By Shailaja Ganguly
Youngsters are turning to spirituality in ever-greater numbers. What’s the attraction, and what do they get out of it? A profile of the spiritual teenager
Attunement to the path is to realize that nothing is permanent, and at the same time, to feel much more positive and accepting about life.
—Sneha Verghese, 18
If you want a break from the rat race, do the Art of Living course. It is much better than chilling out in Switzerland.
—Anand Beriya, 19
SSY (Siddha Samadhi Yoga) has helped me experience God and has taught me that it is possible for all human beings to live in togetherness.
—Ravi Thuthija, 19
Yo, spirituality’s new rah-rah team is drawn from the MTV generation. Trendy teenyboppers are slipping into the lotus pose, balancing their chakras and watching their breath. The talk is not of the latest pop icon, VJ, or exam paper but of the need to drop expectations, retain equanimity and, of course, get enlightened.
Young people comprise almost 80 per cent of the participants in the Art of Living (AOL) workshops and over 50 per cent of many groups at the vipassana meditation academy at Igatpuri in Maharashtra, India. When psychiatrist Dayal Mirchandani advertised for a personal growth workshop recently, he was deluged with over 250 responses from the young.
Why is spirituality such a hot draw with the Gen X?
Says Vedanta teacher Uday Acharya: ‘Young people are experiencing the downside of consumerism early in life. A young airhostess recently told me that she has enjoyed everything and now has nothing to live for. Many are earning fast fortunes and losing them quickly too. They realize there are no guarantees in life. Spirituality gives them the meaning and stability they need. Also, when they are hurt, they turn to spirituality to heal.’ Acharya also believes that their interest in spirituality is fueled by greater awareness of it at the ground level. ‘People are reading more and there are greater varieties of spirituality available today,’ he says.
Dr Dayal Mirchandani sees the attraction to spirituality of young people as a compound of many factors. ‘Some spiritual movements are run by fashionable models, so many youngsters might be attracted by the promise of social advancement. Then, many are confused about their identity. As adolescents they are looking for answers; the old answers don’t work. There’s also genuine interest, as I discovered during my recent personal growth workshop.’
Jayantibhai Shah, a senior vipassana teacher, maintains that the attraction to vipassana in particular and spirituality in general is because of the absence here of rites and rituals. ‘The young are able to experience directly transformed consciousness.” Adds fellow vipassana teacher Ajit Parikh: ‘I didn’t want to follow rituals when I was young. Vipassana doesn’t ask you to believe anything.’ Confirms Acharya: ‘Unlike religion, spirituality is not about do’s and don’ts. It is about growth. The emphasis is not on condemning certain practices as much as outgrowing them. This appeals to youngsters.’
Dinesh Nair, a teacher of Art of Living (AOL) says: ‘We have introduced a course specially for college-goers called ‘Young Adults’, which is different from the regular AOL course. It has really caught up.’ He attributes the surge towards spirituality to the many pressures confronting youngsters today. ‘They have so many problems such as coping with parents, peer pressure, competition. There’s no communication any more between parents and children. Some might have also faced the trauma of sexual abuse in childhood. Attending this course makes a magical difference. They learn to communicate their problems and leave them behind.’
Whatever the cause, the trend is heartening. Young people are awakening earlier and coming to grips with the real issues of life.
Sneha Verghese, Christian by birth, ‘willingly and wholeheartedly’ decided to go for the rigorous 10-day vipassana camp. ‘I guess it is part of every human being’s urge to know the real purpose of life,’ she says. Studying for a degree in mass media and advertising, Sneha has also done AOL. Her brush with spirituality has clarified her priorities and value system. While looking forward to a career in advertising, she would certainly not opt for areas where the work culture demands ‘you stay over in office for two days!’ Why not? ‘Because once you are attuned to this path you want to travel at your own pace, not run, run, run.’ Her definition of the balanced life includes ‘absolutely no room for self-pity’ and ‘half an hour of meditation every day’.
Others, like Ravi Thuthija, may have enrolled into spirituality for health reasons but the end result is the same—an understanding of life and greater health and happiness. Five years ago, Ravi’s severe sinusitis and migraine encouraged him to join Siddha Samadhi Yoga (SSY). ‘Through SSY, not only did my health problems vanish, I also got answers to my questions about the purpose of life.’
