The Yoga of Max’s Discontent
A novel by Karan Bajaj
2016 (May release)
New York: Riverhead Books imprint of Penguin Random House
(published in India 2015 as “The Seeker”)
reviewed by Joe Szimhart prior to release in USA. March, 2016.
Seeker novels exploring Eastern religion have been popular in the West for well over one hundred years. Many have been more fanciful than factual. The more fanciful have Western authors who tap interest in the exotic and magical. For one, I am thinking of Lost Horizon by James Hilton (1933) that launched the cliché of Shangri-La. More factual as to tradition is Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (1922) whose story of the Buddha endures to this day as a must-read for modern hippies and as an introduction to the Buddhist religion. On the more ridiculous track, we can name Life and Teachings of Masters of the Far East by Baird T. Spalding (1924), the first of a six-volume set, and The Third Eye by T. Lobsang Rampa (1956)—Rampa was the Brit Cyril Hoskin (1910-1981). Neither Spalding (1872-1953) nor Hoskin were ever in the Far East before their hoax “true” stories hit the markets.
The Yoga of Max’s Discontent is one of the better seeker novels I have read—it ranks with A River Sutra by Gita Mehta (1993) and Deep River by Shusaku Endo (1995).
Karan Bajaj brings a 21st Century twist to this seeker class of novels and he remains well within the tradition of his native land of Bharat or India. The author is not only a successful business man, but he also has trekked throughout India and practiced the yoga central to the quest of the story’s main character. Bajaj published The Yoga of Max’s Discontent as The Seeker in India in 2015. This book is his first released in the West after publishing two other award winning, successful novels in India that have contracts to be made into films. I received the novel in electronic version for review and I read it in within 24 hours. Karan Bajaj knows how to drive a story through rich character presentation and a keen sense of place and purpose. I enjoyed the read.
Our seeker is Max Pzoras, a Greek-American, who is six feet six inches tall. He grew up in poverty in the Bronx Projects of New York with his little sister Sophia. His father died when they were young, leaving them to be raised by their struggling mother. We meet Max as a successful business man working in an office in Manhattan. He is in his late twenties. Despite his rough and tumble young life in a gang and drug infested neighborhood, Max manages to get into Harvard. The story begins with Max’s mother dying of cancer at age 49. We meet Andre, his closest childhood friend who is wheelchair bound after getting shot and who has turned to drug-dealing. Max gives him $2,000 to help Andre and his mother in the Projects.
A key moment appears in the first chapter after Max and Sophia leave their dying mother at a hospital. Sophia is accosted by a crazy homeless man. Max knocks the man down with the intent of beating the crap out of him when a food vendor grabs Max’s wrists, thus sparing the nasty bum. Though it is winter and snowing, Viveka the food vendor is naked from the torso up, wearing only an orange wrap below, Indian style. Curious about his spiritual background and why the cold does not affect him, Max gets Viveka to tell about a guru he knows beyond Kashmir in the Himalayan foothills.
With his mother dead, Max faces his discontent with life and work despite his financial success. Inspired by the food vendor, he scans the Internet for information about yogis in the Himalaya and stumbles upon a Brazilian doctor who became a yogi. Something inside compels Max to find this man. So he leaves his job at Trump Tower and heads for Haridwar in Northern India with a plan to continue to Gangotri glacier to find a Himalayan cave inhabited by the doctor yogi. These legendary caves at the sacred headwaters of the Ganges River, or Ma Ganga, attract holy men practicing individual yogic austerities that no one experiences in yoga classes. One ash-covered naked yogi with waist-long dreadlocks in the novel has a heavy rock tied permanently to his penis. Another takes a vow to not speak for twelve years, and another with spindly legs is always standing. Yet another keeps one atrophied arm raised permanently.
Soon after arrival in Northern India, Max is impressed by the open talk of God and the plethora of gurus available. He readily states his goal for enlightenment without people drawing a puzzled blank or asking why. But he is soon warned that less than “one percent [of yogis] are genuine” and in India “searching for God has become a joke.” One savage looking man, nearly naked with long dreadlocks, shocks Max with a handful of burnt human remains and an offer to be his guru. He later learns that this Aghori baba was from a sect of yogis that eat human and animal remains.
Max plunges into his mission, naively prepared with the best hiking gear for frigid, high altitude conditions. Max is fit, had done mountain climbing before in Africa, and has an attractive inner drive that appeals to the many Indian people who come to his aid. On his last leg to Gangotri, he has to beat the deep snow that will soon block all access for months. Omkara and Shiva, two savvy wise-cracking college students with motorcycles on break to visit family find Max the giant intriguing, as they seem to know more about modern American culture than he does. They also think he is delightfully crazy with what they see as a death wish to defy the Himalayan winter above the glacier. Omkara states that all yogis are frauds. Shiva has more respect as he had an uncle who went to the caves for the right reason but retreated after only a few months. The more serious yogis do not like visitors. “Only in India can you live naked in the mountains like a caveman and have idiots ask for your blessings,” states Shiva commenting on the spiritual tourist industry. After the boys chuck half his unneeded gear to lighten his backpack, Max gets his ride on back of a Royal Enfield Bullet at night in utter darkness. The boys are interested in saving time and they have run that route “a million times,” though it winds around snow slick narrow paths along steep drops into an abyss below. Max wonders whether he will survive the lift!
