We’ve read the iconic spiritual novels — Siddhartha, The Celestine Prophecy, Way of the Peaceful Warrior, Illusions and Jonathan Livingston Seagull — and have taken the epic pilgrimages through light and darkness, from naiveté to wisdom, and have embedded these stories into our collective consciousness. With his fourth novel, the first to be published outside of his native India, Karan Bajaj’s The Yoga of Max’s Discontent has quietly emerged as another novel to accompany us along our personal journey toward enlightenment.
Bajaj introduces us to Max Pzoras, a child of Greek immigrants who grew up in a dangerous New York housing project and, yet, managed to triumph over his humble upbringing. Now a Wall Street analyst, Max finds himself tormented wth anguish over his mother’s recent passing and questions about suffering and mortality. Synchronistic encounters with a street vendor is all the impetus Max needs to begin a quest to find answers in the farthest reaches of India, where he almost freezes to death on a hike up the Himalayas, and finds himself in an ashram in a drought-stricken village in South India.
Unlike his protagonist, the author grew up in the Himalayas and found success in the United States. Bajaj, 36, balances a stellar corporate career with a spiritual life that includes meditation, yoga and sacred travel. He once worked as a director for Kraft Foods, a brand manager for Procter & Gamble, and a management consultant for the Boston Consulting Group in India, the Philippines, Singapore and the United States. He was nominated to be a “Top 40 under 40 Marketer in the U.S.” by Advertising Age in 2007. He was also selected as one of the “Top 35 Under 35 Indian” by India Today. Bajaj is currently the chief marketing officer of Aden + Anais, a global provider of cotton muslin products for babies.
Bajaj’s new novel, The Yoga of Max’s Discontent (Riverhead Books), is already receiving rave reviews. The book was inspired by Karan’s one-year spiritual sabbatical, traveling with his wife, Kerry, learning yoga in a South Indian ashram, meditating in complete silence in the Vedantic tradition in the Indian Himalayas, and living as a Buddhist monk in a Scottish monastery.
He spoke with The Edge by phone during a trip to London about his writing and his perspective on meditation, yoga and spirituality.
Karan, what inspires you to write fiction?
Karan Bajaj: In the first 27 years of my life, I never had written a single non-technical word. I went to engineering college and went to business school. I never knew I could write fiction of any form. The first novel that I wrote was because I was having very interesting sorts of experiences, for Indians of my generation.
India went through a dramatic revolution after the ’90s when our economy started opening up for the first time and Indians were now experiencing the Western life, if you will. Drugs and sex and a lot of those influences came in as the economy stabilized, and we were growing up and experiencing that. The Indian writing market was very small at that time. Our literature was very attuned to what Western audiences were interested in, so everybody was writing about the slums in India and magic realism or stories about Hindus and Muslims and partition.
The reality that we were growing up in was very young and vibrant, and nobody was capturing that part of India. I started to backpack after getting out of college. I hiked and did a lot of things nobody was capturing in art at all in India, so I wrote my first novel. It was a very, trippy, experience-filled novel, and it ended up doing very well in India because nobody was writing about that at that point.
How did your ambition as a writer evolve over the years?
KB: That has evolved a lot. What I’m trying to do right now is truly answer my most deepest most unarticulated questions for myself through my writing in some form. Now, I think of my writing as having two foundations: entertainment and meaning. The meaning portion is really me trying to answer my questions. The entertainment aspect of it is how I make a story that can make people turn the pages.
I did not have any philosophy at all when I wrote the first novel. I was just wanting to capture experiences that I thought would be inspiring for Indians who are trying to break free from the very high-pressured family environments and do their own thing.
Would you say this new novel, The Yoga of Max’s Discontent, really gets to the heart of where you are as a person?
KB: Yes, absolutely. The questions that I ask in the novel are my questions, but then again, I did want to make sure that I didn’t write it like a Ph.D. piece. I wanted to write something that was very entertaining to read. The hardest part of this novel was how to make a deeply spiritual transformation journey page-turning and adventurous. That was the hardest part to crack for me.
Was it trial and error for you to get that aspect of the book correct, or did it just come to you as you went into it?
KB: It was a lot of trial and error. What helped me a lot was that I chose an American lead protagonist, because that liberated a lot from my own knowledge. If I had approached it from the perspective of an Indian main character, I think I would have assumed a lot of knowledge and I would have resented the presence of the author.
A lot of the book is about karma and rebirth. Things like that are very attuned to my life as an Indian, but when I approach it from a perspective of a Westerner, then I have a skeptical, yet kind of novice view on it. I think that choice really liberated the story to be its own story. A lot of the conclusions that Max reaches on his own are not mine at all. So, I think that allowed the story to take on its own momentum, to have its own propulsive force.
Your blog indicates that you have traveled extensively, climbing Kilimanjaro, Machu Picchu, and other peaks. Is that why your novels are always about characters on some sort of a journey?
