By Swati Chopra October 2005 To talk of an engagement of spirituality in the world may seem like a contradiction to some. It is actually absolutely necessary because of the need for an enlightened, inclusive, compassionate outlook to deal with social, ecological and political problems. How can an alternative outlook in our times be developed using our wisdom traditions? The people’s prophet was being crucified. He bled from a crown of thorns that his crucifiers had placed on his forehead, jeering at his simple assertion of personal divinity. As nails began to be driven into his flesh, binding him onto the cross on which he would die, flashes of pain numbed his body. His mind, somehow lucid, somehow communing with a larger reality, formed this prayer for those who even in that moment were busy torturing his body, ‘Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.’ Some 300 years before the above event took place, a power-mad king rode into battle. His ululating war cry rose again and again, for several days, until his blood thirst was quenched with victory. Proudly, the king rode out once again to survey his conquest. Only to be greeted with death and destruction whichever direction he turned his horse. Standing amidst corpses, vultures hovering above his head, the victorious king felt defeat seep into his bones. The inner shift he experienced in that moment led to the founding of a society based on spiritual values over vast swathes of the Indian subcontinent, an experiment unique in world history. Fast forward through roughly two millennia. A frail man in a loincloth sets off upon a walk of a few hundred kilometers towards the sea. He walks for justice, he walks in peace. With each kilometer, the train of those following in his wake grows longer. The one has inspired many. The people have awakened to the Truth of their selfhood, and they will not be denied freedom. At the seaside, the frail man picks up a handful of salt and breaks a repressive law. Lathis of repression rain upon them, but the one and the many remain still and calm. A few decades later, a man is released from prison. His body is broken after years of physical torture. Still, he manages to prostrate before his leader. ‘Were you ever afraid, in prison?’ he is asked. ‘Yes,’ he whispers, the memory of his fear moistening his eyes. ‘What of? Death?’ The man remains silent for a while, then says, ‘I was afraid I would lose compassion for my captors.’ The leader smiles a sad-sweet smile. It is the smile of camaraderie and acknowledgement; it would almost be an insider’s joke if things weren’t so tragic. For he, the leader, has spent his entire life finding and expressing compassion for the captors of his motherland and his people. The provocation to hate has been great, the efforts to sustain compassion even greater. The above examples from over two millennia of human history, from the ancient to the contemporary, are brought together by a shared impulse – that of the involvement of the spiritual in mundane matters, often with powerful, radical results that have had far-reaching implications for humankind. Jesus, who prays for forgiveness for the perpetrators even as they torture him, holds the insights of self-realization to the test of worldly stress. Ashoka and Mahatma Gandhi shift the course of the histories of their times by bringing the spiritual to bear on issues related to politics, society and government. And the Dalai Lama, with his compassion for his ‘enemies’ born out of spiritual practice, is striking at the heart of the application in the human realm of Newton’s theory, that for every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction. Cruelty need not always breed vengeance; it can also give birth to compassion that comes from understanding that others’ actions arise from their ignorance. These are all examples, in their own ways, of what in this special issue of Life Positive we are referring to as ‘engaged spirituality’, by which we mean the integration of the spiritual in the realm of worldly action, in the fields of ecology, politics, society, and day-to-day living. The term itself presents a dilemma, since it assumes regular spirituality to be of a ‘disengaged’ sort. In general public perception, this view holds good. Spiritual seekers are often seen as being other-worldly, distant from society, and disinterested in issues that proliferate from the morass of worldliness. They are assumed to be ‘world leavers’, occupied only in serious ruminations and meditative practices, disaffected by the state of affairs around them. Yet, if we examine the examples given above, they tell a different story. These individuals and these are certainly not the only ones, have led intensely active lives, deeply absorbed in the world, leading revolutions and movements for social change. They have imprinted their footmarks upon human memory, psyche and history. And they have all been spiritual seekers. Their social actions have been informed by their inner search and insights. And it is because of their seeking that they have found the tools and courage and the wherewithal to be who they were, and to do what they did. Such ‘socially engaged’ spiritual seekers have always been, and continue to be, in our midst. Through this issue, we wish to train our spotlight on them, and on the process through which the personal-spiritual exits the cloister and becomes an active agent of multilevel change. Old RootsThe stream of socially engaged spirituality is perhaps as old as spiritual seeking itself. A good way to begin this exploration would be through trying to unearth the old roots of this tradition, and see in what ways these can be revitalized for use in our times. An example from the earliest Vedic era of a social practice with a spiritual dimension is of ‘dana’, giving, that was considered a dharma duty of all, especially the prosperous ones. Kings such as Harsha (seventh century AD) routinely gave away all their possessions. The idea behind dana extended beyond charity. At the social level, it was meant to spread wealth equitably so that it wasn’t concentrated with the powerful only, thus fueling exploitative hierarchies. Spiritual traditions of the time converted the concept and practice of dana into a tool to help the givers cultivate generosity and kindness and cut away materialism. Swami Krishnananda of The Divine Life Society, Sivananda Ashram, Rishikesh, says of the Vedantic understanding of dana, ‘Respect for others’ welfare and recognition of the value of another’s existence is the principle of dana, which does not merely mean parting with some material goods that we may possess, but an inward attitude of respect for others, inasmuch as the Self is present in others to the same extent as it is present in us. We perform charity not because we are rich and others are poor. The reason is different, that the others are equally important and they have as much right to exist as we ourselves have. The principle of the recognition of the Selfhood of all beings is behind the performance of charity or the extension of goodwill with regard to others.’ The Buddha spoke about dana as an antidote to desire, and emphasized the state of mind of the giver. Says Insight Meditation teacher Christopher Titmuss, ‘Dana belongs to the Buddha’s practical strategy to encourage letting go, loving kindness and compassion, thus ensuring giving and service a preeminent place in the Dharma.’ In fact, dana is one of the primary qualities of the bodhisattva, whose ideal is central to Mahayana Buddhism. The bodhisattva is in many ways the consummate socially engaged spiritual practitioner, and forms another one of the old roots of this tradition. A bodhisattva is a being in pre-nirvana stage, a seeker who has perfected his (or her) self through rigorous inner practice and is ready for nirvana, the final cessation into nothingness, but for one thing. In his great compassion, he cannot conceive of passing into nirvana even as countless beings still suffer, and elects to defer nirvana until there remains suffering in samsara. The underlying belief is that there can be no individual salvation without consideration for the collective, and that we are all inextricably interrelated with one another at multiple levels. This recognition of the interconnected weave of life was expressed in another way in Indian spirituality – through the divinisation of the mundane, of features of nature and land. This device, through which almost all aspects of nature were accorded sacred properties and their direct veneration encouraged, has resulted in a strong non-anthropomorphic element in Indian faith traditions. For not only are gods and goddesses in human forms worshiped, but also mountains and rivers, rain and thunder, animals and birds. This polytheistic plurality has been a strong basis for a spirituality that is nature-affirming, that reveres the earth and its ecology, instead of seeing them only as resources to be exploited for human benefit. India’s polytheism is interesting because it retains within it the kernel of the One Truth, of which the entire universe is an expression. The bhakti traditions that grew around various gods and goddesses see everything as arising from the sacred being of their Beloved, and all beings and creatures as expressions of the Divine. Consequently, the best way to venerate the Divine is through serving His earthly manifestations, His creations, and lavishing the love upon them as one would upon the Lord. Divinising the mundane (whether in bhakti or through nature worship) changes the way one relates to life and other beings. It is one way in which Indian spirituality has kept itself rooted in its milieu,
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