A Modern Renaissance



By Sudhir Kakar

January 2006

In a newfound respect for the hidden, spiritual dimension of man, the modern west is coming closer to what has been regarded as being characteristic of traditional India.


At the beginning of the 21st century, the quest for a hidden inner and outer reality that transgresses the common world of man and which we call ‘spirituality’, is increasingly occupying the minds of men and women in most Western societies. True, the search for that mysterious source of a full, holistic being is less visible in traditional churchgoing than in what have been called New Age practices, especially those connected with healing. Yet the presence of Siberian-style shamans in American suburbs, Buddhist meditation centers and tantric healing in French cities, or past-life regressions under the guidance of psychics in German towns, should not blind us to the seriousness of the search for an inner core that is beyond the realm of any utility. This spiritual search for ways to go beyond the common visible reality, even if it sometimes loses its way in the bylanes of occultism and spiritualism, is fast becoming a leading preoccupation of the Western mind.

 

The spiritual awakening or reawakening in the West has little to do with the rise in spiritualistic phenomena and mystical sects which often follow wars and incidents of mass violence in which the 20th century has been particularly rich. It also bears little relationship to the start of a new millennium, whose advent gave a fillip to varied and vaguely spiritualist enterprises such as the increase in wonders like the weeping Madonna or a fascination with the prophecies of Nostradamus. No, the spiritual reawakening in the West has deeper causes which may be clubbed together under the common rubric of ‘disenchantment’.

One of the disenchantments has been with revolutionary ideological movements of 19th and 20th centuries with their failed promises of an earthly paradise. Another is with the established religions whose doctrines and rituals are felt to be too alien to the emotional life of modern man. But perhaps the deepest disenchantment has been with the project of modernity which has held sway on the Western imagination since the Enlightenment. Ironically, whereas it was the hopes for human progress held out by modernity that made a large number of educated people doubt the spiritual message, it is now the ills of modernity – ecological exploitation and political oppression, economic inequality and the loss of meaning – which is leading to a call for the revival of the spiritual dimension of life. In this era of global markets and triumphant capitalism, many thinkers are advocating a turn inwards as a remedy for contemporary ills. Whether they cite Plato, ‘Poverty is not the absence of goods but rather the overabundance of desire’, or the Buddha who taught that human suffering is due to ‘craving desire’, or Gandhi who held that, ‘there is enough in the world for everyone’s need but not for one man’s greed’, they all agree that real freedom is liberation from desire, not from circumstances.

This does not mean that the rational mind of post-Enlightenment, which was as distrustful of spiritual phenomena as scientific physics and astronomy were of divine interventions in the motions of planets and stars, has abdicated or is on the verge of disappearance. On the contrary. The self-assured community of positivist scientists, who quickly and haughtily identify spirituality with irrational obscurantism, still enjoys high visibility. Yet my impression is that this community is losing its former high status. It is now more a diffuse and hidden society concerned with the spiritual nature of man and indifferent to the project of positivist science, which may be becoming preponderant in the West. The corridors of Western academia – and its cinema theaters – are teeming with people who are full of a nostalgic fascination for the close-to-earth and heaven lifestyle of peoples the ideology of rationalism once derided as culturally primitive and incapable of logical scientific thought. The vanished Indian tribes of North and South America, the aborigines of Australia, the natives of various islands in the Pacific Ocean conversing with gods or communities in the far reaches of Mongolia or Tibet communing with spirits, are now credited with a hidden wisdom that is the envy of Western man. In this newfound respect for the hidden, spiritual dimension of man, the modern West of the 21st century is coming closer to what has been regarded as being characteristic of traditional India.

Of course, the traditional Hindu would not view disenchantment as the cause of this spiritual renewal. He would look at the surge in spirituality as the reassertion of a natural order. To him, European Enlightenment and the centuries following it were but a small deviation in the long road of human history towards spiritual perfection. They were a mere blip on what I would call the ‘soulogram’ of human striving, indicating the presence of soul disease. The current spiritual renaissance in the West is then only a reassertion of the natural and healthy beat of the human soul. The traditional Hindu would thus regard this development with satisfaction since he has been brought up to believe that every cultural endeavor, whether in arts or the sciences, has the fostering of the spiritual dimension of life as its ultimate goal. Spirituality in India, in spite of dissenting voices in the past or present, continues to be regarded as the highest knowledge – sarva vidya pratishtha.

