WHEN it comes to unusual retired civil servants, Om Narain Vaid outdoes most. A topper of the 1968 batch of the IAS and with three years of service left (not to speak of countless post-retirement sinecures), he deliberately chose to leave the IAS in 2001 to become a professional astrologer!
One Sunday afternoon I was having lunch with a bunch of old friends when I mentioned that I was searching for stories on unusual civil service retirees. The name of Om Narain Vaid cropped up. My batchmate, BK Chaturvedi, former Cabinet Secretary, recounted thus:
“Om Narain owes something to me for getting into the IAS. One afternoon we met to say goodbye to a common friend, who was off to the US. I mentioned to Vaid that I had qualified for the IAS, upon which he pressed me for tips on preparation. I told him not to waste time mastering new subjects but to stick to mathematics and physics, subjects he was already proficient in. Sure enough, he qualified and broke all records and topped the IAS!”
I began looking for people who knew Vaid well. I discovered that Sushil Tripathi, one of Vaid’s batchmates, had remained in touch with him. One afternoon, as we enjoyed grilled fish and garlic toast in the sunny lounge at the India International Centre, Sushil filled me in with nuggets of information. He also admitted he had every reason to feel grateful to Vaid. In the IAS examination, Vaid’s marks were so unbelievably high that he left his nearest rival behind by 100 marks! And that rival was none else than Sushil Tripathi himself! Once Vaid left the service, Sushil inherited the first position in the batch, immediately heightening his chances of becoming the Cabinet Secretary! (It is another matter that Tripathi became Secretary, Petroleum, one of the most sensitive assignments at the Centre.)
Sushil gave me a few more insights. Vaid had humble beginnings. Having attended a government school in Haryana’s Bhiwani district, he completed his high school, college and university education in Lucknow, where his father had moved to take up a clerical job in a private company. Young Vaid bagged the gold medal for physics at the university.
Sushil described his friend thus: “Vaid gave his heart and soul to mastering the subject of astrology, which we both studied together. So profound was his knowledge and application, he qualified as a Jyotish Alankar (Graduate in Astrology), bagging another gold medal. Later, he also qualified as Jyotishacharya (Postgraduate in Vedic Astrology).”
I was impressed, but I needed more first-hand information to write a story. I also needed to be introduced to Vaid because that is the way the IAS functions. It was BK Chaturvedi’s wife Vibha, who helped me get in touch with Vaid since she too was another astrology student at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Delhi. I rang Vaid, expecting him to be warm and friendly Rather unexpectedly, he sounded somewhat brusque, but still asked me to come to his flat in South Extension the next evening.
After taking several wrong turns, I stood in front of an unpretentious looking beauty parlour, located at the far end of the market. I peered at the boards and numbers and finally spotted a staircase to the second floor. The nameplate of Vishnu Bhaskar hung outside the door and I recalled that Chaturvedi had mentioned that Vaid had changed his name. The doorbell was answered by a smiling woman who welcomed me inside.
The living room was frugal by all standards, certainly compared to those maintained by senior retired officers. It was almost austere and devoid of the usual bric-a-brac and souvenirs which stand displayed in illuminated showcases in plush drawing rooms. Vaid’s sitting-cum-dining room did not have a single embellishment—he himself sat on an office chair while his wife and I shared a couch. I introduced myself and told him the purpose of my visit while opening a notepad. I had allotted no more than two hours for the interview and it was already 6.30 pm.
Vaid showed absolutely no interest in me, my official or personal background, or even the purpose of my visit. He also did not carry the confident swagger that comes automatically to anyone who has exercised power and authority. His demeanour was neither cold nor warm, just indifferent. Without a word, he began rummaging in a small side-table and eventually pulled out a much-used notebook and showed me the jottings.
The notebook had notations in red ink, which to my untrained eye looked like a lot of symbols and words written in Devnagari script. Without so much as an explanation, Vaid closed his eyes and began to recite a bhajan, quite oblivious to my presence or the fact that I too had a blank notebook in front of me.
HIS round-faced wife, Bimla, bustled in and out, ever smiling. I asked her in sign language what was going on. She came and sat next to me, but signalled me to remain quiet. After what seemed like 15 minutes and sensing that I was getting restless, she patted my arm and gestured to me to be patient. But how patient could I be when I was unsure whether Vaid was even aware of my presence? It did not appear as though he had any intention of talking to me. After what seemed an age, Vaid opened his eyes; but only to start rummaging for another notebook. Without glancing at the jottings, he proceeded to sing yet another devotional piece. The wall clock showed that it was past 7.15 pm. My thoughts were on how I should inform my husband that I would be late. I fumbled through my purse, only to realise that I had left my cellphone in the car. Would this man ever speak to me, I wondered. Supposing he expected me to leave as soon as he finished singing?
