There is a humourous anecdote I recall from years ago, where a somewhat puzzled child asks their father why Grandma spends such a lot of time reading just that one book. “It’s the bible, son, there are lots of lessons for us all in there.” A beam of enlightenment crosses the child’s face; “Oh, I understand, now, thanks; I guess she must be swotting up for her finals !”
There is, of course, perhaps sadly, a distinct difference between the secular and the spiritual that has become embedded in our ways of thinking, exhibited in various forms throughout the world. The Church of England has often been characterised by sociologists in the phrase ‘church on Sunday for business on Monday’ – viewing it largely as a venal form of networking. A jaundiced opinion, possibly, but very practical issues may drive the way we compartmentalise aspects of human society. Monks, in modern and ancient times, in remote or highly populated areas, may often stem from the difficulty of having a surplus mouth to feed in the family. In some mountain peoples, polyandry may be practised as another mechanism to limit the growth of population beyond the capacity of the land. However the fact that in an economy without much cash the offering of a child to a monastery community is often the most valuable commitment a family can make toward their prosperity or salvation.
This is all done in a spirit of equanimity, even eager willingness, by most who follow this path. The unknowing child may be contrasted by the fact that among adults, certainly in many Eastern societies, it is not uncommon to find (often) elderly men and women who have renounced a secular existence, once their earthly ‘duties’ have been fulfilled. A successful business person or a loyal and devoted civil servant are very likely the sorts of person you meet in another guise, in India, that of the Sanyassin.
Imagine waking up one day to realise your time has arrived. Your family’s life secure in finances, your children grown and provided for. It is for this moment perhaps, that you have planned, anticipated, or it could be some flash of inspiration but the effect will be the same. The devotee will shed their secular skin like a butterfly emerging from the chrysalis, from now on eschewing comfort, fine food, company, everything. You do not have money, your children and your partner will deem you to have died and you will certainly pass to another form of existence.
Your remaining time on this earth will mean travelling, preferably on foot, between holy sites, reading only scriptures and searching for their meaning; your companions will be a saffron robe as your covering day and night, a staff to assist your long walks, a bowl to receive offerings from people you encounter along the way. You are now released fully from the demands of the world to allow a flowering of the untrammelled spirit which connects you to the universe.
I have encountered many of these remarkable people on my travels in India; they invariable exude an aura of tranquil contentment, threading effortlessly through the melee of city traffic, processing along dusty roads, resting under sacred banyan trees, taking their rest in temple precincts, subsisting on the banks of any of the seven holy rivers of India, among which the Ganges is primal. This mighty river carries life in water and silt from the home of the gods in the Himalaya to feed a third of India’s population; it also carries away the ashes and bodies of souls to the great ocean, whence your spirit will re-emerge in another life.