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SOCIAL SPIRITUALITY
By Swami Agnivesh

The hallmark of spirituality is responsiveness to the given context. This is what distinguishes spirituality from religion in its common practice. As a matter of fact, religion in itself is meant to be a source of empowerment for human beings in their effort to make sense of, and cope with, their life-world. This has four major spheres of search, struggle and growth.

(a) First, every individual needs to relate to the divine, and live by the discipline that goes with it. Questions pertaining to the nature and being of God belong to this order of human preoccupation.

(b) Second, there is a need to understand oneself, where questions like who we are, what is the meaning and purpose of life, what is the scope of human destiny, what are the means for human fulfillment etc. become important.

(c) Third, we need to relate wholesomely to the given social context where the dynamics of living together with others assume profound spiritual significance. It is in this context that the dynamism of our spirituality finds practical expression. The spiritually enlightened person cannot remain indifferent to the problems and sufferings of others. Justice becomes the most authentic expression of spirituality in the social context. This entails a sense of responsibility for the kind of society we create and the human predicament that prevails in it.

(d) Fourthly, every human being needs to maintain a healthy relationship with the material world, the order of creation all around him. He needs to practice justice in the way he relates to the total order of creation, taking care of the world around him, respecting the integrity of creation as an important aspect of our human vocation. When this is forgotten and creation is exploited in violation of its sanctity and sustainability, we precipitate the environmental crisis.

The polarization between religion and spirituality

Spirituality needs to be distinguished in the light of these observations from the practice of religion, though spirituality is subsumed in religion. Over a period of time, as religion gets institutionalized, there comes about a gap between the two, which thereafter tends to widen. This polarization between religion and spirituality results from the degradation of religion and further contributes to it. In the end a stage is reached in which religion becomes a contradiction of spirituality. So it happens that religious rituals and sacraments become an escape route from the challenges and responsibilities of the world around us. It even happens that religious concepts are employed in justifying and perpetuating the practice of injustice.

From this perspective, our Vedic heritage presents two contrasting faces. On the one hand, we have a rich and commendable religious and philosophical tradition, unrivaled in its sophistication and subtlety. No other religious culture has scaled the heights and depths of subjective spirituality (the subtle understanding of the self) as we have done. On the other hand, the Indian religious outlook has progressively tended to close its eyes to social realities where gross aberrations continued to thrive.

Consider the idea of Dharma in the Vedic tradition. Understood properly, Dharma is essentially a spiritual concept that pertains to the foundation and sustenance of the created order in its natural, social and political dimensions. Dharma is that which undergirds the wholeness of creation and social life. It is possible to understand this principle either in a "status quoist" or in a dynamic way. Seen only in a status quoist perspective, Dharma is that which rationalizes and preserves the existing order with all its strengths and weaknesses, beauties and blemishes, intact. Dharma in other words is a preservative. But in its dynamic paradigm, Dharma becomes a principle of transformation. It aims not only at supporting the existing scheme of things, but also to bring out the ideal potentials in the order of creation, which is not yet revealed in all its scope.

From such a dynamic perspective, two categories of spiritual tasks become clear. First, there is a need to reinforce what is good and righteous in the given context. Second, there is a need also to resist and reduce the aberrations and distortions in the given socio-economic order. It is because of this that Swami Dayanand Saraswati emphasized that a sense of mission is basic to the practice of religion when it is healthy and dynamic. But when the spiritual fire within a religion dies out, the first casualty will be this sense of mission, which embodies the dynamism of that religion.

The problem with us today is that we have too much of religion but little of spirituality. And our religions seem to be vying with each other in justifying Karl Marx's indictment of religion that it is "an opium of the people". (The sense in which Marx used this expression is, incidentally, different from what is popularly derived from it. But that is another matter.) It is important to take cognizance of the alarming signs of religious decay in our times. Our religiosity is not imbued with a passion to resist the forces of evil. It is not ablaze with compassion for our fellow human beings and for the rest of creation. We watch mutely the shameless abuse of religion for political profits, using it as a blanket in this process for all sorts of atrocities and frauds. If this lamentable trend is not arrested, religion will be seen by the coming generation only as a liability, reinforcing the current secular prejudice.

