Javed Akhtar and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar both participated in India Today Conclave – where Javed Akhtar delivered this speech. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar responded to it later (not at the conclave).
Spirituality: Halo or Hoax?
Speech by JAVED AKHTAR at India Today Conclave
I am quite sure ladies and gentlemen, that in this august assembly nobody would envy my position at this moment. Speaking after such a charismatic and formidable personality like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is like coming out of the pavilion to play after Tendulkar has made a sparkling century. But in some weak moment I had committed myself.
There are certain things that I would like to make very clear at the very outset. Dont get carried away by my name Javed Akhtar. I am not revealing a secret, I am saying something that I have said many times, in writing or on TV, in public I am an atheist, I have no religious beliefs. And obviously I dont believe in spirituality of some kind. Some kind!
Another thing. I am not standing here to criticize, analyze, or attack this gentleman who is sitting here. We have a very pleasant, civilized relation. I have always found him to be an extremely courteous person.
One is talking about an idea, an attitude, a mindset. Not any individual. I must tell you that when Rajeev opened this session, for a moment I felt that I have come to the wrong place. Because, if we are discussing the philosophy of Krishan and Gautam and Kabir, Vivekanand, then I have nothing to say. I can sit down right now. I am not here to discuss a glorious past of which I suppose every Indian is proud, and rightly so. I am here to discuss a dubious present.
India Today has invited me and I have come here to talk of spirituality today. Let’s not be confused by this word spirituality, you can find two people with the same name and they can be totally different people. Ram Charit Manas was written by Tulsidas. And the television film has been made by Ramanand Sagar. Ramayan is common but I dont think it would be very wise to club Tulsidas with Ramanand Sagar. I remember, when he had written Ramcharit Manas, he had faced a kind of a social boycott. How could he write a holy book in such a language like Avadhi? Sometimes I wonder fundamentalists of all hues and all colors, religions and community show how similar they are. In 1798, a gentleman called Shah Abdul Qadir, in this very city, for the first time translated Quran in Urdu, and all the ulemas of that time gave fatwa against him that how could he translate this holy book in such a heathen language.
When Tulsi wrote Ramcharit Manas and he was boycotted, I remember a chowpai that he had written.
*Dhut kaho abdhut kaho rajput kaho ki julawa kohu*
*Kohu ki beti se beta na biahab, kohu ki jaat bigaar na chahu*
*Mang ke khaibo, mehjid ma raihbo, lebe ka ek na debe ka dohu*
Ramanand Sagar, when he made his television serial, he made millions. I am not undermining him, but obviously he is much lower in the rung. I will give you another example. Perhaps it would be more direct and more appropriate. Gautam came out of a palace and went into wilderness to find the truth. But nowadays we see, the modern age gurus, come out of the wilderness and wind up in the palaces. They are moving in the opposite direction. We can’t talk of them in the same breath. So let us not hide behind names which are dear and respectable for every Indian.
When I was invited to give this talk, I felt that yes, I am an atheist, try to be a rationalist in any given situation, Maybe that’s why I have been called. But suddenly I have realized that there is another quality that I share with Modern Age gurus. I work in films. We have lot in common. Both of us, sell dreams, both of us create illusions, both of us create icons, but with a difference. After three hours we put a placard ‘the end’. Go back to reality. They don’t.
So ladies and gentlemen, let me make it very clear that I have come to talk of this spirituality that has a supermarket in the world. Arms, drugs and spirituality these are the three big businesses in the world. But in arms and drugs you really have to do something, give something. That’s the difference. Here you don’t have to give anything.
In this supermarket you get instant Nirvana, Moksha by mail, a crash course in self realization, cosmic consciousness in four easy lessons. This supermarket has its chain all over the world, where the restless elite buy spiritual fast food. I am talking about this spirituality.
Plato in his dialogues has said many a wise thing, and one of them is before starting any discussion decide on the meanings of words. Let us try to decide on the meaning of this word spirituality. Does it mean love for mankind that transcends all religion, caste, creed, race? Is that so? Then I have no problem. Except that I call it humanity. Does it mean love of plants, trees, mountains, oceans, rivers, animals? The non-human world? If that is so, again I have no problem at all. Except that I call it environmental consciousness. Does spirituality mean heartfelt regard for social institutions like marriage, parenthood, fine arts, judiciary, freedom of expression. I have no problem again sir, how can I disagree here? I call it civil responsibility. Does spirituality mean going into your own world trying to understand the meaning of your own life? Who can object on that? I call it self-introspection, self assessment. Does spirituality mean Yoga? Thanks to Patanjali, who has given us the details of Yoga, *Yam, Yatam, aasan, pranayam*We may do it under any name, but if we are doing pranayam, wonderful. I call it health-care. Physical fitness.
