WRITTEN BY R. NANJAPPA                        

Post No. 8004

Date uploaded in London – – – 19 May 2020   

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Academic circles make a distinction between religion and spirituality, though in the ancient days, no such distinction prevailed. In the West today many people describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’.(SBNR). They mean that they do have some belief in an Ultimate Power in the universe, but do not subscribe to any theological belief or practice, any church or organised system of worship or dogma. They believe in a personal, internal experience, and not membership in an organised group. It is called ‘spirituality without religiosity’  It is estimated that in the US alone, such people constitute about 24% of the population.

Secularism: anti-Christian in origin

Such a situation has arisen in the West as a result of historic circumstances, when science disproved many of the articles of faith of organised Christianity, such as creation in 4004 BC, creation in 7 days,  the earth-centred universe, etc. The movement in fact started with Renaissance when Europe discovered ancient Greek literature and philosophy; then Enlightenment took over, emphasising reason and individualism as against submission to tradition and authority; this was  followed by the rise of modern science, leading to separation of Church and State, Secularisation of society, including education, separation of even philosophy from religion, etc. In the circumstances, people who think about life and its problems seriously, feel the inadequacies of ‘modernism’ in all aspects. Psychologist Carl Jung said:

I have treated many hundreds of patients. Among those in the second half of life – that is to say, over 35 – there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life.

 People take to new religions, or cults like New Age, Paganism, etc. Even Darwinism, Feminism, Freudian psychoanalysis etc have been turned into cuts Those who describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ are usually those who like to experience some form of spiritual reality in their lives, beyond holding mere belief.

Religion and Spirituality: Hindu view

This may look like a new arrangement. But if we study Hinduism, we realise that it always contained a provision for the common people to practice religion at a popular level, but with a way to take up the pure spiritual quest, ( the quest after Liberation or Spiritual Enlightenment) after adequate preparation and  with proper guidance.  Categorisation of the 4 purusharthas provides  for the pursuit of the normal worldly life ( artha and kama) based on dharma which prepares the base for the pursuit of Moksha which is the ultimate purpose of life. The organisation of  the 4 asramas likewise provides a base: the brahmacharin equips himself with the necessary knowledge, takes up family life to pursue artha and kama, and thus also discharge his responsibility in society, then cultivates detachment by separating himself from active worldly life through vanaprasta ( without disturbing society) and at the last stage renounces worldly life totally through sanyasa, to take up spiritual pursuits exclusively..  A person with intense desire for spiritual life might take up sanyasa directly after the student stage, bypassing householder stage. The organisation of society on the basis of varna provided a secure means of livelihood for everyone without competition; it made for contentment if not always for opulence and ostentation. ( In fact, what was the scope for any show of public opulence when the economy was not monetised , and there was no consumer culture?) The learning and training required for any trade or craft or profession was acquired in-house, literally. Only those who decided to dedicate themselves fully for a religious or spiritual life had to take up serious studies in other disciplines. 

Ideal or Reality?

It may appear that this is an idealistic picture. But till the Muslim rule, this was what prevailed; it continued in a truncated form even under the Muslim rule. But it was totally  mauled during the British rule, aided by the education system they introduced, abetted by missionary propaganda. The trend of modernity everywhere has now converged towards wholesale secularisation of life, with materialistic fulfilment  and sensory satisfaction as the main aim of life.

West had more time to adjust 

England, and Europe in general, had about 5 centuries to face and adjust to this gradually; in India the movement towards modernity has been both sharp, and rather sudden, backed  by unpredictable , uncontrolled and unregulated global forces. In the West , thoughtful people have seen through the emptiness of modernity and have embraced spirituality voluntarily. But in India, the lure of modernity is very powerful, and it is simply equated with Westernization of life. The huge masses, freed from traditional restraints and limitations, are taking to it with great eagerness and intensity: the attractions are too strong to resist. Most Indians do not have an idea how such things originated and how the West dealt with it. So the mistakes of the West, and the associated pain and suffering, are repeated here too! As George Santayana said, those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it! Being more populous than most countries, India is also likely to suffer more intensely.

This has come to India within the last century, especially after Independence, in its most intense and often very subtle forms. This state is actively promoted by the new electronic media, with its strong visual and sensory appeal, and psychological impact on the younger generation which is the majority in India now.

