A London doctor reflects on how her upbringing was about being religious but not spiritual, and how that changed for her
BY RAMAI SANTHIRAPALA
IN 2017, HINDUISM TODAY REPORTED A TREND AMONG THE YOUTH IN America: describing themselves as SBNR, “spiritual but not religious.” That is, they believe in a divine essence while not defining themselves as belonging to any of the world’s faiths. As a Hindu growing up across the Atlantic in London, I propose that there is a reverse standpoint among certain youth; that of being religious but not spiritual (RBNS). Let me explain.
London has a dense community of Sri Lankan Tamils; and with that arises a network of temples revering Saivism, specifically Saiva Siddhanta. I grew up as a second generation Tamil Saivite immersed in a community centered on temple worship, while making the best of life in the West. As a child, I remember family members reverently insisting that temple worship was not optional. Rituals, such visiting the shrine room daily, observation of puja and especially festivals such as Mahasivaratri, applying holy ash, performing seva and praying for one’s needs all became familiar from a young age. This means one grows up with an early identity as a Hindu—as being religious. Undeniably, this religious foundation has been a firm identity for those of my generation who remain close to the traditions rooted in the northern territory of Sri Lanka, Jaffna. However, as I discovered later, what makes religion come alive is spirituality—the personal experience of God.
The simple act of observing puja becomes a rich new experience once one has a clear understanding of the mystical communion occurring. Otherwise, it can well be conceived as merely a series of rituals. My guru’s guru, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, describes how “the temples bring the Three Worlds together.” He is referring to the world of the Gods, the world of the devas (angelic beings) and this earthly world, which for many is the only reality. Speaking of darshan, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami goes on to clarify “Darshan coming from the great temples of our Great Gods can change the pattern dating back many past lives.”
It was not until I read these teachings that I came to understand the inner significance of temple worship. I learned that through temple worship one comes to know our Great Gods; or rather They come to know you and guide your life in mystical ways.
Elders often ask, how do we bring youth into the Saivite faith? London, like many Western cities, has the challenge of making Saivism appealing to youth. I feel the answer is centered on finding ways for them to identify themselves as a spiritual being who is also religious. Through a religious upbringing, one rightly reveres the great beings of light that we call the Gods. However, through personal spiritual practice one comes to understand the same light within them exists within oneself, and our small knowing voice becomes louder. The question then naturally arises, how does one nurture spirituality while not losing sight of the religion?
One strength of today’s younger generation is that they think for themselves; and in my community they have been educated in Western ways. As a result, they follow the path of reason and hold the standpoint if it isn’t reasonable, then it cannot exist. The intellectual mind is strong. Growing up, when youth ask why a specific ritual is observed the response is often “because my father (or mother) did it that way.” While this is honorable, it does not satisfy the cravings of the intellectual mind, especially for those educated in the West or attending the growing number of international schools. For me, the fulfillment of the desire for a firm philosophical and intellectual basis came through the formal study of Saivism through the Master Course; a two-year program offered by Himalayan Academy. What became apparent was that the instructive stories my parents shared about life in Jaffna (Sri Lanka) became my own. I was able to read, digest and relate the words for myself. This brings me back to the importance of personal experience; it is personal experience which convinces the intellect of spirituality, resulting in intuitive breakthroughs.
In first reclaiming one’s spiritual identity as a RBNS, one finds that the devotional aspects learned through temple and home worship naturally lead to internalized worship, sivadhyana, or meditation. Meditation is the process of revealing one’s true self; “a long pilgrimage, a journey into the mind.” In London, meditation has become synonymous with yogic breathing, visualization, mantra recitation and mindfulness, to name a few. Offering a clear definition, my guru explains that meditation is akin to using a GPS to locate a destination. One needs a map of the mind, with markers leading toward the inner light. It is not so much which route one follows into meditation, but more so choosing one authentic method and consistently practicing it. Reflecting on what has worked for seekers within my community, an app which guides meditation (in this case an app called Spiritual Workout), in addition to practice on a regular basis, has been successful. Authenticity and accessibility are key in deciphering from the many apps available. It has been imperative to me that the underlying philosophy reflects Hinduism.
Meditation helps the mind see its own light. In simple terms, it helps one get out of one’s own head into the reality of what actually is. There is a misconception that meditation involves a process of retreating from life; and I have observed a fear around its incorporation into religious practice. It seemingly conflicts with parental desires for a highly productive and successful child. To the contrary, I can say from personal experience that meditation makes one more productive. One of the appeals of Saivism in its entirety is it doesn’t ask one to retreat into a cave for six months, but rather emphasizes living your life, doing each task to the best of your ability, whether seemingly spiritual or secular. Meditation enables attention and concentration, which are key to this and not something to fear.
Part of my transition from RBNS to being religious and spiritual was undoing a fear-based superstition that surrounds ritualistic practice. “If you don’t pray to x or y on this day and in this manner, then something bad will happen.” “Don’t get too close to Siva, for He can be wrathful.” Nothing is further from the truth. Anbe Sivam—God Siva is Immanent Love—has been one of the greatest teachings Saivism has given me. How does one affirm this to one’s mind? I suggest looking around and finding role models. Those who are religious in the temple and unconditionally loving in life are the best of exemplars. Inconsistent character does not sit well with youth. While perfection in character is an impossible aim, know there are those looking to you to understand what it is to be religious. The subtleties of your character will imprint on impressionable youth. Be the example of love and your love will naturally unlock love in others—towards themselves and others. This comes naturally through regular spiritual practice. The path of love is one of the greatest boons of Hinduism, including Saivism, and the person who meticulously follows that path becomes a beacon for youth and a role model.
The key that unlocked my transition from a RBNS to a more complete experience of God and my innermost Self was the formal study of Saivism through the Himalayan Academy Master Course. For those searching for answers, whether young or young at heart, I cannot recommend it enough. Knowing oneself takes time and energy—it is so easy to be distracted by life’s many conflicting priorities. However, being a more complete person only means those around you benefit. So, allow yourself, or youth you are guiding, to dedicate time towards this. It can be just ten minutes a day using an app such as Spiritual Workout. Give them the beauty of religious practice, but also be supportive of exploring their spiritual nature. One has to experience It to know It.
RAMAI SANTHIRAPALA is a Consultant Anesthesiologist at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and Honorary Associate Professor at University College London. Her academic focus is shared decision making, centering healthcare decisions on patients’ values and preferences.