Those who subscribe to the Vedic World View, as I do, have a lot to answer for themselves vis--vis the institutionalization of injustice and systemic oppression in the name of Hinduism. In one sense, our society has been a peaceful one. Different religious communities have been living, at least till recently, in remarkable amity and harmony with each other. But in another sense we are one of the most violent societies in the world. No other society has kept as many millions for as many centuries in a state of subhuman subjugation and exploitation as the low caste people in all religious communities have been in this country. Even today, fifty years after the attainment of freedom, millions continue to suffer under the yoke of caste oppression and bonded labour. Millions exist like living ghosts under the epidemic of poverty and avoidable diseases. 46% of our people today are illiterate. They outnumber the total population of India at the time of our Independence.

The tragic thing is that what makes suffering, enslavement and exploitation so endemic in our context is also our basic strength: our resilience as a people. Ironically we have been weakened by our strength. People put up with a lot in this country. They have the patience of mountains. They endure mutely on the edges of extinction. For far too long we have romanticized this slow suicide only because it served the interests of the status quo, of those who had everything and did not want to share the available resources with their neighbours. All religions have done it. Christianity turned the fierce biblical ethics into a tame and toothless thing, understandably castigated by Nietzsche as too mild and humane to be useful. The Church has had no use for the Jesus who exploded with indignation at the site of exploitation and overturned the tables of vested interests in the Temple premises. Instead, all through, the Church has been preaching self-denial while practising tyranny and opulence.

The point in making this reference is to emphasize the need to radically re-value our orthodox ethical dogmas and assumptions. To do this meaningfully, we need to strike a balance between our habitual otherworldliness and the need for dynamic this-worldliness. The dishonest practice of selling the hope for a better birth or heaven in lieu of minimum human dignity and personal fulfillment in this world needs to be questioned. Those who cannot extend a helping hand to those who suffer and wither in this world have no moral right to insult them with the mockery of "a pie in the sky when you die". This needs to be seen as the bottom line for evolving the contours of social spirituality.

Fundamental to the question of social spirituality is the distortion of ethics effected by the religious establishment. As the religious establishment gets stronger and stronger and as class or caste vested interests supersedes the spiritual ideals of a religious tradition, we find the revolutionary aspects of religious ethics being diluted. Ethical principles begin to be re-oriented in the direction of preserving and propagating the status quo. Ironically, it is the establishment, both religious and secular, that is keen to preach ethics. The willingness to practice ethics in this connection is inversely proportionate to the eagerness to preach it.

A few illustrative cases here

This pro status quo nature that is imparted to religion is incompatible with its true vocation, which is to transform individuals and societies. Transformation is not just any change. It is, instead, change directed towards the maximum fulfillment of human beings as human beings. Fulfillment in the human context, in other words, is a great deal more than mere material possession, indulgence or consumption of pleasure. In its social context, transformation acquires a revolutionary character. It implies the 'spiritual' duty to engage and reform institutions, systems and practices that are subversive of our humanity. This is the essence of righteousness in its dynamic sense. Dharma is not merely a state of having some nice sentiments. It is an active orientation that refuses to compromise with forces of evil. It excludes indifference to the suffering of one's fellow human beings.

At this point we need to reckon with a basic aspect of spirituality. The spiritual is different from the material in this respect that to be authentic the spiritual needs to be embodied. The material object is there whether or not it is used or invoked. A man who has a million rupees in the bank balance is rich, even if he maintains the lifestyle of a pauper. Not so in the case of things spiritual. If someone says he has love in his heart, but never cares to express it in his life time, he is a liar. It is, hence, integral to the logic of spirituality that it needs to be embodied in the given context. In that sense, we do not have to say "social spirituality"; for spirituality is also 'social' by definition.

