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Drink at the Spring
It started six years ago. A small group of people in Mumbai, led by Aspi Mistry, a practising Buddhist, decided to meet every Saturday. There was no real agenda: the Dharma Rain Centre was established to discuss in a lively manner all aspects of ethics, spirituality and its practice, to study religious texts and to meditate together. But of late, Aspi has noticed something unusual. “If I mention our group at a social gathering, I am immediately surrounded by people who want to give me their e-mail IDs to be added to our mailing list,” he says. So what began as a small group is now a collective with 300 members on its roster. “I also see more people near the spirituality section in bookstores, which is usually in a well-hidden corner,” he laughs.
What is dramatically different about this new and intense interest in all things spiritual in Indian metros is that there is nothing ritualistic about it. Neither is it rooted in piety, which sent earlier generations to temples and satsangs. The newfound attraction to spirituality is more measured, based as it is on an almost scholarly approach. Instead of waiting till retirement to ask the age-old questions, city folks are starting early, at the peak of their careers, eager to find answers that help them in the here and now.
And the numbers are growing. Some 700 people have signed up for the home study course on Bhagavad Gita, launched in July by the Chinmaya Mission Foundation, which specialises in courses on Vedanta and Sanskrit. “We have students from both genders, all ages—from 18 to 80—and people from varied fields like teachers, businessmen, builders, government employees, corporate executives, research students, retired people and housewives,” says Manisha Makhecha, the coordinator for the mission’s home-study programmes. The fee: Rs 3,000 for a 15-month course delivered by e-mail. And the reasons people are taking the course? Some say they “want to improve the standards of personal life by applying this knowledge”, some say they are on a spiritual quest. Some want to learn how to be happy.
In Delhi, the Ahmisa Trust, which organises sanghas to discuss Buddhist texts and practise meditation in several locations across the city every alternate Thursday, started a new chapter in Noida a month ago. The crowd is mixed, aged anywhere between 30 and 65. Anita Anand, who coordinates the Defence Colony sangha, attributes the shift to spirituality to the pressures of modern life, in which marriages and families are breaking down. People are realising that material comforts may be fulfilled but emotional needs are not. “Once the children leave the house, and job responsibilities are routine, midlife crisis strikes. People start to wonder what their life is worth,” says Anita.
As Aspi puts it, most people usually turn to spirituality after some trauma, a common enough occurrence in this age, asking two versions of the same query—‘Why me?’, or the more general ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’
Perhaps modern-day urban living is making people ask the eternal, existential questions at a much earlier age.
Take Aditya Apte, an investment manager, who has never been the “religious sort”. But after he turned 31, he began seeking a “deeper meaning” to his life. So he decided to enrol for a six-day course called ‘Journey of Self-Discovery’, run by ISKCON monks. He was expecting to find retired people as classmates and was pleasantly surprised to find most of the 160 students were young professionals like him. There were some MBA and engineering students too. Chaitanya Roop, the monk who taught the class, came armed with PowerPoint presentations on topics like ‘The Search for Happiness’, ‘The Existence of God’, ‘Reincarnation’ and, of course, ‘Why Bad Things Happen to Good People’. At the end of the six days, after approximately nine hours of lectures and discussions, most of the class had signed up for Round 2—an advanced course on the Bhagavad Gita.
For Dr Rekha Kusum, a participant, the Gita is first and foremost a “practical text”. “I didn’t want to wait till I was retired to read the Gita. It is a blueprint for a dynamic life and it certainly helps you function more efficiently in these stressful times, in a more detached manner. It teaches you not to take everything so personally,” she says. Nilesh Neharia, 33, an options trader dealing with the ups and downs of the stockmarket daily, similarly turned to the Gita to function in equanimity while still giving his “100 per cent”.
Most of these new spiritualists are 30-50 years of age and have rejected rituals as a way to connect to religion. It is this age group that a new breed of professionals are eyeing for their ‘spirituality workshops’. Mayur Khabrai, 34, is one of them. Till recently, he was a senior executive at an mnc with a handsome salary. Now, he is training to be a life coach and is in the process of “liquidating his assets” to start his own institute for spirituality-based counselling and workshops. His ‘Below the Bo-Tree Workshop’ is a weekend session on Taoism using 16 verses from Chinese philosopher-mystic Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. Cost: Rs 1,500. Mayur has trained in Zen Buddhist traditions with a Tibetan monk and has held six successful workshops since he began in June this year, each with 20 participants. As more people jump on to the spiritual bandwagon, his career move couldn’t have been better timed.
There has also been a renewed effort to crack the ‘science behind spirituality’. Doctors in India and abroad have undertaken studies to anlayse the parallels between ‘spiritual psychology’, taken from the Vedas, Upanishads, Yoga-sutras, Bhagawad Gita, Buddhist and Sufi traditions, and modern-day psychology. At the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore, Dr Mahendra P. Sharma, who heads the behavioural medicine unit, is studying the effects of Buddhist mindfulness techniques on patients with anxiety problems, depression and obsessive compulsive disorders. He is also using them to alter addictive habits like smoking. Mindfulness essentially involves training the mind to focus on the present, approaching everything with full awareness and accepting the current reality without judgement or reactions. It is based on the acceptance of the impermanent nature of all things and an attitude of ‘letting go’ that allows individuals to spring back from negative experiences a lot faster. Initial results are more than encouraging, showing that patients practising mindfulness fare a lot better than those undergoing conventional modes of therapy, including those involving medication. Dr Sharma is also studying the effects of mindfulness on subjects in high-stress situations like soldiers on the front and adolescents appearing for their board exams. In another corner of this Bangalore institute, studies are on in the Advanced Centre f.or Yoga (Mental Health & Neurosciences) to study the effects of yoga on depressive patients. “In the 1980s, there was a lot of research on transcendental meditation or TM. Now we are looking at training people how to think about thinking— the process called meta-cognition,” explains Dr Sharma. Since spiritual texts are chiefly devoted to how the mind shapes our experiences, along with themes of self-awareness and self-actualisation, their impact on the field of human psychology has been considerable.
In fact, the term ‘spiritual quotient’ was coined in 2000 by psychologist Danah Zohar in her book SQ: Ultimate Intelligence. It was rated a step above the other established parameters of intelligence—IQ and EQ (emotional quotient). According to Dr S.S. Nathawat, director and dean of Amity Institute of Behavioural & Allied Sciences in Rajasthan, SQ cannot be measured as easily as IQ, because everyone answers questions according to an “idealised sense of self”. Instead, SQ is measured by observing behaviour and revolves around value-based qualities that are consistently displayed, say altruism, compassion, gentleness, honesty and sincerity. In short, traits that show a person is working towards personal growth. People with higher SQ are not necessarily religious, but show qualities that are extolled in spiritual texts.
One of the more practical applications of Indian spiritual traditions in psychology has come from 40-year-old psychologist Shilpa Dattar. After completing her PhD on Indian psychology from Mysore University and completing a two-year home study course in Advaita Vedanta from Chinmaya Mission, she has come up with a series of psychometric tests based on the Vedic concepts. It may not be too late before one of the spirituality workshops incorporates these tests as part of its PowerPoint presentations.