Many years ago in a bookstore in a small university town in the US, I came across a beautiful picture book which I had to immediately buy. The book titled Living Faith: Windows into the Sacred Life of India is a collection of photographs taken by the noted Indian photographer, Dinesh Khanna. I had seen some of his pictures on the web, but this book really made me an admirer of his work.
Pico Iyer in his introductory essay to this book describes the essence of these photographs as:
“…something of what India does, at its best: namely, to take individual moments of worship, private acts of devotion – the soul in solitary colloquy with its God – and somehow bind them into the larger fabric of society and life” (p. 21).
The book beautifully captures a living expression of the deepest human urge to somehow connect with the Infinite, the Divine. It is this urge, this aspiration which expresses itself in many different forms; some only catching one or another aspect of this aspiration, some expressing more perfectly and integrally than others, but all expressing a loving way to feel closer to the Divine, to the Infinite. Religion and religiosity are first human expressions of such a deep spiritual urge. And in India we find such visual expression of religiosity pretty much everywhere, in almost every street corner. This is what the book Living Faith represents very beautifully.
The sheer profusion of the “sacred” in public spaces can seem mind-boggling to an outsider, but to an Indian eye this is how it has always been. This is merely an external, a visual representation of the Indian ideal of the spiritual aim of life.
“A spiritual aspiration was the governing force of this [Indian] culture, its core of thought, its ruling passion. Not only did it make spirituality the highest aim of life, but it even tried, as far as that could be done in the past conditions of the human race, to turn the whole of life towards spirituality” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 178).
The photographs in the book clearly speak to the fact that the separation between the human and the Divine, between secular and sacred is not as sharp and divisive in the Indian collective psyche (including its public and private spaces), as seen in most Western societies. An Indian temperament very naturally believes and lives with the truth that there is more to the visible world of Matter, that there is Divine Presence in all of the world and life that we see, and that spiritual aim of life can co-exist with other aims of life.
This is how most Indians know and experience India.
Barring a few elite metro areas which try to imitate a somewhat artificially created, almost-sanitized, western style urban-ness, one still finds in the majority of urban India (and certainly in small town and rural India) a living, pulsating, throbbing human expression of an attempt to constantly bring the Divine closer to human – in a make-shift temple created by simply placing an old, half-broken murti of a deity or simply a stone marked with holy red powder, or a picture of one’s favorite deity glued awkwardly on the dashboard of a car or taxi….almost everywhere. Bhakti, love for the Divine, is certainly the most common form of spiritual practice for majority of people in India. It is everywhere, in all religious traditions. The book, Living Faith, is an excellent visual representation of this governing force of Indian culture.
(Click here to see some photographs).
But what does it really mean when we say that a spiritual aspiration is the governing force of Indian culture? Nolini Kanta Gupta gives us a clear answer:
“When we say that India is spiritual, “we do not mean that all or most Indians, or even a very large minority among them, are adepts in spirituality, or that the attachment to life, the passion for earthly possessions, the sway of the six ripus are in any way less prevalent in the Indian character. On the contrary, it may well seem to the casual onlooker whose eyes are occupied with the surface actualities of the situation, that the Indian nature, as it is today, shut out from this world’s larger spaces, cut off from its deeper channels and movements of greater magnitude, has been given over more and more to petty worldliness that hardly fill the same space even in the life of peoples who are notorious for their worldly and unspiritual temperament.
“It is not so much a question of concrete realization, of attainment and achievement arrived at by the Indian people in their work-a-day life, but primarily and above all a question of ultimate valuation, of what they hold as the supreme ideal, of what they cherish in their heart of hearts, and of the extent to which that standard has obtained general currency among them. It is not a fact with which we are concerned, but the force behind the fact, and the special nature and purpose of that force. It is the power that we discover in the general atmosphere, or that emerges in the stress and rhythm of the cultural life of the people, in the level of its inner consciousness, in the expression of its highest and most wide-spread aspiration, in the particular stamp of its soul.” (Collected Works, Vol 1, p. 157).