Statues of Buddha and Quanyin… an incense bowl on a table… a Bell of Mindfullness on the carpeted floor… a framed leaf from the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya… This is Shantum Seth’s sanctum sanctorum, his meditation room.
The younger brother of novelist Vikram Seth (the resemblance is striking), Shantum has been organising the spiritual tour, In the Footsteps of the Buddha, to places in India and Nepal, touched by Buddha’s life — like Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Kapilavastu, Rajgir, Sarnath — for foreign tourists for more than 20 years now. The ‘pilgrimage’ has attracted Hollywood actors, musicians, writers and corporate honchos (he’s not supposed to reveal identities — it’s a matter of faith after all). The ‘pilgrimage’ has found mention in The New York Times and National Geographic.
Ask him what it’s like to be in the footsteps of the Buddha and he says, “I lead an inward journey; the essence of my journeys is the transformation that takes place within my guests. I act as a cultural interpreter to them.”
It wasn’t always this way. In the ’70s, Shantum worked in the footwear industry; then, he enrolled for development studies at a British university. There, he got involved in activist politics, led peace rallies, anti-nuclear protests and environmental campaigns. He got burnt out, and came back home looking for peace and meaning in life.
That's how he let Buddha into his life.
When Seth started his journey in 1988, three people signed up. Today, 15 to 20 people — aged 18 to 81 years — join him every year. “All one has to do is to send me an e-mail,” he says. "The tour costs around $ 2,000 a week per person,” says Shantum.
Other than spirituality, the ‘pilgrimage’ involves country walks and visits to villages that have changed little since Buddha’s time 2,500 years ago. In between, the group takes time out to visit poor farmers and landless labourers in the area, because — as Shantum says — “they have a wisdom that we are not utilising."
Everyone in his family, including mother Justice Leila Seth and elder brother Vikram, has travelled with him and enjoyed the experience. “But Vikram remains quite a skeptic,” Shantum laughs.
Beginning January next year, Shantum will add, what he calls, five new ‘Interfaith’ journeys, which will take one to the core of every Indian religion. One of them, for instance, that will begin in Delhi will take guests to the Jama Masjid, the Digambar Jain temple, the Gurudwara Sisganj, the Gauri Shankar Temple…
While he believes he “remains grounded in Buddhism", Shantum also feels that “no religion can be the absolute truth”.