Young AOL teacher Pooja Mordani observes with the gravity of a sage: ‘Death is just the dropping of the body, learning what you are not and moving on to what you really are.’ Reiki student Jayashree Loya is convinced that her distant reiki has been responsible for forging an indelible bond between two of her daggers-drawn cousins.
Spirituality enables the latent idealism of youngsters to flourish. Many see in it a way to forge bonds and eventually transcend differences altogether. Observes Mirchandani: ‘In an earlier era many who may have joined communism are now signing up for spiritual courses.’
Others draw from spirituality a realization of their own higher potential. For the young followers of the Bochasnawasi Akshar Purshottam Sanstha (BAPS), a Gujarat-based religion following the teachings of Swaminarayan, too, the lesson inculcated early that Aapde Bhagwaanna chche, mayaana nathi (We are children of God, not of this illusory world), gives them the confidence to withstand the lures of the material world.
The followers of BAPS are proof that even the trappings of traditional religion have their own attraction for today’s youth. Not everyone is racing for the pathless land of pure spirituality. What appears to work for the young Swaminarayans is not only the freshness of this relatively new religion (only 200 years old), but that it is spearheaded by a group of educated monks with the genial and wise Pramukh Swami as their head. Perhaps one of the other attractions is the strong sense of identity arising out of belonging to a close-knit community. The 1,700-odd student groups are continually involved in cultural and service-oriented activities supervised by the creative monks, who also double as friends, philosophers and guides.
‘I feel it is important to spare some time for the daily puja. After all it is just a matter of reciting five small shlokas and doing the aarti. The principle behind this is to try and be good, simple and honest,’ points out 17-year-old Payal Desai, whose life is otherwise packed with lectures, movies, parties and dreams of becoming a jewelry designer.
‘The tilak and chandan (vermilion and sandal-paste marks on the forehead) we wear are symbols of our God Swaminarayan. Over and above doing our duty (karma), it is his grace that helps us achieve anything. Our gurus are very accessible. When I was nervous about my class XII exams, I called up my guru and his reassurance infused me with a strength I draw upon even today,’ says 19-year-old Shashank Trivedi, who is majoring in electronics.
The Pramukh Swami and his team of monks do not speak to women, but that does not seem to come in the way of communication. Says Payal: ‘Whenever I have had a problem, I have found a solution in the pravachan (discourse) of our Pramukh Swami.’ Poorvi Joshi, 20-year-old budding textile designer, echoes: ‘I feel attached to our Swami. I feel a strong sense of belonging. I am convinced he knows everything, so there is no question of doing anything wrong, ever.’
Likewise, 22-year-old Premal Dave explains what lures him to the Swaminarayan Temple every Sunday: ‘Our deep love for Swamiji and the awareness of how much he has done and is doing inspires us. Bhakti (devotion) is a good path to travel on and we feel safe here from the corruption of the world.’
In the absence of credible role models in today’s world, coming in contact with a guru who has an inspiring conduct and personality can have a powerful influence on young people and mold their morals and value system. Which is why Pooja Mordani’s commitment to AOL soared after she met its founder—the erudite and charismatic Sri Sri Ravishankar. ‘He is an embodiment of love and the experience was absolutely overwhelming,’ recalls this chirpy young woman who has also done the AOL teachers’ training course. She even attributes her effortless public speaking to the guru. ‘There comes a point when it is not me talking, it is ‘Him’.’
Above all, it is the dividends of the path that have drawn the endorsement and commitment of young people. Health benefits are one of them. Jayashree Loya initially went in for reiki training hoping to cure a chronic migraine, which is almost gone now. Multitalented 19-year-old Abhishek Thakore also attributes to reiki his total recovery from frequent colds, asthma and a tendency to make excuses.
Others talk of personality changes. Listen, for example, to 13-year-old Alisha who first learnt reiki and then did the AOL course five times. ‘I don’t get nervous about participating in an elocution competition anymore. I am very relaxed; it is as if no one is watching me.’
‘I was shy and introverted earlier. Now I can relate to others comfortably, thanks to our shibirs (youth camps) which help us develop individual skills,’ says Khushboo Talati, an enthusiastic BAPS devotee who is training to become a commercial pilot.
