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Contemporary Spirituality and the Thinning of the Sacred: A Hindu Perspective.

The spiritual is not a diversion.

"Know that whatever exists in this changing universe is covered with God." [1]

So declares the first verse of the [bar{I}]sa Upanishad, one of Hinduism's oldest and most sacred texts. [*] For the past three thousand years the Upanishads have provided Hinduism its philosophical core. Another name for the collective wisdom of the Upanishads is Vedanta. The [bar{I}]sa, believed to be the world's oldest philosophical treatise, has consistently had a prominent place in Hindu thought since its bold affirmation of the world's divinity is repeated and emphasized by the scriptures which follow it.

Given the number of books published on the subject of spirituality, one might suspect that this verse had been assimilated into contemporary American culture. A quick glance at amazon.com reveals a total of 6,464 books -- ready to ship in 24 hours! -- dealing with the topic of spirituality. Indeed, "spirituality," our catch-all word for sacred-goes-lite, seems to have galvanized our secularized life. But has spirituality been assimilated or merely appropriated for quick consumption? Instead of seeing God everywhere are we only consumers of McSpirituality?

We have books on spirituality for women, spirituality for men, spirituality for relationships of every conceivable variety. We have bio-spirituality, cannabis spirituality, radical green spirituality. We have spiritual dreaming, spiritual healing, spiritual eating, spiritual sex. There are more varieties of Chicken Soup than there are imbibing souls. We have Spiritual Advice from the Vegetable Patch; we have Career Miracles: Create Career Happiness and Success Using Your Spirituality. We have The Age of Spiritual Machines--and let us not neglect Doing Nothing: The End of the Spiritual Search.

And that seems to be the point. Our contemporary search for the sacred has the air of a nonchalant diversion with all the rigor of an e-mail. Despite the ubiquitous topic of spirituality, we find ourselves in a society that is increasingly hyperventilated, increasingly wearied, increasingly inattentive. We're prosperous, informed, desperately efficient--taking perverse pride in being too busy and too much in demand. We refuse to acknowledge that the frenetic pace is simply another way to hide from ourselves. No matter how we talk and how much we talk, the reality of contemporary life betrays an inner emptiness. Do we feel that if we talk about spirituality more, it will become more real for us? If we are truly living in the sacred, would there be such compulsion to discuss it? If everything is sacred, then what makes the sacred, sacred?

From the perspective of this particular Vedanta nun, contemporary spirituality in the West betrays a lack of the groundedness that comes from a deeply centered spiritual life. While Western contemporary spirituality parrots Hinduism's most sacred precepts--karma, dharma, yoga, guru, nirvana--the talk remains just talk because there is no genuine spiritual effort to support it; like a Hollywood set design, the semblance of the sacred remains just what it is, a cheap facade. In this way Hindus have witnessed the blithe arrogation of their scriptures, their teachings cut from the root of a tradition heavy with discipline. Snipping from that tradition what is convenient or pleasant, the user too often neglects the root which has sustained the plant.

Case in point: I recently attended a book fair which included, of all things, a yoga demonstration. "Yoga," we were cheerily informed, "is about getting in touch with your body and having fun." Wrong. "Yoga" comes from two different Sanskrit verb roots and has two different but complementary meanings. One is "concentration" and the other is "joining" or "yoking" -- that is, yoking oneself to the divine. Yoga is not about having "fun" in the usual sense; it is about finding our true divine nature. Yoga is an ancient philosophical, psychological and religious system. Followers of this system know that they are more than enough in touch -- call it identification--with the body. What is necessary for genuine spiritual development is, at least temporarily, to dis-identify with the body in order to get in touch with the real Self.

What Westerners call "yoga" is hatha yoga, a technique of strengthening the body and increasing its longevity -- a mere preliminary practice to be followed by higher spiritual disciplines. In today's Hindu mainstream, hatha yoga is identified with bodily preoccupation, not authentic spiritual practice. To quote from Swami Hariharananda Aranya's classic commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: "It should always be clearly understood that Yoga primarily means control over the mind.[ldots] When the mind is wholly controlled, the body will certainly be brought under control. On the other hand, there may be full control over the body without the least control over the mind." [2]

This aside only serves to point out that an ancient spiritual tradition like Vedanta cannot be cut like parsley for decoration on a spiritual combo-plate. In thinning from religious traditions what is demanding or uncomfortable, contemporary culture has created a convenience-store spirituality lacking the charge of the sacred. In searching for a comfortable path, many have postponed the real journey.

So how does this view square with the [tilde{I}]sa Upanishad's powerful assertion that everything is covered with God? If Vedanta declares that the world is suffused with divinity, what distinguishes it from the wimpy spiritual effusions currently on display? What gives Vedanta its spiritual and intellectual integrity?

