Even in a place like the war-torn Congo, where hunger pours into the streets and gunfire rips the sky and land, there is a Catholic nun who serenely runs a charity clinic. In one of the darkest corners of the world, a priest walks on the moonlit road to a grey stoned prison giving communion to a dying prisoner. Elsewhere, a father holds his flock together risking his life against human traffickers and drug peddlers. One cannot but wonder at their towering courage as a million-dollar question hovers on everyone’s lips- what inspires them to such bravery?
True, they are the embodiments of a powerful ideology, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for Me.” However, Swami Vivekananda had also said something similar, "the poor, the illiterate, the ignorant, the afflicted − let these be your God. Know that service to these alone is the highest religion.” And “I cannot believe in a God or religion which cannot wipe off the widow’s tears or bring a piece of bread to an orphan’s mouth.” Yet we rarely see any high-flying swamis, cult-heroes and other assorted messiahs leaving their cosmic mecca to heal the oppressed or express outrage over injustice. Instead they offer the elixir of life − shun this maya-driven world and seek the bliss of Nirvana.
What can explain this astounding emotional disconnect that stifles all compassion? What happens when humanism lies buried under the rubble of escapist rhetoric? The results are obvious. Civic neglect, social fragmentation, economic malaise, wild inequalities, lack of public conscience and soaring injustice.
It was not always like this. Lurching across the mists of ancient India, one can sense the rousing message of compassion from the Rig Veda – “Indra, you lifted up the outcaste who was oppressed. You glorified the blind and the lame.” Arjuna rejected heaven to fight for justice on earth. And in no uncertain terms, Lord Krishna stressed the fountainhead of divinity – the Gita is all about the battle for justice and not about the flight to moksha.
By the 16th century, the stirring statement of compassion and social justice from the ancient scriptures retreated into empty corners and forgotten nooks. The spiritual pundits failed to arrest the drift resulting in a shattering fall of ideology. Even today, they continue to issue calls for moksha, instead of mobilizing the powerful sentiments of solidarity and affinity to fight the evils of the day such as corruption, malnutrition, suicide of farmers, and millions of children in bonded labor. Their deafening silence on a poor, forgotten India cascades through every aspect of society, fueling apathy and lack of fellow feeling. Well-dressed children from affluent homes barely even glance at a scrawny child begging for bread. Worshippers at temples think nothing of stampeding on the old and the weak to fall at the feet of the same Gods who would rightly reject them for their callousness. Modern Bollywood rarely shows a poor family. The poor have disappeared from Shining India. Yet the dark terrain of despairing India cannot just disappear. Foreign missions and NGO’s fill the vacuum left willingly by a society that has retreated with their gold and gurus into gated heavens of modern living.
Therefore, in India today, in spite of all the puja, religion and pilgrimages, honest men who do their duty are murdered or shunned, fearless warriors are fighting with their hands tied behind their back, and the poor farmer draws a collective shudder of disdain. A divided population is taking its tiered places, one small group rise in a spring of hope while many wallow in a long winter of despair. Swimming against the sea of apathy requires a new narrative and a motivational fuel to retrieve the “amrit” from the Vedas. It requires a new blaze of spirituality where God is truth and right is might. Back to the roots movement may not be easy, but other continents have achieved it.
For example, 14th century Europe was also mired in intrigue, despotism, superstition and religious intolerance. But the renaissance delved into the spirit of the ancient classics and recalled to life the values of liberty, justice and fraternity. Grounded in these values, Europe rose from the ashes of deprivation into a powerful and prosperous continent. Indians mesmerized with the prosperity and glamor of the West, will do well to introspect and spur a similar renaissance in Hinduism by bringing to the fore the amazing vigor of the Vedas as practiced by the rishis of long ago. They were not only spiritual seekers but were involved in every aspect of Science, politics, and martial arts. They grew their own food, built their own hermitages and lived a Spartan life full of vitality. Mighty emperors bowed humbly to seek their wisdom in fighting the evils of the day.
There can be no remedy if there is no knowledge. There can be no knowledge if a person is broke or starving or cannot have his basic physical needs met. Prime Ministerial candidate Modi’s call “to build more toilets rather than more temples” fits right in to the concept of self-reliance practiced in the ashrams where the needs of all members both big and small were met. It is no coincidence that ashrams rather than temples were the incubators of learning and progressive thinking.
Hopefully, such thinking will also end the mindless groupthink of unquestioning disciples as they follow their leader, the all-knowing Master to a mythical heaven. Swami Vivekananda said it all in a concise statement, “So long as even a single dog in my country is without food, my whole religion will be to feed it.” And the titanic Swamiji would know as he had in him the genius and sparkle of the Vedas.