I bet India is one if not the only country in the world that issues a yoga visa. Yes, a visa issued specifically because you want to pursue yoga and all matters spiritual. The visa is to be found with many a foreigner from a developed country who after achieving all the social and material possessions (meant to make us `happy’) start questioning life’s purpose. And what better place than India, with its holy men to find yourself?
Without a doubt India has embraced spirituality in a major way. Though I have found that the general public is keener on religious practices and rituals, It’s wonderful to experience a country that reveres spirituality. People carry a picture of their guru in their wallets and purses, hang a picture of the same in their houses and also in offices. There is usually a small space at the workplace of individuals specifically dedicated to their spiritual inclinations- they put an image, sculpture etc of their guru.
The Indian calendar contains many religious holidays- about one every month, which shows you just how serious folks are.
Throughout the year, Hindu devotees make pilgrimages to various temples and to the River Ganges which is considered to posses supernatural powers. In fact, there can be no history of India without mentioning Ganga Ma (Mother Ganges).She is the provider for the millions who reside in the agricultural communities along her banks; she is the bestower of benedictions for the pious, and the redeemer of sins for the sinful; she is the healer of disease for the sick; and for the dying, she is the giver of liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
And here is what I want to clarify, unlike where I come from; spiritual people in India are those who have given up worldliness- wealth, status, family etc, to commune with God. Some dwell in caves, hills, mountains or ashrams. They are referred to as sadhus and you will find them all over India wandering about (sometimes naked) with a huge pile of dreadlocks on their heads. They are considered holy and are seen as serving a purpose of burning the karma of the population, therefore they have a place in society. They are supported by donations from many people who give them great respect calling them baba.
There is one I used to see in the evenings on my way from work who used to scare the crap out of me- naked in prayer next to a fire near the Egmore railway station. Here is how they look.
Some gurus/ individuals lead global movements and organizations and are more often than not extremely wealthy-owning hospitals, schools and vast pieces of land. They have TV shows and are published authors not to mention the popular tours they conduct all over the world. These are very similar to the religious people sprouting all over Kenya and Africa in general. And why wouldn’t they be extremely wealthy? If you have managed to convince people that you are the channel through which they will find God, wouldn’t they do anything for you? Wouldn’t they want to assist your organisation in any way possible so it can spread across the earth to touch as many lives and create as many new followers as possible?
Religion and spirituality are a touchy topic which I find very difficult to discuss with people as it is often loaded with emotions and deep ingrained childhood beliefs that are considered absolutes. I will therefore try and refrain from upsetting the followers of gurus and other spiritual leaders. However, it is common knowledge that some gurus have been caught up in sex scandals as well as other types of behaviors not befitting spiritual leaders. One sad recent case is when Guru Asaram Bapu remarked that the Delhi gang rape victim was as guilty as those responsible for the barbaric sexual assault on her.
“…The victim daughter is as guilty as her rapists… She should have called the culprits brothers and begged before them to stop… This could have saved her dignity and life. Can one hand clap? I don’t think so,” he is quoted as having said.
Thankfully there was outrage following the above remark.
I have visited ashrams and enjoyed quiet solitude and peace. I read the story of sadhguru Ramana Maharishi a few years back and felt a strong connection with his story that I visited the Ashram and caves where he dwelled more than 60 years ago. It was an experience I treasure and plan to go there as often as I can. It is all pretty simple in an ashram, you can sit down and meditate for hours if you like, you can join in the early morning chants, you can go for walks and feed the monkeys or birds usually to be found around or you can join groups that are having a satsang (company of like minded individuals).
The beauty of Ashrams is the simplicity it offers away from life’s constant and never ending demands. I think that is the beauty of every religious and spiritual place. Any place, ritual, practice that is able to quiet the mind, offer some reprieve to the ongoing challenges we face as human beings can only be a good thing. Which is what the word guru means- that which dispels darkness.
I will finish this piece with a quote from one of my favourite Indian teachers, Jiddu Krishnamurti.
“‘Truth is a pathless land’. Man cannot come to it through any organisation, through any creed, through any dogma, priest or ritual, not through any philosophical knowledge or psychological technique. He has to find it through the mirror of relationship, through the understanding of the contents of his own mind, through observation and not through intellectual analysis or introspective dissection. Man has built in himself images as a fence of security – religious, political, personal. These manifest as symbols, ideas, beliefs. The burden of these images dominates man’s thinking, his relationships and his daily life. These images are the causes of our problems for they divide man from man. His perception of life is shaped by the concepts already established in his mind. The content of his consciousness is his entire existence. This content is common to all humanity. The individuality is the name, the form and superficial culture he acquires from tradition and environment. The uniqueness of man does not lie in the superficial but in complete freedom from the content of his consciousness, which is common to all mankind. ”