The Decline and Renewal of Spiritual India for Westerners

In early February, 20I8, I completed my 45th year of teaching the annual retreats in India. I feel blessed to have had such an opportunity. The Buddha taught the Dharma in India for 45 years from the age of 35 years to 80 years.

I have spent more than seven years in India since first arriving there in October 1967 after making the six-month overland journey from England. During the mid-1970s in my period as a Buddhist monk, I spent more than two years in the country from the Himalayas to very south of India. l listened ito a range of wonderful spiritual teachers and stayed in numerous ashrams reflecting, meditating and studying ancient texts, such as the Bhavagad Gita, the Upanishads, Advaita Vedanta and more.

I recall making a 55-hour train journey from to north to Chennai and onto Adyar just to listen to Krishnamurti give one of his lucid talks. In the tradition of India, he sat under a tree in the early evening and spoke to us on life, death and the condition of the mind. It was truly worth the long train journey to listen to his teaching.

I remember listening to the beautiful Anandamayi-Ma (1896 – 1982), a remarkable soul with a depth of spiritual awareness, which she transmitted. She was speaking in a Dharmasala (spiritual hall) in Varanasi. After she spoke, she asked if there were any questions. I sat at the back of the hall. I said to her that the hall reminded me of the caste system. The Brahmins sat in the front rows while the poor and the workers sat at the back. I asked if she approved of this. The Brahmins turned their heads sharply upon hearing this Englishman speak.

She smiled. “Please come and sit in the front row” she said. A very sweet invitation.

I accepted the invitation and commented to her after sitting down that there is no caste nor identity in liberation.

I turned and bowed to the Brahmins and said to them, “I know you agree.”

The smile of Anandamayi-Ma beamed through the universe. She nodded with approval.

Back to the Present

The numbers for the two annual retreats in Sarnath, near Varanasi, India are modest. It is a similar story for our various teachers offering retreats, yatras and courses in India. We had a total of 65 for the two seven-day retreats in February this year.  If the number drops below 60, I will talk with Dora our senior manager in Sarnath.

We agreed to ask people to pay €30 registration. We run the retreats totally on donations (dana) but too many send in their name, reconfirm but do not come. This makes it difficult to organise food and much more.

Far fewer backpackers/spiritual seekers come to India than 25 years ago. Spiritual India has given way to Economic India. It is hard to name Indian teachers offering spiritual teachings. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living, probably ranks as the best known spiritual teacher in India with millions of Indian followers but he rarely stays in one place in India or overseas more than a few days.

Amma, the hugging guru, has many devotees worldwide.. Her devotees say she has hugged more than 35 million people.

The names of numerous spiritual teachers from various traditions were a constant talking point during the 1970s-1990s.

All those named below have passed from this world. It is not easy to find names of Indian spiritual teachers today resident in India although the organisations of some of the late teachers may continue. The Buddha did not leave behind a successor but a Sangha with truly wise and liberated participants, who had realised the depths of the Dharma.

Where are the successors to the teachers below or those who express a wise way of being, liberation and able to offer teachings?

In Alphabetical order.

  • Anandamayi-Ma 
  • Dipa-Ma
  • Geshe Rabten
  • Goenka
  • Kirpal Singh
  • Krishnamurti
  • Lama Yeshe
  • Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
  • Mother Teresa
  • Muktananda
  • Munindra
  • Neem Karoli Baba
  • Nisargadatta Maharaj
  • Osho
  • Poonja-ji
  • Ramesh Balsikar
  • Sattya Sai Baba
  • Swami Praphupad
  • Swami Chinmayananda
  • Swami Dayananda
  • U.G. Krishnamurti
  • Vimala Thakar
  • and others    
  • We may know of their dedication to their Dharma. We may not always have agreed with all of their teachings. We may know of their human vulnerabilities.

A generation of remarkable human beings has given way to billionaire businessman, who have established themselves as the new Gods of India. I had the privilege of listening and asking questions directly to 15 of the 22 spiritual teachers I mentioned above and this wallah learnt much from them during the 1970’s – 1990s.

There are still important reasons to go to India. The depth of spirituality continues but you must find the depth in fresh ways. You can visit Dharamsala, Rishikesh, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Varanasi, Tiruvannamalai and elsewhere but you may have to wander away from such cities and towns known for a concentration of spirituality.

Some travel only a few kilometres outside of these cities and towns for a meeting with teacher with a spiritual depth. You might find a yogi, a swami, a maharaja, a wise soul a Hindu, Buddhist or teacher of Advaita (Non-duality), who inspires reflection, enquiry, meditation and realisation.

