By Suma Varughese
For all of us on the spiritual path, a constant and luminous source of insight and knowledge is the existence of books. Ultimately, of course, we have to go beyond them and confront the cold and naked reality of our lives and ourselves. But how wondrously books help in steering us towards that direction! Their impact is second only to the direct presence of a realised master, so it’s not surprising that seekers are inveterate readers. Indeed, it is only after I came into the path that I realised that photocopying books is a standard practice among indigent but ardent seekers!
I myself have benefited enormously from books. Much of my perspective has been shaped by exposure to their truth and beauty, breadth and depth of wisdom, and new and unique ways of looking at life. I’ll never be able to make an exhaustive list of the books that have moved, inspired or changed me, but here are some of them. The compilation is strictly subjective, based on my taste and interests.
The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James
This book is a deserved classic for its exhaustive inquiry into the nature and meaning of the spiritual dimension in our lives. James has quoted literally thousands of sources, both from published work and real life, who have shared their deepest and most sacred experiences. His humane and integrating approach and the poignant and awe-inspiring accounts make this book a joy to read.
The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield
Many are fond of knocking this book, but I owe it a personal debt of gratitude for it was the first book I read that gave an overview of mankind’s spiritual evolution. It helped me to understand that the mechanical and sense-influenced worldview I had unquestioningly accepted as truth was the legacy of Descartes and Co, and that all the twists and turns of our chaotic history could actually be placed into a coherent and positive pattern. His insight into the way we draw energy from each other through playing the victim or the bully or by staying aloof, has made many of us more conscious of what really happens in relationships. And of course, coincidences have never been quite the same since he pointed them out to us.
Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus by John Gray
Another book that shines a torch into an area that most of us are pretty dense about: how different men and women are and how much we pay for that difference through misunderstandings and marital conflict. By being aware of the differences, we can actually go beyond them, says Gray. Some of the insights: In the face of a problem, men offer solutions and invalidate feelings, while women offer unsolicited advice and direction. Men and women cope with stress in different ways. Men pull away and ponder the problem in silence; women want to talk about it. Men are motivated when they feel needed and women are motivated when they feel cherished.
The Kingdom of God is Within You by Leo Tolstoy
A personal favourite because it is the most radical and honest interpretation of what being a Christian really means. Tolstoy completely rejects institutionalised Christianity as being a travesty of Christ’s teachings, whose central message, according to him, is not to resist evil. This limpid acceptance of negativity militates against the establishment of the modern nation state with its use of law courts, the army and other instruments of coercion and violence. Tolstoy does Christ the rare honour of taking his teaching seriously as a guidebook for living life, unlike the lip-service it has been reduced to. A great book for the Christian seeker.
Notebook by J. Krishnamurti
Krishnamurti isn’t by any means easy to follow. His turgid prose, unrelieved by metaphors and examples, can put even the most enthusiastic reader to sleep. But his Notebook! Now, that’s another matter. Notebook is a compilation of Krishnamurti’s writings on nature, on life and on the mysterious ‘process’ that assailed him all his life. If ever there is a testament to how the enlightened person lives, thinks and responds, this has to be it. When Krishnamurti writes about trees and the sky and mountains, he does so with a delicate precision so shorn of the personal that only the beauty re mains.
The Road Less Traveled by Scott L. Peck
Scott begins his book with a variation of the Buddha’s Noble Truth, ‘Life is suffering’, which he paraphrases as ‘Life is difficult’, and then goes on to delineate the whole process of personal evolution.
This book integrates personal, psychological and spiritual growth into one continuous process, and provides valuable insights on how to achieve it. Peck rightly places discipline as the key quality for growth. No discipline translates into no growth and 100 per cent discipline into 100 per cent growth. I particularly recall his unique definition of love, which he interprets as extending oneself for the sake of one’s own or the other’s growth. All in all, a valuable and enriching book. Unfortunately, the sequels are disappointing so refrain from buying them.
India My Love by Osho
This is a compilation of Osho’s talks and insights on India and is mandatory reading for all Indians who wish to gauge the true stature of this country. He writes about India with so much love, tenderness and pride that it is impossible to read it unmoved. At the end of the narration you can’t help wanting to cheer loudly for India! Here’s a sample: “…And down the centuries, seekers have been coming to this land from all over the world. The country is poor, the country has nothing to offer, but to those who are sensitive it is the richest place on earth. But the richness is of the inner. This poor country can give you the greatest treasure that is possible for human beings.”
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
This book is partly an autobiographical account of how the author discovered Logotherapy, a form of psychotherapy for which he is renowned. The central premise of Logotherapy is that a meaning to life is essential for man’s survival. Dr Frankl forged the pieces of his theory in the crucible of his experiences as a member of the concentration camp, Auschwitz, during the infamous Nazi regime. Despite the inhuman and unspeakable conditions, a number of them survived, and they did so because they had a reason to live. Dr Frankl’s own reason to live was the publication of the scientific manuscript that contained his life’s work.
This book is both a gripping human interest story of man’s ability to make sense of unbearable suffering as well as a compassionate account of mankind’s deep yearning for meaning.
My Experiments With Truth by Mahatama Gandhi
Not too many of us know Mahatma Gandhi as a human being: his quirks, his interests, his nature, his history. Alas, he has been reduced to a stock figure about whom it is unnecessary to think too deeply. This book brings alive the real Gandhiji. The shy boy, who ran away home as soon as school was over, the earnest youth whose love of duty took the form of massaging his ill father’s form, and above all, the quietly resolute young man who sat shivering on a platform in South Africa, smarting from the humiliation of having been thrown out of a first class compartment because of his colour. This is a quaint, modest and quietly humorous account of his life. What comes through with startling clarity is the Mahatma’s absolute integration of thought, feeling and action. Anything that he felt to be right, he acted on promptly. Thus he read Ruskin’s book, Unto the Last, which advocated a life of labour and the recognition of physical and mental labour as being equal. Overnight, he decided to move into a commune and to live a life of simplicity and self-sufficiency. For anyone who wishes to understand the greatness of the Mahatma, this book offers illuminating insights.
One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka
The author of this book is the founder of Natural Farming, which advocates allowing nature to manage the affair of farming while we keep out of the way. Thus instead of ploughing and clearing the land, Fukuoka advocates keeping the land as it is, and throwing in pellets of seeds. There is to be no weeding, no getting rid of any waste. When man attempts to interfere with nature’s enormous wisdom, only disaster results, observes this Japanese sage.
Natural farming has a cult following the world over, and this book is beautiful, part spiritual text, part poetry, part farming manual.
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