Bodhidharma Singh: Ratinder Paul Singh Ahuja of Silicon Valley

The Diaspora Diaries – III

By Sarbpreet Singh

We are pleased to publish this interesting feature on our trustee – Dr. Ratinder Paul Singh Ahuja. He has served the Sikh Foundation as an honorable member of the Board since 2004.
Bodhidharma Singh

The winding roads and overgrown hillsides, as my car starts climbing after leaving the fashionable cafes and boutiques of Saratoga behind, bespeak shabby chic.

A gate with a security system impossibly appears in the midst of the designer wilderness, just a few miles away from the modern citadels of Apple and Google. A push of the red button and the gate slides open, admitting me into an even more exclusive world.

I gingerly make my way down a narrow private road that precariously hugs the pristine hillside, punctuated by a few driveways that lead to the homes of Silicon Valley elites. After a drive that seems much longer than it actually is, I spy a red Hummer, which as promised, my host has thoughtfully parked at the bottom of his driveway as a marker and I enter the world of Ratinder Paul Singh Ahuja.

What, you might be justified in asking, is a writer who thoroughly abhors anything written in the puff piece mould, doing here?

My ‘Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous’ moment must be explained!

I am in California, seeking stories and oral histories for ‘Lions In The West’, a non-fiction project about the Sikh Diaspora in America that I am working on. The focus of my trip is squarely on Yuba City and Stockton for the ‘Pioneers’ section of the book.

However, one of the chapters is about Sikh entrepreneurs and my numerous friends in the Bay Area have generously agreed to connect me with people whose stories they feel are interesting.

Several point me to Ratinder Singh, piquing my curiosity about this uber-successful Sikh entrepreneur, who is enormously wealthy, having built and sold three successful companies. Juicy tales abound of his huge home up in the remote Saratoga hills, his collection of expensive sports cars, his fifth degree Tae Kwon Do black-belt, the waterfall by his home where he meditates and his hermit like lifestyle.

I am intrigued. I reach into my network to find some mutual connections, and a few days later, my daughter and occasional intern, Mehr Kaur in tow, I find myself driving to Saratoga. I go there not really knowing what to expect, suspecting that I will end up writing something rather ironic about a super-rich, self-obsessed Sikh who seems to work hard to cultivate a larger-than-life image.

It turns out that I am completely wrong.

It appears that there is very little serendipity in Ratinder Singh’s success.

A natural engineer, from as far back as he can remember, he has always enjoyed building things. His progression from engineering school in India to a doctorate in the US is hardly unique, but the personal drive and entrepreneurial spirit, certainly is!

When I dig a little, trying to understand its origins, he starts talking about his mother with great fondness and respect, and his Nana ji or maternal grandfather, at whose feet he grew up learning about the obdurate, driven Sikh heroes of yore who are his inspiration.

His Nana ji, as it turns out, was Sardar Harnam Singh Bhatia, who was a Secretary of the SGPC and very involved with the Gurdwara Reform Movement in the early 20th century.

He talks passionately about the three companies that he created from the ground up and led to great technological and commercial success.

The real passion however, is reserved for his exploits in the world of Martial Arts and the ancient Chinese practice of Qigong or Chi Kung.

The Punjab of the late 1970s, when Ratinder was a young man, was hardly the bastion of martial arts. He and a friend decided to take up Judo with an illustrated book as their sole teacher!

They actually went to a local tailor, armed with pictures of judokas and got him to fashion uniforms for them. By their own reckoning, they worked their way up to become Brown Belts!

Several years later, when Ratinder attended Iowa State, he signed up for Tae Kwon Do and earned his black belt for real. After he moved to Silicon Valley, he continued his martial arts training, often passing by a nondescript store-front that advertised studies in Qigong.

One day, on a whim he walked in and another journey began.