KB: The journey becomes a very good metaphor for the hero, either leaving the ordinary world to go to the extraordinary world, or being forced to leave the ordinary world. What has happened in most of my books is the call to the extraordinary world, the hero’s push, or that push has come to him.
And it allows you to show some evolution in the character’s life, as well.
KB: Exactly. Then the whole hero’s journey kicks in and the book is not so much a thinking novel. It has a lot of thoughts in it, but it was not about a guy reflecting and sitting and thinking. It was about how, when you get to an extraordinary world, you reveal your entire actions. The story becomes very fast-paced because he has to act, because of all that is so unfamiliar to him. And through his process of action, he is revealing himself as a character.
That is why journeys become very good metaphors. They always have the character put into circumstances that reveal him. If I had based my characters in New York and had them just sitting and thinking about life, it would be like what contemporary U.S. fiction is about. That is very heavy, literally, for me. It doesn’t become mainstream enough because the pages don’t turn themselves.
Your new book is fiction, and yet there are aspects of it that reflect your life — your experiences in India with yoga and meditation and your experience in the corporate world — and you’re able to blend those together.
KB: They are, but in a sense the novel is a reverse of my life. This guy leaves the corporate world behind to go to India and becomes a Yogi in the Himalayas. I have kind of done the opposite, growing up India and coming to the U.S. Even after all my journeys, I’ve always come back to my life in business. A lot of experience I have borrowed from my life, but they are also a little bit opposite from my life. When I started conceptualizing it, I would have probably based it more on my life and had the character come back to the U.S., but the story took on a life of its own.
The concept of karma is a beautiful concept in Sanskrit. The whole idea of karma is that every being has an innate tendency — the karma of ice is to be cold, the karma of fire is to burn, the karma of the trees is to grow and bear fruit. In the same way, a human has a certain thrust. What I’ve realized is that my thrust is to be in the world, like in the world of business. But the thrust of the character, as I got into the journey, was to be in nature, serving in nature and not serving in the world. As I got deeper into the character, I found he is most alive when he is in physically hard circumstances, when he is using his hands.
I think his karma became to serve in nature and not to serve in the world, while I think my karma is to be in the world.
A number of people really have a sour taste about the corporate world. How do you embrace the corporate world and see beyond it at the same time?
KB: That is a good question. I think nothing, at an objective level, is either right or wrong. For example, if you get into the details of living in an ashram, which I did for six months in India, you find that ashrams have more politics than corporations do. Once you get into the details of the management structure there, people are pulling each other down and everybody wants to be the head honcho. I don’t think of the ashram world as being any more spiritual than the corporate world.
So I don’t know if there is really an objective truth about either. I liken this to what Buddhism says about the individual, that change starts with the individual. I think it is really about purifying your own actions, and I have seen that in my own life. When I came to the U.S., Kraft sponsored my green card, so I was at Kraft foods and I owed them, I felt. But then as my life purified more and more, I felt that that corporation was not doing the right things for the world. That led me to a company that makes organic baby products. It is very pure in its actions and how it deals with others.
I think it is really a personal journey of purification, rather than whether something external is going to be good or bad. Anything external will always live in that polarity — a combination of good and bad. As I said, I think Kraft doesn’t do the right things for the environment, but on the other hand, I met people there who really improved and enhanced my life and were genuinely very humble, open people.
There are no absolutes.
KB: Yeah, there are no absolutes.
To what degree did you explore yoga and meditation when you lived in India?
KB: I have been meditating for many years now, but I think for quite a few years my relationship with meditation was very intellectual. I would do meditation for all the usual things that you would think about, to be more calm, be more productive, relieve stress. But over the last two or three years after my mother died from cancer, I think meditation became truly a means to a deeper connection as I was searching for a deeper truth within myself. Meditation became almost more spiritual than material in nature over the last two or three years and it has deepened a lot as a result of that.
My wife and I took a sabbatical and we went from Europe to India, where we lived in an ashram for six months and did meditation and yoga vigorously, like from 5:00 in the morning until 10:00 in the night in very austere circumstances. I think then my practice became less superficial, more like the traditional definition of what meditation was: to truly find oneness.
What are your thoughts on how yoga and meditation are practiced in the United States?
KB: I think it is at a very nascent level — perhaps that’s the best way to put it. There are two dichotomies here. In the West it is a very physical practice, and even meditation is a practice to become productive and more at peace. In the East, you think of the deep spiritual practices as a journey of complete dissolution of the self, the ego. In the West, it is the opposite, like you are using these practices to further your ego by being more productive, being more this, and getting more out of your work and earning more money. In the East, the whole idea is that you are dissolving your essence through these practices.
So, these approaches are very different, but I hope what happens is that once you are on the journey, you evolve your own position.
Hopefully along the journey one will realize the true, purest essentials of the practice.
