In search of a new life

In search of a new life

Eternal quest

In search of a new life

God has made a huge comeback. To young, yuppie, urban India. Where both Traditional Religion and New Age Spirituality are booming. Where it’s no longer unfashionable to say one is religious. Pampering the soul spiritually, reconnecting with the inner self through meditation, even being downright religiously ritualistic, in fact, have become acceptable and sometimes even trendy in India’s metros. Because today’s stressed-out, insecure, urban generation has taken to seeking solace and stability in the faith that God, or a Greater Power, exists and is on its side. Add on the ideological vacuum of these times, unlike when Gandhism and Marxism fired imaginations and constituted Belief and it’s understandable why young Indians are groping for a new Belief-turning to religion and spirituality to be the new sheet anchors for existence.

My paternal grandfather left for the Himalayas in 1957 in his quest for spirituality when he was 65 years old. He died before I was born — how he returned in time for my brother’s second birthday and lost his life saving a child is another story. But his life and his connection with spirituality — and the many spiritual books stored at home in wooden boxes — had always intrigued me. And my father gently prising away a copy of my grandfather’s Bhagavad Gita (with English translations) when I was a young schoolboy, saying that I was not ready for it then, and that I would probably never do anything else in life if I read it at that point in my life, only added to the mystery of spirituality. That my father, shortly before he died, gave me the very same copy, and that I have not yet read it brings me to what I am trying to understand — why I don’t have any time now. Perhaps because I am constantly rushing from one thing to another, both mentally and physically, day in and day out.

And I am connected to everybody everywhere all the time. Or, should I say over-connected? Mobile phones and smart phones and all kinds of modern communication gadgets make sure that you are in touch with loved and unloved ones every single moment of the day. Whether anybody likes it or not is a different question — nobody has the time to sit and ponder about this — it has simply become a habit to “stay connected.” You dare not switch off your mobile.

I am not a part of any social networking sites on the internet. But I know that thousands are, and these people constantly update their ‘status’ several times a day. I am amazed that there seems to be nobody taking time off to sit silently and pause, and think about what they are doing.

People in the corporate world also seem to be paying a high price for this ‘always-on’ connectivity. They are never out of touch with their workplace — simply because their workplaces travel in their purses or pockets. Could this be the reason for early burnouts?

Personal choice

Which brings me to the next question —- do people in such highly info-connected urban centres turn to spiritual practices to find some semblance of peace and order (and sanity) in their daily lives? It would seem so, judging by the sales of books on self-improvement and finding inner peace. It is interesting to see bookshelves containing these spiritual books being given pride of place even in up-market, coffee lounge-attached fashionable bookshops, where these tomes are cheek by jowl with Booker Prize winners and bestsellers. Indeed, some of these ‘spiritual guides’ — some call them ‘pop-psychology — are THE bestsellers. All this enthusiastic talk of monks who sold their personal transportation vehicles and soups and cheese being moved and broth and souls should give you a rough idea of what I am talking about.

Many seem to be pursuing spirituality after excelling at academics, choosing to serve the community, rather than have corporate giants pursue them. In the sylvan surroundings of an ashram on the outskirts of Bangalore, I meet young Vishal Merani, an IIT-Delhi graduate, a holder of a double master’s degree in nanoscience and nanotechnology from reputed colleges in Germany and Holland. He is not a young man in search of big bucks, but is spreading the techniques of yogic breathing and meditation all over the country.

“In joining IIT, I was just following the herd. I did not have the courage to say I was not happy doing what I was doing. I was doing it because I was expected to do it. Even before I did my master’s degrees, I had come down to the ashram to take part in seva.
Until then, and after practicing meditation and breathing as taught here, I could not even identify what gave me true happiness.”

He is now committed to spending his time conducting spiritual workshops all over India. Interestingly, he had gone back to his IIT to talk to students about his spiritual journey. “I was able to relate to them and talk to them in the same language. I was able to reach quite a few of them,” he says very simply. What his college thought of it is not known, but it is clear that a lot of young people are turning to spirituality.

Others like Karuna Sarup Munshi use a bad scare in life as the trigger that they have been waiting for to take to spirituality full-time. A television journalist 20 years ago, she describes herself today as a “spiritual journalist.” After working in Canada for over a decade as the director of media and communications for the government in Toronto, she is today a volunteer and works in the publications division at an ashram in Andhra Pradesh. For Karuna, who says she was of a spiritual bent of mind even as a child, the turn to full-time service came in 2002, when she lost all communication with her husband during a snowstorm near Boston. She made up her mind to devote herself full-time to the service of the community if her husband returned safely. He did, and while there were no dramatic rescues — her husband had left his cell phone in the car while waiting for seven hours to receive his sister at the wrong terminal in a huge airport — Karuna kept her part of the deal, because she had not wanted her worst fears to come true. “I was perhaps forced into taking a decision that I had always wanted to take, but had not committed to earlier.” Today, both she and her husband live in a small town in Andhra Pradesh, serving, working, and teaching.

She says that the younger generation today find it easier to turn to spirituality. “It is ‘cool’ to be spiritual in urban India today, just as it was to be a Leftist about three decades ago.” Interestingly, she says she finds a marked difference in the way people in the west and in India approach spirituality. She worked in Toronto for seven years, working at a school run by the spiritual organisation she belongs to, before shifting to India. “There, if they want to take up spirituality, they take to it completely and unquestioningly. Here in India, I find (intellectual) people taking convenient bits and pieces from various spiritual groups, and taking cover under the agnostic label. I myself had to take a huge leap of faith, suspend all rational judgement in the mental dialogue between the heart and the mind.”

