Sunday, 12 August 2012

What is Spirituality?

The term “spirituality” is used quite vaguely these days to refer to anything ranging from those who subscribe to an eclectic mix of practices, traditions and beliefs, to those who may agree with the foundational aspects of a religion while not adhering to all the rituals, to those who believe in a divine power without necessarily subscribing to a particular religion at all. The word is also used frequently in contrast to religion. “I am not so religious,” we hear people say. “But I’m very spiritual.” 

Ultimately, spirituality literally means pertaining to the spirit, of the spirit, in relation to spirit. It is not the opposite or antithesis of religion, but rather it is the opposite of materialism. To be spiritual, in essence, is to live one’s life focused on the intangible, omnipresent, pervasive spirit rather than on tangible objects with distinct borders and boundaries.  To be spiritual, to be “of the spirit,” means to focus on that which connects us to each other rather than that which separates us.

A materialist would say, “I end at the point where my skin ends and the air begins.” To the materialist there is a distinct starting and ending point for the self.  For example: “Here is cushion. Here is self sitting on cushion. Here is loved one sitting next to self.”  There are distinct beginning and ending points for each of these.  A materialist could show you clearly where the cushion ends and the self begins, where the self ends and the air begins, where the air ends and the loved one begins.

A spiritualist, however, understands that that which pervades the cushion, the self, the air and the loved one is the same spirit. There is no distinct point of beginning or ending or boundary or border.  Sure, the vessels through which the Spirit flows may vary, but the Spirit is one. So, spirituality is a practice, a lifestyle, a commitment to the spirit, to that which unites us and connects us. 

Once I realize that I am one with Spirit, I realize that I am one with you, for that same Spirit flows through you just as it flows through me.   Theoretically, that is actually what religion should do as well – connect us to the omnipresent, all-pervasive Divine and thereby connect us to all of Creation. Tragically, however, in many cases the institution of religion has gone awry.  Yet, if religion could be distilled back to its essence, to its ultimate purpose, it too would focus on connecting people to God. God, of course, does not play favorites and does not discriminate. So, to be connected with God is to be connected with each other.

This concept of unity, of oneness with the Divine and therefore with all of creation is an intrinsic part of Indian culture and spiritual philosophy.  The word “yoga” used so ubiquitously, literally means union. Today, unfortunately we seem to have misinterpreted it to mean a union of my head to my knee or union of my palms to the floor, but essentially it is a union of the self to the Divine.  Whichever of the numerous paths of yoga one may choose, the ultimate goal is to deeply and experientially realize that Union. 

In today’s world, our illusion of separateness is killing us – as individuals and as nations.  Our individual feeling of disconnection from God and from all of Creation leads us to feel alone, isolated, ungrounded and uncentered. Rates of depression and anxiety are skyrocketing across the world even though each year we invent more, accomplish more, eradicate more diseases ,and more and more people have financial stability.  Internally, we long for deep connection.  Isolation – whether real or imagined – is one of the greatest sources of misery.  Similarly, as nations and as cultures, our illusion of separateness from each other permits us to wreak the greatest pain and destruction upon each other. That violence which we could not conceive of doing to a family member or neighbor, we sit back and watch as it is done to people of other countries, cultures and races. We feel separate from them. They are not us. They are outside the border and boundary we have drawn of our own Self.   Further, our disconnection from Mother Earth enables us to exploit her as a commodity, to ravage and pillage her forests, decimate her oceans,  turn her rivers into sewers killing all life therein, and render her lush mountains bald with wanton disregard. 

The Isha Upanishad tells us Isha vasyam idam sarvam. Everything in the universe is pervaded by the Divine.  There is no place He does not exist.  There is no person, no living being and even no inanimate object from which He is absent.  The Divine Presence pervades every cell of my being just as it pervades every cell of you and every cell of him, of her, and of everything in this universe. We are not separate. We cannot possibly be separate. That spirit, that divine spirit that flows in and through each of us, from which each of us is made, is One.  To live our lives with awareness of that Oneness, with consciousness of that Oneness, that is spirituality.

