By Swami Abayananda Tirtha

Aashish, a sincere seeker of truth enquires, “For some, spiritual enlightenment is not about going to temple or chanting god’s name 101 times, it might be doing good to fellow humans/working for less fortunate ones, fighting against an evil cause. These days visiting Siddhivinayak temple cost me 50 bucks, Balaji is another thousand of bucks. So why go to the temple when it is highly commercialised? Bathing gods in milk, making the idols wear good clothes, burning lamps, decorating the idols with flowers?…is it really necessary when India has highest rate of malnutrition children in the world? When more than 75% of Indian population is below poverty line? My sane mind fails to understand this importance to religious places when fellow humans have shanties to live? Why not cease to concentrate about ‘just me’ and my spiritual wellbeing and work for less fortunate? What are your thoughts on it?”

I thank you for your candid remarks and concern at the degrading religious rituals. You definitely have a point and I appreciate your wisdom to see through the facade of religious dogma.

It’s unfortunate that millions languish in poverty and malnutrition while the affluent continue to party and the politicians are busy blowing their own trumpets, or making empty promises. It’s more unfortunate when they conveniently put the burden of alleviating poverty on the spiritual practitioners, while absolving themselves of the responsibility. To begin with, shouldn’t all excesses be stopped-movies, sports and dance clubs, besides thousands of other sources of entertainment which consumes a great deal of time, energy and money? And instead, let us all serve a noble cause. Shouldn’t this be the concern of all individuals irrespective of whether they are housewives, politicians or religious priests? A genuinely ‘spiritual’ person certainly addresses these issues ‘while going to the temple, burning lamps or decorating the idols’. Let’s see how.

A sincere spiritual practitioner never thinks of his identity as separate from the Lord and other living entities. He attempts to revive his dormant love for God through spiritual practises, and meaningful rituals, while simultaneously serving all, as children of the same God. Although the rituals externally appear mechanical and meaningless, they are supposed to be performed in a mood of remembering God, and with an aspiration to be the servant of all living entities. (Padma Purana). Of course someone may claim that rituals aren’t needed to be ‘spiritual’. Although the internal mood is critical in our communion with God, the external formulas, as presented through the rituals, do influence the internals. While substance is ultimately important, it is the form that helps to carry and preserve the substance. While the letter is ultimately important, the envelope helps to protect and carry the content. The ‘spirit’- added to a ritual makes it ‘spiritual’.

The act of decorating God with flowers or dresses helps us shift the focus from self to God, and helps us see ourselves as part of the divine Whole, having an eternal existence as children of God; rather than selfishly pursue our own ephemeral goals. This fills the heart with a love that transcends gross material lust and ego centered drives.

In this consciousness, when a person performs puja, and prayers, his heart gets reformed – selfish passions give way to the spirit of selfless service; arrogance transforms to humility; and envy to appreciation of others. Therefore you will see that spiritual practitioners lead a frugal life, and renounce things that are avowedly pursued by the general populace. Ironically while National leaders and leading corporates express their desire to serve the poor, they party in a plush 5-star hotel. Of course it’s also true that when rituals are performed without knowledge, they too cause havoc to the society. When we identify with the externals of a religion, we miss the essence. We may fight over our religious ideologies but have no idea of God or our relationship with Him.

Reconnecting with God helps us see all living entities as also children of the same God. For example two men may fight bitterly but when they realize they are brothers and have the same father, (as shown in old Hindi Movies) their animosity dissolves and there is an emotional reunion. A sincere devotee of God recognizes Muslims, Hindus and Christians, all as children of the same God, and thus loves them all. (Bhagavad Gita 14.4).

Of course, we may serve without God in picture. However there is a difference. If a child of a multi billionaire runs away from home and languishes in the street, wouldn’t the father be pained. While different people may offer help to the boy on the street- by giving a rupee, or clothes or food, a real well wisher will take responsibility for the child to be reconnected with the father. A person who recognizes who the child is, will certainly feed, and clothe the child while convincing him to go back to his parents. His service is more meaningful and beneficial for the child. Similarly serving the poor and needy is laudable in this age of crass greed. We can take our service a step higher by sacrificing things and pleasures dear to us, for the sake of praying for others and serving them in their journey of being reconnected with God.

Unfortunately the poor continue to remain poor due to primarily two reasons- exploitation by the non-poor and wanton living by the poor themselves. The United Nations Development report claims $13 trillion will end poverty of the world. Ironically Europe and US spend this amount annually on their cosmetics.

In the Vedic culture, individual families possessed little but no one starved because the local village temple was the centre of everyone’s life. There would be festivals, pujas and dramas daily in the evenings and families had plenty. Besides the spiritual entertainment in terms of dramas depicted from Ramayana and Mahabharata kept people in good humor. Even today if you go to Udupi, Dharmasthala or Barsana, you may find most people are not financially wealthy but spiritually they are. They have a simple life centered on service to God and no poverty. In fact in Udupi, there is free food (Prasad) distribution to whoever walks into the temple, at any time of the day.

Lord McCauley, in his speech dated Feb 2, 1835, revealed to the British Parliament, the glory of Vedic India. The House of Commons Library has documented his famous words, “I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such caliber, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage… “. Since the focus of activities then was to serve and love God, people were happy. Evenings would be spent congregating in local temples, and kirtans, katha, and devotional dramas kept people entertained and spiritually surcharged. Ironically today, despite the best time saving devices, people are getting busier, and regret having no free time to relax. Modern entertainment is simply bombardment of variegated visual images on the television screen that has desensitized us and reduced us to lead a life akin to a programmed robot.

Few years ago I went to Orissa with a group of students on a yatra to holy places. It was a humbling experience. People were poor but considered it their great fortune that so many devotees had graced their village (we were 150 of us). They opened their hearts and home for all of us and even refused to take a donation for all the services they offered us. I couldn’t help contrasting this with the cold stares and stern security guards who gaze at us in cities. The insecurity that builds with possessing and enjoying more is obvious and one who centers his/her life on service to God is happy and contented. Thus he/she adds value to society.

The need of the hour is to stop the blind hedonistic pursuits, championed by the media and movies, and focus more on the sublime values of life. It’s foolish to want to serve poor while simultaneously pursuing grossly materialistic pursuits, and justify it in the name of being ambitious and passionate about life. Remember the resources in this world are scarce and the more we pursue a life centered on our own enjoyment, there has to be a clash between the haves and the have not’s.

Besides, even practically speaking, a person serving God contributes to national income and accentuates the money multiplier effect. The flower sellers and dress makers make a living and so does an honest taxi driver as he drives you to the temple.

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