Is India Really a Spiritual Civilisation?

Indians take pride in calling themselves spiritual. The upper middle class is never tired of speaking of the dizzying heights of philosophy reached by the Vedas and Upanishads without reading even a page of any such books. Any adverse comparison of India with other countries would be met with a ‘oh, but we

Published: 02nd September 2018 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 30th August 2018 10:48 PM   |  A+A-

Indians take pride in calling themselves spiritual. The upper middle class is never tired of speaking of the dizzying heights of philosophy reached by the Vedas and Upanishads without reading even a page of any such books. Any adverse comparison of India with other countries would be met with a ‘oh, but we are such a spiritual civilisation, unlike the decadent materialistic West’ shrug. 

Is there any truth in such assertions? Is India more spiritual than others? How do we measure spirituality to conclude how much we lead all others in this race to have maximum spirituality? What is the definition of being spiritual? Is it having tonnes of ancient books that discuss the abstract? What use are the books when majority cannot read their own mother tongue, let alone archaic liturgical languages? Is it about having great thinkers who lived in a remote past and sought to solve the problems they defined using methods they thought to be true?

All due respects to the past masters, but if the problems they sought to solve still exists, either no one found it easy to follow their methods or their methods have become dated. What use is having great thinkers if their thoughts and ideas do not reflect on our day-to-day living? Do we call ourselves spiritual because we have so many religions and most of our lives are steeped in religiosity and rituals? That makes us religious and ritualistic for sure; but how does it make us spiritual? Or do we call ourselves spiritual because we don’t care for material things in life? How many can claim that? Even the so-called spiritual gurus are peddling spirituality as weekend courses and wallowing in material luxury. They wield enormous political clout and act as vote funnels for powerful politicians. That doesn’t come under the definition of spirituality. 

Let us assume, spirituality cannot be defined and it could be different for various people. Even then, one should be able to measure the impact of it in the society. Does the spirituality reflect in our civic sense? Anyone who has travelled abroad knows that we fare poorly compared to most other countries, let alone the decadent materialistic wealth. Does the spirituality reflect in the love we show to fellow human beings? One has to visit any famous pilgrimage site to dispel such notions. People shove and push fellow humans to catch a glimpse of their gods, only to be brutally pushed away by exasperated security. Many a time, such places witness stampedes, resulting in injury and death which shows our famed spirituality is not helping us even in holy places to show some compassion and patience.  

If we look at religious shrines of any religion in our country, the more famous they are the more ostentatious they are. Often, the area around the shrine will be crowded with shaggy shops selling gaudy imitation jewellery, pop philosophical books and Chinese toys. There is a saying in Malayalam which means no one prays for the welfare of Kailasa. Everyone prays for one’s own wellbeing, which is often for better material comforts.  

Neither does our spirituality help us in secular places like railway stations and bus stands. Nor does it make us shake away the dubious distinction of being one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Our claim of superior spirituality does not help us in making our country safe for women or children. We dirty holiest of rivers and litter sacred mountains, yet claim as Indians, we worship nature.  We still carry the baggage of caste inequality on our shoulders, despite claiming to be proud of Advaita philosophy. 

So how do all these make us spiritual? What if the claim that we are more spiritual is a lie thrust on us?  We may have to go back a few hundred years to find the answer. The 17th and 18th century were the periods of Europe’s admiration for India. Voltaire, Friedrich Schlegl, William Jones, Goethe and Schopenhauer are few among many who were awed by India. However, by next century, India had lost leadership in most spheres of life. It was a broken country, a decaying civilisation living in the memory of past achievements. A few philosophical books and thoughts were the only things that India had to be proud of as Europe left her far behind, thanks to the scientific and industrial revolution. Europe was in the vigour of youth and had not much of use for spirituality. 

A few European thinkers who were disgusted with the rampant materialism of Europe turned to India during this time. For them, India with its poverty, exotic practices and age old villages where time stood still appeared spiritual. When Bengal renaissance started, the pioneers were desperate for latching on to something we could be proud of. A defeated civilisation seeks the approval of the vanquishers. Since the white men said India is spiritual, we eagerly accepted their definition of what we are good at. It served both the sides well.

A society that didn’t care for now and had its head buried in abstract thoughts was a society that could easily be ruled. It kept the revolutions at bay. It served the upper class too, as they were the custodians of philosophical books. It gave an intellectual aura to such classes without doing much. Later, when India won freedom, it gave a good business opportunity to many Gurus to establish their empires. 

India of the yore was a complete civilisation and spirituality was just a miniscule part of its achievements. It was practiced by a few. The majority of India was always materialistic. The sculptures in our temples and our literature thrive with life. We have to come out of this false label thrust on us. We were and are as materialistic as others. There will be a time in the future to go spiritual, but now is the time for a new scientific revolution led by India. Until we achieve material and scientific progress to match and overtake the West, the claim of spiritual civilisation will remain an empty boast.

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  • Mattur Sameer

    I really pity the understanding of spirituality by the author of this article. Spirituality doesent mean running away from the world. One can be completely involved in worldy activities yet be spiritual. We have constructed many engineering marvels like Brihadeeshwara and the Ankorwat temples but they were all directed towards god. The huge Jantar mantars at Jaipur are the examples of precise understanding of Astronomy, space and time. Its just that all the achievements were isolated. We did not make an industry out of it. The live example of India being a spiritual nation is that with just 15268 police stations we (with a population of 1.25 billion) are able to live peacefully (without getting into a civil war like situation). Please do look for the ratio of no. of police stations to population for any other country, you will know that ours is one of the lowest. This is possible only because of spirituality. People may not be spiritual or do spiritual practices or talk of vedas and upanishads the way spiritual gurus do but our ancient rishis have ensured that spirituality became a part of our life even without our own knowledge. One thing that I very much agree upon is that we need to improve a lot and not be stuck in our past glories. We need to prosper materialistically and spiritually and be better human beings
    7 months ago reply
  • Vidhu

    Very well written, could not agree more with you
    7 months ago reply
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