Then, when we become truly “spiritual,” when we become focused on and connected to spirit, we realize that we are not separate from anyone’s joy and we are not separate from anyone’s pain.  I am connected to the starving child trying to sleep with pangs of anguish in his belly. I am connected to the woman dying in childbirth due to lack of medical care.  I am connected to every animal tortured and slaughtered.   I am connected to every tree being felled, every river being polluted, and every fish suffocating in the fisherman’s net.

To be truly spiritual requires one to live with an awareness of spirit, and that spirit is all-pervasive. It leaves nothing and no one out.  If I am One with spirit, then by definition I am One with you.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Development - In what direction?

As his belly rises with each deep, slow breath, his frayed undershirt exposes the bare skin underneath – brown, of course, due to genetics, but browned even more deeply from a life in the sun. The thin plastic chair upon which he sits bends with his weight as he sinks deeper into afternoon slumber. His feet rest upon a bare wooden bed-frame where  his customers sit during his “open” hours.  His head hangs loosely yet stably above his broad shoulders and from his slightly open mouth escape snores I can hear in my car, as I pass slowly through the village.  Around him, young children scamper about, free from the morning hours in school, starched uniforms carefully removed to be ready for tomorrow, shoes placed neatly by the door frame in which a door should exist but doesn’t. In undershirts, short pants and bare feet they frolic about, entertained now by a branch, now by an old tire, now by throwing rocks at the mango tree to coax fresh mangoes to the ground.  Soon they will have to utilize the last hours of daylight to complete their homework, but for now they exuberantly chase a frayed rubber tire down the dirt road, at the end of which they will sit and suck mango juice out of freshly fallen fruit.  As the afternoon sun softens and shadows begin to fall upon the road, women sweep the porches of the shops and adjacent homes, getting ready for evening customers who will come to purchase a handful of rice, a few cups of flour or some coconut oil for their hair.

At the end of the dirt road, our car turns right and the village disappears.  Narrow, unpaved streets lined with brick and mud homes, shops carrying basic necessities, stalls of fresh fruit and vegetables, dozing men and scampering children give way to “Developed India.”  Now the roads are covered with smooth black asphalt, reflecting the afternoon sun back into our eyes.  There are different lanes for each direction, separated by a wide divider, in which lush greenery and flowering plants in hues of pink and purple stand out in sharp contrast to the black of the roads.

Multi-storied modern buildings line the roads, each with its own parking lot and separate, electronic entry gate. On a corner an enormous complex is topped with a sign saying Shopping Mall and the names of foreign stores are illuminated on the concrete wall -- myriad franchises of clothing, jewelry and shoe companies from America, Italy and England.  Next to the mall, the golden arches of McDonalds shine brightly in the soot filled sky.   Both sides of the road are peppered with signs for sophisticated bars and restaurants, reminiscent of those on the Champs Elysee, Sloane street or Sunset Boulevard.  

The offices, bars, restaurants and shopping malls are dwarfed, however, by the structures driving the rapid development.  Factory after factory complex stretches out toward the horizon in every direction except backwards. Backwards -- due West -- lie the villages, and beyond that the forest from which the village children eat fresh mangos, the branches of trees serving as fuel for their evening meal.

Ahead --  to the North, South and East -- are nothing but factories. Smokestack after smokestack spews out hot black air. Soon, the newly painted cream colored walls of the high rise buildings will be black. Soon, only the golden arches of McDonalds, where they fry up the mother cow and serve her between slices of bread with a side of tomatoes, will be visible in the thick black air.

Skinny, darkly tanned young men, perhaps the sons of snoozing villagers, ride bicycles in the road, on the back of which are tied heavy air conditioning units and stacks of fashionable plastic chairs.  They dart between cars, their backs wet with perspiration, their loads twice the height of the bike and more than ten times the weight.

