Search for spiritualism in a land now steeped in materialism

Numbers that reflect the universe, and numbers that create relations and add fire into the human’s desire for discovery and exploration. 

Slightly less than 2,000 years ago, the Indian religious and philosophical thought set the grounds of a concept that would revolutionise the world. Let’s examine this ground-breaking event on this World Philosophy Day today (Nov 17). This concept was the one of shunya, or the null, endless, emptiness, if not the total absence of substance. Shunya depicted also the point of shift between two opposites, the nothing and the everything. The realisation of this concept pushed forward the worldwide development of philosophy, mathematics, sciences and human thought in general, and brought a radical advancement of the human capacity of abstraction.

This great human realisation 2,000 years ago emerged from the dominant spirituality in the society, the mastering and perfection of which has caused the need to invent many other categories and levels of thought not known before that.  A general common wish for perfection and personal attainment outside of the material boundaries has been penetrating the Indian society at all levels.

 Back to the present:  In a 2009 documentary film about Mumbai (‘Cities on speed: Mumbai disconnected,’ by Camilla Nielsson and Frederik Jacobi) a number of citizens were discussing the mega city’s transport problems.  A small, but important scene in the film was the comment of one of the characters that reflected the big dream of the average middle-class India, namely to own a motorbike. A thing that would normally not be special in any way. Everyone has dreams and the right to have dreams.

However, such a dream reflects another shift of the thought in India that has taken place in the last decades. The spiritual society seeking  knowledge and new ways of thinking has been turned into a materialistic society seeking objects. While the right of everyone to possess material objects and improve his/her welfare has undeniably improved, something big and important was lost on the way-- the Big Goal. 

The Big Goal in the Indian intellectual tradition of the past has been self-improvement and attainment of higher awareness at a spiritual level. In the past, religion was strong everywhere in the world, but in the Asian society it was more than religion - it was a philosophy of a daily life bringing advancements at intellectual levels not known before, a lot of which still remain unchallenged until today. Nowadays though, the goals are grounded. They are concrete and short term. A motorbike, a house, a cellphone. Now, not later. 

The loss of direction

The loss of the Big Goal, has also led to a consequence that has never been a problem before in the Indian and other Eastern societies - the loss of direction. The previous desire for attainment in a spiritual sense is now transformed into a desire for material growth. What gets lost though is the long-term purpose of this desire.  What do we develop by consuming more, owning more, wanting more? Do we want to run faster in order to catch up with the west and ‘modernise,’ an ideal of many belonging to the young generation in India and other Asian countries? Do we actually modernise and develop or do we go back?

Interestingly, the lack of a major direction other than material growth dominating the intellectual landscape in the west has led to a crisis of the daily philosophy of its average citizens. Some of the wealthiest countries in Europe, with supposedly highest standards of life and life expectancy, among which Sweden, Denmark, and Finland face problems such as depression, burning out and a high number of suicides due to a loss of meaning in life. Many turn to the old Eastern philosophies, and yes, go to India (!) seeking a new philosophy that would fill in the spiritual emptiness and give them a Big Goal lost in their materialistic existence. 

While the religious tradition is still very strong in India, its spiritual dimension and adherence to a major philosophy is vanishing.  As a scholar from Europe, I am often surprised to see that in many cases westerners know more about the greatness of the Indian philosophical thought of the past than the Indians themselves. It seems to me as if the contemporary and young Indian society has immersed itself into a state of a conscious unawareness, rejecting past intellectual attainments and knowledge at the expense of immediate materialistic achievements.

The Indian society of today, though, has never had better opportunity to engage in the explorations of knowledge and intellectual developments at equal grounds, and to teach the rest of the world in the philosophy that has kept it running through thousands of years and that has given it a major goal and direction outside of the boundaries of the daily life. 

But until this realisation takes place, I am afraid, we will be seeing a growth in the wealth and puzzlement of the new generation of India who will be asking itself more and more the question of where do we go, while the west will keep coming to India trying to rediscover its philosophical past and make sense of life. And meanwhile, numbers will only represent the flat dimension of values and quantities, rather than the multi-dimensional world of concepts and abstractions that help us explain our world and gain a meaning in life.

(The writer is with the Swedish South Asian Studies Network, Lund University, Sweden)  

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