Why Spiritual Infrastructure? Part 1
Read the follow-up article, "Why Spiritual Infrastructure? Part 2", where we look at the vital need for consecrated spaces.
If there is one thing that distinguishes the land of Bharat from anywhere else in the world, it is its deep and enduring spirituality. An ancient land and one of the cradles of civilization, India has always been a spiritual gateway. No other nation has paid as much attention to the inner possibilities of a human being, and it is because of this that seekers from across the world have been coming here, in search of ways to reach their ultimate nature.
Why is this so? Why does spirituality have such deep roots in India’s cultural ethos? Even if you look at an aspect like education, two hundred years ago, eighty-eight percent of the world population was illiterate. Now UNESCO is saying today that the global illiteracy rate is less than fifteen percent. So, what happened? It is just that we built the necessary physical and human infrastructure to educate people.
Similarly, for spirituality, people have been coming to this land for thousands of years because the technologies of inner wellbeing were so hugely explored and manifested. Through the ages, countless sages, seers, yogis and enlightened beings have emerged here because this society has traditionally placed great emphasis on infrastructure to produce those kinds of people. Support for this culture of spirituality has taken on many forms in India.
The Beauty of Bhiksha
For millennia, it was understood in this culture that spiritual seekers who walk the path must be nurtured. Serving them was considered a sacred privilege, to the extent that it became a path in itself.
The poet-saint Kabir exemplifies it in this doha:
Saayin itna deejiye ja mein kutumb samaaye,
Main bhi bhookha na rahun, sadhu na bhookha jaaye
Master, give me just so much as would feed my family,
Just enough to feed myself as well as the Sadhu
At one time, one of the rigorous spiritual sadhanas was for a seeker to become a samana. Being a samana means that the main sadhana was to keep fasting and walking. A samana is never supposed to ask for food, he is just supposed to keep walking, only eating if someone comes and offers him food. The tradition was such that if villagers spied a samana approaching, they would hurriedly cook food, take it, run after him and serve him. Otherwise, he would not ask for food, he would just walk on till his last breath. This was the sadhana that Gautama the Buddha undertook most earnestly for four years before his enlightenment.
Royal and Social Patronage
Through the ages, kings and rulers offered patronage and protection to seekers in various ways. Not only did they fund the building of magnificent temples and consecrated spaces, they also built shelters, choultries, dharmashalas and bhojanalayas for sadhus as well as travellers along pilgrim routes. Every route of significance in this land used to be dotted with food and accommodation for holy pilgrims, but this has dwindled to a great extent.
For many centuries, mendicants have travelled annually from the Himalayas all the way to Rameshwaram at the southern tip. As winter set in, they would start walking South: a 3,200 km walk with food and shelter available all along the way. Even under the British rule, penniless sanyasis were permitted to board trains for their journey to Rameshwaram. Sadly, after Independence, the railway authorities started to prohibit ticketless travel even for spiritual seekers and the tradition of the ritual journey has been broken somewhat.
In some pockets, the culture is still strong, however. Haridwar, which is seen as a portal to the Himalayas, is dotted with ashrams that offer food, shelter and other support for itinerant seekers. Temple towns and hubs in the entire Himalayan region also offer many services and aids to sadhakas.
Refuge for Seekers
Throughout our history, we have had spiritual masters who built infrastructure for inner blossoming. Sadhguru tells us, “The moment we speak of Krishna, we talk about his playfulness, his love, his mischief. But that was only the first 16 years of his life. Not many people are aware that later on, Krishna established over 1000 ashrams across the northern plains. These ashrams were the wish of his guru Sandipani, who produced many monks of the day. Krishna had access to the kings, and since no king would deny him, he made use of them to build infrastructure. These were not necessarily huge buildings or monuments, but just simple establishments with the idea that if someone is seeking, there must be a place. When someone is seeking, they should not be left thirsty; there must always be a place for them to go.”
Like Krishna, Gautama the Buddha also went about building infrastructure for spiritual blossoming to happen. Many kings and emperors went to him, and he was invited to many towns. He said, “If you want me to come, you must build a meditation hall and a garden.” This became a standard, and these were built across India. And well before Buddhism went to China, they built thousands of meditation halls and gardens there waiting for the teaching to come.
Similarly, the Adi Shankaracharya also brought various monastic streams under four mathas or monasteries that were established in the four cardinal directions of this sub-continent. Located at Dwarka, Puri, Sringeri and Badrinath, over the centuries these went on to tie the culture and spiritual ethos of the nation together in a significant way.
In Part 2, we will talk about India’s magnificent spiritual heritage, and explore a kind of infrastructure that is even more valuable than buildings.