Spiritual Traditions of India and Modern Challenges
by Makarand Paranjape, A.M., PhD


Presented at International Congress on Contemporary India, University of Valladolid, Spain, 15th-19th November 2000.


Preamble: Owning Up

Mr. Chairman Sir and Spanish friends of India, let me confess at the outset that this is not a learned paper. It could not be, not only because of the rather short notice at which I agreed to participate in this programme, but also, at least partly, because of the nature of my subject. I think spiritual traditions anywhere in the world are at odds with Cartesian notions of self and subjectivity. What they seek to activate, if not demonstrate, are experiences of being which not individualistic or even postindividualistic. There is a dimension to consciousness that is not governed by the intellect which spiritual traditions affirm. Speaking to That, speaking from That puts one perforce at odds with the dominant modes of modern scholarship, whether in the West or in India.

In other words, I am not sure that a learned paper is the best way of invoking or evoking that Otherness. To call That into play in our exchanges, to make That the ground of dialogue, one would have to take certain risks, so to speak, to perform without a net if one were a trapeze artist or without a score if one were a musical maestro. Being spiritual is not the same as talking about spirituality-this should be obvious. Those of us who want to be spiritual more than or in addition to talking about spirituality must be ready to reckon with the immediacy, the exhilaration of moment, with its resistance to old words and ideas, its suspicion of too much learning, its bold affirmation of the value of holistic wisdom over instrumental rationality. So I start by saluting That, paying obeisance to That, invoking That.

Ladies and Gentlemen, there are two rather apparent challenges that any student of Indian spirituality faces. The first is evidenced in the repeated questions that confront you when you travel abroad. Even total strangers in trains and airplanes or at parties or conferences will ask, at some point in the conversation, if you do yoga or meditation. If the question is not that direct, it will pose itself in a different way: do you know anything about spirituality? Or, why did Krishna have so many wives? Or, who is Shiva? Otherwise, the question will be about Ahimsa (non-violence) or Gandhi or Tagore, or Ramana Maharshi. This doesn't mean that people don't ask you about "non-spiritual" things-about economics, poverty, Kashmir, or cricket, or even about tigers and elephants, nuclear bombs and software experts.

The point is that whatever else India might be, it continues to be identified with spirituality. Postcolonial critics would be quick to counter and correct such identifications. No, they would say, India is not really a spiritual country. This notion was fostered by 19th century Orientalists, who gave the cliché that the West was material while India was spiritual. They might add that Hindu nationalists of the 19th century adopted and confirmed this dichotomous division for their own political and cultural ends. Hence they would say, though I am an Indian, I am just like you; I have no knowledge of or interest in yoga, transcendental meditation, vipassana, Krishna consciousness, and the like. All these are fraudulent fads or little use to serious intellectuals.

After three days of an important conference of such postcolonial intellectuals at the University of Texas at Austin, one of the distinguished invitees and residents of Austin, Raja Rao is said to have remarked: "What is this India that you have been talking about? I don't recognize it. India is nothing if it is not spiritual." Even if I don't go as far as Raja Rao, I would certainly say, "India is also spiritual, whatever else it might be."

So the first challenge is to be asked if you know anything about yoga. It would be relatively easy to say, "No, thank goodness, I don't. I'm just another regular guy like you, with no interest in all this mumbo-jumbo." It is far harder to say, "Yes, I am a yogi, I do yoga, I am interested in it and in other spiritual practices and ideas." Of course, to go from saying "I am interested in yoga" to "I am a yogi" is quite a big leap. You are unsure if you are taking your own modest spiritual project, you private quest for truth too seriously by giving yourself such a grand, even arrogant sounding title of a yogi. So you hesitate to say "I am a yogi" till you come across a line from Sri Aurobindo in his Synthesis of Yoga: "All life is yoga." Then you understand that there is no escape; you are a yogi because everything that you do is a part of that process of evolution, of self-discovery, or the unfolding and connecting that is yoga.