Young men and women rush in and out of the cars parked in the lots. They are dressed in Western business attire – suits and ties for the men, long skirts and tops (or an occasional tailored salwar kameez) for the women.  They carry briefcases and clipboards. Over the women’s shoulders hang heavy purses bearing designer names.  They buzz about, from the cars into the doors of the offices, out of the office doors, into the cars, up to the road to McDonalds or the bar, perhaps to the shopping mall, accidentally bumping shoulders with each other on paved sidewalks.  Conversations are frenetic; hands wave in every direction illustrating points of great importance, toes tap in high heels or designer loafers as they wait for each other to finish a sentence.  As they cross the road, rushing from one meeting to another, or from their parked car to an office, the afternoon sun casts shadows in the wrinkles on their faces.  Their grimaces have become etched into the very fabric of their skin.  Occasionally they cover their mouths with silk handkerchiefs as they cough and wheeze in the unbridled pollution. They smile, perhaps, in the evenings over a beer or bottle of wine.

This, the row after row of factories, toxins gushing into the air, multi-storied buildings with central air conditioning, drive-thru McDonalds, restaurants where one can leisurely sip a beer or wine or whisky with dinner, this is “Developed India.”  Women in short skirts and heels, men in black suits on a summer day,  sky-high stacks of plastic chairs, take-away Styrofoam containers, block-length shopping malls,  product after product to quench people’s thirst for happiness.  Surely, at the end of a particularly busy day or week or month, these women and men will rush into the toy store to buy a new Sony Play-station for their children, assuaging their ephemeral regret at not having time to spend at home.  Their children will sit in front of a computer screen, playstation controls in one hand, bag of potato chips in the other and numb their longing for a hug.

What is development? What is progress? By what specific measures do we say that we have moved “forward” from the peacefully dozing grocer? Are the children with the playstation, who will inevitably clamor for newer and newer models, truly more “privileged” than those who spend the afternoon happily chasing a car tire down the dirt road or knocking mangoes out of trees?  Has chopping down the forest to build factories that produce not only commercial products but also toxic waste, pollution, cancer and global warming really benefited our country?  When we say “development,” what exactly is it that we have “developed?” Immunity to thick black air pollution until it turns cancerous in our lungs?  Dependency upon goods packaged in inordinate amounts of plastic?  Ignorance of the futility of trying to fill inner emptiness with material possessions? Blindness to the violence inherent in the production of meat? Distance between us and our families, between us and God, between us and our true Selves?  What, really, have we developed?

When I first came to India one of the most remarkable aspects to me of the culture and the country was the peace on people's faces -- the rich, the poor, the old, the young, the homeless, the hungry, the educated and the illiterate. It was as though one's lot in life was simply part of the "package deal" of human birth. It had very little connection to one's sense of self or self-worth.  Even those who lived far below western standards of abject poverty were eager to share. "Please come home for dinner," I heard countless times from people who could not even afford to feed their own families let alone an extra mouth.  In fifteen years, much has shifted. Perhaps bombarded by Western and Westernized serials, movies, fashion magazines and cultural indoctrination, the "new India" has started judging its self worth much like the West does -- by the balance in their bank account, the number of shopping bags on their arms, the brand of sunglasses upon their faces and the size of their waists.  There is a feverish clamoring for more and more, better and better, newer and newer. India has become a country where there are nearly twice as many mobile phones as toilets.

India's image of itself has also shifted significantly.  Where emphasis previously had been on development and production of intelligence, of knowledge, of science and technology, now it has shifted to development and production of marketable goods. Not goods that India is traditionally famous for -- not silk, woven fabrics, artwork, Ayurvedic medicines, herbs and spices, but generic goods, goods that are a symbol of the rapidly burgeoning middle class -- motorcycles, tires, plastic containers, mobiles, leather handbags.  

An inevitable and inextricable part of production is waste.  There is a direct, linear relationship between the volume of goods produced by a factory and the volume of waste cast by that factory into local rivers, lakes and groundwater or spewed into the air.   As India rushes exuberantly toward unbridled consumerism, she must be prepared for a rapid devastation of her air and water quality. This tragic prophecy is already a fact.  More than two-thirds of people living in the eastern Ganga River Basin suffer from water borne illnesses.  More than three million people die annually as a direct result of the toxic, commercial, industrial and wastewater pollutants that are dumped -- more than 1.3 billion liters PER DAY -- into Her waters.  As we clamor for more and more, newer and newer, as we continue to associate our self worth with the knick-knacks on our counters, as we employ TVs and computers as baby-sitters, we are rendering our natural environment unliveable.

