Do we give up what we are when we grow rich?

In his latest piece at DNA, Shri R Jagannathan makes some good and some superfluous observations. Here he’s trying to show how “organized” religion is better suited to the poor and dispossessed of the populace and as people grow richer and freer of the daily humdrum of ordinary life, they are more inclined to a higher spirituality, i.e. “organized” religion then falls from their grace.

I can empathize with Shri Jagannathan saying the poor need Gods and they need faith in order to help them get through their tough lives. However, it is not true that the richer people grow they also necessarily grow out of their religious notions and practices. I don’t see the connexion.

Perhaps Shri Jagannathan is basing his hypothesis on the decline of “organized” religion – Christianity, in the West and a supposedly Hindu aura coming over that sphere. He does cite Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in support of his argument. Rigid to free, as it were.

I’m not fine with this line of thought for several reasons.

Firstly, we don’t see a similar decline in “organized” religious fervor in the Islamic world. In fact, the more money there is, the stronger the fervor.

Secondly, a people develop and grow in an organic manner. That is, they do not tend to develop up to a point on shoulders of a particular manner of belief and suddenly decide they need a new mode of spiritual thought. This is not the same as saying people’s minds are static but only that they develop within and in relation to their own experiences and cultural traditions. In fact, greater the chances of them retaining those traditions that have helped them develop and become better human beings with better lives.

Thirdly and take this for size; folks who describe themselves as rationalists and atheists (agnostics) are mostly if not all, those that have disconnected themselves from their roots and traditions. This has little to do with them acquiring riches. It has a lot to do with them being exposed to contrarian thought processes, post-modern liberalism being main. Immigrant influx and the need to cope with “difference” is allied – the feeling is “hey, I cannot be seen to stick with tradition. The guy across the aisle might get upset..”, in our own country, Hindusthan, it can be different cultures being very visible and very near. Some people tend to “hide” their personalities in order to seem non-threatening or just be excessively accommodating. These folks like to think they are “open-minded” with a higher “spirituality”.

So, it’s obvious that there are several factors that go toward making the changes we see around us. It’s not just wealth and material progress.

In fairness to Shri Jagannathan he recongizes the manner Hinduism adopts itself to all manner of demand and need inspite of poverty and wealth. But that’s because Hindus live their tradition and know how to work it for themselves. We’re not without problems but we’re not without solutions either – within our traditions is where we need to find them.

– Namaste

Free-flow spirituality

You may have read a story in DNA suggesting that as many as 65 per cent of Americans subscribe to the Hindu way of thinking about god — which is that there are several paths to the ultimate. Among other things, the report says that 30 per cent of Americans think of themselves as spiritual, but not necessarily religious, and a quarter believe in reincarnation.  

The report, based on a Pew survey of 2008 and a Newsweek poll of 2009, does not come as a surprise. Reason: as societies become richer and are freed from basic material cravings, they will seek higher forms of self-realisation. Organised religion, with its focus on dogma and scripture, is incapable of catering to the needs of evolved minds.
Abraham Maslow, a pioneer in defining the human hierarchy of needs, built a pyramid of five levels. At the basic level, every individual has physiological needs (like food, sleep, sex). Next comes safety, followed by social needs (love and belongingness). At the fourth level, there is the need for esteem, and, finally, self-actualisation. The last could mean seeking a higher purpose in life, a spirituality that transcends self.

Society’s hierarchy of needs mirror those of the individual, though no society is a homogeneous mass. It has several strata. Even in the rich west, there will be poor people with basic physiological and safety needs; even in poverty-ridden India, there will be a sprinkling of classes at the top with evolved self-actualisation needs.

That said, one can still make a few generalisations: the developed nations, which have fewer numbers of the absolutely poor and destitute, will have more people seeking higher levels of spirituality. Conversely, the poor will see better alternatives in organised religious structures, of the kind offered by traditional Christianity and Islam. In India, Hindu fears about conversions stem principally from this belief that the church and the mosque may be better positioned in terms of their social philosophies to meet the needs of the poor. Upper-end Hindu or Buddhist spiritualism appears more elitist.

Two caveats are in order here. First, by Hindu one is not merely referring to a specific religion called Hinduism, but a set of broad cultural beliefs about life, god and spirituality. You can be a Hindu by believing in any kind of god, or even no god. You accept that others may have different ideas about god. You can move far away from the base-camp of religion to find your own spiritual altitude, and you will still be reckoned as a Hindu. On the other hand, you cannot be a Christian or Muslim by accepting any other god or spiritual goal as true. Acceptance of these two faiths means implicit denial of other faiths. Which, for the spiritually evolved, can be a limiting factor.

Second, even as a religion, Hinduism is not one specific thing. It involves a range of ideas, often contradictory in nature. It is so flexible as to be practically meaningless at one end, but extremely meaningful at the other, if you look for your kind of meaning. My personal take on Hinduism is that it is essentially agnostic in nature because it allows you to customise god to your requirements. If god can be whatever I want him/her/it to be, it must be my creation rather than something separate from me. This aspect of Hinduism cannot but be appealing to people who seek god without religion.

The non-doctrinaire aspects of Hinduism stem from the fact that Hindus never really had a clear, God-given holy book. We have had the Vedas, but we also had not-so-holy, and earthy, ideas to enlighten us, from the materialistic Lokayata texts to the Kama Sutra. The idea of elevating the Gita to the status of holy book No 1 was an after-thought in modern times. It was probably done to counter preachers from Christianity and Islam who spoke of the superiority of their god-given holy books.

The downside is clear. By its very nature, Hinduism, with its open-endedness, may appear less appealing to the poor and the disadvantaged. It seems to offer less direct benefits, and more intellectual payoffs. As Gandhi observed, to the hungry, god is food. Other-worldliness is only for those who have already got everything they need.

Given the stage of societal development, many religions are obviously mutating to retainmarketshare in their geographies. In the US, even as Hindu ideas catch on, new spirituality gurus are emerging to take the idea of god beyond the confines of the conventional church. This is what explains the success of a Deepak Chopra there. Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations with God represents another effort to take Christian spirituality to a new level, beyond the narrowness of scripture. In Islam, ancient Sufism could be making a comeback as Muslims seek a broader meaning in the Koran.

In India, where the bulk of the world’s poor reside, Hindutva and Dalit neo-Buddhism are developing as mass market rivals to traditional Christianity and Islam. To survive, religions have to broadband themselves for time and place.

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