On Wisdom Traditions

Let me start this section by saying that although you may have a working consensus you can't have unanimity or uniformity of views when it comes to spirituality. There will be different perspectives on what spirituality means and how it is to be practiced-it's not just one thing. In any discussion on spirituality, then, there's a built-in plurality, a richness and diversity, despite all the things that have been said and written down and offered to the world - its still an open field full of possibilities. In fact, from the perspective of the future, we may even realize that everything that has been shown and revealed so far is really only a fraction of what is an infinite unfolding - there is therefore much more to come.

Anyway, I should start on a personal note to make it clear, where I'm coming from. Any dialogue or interaction that involves reaching out or sharing requires one to be firmly located. If one says instead that one is aniketana, homeless, nomadic, always looking, exploring, or if one says that one's perspective is like a patchwork quilt or a mosaic, so eclectic in its diversity, then how can one have a dialogue? It is better to be located somewhere and then reach out to talk to others, than not know either where one is coming from or where one is going.

As far as my own location goes, I was born and raised in a modern Hindu family. This phrase, "modern Hindu" is actually very rich in its denotative and connotative meanings. But, this richness may not be easily evident at first hearing. For instance, there's a gap between how this community perceives itself and what it actually is. I was told, for example, that mine is a very, very old religion, that it goes back some 5000 years, that it's remained continuous and unchanged for so long, that it is a very great religion and so on.

But as I grew older I realized that this particular form of Hinduism that I was born into is very new - it's only about 150 years old. This form, which we could call modern Hinduism has its roots in 19th century Bengal and the reform movements that took place there and elsewhere in India. As a result, older structures of caste, of rituals, of worship, even the texts of Hinduism, were revised, reconsidered, and reformed. And this ongoing reformation entered into the 20th century with Gandhi as a very major figure. I would consider Gandhi a modern day Manu, not in the sense in which some of his detractors allege, but as someone who was our new law-giver, who basically turned the entire structure of Hinduism on its head. I should modify that a bit-what Gandhi did was not to give Hinduism a new set of laws-that happened too, in the post-Independence Hindu Code Bill-but new standards of legitimation. He achieved this actually by delegitimating several practices which were considered central to Hinduism-these included untouchability, child marriage, the segregation and suppression of women, certain forms of worship, and so on. In the process, Hinduism changed for ever.

So what we practice by way of Hinduism is a very modern kind of faith. Its founders were people who had encountered the West, who were familiar with Enlightenment ideas, who were, in a manner of speaking, protestants. Mine is thus not an ancient or traditional faith. Modern Hinduism is very different from what my ancestors might have practiced, or even what my great-grandfather might have practiced. So in my own lifetime there have been fundamental changes in what constitutes Hinduism. I also realized that this modern Hinduism had many shortcomings, one of which was its tendency to become militant and intolerant form time to time, to resort to cultural nationalism, also to condone continuing inequities and inequalities within itself, while condemning these in others. Also, despite efforts to the contrary, modern Hinduism had failed to offer its adherents a simple religion, with clear rituals, and clean places of worship. This was a religion still dogged by incredible hypocrisy, corruption, and decadence.

Such clarity about my ancestral religion, however, was only one aspect of what I learned. The more significant realization was that although I might have a strong affiliation with what I'm calling modern Hinduism, the tradition to which I to belong is somewhat different. This is a tradition which is at a certain slant to all organized religions. And it is very, very old indeed. It might be akin to what Aldous Huxley called the Perennial Philosophy. I prefer to call it the wisdom tradition or to put it better in plural, the wisdom traditions. The wisdom traditions have several features. First, they are very, very ancient, as old as humanity itself. Secondly, they are not confined to any particular place or group of human beings; they are neither geographically nor ethnically exclusive. Thirdly, they are non-sectarian per se. There may be many sects that might have sprung up and died, but the wisdom traditions are neither confirmed nor denied by the presence or absence of sects. Fourthly, in wisdom traditions you can find differences without these differences necessarily leading to conflicts.

