Sumanta Banerjee, ‘In Search of the Gandiva’ (Seminar 533, January 2004) presents an incisive analysis of the gung-ho celebrations of our feel-good ‘shining’ situation, which he dubs ‘unashamed hedonism’. He reminds the consumerist biradari of the fact that India is a land where 233 million people go hungry and over 40 million children do not go to primary schools. Our latest Census survey points out that 48% of our people are homeless, 44% make do without electricity and over 60% of families do not get water at home. When the abysmal lack of medical facilities is added to this picture, the situation cries out for comment.
Banerjee devotes considerable attention to the coexistence of ‘consumerist values with traditional and conservative socio-religious norms.’ He cites some pertinent data (during the last decade some 2.4 million new places of worship came up as against 1.5 million schools and colleges and 0.6 million hospitals; there are 26 million television sets in rural India) and highlights a possible link with socio-cultural behaviour of the people like bride-burning, lynching of young couples for intercaste marriage, imposing diktats like burqua-wearing in conjunction with severe physical punishment in the event of violations, killing of women branded as witches, buying consumer goods at the expense of foods and facilities essential for a healthy and decent living. Banerjee justifiably bemoans the tendency of the majority (outside the shining club) to toe the line of ‘traditional socio-religious practices, as well as… their new pursuit of modern consumerist values, however expensive both might be.’
Sumanta Banerjee suggests that a kind of hegemonic nexus between consumerism and cultural obscurantism is seeking to motor our social being. But, perhaps because of the constraints of his framework, he has not deemed it necessary to go into the phenomenon that now passes by the name of raising ‘spiritual’ awareness. It needs examination.
As we see, ‘spirituality’ hangs heavy in the air. The cognoscenti call it pop and marketplace spirituality, but its pop status does strengthen its power to assume the mantle of a potent fashion. This fashion radiates certain messages – be positive, think positive, live at the level of pure consciousness because your true nature is consciousness and you are a part of the Absolute which is nothing but pure consciousness. These messages float in our (post) modern Indian life, which is marked by a coexistence of various shades of immorality and the popularity of the ‘need’ to go spiritual. Spirituality is simply a tendency towards a life of the spirit with all the attendant implications. Therefore, the coexistence of immorality (engendered, in a very large measure, by the pressure of consumerism) with the desire for spirituality becomes disturbing. How can consumerist values that believe in pulling the people to the market coexist with a desire to claim the eternal? The philosophy of the market rests on the principle of a gratification of the senses; the goal of spirituality is to rise above the agitation of the senses.
Human life ultimately being consciousness and so a part of a larger consciousness, is gaining increasing cognitive validation from the scientific fraternity. The tentativeness of Roger Penrose does not jar with the sublime finality of the theorem propounded in the Isavasya Upanishad ‘purnam adah purnam idam/purnat purnam udacyate/purnasya purnam adaya/purnam evavasisyate’. [(The absolute) is the whole, this (the universe) is the whole; from that whole emerges this whole. Take away the whole from the whole, and yet the whole remains]. But under the sky of this Truth lives the real planet of the hard actualities of real life, which creates some real socio-cultural contexts dominated by some real norms, which we may call smaller absolutes. It is these contexts and absolutes that make the prescriptive messages of today’s fashionable spirituality problematic.
Our context is the dominance of rapacious consumerism and the growing insensitivity towards the suffering of a large marginalised mass of humanity. These sufferings are aggravated, in no small measure, by the dominance of the glamour and glitz of the consumerist cultural ambience. In hard terms of day-to-day socio-cultural living, the ruling god is the god of chic advertisements, pushing us towards a market stacked with items for the body. The market has nothing for a life of the spirit. Some people try to bring soul into the market and claim that the market is a liberating place. They blissfully forget that the essential condition of this liberation is a purse stuffed with currency notes and credit cards.
For the economically marginalised, the market can be only a prison-house with glass walls on which they see the reflection of their own wretchedness. This prison-house is not just a physical presence; it has transformed itself into a regime with a norm and a penal code, regularly drummed into us by market PR systems represented by the huge advertising industry. The norm is to buy and go on buying; the penal code says that those who can’t buy are not accredited citizens. The norm and the penal code also have their sub-clauses about those who have a modicum of money but refuse to splurge on market-directed hardware, because they consider the finer software of life more precious. But fortunately, they are capable of defending themselves and their territory. Such people can gain heart from the intellectual efforts of people like Sumanta Banerjee.
