Unfolding the Spiritual Path | The Daily Star
12:08 AM, November 22, 2013 / LAST MODIFIED: 04:43 PM, November 20, 2013

Hay Festival Dhaka

Unfolding the Spiritual Path

Arundhathi 'The Mystic Soul' (L-R)- Arundhathi Subramanium, Ana Cocchiarella, David Burrell and Patrick Laude discuss the spiritual path through different traditions. Photo: Prabir Das

Mara Mara Matta, Photo: Prabir Das

Humans can't help but ask questions. The instinct to question our existence, in particular, seems to be wired in our very being. Where do we come from? Is there something else other than this concrete world that we live in?
They might not have been able to answer these questions but poet and writer Arundhati Subramaniam, scholar and author Patrick Laude and researcher Anna Cocchiarella, all participants of a session titled 'The Mystic Soul' moderated by theologian David Burrell at the Hay Festival Dhaka, did attempt to explain how a spiritual path helped them make peace with themselves and come to terms with the traditional concept of reality.
Each spirit is distinctive, and the diverse, individual nature of each participant's spiritual journey proves just that. As a young artist, Arundhati Subramaniam was more interested in writing on “hormones, hunger and appetite” instead of talking about something as ethereal as the spiritual. Like many other writers in her generation, Subramaniam didn't want to reinforce esoteric notions of the East. Her writing, she felt, needed to be thoughtful, materialistic and political. All of this changed one day in 1997 when she realised that there were some spaces where language just couldn't enter.
“All the words I had invested my life in suddenly seemed like ashes in the mountains. I realised that I couldn't really call myself a poet if I didn't make peace with these big, gaping craters of my existence. It was a time of great terror and a humbling experience. And I realised that the only way I could make sense of this experience was to try and make peace with those craters. While earlier I had always been a reader of philosophy, I now found that the only kind of literature that satisfied me was mystical literature because the mystics seemed to be the only ones talking about those blank spaces with clarity and depth,” said Subramaniam.
Seven years later, Subramaniam met her guru and a path began to unfold. She realised that her guru seemed to embody an ancient tradition; her guru was a yogi who was working within South Indian mysticism but was at the same time improvising every moment. “To me this was living proof of the fact that tradition and change are not incompatible. He was someone who was almost devastatingly logical, who spoke about demystifying spiritual traditions. I always believed when I was younger and more arrogant that being connected to a spiritual tradition would in some sense diminish me but I actually found that it allowed me to grow into myself in a way that I'd never anticipated,” she added.
Patrick Laude, on the other hand, was born a Catholic who took his religion and religious teachings seriously. He felt that as he was in presence of the divine, he was recollected in contrast with the rest of the world. However, over the years he gradually became disenchanted with Christianity as he knew it.
“I thought Christianity was conventional and too sentimental in the sense that the intellectual and complex dimensions of my being were not getting involved. I turned to Buddhism, started reading books on it. I discovered that even God was in parenthesis in this religion; the God that they spoke about was not articulate or present. The whole path of the religion was to stop clinging to anything that spoke of concepts in words. Therefore, the concept of God was seen to be a danger, perhaps the greatest danger of all,” he explained.
Laude felt like Buddhism was more inclined towards philosophy and psychology rather than towards the issue of spirituality. For Laude, the word spirituality was innately connected to the 'spirit.' At that point of desperation, he discovered 'The Crisis of the Modern World' by René Guénon.
“I am from France which is a highly 'secularised' country, and most people are not interested in spiritual matters. The world in which I was living was self contained, an illusion in a sense, and I began to think that reality as such could not be bad. The very fact that I realised that reality could not be bad was proof that there was a reality. Guénon's book was a kind of revelation for me because I sensed that I was not the only one who felt that way. There was a whole body of people, teachings and experiences that link all these individuals back to the origin and the divine,” he said.
When Anna Corcchiarella initially visited Bangladesh, the first question she was asked was 'Are you Christian?' This greatly disturbed the researcher as she felt her religion was hers alone and no one had any business asking her about it.
“I was in search for something, not really a practice but something that could help me understand my spiritual existence. I never found that until I met the Sufis in Mirshoray (the modern Sufi tariqa 'Biswa Darbar Amantola' in Mirshoray, Chittagong). When I found them amidst all this noise and trouble, it felt so nice; it was silent, peaceful and different. Even now whenever I want to find a bit of peace, I go to Mirshoray to my guru,” said Corcchiarella.
There's a common belief that religion and spirituality are synonymous. Theologian David Burrell disagrees with this misguided notion. In a separate interview with The Star Magazine, Burrell said, “If a religious tradition nourishes you, if it feeds you, if it brings you to a new level of existence then that's spirituality. But religions don't always do that.”
Burrell also spoke of suffering as a means to transformation. He believes that instead of “dealing” with suffering, we should embrace it to truly discover ourselves.
“The West wants to handle suffering, to cope with it. I think we have to discover it, and faith helps us to discover that suffering does not simply mean pain. It means undergoing something that we'd rather just manage. Think of marriage for a moment, if we try to manage marriage then it's finished. But if you try to undergo it, that is if you take what's attractive, and also what's painful, then you could make it work,” he added.
At another session on spirituality titled 'Spiritual Writing in the Modern World', scholar Mara Matta spoke of how spiritually was embedded in not just written texts but in oral expressions as well. Explaining that oral texts have precedence over the written word which came much later, Matta argues that even though we might be more attached to the written word, the fact remains that spirituality was conveyed through songs and poetry.
“You can convey the universe in one single symbol in Chinese or Japanese traditions. In Taoism, the ideogram of 'tao' contains in itself the philosophies of the world. Even Buddhism at its beginning didn't have any statues or idols. The only image you would have found in the initial days of Buddhism was the feet of the Buddha on the wheels of the doctrine.”
Citing the example of Tibetan mystics, Matta explained that the great Tibetan saint Milarepa is always portrayed with a hand close to his ear, signifying that he's constantly listening while he sits amidst nature. While the Western world might think that he's waiting for a muse or inspiration, Matta stated that the truth is that the nature around him is his only muse.
The path to spirituality is a tricky one but the one thing that one learnt from these two perceptive sessions is that even though there can be no faith without doubt, we can't be over-suspicious when it comes to matters of the spirit.

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