The Plurality and Richness of Indian Spiritual Traditions

If we wish to historicize these traditions, we may find them falling into several phases which correspond with stages of human development. What makes India somewhat unique is that most of these levels and phases are still available here. >From example you have a kind of nature spirituality, which is preclassical or pagan. Here natural objects and forces are worshipped. Of course, traces of this can be found in later traditions too, but there are very few places in the world where the sacred is seen in the vegetal, floral nature. In India we still have such sacred groves, which are preserved even to this date. I have visited one of them. You can go inside there - but you're not supposed to pluck anything from there, because all the plants, trees, flowers, and shrubs there sacred. So there's no ritual, there's no altar, there's nothing there in terms of an organized worship. But there is something that you experience if you stay there for a sufficient amount of time. Then you have the pre-classical period of spirituality with cult of the mother goddesses. These goddesses were once worshipped all over the world until agricultural patriarchy and its classical religions displaced them. The holy Kaaba in Mecca, for example, was a site for the worship of mother goddesses until it was "cleansed" of all idol worship by Islam. In Eastern Europe, some ancient goddesses are still worshipped as black Madonnas. In most classical religions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and so on, the worship of God as Mother has either been outlawed or incorporated into a patriarchal hierarchy. In Hinduism, for example, there are goddesses, but they are usually consorts of dominant male gods. And yet, this pre-classical tradition of worship is very much alive in India. Even now, there are Shaktas who consider the feminine principle, the Great Goddess, to be paramount. Every year, the festival of navratras celebrates the primacy of the supreme Goddess.

India also has surviving traditions that are classical-Jainism, Buddhism, Upanashidic Brahminism. In these traditions, human wisdom achieves a certain stability of form and rational expression. From magical incantations and incomprehensible formulae, we now have words and ideas which we can understand, debate, discuss. After the classical phase, we have in India a very rich mythological phase, in which there is an efflorescence of puranas, those encyclopedic tomes of stories, incidents, poems, and legends. The puranic phase is unparalled in most other traditions because elsewhere, it predates the rise of Classical religions. India also have medieval reform sects like Sikhism, which are protestant in their orientation, not to speak of a modern reformist phase that I spoke of earlier. Besides this, sizeable populations of Muslims and Christians, with their own inner diversity, reflect the richness of India's multitudinous spiritual traditions.

I must add that all the religions which came to India from abroad, not only flourished, but experienced a renaissance of their wisdom traditions. Indian sufism and Indo-Christian mysticism are just two examples. The return of Mahayana Buddhism with the Indian sojurn of the Dalai Lama, the coming to India of Mother Teresa, the efflorescence of the Bahaii faith in India, are more examples of India's hospitality to religious and spiritual wisdom.

Wisdom Traditions vs Religious Practice

I started by describing myself as a modern Hindu who discovered that his real affiliation was not necessarily with modern Hinduism, but with wisdom traditions which were far older. This distinction between conventional religions and the wisdom traditions is, in my opinion, very important if we wish to understand Indian spirituality.

So let me raise a very basic question: how do I know that I am a part of the wisdom traditions? Well, I think one way to find out is to ask what is one's highest value. For example, is it more important for me to be a Hindu or a Buddhist or a Christian or the follower of a particular sect or teacher, or is my search for truth more important?

I find this distinction valid even for relatively new traditions, where the Master was living up to a few years back. Very soon, the followers make themselves into a sect and proclaim their Guru as the highest truth. If you ask them, "Tell me what you value more, your Guru or the Truth?" they are likely to be shocked and offended. Why make a distinction, they will say. We believe in our Guru because he embodied the highest Truth. "But suppose, just suppose that your Guru failed, or deviated from the Truth, what would you choose-your Guru or the Truth?" They don't answer, they say, "It's a trick question, a false choice." I think a person who belongs to the wisdom tradition does not suffer from such an anxiety. He is likely to say, "Well I respect my Guru, but my highest value is Truth." This reminds me of what a Zen master told his disciple, "If you find the Buddha on the path of your enlightenment, kill him." So, there is a real difference between those who identify the teacher and the truth completely, and those who say that, "Look, the teacher is great, but I want the Truth."

