Indian Youth in the Grip of Pop Spirituality

Recently, I was interacting with a large group of youngsters in their early twenties.
Representational image
Representational image

Recently, I was interacting with a large group of youngsters in their early twenties. What stood out was their thought process, which was scary and amusing at the same time. They said they were spiritual seekers and were searching for the ‘ultimate truth’. Baffled, I asked them what they meant by ‘spirituality’, and what is the ‘ultimate truth’. The answers that I got from the young men and women educated in some of the country’s premier institutes at the taxpayer’s cost, would have given their sixth grade science teacher a heart attack. 

Most of them believed in the infallibility of their religious texts, their ‘spiritual gurus’ and what they called ancient wisdom. They believed India of the yore had discovered all the technological development that a modern society enjoys now and whatever the science may discover in the future also has already been foretold in the scriptures. All the discoveries the scientists made are because they stole all our ancient scriptures.

At the same time, these young men and women had scorn for scientific and rational thinking, and kept arguing that there are many ‘true experiences’ which cannot be understood by a mundane organ called brain. They believed in the power of occult and magic. They believed in ghosts, in the power of mantras and yantras, lucky amulets and charms, astrology and many such things. 

When 20-year-olds start sounding like my long-deceased grandparents, it is always jarring and surrealistic. This isn’t confined to one religion or one group of people. Just like there are ardent Hindu youths who think every technology was discovered during Vedic times, many Christian youths claim Bible contains all the knowledge in the world, while Muslim youths say the same about Koran. 

Everyone is free to believe what he or she wants to. However, the earlier generation reached such a stage only when they were hitting their middle ages. Youth was about questioning age-old superstitions. Youth was about shaking the society and coming out of its shackles.

Youth meant enjoying the life to the brim. Youth was about idealism and exploration. It took four or five decades of hard life for the idealism to wither away and the rebellion to die off. The weakness of advancing age and the pile of thwarted ambitions choked the sceptic. It took ages of hard work for the life to transform a young rebel into an astrologer-hoping, temple-frequenting typical Indian uncle. By that time, their offsprings would be going through their spirited youth, rebelling against their now conservative parents. It seems, this age-old cycle has been broken. Many parents and grandparents appear more rational and liberal compared to the Generation Z.     

Riding the wave of modernity that swept India in the wake of freedom, many stopped using their caste surnames. In Kerala, my father’s generation frowned upon anyone who used caste surname. And it continued in my generation too. Now we can find the caste surnames making a vengeful comeback, going by the abundance of youth proudly displaying theirs in the social media. 

On the surface, such belief and even such quirky comeback of caste names in the new generation may look amusing. However, this is a symptom of something disturbing that hides beneath. Studies indicate that the Indian youth is turning more and more religious and conservative in their views. Another survey estimates there are more than 30,000 caste-based WhatsApp groups and I believe this is a conservative estimate.

Caste- and religion-based campaigns are gaining momentum. Sectarian pride is expressed through aggressive songs by each community as reported by the newspapers from Gujarat. Social media has given both anonymity and a voice to anyone who used to hide such prejudices or regressive thoughts for fear of social sanction earlier. He knows now that there are many who think like him and find strength in the numbers.

The caste and prejudice of the backward villages now follow you to the metropolitan cities and even abroad. It wasn’t that there was no caste or communal-based feeling existing in India before the advent of social media. Social media helped expand the physical boundaries of regressive thoughts to a world-wide level. In one click of your phone, you can find thousands of like-minded folks to feel proud about the real or imaginary achievements of your caste or religious ancestors, or you can find some issue of distant past to feel outraged. 

‘WhatsApp universities’ keep churning out absurd claims in capsule form, which is eagerly consumed by the youth who has neither time nor inclination to read books or to at least google and find out the veracity of such lessons. Many youngsters had a protected childhood, studying with classmates sharing the same social and economic status as theirs, in premier schools. When they confront the reality of life, they are baffled and take umbrage in the easy solutions peddled by some new-age gurus. Irrationality is so easy to sell to those who have never learnt to question and rage, either in schools that teach by rote or at homes that relish their unnatural obedience. 

The communal riots and caste violence were once the horrors perpetuated by the uneducated, that used to scare the civilised. Now the so-called civilised perpetuate such violence and deepen the prejudice using their phone as a tool. Whatever achievements that the renaissance movements of the previous century achieved through the works of social reformers are getting eroded in this tsunami of fake pride, irrationality and misinformation. 

All countries that have progressed did so by breaking the shackles of their religious conservatism and tradition, and soared in the wings of science, rationality and critical thinking. It was the youth in those countries who led from the forefront in their respective era. India is at the verge of reaping the demographic dividend. If we don’t rescue the youth from the grip of pop spirituality and irrationality, this would be another wasted opportunity.  

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