“It’s the government’s fault,” people shout out of habit. “The administration has already allocated billions of rupees to the Clean Up Ganga program. What has happened to it?”  However, the problem is not nearly as simple as it may seem. Basic infrastructural issues such as sewage, solid waste, and garbage collection should certainly be taken care of by local and state municipalities. However, we all have a serious role to play as well – both in the problem and the solution. While untreated sewage cascades from drains and gutters into Ganga, this is far from the only problem She faces.  The hundreds of factories lining Her banks produce 260 million liters of toxic waste per day that fill Her waters, poisoning not only the fish and dolphins that live in Her waters, but also the 450 million Indians who depend upon these waters for their very lives – their water for drinking, bathing, cooking and agriculture.  The commercial and industrial effluents are suffocating the sacred river, squeezing the life out of Her waters and all species which inhabit them. 

Every new product we purchase, every gram of plastic packaging, our leather car seats, purses and shoes produced in these factories has a direct impact on the levels of toxins in Ganga and therefore upon the health of our brothers and sisters who live downstream.  The exorbitant amount of electricity required to run the factories at warp-speed, at all hours of the day and night, necessitates construction of dams on the river. These dams, functioning as “Run-of-the-River” projects, diverting water out of the riverbed, further diminish the volume of water available to dilute the toxins. It is a tragic lose-lose situation, a cycle of violence --- violence to Ganga and violence to those whose lives depend upon Her waters being clean and free-flowing. 

Development is necessary. One cannot move backwards in time. Children raised on a Playstation should not be forced to try to amuse themselves with a tire.   Progress in the fields of education, technology, science and manufacturing are fabulous boons for any society and particularly Indian society which was oppressed for so many years prior to Independence.  However, freedom should not be interpreted as a license for decadence or gluttony at the expense of others.  As tempting as it is to revel in new wealth and newly available items, options and variety, we must strive to do so with a long-term view in mind. A revered saint once said, “Your freedom ends where my toes begin.”  If our freedom of purchase is turning the water that hundreds of millions depend upon for life into toxic sludge, then perhaps it is time to re-evaluate the expression of our freedom.  If our freedom of extravagance threatens to ravage the river revered as Mother Goddess by more than a billion people, and upon whose banks millions perform daily ablutions, then are we not infringing upon the freedom of others?

The issue of balance and sacrifice is a sensitive one. No one with the economic ability to spend wantonly would like their freedom to be curtailed. However, today, we no longer can pretend that we live in a vacuum. What I purchase here, is impacting the lives of those over there.  I am not suggesting bans or even taxes or disincentives for purchasing.  I am simply suggesting  that perhaps as a society we can re-evaluate our understanding of the idea of freedom, wealth and development.  Perhaps the man who can sleep soundly in the middle of the day, with a village bustling around him is wealthier in some meaningful way than those who need pills or a few glasses of wine or even the lull of a TV to fall asleep in their posh bedroom at midnight.  Perhaps, in the rapid rush to move forward, to break through  the glass ceilings of centuries of colonization, perhaps we have left something valuable behind. And, perhaps, that which we’ve left behind may benefit not only ourselves personally, but the very country we call Bharat Mata. Perhaps the answer to some of what ails us, our environment, our sacred rivers and hundreds of millions of our brothers and sisters can be found not by pushing further forward, but by pausing and looking back to see if we didn’t lose something along the way.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

New Vocabulary, Not New Values

What this country really needs,” the middle aged father from Delhi was saying in the evening satsang, “is leaders like Pujya Swamiji and yourself to give new values to our youth. They are not interested in the values of our generation. They need new values and you can bring that to them.”  While the compliment was flattering, and the truth of youth’s waning interest in their own culture certainly undeniable, something pierced me sharply about what he said. Some great error had been committed. Suddenly I responded, “It is not new values they need. It is simply a new vocabulary.”