Now, in a sense, I find that India has been the home of such intrepid spiritual seekers, who cleaved to Truth, who did not hesitate to repudiate custom and convention, or comfort and power, just so that they could pursue their goal, their obsession. That is why I believe that this wisdom tradition is ageless. It is not ruled by one God, one book, or one prophet; it is not marked by closures or origins; it is not dominated by one Guru or cult, but is truly open, plural, and perennial. It is this tradition which I find so eloquently embodied in India, which I call the Sanatana Dharma. No, it is by no means exclusive to India; it is only only India has had an unusual concentration of its practitioners and therefore it has found a widespread and general acceptance, instead of being driven underground. The wisdom tradition is really sanatan - it is timeless - because it has no beginning and no end.

No doubt, there is a great overlap between the wisdom tradition and organized religions. In fact organized religions are based on wisdom traditions, which later become ossified or systematized in a certain way. Just to illustrate, let me reinterpret, from a wisdom tradition's perspective, the cardinal principles of a faith, say the Buddhist faith. For example if you say, "Buddham sharanam gachchhami" to me it means "I take refuge in the Enlightened One, I take refuge in the Awakened One." This may be an individual, Gautama Buddha, but then, it may not be; it may not be an individual, it may not be Sakyamuni, it may not be Siddharth Gautama, but may mean "I take refuge in Enlightenment itself." This is as it should be because when Siddhartha became the Buddha, the Tathagata, he stopped being a person or an individual, but because a different order of consiciousness not necessarily locked in any one tradition.

Similarly, when you say "Dhammam sharanam gachchhami" it means, "I take refuge in the Dharma, which is timeless." It has no beginning or end. It may not be Buddha dharma, or Hindu dharma or Christian dharma, but the sanatana dharma - the dharma, which is, as I said, eternal, or its cosmic, the basis of whatever we do. So I take refuge in that.

And when we say "sangham sharanam gachchham,:" it may not mean, "People of the cloth," may not necessarily mean people who subscribe to a particular creed, but the gathering of virtuous people, wherever and whenever these get together, like in this very hall--that is the sangha.

Of course, you can do the same when you say, "La-ilaha-il-allah Muhammed-ur-ras-ul-illah." You can interpret it from the wisdom tradition to mean something which is not exactly what a so-called orthodox or practicing Muslim might interpret it to be. And if you are looking at Christianity from a wisdom perspective, I would say that it is Christ-consciousness that I would like to attain to or work towards. And that to me is the Kingdom of Heaven that is within me, not necessarily a particular Church or a complex doctrine, which boasts of the only begotten Son of God.

A Meditation on Spirit or Breath

So I think, for me, spirituality is very akin to breath, which is what it means in Latin, but not just ordinary respiration, but the energy, what we call prana in India, that is the life force, the elan vital, the source of all action, consciousness itself. But even if we were to regard it as breath itself, as we do in the meditative practice of vipassana, a certain fundamental question arises. So,when we do anapana, the question to ask is whether prana gives rise to the mind or mind gives rise to prana? There is the belief that the mind arises from some kind of complex process as does the breath. That is why watching the breath immediately quietens the mind. You can try that now. Close your eyes for a moment, if you don't mind. Relax your body. Now watch your breath as it goes in and out. Do it for a few minutes. There is a point after the outgoing breath ceases and before the incoming breath begins. Is it possible to notice this zero point. Like observing the interval between two thoughts? Similarly, there is a point after the incoming breath ceases and before the outgoing breath begins. Can we stay with it, not with force or violence, but very gently? Well, perhaps, our little experiment has proved to be only too successful. I notice that a few people have already gone to sleep. This is actually a good sign. When the mind is calm and the body relaxed, sleep is one of the first responses of the system. We are so tired from inside, that we are wont to grab our first chance to get some real rest.

But, let me ask you if our experiment has answered my question? Does breath give rise to the mind or the mind give rise to breath. They say that breath gives rise to the mind. With breath control, the mind can be controlled. When the breath becomes calm, the mind, with its vicissitudes, subsides. But if this is so, then who is supposed to watch the breath? There has to be awareness apart from the breath for us to be able to watch it. In other words, there has to be an awareness apart from the mind which can actually watch the mind. I believe that this is the awareness referred to in the ancient Upanishadic story of the two birds, one who eats of the fruit, while the other watches.