Now is it a matter of only semantics. If all this is spirituality, then what is the discussion. All these words that I have used are extremely respectable and totally acceptable words. There is nothing abstract or intangible about them. So why stick to this word spirituality? What is there in spirituality that has not been covered by all these words? Is there something? If that is so then what is that?
Somebody in return can ask me what is my problem with this word. I am asking to change it, leave it, drop it, make it obsolete but why so? I will tell you what is my reservation. If spirituality means all this then there is no discussion. But there is something else which makes me uneasy. In a dictionary, the meaning of spirituality is rooted in a word called spirit. When mankind didn’t know whether this earth is round or flat, he had decided that human beings are actually the combination of two things. Body and spirit. Body is temporary, it dies. But the spirit is, shall I say, non-biodegradable. In your body you have a liver and heart and intestines and the brain, but since the brain is a part of the body, and mind lies within the brain, it is inferior because ultimately the brain too shall die with the body, but don’t worry, you are not going to die, because you are your spirit, and the spirit has the supreme consciousness that will remain, and whatever problem you have is because you listen to your mind. Stop listening to your mind. Listen to your spirit – the supreme consciousness that knows the cosmic truth. All right. Its not surprising that in Pune there is an ashram and I used to go there. I loved the oratory. On the gate of the lecture hall there was a placard. Leave your shoes and minds here. There are other gurus who don’t mind if you carry your shoes. But minds? Sorry!
Now, if you leave your mind what do you do? You need the Guru to find the next station of consciousness. That hides somewhere in the spirit. He has reached the supreme consciousness, he knows the supreme truth. But can he tell you. No sir, he cannot tell you. So can you find out on your own? No sir, you need the guru for that. You need him but he cannot guarantee that you will know the ultimate truth and what is that ultimate truth? What is the cosmic truth? Relating to cosmos? I have really not been able to understand that. The moment we step out of the solar system the first star is Alpha Centuari. It is just four light years away. How do I relate to that!! What do I do!!
So the emperor is wearing robes that only the wise can see. And the emperor is becoming bigger and bigger. And there are more and more wise people who are appreciating the robe.
I used to think that actually spirituality is the second line of defense for the religious people. When they get embarrassed about traditional religion, when it starts looking too down-market, they hide behind this smokescreen of cosmos and super consciousness. But that is not the complete truth. Because the clientele of traditional religion and spirituality is different. You take the map of the world, you start marking places which are extremely religious, within India or outside India, Asia, Latin America, Europe wherever. You will find that wherever there is lot of religion there is lack of human rights. There is repression. Anywhere. Our Marxist friends used to say that religion is the opium of poor masses, the sigh of the oppressed. I don’t want to get into that discussion. But spirituality nowadays is definitely the tranquilizer of the rich.
You see that the clientele is well heeled, it is the affluent class. Alright, so the guru gets power, high self esteem, status, wealth (which is not that important), power and lot of wealth too. What does the disciple get? When I looked at them carefully I realized that there are categories and categories of these disciples. Its not a monolith. There are different kinds of followers. Different kinds of disciples. One, who is rich, successful, doing extremely well in his life, making money, gaining property. Now, since he has everything he wants absolution too. So guru tells him – whatever you are doing, is *niskaam karma *you are playing a role, this is all *Maya*, the money that you are making everyday and the property that you are acquiring, you are not emotionally involved with it. You are just playing a role. You come to me because you are in search of eternal truth. Maybe your hands are dirty, but your spirit and soul are pure. And this man, he starts feeling wonderful about himself. For seven days he is exploiting the world, and at the end of the seven days when he goes and sits at the feet of the guru, he feels I am a sensitive person
There is another category. That too comes from the affluent class. But he is not the winner like the first one. You know winning or losing that is also relative. A rickshaw-wallah if he is gambling on the pavement and wins hundred rupees will feel victorious, and if a corporate man makes only 300 million dollars, while his brother is a billionaire, he will feel like a failure. Now, what does this rich failure do? He needs a guru to tell him who says that you have failed? You have other worlds, you have another vision, you have other sensibility that your brother doesn’t have. He thinks that he is successful, wrong. The world is very cruel, you know. The world tells you honestly, no sir, you have got three out of ten. The other person has seven out of ten. Fair. They will treat you that way and they will meet you that way. There he gets compassion. There he plays another game.
