Exploring the concepts of spirituality IV: Roots in Hinduism

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]




Exploring the concept of spirituality II: Roots in Judaism

Moses & the burning bush – 1920 Painting by Gebhard Fugel [Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons]
As we saw previously, understanding the concept of spirituality requires a journey into exploring how the idea of the spirit developed historically, as Margaret Chatterjee suggests in her book, The Concept of Spirituality.


If we consider the starting point of what we call today “spirit”, (early) Judaism talks about the term Nephesh in the Hebrew Bible. Nephesh is considered the source of human vitality; it is nephesh which concretely defines the human as a being possessing life, which is a gift of God. Since Jews (and Christians among others) believe that it was God who gave them life (nephesh) and it was God who created the world, the Jews did not see any need to question the sanctity of the materialistic world or to withdraw from a problematic¬†world (as opposed to what prominent gurus suggest today).

The most direct implication of this worldview was that the Jews saw no difference between moral accountability or community life or relating to God, since their daily life was dictated by God’s commandments (given to them via Moses). In other words, Jewish daily life was governed by “godliness” or righteousness and not so much spirituality.

When Judaism came under the influence of Greek culture (Hellenism), Jewish terminology borrowed the term pneuma, which carried a whole new set of meanings beyond nephesh. Pneuma did not only mean a gift of God to humans, but also signified a divine order of life in the larger universe (cosmos). Pneuma also began to be understand from the level of God (the spirit of God) and at the level of humans (say, the inspired wisdom of the prophets). The implications for Jewish life can now be imagined – the award of divine gifts (like wisdom) depended on a “spiritual” channel of communication (pneuma?) which seemed to exist from God to human.

This oversimplified account does not mean that the Hellenistic Jews immediately embraced the notion of the spirit or an other-worldly mysticism as we understand today. The roots of that contribution could be attributed to arguable the most famous Christian Jew, St. Paul, whom we shall explore next.