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The Politics of Spirituality

What is problematic in Sadhguru’s novel approach is that values such as spirituality or inclusivity are seen as the sole preserve of Indian traditions. Abrahamic traditions are especially disparaged as being the very antithesis of these values (the disparagement comes easy when these traditions are classed as ‘foreign’).

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If you listen to Sadhguru enough times – as I have – you come away with the impression that ‘spirituality’ is the only sensible alternative to the regressive and old-fashioned belief in ‘religion’. Religions – and in Sadhguru’s worldview, Abrahamic religions in particular – with all their notions of a traditional creator-God, scriptural morality, and heaven and hell – are well on their way to extinction, or at least should be.

In this sense Sadhguru is only echoing the view of the new-atheists such as Richard Dawkins, who has long prophesized and hoped for ‘the end of religion’ and the triumph of science. Sadhguru unhesitatingly hops on this bandwagon, since for him spirituality is closer to science than to religion.

Sadhguru’s pronouncements on ‘religion’ lie on the same level of intellectual sophistry as that of Dawkins – which, if I must spell it out, is not a flattering remark at all. But, by rehashing Dawkin-esque views on religion, Sadhguru secures for himself a double victory. Firstly, he can marshall all the new-atheist polemics against Abrahamic religions, and so he has his work cut out for him.

Secondly, he garners fans who in their fits of teenage rebellion might have acquired a skepticism of traditional authority, but who – perhaps due to their teenage impatience – might have stalled at that stage, and could hardly sustain a long-term and thorough-going period of critical enquiry and exploration. Sadghguru, very much like Dawkins, panders to the lazy skeptic – one who takes an ahistorical view of his own skepticism, considers all religious traditions to be patently false while ironically admitting his ignorance of them, and believes triumphantly in ‘Western Enlightenment’ values – although when pressed on this last point, such a person would be at a loss to enumerate what these ‘enlightenment’ values actually are, let alone defend them intellectually. In fact, I doubt whether behind the veneer of the common rationalist-skeptic lies any shred of knowledge about philosophy, religion, or history.

Yet, there is no denying that both Sadhguru and Dawkins hold much appeal. The average follower of either of these figures may also outshine a regular believer when it comes to critical thinking. And it is perhaps this failure of religious traditions to empower their masses with independent thinking that becomes the cause of much self-embarrassment for them. At this level, Sadhguru/Dawkins may be seen to perform an important salutary function: to awaken the masses from their uncomprehending slumber. But to be awake is not a one-time action, it requires constantly being awake and vigilant. The waking jolt of skepticism can itself come to sound like a lullaby when one starts becoming complacent and comfortable within the new-found belief-system of ‘skepticism’. The only authentic way to stay awake, therefore, is to be skeptical of one’s own skepticism, and skeptical of that skepticism, and so on, ad infinitum.   

Now, as the title of this essay suggests, I am not discussing Sadhguru’s more overt politics. Much deserved ink has already been spilled along those lines [1]. Instead, I seek to lay bare the political posturing of what is generally accepted to be a benign and ‘apolitical’ spirituality.

So, let us examine Sadhguru’s ‘spirituality’ more closely. In one sense, he defines spirituality in opposition to religion as noted in the beginning. But in another sense, spirituality in his view is the very kernel of religion itself. Now, if religion is merely a husk, one can easily come to the conclusion that this husk is disposable and essentially useless if one retains the kernel. One has to wonder what this shapeless kernel of spirituality looks like when stripped of the ‘form’ of religion. Is there such a thing as a formless spirituality? The answer to this question hinges on an important conceit of all neo-spirituality: the presumption that spirituality is essentially neutral.

Sadhguru is hardly the first to capitalize on this common confusion. For one, Sadhguru is most clearly an heir to Osho. Secondly, he is only the latest popular installment in a long line of neo-spiritual gurus – a way of thought arguably inaugurated by Swami Vivekananda in his 1893 speech at the ‘World Parliament of Religions’ at Chicago, and finally taking full shape with the 1960’s hippie-movement. Thus, one can situate Sadhguru in the context of the tradition of ‘American Veda’, as the journalist Philip Goldberg terms it [2].