I have lived in Rishikesh for the past 15 years and have witnessed a great shift in Indians’ mindset, particularly the younger generation. While they are ardently patriotic, while they are prepared to fast with Anna Hazare, to march for kilometers waving political flags, while they join Facebook groups with names like “Yuva Bharat”, “Bharat Swabhiman” and “Bharat Nirmaan Sena” despite all of this tenacious and fervent commitment to India and her future, they are not, in most cases, convinced by the culture.  In fact, night after night, in the evening satsangs and question-answer sessions in Pujya Swamiji’s jhopadi following Ganga Aarti, Indian youth ask questions that evidence their dissatisfaction or disinterest in what we call culture, or values or sanskaras. “Why can’t we date before marriage? Why do we have to live in a joint family? I believe in God but I don’t believe in temples or puja. Why can’t my parents understand this?”  They are turning from vegetarians to non-vegetarians, from teetotalers to drinkers , from virgins to promiscuously “cool” young adults at alarming rates.  “What’s wrong with our children?” many parents bemoan in the satsangs. “They have gone completely astray.”

I have watched this carefully. My academic background is psychology from Stanford University, hence I have a predisposition to analysis. Further, I came to India at age 25, having grown up in Los Angeles, in the heart of American upper class, “modern” culture and was so enraptured by the grace, the truth, the divinity and the depth of traditional Indian culture that – despite protests from every single person I knew back home –  I stayed.  So I have seen both worlds, up close.  I have seen hip American culture where acceptance is based on how you look in a black mini-skirt, with how many times a week you’re seen drinking coffee past 2 am in the local “hot spot”, with how many drug-filled dens of decadence you visit on a particular Saturday night. And I have seen the results.  Fifteen year olds killed in drunk driving accidents, cocaine-induced pregnancies and abortions at seventeen, anorexia and bulimia stealing the minds and lives of Ivy-League students, third marriages by the age of twenty-five, a country where the most commonly prescribed medicines are anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication, sleeping pills and Viagra.

There is much to be emulated about Western culture. There is a commitment to excellence and perfection unmatched by most other countries. Punctuality, reliability, fulfillment of promises, adherence to contracts, integrity and honesty are all attributes which other countries, especially India, would benefit by adopting.  However, tragically, these are not the values being adopted by many metropolitan Indian youth. Rather, it is the illusion of sophistication, the allure of glamour, the myth of material enjoyment that are seeping into Indian culture.  

It is not that India needs new values. Indian culture, values, ethics and traditions form, in my opinion, the very foundation of a successful, meaningful and fulfilling life.  If you ask a random person in Los Angeles, stepping out of her Mercedes car, “How are you?” chances are you will get a litany of things that are wrong.  My back is hurting, the housekeeper didn’t show up, the store ran out of my favorite cereal, there was too much traffic on the freeway, etc.  If you ask the same question to an elderly village woman in the Himalayas carrying pounds of firewood on her head, back to cook the family’s one meal a day, chances are your question will be answered with “Sab Bhagawan ki kripa” or “Ganga ki kripa.” This is the fruit of culture: deep satisfaction despite the ups and downs of daily life.  Objectively God’s kripa certainly seems to have showered significantly more upon the woman in the Mercedes. Yet, she needs a pill to go to sleep, a pill to wake up, a pill to make it through the day.  The woman in the Himalayas sleeps and wakes with a smile on her face.
Indian culture is one that feeds first and eats second. I cannot count the number of times a family that doesn’t have the means to feed itself has begged me to come home for a meal. Or, if I continually refuse a meal, at least a cup of tea or “cold drink.” That I vehemently explain, over and over, that I don’t drink “cold drinks”, that even before coming to India I never drank Coke, is taken by them as mere social nicety. It is inconceivable that I, an American, don’t drink Coke. Hence, despite my protests they send the eldest child to the market to spend ten or twelve rupees on a cold drink.  That those twelve rupees were the funds for dinner is irrelevant.  They are as happy watching me try to graciously drink a Coke as if they were eating thalis full of food.  This is Indian culture.  Abundance is not measured by a bank balance. It is measured by whether one feels that one’s cup is overflowing. If my instinct is to share, to give, if I feel that I have more than enough and hence I want to feed others, I am rich, even if my feet are bare. If I feel that I don’t have enough and my instinct is to hold and to hoard, then I am poor, regardless of what the bank statements say.

