"Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet."
Well, back in 1892 Rudyard Kipling might have been right about the relationship between Britain and India, but obviously since then the world has become, in Thomas Friedman's jargon, a lot flatter. Meaning, a lot more interconnected, alike, accessible.
Yet there still is a cultural gulf between East and West. A question I got from an Indian in an email today reminded me of this.
I was a member of an India-based spiritual organization (Radha Soami Satsang Beas, or RSSB) for over thirty-five years. I've been to India twice. I've spent a lot of time with Indians who were fellow RSSB members. I wrote a book about vegetarianism from a karmic perspective that was published in India by RSSB.
Even so, my Western/American heritage led me to puzzle over the question:
How can you still defend or claim to love someone who you know now was the leader (or part of the leadership) of a organisation deliberately misleading people with false promises of spirituality and enlightenment?
Now that question, taken on its own, seemingly is pretty straightforward. However, when I first read it I immediately thought of many other queries I've gotten from Indians about how I could be devoted to Charan Singh, a RSSB guru who now is dead, for so many years, and then go off in a different spiritual direction.
The question I got today may seem to be opposite, since it asks how I still can have a fondness for Charan Singh now that my view of the RSSB teachings has changed so much. Here's the commonality, though:
In each case there's an underlying assumption that I should stay constant. Either I should be as devoted to my guru now as I was during those thirty-five years, or I should disavow the devotion I felt before and retroactively "de-love" Charan Singh.
During my evening dog walk today, when marvelous insights often come to me, a thought came to mind: India still has lots of arranged marriages, whereas the United States doesn't; divorce is rare in India (1%, supposedly), whereas it is common in the United States (40%).
So falling in and out of love, along with getting together and splitting up with a loved one -- these are taken for granted in my culture. Which helps explain why an increasing percentage of Americans don't belong to any organized religion, yet still are committed to some form of spirituality.
Constancy isn't our thing.
I can't recall a single person from my country ever asking me how it was possible that I could fall out of love with the RSSB teachings, just as no one has ever questioned how my first wife and I could have gotten a divorce. Americans are used to repeated marriages and divorces, both theological and matrimonial.
We may pay lip service to "until death do us part," but we certainly aren't surprised when someone changes course and pursues a different spiritual or romantic path. My impression is that Indians are more devoted to tradition (if that's the right word), feeling that a commitment to either a religion or a person should be taken more seriously than we Americans do.
Which brings to mind another cultural difference between India and the United States: our openness to strong criticism of spirituality or religiosity.
Free speech in the United States is guaranteed by the First Amendment to our Constitution. In Oregon, where I live, the state constitution provides for even greater protection of free speech. So here again, we Americans are accustomed to a more free-wheeling culture than is common in much of the rest of the world.
I was astounded to read in a June 30, 2012 New Scientist article that the head of the Indian Rationalist Association faced possible arrest after debunking a purported "miracle" at a Catholic church in Mumbai. Sanal Edamaruku said in the article:
Leaders of two Catholic laity organisations have launched charges against me under section 295A of the Indian penal code. This charges a person with "deliberately hurting religious feelings and attempting malicious acts intended to outrage the religious sentiments of any class or community." It is absurd to claim that I did anything of the sort.
From my American perspective, what's absurd is that Edamaruku feels he has to deny hurting religious feelings or outraging religious sentiments. In this country we don't worry about that at all. Free speech is more important than hurt feelings.
After reading about Edamaruku's legal problem I better understand why people from other countries occasionally email me, or leave a comment on this blog, expressing a "how can you say that?" sentiment. Probably their country doesn't have such a strong commitment to free speech as the United States does.
On the flip side, hopefully this post will help people in other cultures understand how "wild and crazy" the United States is compared to countries with a more settled/traditional way of looking at the world.
Embracing and then discarding a religion or spiritual teaching -- no big deal for us. Vigorously criticizing a belief system -- also no big deal for us. We may put a guru up on an elevated platform, but we have no problem knocking him or her off it.