Spirituality and Indian Culture
The history of India would remain enigmatic, particularly, the remarkable phenomenon of the continuity of Indian culture through the millennia would remain a mystery if we do not take into account the role that spirituality has played not only in determining the direction other philosophical and cultural effort but also in replenishing the springs of creativity at every crucial hour in the long and often weary journey. It is true that spirituality has played a role in every civilization and that no culture can claim a monopoly for spirituality. And yet, it can safely be affirmed that the unique greatness and continuity of Indian culture can be traced to her unparalleled experimentation, discovery and achievement in the vast field of spirituality.
Indian culture has recognized spirituality not only as the supreme occupation of man but also as his all-integrating occupation. Similarly, the entire spectrum of Indian culture,—its religion, ethics, philosophy, literature, art, architecture, dance, music, and even its polity and social and economic organization,—all these have been constantly influenced and moulded by the inspiring force of a multi-sided spirituality.
The distinctive character of Indian spirituality is its conscious and deliberate insistence on direct experience. It affirms that deep within the heart and high above the mind there is accessible to our consciousness a realm of truths, powers and ecstasies that we can, by methodised effort of Yoga*, realize in direct experience, can even hold permanently, and express in varying degrees through our instruments of the mind, life and body. This affirmation has
"Yoga is a comprehensive system of concentration, passive and dynamic, leading to living contact, union and identity with realities or Reality underlying the universe, with appropriate consequences in our nature and action, individual and cosmic. In recent times. Yoga is often misrepresented to be identical with Hathayoga, a system of physical and subtle exercises, which is only a specialisation, and a dispensable one, of the real comprehensive system.
conditioned the entire development of religion in India and has introduced in the body of religion the recognition that direct experience of the spirit is far superior to dogma, belief and ritualism, and that dogmatic religion can and must ultimately be surpassed by experiential spirituality.
Consequently, the history of Indian spirituality and religion shows a remarkable spirit of research, of an increasing subtlety, plasticity, sounding of depths, extension of seeking. There have been systems of specialization and also conflicting claims and counter-claims, but the supervening tendency has been to combine, assimilate, harmonize and synthesize. In the past, there have been at least four great stages of synthesis, represented by the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Gita, and the Tantra. And, in modem times, we are passing through the fifth stage, represented by a new synthesis, which is in the making.
It is impossible to describe Indian spirituality and religion by any exclusive label. Even in its advanced forms, it cannot be described as monotheism or monism or pantheism or nihilism or transcendtalism, although each one of these is present in it in some subtle or pronounced way. Even the spiritual truths behind the primitive forms such as those of animism, spiritism, fetishism and totemism have been allowed to play a role in its complex totality, although their external forms have been discouraged and are not valid or applicable to those who lead an inner mental and spiritual life. It is this complexity that bewilders the foreign student when he tries to define Indian spirituality and religion in terms and under criteria that are not born of the Indian experiment. But things become easier once it is grasped that the fundamental point of reference is not the outward form of a given belief and practice but the spirit behind and the justifying spiritual experience.
Indian scriptures and records abound with the statements and descriptions of varieties of spiritual experience. But there are three central spiritual experiences in terms of which all these varieties can be readily understood. The first is that of the individual in a state of complete detachment from all movement, dynamism, activity. In this state, the individual finds himself in an utter passivity and inactivity, but also of a complete luminosity and discrimination between himself as an eternal witness (sakshin), free from the sense of ego and the activities of Nature in the universe. This
experience is the basis of the Sankhya philosophy. The second experience is that of the eternal and infinite Reality above Space and Time in which all that we call individuality and universality are completely silenced and sublated, and the experiencing consciousness discovers itself to be That Reality (tat sat), one, without the second (ekam eva advitiyam), entirely silent and immobile, the Pure Being, so ineffable that even to describe it as Being is to violate its sheer transcendence. This experience has given rise to the philosophy of Adwaita (Non-Dualism), in particular that of Illusionistic Adwaita, which proclaims that only the Brahman is real, and the world is an illusion. The third experience is the one in which the individual and cosmos are found to be free expressions of the Supreme Reality (Purushottama) which, although above Space and Time, determines Space and Time and all activities through various intermediary expressions of itself. This experience and some variations of it form the basis of various theistic philosophies of India. These theistic philosophies are those of qualified monism (Vishishtadwaita philosophy), integral monism (Poornadwaita philosophy), dualiatic philosophy (Dwaita philosophy). These experiences, when permanently established give liberation (moksha), and it is this which has in India been regarded as a high consummation of man's destiny upon earth. But, more importantly, the ancient ideal as given by the Vedas, Upanishads and the Gita, was to achieve an integrality of all these experiences, to combine utter Silence with effective Action, to be liberated from ego and yet at the same time to be a free living centre (jivanmukta) of luminous action that would aid the progressive unity of mankind (lokasangraha).
