In the ’70s Steve Jobs travelled to India to visit a renowned guru whose favourite fruit became the logo of one of the world’s most renowned companies. Geoff Wood talks with other spiritual seekers and finds out what the future billionaire might have been looking for.
Before Mr Jobs founded what is now the world’s largest tech company, he travelled to India early in 1974, desperate for darshan (sight), and to be in the presence of the renowned Hindu holy man Neem Karoli Baba, also known as Maharaj-ji.
Considered to be a manifestation of the god Hanuman, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, Maharaj-ji had become something of a magnet to young westerners making the now-familiar ‘journey to the East’. From his ashram in Kainchi in the foothills of the Himalayas, he received a steady flow of spiritual seekers from all over the world. Among them was the young Richard Alpert who would later find fame as Ram Dass, author of the seminal book Be Here Now.
Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist who went on to run Google’s philanthropic organisation Google.org and oversee the Skoll Global Threats Fund, was another early visitor. Given the name Subramanyum, he was tasked by his guru to eradicate smallpox, a project which he undertook with the help of the World Health Organization.
Mr Jobs at the time was working at the young video games start-up Atari in Los Angeles. But the seed of his spiritual quest had already been sown. Jai Uttal, a Kirtan musician and world sacred music pioneer, told me this story on a recent trip to Australia:
Let me share with you a very interesting story. We don’t know the effects of ourselves and every step that we make in life. It’s very hard to know. We say hi to somebody in the street, we don’t know the ripples of all of our actions. So my memory for my life—my memory is not that great—I went to Reed College in 1969, which is the same school that Steve Jobs went to. Now Steve was a year younger than me, so I dropped out in five months, so I didn’t stay in school. So I didn’t meet him then. I met him a little later with a friend of mine, just said hi, kinda, and then after I had dropped out of college I went up to Reed College on a small music tour with some friends and Steve and his friend came to hear our concert. After the concert we all hung out and I was just freshly back from India and I told Steve and his buddy all about Maharaj-ji and this is what ignited the desire in him to go see him.
Now I didn’t remember any of this until a couple of months ago, right after Steve died his friend sent me an email and said hi, and so great to reconnect with you. I [did] not remember him but he reminded me of a couple of times that we had re-met over the years and he said that I wanted to tell you that it was our hanging out with you that night in 1973 that stimulated us to go to India to see Maharaj-ji and sadly we didn’t meet him. And I thought, that is such an amazing story, and not because I, big me, got him to go to India. I didn’t mean that, but just how we influence each other on this journey and we never know it. I was blown out by that and I was very happy to hear it. And odd that I have no real memory of it, but there it is.
Mr Jobs flew into New Delhi in April 1974, booked into a cheap hotel and came down with dysentery almost immediately. As soon as he was well enough he travelled to Haridwar in western India for the great Hindu festival known as the Kumbh Mela. From there he took a train and a bus to Kainchi in the foothills of the Himalayas to the ashram of Neem Karoli Baba. He rented a room with a mattress on the floor from a local family who fed him vegetarian meals. But he had arrived too late. Maharaj-ji was no longer present, having attained Mahasamadhi (left his body) the previous September.
Another devotee at the Kainchi ashram in the early ’70s was Jeffrey Kagel, known today as Krishna Das, the chant master of American yoga. Like many others he arrived at his first darshan loaded with apples as an offering to Maharaj-ji. I asked Krishna Das what happened next:
Well we heard that he likes apples, so we brought apples. It was funny. I offered them to him and he took them and immediately distributed them to other people in the room. And I thought, ‘Oh, he doesn’t like my apples.’ So he immediately looked at me and said, ‘What did I do?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Did I do right?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Did I do right?’ I said, ‘Anything you do is right.’ He just laughed and said, ‘If one has God, one doesn’t need anything. One has no desire.’ And then I saw myself and all my desires and I went, ‘Oh boy, I’ve got a long way to go.’ It was funny but the thing was he knew exactly what I was thinking immediately. And he showed me he did. And he taught me from the inside that way.
Like Krishna Das, Mr Jobs never forgot his time at the Kainchi ashram. Although he arrived too late to meet his guru in person—and despite his subsequent rise to fame—for most of his life Mr Jobs continued to pursue prajna, a Sanskrit word used in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy meaning consciousness or wisdom, a form of cognitive understanding of the nature of reality achieved through meditation and mindfulness.
In his later years he turned also to Zen Buddhism for answers. But as a young man, his first great pilgrimage took him to India, and to a Hindu holy man fond of apples.