Qigong, Ratinder tells me, is the father of all the eastern martial arts. Legend has it that in the 6th century AD, Bodhidharma, the son of the Pallava King of Kanchipuram in south of the subcontinent became a Buddhist monk. His travels took him to China and eventually the Shaolin monastery at Mount Sung, where he had to meditate for nine years, facing a wall, until he was granted admission.

He then proceeded to teach the monks the principles of yoga, which evolved into Qigong. Noting the feeble physical condition of the monks, he also taught them techniques derived from yoga and the ancient martial arts discipline, Kalarippayattu, melding them into practice that roughly translates to ‘Bone Marrow Strengthening Exercices’.

From this practice, it is claimed, evolved Kung Fu, Karate and other martial arts.

Bodidharma is credited with being the founder of Chan or Zen, which became tremendously popular in the Far East.

Bodhidharma Singh

Ratinder’s own Qigong story is no less interesting.

The first tentative step into Dr. Philip Yang’s studio launched him into a relationship and spiritual practice that paid rich dividends. He met a small Chinese man, who in Ratinder’s words, was a ‘total Jedi master’, and told him that he wished to study Qigong.

Dr. Yang had spent many years studying Chinese medicine and was one of those rare masters who had developed control over his Qi or energy. He made a living by healing and teaching Qigong.

The relationship between master and disciple built and strengthened slowly.

Ratinder was at an important moment in his life. The following day he was to make a pitch to a group of VCs to get his startup funded and he was sick. Dr. Yang reassured him and they started meditating.

Ratinder felt a chill, as if an air conditioning duct had opened above his head and all of a sudden his sinuses cleared. Later that night his body inexplicably heated up and then he understandood that his Qigong master had somehow programmed his energy to serve him in his hour of need. He was still sick the next morning, but when he got to his big meeting, the duct opened up again and his head cleared.

He walked out with his funding in hand!

From that day on, Master Yang is his Yoda.

Ratinder talks about some of the specific practices that make up his Qigong training.

One of the first is ‘standing meditation’, where the student has to stand still for extended periods of time. Ratinder is a Tae Kwon Do black belt; he works out regularly and he is in great shape. In his mind, he scoffs a bit thinking that he can move beyond the basic stuff quickly. As it turns out, he can’t stand still for more than three minutes! It takes him three years to develop to the point where he can successfully meditate for two hours, discovering along the way how difficult it is to quiet your body and your mind to the point that you can actually stand still!

As it is explained to him, the whole purpose of Qigong is two-fold; to calm and clear the mind and equally importantly, engage in physical and mental exercises that stimulate the glands that comprise the endocrine system, which is very akin to yoga practice designed to stimulate the ‘chakras’ of the human body.

As Ratinder progresses, the practice becomes harder. He is now ready for ‘dark room training’ for which he has to travel to this school in Thailand, where he will live in a completely dark room for three weeks. He travels there with his master and they live in total darkness.

There seems to be some science to this exercise!

The pituitary gland in the human body generates Human Growth Hormone or HGH, which is largely responsible for growth in adolescents. Once we pass that stage, it becomes less active and generates levels of HGH fall precipitously, especially after the age of 30 and result in, among other things, decreased muscle mass and an increase in body fat. Extended habitation in a dark room, pretty much like the ascetics of yore who lived in dark caves, facilitates the buildup of melatonin in the body, which is secreted by the pineal gland.

Research papers have been written on the effect of melatonin on the pituitary gland and its ability to secrete HGH and other hormones! (e.g., The Effect of Melatonin Administration on Pituitary Hormone Secretion in Man. M.L. Forsling, M.J. Wheeler & A.J. Williams)

It is so dark inside the room that Ratinder can’t even see his hand and he ‘survives by intuition’. (For the curious, food is brought in by attendants wearing night vision goggles, per the website of Qigong Grandmaster Mantak Chia, who runs the Thailand facility.)

Three weeks later, he emerges from the room with Dr. Yang, wearing dark glasses, having had no access to email or any other contact with the outside world, and goes on to build his third company!

