28 February 2013
The New Spiritualism in India: Implications for Development?
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.
Posted by Lawrence Haddad at 09:40