In 2011, when I was doing my masters in London, one of the projects in the course was “business for design”. An outcome of that project was BELOVED INDIA. My business plan then was slightly different. Under the name of BELOVED INDIA I wanted to form a team of designers, researchers, campaigners and social-workers that would handle social projects and look into the difficulties of this evolving culture through the mismatch of older values clashing with the newer ones. I was ambitious, hardworking and full of ideas to plunge into this initiative that I felt was much needed in this land.
I would like to share how that initiative, which was supposed to be neutral and unbiased giving equal weightage to all religions, states and views ended up being a very personal exploration of “self” through mere artworks and that too of “Hindu” gods and goddesses and yet calling it Indian. It is as if trying to claim that the Hindu-India is the real-India and isn’t that where the problem begins? My motive of this tell-tale is that through my struggle at a personal-level a bigger struggle that is at a national-level could be explored here.
You can not re-write the history of India doing away with the religions. Spiritual quest has left its mark again and again in its various layers. Now that “spirituality” and “religion” have become so difficult to separate, it has become safer to throw both out and dwell in a cleaner space of neutralism where either “we don’t talk about religion at all” or “if we do talk, we should include all in carefully measured equal proportions”.
This problem (or rather the solution) is in every family, office, school or college where we have decided either to go for the “broad, general and neutral picture” or prefer the “none therefore neutral picture”.
Now, here are the problems in both the solutions:
Throwing away religion also means throwing away a lot of the cultivated spiritual paths
After all, every religion has sprung from a person’s or a group of persons’ spiritual search. In the time when people were closer to nature, the natural laws of creation and existence made them ponder. People wanted to know what were the higher laws governing them and if there was more to what they experienced at a physical plane and within the span of lifetime.
We have now become busier with the material world and lesser connected with the natural world but that does not mean the laws of nature have stopped working on us. Desires are still making us run endlessly causing dissatisfaction and hollowness within and being caught up in the endless cycle of “wants” and “gets” it is even now that we keep asking ourselves, “Is that all?” And that is the beginning of a spiritual search.
And it is not true that one cannot become spiritually involved without involving in any of the religions. But as one keeps walking forward, he would soon realize he is not alone to have asked the questions that he has asked. And out of curiosity or out of the need to have guidance by the masters who have already walked that path, one may knowingly or unknowingly enter or overlap the territory of the established religions.
Therefore, this safe space that we are creating in the families, offices, schools and colleges where religion is not the subject appreciated to be discussed is also the space where the spiritual seeds are failing to be nurtured. These spaces gradually become materialistic trying to contain the wholeness of everything in the physical life. And very soon being consumed in consumerism, the hollowness would start to appear.
Bits of everything also means depth of nothing
In the other option, where bits and pieces of all the religions are gathered to give a generalized happy picture, unfortunately the depth becomes compromised. If you follow all the paths you actually follow none. Though the destination is the same at the end, the paths and the vehicles do vary from one religion to the other and also within the same religion. So, you may have cultivated people who dance at Holi, Eid, Christmas and Buddha-poornima with equal enthusiasm but you may not have cultivated that person who has the intensity to go deeper into practising one path and knowing how all the paths similarly lead to one.
This safe option, therefore, creates shallowness or pretense in individuals. Without having realized that “oneness” at the depth, when one is having to smear all the colours to prove all is one, it either appears as a lie making unity a falsehood or it is the diversity which after a point starts to appear like the real problem why we can’t have peace in this nation.
But having found no other options, we have to choose from one of the above. And the consequence is that:
Western ideologies started to seem neutral
This is an old bargaining technique in India based on “na mera, na tera” (neither mine nor yours). The reason we have so passionately embraced the Western culture is because smothered in the conflicts of religions within the country, West felt like the escapade into neutralism. Our education system is the best example of that. Soon after we had independence, we could have dismissed the Western education and revived our older ones. But in those older systems “spirituality” was densely embedded because the very definition of “knowledge” was knowing the “self” first and not just acquiring a mass of information.
However, the riots had left painful marks and it was better to hold on to the neutral Western practices than to take the risk of sorting out our own religions. And in that fear and confusion, we did take the decision of “throwing our precious baby with the bath water”.
But these days I do see that sense of value-revival in many Indians:
1. Older generation who had taken solace in science, having turned their faces away from homegrown spiritual wisdom are starting to find similarities now.
2. The younger generation are feeling empty with the hollow ambitions. In the meaningless rat-race of achievements, they are looking for something more to make sense in life.
3. With the popularity of Yoga in the West, the Western-educated minds within the country are finding assurances to look back.
4. The Western rational outlook having reached us, we have now learnt to investigate our own traditions and separate out the weeds from the garden of useful practices in the culture.
So, it is an appropriate time to once again embrace spirituality in our lives, cleansed from the religious battle-stains of the past. But how can we be secular if we are following one chosen path and not all? If an understanding of this is not found or is unclear, “Unity in Diversity” in this country will forever be a paradox.
