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

Article excerpt

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. …