This context has a triangular palpability, with all the three angles gaining salience with the passage of time. Avarice, materialism and corruption are the new character traits of our era. What role does the reigning brand of ‘spirituality’ play here? How do these three angles interact with and react to the message of think positive, be positive, don’t worry, be happy? The inescapable answer is that greed and endemic corruption coexist with what goes by the name of spirituality in the common parlance of today’s permissive society. The reason for this is that our ‘domain of the popular’ (Partha Chatterjee’s term) lacks a serious movement advocating the primacy of the spirit. Therefore, the wordy miasma of spiritual messages serve, at best, the desire to forget the irksome experience of immorality for material gain. The emphasis is on therapeutic power, the tension-reducing potential of spiritual practices.
The core of these practices – yamas (the vows of self-restraint which prescribe, among other values, abstention from acquisitiveness) and niyamas (vows of observances which include among other ideals, contentment and austerity) remain grossly overlooked. The concept of spirituality has been dumbed down to the level of a stress-busting instrumentality. The result is there for all to see. Tax evasion, appointments with ‘spiritual’ consultants and attendance in pravachan sabhas are registering simultaneous growth. A lip service to a life of the spirit goes hand in hand with an affirmation of materialistic values. In the face of the triumphant march of these values, one is reminded of the sociological position that holds that social phenomena have an independent reality and precede and survive individuals, influencing their behaviour by providing them with beliefs, values and motivations.
This ‘dumbing down’ is reflective of our diluted socio-cultural existence. The views of Professor Morris Berman advanced in his book The Twilight of American Culture, though written in the immediate context of American society, strike a resonance, considering our enthusiastic ride on the globalisation bandwagon. According to the sociologist Todd Gotlin, American popular culture is ‘the latest in a long succession of bidders for global unification’ (The Times of India, Mumbai, 31 October 1998). Using concrete indicators, like the number of Americans reading a daily newspaper becoming half since 1965, 40% of American adults not being able to name America’s Second World War enemies, and about 120 million Americans reading and writing English language at the level of an 11-year old, Berman asks, ‘Why did we get so preoccupied with the soul?’ and answers, ‘Because we are so dumb we can’t think of anything else.’ He is of the opinion that best-selling books like Chicken Soup for the Soul are the markers of the new ‘dumb society’.
An intellectually retarded society is one where pop spirituality takes birth and, in turn, needs it for its sustenance and growth, as such a society has high fertility for mediocrity. Mediocrity is not about being average, it is conforming to the average. Real mediocrity takes place when conforming to the average becomes the highest meaning in life. Then, to fit in and succeed in society by whatever means and be happy becomes the guiding motto of life. A situation of cultural stasis prevails which some evolutionary philosophers call a ‘conspiracy of mediocrity’. Further, such a society cannot be healthy in cardiovascular terms because the waning of intellectualism leads to an acceptance of the values that agitate rather than calm the mind.
Paramhansa Yogananda, in his widely discussed autobiography, establishes the superiority of intellectual activities in terms of their beneficial effects. He writes, ‘A person whose attention is wholly engrossed, as in following some closely knit intellectual argument… automatically breathes slowly. Fixity of attention depends on slow breathing; quick or uneven breaths are an inevitable accompaniment of harmful emotional states: fear, lust, anger.’ (Autobiography of a Yogi, Jaico Publishing House, Mumbai, 2001, p. 240). Yasuhiko Kimura, the Japanese-American author of Think Kosmically Act Globally, often tells his students to ask themselves a question for which they have no answer, or read a book that they cannot readily understand. He believes that by the time they are able to do so, they have evolved. He equates it with an identical process in biological evolution. He upholders the salutary effect of positive stress on the psychosomatic human system.
Consumerism and the market embed anxiety in daily life because they motivate and cause people to spend rather than save. The culture of runaway consumerism puts the individual on a never-ending, ever-accelerating treadmill of desire, their fulfillment and more desire. The famous cartographer of consciousness, Ken Wilber, diagnoses the present cultural disposition toward happiness as ‘simply pluralism infected with narcissism’, meaning hyper-relativity about values and acute self-centredness. The present me-generation gives ultimate priority to wanting to feel better, not by grounding the subjective self in a shared relationship with the suffering humanity, but by decontextualizing it from the vortex of the hard realities of life.
The peddlers of spirituality forget that recognition that life is suffering led the Buddha to his enlightenment. Buddha’s concern was humanity, not ‘myself’. Max Bennett, the world-renowned neurologist, has captured the fate of a ‘decentred’ and ‘decontexualised’ egoism: ‘We know that by the year 2020, the greatest disabling phenomenon for the health of the human race will be depression.’
True and timeless spirituality must act now and demand a comprehensive and intensive audit. Because if the unification envisaged by Todd Gotlin comes about, a frightening destiny awaits us. Even Francis Fukuyama admits that ‘the end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems… and satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.’ (‘The End of History?’, p. 18, The National Interest, Vol. 16, Summer 1989). One hopes that true spirituality will intervene, force society to change gear and make another destiny possible.