By Suma Varughese June 2000 When newspapers carry columns on spirituality , celebrities consult personal gurus, mainline hospitals offer alternative therapies, corporate houses host personal growth workshops, meditative music tapes sell in thousands, it’s clear that the New Age is now well on its way to occupying centerstage in India On Friday evening, a crowd of commuters is assembled outside Malad station (a Mumbai suburb, in India), gazing wide-eyed at two cameos. Two young lasses dressed in luminous white, a gentle smile on their faces, sit in rapt meditation; beside them, two girls, richly dressed and bejeweled, also sit in deep meditation against the backdrop of a palace cutout. ‘Tomorrow’s World’, the placard proclaims. The Brahmakumaris, a Mount Abu-based organization, is conveying its visions of spirituality in the future. Returning to work on Monday morning, I see what is by now a familiar sight. The Sathya Sai Baba Trust is organizing a blood donation drive. Pictures of the curly-haired saint adorn the enclosures, along with some of his well-known sayings like ‘Help Ever, Hurt Never.’ Satyam, the teenybopper hangout in Mumbai for greeting cards, pop music and books, is marching to a different beat this day: the sonorous sounds of a Ganesha chant. Inside, vying for attention with the airport novels are Deepak Chopra’s How to Know God, Brian L. Weiss’s Many Lives, Many Masters and James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy. Bombay Stores, an upmarket department store in Mumbai, has its front section dominated by energized candles, aromatherapy and other holistic ware. Spirituality is upfront. What used to be a private aspect of life, is spilling over into the public domain and lunchtime conversations. Daily newspapers prominently carry interviews with saints and motivational speakers, and have columns promoting a meditative way of life. Is society undergoing a seminal change? Is a paradigm shift happening? Says Anjali Mathur, editor of The Sunday Observer: ‘Spirituality is becoming more popular. People are looking for moorings, for more universal truths. They want meaning in their lives.’ V. Gangadhar, media columnist for Mid-day, a popular afternoon paper, agrees that the media has given the trend prominence, but adds: ‘I haven’t seen anything in the life around me to suggest that people are moving into spirituality.’ Swami Chidananda, of the Chinmaya Mission, Powai, says: ‘More people are talking of Vedanta, but whether they will practice it is another matter. In Kali yuga everyone has access to spiritual truths but at the same time, the material comforts and distractions are manifold.’ Nonetheless, he discerns a greater intersection between the material and the spiritual. ‘Software companies and management colleges invite me for talks on stress management and how to control anger. Of course, this is a far cry from enlightenment, but it’s a beginning.’ Uday Acharya, Swami Dayanand Saraswati’s disciple who teaches Vedanta to Mumbai aspirants, is more upbeat. Says he: ‘In this century all the positive things are coming together. Everything’s ready for a takeoff. There’s no specialization any more. Today, most subjects are becoming multidisciplinary, such as biochemistry or geopolitics. And whether in religion or in health, people are taking matters into their own hands. They come together in small prayer units, or try alternative medicine. They are taking back their power.’ On the other hand, Titu Ahluwalia, head of ORG Marg, believes that there is a reverse movement towards consumerism. ‘Today, the young believe that it’s okay to make money any way. Greed is unmasked and naked.’ Similarly, Ruby Bhatia, the popular TV anchor, states that people on the whole are deviating from spirituality. Different voices, different views. But nothing that runs counter to the New Age vision. It’s the term given to the broad vision espoused by a large group of thinkers, artists, scientists and visionaries from the West, that the time has come for humanity to move into a more spiritual culture. Says physicist Gary Zukov in his book The Seat of the Soul: ‘We are evolving from a species that pursues external power into a species that pursues authentic power.’ James Redfield in his book The Celestine Vision says: ‘We are intimately connected with the universe and with each other, and our influence on our world with our thoughts is more powerful than anyone ever dreamed.’ Today, New Age is fertilized by currents of thought from various fields, including the Third Force humanistic psychology, spearheaded by Abraham Maslow, who concluded that man was driven by a need to actualize himself. This gave rise to the human potential movement, which postulated that man’s purpose for existence was growth and enlightenment. However, despite its idealistic and deeply serious agenda, the New Age has its quota of the frivolous, faddish and even unwholesome. All too often, activity revolves around mumbo-jumbo such as the invocation of spirits or contacting UFOs, or stories of being abducted by aliens. Excesses abound and, in the name of spirituality, a new form of consumerism is arising. The spiritual bazaar is chock-a-block with New Age artifacts such as wind chimes, crystals, energized candles, yoga mats et al. With all that, however, it remains a movement oriented towards the positive, harmony, peace and universal love. New Age in India must be distinguished from Old Age, which is the source of its wisdom, and which still prevails undisturbed in the greater part of India. Obviously the dividing line is blurred, but New Age could be said to have moved from the religious to the spiritual, from the particular to the universal. Says Swami Chidananda: ‘New Age has two distinguishing features that separate it from Old Age. It doesn’t take any particular religion as the authority and secondly, it draws from all religions.’ He also feels that New Age gives far more freedom to its practitioners than Old Age did. ‘Ancient India didn’t have that freedom.’ Where the New Age can learn from the Old Age is to borrow its depth while retaining its admirable breadth of vision. Its significant hallmark in the Indian context is the ability to straddle both the old and the new with harmony, because it is in touch with perennial principles. Thus, you have the saffron-robed monks of the Swaminarayan movement who are also computer engineers and MBA graduates. Or the mini-skirted Ruby Bhatia earnestly visiting Iskcon temples for spiritual succor. Or the non-vegetarian sage, Ramesh Balsekar, who retired as general manager of the Bank of India. Or publisher Madhukar Thompson of Neti Neti Press, who has packaged Vedantic concepts in the form of cartoon postcards. Or click onlinedarshan.com and you will find yourself transferred to any Indian temple, from Tirupati to Vaishno Devi. In short, New Age is Old Age in blue jeans. Assuming New Age is here, how far has it penetrated? SPIRITUAL FAST TRACK In the shift from religion to spirituality, the action at ground level is sizzling: from the variety of personal growth and spiritual workshops, to high-profile spiritual gurus and organizations. Says Dr Anil Suchak, representative of the Divine Life Society in India: ‘Today, we realize that science is not the solution to life. Faith in God was dissipated by science but today, people realize that spirituality contains science.’ Meditation is mainstream activity, with techniques galore: Art of Living, Siddha Samadhi Yoga, TM, Vipassana and so on. And belief in God is widespread. According to an ORG-MARG poll, 94 per cent of young adults below 30 believe in God, 62 per cent pray regularly and 35 per cent perform puja and visit a shrine once a week. The momentum is growing. Art of Living organizers, for instance, say that in the last three years 16,000 people have taken the course in Mumbai alone, as contrasted with 2,000 in the preceding years. When their guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar came to the city last year, he addressed a crowd of over 50,000. Mata Nirmala Devi routinely draws a crowd of a hundred thousand for her mass Kundalini awakenings, as does Mata Amritanandamayi in the metros. There was a massive turnout last year when Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi made a rare visit to Mumbai. Yoga is now a household term. Its popularity is growing worldwide. Actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett, Madonna, Meg Ryan and Uma Thurman swear by it. The Defense Institute of Physiological and Allied Sciences (DIPAS) prescribes yoga to help acclimatize soldiers to adverse operational terrain, like deserts and snow-clad mountains. Cricket stars such as Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad and Anil Kumble are using it, while Sachin Tendulkar is said to have consulted renowned yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar. Nothing, however, compares with the sudden popularity of reiki. Surat actually boasts of a Reiki Street, where almost every household has a graduate. It has become one of the most popular ways to discover spirituality, requiring little or no discipline. In the New Age, wisdom traditions from around the world are welcome. That explains why gurus such as Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, Pranic Healing founder Choa Kok Sui and Karuna reiki founder William Rand enjoy tremendous popularity in India. ROMANCING ALTERNATIVESThe phenomenal popularity of alternative medicine the world over offers the most convincing proof of a shift in public perception. Says Dr Urjita Jain, a gynecologists who’s moved to herbal treatment: ‘Allopathy doesn’t cure. It may rid you of your illness but you won’t know what caused it or how to uproot it. With ayurveda, they would check
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