Western Materialism versus Hindu Spiritualism

Dr. Jaipal Singh
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Some time back, a dear friend sent me a short poem ‘Dust If You Must’ by Rose Milligan. The essence of the poems appears that a person should not waste too much time on mundane tasks (such as dusting) in life; there is so much to do and enjoy, and the person should spend time on such pleasurable things. The life is transient with the death as ultimate reality.  In short, there are so many objects that bring us true happiness and one should try to celebrate every moment of life with these till one lives. The poetess as such does not appear to be very established or well known personality but her aforesaid poem has received wide attention and laurel in her own country i.e. United Kingdom and across the globe as well, more so on the social media such as the Facebook, WhatsApp, etc.

The poem is completed in four stanzas, each stanza essentially starting with the ‘Dust if you must’ setting a narrative, then expanding and concluding it naturally in a logical way with whenever possible following the schematic rhyme. The first stanza talks about want and needs suggesting it would be more desirable to spend valuable time on painting, writing, cooking and planting than giving too much of it for the mundane task like dusting. The second stanza reminds the transience of life and the need to cherish whatever time available on pleasurable activities like swimming in rivers, climbing on mountains, listening to music, reading books, and spending quality time with friends. The third stanza reiterates the paucity of time and the need for enjoying the bountiful gifts of nature. In the fourth and final stanza, the poetess reminds the old age blues and ultimate nemesis of the life meeting dust.

Another woman, Gabriella Burnel is a Sanskrit scholar, teacher and singer of British origin. Having learnt Sanskrit only up to the Junior High School level, I am no expert with little knowledge of Sanskrit. But fond of listening to Burnel’s recitation of the Sanskrit mantras, I find she has a very sweet voice with magnetic pull, full of the captivating energy and popular appeal that can take any Sanskrit lover to another realm. The other day, I happened to listen to her recitation of the Sanskrit mantras from the Markandeya Purana narrating ancient Queen Madalasa’s lullaby to her crying son. Madalasa was the daughter of the Gandharva King Visvavasu and wife of the King Ritudhwaj of the ancient Raghu Vamsa (Surya dynasty). She was a wise and scholarly lady with thorough knowledge of the contemporary socio-cultural organization, spirituality and purpose of life. The emotive translation of the Sanskrit mantras (lullaby) narrated by her to son Alarka goes as under:

You are pure, enlightened and taintless; leave the illusoriness of the world and wake up from this deep slumber of delusion. Do not cry, you are pure; the name you have is not yours, but just an imaginary superimposition on you: The body comprised of five elements is not you nor you belong to it. The Lord of universe doesn’t cry either; this sound (name) is an illusion attributed to you, O Prince! The qualities imagined as belonging to you are in reality belong to elements that constitute senses. These mundane elements with the accumulation or reduction within the body acquire the condition of growth….through the addition of food water and drink; it is not the (real)growth or diminution of you. You remain constant within the body which is like a shell that gets worn out with time. ‘Father’, ‘son’, ‘mother’, ’wife’, ‘mine’, ‘not mine’…These are all only references to various aggregations of elements; do not assign much significance to them. The deluded one thinks, the  objects of enjoyment give happiness; the wise knows the same objects of happiness are also a source of pain.  As the carriage that moves on the earth is different from the person seated in it; similarly, the Self resides within the body, without attachment. The deluded Jiva thinks I am this body; how stupid is this ignorance!

The aforesaid Rose poem and Markandeya Purana mantras in Madalasa story present two different narratives and a sharp contrast in the approach towards the life in the West and East (Hindu way of life). Rose Milligan’s Dust If You Must presents precise approach that the Western cultures and religions typically endorse as the ultimate aim of life. Many Indians (mainly Hindus) fascinated with the material progress of the Western countries too strongly endorse this philosophy of life. On the contrary, the Sanskrit mantras derived from the sagacious Queen Madalasa’s story venture to explore the truth and real purpose of life. While the Western concept of life has largely evolved around materialism and enjoyment thereof till the end of life as the Dust If You Must narrates, the Hindu way of life emphasizes on the futility of material possessions and pleasures at a stage with ultimate goal as Moksha or liberation – although even among Hindus, not many people know, believe or follow this crux of life narrated in scriptures. 

