Posts Tagged

spirituality

The Cost of Faith

I wouldn’t say I am religious, but I would affirm I am spiritual. I do not like doctrine and I find the word religion to be incredibly loaded. The practice of religion is very much a currency in India – every place of worship, especially the ones that we have been to, will be surrounded by shops and attractions that require money. It is impossible to estimate how much this brings in, but you can assume it is a hefty amount and it is inevitably mostly cash in hand.

When my parents brought me up, they were not afraid to admit that they did not have the answers to my questions. Whenever we conducted anything religious, there were always holes to be found in meanings and understandings, but it was a challenge to find out the answer – it was not something to be ignored. This inquisitiveness has never left me. In fact, it has probably permeated into every part of my life.

Our last day in Mumbai was important to my Mum. The school of thought within which my family has learnt about Hinduism is based in a small insitution in Mumbai. Early on a Sunday morning we made our way to the lecture theatre and sat in the room where the teaching had first begun over 80 years ago. Having seen it on videos and in pictures, it was like de ja vu when we walked into the courtyard and took to the benches at the back.

The man who started the movement demanded that it should not be outwardly publicised, but instead should be passed from person to person, so I will not name him here. However, this weekend would have been the celebration of his 95th birthday and so there were people present from all over the world. My mother had actually met him when he had been alive, and their first meeting was when she was only a girl, a little younger than me, just 20km away from where we stood.

He was responsible for the development of the first university in the world that was built on the ancient tapovan system of education – focusing on the development of the individual, rather than their future aspirations. This unassuming campus was tucked away in the suburbs of Mumbai and it was the beginning of my Mum’s faith. It would also be the birthplace of mine.

It is difficult to describe. There were very few buildings, but the place itself was inundated with nature. It was completely green and you could barely hear the sounds of the noisy highway once you were through the gates. The intention was to create tranquillity. To remove the impurities of the mind by purifying the landscape around them. It had a profoundly uplifting quality.

The students were mild mannered and wore simple white clothes. There was not much talking and people from all walks of life trundled barefoot through the landscape. It was only open to visitors on a Sunday afternoon for a few hours and so this was a chance for the outside world to creep in and take a peek. There was a point in my adolescence when I thought this could be my destination, but that seems like a long time ago now.

Before we left, Mum stood standing in front of the flowered gateway. She was crying and looking forward in silence. She told me how she remembered the last time she was here and spoke to the man who made this place a reality. He was sitting on a bench and greeted her like a distant uncle – she remembered seeing a twinkle in his eye but was too naïve to understand the impact that he would have in her life at that point. Years later she stood in the same spot and imparted that knowledge to us knowing that this was where it had all begun, where it had all started to make sense.

A stranger looking onward came over to ask her why she was crying. She said they were tears of longing joy. He smiled warmly and introduced himself and his wife. They made polite conversation and reminded us of the reasons why he was there – to reinvigorate his faith. Mum smiled back and looked at me with the same expression. She was not upset anymore. He took his leave and I never learned his name, but I remember his warm smile and the way his eyes lit up when we spoke.

That probably doesn’t mean much, but it made all the difference to me. There are many places here that will measure the size of your faith by the thickness of your wallet. They will try to fool you and capture your belief. However, I am forever grateful for the fact that my faith was presented to me as my decision. I was not told what to believe and not vilified for what I thought. It has always been a healthy process of re-assessment and contemplation.

I am happy to be a part of something that recognises the kindness and dignity of complete strangers. For a man to look at us and offer conversation as a means of solace, with no ulterior motive. When you can instil a thought like that, there isn’t the need for expensive prayers. Humanity is enough.

Five Minutes on your Birthday

We were up until about 1 o’clock this morning. However, we were not excited in the run up to ripping wrapping paper off gifts or preparing ourselves for a day of constant consumption, we were contemplating. My dad, brother and I, in the absence of being well enough to go to Church this year found ourselves sitting and watching Midnight Mass on the television; one of the few times we have not actually made it in person in my life.

