Indian Spirituality – When Seers Turn Blind

Posted by Heiko Pfeiffer • Wednesday, December 29. 2010 • Category: People and Places
To many European and North American visitors to India, Indian spirituality is one of the most fascinating aspects of Indian culture and reason for many to come. Visiting the ancient spiritual temples that abound all over India with their magnificent display of Hindu mythology, pilgrims who make colourful flower and fruit offerings to their preferred deity, entire families standing in line for hours just to take a quick bath under the sprinkling waters of some ancient holy source, with the ever present odour of sweet incense filling the spiritually-laden air – all these are impressions that many visitors of India seek and that have vividly enriched the memories of many travellers to India before.

By Niyam Bhushan
http://www.flickr.com/photos/niyam/4732556679/

While to them, India’s firm ties with Hinduism are but another though important exotic aspect of their visit, it is also the daily reality of many young Indians: journalists, IT experts, or PhD students at major urban universities in cities like Delhi or Hyderabad. What they often have in common is their dislike, if not to say, disdain, for everything that has to do with spirituality.

This doesn’t mean they aren’t knowledgeable, on the contrary. While asking young people in European countries about the meaning of particular Christian holidays often results in adventurous speculations, their Indian counterparts have done their homework. Ravana was the demon-king, of course, that was killed by Lord Ram, an event representing the victory of good over evil annually celebrated on Dussehra with myriads of lights. With the same ease will they talk about the epic dialog between Lord Krishna and Arjuna at the famous battlefield of Kurukshetra, written down in the Bhagavad Gita, which is not only just another important piece of human philosophy and literature, but to many Indians also the practical, self-contained guide to life.

By Simply CVR
http://www.flickr.com/photos/seeveeaar/2963078634/

“Where does their knowledge come from?” the puzzled visitor might ask. Classes in school, religious instructions, maybe even condensed versions of the ancient “Gurukula” system, where the student lives and learns at the teacher’s house?

None of the above. “It is in the air” is an answer you will commonly hear, but it is, sadly, not very satisfying. We have to investigate a bit to get some leads. In India, every child grows up in an environment where nearly every shop, every business, every first name, every school carries some spiritual reference in it. “Lakshmi Jewellers”, “Siddharta travels”, “Ramakrishna Mission Residential College”, “Vishnu Radio and TV Company”, “Shree Guru Residency”, and of course all the Sitas, Gopis, Gautamas, Ramas and so forth one will inevitably encounter among one’s Indian counterparts.

By Fred Miller
http://www.flickr.com/photos/fredmikerudy/4136588319/

“It is in the air” but it doesn’t end there. Most Bollywood movies, most songs on the radio will bear some references, copy story plots, or borrow characters. The story of Krishna’s birth, or how the little Ganesha was first beheaded and then “fixed” with the head of an elephant by his father, Siva, will be among little kids’ favourite cartoons on television. Baby Krishna’s shining picture can be among the only decorations in some local garage where your Indian friend gets his Italian car fixed.

It goes on and on. Spirituality is everywhere. And this is why many of these young Indians we have started our journey with feel that spirituality has been sold out. It is like any other business. Spirituality sells. It raises interest; it creates trust in your brand. It is the never-drying source of innumerable fairy tales that everyone seems to identify with. If at one point, your whole social life revolves around just that, if every business, every politician even, holds up just that to prove his or her integrity, if you witness how your friends from school get married away only along the lines of their specific religious belonging, or caste, then comes a point for many where you feel fed up, when everything religious makes you just plain sick.

By Matthias Rosenkranz
http://www.flickr.com/photos/rosenkranz/3052215659/

Another one of these pujas, proper vegetarian food (sometimes even scolding the use of onions and garlic for their supposed “exciting” qualities), temple visits, the smell of incense, the bathing of pilgrims in some supposedly holy river; or just the sight of a priest in his all so simple, but oh so pretentious white dress. Enough is enough. The evidence you have accumulated over your lifetime is bone-crushing. There are only scams. There is only hypocrisy. You can give the curious foreign visitors a shake of the head only. His or her naivety is pitiful, if not appalling.

Here, sadly, also lies the crux of the matter. So many educated Indians have become blind to the beauty, to the power, indeed to the empowering potential of their spiritual traditions. They get so fed up with it that they do not bother to study the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita with a scholar or swami-ji anymore; they have heard it all before. They are no longer interested in finding out what contribution these texts could make to their lives. They do not consider spending time in an ashram to reflect their lives, their careers, their private and professional choices. It is not there where they will go look for an answer to their disillusionment about the world that they without doubt sometimes feel.

By Will Luo
http://www.flickr.com/photos/analogian/2178850006/

The foreign visitor has a much easier time. Not blinded from years and years of spiritual brain-washing, they bring along all the naïve curiosity of a child that picks the brightest cherries. Fed up with politics? Well, just ignore the politics around spirituality, and the horrors that were committed among neighbours time and again because all of a sudden they belonged to the wrong religious tradition. Fed up with the materialism of the Western world? Well, just ignore the huge business that spirituality in India revolves around, or as some would say, is built on.

In love with the world, in love with people, looking for an opportunity to find yourself? In India, so many youngsters from Western countries have found just that. No need to look at the system of arranged marriages based on caste lines and the tight regulation of your private life, the jobs women will be allowed to pick up, or the stories of women who are forced to marry somebody they do not like because tradition and the rescue of the family’s reputation wants it so.

By etrenard
http://www.flickr.com/photos/etrenard/564027421/

There is a lot to be learned – your experience, your life can only get fuller, richer if you allow yourself to be touched and transformed.

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