As a literary critic, I also study mythmaking. Human beings tell stories that have subtle (and sometimes blatant) ways of excluding and including others, shaping as well as tweaking minds.
In this blog I will discuss India’s inclusive spiritualism. Myth or reality? Myths can be reviled as “stereotypes,” “platitudes,” or “truisms” but they can also be celebrated as “ideals,” “essences,” and “cultural truths.” Read before you decide.
Every tourist brochure will tell you that India is a land of spiritual wisdom. In my book, Guru English, I discuss how religion became a successful franchise for India’s gurus in the last two centuries. India’s naked yogis have been noticed since ancient times (the Greeks called them gymnosophists, the Jaina term was digambara or sky-clad). As Paramahamsa Yogananda, puts it, in Autobiography of A Yogi, “India is a country where spiritual ‘skyscrapers’ may occasionally be encountered by the wayside.” India had still not explored urban verticality then: hence the need for that competitive metaphor.
Such reactive perceptions, insisting on Hindu spirituality as more advanced than Western modernity, had fuelled the engine of Indian nationalism against the British. Swami Vivekananda famously provoked Hindus by saying that liberation from the British needed 3 B’s—beef, biceps, and Bhagavadgita.
Yet there is reason to pause. India’s vaunted spirituality has spawned many a satire. Religious sanctions also generated social evils such as sati and untouchability, and genocides past and present. There is much indigenous literature in multiple Indian languages on religious fraudulence, exposing “godmen” as fakes, tricksters, and even child molesters, although new spiritual leaders spring up by the hour to give counsel to the spiritually needy. Indiasporans saw one example with Vikram Gandhi’s delightful movie about a self-styled guru, Kumaré.
Hindus have colonized the West in reverse, through their Maharishis. Lord Macaulay, famously scathing about Bengalis whom he dismissed as lazily “living in a vapor bath,” got his come-uppance by later gurus who effectively said, “while you think I’m lazy to be sitting under a tree, I’m actually meditating, and I’ll teach you a special mantra I discovered if you can leave all your money to my ashram.”
At the core, we find the Indian émigré guru translates the eternal verities into entrepreneurial values. Is it scandalous to be a “religious entrepreneur?” How about Buddha, Christ, or Muhammad? What were they? Others established their franchises after the founders’ deaths. Many start-ups fall, as they do, by the wayside, unless every acorn can sprout a spiritual skyscraper, to return to Yogananda’s wayside metaphor.
Perhaps India was the land of entrepreneurship well before capitalism was invented. Entrepreneurship as self-realization? We know that from Steve Jobs who innovated because he had to. Now Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are routinely called “gurus.” Isn’t business management increasingly “spiritualized,” involving meditation and self-reflection as part of corporate strategy? The Bhagavadgita is a justification of war as well as an allegory for mental peace. Hence Robert Oppenheimer quoted from it when witnessing the explosion at Los Alamos.
Now, am I calling Indian spirituality fraudulent, or do we need to separate the wheat from the chaff, the cynical opportunism from the true essence? But who decides?
For that question, an Indian guru from the past had the perfect grammatical answer—do not choose, always include instead. Keshub Chunder Sen, the inaugurator of the New Dispensation or Nava Vidhan syncretic religion in the nineteenth century recommended that when it comes to spiritual issues, we should always replace ‘Or’ with ‘And.’ Keshub included Christian and Muslim elements alongside Hindu ideas, as did the Mughal Emperor Akbar with his synthesis, din-e-ilahi. Theosophy integrated Tibetan Buddhism and Vedanta. Normally, many religious cultures emphasize the “either-or” by conversion and exclusion. The spiritualist dimension of India’s inclusive culture suggests the space of “both-and,” and “perhaps even so,” and “but let’s not forget that,” and “in addition to that, let me tell you,” and “no, no, you don’t understand, because.” (There will be those who argue that India is also cursed with bucketloads of religious bigots, and they too are right).
By highlighting the wild-minded inclusiveness of some types of Indian spirituality, we can point to a model that is much richer than the weak idea of religious “tolerance.” This is a potluck form of religion, whereby everyone is invited to dinner, except that you are all asked to bring a dish to pass around the table.