I came across an interesting slogan on a T-shirt the other day: “God is too big to fit into one religion”. While earlier we would wear our religion or beliefs on our figurative sleeves, today we take pride in donning a slick and progressive—if we may call it that—message on a T-shirt. If anything, it is a sign of how the young are gravitating toward spirituality over religion.
More and more new-age spiritual gurus are coming out of the woodwork to preach an increasingly non-denominational approach about ‘being good and doing good’—a belief, which was until recently, quite enmeshed with the idea of religiosity. It is certainly not a surprise that our youth wholly approve of this trend. The growing fan-following for these gurus serves as proof that even as the importance of strictly adhering to religious practices is on the wane, our need for, and our interest in, spirituality has anything but diminished.
If New Age India is booming with customised religious symbols and a consumer-driven need for goods once deemed niche, it is also seeing a great surge in the young trying to find their own values and idea of spirituality.
Note that I use the term spirituality and not religion. The two are often confused as a single concept but are quite different. Religion has proved itself to be an effective source of ethics and morality for many and has lent structure and order to human society from its earliest days. But the rituals it has conceived of only serve to inculcate, remind us of and propagate basic tenets of spirituality.
Spirituality also plays a role in keeping people together in this age of globalisation. A globalised world is a fractious one, where cultures collide and neighbours quarrel. At the same time, this is also a world that is more integrated. It shares information more efficiently and inclusively than it has ever before, with the effect that our differences bring us together more than they keep us apart.
This unity demands an entity that caters to large swathes of humanity rather than particular sections. It is this search for the ‘like’ rather than the ‘unlike’ that makes way for an inquiry into spirituality.
Scholars and philosophers have made many attempts to understand spirituality and define it. But these attempts are rooted in their own cultural milieu, and consequently, are not universal in their scope. For example, western philosophers have looked at it from the point of view of metaphysics and ethics, while oriental scholars have proposed a connection between the self and a higher being. Realising how limited these explanations are has propelled me towards devising a definition of spirituality—and also a scale to evaluate it.
The goal here is to separate the wheat from the chaff, to pare down common wisdom in order to arrive at the eternal truth concealed within. For inspiration, I looked to the Vedas, a respected collection of ancient texts, for what they had to say.
What I found struck a deep chord with me: the Sanskrit word for spirituality is Adhyatma or Adhyatmikta. Adhyatma is derived from the combination of two words, Adhi and Atma. Adhi implies empowerment and Atma could mean either soul, self, higher being or conscience. Thus, Adhyatma would mean everything that is done through the empowerment of Atma, i.e., everything the Atma allows.
The role of the conscience
If one possible meaning of Atma could be conscience, it might make sense for us to define it here. Conscience is the inner voice that compels us towards actions that make us fearless, blissful, and passionate. A person is spiritual when their actions will not bring them fear, doubt and shame. Essentially, this means that spirituality is not realised unless our actions reflect beliefs and values driven by our conscience. Our conscience develops as we understand ourselves and our purpose in life better. In essence, it’s not just about believing that you should do good but doing it. It doesn’t have to be something earth-shaking. Just the simple act of not participating in workplace gossip could be a start.
Some researchers have come up with a concept of ‘workplace spirituality’ but spirituality is too large a concept to fit into that mould. They were looking at spirituality in the context of organisational dynamics, their argument starting with the point that a business or a company caters to and is a part of a larger collective called human society. And because it is a part, it could be incumbent on companies to promote shared values and good behaviour. But I think that to stratify spirituality into various layers serves only to complicate matters. A person achieves spirituality through their conscience. And a conscience cannot be divvied up into their different roles and identities such as an employee, a family member or a citizen. It is only by seeing the conscience as a whole can we realise spirituality.
This was first published in the December 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
Spot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!