This integral ideal was to be realized in its integrality not only by a few exceptional individuals but also by increasing number of people, groups, collectivities, even on massive scale, through a long and conscious preparation and training. This great and difficult task has passed through two main stages, while a third has taken initial steps and promises to be the destiny of India's future.
The early Vedic was the first stage; the Purano-Tantric was the second stage*. In the former, an attempt was made to approach the mass-mind through the physical mind of man and make it familiar
*"The date of the Vedic age is controversial, but according to a conservative hypothesis, its origins are dated 2000 B.C The Purano-Tantric age can be regarded to have extended from 600 B.C. to 800 B.C
with the Godhead in the universe through the symbol of the sacrificial fire (yajna). In the latter, deeper approaches of man's inner mind and life to the Divine in the universe were attempted through the development of great philosophies,* many-sided epic literature (particularly Ramayana and Mahabharata), systems of Puranas and Tantras,** and even art and science. An enlarged secular turn was given, and this was balanced by deepening of the intensities of psycho-religious experience. New tendencies and mystic forms and disciplines attempted to seize not only the soul and the intellect, but the emotions, the senses, the vital and the aesthetic nature of man and turn them into stuff of the spiritual life. But this great effort and achievement which covered all the time between the Vedic age and the decline of Buddhism, was still not the .last possibility of the spiritual and religious evolution open to Indian culture. A further development through the third stage was attempted, but it was arrested as it synchronized with a period of general exhaustion, and, in the eighteenth century, which can be regarded as the period of dense obscurity, the work that had begun seemed almost lost.
The aim of this third stage was to approach not only the inner mind and life of man, but to approach his whole mental, psychical and physical living, his totality of being and activity, and to turn it into a first beginning of at least a generalized spiritual life. Philosophers and saints such as Sri Chaitanya (1485-1533) and others of the 15th and 16th centuries belong to this stage. There
*Particularly, the six systems, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sankhya, Yoga, Poorva Mimamsa and Uttara Mimamsa and their numerous interpretations and commentaries. These 6 systems are Vedic systems or philosophy. There developed also Buddhism and Jainism and their numerous philosophical systems which did not accept the authority of the Vedas. Similarly, Charvaka philosophy, the philosophy of materialism, which also developed during this period, was entirely anti-Vedic.
"There are 18 Puranas. Each Purana has five parts: (1) creation of the world, (2) destruction and recreation of the world, (3) reigns and periods of Manus, (4) geneology and Gods, and (5) dynasties of solar and lunar kings.
While Puranas are Vedic, Tantras are Vedic only indirectly, and they are called Agamas. We do not know the exact number of Agamas, but it is estimated that there are 64 of them.
"Tantras are devoted to the methods of utilising the dynamic energies of life in order to open up the doors of the Divine Power for a triumphant mastery over the world-activities.
was also during this period a remarkable attempt to combine Vedanta and Islam or of establishing lasting communal harmony. In particular, the work of Guru Nanak (1469-1538) and of the subsequent Sikh Khalsa movement was astonishingly original and novel. The speciality of this third stage was an intense outburst and fresh creativity, not a revivalism, but based upon a deep assimilation of the past, a new effort and a new formulation. But the time was not yet ripe, and India had to pass through a period of an eclipse, almost total and disastrous.