If spirituality has been at the center of the Hindu world image, it would be reasonable to expect that it has continued to condition the Hindu mind, coloring its intellectual, artistic and emotional responses in distinctive ways. One of these is the pervasive presence of hope, even in the most dismal of life circumstances. For centuries, the Hindu civilization has conveyed to the growing child the almost somatic conviction that there is a hidden, even if unknown, order to our visible world. That there is a design to life which can be trusted in spite of life’s sorrows, cruelties and injustices. The cynic might see the presence of hope in a poverty-stricken man in an Indian slum as completely unrealistic, look at him as someone who clutches at the thinnest of straws, who has never learnt that there is something as hoping too much, or hoping in vain. But what keeps this man and so many millions of others, cheerful and expectant even under the most adverse economic, social and political circumstances is precisely this hope which is a sense of possession of the future, however distant that future may be.

From the very beginning and till today, the emphasis on spirituality and the possibility of reaching spiritual goals has instilled the Hindu mind with what I can only call a ‘romantic’ vision of reality. This is a vision which proclaims that the human quest will ultimately be successful in spite of trials and tribulations a person might have to undergo through the journey of life. The ironic vision of reality, the unique gift of European Enlightenment, in which incomprehensible afflictions of fate are inevitable and where wishes are fated to remain unfulfilled, and which ruefully recognizes that all gods have clay feet, is a relative stranger to the cast of the Hindu mind. It is the coming triumph of the romantic over the ironic vision of reality which is a highlight of the spiritual resurgence in the West at the beginning of the 21st century, a victory that is likely to be consolidated in the next decades. In other words, India and the West are coming closer in their underlying visions of reality.

I have already mentioned that the romantic vision of reality has never been in any serious danger in India. This does not mean that there is something like an unchanging India as far as spirituality is concerned. Just as the Western mind seems to be approaching the romantic vision of reality that is so characteristic of India, India seems to be opening up to modern manifestations of Western spirituality. In large Indian cities, members of the upper and increasingly also of the middle class, are avidly embracing such New Age imports from the West as tarot divination, feng shui, the energy healing of reiki, or pranic healing. The pre-eminence of healing in New Age practices is also reflected in India in the ever-increasing popularity of healing-gurus such as Sathya Sai Baba or Mata Nirmala Devi. The contemplative, meditative gurus identified with the Upanishadic tradition – such as the late Ramana Maharshi – are no longer a focus of popular spiritual interest to the same extent as they were for earlier generations. Along with the economic globalization and the one in communication technology, there may be a spiritual globalization that is also taking place. In contrast to the bitterly resisted economic globalization that is widely seen to serve the interests of Western industrialized countries, the spiritual globalization represented by New Age is truly universal, with no discernible center of gravity and thus may be more welcome in India.

Many thinkers, both in India and the West, deplore the forms of spirituality represented by New Age. They belittle them as carnivalesque, look down on such a spiritual seeker as someone who promiscuously adorns himself with religious stylistic scraps from all parts of the world and historical periods, unmediated by any experiential sense of ritual and history which once gave integrity to those styles.

Yet, I believe one must respect the spiritual impulse behind these practices. To paraphrase Swami Vivekananda, what we need to recognize is that such practices mean so many attempts of the human soul to grasp and realize the infinite, each determined by the conditions of its birth and association. And such seekers, however bizarre their beliefs may seem to the rationalist, are in their lifestyles generally pacifist, respectful of nature, often vegetarian and actively environmentalist and anti-racist. If I was forced to make a choice, I’d rather err on the side of openness to all manifestations of spirituality than on my natural tendency towards caution.

Dr Sudhir Kakar is perhaps India’s foremost psychoanalyst. Some of his
works include The Inner World: A Psychoanalytic Study of
Childhood and Society in India, Intimate Relations: Exploring
Indian Sexuality, and The Analyst and the Mystic. He is currently
an adjunct professor at INSEAD, France, and lives in Goa.
Source: Conference on Science and Spirituality in Modern India,
February 5-7, 2006; email: science-spirituality@mail.jnu.ac.in

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