KB: Exactly. That has happened to me. When I started, these were very functional practices, as I said, productive to lose weight, or whatever, and now it has become a very spiritual kind of practice.
In the new novel, you introduce the yogis who put everything into their spiritual journey — complete devotion to transcending the human body. What were your experiences like in India? Were you able to get to know some of these people?
KB: Oh, yeah. Almost every yogi that appeared in the book is either somebody I have seen and met and spoken to, or someone who is in my three degrees of separation — I know the source who talks to me about it so well that I believe his story. For example, the two Babas that I have met personally are the guy who lives only on milk — he has been living on milk for years — and the standing Baba, who’s practicing the austerity of standing. Those are people that I have met myself.
Regarding some of the super powers that I reference, like walking on water, I haven’t seen people do that, but once you get into the science, a lot of it starts to make a lot of sense, for example, like people being able to read your mind. It’s very logical, because words are just a grosser form of thought, and thought is just a grosser form of feeling. Somebody who is purified with life enough would be able to read your feeling before it becomes a word in your mouth. It is not very hard to understand — and you meet people like that. Almost everything is very factual and scientific and not exaggerated.
Some people say that the answer is not going to the Himalayas, but being able to embrace our humanness right where we are by perceiving even negative experiences as gifts and treasures. What are your thoughts on that?
KB: I very much agree. I think it is a little bit about karma again. In the yoga sutras, they have this beautiful analogy that the journey of life is like the flight of an eagle, or the journey over multiple lifetimes is like a flight of an eagle. First, the eagle stretches its wings high, high, high, and experiences everything that the world has to offer in terms of flight. It’s growing and flying and it’s experiencing, and then it brings its wings down gracefully and that is the completion of the journey.
In a sense, there is a role for growth and experiencing the world, and pushing the boundaries of that, and then there is a time to bring it within. All people are at different stages of that journey.
There is no absolute truth that the guy sitting in the cave in the Himalayas is useless, because he is at that point in his journey where he has experienced everything in the world and does not have an attraction to it anymore. All he wants to do is spend all his time in silence and contemplation. And then there are people like me who are not there yet, who are still the eagle flying high right now, still experiencing more in the world and growing as a result of that — and that is my journey.
There is no absolute truth that it is better to be in the world or be out of it. I think it is just your own truth and where you are in what feels completely in line with your own formation.
We all have our own journey, don’t we?
KB: Exactly. When I started on the path, too, I really thought I would become a yogi in a cave, but I didn’t have clarity about my path. When I evolved in the ashram for six months, I learned a lot, but I realized that it was not my natural state of being. So, I came back to the world.
What has been one of the most mystical experiences you have had on a travel journey for yourself?
KB: I remember sitting and talking to a guy up in the mountains without speaking a word. That didn’t seem as mystical and unusual as it felt later, because he could just answer my questions with just feeling, and I didn’t need to use any words to articulate my thoughts at all. Those kinds of incidents happened a lot in the Himalayas.
Others have been in places like Bhutan, for example. The moment you enter Bhutan, you notice that there are no traffic lights. It is almost like you’ve stepped into a Shangri-La or a vortex of time 200 years ago. Those kinds of experiences are very much of the countryside of Bhutan, where people are truly happy in the sense of not creating and wanting more. Other quite mystical experiences were like spending time in the Gobi desert in Mongolia.
Talk to me about the 414 formula you have adopted and what that means.
KB: The formula has evolved a little bit over the last decade. What I do is work for three or four years and then I take a year off, and then I come back again and work for three or four years and then take another year off. It is not about just working and then writing for a year. That is not how it is structured. It is about doing very conscious goal-driven activities for four years and then taking a year off in complete surrender to discover facets of myself that I don’t know exist and exploring interests with no commercial value associated with them at all.
The whole idea is that the combination of tight activity and slack activity allows me to be both productive and creative at the same time. In the four years that I am actually working in a proper job, I am earning money and I’m also writing with a lot of discipline on the side. Then in the year that I take off, I don’t have any goals. I just surrender to experiences like traveling or learning yoga and meditation or just living in a completely random place like Mongolia or Portugal or Bhutan. Then when I come back, I am much more intuitive, creative, right-brained. That kind of system has been working very well for me.
But, if I was a complete slacker who was just doing nothing but traveling, I don’t know if I would have the discipline to be productive and create this job, and on the other hand, if I was always disciplined and productive, I don’t think I would have that mystical connection that lead to great work.
I imagine you have finished writing this novel a while back. Are you working on a new one?
KB: No, not at all. Right now I am just diving into life again. I just have nothing new to offer right now as an idea for a book. I feel like if I were to write something, I would probably repeat the same idea in a different story. What I need to do is to just deepen my well. I’m just experiencing life now, you know?
For more information on Karan Bajaj, visit www.karanbajaj.com.