But what if the fundamental presumption of neo-spirituality is itself false? What if there is no such thing as a neutral spirituality? This is my core argument: There is no such thing as a formless, neutral, unprejudiced, objective spirituality that is immediately and universally accessible to anyone who pursues it from any place and at any time. Those who talk of universal spirituality or ‘Spirituality’ (with an uppercase ‘S’), make the same mistake as the Enlightenment philosophers who speak of universal reason or ‘Reason’ (with an uppercase ‘R’).

Such a naive view of ‘reason’ has become increasingly untenable to hold in our times with increasing awareness of colonialism’s intellectual racism, as well as anthropology’s increasing appreciation of non-European cultures and traditions. According to the contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, it is an “illusion to suppose that there is some neutral standing ground, some locus of rationality as such, which can afford rational resources sufficient for enquiry independent of all traditions. Those who have maintained otherwise either have covertly been adopting a tradition and deceiving themselves and perhaps others into supposing that theirs was just such a neutral ground or else have simply been in error” [3].

Thus, rationality requires the framework of a tradition to operate from and within, even as it may critique some elements of that tradition. A blank slate (tabula rasa) cannot produce philosophy. To reason, one needs to build on a series of assumptions, about logic and the rules of reasoning, about language, grammar and the structure of propositions. Similarly, spirituality cannot exist except within a tradition, bearing a certain language, and having a certain form – even as it seeks to expand itself beyond the confines of a single framework. Going beyond, itself first requires being within. 

So, when neo-spiritual gurus speak of ‘Spirituality’ in neutral terms – either when pitting it against the ‘parochialism’ of religious traditions, or by celebrating it as Reason’s conjoined twin – they are actually peddling a particular kind of spirituality (as opposed to other kinds) under the guise of Universal Spirituality.

More specifically, Sadhguru’s spirituality is ‘Indian/Indic’ in its broad contours – in the sense that it utilizes images and metaphors from traditions that originated in India. (There is of course a much more complex debate on how one defines what is Indian and what is not, but that is besides the scope of this essay). But being of Indian origin itself is hardly something to take issue with. What is problematic in Sadhguru’s novel approach is that values such as spirituality or inclusivity are seen as the sole preserve of Indian traditions.

Abrahamic traditions are especially disparaged as being the very antithesis of these values (the disparagement comes easy when these traditions are classed as ‘foreign’).  To say that Hindu traditions are more spiritual than Abrahamic traditions presumes a prior definition of ‘spirituality’ based on which the comparison is made – a prior notion of spirituality, based on which one form of spirituality is seen as being more or less spiritual than another. Thus, the measuring-scale is pre-fixed and biased towards one object over another even prior to the actual act of measurement or comparison.

This is the problem when one speaks of ‘spirituality’ – which, not unlike the category of ‘religion’ is a modern western invention defined largely as a shadow or negative space of the ‘secular’, as Talal Asad points out [4]. Instead of speaking of individual entities such as Islam or Christianity or Hinduism (this term itself is recognized to be problematic[5]), when we speak of ‘religion’ in the abstract, the term will have to be defined either in terms of particular belief or ritual or practice or societal or any other arbitrary parameter – but which will always be an arbitrary parameter, especially when looked at from the point of view of an external religious tradition to which the parameter in question is not central.

What is striking is that a mind as brilliant as Sadhguru quite clearly fails to register for what they are the polemical misgivings and misrepresentations of Abrahamic religions in neo-atheist literature or popular culture in general. And so, one finds him uncritically adopting these tropes in his otherwise considered pronouncements.