There is a dramatic decline of internationally known spiritual teachers, who are resident and accessible in their centre, ashram or home in India. There is also a decline of spiritual seekers from the West spending extended periods of time in India. This is a significant loss for the West. Westerners often return home from India and neighbouring countries with a capacity to develop an alternative way of life – with little interest in egotism, obsession with consumerism and aggressive pursuit of power and money.

Does the decline of spiritual teachers in India and the decline of Western seekers have a relationship?

The deep traditional values in India of spirituality impregnate every aspect of daily life of numbers of citizens in the country. The West has no knowledge or experience of such a way of life influencing every action of the day.

The Renewal of Spiritual India

There are a variety of ways today to experience India:

  1. Many attend retreats, workshops, course and programmes in the West which have their roots in Indian spirituality – Buddha-Dharma, Yoga, Advaita, Karma Yoga, eco-Dharma, Vedanta and more. Such experiences serve as the initiative to go and spend time in India.

2. Those who travelled to India, often overland in the last 35 years of the last century may return. It is often a time of reflection and renewal on their life, and the passing of the years.

3. There are numerous pilgrimages to India. Westerners with a wealth of experience of India will take groups of people.

4.  People go to India to train as yoga teachers, work for human rights, work for NGO organisations or launch rural or city projects.

5. There are a growing number of Westerners who live in India throughout the year. A Western pension gives them support. I hear around 200 Westerners have taken up residency in Tiruvannamalai, where the precious India saint, Ramana Maharshi lived (1870 – 1950).

6. Young women and men still fly into India for one or two months to experience India for themselves. For some, India is a life-changing experience, just as it was for previous generations.

7. Some young people come to India due to inspiration from their parents who came 20 – 30 years or more before. Some young people have sat on my retreats in the same spot that their mother or father had sat in Bodh Gaya a generation before.

8. Some take up study of ancient languages, especially Pali, Sanskrit and Tibetan.

9. Some wander into remote regions of the Himalayas, Rajasthan, etc, live in communities, such as Auraville, meditate in caves and live in a solitary existence away from contact with other Westerners.

There is still a general consensus of agreement that the best spiritual teachers in the West have spent time in the East – India, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka.

These developments often produce a life-changing experience, as significant as the contact with the sages of spiritual India. Some of us might feel some nostalgia for the spiritual teachers who have died. They certainly inspired many, many tens of thousands of Westerners to come to India. We heard the names of these spiritual teachers. We wanted to sit close to and listen first hand to what they had to say.

The present generation of those spending time in India develop fresh ways to experience spiritual India.

The young generation of Westerns in India make an important contribution in Western life through application of

non-violence (ahimsa),

vegetarian/vegan diet

chanting

classical dance

music, 

yoga,

the arts,

meditation,

mindfulness,

modest lifestyle,

service to others,

diversity,

sustainability, 

ethics

spiritual values, 

liberation

and enlightenment.

You might come to India and find your spiritual teacher(s).  You might come to India and find a truly beneficial meditation or yoga practice.

Better still, you might come to India and find a  spiritual way of life that stays with you and endures throughout your life.

That would be more significant.

You might find freedom of the spirit, an enlightened and liberated way of life.

That is best of all.

 

Two Seven-Day Meditation Retreat with Christopher in India

From Insight Meditation (Vipassana) to Liberation

4 February 2019 to 11 February 2019.

to 11 February to 18 February, 2019

Thai Monastery,

Sarnath,

near Varanasi, India.

sarnathretreats@gmail.com

See home page of website for registration details

www.meditationinindia.org 

Retreat with Radha Nicholson

Held at

Royal Thai Monastery, Bodh Gaya

five hours on train from Varanasi to Gaya

or mini-bus or taxi from Sarnath to Bodh Gaya

22 February – 1 March 2019

Thai Monastery, Bodh Gaya.

Please email to register with Radha

insightbodhgaya@yahoo.com



  • Christopher, you are indeed a lucky (?) man to have had such a long connection to the spiritual life – in India and elsewhere.

    Could you describe what traveling in India is like today? As compared to – say – 1980?

    Since sitting with you in Bodh Gaya in 1981 I have been to Myanmar (2006), Nepal (2009) and in Thailand (Phuket, 2017) for independent meditation. I have been to Bangladesh several times to see holy people (‘Awwliyas’) there. In Germany I had the opportunity to take part in quite a few Tibetan meditation retreats.

    Although I have a longing to go there again I seem to have avoided going to India….


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