My father made it a tradition well before I was born. That on the eve of Jesus’ birth, we would go to Church and be a part of a tradition that has spanned for over a thousand years. We are not Christians, but it would not be Christmas without hymns, carols, prayer and a sense of peace. Although that is lost on many this year and in the last few.

The holiday has changed – it has become many different things to many people now. I actually think it is great that people spend this time with their families and even if we need to spend lots of money, buy into a consumerist culture and do all of these things as pretence, then at least it is a start. Festivals are supposed to be about remembrance and if that enables you to stop and think, then you can only take the positives from that.

But don’t lose the meaning. It is like going to someone’s birthday party, eating all of their food, enjoying their hospitality and then forgetting to say “Happy Birthday!” to the host. The reason why you all turned up in the first place. Enjoy the festivities, and make the most of your time with your loved ones but realise the sacrifice that one man made, whether you believe in the story or not.

It is not about being pedantic, neither it is about being critical nor mocking the beliefs of others. There are days where we can put our arguments to the side and understand how important sacrifice is and how one individual personified this. I usually use Christmas to read the Bible, or to learn another story about a man that is so revered around the world. It is a shame that when we subscribe to so many fantastic characters, we forget Jesus Christ because Christianity becomes a barrier.

A Prophet in Islam, an Avatar in Hinduism and the Saviour in Christianity; there are very few individuals that many of the most prevalent religions have reverence for. Take some time to understand why he was so special, even if it just for a minute in between the Eastenders special and that movie you have been looking forward to seeing. Because when you tuck in to your dinner, there was someone who broke bread and wine for your salvation, whether you followed him or not, because he believed that you would be the answer.

He believed in man. In you. I don’t think 5 minutes out of your year on his birthday is too much to ask.

120 Years Ago Today…

I thought I would bring something a little different to the table. Today is a very sad day for a large amount of people, and by all means we should remember those that perished over a decade ago now. But I thought it would be worth sharing something interesting that I learnt earlier on this year that took everyone I told by surprise. September 11 was a significant date before the atrocities of 2001 ever took place. It happened 120 years ago.

120 years ago, Chicago hosted one of the most important parliaments in the history of the world, but I guarantee you that 90% of you will have no idea about it. The First Parliament of World Religions in 1893 saw the largest congregation of religious officials of the time to see the first integration of western and eastern spiritual philosophy. Members as remote as Tibet and as hallowed as Vatican City made their way to that Mid-Eastern American town to discuss how they could work together to tackle some of the big problems of the time.

Needless to say, the attitude towards these religions is different today, but that is part of my point. On one day, with a gap of 120 years between them we can see the difference between religious cohesion and destruction. The veneer of this momentous conference will be drowned in history by the actions of a small group of organised religious extremists. This is a reminder that this is not merely coincidence, but acts as a poignant mirror of the effects of the changing beliefs of our society.

But we digress. The real hero of this story is Narendra Nath Datta – more famously known as Swami Vivekananda. Or not so famously for some of you. 120 years ago, on this very day, he brought eastern spirituality to western philosophy in only 30 minutes. He began his speech, with “Sisters and Brothers of America,” which received a standing ovation for 10 minutes alone. He showed that these individuals, these delegates, these human beings had a spiritual bond that transcended their mere religious label. He even began by addressing his “sisters” which was ironic considering there were no women delegates at this time…an insight into Western vs. Eastern thinking.

His exploits in America and Europe is probably the reason that many millions practice yoga around the world. And in the same way that Hinduism and the Vedanta way of thinking is revered by those who have religious beliefs, and interestingly, those that do not. Therefore on this day especially, on the anniversary of the speech that changed the world, we should celebrate how it was brought together, rather than how it was nearly torn apart.

It is his 150th birthday this year. I usually have an aversion to ‘inspirational figures’ but I would definitely urge anyone to learn more about the impact that he had in the short 39 years of his life. There is a global exhibition where young people from around the world are going to be talking and sharing the thoughts of Vivekananda to commemorate his birth. There is going to be one near you, wherever you are. Please, if you can, go. You won’t regret it.

http://www.sv150.org.uk/