Muslim  and British Rule

During the Muslim rule, the saints who appeared preserved our religion and helped the common people, by simplifying matters. But the basic structure of life was still largely in tact, as the Muslims did not control the whole of India.. We have remarkable proof of this by way of British documents themselves. By 1750, when the British started consolidating their hold, India was a very prosperous country, with a flourishing economy, contributing nearly 30% of world GDP. Life was centered mainly on the villages which functioned like little independent republics.Industry and trade flourished, ( not just agriculture) along with public education.The British documented all this meticulously through their district collectors. But the British intention was not to preserve or promote this. They studied it well so they could destroy it the more thoroughly. They destroyed   it wholesale: self-sufficient village communities were systematically destroyed, the local power structures were altered, economic systems were replaced; a new class of ‘book (English) educated’ people arose to create the great middle classes. Hindus not only lost their independence, they lost their basic identity. Hindu “society” was being destroyed.

Swaraj- its meaning 

During the initial stages of the freedom movement, our leaders were aware of these factors,and spoke of “Swaraj” and gave it a meaning beyond the purely political intent or content.. Sri Aurobindo articulated it particularly well. Gandhi also said in the initial stages that the real problem was modern civilisation and in the only book he wrote in his life titled ” Hind Swaraj”, in 1909, he explained his position well. But as the movement progressed, the aims were diluted and India too became a secular parliamentary democracy, like the West. But  secularism came to acquire a special meaning in India , in official circles: In the West, it means that the govt  does not owe allegiance to any religion or church and does not  favour any religion over others; in India it means that the non-Hindu religions  get preference and protection, claiming minority status!

What this means is that Hinduism is hit particularly hard; Hindus face serious issues in their own homeland! All other religions are spread throughout the world, in many countries; 95% of Hindus live only in India. But here life is becoming increasingly secularised ( in the sense of violating Hindu values in the public space, and pandering to religions that have non-Indian origin) and spiritual effort is becoming particularly difficult. Securing a  means of livelihood has  become the main question, faced by each generation anew; education is the means to it and it has become secularised. Thus  spiritual outlook and even the religious idea has become an extra baggage. consequently, even questions of ethics and morality are by passed. Outwardly, there is all the show of festivals, visits to temples and holy places, our share of modern gurus and organisations. But look deeper, they are all commercialised, and genuine spiritual education and practice are becoming scarce and difficult to practise, as institutional support has collapsed.

 Sri Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi

Sri Ramakrishna clearly saw this trend. He was accosted by the intelligent young Bengalis infatuated with English education and ideas, whom he called “Englishmen”. He interacted with them freely, and explained our religion, making it clear that God-realization was the only purpose of life, and showed how it was still valid and how it could still be practiced. He showed a very practical way for the modern times, yet based on the Indian genius. He attracted such young men as his direct disciples. After him, the movement in his name developed on  a queer social service based model, on  the lines of the Christian churches and  acquired the status of a cult. After him Ramana Maharshi pointed out a new, direct way of taking up the spiritual quest, without any ritual , in the conditions of modern life, no matter what one’s religion was. He too has been confined only to a small section of the people, though he has followers world-wide.


Sri Tyagaraja preceded even Sri Ramakrishna. He noted that Kali age was upon us, making spiritual quest difficult, since even the true aim or purpose of life was obscured. In the circumstances, he prescribed a way of life based on pure devotion. He particularly avoided any discussion of theoretical philosophy; he did not advocate any theology. 

His only solution was: Liberation is the aim of life; God’s grace is essential to attain it; devotion is the most effective way to seek it; uttering God’s name is the way to practice it. What he did in essence is to show people a way to lead a truly spiritual life, without bothering about the niceties of religious issues.

 In this respect, he is a forerunner of both Sri Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi. Both of them, like him, were focused on the essential spiritual quest, and not on the religious questions, though we generally do not distinguish between the two terms. [ It may be noted that having Narada as his Guru, Tyagaraja advocated bhakti ; Sri Ramakrishna specifically stated that bhakti as prescribed by Narada is the best way for our times.]

Unfortunately, our traditional peethas do not deal with these questions in an enlightened manner. Nor do they prescribe any way to deal with these modern problems. They behave as if we are still in the Satya yuga.

Gita and SBNR

In this context, the message of the Gita is very relevant. It embodies the  very SBNR approach! Scholars discuss the ‘philosophy’ of the Gita, but the Gita itself does not preach or advocate philosophy! It does not discuss any theoretical question, or stop with any theoretical solution. ‘ Surrender to God and be saved‘ is its ultimate message. In this respect, Sri Krishna should be considered the Adi Guru of the SBNR movement!