So if you give attention to the mind, the mind can be calmed. There are several theories about this, such as dependent arising or pratityasamutpada and so on. But the point is that when you think of this or when you experience this very carefully, when you watch your breath - suppose suddenly something unexpected happens. Supposing the breath stops? Does the watching stop?" Actually, you find that the watching does not stop. The breath stops, just like that. It may start again, on its own, and you may find yourself in the same body. Or it may stop for a longer time, a time which you may not really remember afterwards, until you suddenly re-experience its starting, somewhere else, in some other body perhaps. So it seems to me that the watching, the awareness does not stop. Breath comes and goes, but not the awareness, not the watching, not the attention. And this awareness is not individual, it is not of the mind or what we call the ego. It is something different.

To get into a discussion about whether or not there is a person who is aware would lead us to talk of the ego, and either the atma or the anatma. But let's not worry about that right now. All we need to remember is that the watching is continuous. And who is aware of it? Awareness is aware of itself, and the forgetfulness that we experience is when we lose awareness. Attentiveness is when awareness is regained, really, in a sense. So it seems to me that if I were to sum up my main point about Indian spiritual traditions and the challenges of modernity, I would say that the work India must do for itself and the world is impossible without the inputs of the wisdom traditions. If you don't bring in these inputs, then this work becomes very difficult. I think right action cannot arise unless you have right contemplation, right mindfulness, right conduct, right livelihood, and a lot of other things. The challenge is to understand the value of this wisdom in modern times.

The Human Story

When we speak of the importance of incorporating these wisdom traditions in our contemporary lives, however, we encounter some big problems. One of them is whether traditional wisdom is compatible with modernity? Can there be a synthesis? Or are they incommensurable? I have some views on this, but I shall not go into this issue here. Instead, let me refer to another big problem. It has been a problem for humanity throughout history. It is the problem of the institutionalization of wisdom. It is a problem because the moment you try to institutionalize wisdom, you seem to destroy wisdom. Institutions can be created, but wisdom eludes us. And yet, you can't take the position that institutions are unnecessary. We couldn't have had this very meeting without several institutions in place. So institutions are required. Then how do we solve this problem?

I may come back to this later. Let me take up two related points before that. First, that there are different views of what I'd like to call the human story. And there is a view in which progress is a myth. There's no progress really. Either there are cycles, or there is a point at which you transcend or breakthrough the world of appearance, of samsara. So there is no such thing as, "The human story begins at a particular place and is going somewhere else." On the other hand, there is a view that creation or manifestation begins at a certain point, progresses in a certain way, and is heading to a certain conclusion. In short, that there is a teleology to human progress.

As an aside, may I say that I think that both views are possible and that they intersect somewhere. I met a teacher who said something very interesting to me. He said that if he had time, he wanted to write a novel on the Neanderthal Sage. Human culture, or Homo Sapiens civilization as we know it, is nearly ten thousand years old. Neanderthal people were much older. But obviously there was some form of enlightenment among them too, and even prior to that. So this person was trying to tell me that the Neanderthal Sage was also enlightened in his own way. But if you look at it from a more scientific, biological, evolutionary perspective, it seems to be obvious that the world is changing, things are changing, and that arguably we are more advanced than our ancestors. We are also in the midst of a certain kind of telescoping of history. Things are really getting crunched and just the population of the species threatening to overwhelm the planet and overreach its carrying capacity is just one indication of this. We know that we are in a state of crisis.

How can humanity deal with this crisis? Do Indian spiritual traditions have any answers? It seems to me that three are quite a few views on this. One view is that perfection was already achieved in the past, in Satya Yuga. Since then, we have a decline and that we are heading towards destruction. Then there is the view that there is neither progression or regression, but only an Eternal Present, of which we can be aware any time. So, neither was this world created, nor will it be destroyed; reality remains unaffected, like the screen, untouched by the pictures projected on it. Then there is the view that this phenomenal world is either an illusion or not the ultimate reality; in either case, we need to transcend it or breakthrough to the reality that will free us. Yet another view is that the world is not illusion but manifestation, seeking higher and higher forms of self-perfection, until it merges back into the Absolute from which it sprang.

