28 February 2013

The New Spiritualism in India: Implications for Development?

A big part of IDS's take on development is that we have to go outside of the development bubble to really understand the wider forces that drive it.   Religion is one of those big drivers.  And yet we tend to think of it as static--something that does not change very quickly.

Last night we had a Sussex Development Lecture from Prof. Nandini Gooptu, from Oxford University's Department of International Development.

She described the rise in the new spiritualism in India.  India has more spiritual leaders per person than any other country (e.g. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, pictured, the founder of the Art of Living), according to this BBC report  which is focused on the potential contradictions between the apparent lavishness of the lifestyles of some of the leaders and their teachings.

But this media framing wasn't the subject of Prof Gooptu's lecture.  Based on her fieldwork, she made several key points:

* the new spiritualism (NS) is about personal empowerment, autonomy and self agency--"learning together to live alone" or "individually, together". In the past people would pray to gurus to help them, now the devotees pray to gurus to give them the strength to help themselves
* the devotees report that they find peace, calmness, energy and inner strength
* NS has raised the profile of corruption as an issue in India
* NS has increased levels of volunteerism and civic work
* NS is seen as a response to a lack of effectiveness of politics. The state is no longer seems as the facilitator for ways out of poverty, the gurus are filling that vacuum
* NS is helping people manage the challenges of everyday poverty

However, Gooptu cautions that the experiential understanding of reality can support an anti-intellectualism, an uncritical approach to social enquiry and breed a "political quietism" (people vote to punish politicians but they no longer believe them).

What has caused this rise in NS?  Gooptu would not be drawn too much on this, but suggested it had much to do with the state of flux India finds itself in today--rapid growth, spatial mobility, lack of faith in government and a long tradition of spiritual leaders.

What are the implications for development?

* does the focus on the self give politicians an excuse not to focus on the underlying structural features of poverty generation?  Or does it provide another way of defining and addressing structural issues?
* NS has a great ability to shape behavioural and cultural norms, and these are very important when it comes to a number of development issues, e.g. violence against women, son preference, care of babies and young children
* NS is already entering into the formal sphere with self help entering the national school curriculum
* self help ideas are shaping the ways in which we think about the delivery of some public services--recently, the one state government offered to shift the responsibility for nutrition in children under 3 from the staff of the government-run Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) to self help groups supported by a prominent Indian NGO.

Fascinating stuff, and a reminder that development is a whole of society process, with many forms of capital, including spiritual capital.  I would be very interested in the reactions of DH readers, especially our Indian friends.


Sandesh Kotte said...
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Sandesh Kotte said...

Professor i have a different point of view about this New Spiritualism(NS). Spirituality is an age old phenomenon in India and part of life but in my opinion this rise of NS happening because of the change in social structure(some thing like Robert Putnam's "Bowling alone" phenomenon in USA).This is because of increasing urbanization and loss of the joint family structure which leaves older generation alone. This has been used by some Spiritualists for political purposes like in corruption issues. AS far as present situation concerned, i don't think it has any positive implications for development as it is purely related to personal enjoyment.

Lawrence Haddad said...

thanks Sandesh, interesting... do others agree?

Rupinder said...

I am always a little surprised by how easily interchange the terms religion and spirituality are and to most the difference is not easy to decipher. Anyway that’s not the point here.

New age spiritualism or the standard old religion has always stood at the crossing of faith and development in India. You will not find a single spiritual/religious sect which does not engage in development initiatives. Whether it’s the Homeless shelters, schools, eye camps, you name it and you are likely to see them run by some religious sect.
The difference with practices like the Art of Living is who their followers are: urban/middle class/20-early 40s. So when the following is different, the issues that appeal or get picked up become different. Hence their focus on Governance, corruption, environment, etc.
So is NS making new inroads into the development space or is it merely responding to what its followers consider more engaging ?