Max’s first attempt to find the caves fails and it nearly kills him. Lost, unconscious, and half frozen to death he finds himself alive in a small, rustic guesthouse, not the main guesthouse around Bhojbasa that he was seeking. A diminutive, dark-skinned elderly woman is the only attendant and she saved his life. After a brief respite and with his egotistic tail between his legs, Max follows a yogi guide down the snowy trail.
Max arrives in Rishikesh where he can catch up on email. A theme in the story involves Max’s lingering concern for his sister and Andre and his guilt for not living up to higher standards of service to them. He leaves messages for them that he is okay. He finds an email from someone he contacted about the doctor yogi, and decides to visit the man called Anand in Dehradun. Anand has no idea where the doctor is, but cautions Max that he is not ready for so lofty a path. Max would do better to study first with another guru, a special yogi with no formal school and very difficult to find. His name is Ramakrishna.
After a brief interlude hanging around other travelers and seeing a darker side of an Indian black market, Max makes his way to south India and manages to find Ramakrishna who has only two current disciples, a male actor from Egypt and an attractive female science scholar from Italy. Without fanfare or much explanation, Ramakrishna accepts Max and immediately gives him the name Mahadeva. The vast majority of seekers that come to Ramakrishna leave within a week or so due to the long cycles of silence and rigorous hatha yoga training. Ramakrishna says very little. Students are also expected to work hard at subsistence farming with primitive means to grow their food while sharing half with the nearby villagers. They must hand pump water from a well. Living conditions are harsh in the hot climate of south India. Ramakrishna accepts no money or commitment. He merely teaches those who wish to remain.
Max applies himself to practice yogic asanas and to work on the meager farm for three years. He becomes lean and tough yet supple. Ramakrishna notes that Max has a special body awareness, easily surpassing the other two seasoned students while spontaneously forming difficult postures that Ramakrishna had not yet taught anyone. During one asana, Max felt that he levitated ever so slightly. Ramakrishna indicates that Max has achieved much already in past lives. Max has a kundalini awakening while there—his spine was as if on fire for days—and his guru guides him to another level of awareness that leads to special powers of cognition and connections to all beings. For example, when a large cobra freaks out a new Bulgarian guest in the toilet area, Max stops the man from trying to kill the snake. The man watches Max go into a kind of trance, the snake lowers its head and slithers between and around their legs back outside into the field. The Bulgarian has enough, calls it "Harry Potter magic" and a "devil cult," and he leaves the ashram that day.
Less than one year into his three-year stint, things got tough during a drought. He wondered if this were merely some kind of cult. Food supplies ran extremely thin as did the bodies of the guru and his two remaining disciples. Max and Shakti decide to leave rather than surely starve, but on the long hike to a village, they succumb to carnal desire and have rapturous sex despite their smelly, skeletal selves. After buying food for starving villagers, Max resists going away with Shakti. He returns to his unassuming guru to continue yogic training. He leaves when he feels ready to find his solitary cave above Gangotri glacier again.
This time Max is prepared despite challenges from cynics who note that he has no sect or lineage. Max is a pure yogi funded directly from that deep well within the human spirit that might come from past life attainment and that inspires all yoga and religion. His aim is to gain that near impossible goal of moksha or freedom in this lifetime. When seeking to fund his trip north, Max discovers that his bank card no longer works due to no activity for so long. He has to prove to the bank by phone that he has records of his last three transactions. He is in a phone booth surrounded by curious locals who call him Jesus Christ because he appears to glow and has that long-haired, bearded look of a very tall Jesus. Max enters a yogic trance and manages through enormous psychic effort to recall and recite precisely what was written on his bank record. His bank card is restored.
He chooses a Himalayan cave after hiking through snow and ice, chops a hole through the cave’s ice wall, and settles in with almost no belongings save some rice, beans, his debit card, and a magnesium rod given him by Baba Ramdas, a silent yogi in a nearby cave, to start cooking fires.
The novel builds in intensity to this dramatic battle of one man with himself. Passages from the Buddha and the Bhagavad Gita appear in significant places. Earlier, we read of Lord Krishna telling Arjuna, “The yogi is superior to the ascetic and even to men of knowledge. The yogi is also superior to those who perform action with interested motive. Be thou a yogi.”
