Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Spirituality and Religion - Journey through Generations

“The progress of succeeding generations is described as an evolution of understanding, an evolution toward a higher spirituality and vibration. Each generation incorporates more energy and accumulates more truth and then passes that status on to the people of the next generation who extend it further.”

I see this in my own life and lifetime – an interesting interplay between, and transition from, traditional religious beliefs to evolving spirituality.

My grandparents on both sides were highly principled, very religious and extremely conservative. My maternal grandfather followed strict Vedic rituals and astrology and Hindu scriptures to the letter. He was a practicing Brahmin whose genuine love and compassion for humanity often seemed to be hidden under strict traditional roles and rituals.

My maternal grandmother was all love, devoted to her gods with a simple but deep, unquestioning faith not influenced by bookish education. Intelligent, warm, witty and loving, she was all heart. She did, however, know her boundaries of influence. She could effect change in her own way but always stayed under the umbrella of my grandfather’s guidance and principles.

Living during a rapidly changing India they experienced the Second World War, the British Raj and subsequent independence, and the partition of India and Pakistan and the ensuing bloodshed. Witness to the ironically ghastly aftermath to the bloodless coup pulled by M.K Gandhi against the Brits, they were part of a unique period in history. Serving the British but silently supporting Gandhi and the non-violent movement, following western etiquettes and social norms but living deeply traditional Hindu lives, it couldn’t have been very easy to know what one believes in and what one stands for. Or, perhaps it was very simple. When you don’t question, you’re not restless.

My parents’ generation was less rigid, more open-minded but with guarded optimism towards life. They grew up during Nehru’s leadership of socialism and secularism and the non-aligned movement. There was no expectation of fabulous wealth and capitalistic extravagance. Visions of success were limited to the hope that hard work and good education, community service and social justice would lead to a pleasant and secure future. And that, hopefully, their children would follow in their footsteps and become respected civil servants, teachers, doctors and engineers.

Religion was still deeply entrenched in their lives. The Bhakti movement of devotional faith to the trinity of Indian gods – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva – forces respectively of creation, preservation, and destruction & divine rebirth, was the unifying principle explaining everything that happened in the world, from disastrous natural phenomenon and miraculous spiritual healings to the highest scientific discoveries. Other religions, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism were easily included and welcomed in this view of Existence but the possibility of cross pollination of ideologies was unthinkable. And while social interaction was celebrated, inter-faith unions was a shocking concept. Life was still led according to unchallenged Hindu principles and traditions. The caste system, in its highly warped interpretation in those changing times, was accepted as an inevitable reality. Although the atrocities meted out in some sub-cultures were swiftly condemned, they were resignedly accepted as part of life. There was some ambitious restlessness, but mostly order and belief in the divine principles prevailed.

My generation witnessed radical social, cultural, economic and psycho-spiritual shifts. Socialist India was condemned to Western scorn due to Indira Gandhi’s support of Soviet Union. Alliances with Brezhnev and Krushchev as opposed to the Republican conservatism of Nixon and later Reagan resulted in our childhood spent developing a unique worldview. We were part of the English-speaking world but we weren’t a westernized nation. Our lives carried significant British influences still, in literature, culture, social status and sports but we had an incredible fascination with all things American – but they were considered well beyond our reach. America was deemed to be too wild and loud and predatory by our parents.

But as we grew older living and succeeding in America became a very real and achievable goal. We applied to universities for scholarships and internships and attended lectures and workshops at the American Council for tips on taking the SAT and GMAT. There was, though, the sobering realization that there were no guardian angels offering us our American dream on a silver platter. It had to be self-effected, and so we slogged along, studying, researching, applying and believing. A belief in ourselves and the process, one which came from a deep but nebulous place within.

Religion was tolerated with good-natured eye rolling and resigned acceptance. In a country drenched in spirituality one would have to live in a cave to get away from it. We found the incredible capacity of our parents’ generation to fast and feast in the name of god both fascinating and embarrassing. Family discussions always had lively opposing teams of the faithful against the skeptics. Social and communal strife in the name of religion was heatedly condemned. A new generation of Spiritualists came into being…people who accepted religion as inevitable but also selected it more as a vehicle for self-awareness and personal growth rather than for identity and redemption by belonging to sects and following movements. Joining throngs of devotional worshippers chanting and singing in temples and Sanghas was uncool and unsophisticated but attending psycho-spiritual lectures by followers of Osho and Krishnamurthi was radical and hip. The essence of it all was what interested us intellectually – the notion of non-duality, the concept of Atman and Brahman and how they are essentially the same Spirit in its personal and universal incarnation - was what fascinated me much more than chanting and praying to a polytheistic hierarchy of Hindu gods and goddesses.

Embodied spirituality is an essential belief for me now. After the intoxication with the west for years where I did (and still do) live in Europe and America, and after all that has transpired as a result, I suppose in some ways life has come a full circle. While my life is here now and I enjoy many aspects of it…I feel a much deeper connection now with my eastern roots and the simple spiritual message of seeing everything and everyone as a unique but unifying expression of the same divine spirit. It’s hard to keep this in focus on a daily basis – when I’m conditioned to see the differences and to fight my way through life as an individual against a hostile Universe. But it’s so much easier and intuitively more powerful to live as a simple extension of it, with little or no conflict, or to be constantly fighting my way through life to be seen, be heard, be understood. What’s the need for it? Who’d need is it anyway? Mine really? Or of this ego driven mind constructed false sense of Me?

And so, we move on to the new generation. When I see my nieces and nephews growing up in India and Australia and Europe and America, smart, confident, privileged but not spoiled. Impulsive and demanding at times, but surprisingly conscious and compassionate as well. Where causes such as fighting AIDS in Africa, speaking up against the war in Iraq, and donating their hair to cancer patients and going on day long hunger fasts for some social cause or the other, are taken on with zest and gusto. Religion for them is an amalgam of all previously segregated organized belief systems. They learn about Islam and Hinduism and Christian Mysticism and Buddhism and accept it all as an amorphous amalgamated whole that somehow makes sense to them.

The oneness of humanity, supporting the uniqueness of each human, is not just a concept but also an obvious reality for them. They may not have too much time to devote to spirituality just yet --- but they are open to it and are aware that something bigger is at large that will surely become clear to them when they are ready.