The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, December 22, 2002
Lead Article

Designer spirituality
Spiritual gurudom in India is nothing new. The number of babas, swamis, gurus, bapus, bhagats and their ilk in India is legion. However, recent years have seen the revival of mystical religious traditions in a new and modified avataar, writes Gitanjali Mahajan

MY friend, Kirti is someone who tries to do all that she can to be a 'positive' and 'spiritual' person. She is also a workshop junkie. Whenever there is a spiritual teacher, a yogi or a "psychic healer" in town, she spends much of her time attending their enlightenment programmes or workshops. She seemed especially pleased with her latest experience.


When I asked her the reason, she told me that she was able to get some exclusive time with the Guruji and she spoke to him about the dilemma she had been going through about this boy that she really liked. I was intrigued. After all, the traditional image of a guru in your mind does not exactly correspond with the-kind-of-person-you-can-discuss-your-love-life- with!

I accompanied my friend to her guru's retreat the next day. I saw amongst the gathering, a number of youngsters, sitting and listening with rapt attention to a rather pleasant-looking man who was addressing them in Hindi, but with a generous smattering of English thrown in. A picture of poise and serenity, he had a deep powerful voice. What I really found impressive was a quiet sense of humour that peppered his talk. If it hadn't been for his clothes, he could have easily passed off as some corporate honcho.

Spiritual gurudom in India is nothing new. The number of babas, swamis, gurus, bapus, bhagats and their ilk in India is legion. However, recent years have seen the revival of mystical religious traditions in a new and modified avatar. As a part of the general westernisation of India, Hinduism also underwent a transformation or 'evolution' if you please. The form and nature of religion has to also keep changing in order to keep pace with the times. There are many who understood this and instead of rejecting Hinduism, modernised it. The world is beginning to form into one big multicultural society and the modern gurus have changed themselves suitably.


The contemporary spiritual guru is not your hectoring-colourful marks on the forehead-matted-hair Maharaj, spouting mantras and lessons about penance, renunciation and charity. Quite the contrary. Charismatic, great orators, motivators and organisation builders, modern gurus are sophisticated and glamorous and as popular as any film star. They are comfortable doing the talk-show circuit, do not shy away from meeting with the members of the Press and are written about in the major news magazines. In order to expose their way of thinking about spiritual matters to people, they make proper use of media. Not only TV and print media but Internet is also used to spread their teachings.

They are progressive and global in their outlook. That is, of course, not to say that they have given up on our ancient spiritual heritage completely. In fact, they built upon earlier practical traditions of yoga and Vedanta, to begin their modern development and outlook. On the one hand they teach non-violence, tolerance for diverse viewpoints, practical considerations of vegetarianism, concern for Earth's environment and on the other hand focus on yoga and meditation. They are liberal, they are secular and they are materialistic. They incorporated pop music into bhajans and at the same time have brought ayurveda, natural healing medicine and vedic astrology back into trend. Yoga is perhaps the biggest brand that India has exported to the western world. It has come to be known as a neutral term for the practices, free of any cultural or intellectual bias fit for the consumption of global citizens.

The rejection of life and Hindu ascetic pretensions are no longer given any significance. What is important for the youth is how to make life better, how to make the best of modern life with all or most of its possibilities. Acharya Tulsi, a contemporary Jain monk, has developed a 'minimum moral code' for his modern followers who find five big vows (non-violence, non-stealing, celibacy, non-acquisition and speaking the truth) too intimidating. The new code only requires the followers to stick to vows such as "I will do my best to avoid contributing to pollution"; "I will observe rectitude in business and general behavior". Clearly, what the Acharya espouses is not a departure from the world but an immersion in it with as much honesty as is humanly possible.

Instead of preaching charity and prayer, the modern gurus show the path to worldly success, big wealth, and good health. The emphasis is on individual fulfillment and gratification, on achieving maximal human potential rather than sacrificing and selflessly labouring for a better world. One should strive for personal development and empowerment. Materialism still predominates and appears to have lost none of its influence. But as the global community becomes increasingly capitalistic, the quest for spirituality also grows in urgency. Swami Chidanandaji of the Chinmaya Mission says, "There is a spiritual materialism during the present times, it is anyway a good sign…Now spirituality has also become a fad because spiritual organisations have become trendy. Besides, we have highly educated swamis". Swami Chidanandaji who has given discourses and held discussions at places like Lucent Technologies and at various universities including MIT, Yale, Columbia and California besides numerous organisations in India thinks that people, especially the youth, should pursue material aspirations but without giving up their traditional values. "Lord Krishna represented spirituality and Arjuna represented materialism," he says.

