Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Spiritual Intelligence: International Religion of the 21st Century?


Religion it would seem, has failed us.

Prayer was to have helped us find salvation and good karma was to have paved the way for a promising destiny. Evil should have vanquished at the hands of good and the villains should have long-rotted in hell. Peace, love and discipline – preached by all religions – should have prevailed.

Instead, we find thugs leading the good life while honest citizens languish and terrible fates seem to befall the best of people we know. Religious figureheads seem as scam-prone as politicians and even temple trusts are not immune to embezzlement. Ethnic strife is, ironically, fuelled – not quelled - by religious beliefs and views.

In contrast, the long-decried materialistic ways of the West that focus on instant gratification seem to offer a more predictable and higher standard of living than our spiritual ways that promise a pathway to a future paradise.

The scientific method has empowered us with so much information that the fabric and credibility of religion have been impacted.

But has it really?

Have we truly been empowered by information or are the dangers of applying half-knowledge lurking round the corner?


Indians are by nature heavily influenced by culture and tradition and in a sense, fairly possessive about them too. And that's not bad at all. Except that when the culture and tradition are not “scientifically-grounded”, it's easy for us to get confused.

Needless to say, our culture and traditions are heavily influenced by our religion and compounded by regional variations. Given that we have no dearth of regions or religions in India, the resulting mix of culture and tradition based on religion is both, strong and fragile, widespread and localized.

Until the mid-to-late-1980s, the Indian milieu was ultra-conservative; almost orthodox. A uniform civil code was never enforced, though thankfully we have been a secular state. Social norms and local culture were tightly aligned with religious traditions and practices. Families were patriarchal – if not joint families – and it was not uncommon for the patriarch's scope of decision-making to extend to choice of a career and spouse. Baseless superstitions disguised as tradition were passed down generations and readily accepted. A wrecked marriage usually spelt eternal doom for both spouses – divorce was an option that only a bold few in urban areas would dare consider.

A few discreet hoardings for Nirodh were the only public depictions of sex – cameras in Bollywood would still abruptly swing upwards if lips came within 12 inches of each other. Marriage was the implicit threshold beyond which no liberties were allowed with the dress-code for women and even then, modesty was the overarching theme of all attire.

This milieu sustained itself largely because we were a scarcity economy with low literacy levels. Financial dependence on the patriarch often translated into emotional dependence which set the stage for compliance and obedience without complaint. Low literacy levels meant that traditional and religious practices were accepted more out of fear than as a consequence of rational analysis.

This was the era before the internet, cable TV, mobile phones, Facebook and Twitter.

Then came the era of economic liberalization starting in 1991. We didn't see that coming.


What started as a trickle of western influence through cable TV exposure developed into a tsunami before our very eyes. Going with the flow was the only choice – there was no alternative.

None of these influences were – or are – bad in their own right. It's just that our culture and tradition were not scientifically-grounded. We easily got confused. All of us. Our generation got confused because we were getting mixed signals as we grew up. The previous generation was in a fix because on one hand, they found it difficult to defend the very practices they had willingly complied with, while on the other hand, for the very same reason, they found it difficult to discard them overnight.

Liberalization had literally opened the floodgates. Greater access to information through the internet and exposure to foreign culture through cable TV opened our eyes to newer and different ways of life; increased international travel broadened our horizons and influx of multi-national brands and products offered an abundance, variety and quality that was hitherto unknown.

Obviously, this had a transformational effect on our society. The economic prosperity that set in with liberalization fuelled the transformation because it redefined the economy and with it, the nation. Unorganized sectors saw an infusion of commercialization for the first time. Privatization brought in competition and access to contemporary technologies thus putting world-class but affordable technology at our disposal.

There was a sea change - the internet, predictable supply of vegetables, packaged grains and pulses, fast-food culture, better healthcare, international fashion brands priced for India, proliferation of PCs and so much more.

All this allowed us to shift our focus from eternally saving for a rainy day to consuming for the present. Idle dreams suddenly became achievable aspirations (albeit fueled by greed). In that shift alone, our standard of living and our way of thinking were redefined more radically in 5 years than they had been in the last 30 years.  

Transition and Soul Searching

With all these changes came the inevitable changes to culture. And with those changes came the inevitable fallout to another important constituent: our value system.

As the transformation reflected in everything from our consumption patterns and dress codes to the role of religion in our lives and our value system, the burgeoning middle-class was suddenly feeling the throes of growth and the transition. 

Value systems provide us the same anchor and guiding path that the Mission-Vision-Values provide a corporate entity. When that foundation is shaken and when the faith is diluted, what results is a lot of soul-searching. 

Of course, there's the universal black & white code of conduct that tells us what is right and wrong even in the face of all this transformation, but there's also a lot of gray area that's usually difficult to rationalize or defend one way or another. Sometimes it's about our values itself (e.g., casual sex), sometimes about a social duty or obligation (e.g., caring for aging parents) and sometimes it's about a culture or tradition that we may or may not agree with or understand but has nevertheless been passed on for generations (e.g., how we treat guests or how a son-in-law is treated). Often, we confuse a tradition we barely understand for a value we want to defend or protect. Or, we confuse a value we have lived by, for a tradition that can be dismissed because it is convenient to do so. 