India does not need new values. The values are what have kept India strong and united despite thousands of years of invasions. The values are what have kept Indians’ minds and hearts independent even when their country was colonized and oppressed.  However, today what is needed is a new vocabulary. The youth of today are being raised differently than any generation prior to them. Information is at their fingertips. Everything has an answer. If you don’t know it, Google it. Modern science and technology have rendered that which was inexplicable, enigmatic and impossible a decade ago child’s play today.  So we cannot expect them to accept “because I said so” or “because God made it that way” or “because it doesn’t look nice” or “just because” as reasonable motivation for doing anything. Whether it’s lighting the diya on the family mandir, being a vegetarian, giving daan, abstaining from sex before marriage or meditating, we are going to have to provide them compelling reasons and answers.  Fortunately there ARE compelling, scientific, rational reasons for all of these. However, most of us don’t know them.

Most middle-aged Indians today would never have dared question or disobey their parents. Therefore, their children’s rebuttals and incessant mantra of “why?” seem insolent and disrespectful.  They assume their children are intractable, when really they are simply bringing the new culture of questioning from school to home.  The youth of today are being raised and primed to ask, to wonder, to question, to investigate, to discover. They will not be appeased by the same answers that kept their parents’ generation in check. However, that doesn’t mean they’re off the track or in need of new values.  Rather, what we need is to find the vocabulary with which to give them the same values, but in a way that makes sense to their inquiring minds.  For example, I have heard innumerable parents exhort their children to believe that the cow is holy and therefore they must not eat hamburgers.  “But why is the cow holy?” they ask, typically quite sincerely.  “Because it is,” or “Because our scriptures say so,” or “Don’t be insolent” are the common answers.  When there is an answer for everything today, the lack of an answer to this makes them naturally and understandably suspicious.

However, there ARE scientific, rational, pragmatic reasons to be vegetarian, regardless of whether one believes the cow is holy.  The fact that the meat industry is the single greatest contributor to world hunger as well as environmental destruction is quite compelling.  The wastage of grain, land, water and energy used in the production of meat is enough to convince most.

This is just one example but it illustrates the fact that it’s not the values which need to be changed. The values are correct. It’s simply our method of explaining them, transmitting them that needs to be updated.  This of course puts greater responsibility on parents. They need to find real answers and not rely on the age-old tactics of “because I say so.” They need to make sure that their spiritual and cultural practices are real and true and not simply ritual.  A young child recently said to Pujya Swamiji, “I don’t ever go in the temple. I don’t believe in temples.” When questioned further the child explained, “My mother and my father go into the temple every morning and every evening.  They spend so much time in the temple, lighting this, doing that. But whenever they come out of the temple all they do is fight. I don’t want to spend my life fighting so I am avoiding temples.” So, we need to make sure that the values we are trying to pass onto our children are ones that we have truly, not merely superficially, adopted in our own lives.

India is, in my opinion, the richest country in the world. I am not referring to the GDP/GNP if all black money came back, but rather to the depth of culture, values, ethics and tradition.  There is nothing in Indian culture that is not compatible with modern technology, science or industry. There is nothing backward or old fashioned or obsolete.  The values and ethics of centuries ago are just as valid and just as applicable today as then. However, we have to put in a little effort to adapt the vocabulary and the method of transmission to today’s youth. Otherwise, if we hold tenaciously to the vocabulary of yesterday, which is unconvincing to today’s youth, they will continue to turn more and more to Western culture, depriving themselves, their families and future generations of one of the world’s richest treasure chests, a treasure chest of not only information but also inspiration.

Author bio:
American-born, Stanford graduate, Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, PhD moved to India in 1996. She was officially ordained by Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji into the tradition of sanyas and lives at Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, where she serves Pujya Swamiji's humanitarian projects, provides seva for the ashram, teaches meditation, gives discourses and counsels individuals and families.