What will “Kalki” Avatar do?

In this context, I recall a story used to be narrated by late great Sengalipuram Anantarama Dikshitar in his Bhagavatam discourses.  Talking about the ten Avatars, he used to say Sri Krishna is the most relevant avatar for us. He used to explain it thus: when a riot takes place in a locality, the local rowdy elements usually take the field; soda bottles, cycle chains, sticks, rods,,etc are freely used; there is arson and looting, and much wanton violence and destruction. But when the siren of police jeep is heard, and before the jeep arrives, they all disperse and disappear into the lanes and by lanes. The police take stock of the damage, question a few people, but the main culprits have gone. In the same way, the Kalki Avatar will come at the end of the Kali yuga, when most of the damage has occurred! It is only Krishna who has shown people how to lead a spiritual life in the Kali Yuga as he came at the end of Dwapara yuga and actually the beginning of Kali is reckoned with his leaving the earth! The Gita is therefore the scripture of the age and it advocates absolute devotion as the main spiritual discipline for the age.

Seen thus, Sri Tyagaraja, Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Ramana Maharshi all continue with the method advocated by Krishna! In a sense Krishna is their Adi Guru too!

Sri Tyagaraja is the one who articulated the modern approach to the spiritual question in the light of Hindu tradition.

The Lamp burns!

Religious life requires settled social conditions and proper political order. Broad-based religious society provides the basis for earnest spiritual effort. This is like a pyramid: the religious base is broad, but only a few take up the ultimate spiritual quest . Religion, with all its faults, provides the basis and support. When we say the lamp burns, it is not the whole lamp which burns. It is only the tip of the wick- but we need the whole lamp, the wick, the oil,  for the tip to burn! Likewise, great spiritual teachers have appeared only in religious societies. The modern tendency to portray religion and spirituality as opposing entities is therefore  not sensible.

Importance of political order

. An appropriate socio-political structure is necessary for both religion and spirituality to flourish. This is not well appreciated. The Hindus ensured this in the name of Dharma-which covered all spheres of life and their activities. The King in Hindu conception was not a tyrant, but a servant and protector of Dharma- that is why he was  called a “Kshatriya”.. In his treatise Tirukkural, Tamil poet saint Tiruvalluvar reflects this essential Hindu attitude:

அந்தணர் நூற்கும் அறத்திற்கும் ஆதியாய்
நின்றது மன்னவன் கோல்.                543

The sceptre of the king is the mainstay of the science of Brahmins
and also of righteousness.

ஆபயன் குன்றும் அறுதொழிலோர் நூல்மறப்பர்
காவலன் காவான் எனின்.                         560

The yield of the cows will decrease, and the Brahmins will forget their
sciences, if the King falters in his reign.

The term ‘King’ stands in the modern context for the ruling order, and Brahmins represent the religious/spiritual instinct, order and traditions. With the advent of the Muslims and the ascent of the British, the political and social order that was the foundation of Hinduism started collapsing. Sri Tyagaraja lived at those times and witnessed those changes. He therefore advocated steps which were independent of external factors. The same approach was adopted by both Sri Ramakrishna and Ramana subsequently. In thus showing a new path amidst  socio-political changes, Sri Tyagaraja qualifies as the Sadguru of the age.


1.There are many books dealing with these issues, in their historical context.Those interested may see:

  • Richard Tarnas: The Passion of the Western Mind, Ballantine Books, New York, 1993.
  • English Literature in Context: Edited by Paul Poplawski, Cambridge University Press, 2008
  • Sri Aurobindo: Speeches. And his various writings.
  • M.K.Gandhi: Hind Swaraj.
  • Fritjof Capra: Turning Point
  • Maurice Berman: Reenchantment  of the World, Bantam New Age Books.
  • Arthur Osborne: The Question of Progress: lectures at Madras University 1965 and The Rhythm of History, 1959

 2. The British documents on the socio-economic situation in India by mid-18th century are still available in original in the British Museum and other libraries in England. Sri Dharampal, a follower of Gandhi, actually sat in these libraries  for many years and took down the contents of many of these documents in long hand, when there were no photocopying facilities. The 5 volumes of his Collected Writings ( Published by Other India Press, Mapusa, Goa) are an invaluable source  to learn of the actual prosperous state of affairs in India at that time, before the British deliberately destroyed it. This destruction was taking place during the time of Tyagaraja!

To be continued…………………..


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