Exploring the concepts of spirituality IV: Roots in Hinduism

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Hindu monk in Bangladesh [Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons]
Beginning with an attempt to explain why spirituality is such a craze today, we then explored the roots of spirituality in Judaism and in Christianity. Moving towards the East, Margaret Chatterjee finds that despite its pre-Christian roots, the concept of spirituality is essentially a Christian one in character. If we are to borrow this concept to other cultures, then we ought to be a bit careful.

The closest root terms that we have to spirit and spirituality in the Indic group of religions are atman and sadhana. While the Christians distinguish between the human spirit and the Holy Spirit (with a capital S), the atman does not see any such distinction. Sadhana shares a similarity with spirituality in that both refer to a path or a goal. Yet Sadhana has its goal as moksha or liberation, while Christian spirituality talks about salvation or redemption from sin which finds no mention in Hindu theology (say, the Upanishads).

When the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore referred to the spiritual, he disapproved of “the solitary enjoyment of the infinite in meditation”. He believed that the Supreme Reality (atman?) dwells both in spirit and in the material world. Combining the two is possible through, he says, artistic creativity: the spiritual is located in a relationship between human and nature, between human and human.

We realize that the characteristic of the spiritual means different things in different points of time and place. Any attempt to generalize a common conceptualization would diminish the richness of the phenomenon of spirituality. Maybe that is why we now have new imaginations of spirituality: the Jesuit priest Antony de Mello wrote of Sadhana as the way to (the Christian) God incorporating elements of eastern and western spirituality.

This series of short posts drawing inspiration from Margaret Chatterjee’s book “The Concept of Spirituality” offers us a glimpse of how a systematic study of a religious/spiritual concept can help us appreciate more the reasons why people of certain geographies and cultures do/did the things they do. It becomes all the more relevant if we have to negotiate the travails of climate change and other pandemics as scholars have shown.

[End of series]