India doesn't have to be spiritual

What if I told you the West was spiritual and the East was material? Confused? Angry? Excellent!

We’re spiritual, right? We as in India. We believe we are spiritual and so does the rest of the world. We are spiritual the way the West is secular and scientific and Africa is poor and starving and China is oppressive and Antarctica is inhospitable. It is the general definition we have been assigned by the world as well as our own past.

Pop culture is full of references to Westerners who come to India to “find themselves” and to Indians who move Westwards and lose their roots and become corrupted. These cleanly labelled folders have contained our ways of thinking for a long time. So much so that we don’t often question them.

So I am going to question them today and imply, for the sake of argument, that perhaps India is materialistic and the West is spiritual. I am going to argue that the East-West cultural divide that we have all gotten used to because of popular culture, is bogus and that India may be seen as the exact opposite of the spiritual ideal that it is often considered to be.

I think that spirituality is not something defined by culture. A culture cannot be spiritual because it does not have a spirit. Sure, we can slap labels on a particular culture and play devotional music in the background and pan slowly across temples at dawn, but none of that is spirituality. It is only the appearance of spirituality.

Spirituality is more of an individual concern and may mean different things to different people. To associate it with a direction or a landmass or a population of people is not only wrong, it is also potentially dangerous because it births stereotypes that can be damaging in the long run. And there are those who believe that the spiritual label was applied to Indians to keep them from aspiring to anything resembling Western sophistication (that claim to sophistication is a different matter entirely of course). So perhaps consider this a thought experiment against Orientalism as well?

India is actually very materialistic

Have you noticed? I mean… in what universe is a culture such as ours spiritual? We kill our children’s artistic instincts so they may become better employees, tell them their love lives will damage their family’s standing in the community, force them into marriages they often don’t want, and pressurise them into becoming parents regardless of their readiness for that mammoth undertaking. We kill newborn girls because we think — I don’t know how else to put it — they cost money and aren’t useful. We bring boys up to hate women.

There is no spirituality here. This template of life is something many of us simply drop into because of the gravitational pull that our culture exerts upon us. And it has as much to do with matters of the spirit as horses have to do with indoor plumbing.

Every culture has expectations from the individuals that form it. Ours is no different. Our young people may not have to leave home and make something of themselves by a certain age, but they do have to marry a suitable match decided by their parents when they are a certain age. Our young men, much like young men in the West, have to behave like assholes just to have their masculinity acknowledged. Of course, we compensate for this by telling women that they are “goddesses” and by defining that word in very specific ways. We effectively mask our materialism with pretensions of spirituality.

The case for a spiritual West

Let’s face it. Nobody knows what “spirituality” means. And we don’t even care what it means. People use the word ‘spiritual’ in any context anywhere in order to justify anything they want (like the presently flexible “anti-national”). It’s one of those one-size-fits-all solutions that gets used to describe everything that feels good — a beach, a hill, a cup of coffee, a walk, a new iPhone, a meal, a place… the list can contain anything. It is highly subjective.

For example, consider the list of things that at least I definitely do not consider spiritual. It includes crowded places, lack of hygiene, loud noises etc. Yet, these are pretty much defining qualities of every temple I have ever been to. The more popular (sacred?) the temple, the more these qualities are in evidence.

So the word “spiritual” does not have any real meaning. If something makes you happy and satisfies an emotional need, the word can be applied.

Now ask why many people in small-town India want to visit America? What does it represent to them? What is it about being “phoren-returned” that elevates a person’s social standing among his neighbours and relatives? Mind, I am referring specifically to small-town / middle-class India and not to the other kind of Indian — the one percenter who makes weekend trips to Europe because he wouldn’t be able to handle Monday blues if he didn’t. That’s a different species of Indian altogether.

The aspect of a foreign trip that holds the most import for a small-town Indian is freedom — freedom from family, society, culture… all that. Freedom to be able to walk among a people that don’t know you and therefore perhaps may not judge you according to the standards that you have come to dread because life in the house next to the Sharmas is often meaningless and suffocating. Freedom from the race that is run on the track that is the small town.

Before someone jumps down my throat with their nuclear family and their “modern” sensibilities, let me reassert that my claim is not at all that the West is spiritual any more than my claim is that the East is material. What I am trying to get to is that the “spiritual” label that has been slapped on our collective foreheads is a limiting influence. It’s a limiting influence because not only does it trap India into an unforgiving shell, it also keeps us from thinking of the rest of the world as anything resembling spiritual. We become, in our own eyes, the very culmination of culture, religion, and all things sacred. My point was that we need to be able to see ourselves as different things.

Societies have priorities. Our priority has been an ambiguous kind of “spirituality” for some time now. But it doesn’t have to be.