All Hindu scriptures assert that the sacred is always present and available to us. What mars our experience of it is our own self-imposed blindness. Once the mind is purified, our divine nature will shine with its own splendor. What is needed to restore our sight is the purification provided by spiritual disciplines. These practices, formulated by the sage Patanjali, the father of Hindu psychology, are considered absolutely imperative; without them, the spiritual search is futile. The disciplines consist of two categories, yama and niyama.

Yama consists of nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, continence, and abstention from greed. Niyama consists of cleanliness, contentment, austerity, study, and self-surrender to God. These practices are meant to be followed not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well: every discipline should be observed in thought, word, and deed. Spiritual disciplines require that the body, mind, and heart be united -- words cannot contradict thoughts; the mind cannot be a traitor to the heart. This obviously assumes a high degree of personal integration and psychological maturity.

When these disciplines are followed seriously, then one can seriously think about embarking on the sacred journey. They are as essential as oxygen for scaling the world's highest peaks; without these disciplines a person can neither succeed nor survive as a truly spiritual being. Yet whenever Hindu teachings are transplanted into the Western idiom, these disciplines mysteriously, conveniently, disappear. Instead we hear about getting into our bodies and having fun.

Any real journey takes time, effort, and a tremendous amount of discipline. Physical journeys can be demanding, but nothing is more arduous and utterly consuming than the spiritual journey. It doesn't come easy and it doesn't come cheap. Unless a person's life is fully committed to the search for the sacred, she or he will never get beyond the front yard. Only when one has intense determination to seek and to see the divine, will the world reveal its sacred nature. It can't just be a topic of conversation; it has to be striven for with dogged perseverance.

It is for this reason that the first section of the [bar{I}]sa's first verse states that this changing universe is covered with God and the second part provides its very down-to-earth application: "Therefore protect yourself through detachment. Do not covet anyone's wealth." [3]

At first glance the juxtaposition of these ideas seems jarring; we are shown the highest reaches of divine vision -- the profoundly sacred nature of the world and all that inhabits it -- only to be reminded to keep avariciousness in check! But the points actually go together rather nicely: the ancient sages were supremely practical people. They didn't provide the luxury of talking one thing and living another.

The Sanskrit word for the world is jagati, while the word for changing or evanescent is jagat: the world's evanescent nature is actually built into the very definition of "world." Yet behind this shimmering ephemeron lies the deeper, sacred reality--Brahman, the infinite, transcendent reality that covers and pervades all things. While Brahman exists everywhere and in everything as the divine ground of being, this divinity is also immanent and manifest most in the human heart: the divine Self or Atman is one with Brahman. It is this reality that makes the sacred, sacred. It is not the phenomenal world of ceaseless change but the changeless divinity that gives the world both its profound sanctity and its meaning. The world as world is not sacred; the world as world-whose-essential-reality-is-Brahman is sacred. Remove the divine substratum, there is no sacred and there is no world either.

Given this, what attitude should a person assume toward the world? While insisting on its sacral nature, the [bar{I}]sa cautions that detachment provides the key to living in a world whose surface is in continual flux. "Protecting" through detachment is not storing up treasures where moth and rust inevitably corrupt. Vedanta acknowledges that everything in this changing world rusts and corrupts -- including our bodies and minds and relationships and dreams and triumphs -- it all vanishes in the blink of the eye. The butterfly world can't be seized and pinned into immobility; it will only perish sooner. Everything changes, everything lies in the shadow of death -- except the divine reality upon which all the joyful and sorrowful images dance like images on a screen.

This is not to suggest that the Upanishadic sages were dry ascetics who shunned the world and its beauty. They were, in fact, extraordinarily life-affirming men and women, both joyfully life-affirming and realistic. The Sanskrit word bhu[tilde{n}]j[hat{i}]th[hat{a}]h, translated here as "protect," has many shades of meaning: it means to protect, but also to nourish, strengthen, support, and enjoy. Human life is strengthened and supported through renunciation. We are nourished by choosing what supports and strengthens life rather than by that which slips away. The world can truly be enjoyed only by possessing its real, divine aspect. Don't get beguiled by the chaff, says the [bar{I}]sa, go for the wheat. Chaff has value, but only in relation to the wheat kernel. Enjoy life, but do it intelligently in a spirit of detachment.

It is important to remember that detachment is not indifference. Neither is it self-absorption; nor is it being cold or heartless -- although the word "detachment" frequently brings these qualities to mind. In the Hindu worldview, detachment is the honest recognition that the world is transitory and that it is not only fruitless but psychologically and spiritually damaging to attempt to view it otherwise. Moreover, it is only through detachment -- releasing our grip from what we cling to tightly, personally, exclusively -- that we can truly be available to and genuinely loving with others. Only with detachment can rivalry and jealousy and hatred and greed be obliterated.

