It would be bromidic, yet true, to say that one of India's biggest contributions to the world and one of its biggest sources of pride and fame is its rich spiritual heritage. From the works of Gita, Vedas, Upanishads, and Smritis, to the lives of Vivekananda, Buddha, Mahavira Tagore and Gandhi. No wonder India is known as the land of spirituality! Swami Vivekananda enunciated the greatness of Indian spiritual traditions across the world and the poems of Tagor brought the attention of the whole world into India's spiritual temperament. Ramayana and Mahabharata still provide more spiritual insights than one lifetime can fathom. "Gitanjali'' still susurrates like a boundless ocean that beckons us to quench our insatiable spiritual yearnings. Realising that the process of self-purification is never ending, Tagor, in his beautiful poem "Waiting", wrote these most wonderful lines : "I have spent many days stringing and unstringing my instrument while the song I came to sing remains unsung".
Now, what exactly is spirituality? It's hard to define it properly. Spirituality is one of those words that is defined so vaguely that it is easy to claim or justify any nonsense and irrational gibberish using it. With so many notions and ideas environing the word spirituality claiming to constitute its definition, one begins to wonder whether a coherent definition for it is even possible.
Spirituality, in my view, is an introspective impulse that gives us the feeling of a metaphysical connection to ourselves and to something bigger than ourselves which helps us to make sense of the world and which typically involves deliberations on various existential matters — like, what the meaning of life is, where did life come from, how should life be lived, where life is going etc — which are the entailments of the metaphysical metanarrative which is constructed based on the introspective impulse. This introspective impulse, I presume, is a universal human experience, though how it manifests may differ across people.
I am perfectly aware that my view may not conclusively factor in all that which constitutes the definition of spirituality. I doubt whether anyone can precisely define such a vague term. Based on a 2005 survey by McCarroll, an article titled "Assessing plurality in spirituality definitions", showed that in articles published in medical journals on the subject of spirituality, there are twenty-seven different explicit and generally accepted definitions of spirituality. The fact that there was 'little agreement' between these definitions makes the notion of spirituality even more ineffable.
Owing to the impulsive compulsion of humanity to make the ineffable effable, throughout human history spirituality has manifested in various forms, in various degrees, usually deformed and distorted. Ideologies, poems, myth, religions and allegory etc... are often manifestations of it, and they are often means of communicating it.
It is common knowledge that religion is a source of spirituality. But religion is not always necessarily a source of spirituality. The word spirituality was used by early Christianity in connection with the Holy Spirit. "Pneuma" is the Greek word for spirit. Spirit differs from soul in that spirit is focused on the higher purposes, and it is always pointed toward God and exists exclusively for God, whereas soul could be self-centered and egotistical.
Spirit doesn't have names or labels. In a sense, this holy spirit is similar to the not-so-holy spirit, i.e, the pure spirit of alcohol. Pure spirit is like pure water in appearance. But it has the power to alter our mental states. By manifesting itself in the form of various drinks, it causes complex disturbances in the human consciousness. It wouldn't be a stretch to compare alcohol with religions and many ideologies. These religions give names and forms to the nameless and formless soul and give its followers a sense of religious feeling, and obviously you don't need me to tell you that these religions are sometimes as addictive as alcohol, and that this may lead to violent, and dangerous extremism.
But what is remarkable is that the same spiritual experience that these religions produce has also created Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ramana Maharshi, Avicenna, Jalaluddin Rumi, Buddha, Jesus Christ and many other admirable giants. Religions provide theories that attempt to understand the functioning of the world. They brought together countless people and have inspired hope and action in them. They have given optimism to live on, to improve oneself and the society. They are moral compasses too, they attempt to enumerate what's good and bad/evil. They expounded plans for a better world, and how we can realise it. They provided a rich mine of stories, theories, and interpretations that provide penetrating insights into human nature. Some of the greatest, best and most impressive buildings and artworks ever were created for religious purposes. The contributions of religions range from metaphysics to ethics to aesthetics, and it extends to almost all arenas of human thought and action. Not all of the contributions may be immediately helpful or true. I don't think that the religious metaphysical explanations about the origin of the universe is true. Based on its sheer explanatory power and testability, the cosmological theories of modern physics are superior to religious explanations at any rate.
But one must not forget that religion was our oldest attempt to explain the functioning of the world. The fact that religion attempted to provide an explanation for the universe, and to make sense of our role in it at a time when we couldn't even make heads or tails about what was going on around us is in itself admirable.
What makes religion not so admirable is that sometimes it tends to become dogmatic, rigid, and stagnant. Dogmatic people may delude themselves into believing that their worldview reflects the absolute truth, and this results in them becoming more close minded and more resistant to information that may counter their beliefs. This impairs their ability to make sound judgements. This leads to ignorance, stupidity, fear and malevolence. That is what leads religion to violent, and dangerous extremism.
The reason why religion becomes dogmatic is that it forgets it's own root, i.e, spirituality. Similar to what Socrates said about ignorance, one may become dogmatic at times, but one must possess the capacity to realise that one is dogmatic. Only then can one get out of his/her dogmatism. This capacity is the ability to honestly self-reflect or introspect, which is what characterises spirituality. Honest self-reflection or introspection is hard and difficult to do. One must examine every single preconception one has. Examining and questioning our own prejudices are very painful for our egos. So humans generally prefer to borrow spirituality. This happens in the form of people believing in whatever religion they are born to. They live by its rules and rites. They dogmatically and blindly believe, follow and practice the pre-established rituals and rites of religions from birth to death. By blindly sacrificing their whole life to religion, they destroy religion itself. They, with their blind conformity and dogmas, destroy the fertile introspective soil of spirituality upon which religion stands. When the believer forgets spirituality, he defiles and destroys religion. This is why I said earlier that religion is not always necessarily a source of spirituality.