Happily, the 19th century witnessed a great awakening and a new spiritual impulse pregnant with a power to fulfill the mission of the work that had started in the third stage. Great and flaming pioneers appeared. Raja Rammohan Roy (1836-1886) and Swami Vivekananda (1862-1902) to name just two of them, and through their work the entire country was electrified not only spiritually but even socially and politically. India became renascent, and there began to develop a capacity for a new synthesis, not only of the threads of Indian culture but also of world culture. Nationalism came to be proclaimed as the new spirituality, and this nationalism was right from the beginning international in its spirit and sweep. Not an escape from life, but acceptance of life, integration of life and transformation of life by an integral spirituality this ideal came to be felt and expressed in various ways and through various activities of the renascent India.
Gradually, it has become evident that this new movement has to do not merely with India but fundamentally with the essential problem of Man and his future evolution. It is becoming clearer that Man is a field of interaction between Matter and Spirit/that this interaction has reached a point of criticality, and that this criticality demands a new knowledge, an integral knowledge of Matter and Spirit.
This is the task which Free India has begun to perceive as central to her real fulfillment. It is significant that we have in India a most comprehensive statement of this task in the luminous writings of Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), who has been described by Remain Rolland as 'the completest synthesis of the East and the West'. Sri Aurobindo has declared that man is a transitional being, that his destiny is to be the spiritual superman, and that the present hour is the hour of his evolutionary crisis in which his entire life, his very body, must undergo an integral spiritual
transformation, not indeed by an escape into some far-off heavens, but here, in this physical earth itself, by a victorious union of Spirit and Matter. This, he has declared, is not an issue of an individual but of collectivity, not an issue of Indian spirituality and culture, but of the entire world's upward aspiration and fulfillment.
It must be noted that in this task of universal importance, India, the East, has received from the West a collaboration of incalculable magnitude and value. For it is from France that the Mother (Madame Mira Alfassa (1878-1973) came to Sri Aurobindo and made India her permanent home in order to collaborate with him and to fulfill this task of integral transformation. The work that she has done is not yet sufficiently known, but we find in her the highest heights that Indian spirituality has reached, and we feel that the near future will show the revolutionary effects of her work for humanity, for its lasting unity and harmony, and for its transmutation into super-humanity.
Indeed the renascent spirituality of India opens up new vistas of experience and research. It transcends the boundaries of dogma and exclusive claims of Truth. It is not opposed to any religion, but points to a way to a synthesis and integrality of spiritual experience in the light of which the truth behind each religion is understood and permitted to grow to its fullness and to meet in harmony with all the others. The important thing is to turn the human mentality, vitality and physicality to the realm of spiritual experiences and to transform the human mould by an over-widening light of the Spirit. In this perception, even scepticism, agnosticism and atheism have a meaning and value as an indispensable stage for a certain line of mental development. But here too the dogma and denial behind the doubt and atheism have to be surpassed, and whether by rigorous methods of philosophy and science or by a deeper plunge into deeper experiences, a way can be opened to transcend the dogmatic refusal to seek and to discover. It is in this direction that we seem to reach a point where a fruitful synthesis of science and spirituality can be effectuated.
The renascent spirituality is all-embracing and is deeply committed to undertake all activities of human life and to transform them. It has begun to influence literature and art and music, education and physical culture. Even social and economic and political fields are being taken up, not indeed to cast them once again
into some rigid formula of a religious dogma but rather to liberate them and to inundate them with a spiritual light and motive and to restructure them by a gradual evolution so that they may breathe widely and freely the progressive harmonies of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Thus is it that the old forms of society, casteism and all the rest, are being broken and there is a fresh search for new forms, plastic and flexible, to permit the highest possible perfectibility of the individual and the collectivity to blossom spontaneously and perpetually. In the ultimate analysis, it is through such a vast and potent change in the social milieu that the total man can be uplifted to his next stage of evolutionary mutation.
It is in this context that India views the great social-political upheavals of the recent times as a sign and a promise of the coming of the New World. It views modem man's concern for the collective life as something unprecedented. The experiments that have been heralded by the great revolutions have contributed to the re-making of the collective life of Man.. It is felt that these experiments will continue to grow until the highest and the deepest in the individual and the collectivity are brought forward in the task of the new transformation. It is in this direction that the new spirituality seems to be moving. It is in this direction that the new philosophies are likely to flower. India has already taken this new direction and it hopes to place the fruits of this new endeavor at the service of mankind for its highest welfare.