A View of Santhigiri Ashram

A View of Santhigiri Ashram
Lotus Parnasala and Sahakarana Mandiram , Santhigiri Ashram, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala

Saturday, February 7, 2009

From Religiosity to Spirituality

From Religiosity to Spirituality
Rev. Prof. Valson Thampu

(The author is Member, National Integration Council and Member, National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions)

“In a manner of speaking, you feel fobbed if, by the time you arrive, the great soul you’d have loved to meet, assumed the wings of eternity and disappeared beyond the veil of time. But the strange thing is that you don’t feel quite that way about Sri Karunakara Guru! At least, I don’t. Let me tell you why. There are two ways by which to encounter a person. The first and the most obvious, is to meet him in flesh and blood. You see him, listen to him and breathe in the ambience of his greatness. The second is to meet him through the impact he has had on his disciples through his work and message. But the latter option makes sense only if the person concerned is indeed an extraordinarily great person. Such a person leaves an indelible impression on the world around him. About such a person Jesus said, “even if he dies, he lives still.” Or, in the words of Bapuji, his life is his message. And to the extent that his message is still lived and lived as vibrantly as it is in Santhigiri, you don’t feel that you missed the Guru by a few years. I admit, with much embarrassment, that I came to know about Shri. Karunakara Guru only a few months ago. That ignorance is attributable only in part to my being a ‘Marunadan Malayalee’ or one among the dispersed Malayalee Diaspora. A similar predicament did not prevent Shri. K. R. Narayanan, the late President of India, or Sri. O.V. Vijayan from becoming an ardent follower of Sri Karunakara Guru.

The real problem lies elsewhere; and it is necessary to state it up front. Even though we pride ourselves in this country, on our unique and cherished tradition of religious tolerance, our tolerance a hazy and sleepy thing. As religious communities we live, mostly, in our separate religious ghettoes, taking care not to tread on each other’s tails or toes. India is yet to become a spiritual crucible, where all religious traditions enter into a free and fearless interaction, in the pursuit of truth and fullness of life. Our religious tolerance is a sort of anaesthetized religious co-existence. The time has come for us to move from tolerating each other in ignorant mutual avoidance to informed mutual engagement, celebrating a shared spirituality by exploring and enjoying each other’s traditions. True freedom is the freedom to welcome what is good and robust in the spiritual traditions we practice as timeless expressions of the human urge to be in communion with God. For this to happen at all it is imperative that we shift from mere religiosity to spirituality. It is such an emphasis that I find in the teachings of Sri Karunakara Guru and my soul resonates with this re-orientation.

A word about Santhigiri before I take note of the Guru’s revolutionary spiritual insights. Widely traveled though I am, and enriched with spiritual encounters far and near, I do not recall another place or people amidst whom I felt so instinctively at home as I did in Santhigiri, from the moment I stepped into that remarkable community of people, fiercely focused on the mission that the Guru has entrusted them. The Guru’s spirit lives on in every detail of what exists and happens there. This, in itself, is ample validation of the rare spiritual genius whose memory continues to inspire thousands to this day. A keenness to uphold in practice and propagate the Guru’s teachings in their purity is perceptible everywhere and I pray this remains so for the years to come. It has been the fate of visionaries and missionaries to have been outgrown and overreached by their followers. Going by what I have seen so far in Santhigiri, I feel inwardly comforted that an eager and joyful adherence to what the Guru stood for is the hallmark of Santhigiri.

It is presumptuous of me to try and encapsulate the deep and daring spiritual insights of the Guru in a short piece like the present one. All I propose to do is to itemize some of the insights that all people, irrespective of religious differences, can endorse readily. I feel at one with the Guru in his concern that we must worship God aright. Those who worship God, said Jesus of Nazareth, must worship him “in Spirit and in truth”. The mark of true worship, for both, is personal transformation. False worship, or worship that is not spiritually wholesome, is a danger because it induces personal degradation. The result, in the words of the Guru is: “The worshipper returns worse than before.”5 Guru’s criticism of using gods to perpetuate caste and class differences is socially radical and spiritually incisive. Superior gods for upper castes and inferior gods for the lower castes! The decisive element, the Guru emphasizes rightly, is our idea of God. Degrading and abusing gods for legitimizing caste inequalities and the oppression that goes with it is a spiritual scandal. God does not belong to any caste or class. Nor are we gods. All of us are part of the same Brahman. This is a vision that excludes social discrimination and oppression in every form.

