Exploring the Concept of Spirituality – I

Religious Buddhism Spirituality Monk Theravada Monk
A Buddhist Theravada monk [Image Courtesy: Max Pixel]
Margaret Chatterjee (born 1925), the philosopher of religion, is known for a number of things. Among the things she is best known for her 1983 Teape Lectures at Cambridge on the “Concept of Spirituality”. The substance of these lectures were published as a scholarly book, among the first to tackle the seemingly simple question: “What is spirituality?”. This is the first in a series of blog posts, summarizing her thoughts on this question – basically summaries of the chapters in the 1987 book written by Chatterjee.

Contemporary literature on spirituality and “inner transformation” is figuring prominently on various bestseller lists – Amazon.com has a separate category on Religion & Spirituality featuring half a million titles! Empirical research into spirituality is no longer considered taboo and even encouraged – visible in the proliferation of scientific articles on spirituality and dedicated research centres in universities.

Everyone seems to be in favour of spirituality. But what are we in favour of? Is what we are in favour of, found only in religious circles or also in other “secular” spheres? Though its meaning is not very clear, spirituality appears to have caught everyone’s imagination just like democracy or environmentalism.

The word spirituality has a rich history – filled with historical resonances and cultural backgrounds. Today, spirituality is seen as distinct from religion, mainly due to disillusionment with institutionalized religions and/or because of combatant attitudes of some religious groups. One of the major reasons spirituality broke out of a religious context was the desire of people “to heal the fragmentation of life” – that is, to correct the anomaly where a man can exist as a “good husband and father” while serving as a commander in a concentration camp, or the inconsistency where a city can be the haven for the finest art galleries but where its mentally challenged are left to fend for themselves on the streets. This interest comes renewed with the hope that spirituality (in any of its myriad forms) can serve to heal the earlier mentioned fragmentation of life.

To begin with, spirituality needs to be explored within the history of ideas. In the present day, we live with the idea that the world as we know it is a competitive society, and this idea has encouraged a quest towards “meaningful“, “inward, “spiritual” experiences. These experiences are dependent on our respective indigenous cultural forms of religiosity, but they also include various psychological components.

Interestingly, the contemporary terminology of spirituality is devoid of demons or evil spirits showing us how far removed we are from the days of, say, the Israel of Jesus Christ. Alternatively, many who write about “spiritual” things today would seek to find the demoniac in all things secular!

Disillusionment with institutionalized religions has led to a search for non-institutional forms of religious life, which ironically has also crystallized into institutional forms of spirituality. We now get a (brief) sense of the different circumstances that have created a stage for spirituality to gain prominence in the 20th and 21st centuries. But we are yet to venture into understanding the original contexts in which the concept of spirituality emerged.

It may be pertinent for us to explore the diversity of the root terms which are covered in the blanket term “spirituality”, beginning with its roots in Judaism – the object of the next post.



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