Whatever the cause for this blind spot – perhaps being ‘foreign’ traditions, he feels less obliged to pay them intellectual respects – nevertheless he is prevented from recognizing these traditions as so many ‘spiritualities’. Of course, he does acknowledge them as spiritualities in one sense, but at the same time he views them as too encumbered by the weight of dogma and doctrines to be able to offer unimpeded spiritual liberation.

By contrast, the ‘Indian’ traditions are seen to be doctrinally ‘thin’, if not without doctrine altogether – and entirely supported by ‘pure experience’ alone. If one’s own belief is seen not as a belief but as simply common sense or the way things naturally are, it is so only because it is too close to view to be noticed, like a pair of saffron tinted spectacles giving the illusion that the world itself is saffron.

In fact, the classical Greco-Roman inspired theological and philosophical traditions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are summarily dismissed as really ‘not our problems’. A distinguished psychology professor and acquaintance of mine who is known for his pioneering work in ‘Indian psychology’ once remarked in my presence that he does not understand all the fuss about debating ‘the existence of God’ or ‘the problem of evil’, saying that they are really not problems for us, but for ‘them’ – i.e., Abrahamic religionists.

Now, there may be a valid argument here about the limitations of contemporary philosophizing about God in Abrahamic apologetics – but it seems a criticism too casually made to mean all that. Sadhguru certainly dismisses Abrahamic intellectual traditions as unworthy of recognition. Let me remind you that his grasp of Abrahamic religions is restricted for the most part to that of Richard Dawkins’. And there is something to be said about the rebranding of Hinduism or Buddhism as secular ‘ways of life’ as opposed to the religious lifestyles of the Abrahamic faiths.

Whereas in fact, a traditional believer of the Abrahamic faiths and a traditional believer in Hinduism would have much more in common with each other than with a secular atheist. It is only when one uncritically surrenders to atheistic correctness that it seems more natural to seek for a link, however tenuous, between Hinduism and the disenchanted world of atheism, as opposed to recognizing that all traditional religions have shared an enchanted cosmos as their natural home.

Very much like Dawkins, Sadhguru maintains that he need not read about other traditions in order to dismiss them. “All I need is right here (pointing to the mind), All I need is within me”, as he says. In a clearly unflattering moment, he even extends his self-sufficiency to the point of saying “I don’t need to read other books”. Now, on one level this final remark speaks of a high spiritual station of self-sufficiency, which I do not doubt Sadghuru genuinely experiences.

In fact, I must clarify that for all my criticism of him, I nevertheless respect Sadhguru for and am inspired by his spiritual accomplishment. He clearly speaks a lot of the time from deep and penetrating spiritual insight. It’s important to recognize that the spiritual skill in question, call it mindfulness or presence, is, like any skill, a product of regular training. However, one must bear in mind that to be accomplished in one skill does not necessarily make the person a master of all skills in life.

Even a skill as fundamental as ‘mindfulness/presence’, while certainly giving you a lot, nevertheless does not grant you mastery over so many other facets of your being. For instance, it teaches you nothing of history, or even about public reason or ethics – which need to be socially navigated and learnt through instruction and over time.

My criticism towards Sadhguru is not therefore to question the value of his genuine insights, but to take the guru to task for not being intellectually humble enough to recognize his own limitations. I will be the first to admit that I have much to learn from him in mindfulness, but will he admit that he too has a thing or two to learn about philosophy, history, and other traditions? Will he dare to give up the conceit of an apolitical spirituality?

References:



[2] Philip Goldberg, “American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation How Indian Spirituality Changed the West” (2010)

[3] Alasdair MacIntyre, “Whose Justice? Which Rationality?” (1988)

[4] Talal Asad, “Genealogies of Religion: Disciplines and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam” (1993); see also Sophia Rose Arjana, “Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi: Orientalism and the Mystical Marketplace” (2020); and Irfan Ahmad, “Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace” (2017)

[5] Richard King, “Orientalism and the Modern Myth of ‘Hinduism’” (1999); and see Sudipta Kaviraj, ‘On thick and thin religion: some critical reflections on secularization theory’ (2010)

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