Jayashree Loya insists that reiki has upped her concentration and confidence levels while 15-year-old Akanksha, class 11 student and reiki practitioner, feels it has ‘helped me exude positivity’.
‘I am much more centered now,’ is how 22-year-old Suman Makhija, who has conducted 10 AOL courses to date, describes her evolution after doing the AOL basic program and the teachers’ training. She too was never comfortable addressing a crowd but, today, gives introductory talks on AOL to the corporati and conducts courses for children and young adults.
Anuja Parekh, a 20-year-old vipassana graduate, says: ‘The quality of my life, my outlook towards everything has changed. I am a much better person now and recently, I went for my third vipassana course.’
Anand Beriya, an AOL teacher, says: ‘Before I did AOL, I was hyperactive, I never really gave my 100 per cent to what I was doing. I also used to take a lot of things for granted. AOL has brought the balance and ability to handle different situations.’ Anand adds that he does not chain-smoke or drink any more because the Sudarshan Kriya taught at the AOL course has helped him shed his addictions.
Like Anand, 24-year-old Kiran Jaisingh, a regular practitioner of pranayama and meditation prescribed by SSY, gave up not only smoking and drinking but even non-vegetarian food and onion and garlic (causing quite an upheaval in his traditional Sindhi home). He feels what contributes a lot to the ‘cleansing process’ is the notebook you are made to write detailing your entire life till date. This ‘confessional’ is then burnt in a symbolic casting off of the old, messed-up self. ‘The more you reveal in it, the more power you gain,’ he says.
Aarti Parekh, who did her vipassana in the USA, says: ‘I needed something to calm myself and vipassana helped greatly. My productivity increased. I learnt not to get too affected by anything. At the center I met young people from Berkeley and Stanford Universities who had returned for the third and fourth time. Now I feel, the earlier you learn it the greater the impact. Those 10 days are really worth it!’
Apart from this soaring self-esteem and opportunity for bonding with the like-minded, many spiritual programs often provide or trigger projects for the have-nots. For instance, BAPS has various social projects. Many of the BAPS youngsters I spoke to have worked for the Vyasanmukti Abhiyaan, a drive for freedom from self-destructive addictions, or have volunteered time for patients suffering from cancer or AIDS.
Anand, the young AOL teacher, experiences deep fulfillment from the classes he conducts in the slums. Abhishek Thakore and his ‘Blue Ribbon’ team of reiki practitioners regularly organize entertainment programs for slum children and in old-age homes, an exercise that also gives their creativity a warmly applauding platform.
Indeed, Abhishek is a dynamic student leader with a head continually abuzz with a zillion positive ideas and an abundance of energy that crackles even through a telephone cable. Thanks to his second-level reiki training, and a deep interest in reading consciousness-raising literature, ‘my outlook is no longer narrow’. Says he: ‘I feel I am on a spiritual journey. I am beginning to see the unity even in contradictory viewpoints.’ Fittingly he is a regular contributor to the ‘Laughing Buddha’ column in Life Positive.
For others too, wisdom gradually dawns. As SSY’s Mumbai coordinator Manoj Lekhi explains: ‘SSY helps shift focus from the outside to the inside, from taking to giving, from sound to silence, from hatred to love, from bondage to freedom and, thereby, from man to God!’
Vipassana-trained Aarti says: ‘You learn to be neutral. The ultimate objective is moksha, to be liberated from everything, but, for now, you learn to handle the ups and downs of life better. Your self-centeredness, your cravings lessen, you begin to want happiness for everyone. You realize nothing can be so bad that you can’t survive it!’ Anand adds: ‘Earlier, I was perturbed by the software slowdown. Today, I know it is not the end of the world. Of course the need to achieve is there, but the feverishness has gone.’
Balance, equanimity, and kinship with fellow humans, these are the weapons with which today’s youngster sets out for his tryst with destiny. Acharya says: ‘Today’s youngster wishes to integrate spirituality into his life, not see it as something separate.’
In a world that has gone wrong in so many ways, that still leaves room for hope and the promise of a new dawn.
—photographs by Martin Louis
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