By Swati Chopra
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.
The 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, in contact with the needs of its times, and enriched the lives and views of those that turned into it.
Fractures and Reforms
While the impulse of a socially engaged spirituality might be an ancient one, it has not been a consistent movement within the wider space of world spirituality. Rather, the union of the spiritual and the mundane has had its seasons as it were, and there have been times when the two have split. In these times, spirituality has become other-worldly, self-obsessed and ossified into institutions and hierarchies, and the mundane has grown to be materialistic, corrupt, self-seeking and de-ethicised.
Inevitably, such times have bred discontent and frustration that have in turn provided fresh impetus for the two to come together again. We see this movement occur time and again through history. As the early Vedic society (1500 BC to 500 BC) lost its equitable moorings and became rigidly ritualistic and casteist, it threw up teachers like the Buddha and Mahavir (circa sixth century BC) who not only radicalized spiritual inquiry but also sought to reform society and social values. For instance, both decried the caste system as unjust and exploitive, and prioritized ahimsa to reject the need for animal sacrifices. Jesus and the Prophet Mohammed also tried to steer the social systems of their times towards becoming more just, peaceful and equitable.
In India, we again see the flowering of a powerful socially involved spirituality in the middle ages through the contiguous bhakti-sufi movements. Catalyzed by divisive political and caste ideologies, and in some cases tyrannical despots, saints turned social reformers. The mystic-reformers of this period, whether Kabir, Meera, Jnaneshwar, Nanak or the Auliyas, were characteristically fearless and forthright in their social critiques, even as they were straightforward in their teachings of a non-dogmatic, nonsectarian, personal relationship with the Divine.
Kabir threw out both the pandit and the mullah and encouraged direct spiritual inquiry. Jnaneshwar and Nanak jettisoned caste mores and spoke of universal human brotherhood, just as Meera and Lal Ded cast away shackles of gender and propriety to embrace bhakti of their Beloved. Conventional morality was being subverted in favor of questioning and openness, God was brought out of temples and into the streets and made accessible to the poorest of the poor. The fact that this was happening simultaneously in spirituality as well as society makes this an exciting experiment in socially responsive, and responsible, spirituality.
The next wave that re-formed Indian spirituality brings us into the modern times. The last 150 years or so have witnessed an extraordinary outpouring of spiritual energy into the public realm. Mahatma Gandhi’s mass-based political movements drew sustenance from spiritual ideals like ahimsa and non-hatred of the enemy, and his dream for newly independent India echoed those of other mystic-reformers before him in its vision of an equal, caste-free society, and spiritual and economic empowerment of the lowest of the low.
Around that time, others like Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Rabindranath Tagore, and so on, were rethinking and finding ways to enable the engagement of the spiritual in spheres of public action as diverse as society, nationalism, governance, administration, education, and aesthetics.
In today’s world, spirituality is increasingly finding itself compelled to answer the summons of the times. As crimes, wars, unrest and injustice grow around the world, spiritual practitioners and teachers are finding it hard to keep their eyes closed to their reality. Modern spirituality is in many ways grappling with the issue of engagement – how does one respond to the world? How much is too much? Why not just concentrate on one’s own journey, walk one’s own path?
There are no easy answers to these questions. Every seeker must find her own way through them, though one can learn from one’s peers and how they have managed this difficult question. There is the example of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master, who inspired Buddhist clergy in Vietnam to become agents of peace during the mid-20th century Vietnam War. Subsequently, he observed how traditionally Buddhist societies (Sri Lanka, Burma, Vietnam and others) were among those most ravaged by war and strife in the 20th century, and those that weren’t, were grappling with the economic and environmental depredations of globalisation and insensitive industrialization. Why weren’t these societies better equipped to handle these challenges, given their strong Buddhist roots? The answer was obvious: it was because religion had become dogmatised and removed from the immediate concerns of the people. Spirituality and social action had split.
To heal this rift, a movement that is now called ‘Engaged Buddhism’ came into being. Drawing from the ideal of the bodhisattva and teachings rooted in an interconnected view of the universe, Buddhism is becoming engaged in politics, ecology, and social action. While many Western practitioners are championing enlightened activism, the Dalai Lama and Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi have honed compassion into statecraft. The Dalai Lama’s recognition of the ‘enemy’ as a co-human being, and Suu Kyi’s non-violent battle for democracy have illustrated a gentler form of politics in these violent, cynical times. Other proponents of Engaged Buddhism include Thai activist Sulak Sivaraksa who has successfully used Buddhist means for ecological conservation, Sri Lanka’s A.T. Ariyaratne whose Sarvodaya Shramdana Movement has built bridges of peace between Sinhalese and Tamils in times of war, eco-philosopher Joanna Macy who has evolved a new paradigm of enlightened, socially and ecologically responsible living, among others. Through their work, they are attempting to transmute values like compassion, loving-kindness and interconnectedness into tools of constructing a global consciousness.
Other modern spiritual movements, of which many spring around gurus, are also becoming deeply involved in the realm of social service. Gurus such as the late Swami Chinmayananda, Sathya Sai Baba, Mata Amritanandamayi, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, among others, have emphasized the ideal of seva to their followers as an essential ingredient of their spiritual path. These socially-engaged movements of contemporary India are profiled in greater detail later in this issue.
Motivation and Responsibility
So, what can be the nature of the individual seeker’s involvement in social action? This article, and indeed this issue, cannot be complete without some thought given to this question. Two key ideas that emerge in response to this question are: motivation, and assuming personal and universal responsibility.
Motivation is the touchstone to check whether one’s actions are truly selfless, and immediately shows up if our ego has crept in through the backdoor when we weren’t looking. Asking oneself why one is doing something is a good way to check where one’s heart is at, what one’s actual intentions are. It is to ascertain one’s motivation that Mahatma Gandhi gave the following talisman, Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? You will find your doubts melting away.’
The need for responsibility arises from the recognition of our interdependence, with other human beings, other societies, other nations, and nature. It must form the core of each action we perform, as human beings and a
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