Max sheds his holy name Mahadeva to remove as much ego as he could. He maintains his austerities and practice learned from Ramakrishna who blessed Max by telling him, “The Universe is your teacher now.” Max comes to harmony with scorpions that crawl on him but do no harm. A bear violates his cave space and threatens Max who manages to become “one” with the bear: Tat Tvam Asi—thou are that. The bear stops its attack and leaves peacefully. He takes a short cut across a lake by walking on its surface for “forty-five meters” before losing concentration and falling in, but was able to swim to safety.
Yet frustrated, Max raised his left arm and kept it raised a month until it atrophied, but he was yet no nearer his goal. His hair grew longer, beard full, and stomach nearly gone. He slept only two or three hours when not meditating or tending to food. Winter arrives again, avalanches threaten the caves, silent Ramdas has already gone down to Gangotri. A weakened, one-armed Max decides to go too but barely survives an avalanche. He ends up again at the remote guest house yet tended by the old woman who now appears weak and at the end of her days. Max gains use of his left arm again, but does lose two fingers on his left hand and his pinky on his right to frostbite. The old woman, Nani Maa, tends to him until he can function.
I will not give away the ending, but I will say that I appreciated the author’s resolution. During his last days in the cave, Max realizes that he wants his next life to be “someone capable of love.” After his return to Nani Maa’s guesthouse, he begins to realize that life.
Early in this review I mentioned that this novel most reminds me of Deep River by Shusaku Endo and A River Sutra by Gita Mehta. In those stories we meet men that seek enlightenment and find it in selfless service. The Yoga of Max’s Discontent carries us to the loftiest, even magical limits of yoga as we travel through a modern India that struggles to retain its traditional spirit. Long ago in 1981 I was one of those seekers that spent time in India and Nepal. Bajaj’s novel brought back a host of memories and a reminder that despite modernization, for the spiritual seeker some things in India have not changed.
Despite my admiration for the fine story, I noted missteps in the spiritual maturity of the content. For example, the book is dedicated to the author’s daughter Leela: “So one day you will find your own truth.” Throughout the story we find facile criticism of New Age hippies and false gurus—the Hare Krishna sect and Seventh Day Adventists, for example—yet finding one’s own truth has become a New Age cliché as well as a post-modern flaw in philosophy. I have a granddaughter named Leela, and my wish for her is not that she finds her own truth, rather that she finds truths that she can own and share with integrity and validity. The truth within or the immediate gnosis afforded by serious yoga practice is just that, an intimate knowledge of the body-mind operations and health. Healthy extensions of self from that vantage demand skills in word and deed operating well within the varied environments of culture, nature, and economy and not limited to yogic awareness. An advanced yogi may be totally useless as a potter, plumber, or parent.
Max experiences a kind of boundless love while writing a letter to his beloved sister: “Warm fluid boundaryless love radiated from his heart, enveloping Sophia and every being in the world”—which is all well and good for him, but what does it do for Sophia and every being? That is the quandary, the same quandary that all New Thought cults in the West have. Just because a Christian Scientist invokes the mind of Christ does nothing apparently to guarantee that anyone will be healed or blessed. If yogic power ever worked that way, there would have been no suffering in the world after Buddha’s enlightenment. However, even the Buddha taught his devotees to work out their own salvations. When Jesus asked a frustrated disciple Peter three times whether Peter truly loved Him, Jesus’s directive was to feed My sheep and keep My commandments.
Despite Max’s great advancement in yogic awareness (he reads another’s thoughts), an advancement we might call paranormal psychic powers or in Indian tradition siddhis that come from practicing samyama as Max does, the novel tells us that siddhis are not enough and may be a distraction. In my experience, siddhis are never enough and too many gurus claiming these powers yet appear to not have them when behaving as they do within limits of self-generated systems (cults), with deception, or with rudeness. It is easy to say one has yogic siddhis but refuse to demonstrate them. Fraud Indian gurus say dismissively I do not do circus acts when challenged. Max’s teacher Ramakrishna is an ideal guru invented by Bajaj who brilliantly uses the character to demonstrate that ideal. Ramakrishna is one of the less than “one percent” of gurus that is authentically attuned to the Sanatana Dharma—the Eternal Way. Rare is the authentic guru and rarer yet is the student that recognizes him. If any, that is the one takeaway a reader should get from this novel.
So, Max’s “truth” in the end is that he knows he does not “own” any truth. If it is truth, it belongs to all and everything and not to one “self.” That might sound like a contradiction, but the subtle difference rules the universe spoken about in the novel. The yogi must die to self while living according to the Eternal Way in order to merge or yoke with Brahman. The novel mentions the authentic ways of Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammed. St. Paul had to “die daily” so that “Christ” could live within him. The Sufi Muslim must seek oblivion in his submission to Allah. Easier said than done, if ever done while we are alive.
In Max’s case, he finds contentment when he finally releases his attachment to his discontent, the discontent that drove him to great heights in business as well as in seeking final enlightenment.