Modernism and Idealism in the Land of the Buddha

Andrew Cohen Read

Reflections on my recent trip to the Motherland

India has always been the most intriguing and mysterious country, and remains so to this day.

Even the long shadow of encroaching modernism has not dimmed the unique spiritual gifts of her rich and complex culture. My friend Ken Wilber suggests that India has contributed at least 95 percent of our understanding of human interiority.

The first time I heard about this amazing land was from my father. During World War II he served in India and Burma building roads for the US Army. I remember him describing the sense of awe he felt as he first glimpsed her shores. He was on a transport ship with thousands of other GIs when the captain declared grandly: “Gentlemen, behold Mother India!”.

I am one of countless baby boomers who went to India to seek for the Jewel of Enlightenment. I realize how trite that sounds, a postmodern cliché if there ever was one. But in my case, and for countless others, she has spiritually delivered more than one could ever have imagined possible. What was so special about being in Mother India as a young seeker was that she affirmed the validity of one’s spiritual aspirations in a way that is almost impossible to find in the west. She allowed me to unselfconsciously seek for the elusive promise of liberation that the Buddha, Adi Shankara, Ramana Maharshi and Jiddu Krishnamurti all exemplified.

By that time in my life I had already committed myself to the spiritual path in earnest, and most of my friends seemed to think I was a little lost. They couldn’t relate to the fact that I was seeking for a mystery that modern and even postmodern culture didn’t yet recognize as having much value or substance. In Mother India, the liberating power of higher states of consciousness, and the possibility of enlightenment, are universally accepted as realities. More than that, they are held up as the loftiest and most precious of human experiences and attainments.

I longed for the inner freedom that the great masters described so eloquently. My wishes would soon be granted. Shortly after I arrived, I met my Guru H.W.L. Poonja, whose indescribable Grace transformed my life beyond all recognition. If we have the good fortune to meet such a being, we will know it. The unanticipated impact on our souls will always surpass our wildest expectations.

Many people believe that in the throes of surging modernism, the magic, charm and mysterious depth of India is being lost, but that’s just not true. I have just come back from three weeks of traveling with my wife Alka, giving talks and meeting with old and new friends. Thirty years after my first visit, I find myself in the humbling position of bringing back the precious gift that India gave me so freely.

I met so many beautiful people – so many earnest human beings. Students, teachers, intellectuals, and seekers from all walks of life who were willing to share their spiritual questions and heartfelt aspirations openly and transparently.

I encountered many different points of view, but what stands out most clearly from this recent pilgrimage are the many varying and often contradictory experiences. In this land that has taught the world so much about spirituality, I frequently encountered a shocking denial of spirit and deep interiority – the legacy of an encroaching modernist worldview. On other occasions I was deeply moved, because my heart was able to freely express its passion for spirit in a way that just doesn’t happen anywhere else on earth.

In Bangalore I spoke to students at two universities. When speaking with a professor before one of my talks, I asked him how deep their understanding of spirituality was. His reply was shocking: “they would have to Google the word to find out what it means”.

While it is true that the majority of India’s young educated classes are largely ignorant of India’s unique contribution to humanity’s spiritual heritage, there are remarkable exceptions. One student, aged only 18, surprised me when he unselfconsciously asked in front of his classmates a truly profound question: what is the difference between Adi Shankara’s description of Brahman as the Self versus Gautama the Buddha’s description of the Absolute principle as Emptiness? Are they the same, or are they different?

One problem in modern India is that many bright young people are under enormous pressure to conform to both traditional and modern cultural expectations. There is little room for free and open inquiry, and fundamental values and cultural norms remain largely unquestioned. That being said, how many countries in the world would invite a spiritual teacher to speak to university students about such esoteric topics as higher states of consciousness, non-duality and enlightenment?

In Hyderabad I was surprised to be invited to speak about enlightenment with a world-renowned gastroenterologist. Only in India, I thought to myself as I was ushered into a large conference room at an esteemed hospital. After a few minutes the door flew open and the great doctor entered the room flanked on both sides by surgeons and doctors. They all gathered around the large conference table to listen.

What unfolded between us was a classic battle between a purely rational, scientific, materialistic worldview and a postmodern/Integral idealistic perspective. The doctor and his associates seemed to confuse spirituality and metaphysics with traditional religion. We spent a lot of time clarifying these distinctions, and I did my best to help them see that there is a huge difference between the mythical pre-rational thinking of the world’s great religions and the deep interiority and transcendental perspectives that transrational spirituality points to.

During our passionate exchanges I couldn’t help musing that this debate was occurring in the land that, thousands of years ago, had introduced the understanding of consciousness and of non-duality to the world. As I did my best to answer their questions, I was aware of the irony that I, a postmodern westerner, was advocating the radical idealism of some of India’s most revered spiritual heroes to some of her brightest and most skeptical modern minds.

