Sporting a U-shaped sandalwood paste tilak on his forehead like a Vaishnava seer, an ochre shirt and sitting in front of a dhuni, ‘Sri M’ — born Mumtaz Ali Khan in a Muslim family of Kerala — is drawing modest but spellbound crowds at the Kumbh Mela. The well-initiated know this is not another sadhu who has camped at the Bairagi area of the carnival.
As he conducts discourse on the teachings of the Upanishads including Srimadbhagavadgita (the Gita), the audience, scattered on staircases leading to the Ganga at this year’s Kumbh Mela, is amused by his knowledge of the Hindu scriptures and, more so, his reverence for the holy words.
At the carnival, Sri M has set up his akhada called Yoga Dham. Besides the daily discourses on the scriptures, the dham offers sadhu seva (service to seers) and fills the air with chants of bhajans. “God is known by different names — Allah, Christ, Krishna and so many others. Despite different names, God is one and the same. Once we have this knowledge, we see that everyone is seeking the same thing,” he says, smiling.
The union government awarded Sri M with a Padma Bhushan last year for his philanthropic and spiritual work. His organisation Satsang Foundation runs schools and clinics for the underpriviliged at Madanapalle in Andhra Pradesh.
Born in a prosperous Muslim family in Thiruvananthapuram, Sri M says he was drawn to the Hindu yogi way of life in childhood. At the age of 19, he left home for the Himalayas in search of a guru, walking all the way from Rishikesh to Badrinath (about 300 km), dressed as a wandering sadhu.
Eventually, after several adventures, which he has detailed in his book Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master, he met his guru, a Himalayan yogi, in a cave beyond Badrinath who initiated him to the ancient Nath sampradaya (to which Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath belongs to as well).
Sri M travelled in the Himalayas with his guru for over three years, during which his guru initiated him into the ancient scriptural teachings, he says. He now speaks on yoga sutras, Upanishads and other Vedanta texts, mixing textual knowledge with the experiences of his wanderings with his guru.
At the Kumbh, despite people’s wariness due to the second Covid-19 wave, a sizeable number of people gather to hear his discourses. “It is rare to find a self-realised spiritual teacher who can talk about ancient wisdom in a way that you can instantly relate to it,” said entrepreneur from Kolhapur Amit Kharmate.
Many of those attending the speeches of Sri M at the Kumbh are devout Hindus, a majority of whom hail from western and southern India. To them, the fact that he was born a Muslim has never been discomforting. “Even Kabir was born a Muslim but had disciples cutting across religions,” said follower Mahender Borana.