After the tumultuous events of the past few weeks, where the Central Bureau of Investigation director and his deputy accused each other of corruption and were subsequently sent on forced leave by the government, the agency’s acting director M Nageswar Rao decided what the organisation requires is a spiritual and mental healing workshop run by the Art of Living Foundation.

One media report noted that “what was immediately required was to purge the CBI headquarters of negativity, motivate its officers, give them a positive outlook and build a healthy atmosphere so that the agency can perform its day-to-day functions, said an official”.

The three-day workshop in Delhi from November 10 to 12 was for CBI officers from the rank of inspector and higher, according to reports,

It is ironic that organisations with deep traditions of hierarchies that cannot be questioned appear to think that building a healthy work atmosphere involves spiritual training rather than organisational reform. But that is the nature of a great deal of spiritual and other forms of self-help activities that have emerged over the past few decades. Their key attractiveness may lie in the promise of maintaining the status quo in a time of rapid change.

CBI director Nageshwar Rao inaugurates the
CBI director Nageshwar Rao inaugurates the

New spirituality

It is entirely unclear whether the Art of Living Foundation can help in issues of personal aspirations and professional rivalries, the fraught relationship between key state institutions and their political bosses, the varied forms of corruption and the deeply hierarchical nature of our society that is reflected in our institutions. However, what is really significant is the growth and extraordinary popularity of the self-help industry in India. These can be both non-religious – usually based on American models of self-improvement – as well as based on religious principles. However, the most popular of these, such as the Art of Living Foundation and the Isha Foundation, borrow from spiritual roots and share some attributes.

Firstly, they are able to fashion spiritual practice that is simultaneously part of a culture of consumption. Here, spirituality is a commodity. So, just as a car of a particular brand garners for its owner a particular image, so does spirituality. It is actually consumer culture that is the grounds for new forms of spiritual movements, rather than spiritual movements providing an alternative to excessive materialism. New spirituality is a form of materialism.

Secondly, new spirituality speaks of how a change in one’s inner self is the key to changing the world. The implication here is that problems of social and economic inequality, gender and communal violence, unequal access to resources and human rights violations can be solved through producing a new inner self and this – in some inexplicable way – will be able to address the most intransigent of social and economic problems. It is noticeable that contemporary gurus do not ever explicitly address problems of social and economic inequality and yet simultaneously speak of the great desirability of a happier, gentler world.

Thirdly, such movements employ a jargon of transformation that borrows from the language of management gurus and industrial managers. Take for example terms like “inner engineering” and “sustainable happiness”. They suggest that human life with its extraordinary complexity – ambitions, power differentials, bigotries, failures and successes, asymmetries – can be managed through simple techniques of quantification. This is the illusion of control.

Finally, self-help techniques developed by new spirituality movements avoid viewing individual actions in relation to the wider social world. So, if a woman was to experience distress because she might face bias at work or home, or someone might express anger at religious discrimination, these issues are best resolved through appropriate techniques of managing the emotions. The individual is the world and individual causes of suffering, distress, discrimination have no external locus. Solipsism is the key to addressing the human condition.

CBI director Nageshwar Rao with other officers at the Art of Living workshop at CBI headquarters. Image courtesy: CBI
CBI director Nageshwar Rao with other officers at the Art of Living workshop at CBI headquarters. Image courtesy: CBI

Questioning the status quo

It is not surprising that the key ideas behind new spirituality carry such great appeal. They both capture the mood of the times as well as allow a wide cross-section of individuals and organisations to view them as forms of therapy that do not ask for any fundamental restructuring of social and economic life. We need not ask questions about forms of power that relate to caste, gender, economic wealth; we need not question the political use of religion, restrictions on forms of expression and exhortations to hyper-nationalism. Yet, change is possible.

India is home to a variety of religious movements that grew out of existing older belief systems, for instance, the Bhakti movement and Sikhism. However, these were based around forms of questioning of established norms of being and believing. What is significant to our times is the rise of spiritual movements that set themselves against processes of change: indeed, their attraction lies in the advocacy of maintaining the status quo through reducing all problems to the individual level. Anger that might result from being at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, for example, cannot be addressed since it would require a broader understanding of the social causes of disquiet and resentment.

Of course, this would not really be such an issue but for the fact that new spirituality has become a kind of public common sense. Their leaders speak in the language of general human welfare, and government bodies legitimise their world-view by incorporating these into official routine. Movements that purport to offer succour to souls are, well, best left to their own devices. However, if they expand their claims to providing solutions for social problems by advocating better management of the status quo, rather than measures to change it, then we should be concerned. Lifestyle spirituality is very rarely the answer to deep-rooted social problems.