was much later when Z. A. Bhutto became the prime minister when he boosted the racial and religious discrimination that progressively increased with each subsequent leader and now is the country is in a real mess.
Since my early reflective years, I reasoned that people from all faiths and creeds are essentially exposed to their parents religion and faith, they learn to believe that their faith is the only ‘right’ and perfect faith. Some among them may state that their faith as well as others faiths are acceptable, but generally they barely tolerate other faiths because their own faith is the ‘real true’ faith and rest of “them” are incorrect.
As I mentioned earlier, it is not the matter of logic only since psychologically, each of us are indoctrinated and sort of brainwashed into our own belief systems and it is almost impossible to breakthrough this iron cage. The one solution is to experience each of the faiths first hand! So, now I was at a crossroad. I can join a monastery and experience a new creed and learn about healing or just go to medical school and be an allopathic doctor with a limited understanding of a much broader medical or religious experiences. I figured if I did not fit in with Buddhism, I can always join other healers. I had been reading also about Rumi and his large volumes of Mathnawi Poems and was very interested in Sufism. I had been researching on various locations and figuring out all the alternates. If all fails I can always go to Med School!
This was a giant decision making step. My first priority was my mom and then my siblings. What they are going to do without me? My younger brother Jan (pronounce John) was two and a half year younger than me. He has been getting involved by going to market occasionally and purchasing the groceries since my sister went to SDA hospital. My younger sisters were also participating in helping my mom. And, now when we have all these extra help in the new mansion, there was not a great deal of need for me to do household chores. Just educating and overseeing my siblings’ education was still a big task.
Of course, I have not mentioned yet that since very early childhood, I had two close friends. We were the best friends in everything! We played cricket for the school team. I was the caption for the last three years for my school team. Similarly, occasionally, when I could get away, we would go fishing or beach trips together.
The irony was that if I leave to become a Buddhist monk I will be marked as “infidel” and in Islamic Law my punishment was death. Both of my best friends were devout Muslims and well aware of the Islamic Civil and penal codes. We learned all these in our middle school years. Therefore, there is no way I can share this with anyone!
My father was not very religious person. As compared to my other friends’ parents both of my parents were relatively areligious. As a matter of fact I did not learn to pray 5 time daily prayers until I was 10. My father did not go to the Friday prayers and I rarely seen my mom praying. We all fasted in the month of Ramadan but I am not sure if my parents really fasted. But, we followed the tradition of fasting and switched our eating schedules during the month of Ramadan. However, it was around age 10 when I got interested in Islam and began to read and learn all I can from books, talking with scholars and Imams at various masques. Generally, all of my friends will follow specific denomination – similar to what Christian do here in the US- Catholics, Methodists, Protestants, Episcopalians, etc. Since, I was lucky enough not to be indoctrinated into a specific denomination; I could go to pray at mosques belonging to different sects. I was supposedly a Hanafi Sunni but I liked praying at the Shia mosques. To me I found them to be very spiritual. The majority of the Muslims are blind followers, similar to most of the folks of other faiths and creeds.
So, where should I go for consultation about my possible journey? I figure the only person I can talk about is my father. My father was not a father figure to me as it would be for any other son. He was like a king or president of a giant corporation in my mind. I was scared of him and we were never close. He was in Jacobabad at that time. So, I asked my mom if I can go and visit my dad for few days. I had done that many times and during break from school I had taken my sibling to visit our father. She was ok with it. She wanted me to take couple of my sisters with me. So, I did and we travelled by train. It was a local train, meaning it will take whole day to get there. We had to switch one train to get there. So, we arrived in the evening. It was still 1000F degrees. This part of Sindh is one of the hottest places on the planet earth.
My father had a nice but small two story house. His office was located at the ground floor of the house and upstairs was a three-bedroom place. We slept in two of the bedrooms. After few days, I got the opportunity to speak with my father alone and spoke to him about my intentions. He was totally cool with it, but logical. He asked me how much money I need. I said none from him since I have enough saving from my monthly allowance. Then, he asked how we can hide this from everyone, including my mom, my friends, my siblings, family members and the rest of the world? Since, legally in Pakistan I can change my faith but in the society this will be a taboo forever. I will be out casted by our family, friends and the society. He said, if I became a monk I should never return home. He would be only one I will write to or call. He will find a way to tell the rest that I have passed away during a mission that saved the country (like I was a spy for the national spy agency). If I change my mind and return then we will make up a convincing story and no one would know. We agreed. What happened next will require a large book to reveal my secrets and sacred journey to Tibet, Tora bora, secret locations of some great ascetics, sufi and beyond.
After returning from my visit to Jacobabad, I further pondered on the journey and I figured it would be wise for me to enroll as an undergraduate in microbiology at Karachi University. Since, in those days attendance was not that important and one can just pay the fee and take the final exam at the end of the academic year. So, I got myself enrolled and purchased few books and off I was!