Hard Bones Beneath a Flexible Spirit – Spirituality, Wealth and Power in Middle Class India

The acquisition of power bestows unto someone a certain moral imperative – this holds true of any society. A high ranking politician is governed by different laws than a garbage man. Yet what happens in Hinduism is that the ethical objectivity that is prevalent in the West and which leads to the development of humanitarian feelings is replaced by a multiplicity of ethical and circumstantial subjectivities. Ethically, a person is only required to judge a situation correctly and turn it to their advantage. If a person succeeds that way, it is an essentially “good” action, regardless of the methods used. The winner makes the rules and you can only enter into a position of power by outsmarting others – it’s the ultimate expression of the trickster god, Loki in Norse mythology, Krishna, the honey-thief, in Indian. Any immovable ethical construct can only be considered ballast by someone who needs to be ethically nimble in order to succeed.

In America and increasingly in Europe we have an ethical construct that I will call, merely to illustrate it, the Spoiled Child System. It is, maybe, an inevitable construct for societies that are predominantly middle class and have been so for a long time. The one who cries loudest, not the one who steals the honey, is at an advantage. Progress and ingenuity are not awarded, but the system is in place to support the weakest link. The whole socialist structure cannot, of course, be reduced to something that simple and the view is prejudiced and simplistic, but consider for a moment that an Indian dealing with a group of Westerners in a competitive environment will always take himself to be Krishna and the others to be those whose honey is to be stolen, one way or another. An Indian with a group of other Indians…pretty much the same.

People who approach the Indian society up to a certain point are often appalled at how medieval it seems to be in certain aspects. This moral relativity, the prevailing conservatism, the option to purge oneself of all sins through the performance of a ritual and the fact that Indians are spiritually flexible enough never to feel any sort of crushing spiritual dread may well be an approximation of the mind of a European in the fourteenth century. By distancing ourselves from religion we have forgotten that it has a noticeable effect on the day to day life of a people and makes the mind a lot more robust. I find that side of religion very hard to deny. However, most Indians will react surprised if anyone ascribes a strong spirituality to them – religion, in India, is seen as something very pragmatic that enables a person to keep their self-regard under all circumstances and to allow them to purge themselves from whatever trouble they have whenever they desire to do it. Spirituality, in the sense of the contemplative Western tradition, or as something absolutely removed from worldly affairs is barely existent in India (it is, of course, there in the wanderings of countless sadhus and the idea of acquiring tapas, but even there is it driven by a certain kind of acquisitiveness, the wish to own something, spiritual powers in that case). Mind and matter are not separated from each other. A Hindu separates his life into four stages – brahmacharya, the learning stage where knowledge of the world is acquired, grihast, the householder, during which stage one works to acquire wealth and to experience physical pleasures, vanprastha, when the baton is passed on to the next generation and one slowly removes oneself from worldly matters, and Sannyasa, contemplation of the afterlife in the final years. One can decide to forgo one or several of the stages and enter into moksha or renunciation before one enters old age.

Maybe all of this can be considered day-to-day spirituality, but it is not the kind of spirit that engenders compassion. The Indian society is structured to a degree that is not obvious to a casual observer (if you think the pervasive chaos is a sign of lack of structure, try dropping a billion people in Central Europe and see how that goes), but proves to be all-pervasive once the observation becomes more acute. People in power are expected to flaunt their power and wealth in the most obvious and unmistakable terms – a politician without a revenue, ten man strong, a big Ambassador car and an arrogant, larger than life bearing is not considered a powerful man. Explosions of anger that, to a Western eye, often seem like arrogance or childishness are actually performances of power. Someone on a low hierarchic rung would rarely dare to show his displeasure to someone of higher rank. Both power and weakness need to be demonstrated in order to affirm the structure that holds Indian society together. The absolute constructs of morality that exist in Christendom are completely absent in Hinduism. A rich man is not expected to show humility, quite the contrary. He is expected to flaunt his wealth by the most extraordinary means.

Without an absolute morality, visible power becomes a spiritual focal point. But this also means that the powerful will never have a sense of compassion for the powerless, because it is due to a failure of their own that they are in a position of weakness. Equally, the powerless often accept their position as their karma, their circumstance – however these circumstances are no longer as fixed as they have been for centuries. There is no concept of charity in middle-class India, the very idea of it is considered stupidity. As such it is not unlike the middle-classes dotted all around the globe. Anything that is not obviously concerned with making money, must harbor some secret designs on it. The hierarchic structure of society gives credence to that idea, especially now that money has become a sanctioned way to climb that structure to the topmost spots. The structure itself is not questioned – it is considered an indelible result of karma. Poor people are deprived simply because they occupy the lowest ranks and wealthy people are entitled to every bit of wealth that they have simply because they occupy higher ranks. Even the gods have their hierarchies and while you can manage and shuffle and climb and fall, the structures themselves are tougher than bone, tougher than time. This is why an Indian does not consider it strange or conflicting when a guru who is teaching abstemious spiritual practices, for example, drives a brand new Mercedes and lives in a gigantic villa. His social position gives him all right to material possessions even if his teaching speaks against them. From an Indian middle class point of view there is no contradiction here. Even people who are in a position to speak up against the practice will rarely be prepared to do anything against it. In place of charity there is the right of each individual to amass as much wealth and affluence as he can, unburdened by any moral considerations or considerations for the other. Charity is offered by various religious institutions, but often as a form of advertisement or recruitment, or it is simply part of the personality of some people. It appears as the most commonsensical thing to do. If I help another, he might help another and might help me, too, if I am in dire straits.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s