Why does Vedanta view attachment as such a problem? Because we manage to be attached only to those things which are transitory, and because we both define and limit ourselves by these attachments. We are attached to our families, friends, and relationships; our bodies with their respective quotients of youth and beauty; our bank balances and possessions; our intellects and our ideas; our reputations and resumes: our power and importance and especially our precious egos. Instead of identifying with the unchanging reality within, we identify with the flux around us.

As long as our happiness is dependent upon external conditions -- and in the Vedanta worldview everything that is not the Self is external -- we are subject to fear, loss, jealousy, anger, ambition, greed, and hatred. Identification with the flux creates selfishness and self-absorption since we will attempt to grasp whatever we think is necessary for our own well-being and happiness. In this condition we're not capable of thinking outside the narrow perimeter of our little body-mind world.

It is from this unenviable condition that the [bar{I}]sa warns us to protect ourselves through detachment. As a necessary corollary to this dictum, we are reminded not to covet anyone's wealth. Only with real detachment locked into place do we not crave what doesn't belong to us. "Wealth," after all, is what we treasure, and much of the time we treasure what is not ours to possess: the co-worker's salary, the friend's happy marriage, the model's body, the artist's genius, the scholar's acclaim, the rival's good fortune.

Yet taken further, what does belong to us? Obviously not those things which pass away. They can never "belong" to us in any real sense; in this world we can only hold things very lightly and very temporarily. There is only one thing we can cling to, say the sages of the Upanishads, only one thing which truly "belongs" to us and which doesn't pass away: our divine nature and the divine nature of the world beneath the swirling change -- the sacredness that makes us and the world sacred.

Detachment provides the freedom from self-centered interests. With detachment comes unselfishness, the basis not only of all ethical virtues but also--yes, what everyone is seeking--true happiness. Not the skittish happiness that comes from contemporary society's frantic search for "having fun," but the radiant joy that comes from the fullness of wisdom and from deep contentment.

From the Vedanta viewpoint, contentment is not a code word for apathy regarding the sufferings of others. Since everything that exists is united through the one Reality that pervades all things, no one can be indifferent to others' sufferings except at her or his own peril. To hurt others either actively through deeds or passively through neglect only hurts oneself. Contentment is also the understanding that while external conditions may be flawed and need to be corrected whenever possible, the sacred is where the focus must be because that is where happiness is found.

The Hindu sages have long affirmed that as long as we don't know right down to the marrow of our bones that we fully possess happiness within our own hearts, we'll be like Tantalus, reaching for the fruit that we can never quite grasp. If only Tantalus had just sat down, withdrawn his mind from the lure of sense attractions and meditated on the Self! If we view Tantalus' predicament as a kind of tableau, we can see the problem with contemporary society's attempt to put the spirituality bracket around whatever it wishes. Tantalus' reaching for the apple is not a spiritual activity; his activity is prompted by his desire for a transitory sense object. Limiting himself to the body-mind complex, Tantalus is completely focused on attaining an object of desire to temporarily satisfy his craving. Since the very process of sense gratification means the never-ending cycle of desire followed by temporary fulfillment, we know that even if Tantalus finally grabbed that apple off the tree and took a big juicy bite, he'd be back at it again in a few hours. In this world of transition, all desires remain like apples on the tree. Even if somehow we manage to snatch one, others remain which we'll soon desire with equal longing.

Let us assume that Tantalus takes my advice and sits down under the tree and meditates. Surely that's spiritual. Vedanta says: Not if he's still thinking about those juicy apples. "The person who restrains the body's actions while allowing the mind to brood on the objects of desire," says the Bhagavad Gita, "is deluded. Such a person can only be called a hypocrite." [4] But if Tantalus finally decides that he's tired of straining for apples, and if he realizes that he and the apples and his desire for the apples are transitory and that his attempt to reach them will always be frustrated -- and if he yearns for something abiding that transcends human limitations and is willing to make serious sacrifices to find it -- then he is genuinely ready and fit to embark on the spiritual quest. But not until and not otherwise.

On this point Vedanta philosophy is uncompromising. As the Indian adage says, you cannot go fishing with your legs in two different boats. You chose one or the other or you land in the water. Those who desire enjoyment in the senses shall find sensory enjoyment only. Those who sincerely desire spiritual truth shall embark on that journey. But they cannot be done simultaneously. One automatically precludes the other. Says the Katha Upanishad:

The Self-Existent created the sense organs to turn outward. Accordingly, one looks without and does not see what is within. Rare is the wise person who, seeking immortality, is able to withdraw the mind from what is without and beholds the Self within.

