Up with spiritualism in the downturn

In tough times and poor economic climes, even the toughest turn to religion and spirituality. But in good days or bad, faith is an anchor that keeps us grounded

Up with spiritualism in the downturn
In God we trust’ goes the old adage. We may well add, ‘Surely, when in distress,’ to that. The year 2013 has seen a bottoming out of India’s economy and stock markets. The same was true of governance, politics and almost every other sphere of life. In all of this, if there was something Indians found solace in, it was religion and spirituality.

A scroll down Facebook is indication enough. A visit to a temple or church, or a pilgrimage to a holy town is reported with more alacrity and satisfaction than any other indulgence or vacation. Also, one gets to hear in regular social circles — more talk centering around pilgrimages — either having undertaken one, or planning one as a group.

There are figures to back this up. As per tourism ministry data, over 90-100 crore domestic tourist visits occur every year, out of which 60-65 per cent are religious. In 2012, over a 100 crore visits took place within India and the tourism industry generated Rs 6,40,000 crore.

In terms of inbound travel, pilgrim travel is linked to the Buddhist circuit in Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Varanasi and Sikkim. In 2012, 65.80 lakh foreign travel arrivals (FTAs) took place in India, contributing to a foreign exchange earning of Rs 94,487 crore. Of the the total FTAs, 40-50 per cent were inbound pilgrims.

It’s not just abodes of gods that have seen a ratcheting up of visitation rights, people have also been calling on those who can help them get closer to god, emotionally and spiritually. Gurus and godmen, for instance. From Baba Ramdev to Jaggi Vasudev and Sri Sri Ravishankar, each of these men of god have devised their own formulae to market divinity and help people keep their minds away from the struggles of everyday life.

Why is it that the appeal of religion and spiritualism takes off in tougher times? What makes people turn to god in the way they do? And is this the right approach?

“Religion and spirituality are increasingly becoming a cornerstone of modern life. They are seen as centres for peace and tranquility in fast paced urban living. In times when the morality paradigm changes like the seasons, and is becoming the cause of deep changes in our cultural fabric, it is only the anchor of religion that keeps real moral principles in the centre of an individual's life,” says Amarendr Gaura Dasa, cultural and values engineer at ISKCON Chennai. “This role of religion is indispensable for it keeps society from slipping into chaos. No other aspect of human life can fill this need. The real spiritual principles from authorised scriptures never become outdated,” he adds.

“As Indians, we have never been short of images from common life that reflect our longing for god. While some in western society may be happy to banish god from their lives, such a proposition would be anathema for the majority of us,” feels Rev Arun Andrews, Methodist minister and mentor at RZIM Life Focus Society in Bangalore. “Has there been an increase in interest for god? That’s a question that careful surveys could best elucidate,” he counters.

What then is the role of the spiritual in the making of a better India? Andrews tosses a few points for us to ponder. “If faith makes you other-centred and makes your neighbours’ cause your concern, yes, it will add to making a better India. If faith makes you passionate for the truth that it emboldens you to fight corruption, exploitation and poverty, yes, it will add to making a better India. If faith makes you a seeker of a better world and not just a better life, yes, it will add to making a better India,” Andrews avers.

Professor Aktharul Wasey, director, Zakir Hussain Institute of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, elaborates further. “Basically, a sense of insecurity and instability always pushes one to religion, which is becoming a shelter. When you have no hopes from the other ‘isms’ — capitalism, communalism or socialism, it brings people back to spiritualism,” he observes.

“But godmen have made religion a commodity and are exploiting it commercially, which is the problem. That is the challenge before the people about the genuineness of their faith. This has to be overcome,” says Wasey, who also believes that the Indian polity is so resilient, it can face all the upheavals that the country is presently undergoing, and finally triumph.

Andrews delves further. “The question of whether an increase in spiritual interests will usher a better India is not to be answered easily. We have the commercialisation of all things, even the spiritual. On the other, we have polarisation, and sadly, even ruthless violence that is promoted by the abuse of things spiritual. Such rifts and hurt are hard to heal. Still another problem we face is the disappointment that tainted or insincere spiritual leadership cause. A lack of role models often creates scepticism,” he says.

Wasey joins in with this concern. “There are many ills and evils that are negatively obstructing mankind universally. These range from illiteracy and poverty, hunger, gender discrimination, drug trafficking and child abuse, and do not recognise religion or regions. It is time religious heads from across faiths came together and drew a ‘common minimum programme’ to work against these,” he says.

According to Wasey, theological differences will exist, not only between religions but within religions as well. Hence, the focus should be on the common cause and not on diversity. “That will be make religion more relevant and meaningful for human beings,” he concludes.

Victor Edwin, a Catholic priest doing PhD in Islamic Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, agrees. “Religion of course, gives consolation to people and helps them draw strength and energy and tackle crises in a more confident way. But religion is much more than that for the benefit of humankind.”

For instance, he says, Mahatma Gandhi took upon the task of reading and learning from all scriptures across faiths to propogate non-violence as a means for the development of mankind and went on to inspire the whole world. “Religions and faiths should be used to celebrate human togetherness and communitarian celebration. It has its values and we should focus on it,” Edwin observes.

As all theologians agree, as we prepare to step into a new year, which will also witness the country heading into general elections in the summer, there is a clear hope of overcoming the negativity and sense of instability that has ruled our minds over the past year or so.


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