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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 12, March 18, 2023

Quest for Spiritual Development in Our Times | Bharat Dogra

Saturday 18 March 2023, by Bharat Dogra


The yearnings for spiritual development have always been a very important part of the various quests of humanity, although their context may differ from time to time. The most significant context of present times is that human made causes have created a survival crisis (related to very serious environmental problems, weapons of mass destruction and other factors) and as we struggle to face this enormous challenge, we can get important help from spiritual development.

To start with, we may ask—What is genuine spiritual development in the context of an individual? This is the sustained effort of an individual to lead a life which not only gives him (or her) peace and satisfaction but, in addition, is in conformity with the welfare of the entire world.

This second aspect of linking one’s own deeper happiness to that of the entire world is of crucial importance and without this the concept of spiritual development is meaningless. A close look at the great religious and spiritual leaders of the world will reveal that this has been at the back of many of their teachings. Do not do to others anything that you do not want others to do to you, stay away from greed and violence, do not cheat others, extend all help to the poor and needy - these recurring themes (often hidden in fables and mythology) add up ultimately to the one broad precept of not causing any distress to others and reducing their distress whenever possible. In other words, bringing our welfare in conformity with the welfare of the world.

Spiritual development is our sustained quest for getting rid of ways of thinking which create unnecessary, entirely avoidable stresses and replacing them with values which expand our horizons of happiness and take us to a higher level of happiness, a stage of happiness that cannot be achieved from materialistic accumulation of riches or relationships of dominance. However, as stated earlier, this spiritual development of the self is complete and meaningful only when it is related to the welfare of other people and other forms of life. Achievement of inner peace or deeper knowledge is not a complete objective in itself, it is completed only when it is related to the efforts for creating a better, happier world. Therefore, spiritual development also demands that as one gains a better understanding of what a genuinely better and happier society is , so efforts are also made to tie up with the larger groups and forces that are trying to create a better society.

The spiritual development of an individual can be broadly defined to include the following six conditions all of which are linked to each other and support and reinforce each other. An individual who is on the path of genuine spiritual development is trying to achieve the following:

• It is important to put voluntary restraints on the consumption of material goods and pursuit of sensual pleasures so that our energies and capabilities can be released for higher forms of happiness derived from helping others. There is so much to consume and acquire in the present day world that it is too easy and tempting to spend our life in a never ending quest of consumption and accumulation. But beyond a point this doesn’t give any real happiness, only a craving for something more that feeds on an inner emptiness which is turn arises from the absence of any higher purpose in life.
In addition the acquisitive thinking can easily turn competitive, so that we value any good not for any utility it gives us but for the point we score over an imaginary rival. This leads to discontent which can also turn destructive.

Therefore while it is necessary to know what we want, it is equally necessary to know what we don’t want. Having met our basic needs and small comforts one should be in a position to say - I don’t want anything more. Now I would rather devote myself to helping others (human beings and other forms of life). This enables us to reach a higher form of happiness that comes only from giving. Voluntary restraint on consumption of material goods by more and more people is very useful and in fact of crucial importance for protection of environment.

While some spiritual teachers place too much restrictions or deny sensual pleasures altogether, from our point of view there is no need to go to that extent and it is also more practical to take a more liberal view that while enjoying sensual pleasures there should be discipline keeping in view ethical considerations and larger aims of life. Another way of saying this is that we should remain in complete control of sensual pleasures and we are in a position to place a voluntary restraint on our pursuit of sensual pleasures.

Beyond this, regarding more details, it is not proper to impose anything and it is much better to let people decide on the basis of linking broad principles with their own situation, culture and environs. In a true democratic spirit let each person make his or her own choices in all honesty, without sacrificing the basic precept that we should voluntarily and happily restrain our consumption and sensual pleasures so that we can make much better use of our resources and capabilities for the higher tasks of life and higher forms of happiness. This is something that was always important, but is even more important now due to the enormity and urgency of the challenge of the survival crisis.

• Just as we need to have clear views about the pleasures of life, similarly we need to have equally clear thinking about sorrow and how to face sorrow. Sorrow is an inevitable aspect of human life. The sources of sorrow, including extreme distress, are so many and so diverse that even the richest and the mightiest persons cannot buy (or ensure) immunity from sorrow. Keeping in view the inevitability of sorrow, we must be prepared to accept it with peace and patience. At the same time we should also be prepared to fight its causes with courage and tenacity when distress is caused by the unjust acts of others.

Some types of distress simply happen while some are quite clearly caused by injustice. In the later case we should certainly resist this injustice and fight bravely against its perpetrator. But at the same time we should retain our balance and ability to think coherently so that we can oppose the real and deeper causes, instead of becoming obsessed by petty revengefulness. Just as it is important to retain control of sensual pleasures so it is important to retain control over the feeling of anger. The feeling of anger, even when fully justified by the unjust acts of others, should be harnessed to oppose injustice (and hence create a better world) instead of being allowed to degenerate into uncontrolled destructive revengefulness.

Accepting the inevitability of certain forms of distress also motivates us to develop those abilities which are likely to prove most helpful in the time of distress- patience, the ability to think calmly, good health, true companionship based on helping each other, deeply rooted family ties and friendship ties, skills in looking after infirm and injured people and so on.

