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
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