The problem is not with God or gods. The idea that there are many gods and that gods exercise their jurisdiction along caste lines is an aberration improvised by human ego, especially group ego. As long as the human ego continues to direct and dominate the religious outlook these and a host of other distortions will remain endemic to the religious sphere. The radical solution, according to the Guru, is that we must transcend our ego. It is human ego that alienates us from the blessings of God. Here one is reminded of the words of Jesus, “If anyone wants to become my disciple he must deny himself, take up my cross and follow me.” (St. Matthew 16: 24).
I am particularly struck by the Guru’s revolutionary views on the socio-spiritual engineering required at the present time, as part of his over-all mission to evolve a wholesome spiritual culture. In this he enjoys a profound kinship with the founders of great religions. Their mission was not merely to enable a few people to attain moksha or salvation but to evolve a spiritually pro-active culture. Life before death was as important for them as birth after death would be. One is, indeed, continuous with the other. Playing one against the other is the familiar strategy of those who wish to manipulate the masses and exploit them in the name of religion. Karunakara’s guru’s emphasis on being spiritually purposive and wise in spouse selection and the foundational duty to raise children in a spiritually responsive and socially responsible manner is a challenge that no one can afford to ignore at the present time. “It is better to train your children to be karmayogis,” says the Guru, “than to leave them a big legacy.” According to him the spiritual regeneration of the family is the key to the regeneration of the society.

As a Christian priest and thinker, I feel humbled by the Guru’s forthright criticism of my community. It is at once recognition of the high spiritual ideals of the faith and the extent to which its putative followers play fast and loose with them. It is not enough, the Guru warns, to preach sacrifice. “Leading a truthful life is the essence of sacrifice. What have Christians to do with truth at the present time?” According to the Guru, “Christians have become like Hindus. They have imitated Hindu practices meant to appease God. Nothing prevents from doing improprieties in the name of God.”7 These are hard words. But they are more than welcome as they come from the unbiased concerns of a man of God whose moral indignation is aroused by the hypocrisy that he sees spread like cancer through a community of faith.

The Guru’s alarm at the degradation of education strikes a cord in my heart, having watched over the years the demise of idealism and moral passion in what has been traditionally assumed to be a sacred domain by every one of us. Who can doubt or debate Karunakara Guru’s prophetic denunciation in this regard, especially in the light of the controversy that is currently raging in Kerala? According to the Guru, “The educated are the most senseless. The illiterate have better sense. Pride invariably rules over those who are educated and prosperous.”8 The fact that it is the so-called educated class, and not the illiterate people, who have filled this punyabhoomi with corruption, venality and moral turpitude should make us sit up and wonder if what is on offer today is really education. We have to agree with Gandhiji that “education without character” is one of the seven deadly evils. Arguably, the spiritualization of education holds the key to the cultural regeneration of Kerala.

I cannot conclude this piece without recalling my hospitalization in Santhigiri. That I was overwhelmed with affection, good will and gracious hospitality is an understatement. But what I wish to appreciate here in particular is the on-going effort to integrate science and spirituality in the approach to healing in Santhigiri. To see doctors and spiritual teachers walk and work together in the hospital is a welcome thing indeed. In many other places, including in some very famous hospitals, I have heard slick presentations on the integrated approach to healing in a bid to overcome the limitations of the bio-medical model of curing. What is at work here is the sound awareness that healing is more than curing and that science and spirituality can be partners in the pursuit of human welfare; they need not be antagonists. The approach to healing in vogue in the Ashram is an open-ended one, if you like. It keeps the widows of possibilities open to trans-rational and supra-scientific possibilities. If human beings are more than bodies, surely neither the reach of, nor the remedy for, illnesses would be confined to the body alone. At Santhigiri it is assumed that we are ‘souls with bodies’ rather than ‘bodies with souls’.9 The realm of the Spirit is, in other words, primary. That being the case it is impossible to exclude the resources of the Spirit from the mysteries of the healing process, which far exceed the scope of mere curing.
Santhigiri is not just a religious movement; it is a total way of life. Even a cult can be described as a way of life. But what distinguishes a cult from a spiritual effervescence is the impetus of the latter to reach out and embrace more and more people within the radius of its goodness and generosity. A cult excludes; spirituality embraces. The former is marked by predatory, murderous covetousness; and the latter, by the joy of giving and sharing. It is this that I experienced in Santhigiri over the whole week that I spent there as a patient. And it makes me hope that this river of spiritual regeneration and social reform will flow out of Santhigiri and activate a new vibrancy through the whole of Kerala and beyond.”
(Courtesy: Santhigiri Publications, Santhigiri Ashram)
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