Learning from India
by Susan Walters
can we in the West learn from India? Most students of the subject believe that
Advaita Vedanta philosophy-the conception of the Divine Oneness at the centre of
everyone and everything-is the most important teaching of India to the world.
That is no doubt true. But in my opinion, equally important for us in the West
to learn is the worshipful attitude which is so deeply ingrained in the Indian
heart and mind. Most Indians are not aware that they possess this endearing and
valuable trait. Like the air they breathe, it is taken for granted. But a
Western visitor can't help noticing it. This worshipful attitude pervades every
aspect of life in India, beginning with ceremonial worship.
An American Poet, Joel
Shaw has written a poem titled 'To a Hindu Worshipper' in which he tells how he
sees Hindu ceremonial worship.
Not understanding one
word you say,
But Swami Vivekananda didn't
have a very high regard for such worship. He said, 'Ceremonials are the lowest
form of worship. Next to God externai, and after that, God internal'.
or what you do,
I stand transfixed,
watching you worship God.
With what devotion
you chant the ancient
Sanskrit and move your
hands just so!
The way you offer
flowers, the pungent incense,
The flickering lamp, I
beyond my comprehension,
Accept my loving worship
of your worship.
Let us next look at the
second kind of worship, external worship, one notch above ceremonial worship.
To see Indian external
worship, one has only to walk down a busy Calcutta street. The many shrines to
various gods and goddesses, the deities on the shelf in every shop, the priests
on their way to worship these deities, the namaste the shopkeeper greets you
with, even the way he touches the money you give him to his forehead as a token
of worship before placing it in a box-these are all examples of external
worship. (I mention Calcutta since I know it, but the same thing is probably
found in many other Indian cities.)
One touching example of
external worship was observed by a man walking along a country road. An old
woman was walking down the same road when she happened to notice a road- side
marker with the number 3 engraved on it. She mistook the 3 for an Om sign and
carefully dusted off the marker, placed some wild flowers on it, and worshipped
it before continuing on her way.
The Thakur ghar in every
Indian household is also evidence of external worship.
These ceremonials and
external forms of worship may seem superficial, but I believe we in the West can
gain much by practising them. Through these practices, we forget our little
selves, at least for a short time, and think of something beyond our own little
egos. Gradually and mostly unconsciously, we build up within ourselves an
attitude of worship. With this attitude, other traits follow. We become
genuinely modest-like the 'patient Hindu, the mild Hindu', in Swami
However, there comes a
time when these rites and rituals fail to satisfy us. We feel the need for going
deeper into the spiritual life. We want the last of the three types of worship;
we want the God internal. If we are serious about this, we will find a teacher,
an Indian Holy Man. From him we get instructions in japa and meditation. He
teaches us that the way to God is an inner approach; God is within our own
heart; He is our real Self. We learn how to meditate on that Self.
Actually, through rites
and rituals we have already been worshipping that Divine Self, though we didn't
know it. In worshipping God we have always been worshipping our hidden Self.
spiritual practice and the grace of God, we become aware of the truths of the
Upanishads, such as tat tvam asi, 'Thou art that'. We understand that
this inner Self is in reality the Divine Self of the universe, the unchanging,
undying, pure and perfect Ultimate Reality-Brahman. This Self is the one
external Existence in all things and beings, their innermost essence. We not
only know this, we try to experience this divine Oneness.
As our personal spiritual
life deepens through worship, we learn to see God not only in our own heart, but
in all. Our relationship with others is then imbued with a spirit of worship and
service. We worship God in our parents, our husbands or wives, our children, our
neighbours - even our so-called enemies, seeing the divine in them all. This is
the key to peace in the family, in society and in the world.
[A learned scholar from
America, Susan Walters is engaged in useful literary work at the Institute of
Culture, Ramakrishna Mission, Calcutta]