That's when the waters get muddied even more and rebels-without-a-cause – or worse, moral police – are born. 

Inter-caste marriages, pre-marital or live-in relationships, regulating what our children read/watch/speak, accommodating the preferences of others to adjust our own plans, our stands on body piercing and body art, single or unmarried parents, etc. are all examples of these gray areas. More subtle examples – but impactful in equal measure – are the mindsets and attitudes we nurture in our children towards elders, towards God, towards our values and towards a fluid definition of "culture" and "tradition". 

In many of these cases, lack of resistance for a particular point of view does not necessarily imply acceptance. Also in many cases, there are practical difficulties posed by geographic separation or financial constraints that inhibit people from aligning their actions with their beliefs and wishes. If all that and the current Indian setting wasn't already in a flux and posing challenges, an upwardly and globally mobile Indian middle-class has brought in more influences to add to the confusion.

Spirituality and Spiritual Intelligence

So where does that leave us? Has our culture outlived its relevance and purpose? Is it time to hive religion overboard? Do we need a value-system overhaul?

Maybe, but I would tread with caution. I would be judicious in choosing which elements of my culture I would let go and I would certainly be very wary of any reconfiguration of my value system.

I've had my share of confusion as to what I will hold on to and what I will let go. I've also had my share of doubts about our culture. I've even been shaken by encounters with greedy temple priests and people in my community whose spirituality and conscience – let alone religious fervor – seems to be controlled by the same switch that controls the spotlight on which their behavior is based. I've been incensed by temple trustees of means and letters who are content with pomp & splendor in religious activities without any vision or channel to serve the needy.
But all through, my value system – many elements of which were intricately linked to my culture and my religion - has unfailingly, unwaveringly stood me in good stead. More importantly, myriad incidents and a few close calls have caused me to look at culture, religion, spirituality and values in a new light and have caused me to reflect deeply. Not to mention that even developed nations still reel under the horrors of child abuse, incest, miscarriage of justice and worse, with all their technology advances, mature jurisprudence and diligent caution.

Religion as we profess it today, is stretched to its limits in dealing with modern society's needs. A globally mobile population gives rise to the need for "cultural portability" and clearly, religion in its current form has its limitations. Try for instance, scheduling a marriage in the US based on a date and time that is auspicious. Or performing a "gana-homa" before moving into your new house in the US.

Clearly, there is a need for change. Indeed, the Bhagvad Gita itself exhorts change and Hindu philosophy even embodies the doctrine of "Mimamsa" – viz., investigation into the nature of "dharma" based on interpretations, revelations and provisions of the Vedas, thus laying the foundation for informed change.

How then does one deal with these dynamics? For me, the answer lies in spirituality.

I have come to regard spirituality much like the institution of marriage – not everything can be reduced to a formula and not all is a bed of roses. But it is still a bed of roses; the thorns regularly serve as "hedonism arrestors". In the long run, the companionship provides much-needed emotional support at a very personal level. Like marriage, everyone has their own personal views and not everyone needs to be married to be happy, stable and emotionally secure.

There's spirituality and there's religion. And there's an overlap between the two. Most Indians of my generation have grown up in the thick of the overlap. Increasingly, people are gravitating towards the spirituality end of the overlap. What frightens me – and perhaps what has driven the shift towards spirituality – are the people who are religious without being spiritual.

So what does this mean for me?

My value system has proved its worth and its mettle. I will not have anyone or anything redefining that.
My/our culture is something that has taken some weathering but it prevails and will (must) adapt continuously. Attitudes that nurture respect and attitudes of conservative consumption as opposed to one of wastage are definitely two tenets of our culture that I will strive to protect and imbibe in my children.

I will not resist rites & rituals but will refuse to be party to practices that imply indignity to another individual or are counter-productive to the cause of larger good they must embody. It is not our culture to rebel and I respect that, but I also recognize that controlled and selective rebellion is sometimes a necessary agent of change.

Spirituality then will be the guiding light to help me apply my values, adapt my culture and profess my faith. When the time comes – which will be sooner than I think – I pray I will have the right answers to the tough questions that my children are sure to ask.

Interestingly, "spiritual intelligence" – an emerging concept and body of knowledge – attempts to establish a "spiritual correlate to IQ". Whether it is a fad that will fizzle out remains to be seen, but clearly, spirituality is gaining ground as a new frontier that is seamless over faiths, cultures, ethnicities and geographies.

Like the French philosopher and Nobel prize winner Albert Camus said, "I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn't, than live my life as if there isn't and die to find out there is"!

Thanks are due to my close friend Vinatha Pai, for her constructive feedback and to my uncle, Gurudatt Mallya for his inputs and validations and in particular for making me aware of “Mimamsa”. Both of them readily took time out of their busy schedules to help me refine this article.

1. Wikipedia – Spirituality, Spiritual Intelligence, Karma, Religion, Mimamsa
2. War of the Worldviews: Science vs. Spirituality, Deepak Chopra and Leonard Mlodinow
3. HBR Blog Network: Mastering the Art of Living Meaningfull Well (


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