Hinduism is not averse to material possessions and enjoyment thereof but it recommends people to follow certain ethics and discipline in life. Accordingly, the total span of the Hindu way of life broadly has four stages (Varnashrama) and four object purposes (Purushartha). The Varnashrama Dharma includes Brahmacharya (acquiring knowledge & skills), Grihastha (earning material possessions & enjoyment), Vanaprashta (practicing ascetics in household or in isolation), and Sanyasa (living life of a hermit). Similarly, the Purushartha is comprised of four objects or purposes viz. Dharma (following righteousness or moral values), Artha (earning economic prosperity), Kama (enjoying material & emotional pleasure), and Moksha (liberation through spiritual progress). The aforesaid two disciplines together describe the holistic human pursuit and the purpose of the human life broadly encompassing all important aspects of life including the individual and universal ethics & values as also the duties and responsibilities towards the family and society.

The basic difference between the Western (largely driven by Abrahamic culture and religions) and Hindu way of life is that the former asks the followers to remain faithful to a particular God and enjoy material life till end while the latter recommends all humans to follow certain disciplines including material bliss in a rational way and be inclined towards spiritualism in the pursuit of the Universal God at a certain stage of life. Needless to mention, even a large number of Hindus do not care to learn or understand this finesse, and are easily driven by endorsing the Western way of life. Many such people across the world not only proactively indulge in such adventures and consumerism but also aggressively bid for it as their success and achievement in life, some of them even ridiculing the Hindu concepts of rebirth, Karma and Moksha.

Actually, what happens after death is largely an unknown or dark area about which other cultures and religions have justified it in a dogmatic way with the concepts like resurrection, judgment day, and so on to decide the final fate of person but the Hindu scriptures have attempted to explain it with adequate logic and reasoning through the concepts of Karma, rebirth (reincarnation) and Moksha. The Moksha after death is a much debated and known concept but the Vedanta philosophy also talks about the Jeevan-Mukta (Moksha or liberation while body is still alive). In Hindu texts, the Moksha is referred to as the ultimate purpose of life with the end of sufferings that comes through the liberation from the illusion and delusion of the material world, spelled as the Samsara or Maya. Some of those who have learnt this truth, they are blessed with the equanimity of mind, free from the worldly cravings, contented with minimum needs, comfortable with solitude, and are humble, straight, patient, compassionate, courageous, clear and steady, firm yet sweet by the words and demeanour.

While working on a series of ancient civilizations of the world, I had explored various civilazational attributes of the lost civilizations such as Roman, Greek, Egypt, Persian, Sumerian, and so on, and one common and distinct attribute that I observed from their polytheistic religion and mythology was that even their Gods, though charismatic and equipped with supernatural powers, were very materialistic and had created man basically to serve them, who was also expected to be fearful and subservient to the gods. These attributes have not seen much change after the advent of the Christian era, and evolution of the Abrahamic religions and monotheistic God in these parts of the globe. The same forces which were responsible for the lost civilizations, have also viciously and incessantly tried to destroy the culture and religion of Hindus and Hinduism for the last many centuries but without much success. Some of the unique and key attributes and strength of the Hindu culture have been its eternal and ever evolving nature, spirit of universal brotherhood, power of adaptability, unity in cultural diversity, survival instinct, peaceful coexistence, respect for the nature and women, aversion to invasions and violence, tolerance and syncretism, etc. since the Vedic age.

Sometimes I wonder what is that chief "material or abstract power", which has enabled Hinduism to survive for thousands of years and prosper as the oldest ancient civilization till date. The only answer I find is that the other old civilizations had a materialistic approach towards the life largely thriving on consumerism, while the Hindu civilization was unique in recognizing the futility of the materialism since inception and followed a balanced approach towards the material and spiritual pursuits of life. It never tried to control minds and mundane lives of adherents and, instead of imposing any dogma or doctrine, allowed them enough reasoning and freedom of thought, feelings and beliefs  through debate, reflection and spirit of inquiry. This flexible approach has guided the followers of Hinduism since the Vedic age with needful amends on ‘as required basis’ and has stayed as its chief strength through ages – and so also a reason why repeated vicious and incessant onslaughts by the Islamic invaders and European colonizers for over a millennium could not destroy Hinduism, which is still thriving with its core components, principles and attributes, ethics and values.


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