Here, I shall take up, albeit briefly, the work of one contemporary Indian thinker. I feel that when confronted with the peculiar challenges of our times, with the menacing face of the future bearing down on us, it is the work of Sri Aurobindo that offers us some hope and direction.

Sri Aurobindo's Vision

Sri Aurobindo argues that evolution is unconscious in nature for millions of years, but in humanity it becomes conscious. So we now have a choice whether to participate in the evolutionary process or to opt out, or even to go towards destruction. And in a sense this is an endless experiment that is the cosmos, we can made a difference. If we fail, as far as nature is concerned, it makes no difference. Nature doesn't care - because it has infinite time and infinite energy and infinite patience. So if we can't get our act together and allow everything to blow up, as it were, its fine, it's just another failed experiment. The effort will be carried on elsewhere. But with Sri Aurobindo insight that evolution is participatory, we can become active agents in our own preservation and growth.

But what is most important is that Sri Aurobindo believes that Homo Sapiens is a transitional species. It is not the end point of evolution. We are not the acme of nature's laboratory. Rather, we are a middle point. The being to come will be as different from us as we are from the ape. And this is something that makes us think a little bit, because evolution progresses from matter to life and from life to mind and from mind to something beyond. And that we are at the level of the mind, which is essentially divisive.

If you think about the way the mind works you notice that mentation is always based on the subject -object duality. Thought has this limitation that it is divisive. And that is why awareness, which allows and exceeds thought, is more important. Because in awareness, the subject and object, at least the duality or conflict between them is dissolved and there is only a ground of consciousness. And this is what happens even in art - what Yeats called the fusion of the dancer and the dance - something that we've been seeing and appreciating during this festival. So what is created is a different order or a different quality of experiencing. So, if the mind is limited - and we've been trying for thousands of years to find a way or transforming the mind - then maybe humanity will give rise to or will yield to a species, which does not have the kind of conflict-ridden mentality that we do, but functions with a higher consciousness. While we are constantly dividing and through these divisions the conflicts inside are projected outside, the new being will find this process totally unnecessary. Through a higher mind, call it intuition or identity, it might be able to grasp reality.

This higher mind, of which we already have inklings, heals the schisms between the intellectual and the emotional, between us and our Others, between humanity and its environment. In it there is no alienation of the kind we experience every day. And the thing that is able to make this happen, call it the spirit or consciousness, is not a two dimensions thing, but rather something fuzzy. It embraces both matter and mind, without dichotomizing the two. So instead of the hubris of the ego, of the individual, which considers itself a separate entity, which is at the centre of the whole project of the universe, as it were, because it is the creator and the decoder of the cosmos, totally in charge of things…instead of this, you have the awareness of a larger integrity, a larger inter-connectedness, for which you might want to use the word spirit.

So rather than saying that we are in charge and we have to get our acts together, we might think, with Sri Aurobindo, that perhaps there's a deeper intelligence which is guiding, so to speak, the destiny of this planet. And, this larger or deeper intelligence is what actually might be guiding us in our endeavours, even today, at this moment. And we need to connect with That….

Winding up…

To sum up what I have been saying, spiritual traditions in India, on the one hand, face the same sort of challenges that they do anywhere else in the world. That is, they must contend with forces of modernity with the alienation humanity from nature, with the loss of wonder, with social and political disequilibrium, , with the tyrannies of rationality, with irrational hatred and violence, with environmental degradation, with cultural erosion, with religious intolerance, with the threat to the very survival of the planet. But given their richness, antiquity, diversity, and inventiveness in India, they also have a special and unique challenge, which can turn into an opportunity. This is to provide the wisdom, the direction, the energy, the impetus, and the inspiration for change. Whether this actually happens depends on how we, and other like us, live.

Thank you.


Makarand Paranjape, A.M., PhD
Centre of Linguistics and English,
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi