I was intending to contribute my mite to a discussion on ‘spirituality’ that was going on in one of the email groups to which I happen to be a part of. A lot of rationalising and intellectualising was on and I was feeling left out as I did not have anything to say. One view was that if one really wanted to know what spirituality was, it was enough if you could go to the bar nearby and have a few pegs of your favourite spirit. Though stated in a lighter vein I thought about it – is it the same state of drunkenness one experiences in rapture? I could not bring myself to define or describe spirituality, for me it was only an experience, an inward journey and how can you express it in words? As far as I am concerned you can call it as a process of inward transformation. I guess this occurs to everyone at some stage in life, whether you believe in God or not. Can we not leave God out of it? Whether you are an atheist, theist or agnostic you are not free from the facts of life and death, you are not free from the feelings of anguish in life, you are not free from the need to express yourself. You experience the same pleasures and pains, then why this debate on spirituality and the existence of God. Why cannot we ask ourselves whether we are happy or not, and is’nt it a fact that all of us want to be happy, perpetually happy? And how can we achieve that elusive happiness?
Spirituality is not about God, it is not about religion though it forms an integral part of religious practices. Why all this furore about spirituality? The India Today Conclave on ‘Spirituality – Halo or Hoax’ held in February 2005 threw up a very interesting debate between two eminent personalities – Javed Akhtar and Sri Sri Ravishanker, one a poet and intellectual and the other considered as a modern day spiritual Guru, one an atheist and the other a promiser of salvation, and both had their points to make, falling short of a direct conflict.
Akhtar was vehemently opposed to the word spirituality itself, he says, “I am asking to change it, leave it, drop it, make it obsolete but why so? I will tell you what is my reservation. If spirituality means all this then there is no discussion. But there is something else which makes me uneasy. In a dictionary, the meaning of spirituality is rooted in a word called “spirit”.
So in order to find out what is it that made him uneasy about the definition of spirituality, I looked up the Wikipedia definition which says, “Spirituality is belief in an ultimate or an alleged immaterial reality; an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his/her being; or the "deepest values and meanings by which people live." Spiritual practices, including meditation, prayer and contemplation, are intended to develop an individual's inner life. Spiritual experiences can include being connected to a larger reality, yielding a more comprehensive self; joining with other individuals or the human community; with nature or the cosmos; or with the divine realm. Spirituality is often experienced as a source of inspiration or orientation in life. It can encompass belief in immaterial realities or experiences of the immanent or transcendent nature of the world.”
I wonder what was it that made Javed Akhtar livid about the meaning of spirituality itself. From the definition above, I can see that it encompasses all the possible interpretations and aspirations of everyone whether he is a theist, atheist or an agnostic. The key sentences have been highlighted by me above. Whoever you are, can it be denied that you live your life because you have found a meaning in its continuation and have set yourself a value system by which you want to live it? Can you also deny that you have always looked for a source of inspiration and orientation in your life? you have always looked for these from external sources, call them experiences or from role models, before you take the inward plunge. Well you may be an atheist as affirmed by you, but I am sure you have all along listened to your inner self for inspiration for your poetic instincts. I am totally in agreement with you when you state that –
“ Let us try to decide on the meaning of this word spirituality. Does it mean love for mankind that transcends all religion, caste, creed, race? Is that so? Then I have no problem. Except that I call it humanity. Does it mean love of plants, trees, mountains, oceans, rivers, animals? The non-human world? If that is so, again I have no problem at all. Except that I call it environmental consciousness. Does spirituality mean heartfelt regard for social institutions like marriage, parenthood, fine arts, judiciary, freedom of expression. I have no problem again sir, how can I disagree here? I call it civil responsibility. Does spirituality mean going into your own world trying to understand the meaning of your own life? Who can object on that? I call it self-introspection, self assessment. Does spirituality mean Yoga? Thanks to Patanjali, who has given us the details of Yoga, Yam, Yatam, aasan, pranayam…We may do it under any name, but if we are doing pranayam, wonderful. I call it healthcare. Physical fitness.”
See you have already defined spirituality. If it is only a matter of semantics as you say, then why bother. I can understand you ire against the modern day Gurus as you call them, but aren’t we all that, only we do not have the same attire. See I would consider you also as a modern day guru, you have different set of followers. But then I cannot understand why you call spirituality a Hoax, as you can see from the above definition that there is no mention of the word spirit. Even if it had why do you get put off by the word, you cannot deny that there is something which makes you say there is no God, what is it. What is the need to label yourself as an atheist, for whose benefit. It is not necessary when you are sure you are doing the right thing and you are happy you have been living by the dictates of your conscience ( what is conscience and being conscious is another question that has to be debated separately) you may call it ‘Humanity’ or whatever you will, after all it is a question of semantics.
I can well understand your ire against the modern day gurus who sell salvation and in the process are themselves on the way to the gratification of their desires. I accept they exploit the gullible and the affluent who are on the search for instant salvation (for them of course salvation means getting all that they want). But generalisations are not called for – can we say that all theists are bad or all atheists are good?
It is in our nature to look to someone to show us the path, starting with the parents at home and then the teachers in our schools, and if we are a failure (judgemental of course) then we blame them for not having discharged their duties. At different stages in our life we need catalysts to take us forward. Gurus fulfil this need, what is a guru is again a question of semantics, let us not label him. We may say that he is someone who through the conduct of his own life inspired you and made you look up to him for emulation. That is simple I guess. The list of such people is endless. Through the centuries we have had extraordinary beings who we revere even today and place them on the highest pedestal. Who can deny a Shirdi Sai Baba or a Ramana Maharishi or a Ramakrishna Paramahamsa the reverence and awe they have generated and the solace that they have brought to simple folk who live with the burden of sustenance and the anguish of living and who do not have time for intellectualisations nor understand. You may not believe in salvation but it is the hope that there is something like that which has made them face upto to the demands of life. I guess understanding them and accepting them as they are is humanity.
Generalisations are bad and that is what Akhtar has done. I respect his intellectual abilities and the courage to speak out against what he considers as ills in this present day society. I remember a tamil film that I saw some years back ‘Anbe Sivan’ with Kamalahasan’ in the lead which left its imprint on my mind. There is a scene depicting a road accident in which a child dies despite the best efforts of the doctor. One of the two main characters Madhavan is seen sitting next to Kamalahasan crying. Looking at him Kamal smiles and says “I never said I do not believe in God, but the God I believe in, I see in the tears that are rolling down your cheeks. Tears for a child you never met before or knew.” I guess that says it all. The title of the film translated in English simply means ‘Love is God’. You will be surprised to note that is what you will find on the gopurams or towers illuminated in neon lights in the Siva temples in Tamilnadu.
Though it was the bounden duty of Sri Sri Ravishanker to refute Akthar’s statements and which he did briefly, to his credit he summed it up by saying “Spirituality is not a matter of the head, it is a matter of the heart. I had two choices: to argue and turn the conclave into a conflict or to keep silence. I chose the latter”.