The inevitability of some kinds of distress (including the high likelihood of losing those near and dear ones who are much elderly to us, including our parents, at various stages within our lifetime) in everyone’s life is a strong reason why we should learn to be with each other in times of distress. In some situations this is necessary mainly to provide sympathy and companionship. In other cases, where injustice is involved, this is necessary also to resist the injustice.

When faced in this way, the hour of distress can even be an hour of great learning as it motivates us firstly to mobilize all our inner strengths to face the adversity, and secondly, it strengthens our bonds and friendships. We emerge from adversity, not shattered and destroyed, but with deeper ability to love others and a stronger desire to resist injustice.

• Anyone who wants to tread the path of spiritual development should certainly try to bring his individual life in harmony with the requirements of social welfare. Such a person should make an effort to understand the requirements of social welfare (in the form of checking ecological ruin, reducing poverty, preventing war etc.) and then try as much as possible to bring his or her own life pattern in conformity with these requirements.

An obvious conflict can arise when this person realizes that the job held by him/her in not in conformity with these objectives. There is no need to panic as keeping in view the distortions of the present day economy, it is quite likely that many jobs offered by this economy conflict with the objectives of welfare. If this person finds himself or herself in this situation, he or she should calmly plan to find an alternative source of livelihood as soon as any possibilities for this emerge. There is no need to disrupt the livelihood immediately, but only to start planning for a gradual shift to a new job or self-employment where this person’s creative energies can be put to better use for the creation of a better world.

• Most relationships that exist in the present day world are relationships of dominance as persons, groups and nations try to push their own narrow interests without bothering about the needs of others. There is an almost instinctive urge to defeat or leave behind others by getting more resources, income and wealth for oneself while inflicting drudgery, distress and deprivation on others. Even when greed is not involved, there is still a strong desire to impose one’s own views. These attitudes also spill over beyond human relations to our relationships with other forms of life and with nature.

Anyone who has got used to dominating relationships also reduces himself or herself (it is more likely to be him) to a level of insensitivity which prevents him from experiencing many small but precious joys of life. This can erode and eventually even destroy invaluable relationships causing a lot of distress. The urge to dominate others also denies an opportunity to calmly consider other points of view, thereby increasing the chances of making costly mistakes.

Both to avoid causing great distress to others and to prevent grave self-harm the person who wants to tread the path of spiritual development should seek to avoid the traits of dominance and competitiveness in relationships, and instead replace this with cooperation and mutual help.

• We should enlarge our horizons of happiness in such a way that we experience more and more happiness from the happiness of others. If we are happy with limiting our own needs and want more for others, then we are enlarging our experiences of happiness because the achievement and success of so many deserving people makes us happier. We celebrate their happiness just as we would our own. The person who is interested only in good work being done regardless of who does it ( or gets the credit for it) gets more chance to be happy because each good act is seen as a step towards a better world and hence a reason for celebration.

As we expand our horizons of happiness to take pride in the achievements of others we realize that so much is happening around us which gives us such genuine happiness.

• Last but not the least, the person who walks the path of spiritual development should have the courage to stand up against the perpetrators of injustice and stand with the victims of injustice. Helping others always gives a higher form of happiness compared to the happiness we get from pursuing self-interest. However, the highest form of happiness we get only when we voluntarily prepare ourselves to make sacrifice including the risk of suffering deprivation, injury and even death, for the sake of removing the basic causes of widespread injustice so that we can end the sufferings of a large number of people and bring happiness to them. History has several examples of truly great persons, from Jesus Christ to Che Guevara, from Gautam Buddha to Mahatma Gandhi, from Shahid Bhagat Singh to Sant Kabir, from Spartacus to Guru Govind Singh who voluntarily suffered grave hardships or even gave up their life with happiness in their effort to end the sufferings of a large number of people. The history of the freedom movement of India and of several other countries has many such examples.

This is the path of spiritual development. A religious person can interpret his/her religious beliefs in such a way that it provides an additional motivation for treading this path. A person of a different orientation can similarly interpret his/her beliefs including political beliefs. Any additional or alternative inspirational motivation for treading this path is welcome, but at the same time it should be emphasized that anyone who treads this path will find enough support within it. If only the traveler persists, this path in capable of constantly taking him or her to a higher level of happiness.

But the basic reason for following this path less taken is not individual happiness but the creation of a better world. When very important messages of environment protection, peace, disarmament as well as ending poverty, deprivation, injustice and discrimination are sought to be spread in the present day world, these quite often fall on deaf ears. However it is different with those people who have accepted the path of genuine spiritual development. Their life is already in conformity with these objectives, and they are prepared to make any further changes and take any further initiatives that are needed for the welfare of all forms of life and for the protection of environment. Actually spiritual development is nothing but the voluntary, happy and enlightened acceptance of a personal life pattern which is fully in conformity with the welfare of entire world, all its life forms and ecosystems, and the willingness to put several voluntary restraints on oneself in order to be able to devote more time, effort and resources for the welfare of others.

While there was always much need for such people and such thinking in human history, this need is now the greatest in all human history as it is now that our planet faces a survival crisis caused by humanity and which can be resolved, while there is still time, only by human beings.

(Author: Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children, Earth without Borders and A Day in 2071)

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