Chandra Kant, who teaches at a management school in Bangalore, has a different approach to spirituality. He says what triggered his thinking was a term called ‘drop dead money’ that he read in a book. This is a term used by a character in the book to describe the amount of money she wanted to earn, so that after she possessed this ‘X’ amount, if anybody asked her to do something she did not want to do, she could simply refuse, and ask them to ‘drop dead’ without fearing the consequences.

Chandra Kant worked in Japan — he is an IIT-Kanpur and IIM-Kolkata alumnus — and was able to make a specific amount of money that he thought would be sufficient for him to have his version of the ‘drop dead money.’ On his return to India, he says, he was able to join companies where he could truly make a difference with his knowledge and skills, rather than be dependent on them for his bread and butter. “This way, if I found I had finished contributing to the company and found myself redundant, I could quit and move on to another where I could make myself more useful. This also helped when there were issues of ethics — I could easily refuse to do something if I found it was wrong from my point of view.” He also found numerous colleagues discussing with him the changes he had wrought in their way of thinking and working. This set him thinking. When a college of management opened near his residence, he turned to teaching students as a full-time professor.

Apart from teaching them ‘management gyaan’, as he puts it, he also speaks to students on issues such as self-esteem and a more holistic approach to management. He uses tools like staging theatrical plays and making films using mobile phones as project work. This, he says, drives home the point of working together towards a goal, marketing, or managing ego-based issues — things that are sure to crop up in their lives ahead as corporate workers.

When disillusionment sets in...

He says students perceive a management course to be a sure-fire magic wand to a lucrative career, and are soon disillusioned when they find it is a grind like any other course. He has even written a soon-to-be published book on MBA blues, and how students can make it work optimally for them. “Even in this college, this freedom of not being totally dependent on the salary for a living allows me to make a very real contribution to the students and the institution, rather than working on teaching the syllabus and walking away.”

This sort of helping and giving, he says, is his way of spiritual growth. “In the traditional definition of spirituality (where there are four stages), this could be termed my vanaprastha, which is to serve the community. I will be in this stage till I am 60 (he is now in his late 40s) and then will begin my next stage of sanyaasa, which traditionally focuses on god. In my case, I will focus on ecosystems and harmony. Sixty is far away — by then, who knows!” he laughs.

Some delve into spirituality when faced with emptiness in life, which leads them to question the meaning of existence. An accomplished Bharata Natyam dancer, Hema Rajaram, lived and worked in Botswana, Africa. While she was there, her children grew up and travelled away to college. There was an armed robbery of her house. It added to the daily stress that is commonly present in most households. She felt the house was empty, both literally and figuratively. She was deeply troubled. On a visit to India to meet her ailing father, her uncle spoke of a spiritual centre on the outskirts of Bangalore.

Hoping to find some answers, she enrolled for a course in meditation and breathing. One of the stages involved complete silence for an extended period of time. “This was the period when I found thoughts and feelings that I never even knew existed within me come bursting out to the surface.” She went on to complete the course, and back in Botswana, began teaching other local citizens, from the then president of the country to the bushmen in the Kalahari desert, meditation and breathing exercises. “I also found myself accepting people for who they were, and more importantly, accept myself the way I was, and be comfortable with who am. I am a perfectionist — but I stopped picking on my dance students. That was the most important change. It’s really important to find out what is going wrong inside our minds and tackle it, rather than just blindly chant the mantra of ‘always be positive’,” she says.

Andrew Keaveney is a classic example of the West, with all its material comforts, turning to the mystical East for answers. An American with a degree in Film and Buddhism from Stanford University, he chanced upon an Indian spiritual centre’s free introductory session on meditation and breathing in San Francisco, “while taking a two-year break in search of spirituality”. He had done extensive reading on various spiritual practices, including Zen Buddhism. “But I found that I could not put them into practice in real life. I found all that changed when I did that course.”

He has travelled to Tripura and Andhra Pradesh, helping the organisation’s village schools, and using his film skills to document all this. “I feel I am now using my degree for the improvement of mankind.” He is reluctant to return to the US. “I am doing so much of useful work here, doing what is called seva,” he says earnestly. All his plans on making feature films in USA have been shelved for now, while he devotes his time in the video department of the ashram in Bangalore.

These are perhaps examples of a changing trend towards spirituality. It might also serve to tell you that you are not alone when reaching out for a change in life, a book, or are wondering about spiritual causes. Ironically, in this strident world, perhaps this is the reassurance that we need. I cannot help thinking that while many are trying to find a semblance of meaning to life through spiritualism, India is caught up with people leading lives on various levels, and there seems to be no common interconnect. So, in a troublingly surreal setting, millions are still in abject poverty, millions more are deeply religious, illiteracy still haunts the nation’s statistics, terrorism is a real, daily threat, farmers are agitated over a range of issues and our politicians live in a world of their own.

And we city people continue to hurtle through life at high speed, continuously engaged in electronic chattering to each other or listening to others stridently chatter in this highly connected world, working long punishing hours, travelling even longer hours through deadlocked traffic. Noise levels in all cities — at least in my city, Bangalore — have gone through the roof, and everybody seems to be using their horns and screaming and yelling. We seem to be afraid to be silent.

Could spirituality link all these layers? And slow life down to quieter and saner levels? Ponder over it, while I rush off — my mobile phone has been ringing away insistently, and I have to answer it...