As Ratinder talks about his Qigong practice and its methods for stimulating the endocrine system and regulating the body’s energy flow, he brings up something that I personally connect with and relate to. Apparently Qigong practice also encompasses something akin to Nada Yoga or the yoga of sound, which employs chanting to stimulate the chakras of the body.

Many religions incorporate some form of chanting in their spiritual practice. Gregorian, Tibetan Buddhist, Sufi, and Hindu chants are all examples.

Singing, of course, in the form of kirtan is an integral part of Sikh worship as well.

Ratinder mentions the effects of chanting banis such as the Jaap Sahib and that prompts me to dwell upon my own experiences.

I have been reciting the Japji and the Jaap as part of my own spiritual practice for a few years; with greater regularity after I was blessed with the gift of Khandey da Pahul not too long ago.

The Jaap and the Japji are a beautiful combination: to me the Yin and Yang of Sikh spiritual practice, but that is a reflection for another day!

Several years ago, before I had any grey hair and was still perhaps a little cocksure of my convictions and somewhat enamored of my ‘intellectual’ approach to the practice of Sikhi, some likeminded friends and I were wont to heap scorn upon the unwashed masses who would mechanically recite the daily complement of Sikh prayers, known as Nitnem, often without understanding a word of what they were saying!

‘What good is that?’ we would ask, somewhat rhetorically, smug in our claim of greater rationality, as we pored over translations and explications.

Our Gurus were savants and mystics, who left us innumerable priceless gifts whose worth we can probably never completely comprehend. A couple of years ago, one morning during my nitnem, I felt the urge to recite the Jaap, a little differently.

I turned to my tanpura and fiddled with a few raags, before settling on Bhairav; it was early morning after all! As I recited the chhands of the Jaap, I experimented with different beats until I discovered a selection of rhythms that seemed to fit all the chhands.

The experience was transformative. I have never recited the Jaap in any other way since that day.

Later, I went to Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha’s Sikh encyclopedia, the Mahan Kosh and discovered an excellent treatment of the various chhands of the Jaap, which provides clear guidance on their rhythmic cadence. This too needs to be saved for another reflection, as it is a topic unto itself.

The ‘so what’ in all this is that there is a natural cadence to the poetry of the Jaap that is sublimely uplifting. The exhilaration of discovering it is truly beyond description! It just has to be experienced personally. Apart from the power of the words and their meanings (which I have endeavored to translate on, just the raw power that courses through your being when you chant the Jaap is a testament to the genius of Guru Gobind Singh.

Does it stimulate the chakras ? Does it awaken your Qi? Does it throw your endocrine system in high gear?

I have no clue! This much I do know; when my friend Ratinder says: “if you didn’t understand a world of all that and just chanted and absorbed the rhythm of it, that itself is hugely beneficial”; he is on to something!

Bodhidharma SinghDr. Ratinder Paul Singh Ahuja with Lord Indarjit Singh during his visit to the Sikh Foundation

We end up chatting for hours, on many topics.

Ratinder’s third company has been acquired as well and he is engaged in many projects, both entrepreneurial and philanthropic. He has teamed up with his Qigong master, Dr. Yang to start The California University Silicon Valley, which offers advanced degrees in Computer Science and Management and focuses on imparting real world skills to its students, employing many successful executives and entrepreneurs from the world of technology as teachers.

When we are done talking, we walk around in Ratinder’s world as he enthusiastically points out his fruit trees and his collection of exotic plants. We also visit his garage to check out a couple of his red sports cars; this particular garage boasts a Porsche and a Maserati, I think.

As Ratinder shows us around, he seems akin to a little boy excitedly showing his new friends his toys! Not even one tiny bit as a wealthy businessman showing off the trappings of his success.

Sikh. American. Entrepreneur. Philanthropist. Tae Kwon Do Master. Qigong practitioner.

He is all these things. But above all, Ratinder ‘Bodhidharma’ Singh comes across as a really good guy!

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