Another category. And I will talk about this category not with contempt or with any sense of superiority, not any bitterness, but all the compassion available one that is a very big client of this modern day guru and today’s spirituality, is the unhappy rich wife. Here is a person who put all her individuality, aspirations and dreams, and her being at the altar of marriage and in return she got an indifferent husband. Who at the most gave her a couple of children. Who is rather busy with his work, or busy with other women. This woman needs a shoulder. She knows that she is an existential failure. There is nothing to look forward to. She has a vacuous, empty, comfortable yet purposeless life. It’s sad, but it is true.
Then there are other people. Who are suddenly traumatized. They lose a child. The wife dies. The husband dies. Or they lose the property, they lose their business. Something happens that shocks them and they ask why me? So who do they ask? They go to the Guru. And the guru tells him that this is Karma. But there is another world if you follow me. Where there is no pain. Where there is no death. Where there is immortality. Where there is only bliss. He tells all these unhappy souls follow me and I will take you to heaven, to paradise, where there is no pain. I am sorry sir, it is disappointing but true that there is no such paradise. Life will always have a certain quota of pain, of hurts, a possibility of defeats. But they do get some satisfaction.
Somebody may ask me if they are feeling better, if they are getting peace then what is your problem. It reminds me of a story that I have read. It’s an old Indian story told by a sage, that a hungry dog finds a dry bone and tries to eat it and in the process bites its own tongue. And the tongue is bleeding and the dog feels that he is getting nourishment from the bone. I feel sad. I don’t want them, these adults, to behave like this because I respect them. Drugs and alcohol are also supposed to give mental peace and serenity, but is that kind of piece or serenity desirable or advisable?
The answer is no. Any mental peace that is not anchored in rational thoughts is nothing but self-deception. Any serenity that takes you away from truth is just an illusion, a mirage. I know that there is a kind of a security in this which is like the security of a tri-cycle. If you are riding a tri-cycle you can’t fall. But adults do not ride tricycles. They ride bi-cycles. They can even fall. It is a part of life.
There is one more kind. Like everybody who is the member of the golf club is not fond of golf. In the same way everybody who is seen in an ashram is not a spiritual person. A film producer who is an ardent follower of a guru, whose ashram is about two hours from Delhi once told me that you must go to my Guru. You will see the who’s who of Delhi there. Let me tell you my Guruji is another Chandraswami in the making. Now this is a contact point for networking. I have great respect for people who are spiritual, or religious, and in spite of this they are good people. And I have a reason. I believe that like every emotion or feeling, you have a limitation.
You can see up to a point. And you can’t see further. You can hear up to a point, but beyond that you won’t be able to register sounds. You can mourn up to a point and then you will get over your mourning. You will feel happy up-to a point and then you will be through with your happiness. Same way, I am sure that you have a certain capacity for nobility also. You can be as noble and no more. Now suppose if we count this capacity for nobility in the average man as ten units, now anybody who goes to pray in a mosque five times is consuming his five units, there anybody who goes to the temple or sits in the feet of the Guru, he is consuming his quota of nobility there. And in a totally non-productive manner. I don’t go to pray. I don’t pray. If I don’t go to any guru, or mosque or temple or church, what do I do with my quota of nobility. I will have to help somebody, feed somebody, give shelter to somebody. People who use their quota in worshipping, praying, adoring religious figures and spiritual figures, in spite of that, if they are left with some nobility, hats off to them.
You may ask me, that if I have this kind of ideas about religious people, why should I show such reverence for Krishan and Kabir and Gautam? You can ask me. I’ll tell you why I respect them. These were the great contributors in the human civilization. They were born in different points of time in history, in different situations. But one thing is common in them. They stood up against injustice. They fought for the downtrodden. Whether it was Ravana, or Kansha or the pharaoh or the high priests or the British Samrajya in front of Gandhi or the communal empire of Firoze Tughlaq in the times of Kabir, they stood against that.
And what surprises me, and confirms my worst feelings, that today, the enlightened people who know the cosmic truth, none of them stand up against the powers that be. None of them raises his voice against the ruling classes and the privileged classes. Charity, yes, when it is approved and cleared by the establishment and the powers that be. But I want to know which was that guru which took the dalits to those temples which are still closed to them. I want to know which was that guru who stood for the rights of the Adivasis against the thekedaars and contractors. I want to know which was that guru who spoke about the victims of Gujarat and went to their relief camps. They are human beings too.
Sir, It is not enough to teach the rich how to breathe. It is the rich man’s recreation. It is the hypocrites pretension. It is a mischievous deception. And you know that in the oxford dictionary, mischievous deception is a term that is used for a word, and that word is HOAX.