Rather than recognize and develop the transformative dimension of religion - that is, the spiritual dynamism of religion - the priestly class in all religions prefers to promote its escapist aspects. Religious obscurantism is born out of this outlook. 'Obscurantism, as the word implies, involves a disengagement with the world of realities. It obscures the element of human responsibility and the need to respond in practical terms. Rather than take the policy decision, for example, to wipe out illiteracy from India and pursue it vigorously through administrative action, we could go on chanting Saraswati Vandana. We could go on worshiping the goddess of wealth, and yet not develop a healthy work culture or sense of disciplined management of our material resources. Instead, we could improvise all sorts of rituals and practices by which the gods could be coaxed and cajoled to overlook our lapses and continue to bless us in spite of ourselves!

It is because of this that we face an embarrassing contradiction today. India is a land of profound spirituality. It is also a land of extreme inequality, injustice and dehumanization. The sublime philosophical reach of the Indic soul has not found its social expressions. Social realities have gone almost in the opposite direction from the flight of this Indic soul. The Indian religious traditions, more than the Semitic religions, recognized the spiritual value of the female principle. But the plight of our women, especially of the widows, has continued to be lamentable all through. Hospitality has been a great value with us, but the dalits have never found a place in the architecture of our social outlook. It is here that the seed of our all-round poverty lies.

There are at least three major reasons why we need to develop social dimensions of our spirituality.
(1) Our country stands in need of social empowerment. A country in which millions are socially enslaved and disabled cannot hope to progress and attain its fulfillment. In this context, issues like endemic illiteracy, poverty, disease and inequality need to be seen as spiritual challenges. The caste system is a patent violation of social spirituality. Dismantling this oppressive, inhuman practice is a pre-condition for the fulfillment of our destiny as a nation.


(2) We need to create a rationale for our unity and oneness as a people. Disunity and social tensions are unavoidable when social justice is overlooked. The true index to the healthy status of a society is its commitment to social justice. Unity and dynamism are its by-products. Today we are a lamentably fragmented society, wherein ironically divisive manoeuvers are being made to promote artificial unity! That is why the Hindu fold is sought to be united using various hate objects, improvised from time to time.


(3) We need to build a participatory culture of development within which the total human energies and resources available to us are deployed in nation building. The extent to which the 400 million illiterate people in this country can participate in or contribute to nation building is minimal. From the point of view of active participation or resource sharing the population of India must be reckoned in terms of a few millions. This in itself is a massive finger pointing to the levels of social injustice prevalent today in our context.

The need to create a dynamic social order has become all the more compelling in the context of globalism. Egalitarianism and people's participation have been major factors in the socio-economic dynamism of the developed societies. Today they are in a position to derive the best out of the emerging global order. The Market is not a place of sentimentality, compassion or charity. We have to deliver the goods to be taken seriously. Gimmicks like exploding nuclear devices will not cover the nakedness of our social underdevelopment by which we shall continue to be judged and condemned.

Those who claim to be spiritually enlightened cannot any longer shut their eyes on the weeping wounds of our society. The situation today is such that we have to launch a new "Liberation Movement" in India. For vast segments in our country, the attainment of political freedom has not meant much. Millions await to be liberated from bonded labour, child labour, illiteracy, poverty, ill-health, exploitation and conspiratorial neglect at the hands of the State. Millions more need to be liberated from superstition, religious obscurantism and fundamentalism. Above all our society needs to be liberated from the prison house of communal hatred and hostilities and the inevitable dissipation of energies and resources this involves. The rise of religious fundamentalism is made possible only by the dilution of our commitment to social justice.

One of the foremost needs in the Indian context today is to reform the very idea of religion. Our tragedy is that we have too much of religion and little of spirituality. Religion without spirituality, especially in its social dimension, tends to be a system of oppression and exploitation. It was against Christianity without a commitment to social justice that Karl Marx issued his informed indictment. Human history, including the Church, has been the richer for that. It is time that a similar spiritual ferment took place in our context too. But that will not happen as long as this is left in the hands of professional clergy and the hangers-on of the religious establishment. People whose hearts are set ablaze with compassion and truth need to devote themselves to the task of impacting our society from a spiritual perspective and produce the fruits of the resultant transformation so that the religious establishment is forced to take note of it. While religion can be the exclusive preserve of the religious, spirituality is under nobody's monopoly. He who gives a glass of water to quench the thirst of another is spiritually more evolved than those who chant their scriptures with their eyes closed on the giant agony of our world.


 

 


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