One need not necessarily be religious to be spiritual. Spirituality doesn't stem from religious impulse, rather religion stems from spiritual impulse. Religion is only one of the many manifestations of the spiritual impulse. As mentioned earlier, spirituality may manifest itself through ideologies, poems, myth etc... too. Spirituality stems from the fact that we are limited. Limitations imply imperfections. We don't know, and therefore cannot do, and therefore cannot control everything. In addition to this we are beings with desires. This is the source of all pains and sufferings. We desire to integrate ourselves into all that which we are not to be everything. This is the ultimate project of humanity hitherto. This is, in a way, a project to become God. As Sartre wrote in 'Being and Nothingness', "To be man means to reach towards being God. Or if you prefer, man fundamentally is the desire to be God." Our desire for perfection, omnipotence, supreme wisdom, all our optimistic hopes, all our utopian ideologies, our irresistible itch to experience pure bliss, our ideal states, our yearning to return to the garden of Eden, our rebellions to reach communism, our march towards the absolute, our irresistible curiosity to find the theory of everything, everything stems from this spiritual impulse.
One can, for example, experience spirituality via science. The most venerable Carl Sagan has expounded it very eloquently in his 1995 book "The Demon-Haunted World". Quoting him :
"In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos. And the cumulative worldwide build-up of knowledge over time converts science into something only a little short of a trans-national, trans-generational meta-mind.
'Spirit' comes from the Latin word 'to breathe.' What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word “spiritual” that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both."
I've already deliberated on the source of spirituality. Our limitations foist suffering on us and suffering leads to spirituality. Suffering makes us ask questions that we normally wouldn't ask, questions like "what is the meaning of life?", "what is the point of suffering?" etc...
Without suffering there's no spirituality. Without spirituality, there is no will to live on. Thus suffering is an intrinsic quality of life. To completely eliminate suffering is tantamount to being dead. Suffering is an essential aspect of human experience. Suffering in itself is instrumental. It can either lead to deterioration and decay (slavery, malnutrition etc... are examples of this), or to improvement and glory. The latter are noble suffering. A better world comes via the vision of those who suffer most, those who suffer the noble suffering.
The best illustration, I can think of, of noble suffering is Michelangelo's painting in the Sistine Chapel. Feeling totally frustrated by the years of wrenching hard-work that lies ahead of him, Michelangelo wrote a sonnet to his friend Giovanni da Pistoia expressing his sufferings. It reads :
"This damn job’s given me a goiter –
like those cats in Lombardy (or whatever place they’re in)
who drink their city’s fetid water.
My belly’s nearly smack against my chin.
My beard’s aimed straight at heaven; my nape’s
folded on my back. I have a harpy’s chest
and my face is now a landscape
where the dripping colors come to rest.
At times, my thighs are pressed into my stomach,
my ass a kind of counter-anchor.
And feet? It seems I have no feet,
except for strange erratic
shuffling underneath the ankles.
Like a Syrian bow, I’m stretched in front –
behind, I’m crimped and furrowed.
My mind’s taken on my body’s shape,
– no dart shoots true from a twisted pipe.
My picture’s dead. I’m all used up.
My honor day by day grows fainter.
Defend it, Giovanni, I’m no painter."
Despite all this, he endured the suffering and immortalised himself through his work. Now there is no denying that his painting in the Sistine Chapel is one of the biggest glories of mankind.
The goal of spirituality is to reduce the deteriorating sufferings, and to enhance noble sufferings. Noble sufferings enhance and affirm life, while deteriorating sufferings denies and destroys life. There is a famous spiritual line from Bhagavad Gita that captures well this notion, "uddhared ātmanātmānaṁ nātmānam avasādayet
ātmaiva hyātmano bandhur ātmaiva ripur ātmanaḥ" which means, "Elevate yourself through the power of your mind, and not degrade yourself, for the mind can be the friend and also the enemy of the self".
To summarise, Inorder for us to have the will to live, we need spirituality, inorder for spirituality to exist, we need suffering, but that suffering should be life enhancing noble suffering. All the great spiritual leaders ever have realised this.
Jesus suffered for the salvation of all of humanity. He suffered immensely throughout his torture and crucifixion. Isaiah 52:14 declares, “There were many who were appalled at Him—His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness.” His suffering was especially spiritual in nature. He carried the sin of all of humanity. Bearing our sins in pain and suffering, Jesus said, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me".
Same was the case of Jesus, Socrates and Gandhi, all of them suffered likewise. They endured suffering out of their genuine love for the people they had never seen, people of the succeeding generations. Not much different was the case of Gautama Buddha. He was the son of a king. He abandoned power, abandoned palace and all the luxuries. To where did he journey that night? To enlightenment. That journey was spirituality.
When we venture on this journey of life affirmation, we'll connect to the rest of the world, and go beyond our ego - or, as an old Christian evening hymn puts it :
"Now all the heavenly splendour
Breaks forth in starlight tender
From myriad worlds unknown;
And man,the marvel seeing,
Forgets his selfish being
For joy of beauty not his own."
When mankind realizes this joy of beauty through spirituality, Hegel, Marx, Jesus, Muhammad, Krishna and all the other countless prophets will resurrect!
Sivanth Adithya.N is a final year Philosophy (Hons) student from Hindu College, Delhi University.