Fools run after the desires of the flesh and fall into the snare of all-encompassing death; but the wise, knowing the Self to be eternal, do not seek the things that pass away. [5]

For the past three thousand years, Vedanta has maintained that in order to reach for the Unchangeable, one must let go of the changing. "In the midst of the fleeting," says the Katha Upanishad, "the Atman abides forever. All-pervading and supreme is the Self. Those who perceive Him as their own true nature, transcend all grief." [6]

Detacbment or renunciation lie at the heart of Vedanta philosophy and are the backbone of every Hindu scripture. Yet one hears precious little of these qualities when Hinduism goes West. Like computer characters that get lost in operating system conversion, the very qualities that are imperative for other virtues to build upon somehow evaporate. We hear about yoga and karma but seldom about vairagya, detachment, or viveka, choosing the eternal over the fleeting. We hear unending discussions of spirituality but see little of the character transformation that makes genuine spirituality possible.

"The good is one thing," declares a celebrated verse in the Katha Upanishad, "and the pleasant is another. Both of these, serving different purposes, bind humankind. Wise are they who choose the good over the pleasant. Those who choose the pleasant, miss the goat." [7]

Hindus would like to remind contemporary Western society: Every human being on the planet must make the choice between what is truly good and what is merely pleasant. Choose whichever you wish, but do not confuse the pleasant with the sacred. Should you opt for the merely pleasant, do not call it spiritual.

PRAVRAJIKA VRAJAPRANA has been a nun in the Santa Barbara branch of the Vedanta Society of Southern California since 1977. She is the author of Vedanta: A Simple Introduction (Vedanta Press, 1999), among numerous other books.

(*.) Throughout this paper, the words "Hindu," 'Hinduism," and "Vedanta" will be used interchangeably. While I much prefer using the term "Vedanta" -- for Vedanta is the philosophical basis of Hinduism and lacks the cultural associations that accompany the word "Hinduism" -- Vedanta unfortunately lacks the name recognition that Hinduism provides. The inherent danger here is the reader's subliminal Hindu associations which are not necessarily religious and do not translate into the Western context.

Notes

(1.) [bar{I}]s[bar{a}]v[bar{a}]syamida[dot{m}] sarva[dot{m}] yatki[bar{n}]ca jagaty[bar{a}][dot{m}] jagat. I[acute{s}]a Upanishad 1.

(2.) The Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali (Albany: SUNY Press, 1983), 234-35.

(3.) Tena tyaktena bhu[bar{n}]j[bar{i}]th[bar{a}] m[bar{a}] grdhah kasya svid dhanam. I[scute{s}]a Upanishad 1.

(4.) Karmendriy[bar{a}]ni samyamya ya [bar{a}]ste manase smaran Indriy[bar{a}]rthan vim[bar{u}]dh[bar{a}]car[bar{a}]h sa ucyate. Bhagavad Gita 3.6.

(5.) Par[bar{a}][bar{n}]ci kh[bar{a}]ni vyatrnat svayarnbh[bar{u}]stasm[bar{a}]tpar[bar{a}]n pa[acute{s}]yati n[bar{a}]ntar[bar{a}]tman Kasdiddhi[bar{r}]ah pratyag[bar{a}]tm[bar{a}]nam aiksad [bar{a}]vrtlacaksuramrtatvamicchan. Paracah k[bar{a}]mananuyanti b[bar{a}]l[bar{a}]ste mrtyoryanti vitatasya p[bar{a}]sam Atha dh[bar{i}]r[bar{a}] amrtatva[dot{m}] viditv[bar{a}] dhruvam adhruvesviha na pr[bar{a}]rthayante. Katha Upanishad 2.1.1002.

(6.) Asar[bar{i}]ra[dot{m}] sar[bar{i}]esvanavasthesvavasthitam Mah[bar{a}]ntam vibhum[bar{a}]tm[bar{a}]na[dot{m}] matv[bar{a}] dh[bar{i}]ro na socati. Katha Upanishad 1.2.22.

(7.) Anyaccheryo'nyadutaiva preyaste ubhe n[bar{a}]n[bar{a}]rthe purusam sin[bar{i}]tah Tayoh sreya [bar{a}]dad[bar{a}]nasya s[bar{a}]dhu bhavati h[bar{i}]yate'rth[bar{a}]dya u preyo vrn[bar{i}]te. Katha Upanishad 1.2.1
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Author:VRAJAPRANA, PRAVRAJIKA
Publication:Cross Currents
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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