Deepak Chopra, a leading exponent of holistic health, New Age Spirituality and human potential has a gift for oratory and flair for words, but also has a thorough grounding in the Indian tradition. His teaching blends physics and philosophy, ayurveda and modern science, timeless wisdom and personal insight. His 25 books including Ageless Body Timeless Mind, Creating Affluence, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success (a book which promotes success through creative visualisation) have sold 10 million copies worldwide. He tried selling ancient Vedantic wisdom wrapped up in a contemporary idiom and style and, boy, did it sell?!

Amritanadamayi or Amma as she is popularly known is supposed to excel in the art of listening. There are many who therefore disrobe their minds in front of her and seek her advice. This is what she has to say about spiritual knowledge "Materialism and spiritualism are not different from each other. If you know one, you know the other…Live life like a picnic without forgetting your own home".

Gurus today are educated and well equipped to confront today's well-informed youth. They recognise that through the English language they can reach out to maximum number of people. They try to adjust their approach to the exact level of every person. Swami Sivananda refers to everyone in terms of respect. Besides Tamil, English, Hindi and Malay, which he knows well, he also learnt words of greeting, proverbs, poems and songs in many languages all of which he used to advantage in his contacts with people.

Thich Nhat Hanh, known for popularising 'mindful meditation' is the author of 60 books. He is fluent in French and English, besides Vietnamese.

Perhaps the most popular guru in the recent years has been Sri Sri Ravi Shanker of the famed 'Art of Living'. Sri Ravi Shanker evokes an image as though of a modern-day messiah, wearing austere and spotless white flowing robes, and sporting long black hair and beard He was a trusted lieutenant of the transcendental Guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and has had the privilege of being the only non-western to be on the advisory board of Yale University's School of Divinity. Hitherto, spirituality was thought to be something devoid of fun. But this 'guru of joy' opines, "Spirituality has more to do with love, compassion, peace of mind, calmness and creativity."

As people struggle to keep pace with their high-tension lifestyles, 'Art of living' course has come as the much needed stressbuster and has found itself a big market. The course promises to "release layers of stress without effort, removing blocks to the increased energy and joy that is our birthright." Sudarshan kriya which is supposed to be the cornerstone of Art of Living course is a breathing technique that can "rid the system of accumulated stress and toxins as well as release negative emotions and rejuvenate the body."

A recent survey concluded that more young people believe in God, in spirituality, and in life after death than they did 20 years ago. People today are not openly critical of any brand of spirituality. Books promoting the author's spiritual experience that would have been dismissed as fantasy if not bordering on insanity in the age of reason are now accepted as legitimate expression of the author's search for spiritual meaning. Today's youth buy books written by holy teachers, wear their likeness around their necks, carry the laminated portraits of their gurus in their wallets and attend their workshops.

The fact that these spiritual gurus are followed and promoted by celebrities certainly helps. Deepak Chopra sold 130000 copies of his book, Ageless Body Timeless Mind in one day after appearing on Oprah Winfrey's television show. Film stars, industrialists, high profile fashion designers all endorse their favoured gurus and having got the respectable sanction from the affluent members of the society, the masses simply emulate their role models.

Books, music and other paraphernalia associated with contemporary spirituality is an industry worth millions of rupees every year. Books such as What's Really Wrong and How to be Happy that combine Indian religious philosophy and psychological therapeutic techniques are widely read. One has to only check out any best-selling book list in the country to know that. Businesses and academic institutions adopt creative visualisation, meditation and other practices to maximise the achievements of employees and students. Clearly, modern gurus have appealed very effectively to the feelings and emotions of the present generation. They have been successful in bridging the gap between the old and the new. While remaining close to the ancient Indian philosophy, they try to resolve the ultra modern dilemmas of human life.

Having understood the mindet and problems faced by the youth, the modern day "soul-doctors" give them an experience they "like" and benefit from. Combining charisma with intellect, these 'worldly' spiritualists have slowly but surely ushered in an era of personalised designer religion.