… and the response by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (of Art of Living)
It is funny that in a country like India spirituality is talked about as a hoax. How can something which is so obvious, which is part of millions of people, be taken as a hoax? Spirituality is not a halo of the few, it is the breath of every human being. Have people forgotten that freedom was achieved through spirituality as the prime means by Mahatma Gandhi?
It has become a fashion with journalists to blindly continue the colonial tradition of calling Hindu spiritual leaders a hoax. They called Mahatma Gandhi, Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo godmen and hoaxes, and their contemporaries continue to do so. Would they say this to Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama? No! Only Indian spiritual leaders are singled out.
The India Today Conclave offered a basis for a discussion on spirituality, “Halo or Hoax?” Javed Akhtar joked, “In movies we create an illusion and then after three hours we put up a sign, The End, and make people step back into reality, whereas spiritual people also create an illusion but they do not put an end to it.” The audience applauded. I smiled within and thought, yes, what this man says is correct, all that is created comes to an end. If something does not end then it is not created! Perhaps he didn’t even realise the profound truth of what he was saying.
So in some way he tacitly accepted that the love and drama he creates in the movies does end, but the love and transformation created by spiritual people never end. Yes, this whole world is an illusion that never ends. I drew Adi Shankara from his sarcasm. What an enigma: the perception and the reality. So Mr Akhtar is actually saying that his reel love songs are false. If only he knew the reality: that his lyrics express the genuine feelings of thousands of youth when they come and sing his marvelous songs before me, with that spark of love in their eyes. Real-life love never ends; it moves from life to lifetimes.
Spirituality is intoxicating. Only those who step into it will know. Before criticising we need to do our homework. Has one visited ashrams, like the Ramakrishna Ashram, Ananda Mayi Ma Mutt, Brahma Kumaris’, Gayatri Parivar, Pandurang Shastri, Sri Aurobindo Ashram or Art of Living? Has one spent time with saints? Only then does one’s views carry weight, else they remain simple accusations only, a distorted perception, not reality.
Mr Akhtar thundered again: “All modern-day spiritualists are hypocrites”. Many people froze as he dismissed the present-day gurus. Today there are millions of people who follow spirituality: are they all hypocrites? I appreciated that he could express his feelings boldly, without pretension. But the contempt that was exhibited for gurus was alarming. The hatred and frustration were obvious from his body language. It’s not just Mr Akhtar. Many journalists, communists, atheists and naxalites live in that state of mind, of being anti-religious, anti-rich, anti-famous, anti-business.
Should I argue and put him down? No! I have never put anyone down. I can’t deviate from my nature. So I simply said, everyone has the right to be ignorant.
A flash of Aurangzeb, who butchered thousands of gurus and would not listen to any reason or logic, came to mind. An intelligent man would look into all the avenues before he makes a comment or accusation. It is necessary to stand up for justice and expose the misdeeds of the world. Instead the so-called activists only engage in accusations. Blaming the entire modern-day spiritual guru and sadhu community is as foolish as branding the entire Muslim community as terrorists.
It is the medieval brahmanical mindset to always put down business and politics and the colonial mindset to denounce gurus. As a result we never expanded our political influence nor globalised our business until very recently.
Then came his next statement that Buddha went from the palace to the forest and today the gurus come from the forest to the palace. I said to myself, ‘Come on! Buddha went to the forest when he was unhappy and miserable, and he came right back when he became a guru’. Any high school student knows this. Besides, every palace had a rajguru. Last year hundreds of sadhus were evicted from the caves and hermitages of the Himalayan region, near Haridwar, by the forest department. People generally think sadhus should live in forests with torn clothes but the forest department wanted to send them to the city!
The atheists have always fought with spiritual people. In those situations we should know how to act. It is pointless to argue with them. What do you say to a man who has never stepped into the realm of spirituality yet calls it a hoax? One cannot make a blind man see the light through his nose.
Unfortunately atheists are just fearful and good dramatists. A man who equates arms, drugs and spirituality is not going to change his opinion immediately and anyway his opinion is not going to matter for what is and what will be. Come on, I thought, sing a new song. My compassion grew.
Often activists seem to create rage and revenge in the victims; they cannot bring solace and creative action. In the name of justice they fume with hatred. This can lead to acts of violence like the recent killings of 19 sadhus in Uttar Pradesh. It has been an old tradition to glorify the dead, and call the living a hoax. Kabir had to put up with this as did Meera, Buddha, Jesus, Adi Shankara and many more. the wise do not mind the outburst of a few.
Spirituality is not a matter of the head, it is a matter of the heart. I had two choices: to argue and turn the conclave into a conflict or to keep silence. I chose the latter.
[Sri Sri Ravi Shankar]