And these are some of the ways I feel can help the situation:
Making the difference between Spirituality and Religion clearer
Spirituality is the path of discovering own-self. It is therefore about growing beyond any petty identity to finally identify one-self with the spirit, free from all the existing boundaries or identifications.
But “religion” which was meant to be the path leading to that freedom, unfortunately has become the identity itself for many of us. And identity is formed around ego which feels assured with majority following that path and therefore tries to convert. Ego also feels threatened with difference of opinions and therefore goes into fights, riots and wars.
Religious identification is therefore just the opposite of what spirituality is. If it works as a path for someone, it is spirituality, fluid and evolving, free-ing the ego from identifications. If it is an identification itself, it is religious, static and binding, attaching the ego to the boundary of its limitations.
Therefore, the solution to religiousness is spirituality just like the solution to a stagnant pool is flowing water. If these were made clearer to us, we would be free to embrace spirituality and not suffocate ourselves within religions. We will know how to appreciate the quests of all the yogis of all the paths, without having to bother about religions.
Replacing inherited religions with chosen paths
In many official forms, we still have to mention our religions. True secularism would only start when we neither have to follow the inherited path of our ancestors nor do we have to convert ourselves necessarily if we switch from one to the other. An individual quest need not be carried forward like family possessions.
However, a child would naturally be influenced by the practices of his parents and be affected by their thoughts. But that could be the beginning of his own spiritual quest either blossoming from the same path or changing its route to another or finding a unique mixture of few existing ones or inventing a new path altogether. In this way, the identification that we have made through inherited religion, without necessarily following the wisdom in that, perhaps will be lesser.
And when the individual paths themselves become so varied, it will be difficult for us to put them under defined brackets which at the end of the day is what religion does.
Having more spiritual leaders
Unfortunately, it is in our nature to form attachments to whichever state we are. And that is the main enemy of evolution of the lower self into the higher one. And that is exactly how seeking for spiritual wisdom somewhere down the path a man could become a rigid follower. When such mistakes are so commonly made, a genuine guide could definitely matter. Spiritual guides are that’s why needed who have themselves become free from identifications and can selflessly guide.
With so many fake gurus having broken our trust, though we are sceptic in nature, I feel if this field is once again given importance in the world, the right people could help build the right nation.
Having our own vocabulary to translate other paths
When I lived with my Guruji, Ustad Fahimuddin Dagar, a Dhrupad practitioner, I observed he never found it a problem to sing prayers of Durga with devotion. He chanted Om and Allah depending on whatever naturally emerged out of his lips at that time. It is because he himself was a spiritual practitioner. So, he could easily translate the words from another religion into the common feelings that evoked beneath the words.
I have seen this religious vocabulary usually becomes a problem for a person who does not have his own vocabulary to do the necessary translation.
If I say “Saraswati” and you translate it as a “Hindu goddess” in your mind without getting any further, very soon I will have to stop speaking in such terms to appear to you more secular. But if you can translate that term into a suitable equivalent in your mind, in terms of another word or an experience rather, we could sit together for hours exchanging the stories of our paths. I have observed, what matters at the end is this translation of words, gestures or visuals into that common feeling experienced in one’s own individual path.
Therefore, if one has traveled deeper in his own path, only then can he find those equivalents in other paths. The more I understood Shiva and Shakti, the more the concept of Adam and Eve became clearer. The way to have a truly secular country therefore is by diving deeper into one’s own chosen path.
In 2015, when I had put up my first exhibition exploring the so called “Hindu” deities, I was very clear that this exploration would end with this exhibition. After that I would soon move into another aspect of India, may be touch upon the concepts from another religion.
Soon after the exhibition I realized, I had just scratched the surface of an enormous ocean I was unaware of. There was more to explore in that path. And holding the hands of the deities from that surface I decided to go deeper, layer by layer.
I knew it was time for me to make a choice in life:
1. Do I choose to explore the surface of this country through varied projects and touch upon the bits and pieces of its “diversity” to stick together a picture of oneness that we like to see as secular?
2. Do I choose to dive to that depth within myself where the unity resides of my own varied self, of this nation and the creation and diversity on its surface blossoms as a poetic expression?
I realized, the modern secularism has chosen the 1st option and I have chosen the 2nd. And I also realized that is the reason why secularism is causing so many confusions. It is being used to make us fearful of following one path making it appear as if it is the same as hating the others. It is keeping us superficially united at the surface without having explored that unity at the core at all. As a result, triggering oneself to defend one’s own “religion” so easily is causing violence to erupt.
And since then, my own quest has taken me to explore the deities from intellectual to emotional to experiential grounds. But I could not disagree more that it is “Hindu”-ism I care about. Similarly, if dedication to another path is leading someone to reach that same core, I would recognize that quest as the same self-search India through its history had stood for. It is that BELOVED INDIA I have decided to dedicate my offerings to which has been the land of seekers through many years, transforming the very air and soil into inspiration.