As soon as Vaid finished the second bhajan, I lost no time and hurtled into my repertoire of questions. I gave him an account of all the people that I had already written about, hoping to convey that I was not interested in pursuing any form of religion, astrology or philosophy. I ventured to admit that my level of spiritual understanding was in its infancy. That is the first time that Vaid looked at me and said, in Hindi, “You have a very long way to go spiritually.”
I felt rebuked, but he smiled for the first time and asked me to accompany him to the dining table. There he became a different person, warm, friendly and hospitable. He piled my plate with several snacks and watched me intently, making sure that I finished everything. I asked him a few questions about his family and whether leaving the service created any misgivings in his mind; whether his wife minded. Also, whether his children stopped him at any point. Vaid has three daughters and a son.
As he put it, “They had unflinching faith in my decision to quit the IAS to study astrology in depth. There were many highs and lows in family life, but not at a single time did they criticise my decision—there is no other person in the country that has done what I have,” he said, referring to his decision to pursue astrology.
I wanted to know more about him, first as an officer. Ravinder Gupta, who was from the UP cadre, described him thus: “Vaid was a big favourite of the then Chief Minister of undivided Uttar Pradesh, Narain Dutt Tiwari. He was always known for his gargantuan memory. He was very fond of Vaid, who was then the Commissioner of Kumaon Division because he was meticulous about giving information and following things up. Tiwari valued these qualities greatly and was always upset when he found others pulling fast ones.”
Sometime later, Ravindra Gupta became Vaid’s boss in the Department of Electronics. He added: “Vaid was extremely hardworking and upright to a fault. Those are not the qualities that take you very far. Subordinates dislike a hard-working boss. Added to that, if he has high standards of integrity, it makes it difficult for others to stay afloat.”
WHEN Vaid had served for over three decades and still had some years to go, this physics gold medallist and IAS topper decided to call it quits. His severance from the service was on “a divine instruction” to enable him to undertake the kind of deep meditation that must precede the pursuit of higher astrology.
On instructions from his Guru, Vaid assumed the pen name, Vishnu Bhaskar. But, he did not confine himself only to practising astrology. He began guiding senior astrologers in their research projects. While publishing intricate papers in the Journal of Astrology, he also prepared prediction sheets to guide aspiring astrologers—not only on Vedic astrology, but also Prashna Shastra, Jaimini astrology, vaastu shastra, numerology, palmistry and tarot reading.
Over the years, he has been tutoring students from the US, Canada, Brazil and several European countries. He was specially invited to Japan and the US for astrological consultations and he began giving consultations on the Internet too. He established the International Institute of Vedic Astrology, considered to be a finishing school for astrologers to help them refine their predictive skills. Some say that although Vishnu Bhaskar is undoubtedly among the most learned and well-read astrologers in the country, he did not succeed in setting up a team for building an organisation which would sustain his work.
Be that as it may, there are others who feel that Vishnu Bhaskar has made some stunning predictions. Among them, BS Lamba, another IAS batchmate, tells a story of how he got swindled of a lot of money by trusting a foreign national. Overcome by the deception played on him, he asked for advice from Vishnu Bhaskar. The astrologer did not take much time to cast his horoscope and ask a few questions. Said Lamba: “He told me, I would get all my money back in January the next year. The prediction came absolutely true. Something that was fraught with never-ending legal obstacles, concluded exactly as Vishnu Bhaskar had predicted. Early in the year 2006, I got back all the money which I had lost.”
Vishnu Bhaskar presented me a large number of books when I left his house. It was apparent that he addressed all kinds of situations and predicaments—questions concerning war, accidents, court disputes, imprisonment and debt, apart from matters relating to relations with the boss, career progression and the sale and purchase of property. Most important of all, he covered relations with the spouse, siblings and children. His calculations considered adverse happenings, like infertility, disease and delayed marriage, divorce, adultery and marital discord—things which affect many families, who find solace as well as answers in astrology.
The story of Vishnu Bhaskar, alias Om Narain Vaid has left me with mixed feelings. Here is a man with a brilliant mind. Here is a person who has the ability to focus on almost any subject and pursue it relentlessly until he masters it. But, equally, here is a man who is much too straightforward to be able to walk the tightrope that runs through officialdom. Perhaps Vishnu Bhaskar realised this and decided to do what only he could do. As he told his peers: “Accurate prediction is a divine gift that requires calmness of mind, intuition and deep meditation to be applied to the mathematical and astrological analysis that is undertaken.”
Some colleagues have even expressed sympathy for Vaid’s predicament. As one of them put it, “It is precisely because of Vaid’s profound learning and the sheer depth of his analysis that the clarity of his predictions get clouded over.” At the end, one cannot help but ask, has this brilliant officer-astrologer become the victim of his own intensity?