One woman doctor suddenly asked with great intensity the modernist’s perennial question: why, if God exists, is there such suffering in the world? Another asked a question, heard often from many upper middle class Indians, that reflects similar western concerns: how can one pursue a spiritual life in earnest while living an ordinary life in the world?

Finally, we discussed the ever-controversial topic of evolution. The head surgeon strongly held the materialist position that the emergent unfolding of the cosmos since the big bang is merely a random accident, implying that we live in a godless and perfectly meaningless universe. I argued that on the contrary, there is a profound and palpable intelligence embedded within the creative process – an intelligence that is slowly but surely compelling itself forward.

The evening before, I gave a talk at a 5 star hotel to a group of high-powered businessmen about finding spiritual purpose. This engagement had a very different kind of impact. In spite of the luxurious setting and the largely materialistic, modernist mindset of many in the audience, their response to the call to awaken to the infinite was palpable. The atmosphere soon became powerfully ecstatic and irresistibly joyful.

Again and again on this trip I was touched by an uncorrupted innocence in many people that I found lying just beneath the surface of their personalities. It might sound far fetched, but I believe that embedded in the DNA in the people of India is a genetic predisposition to awareness of Brahman, or consciousness of the Absolute.

In Bangalore I did a public discourse about the fundamental principles of Vedanta with a passionate and inspired spiritual teacher who, before his awakening, used to be a software designer. Over a period of years, his passion for liberation and deep interiority brought him to many different gurus. Eventually he found himself drawn to sitting still for hours at a time, during which he said he made no effort at all. He said he was being “meditated” by consciousness itself.

During this dialogue I became ever more clear about why integral philosophy insists that a full spectrum understanding of enlightenment must include not only higher states of consciousness but also the vertical structure stages. Theses stages play such an important role in contextualizing the way we interpret our experience, including spiritual experience. In modern India, these kinds of distinctions are still largely unknown. Most Vedantic descriptions of higher states of enlightened awareness are just that; only about higher states.

There is an ashram just outside Bangalore that is an educational institution noted for its high academic standards. Their focus is on the medical applications of Hatha Yoga. They are renowned for their scientific studies on the effects of yoga, pranayama and meditation on health and wellbeing. The brother and sister team who run the ashram are old friends who are both PhDs and deeply immersed in science. What is unique about them is that their hearts have remained open and receptive to that which the rational mind can never grasp.

When giving a talk there, I was unexpectedly moved to tears when describing the life-transforming miracle of meeting my Guru. The room was filled with students and teachers. While I was retelling the story, I could feel the transmission of the spiritual energy that I had received from him welling up. After the talk many said they were also moved to tears, and felt the presence of the master there with us.

Later, a doctor said to me “…you always make it feel so easy!”. I knew I hadn’t done anything. The mysterious presence of grace was all around us.

In Dehradun I struggled to lead a discussion group for some sophisticated intellectuals who were skeptical about spiritual authorities, yet simultaneously held very strong opinions about all things spiritual. For two days we sat in a circle in the afternoon sun, the glorious view of the Himalayas looming in the distance, wrestling with some of life’s deepest and most challenging questions.

The town of Rishikesh, sitting on the banks of the river Ganga in the foothills of the Himalayas, is one of our favorite places on earth. It is where I originally started teaching and where we had come to meet with old and new spiritual friends. Many of these people had attended my 10 day retreats held there in different ashrams over the years. Most of us hadn’t seen each other for a long time.

Because of the context in which we had known each other in the past – the unique spiritual depth that opens up during an extended retreat – that openness and vulnerability magically and spontaneously appeared between us. For hours we found ourselves swimming in an ocean of joy and unconfined spiritual intimacy in which we talked and talked and talked. Gradually we seemed to melt into a pool of love in which there were no individuals left but only one big open heart.

On our way home, drunk on consciousness, my wife and I slowly stumbled along the banks of the Ganga to the car that was waiting for us.


In the pilgrimage town of Tiruvannamalai, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, sits an extraordinary mountain on which, once upon a time, Lord Shiva is meant to have stepped. Pilgrims come there from all over India to walk around the sacred mountain in order to receive its blessings. The ashram of the great and revered Ramana Maharshi, the Guru of my Guru, also resides there. Thousands of spiritual tourists and true seekers gather there every winter.

I visited a very dear friend there and witnessed an extraordinary phenomena. In the area of the town near the ashram every December through February it becomes a little bit like a spiritual version of 42nd street in New York City. A literal marketplace of gurus appears. Spiritual teachers, both Indian and western, rent buildings and guesthouses from which they give daily teachings and intensive retreats.

Walking down the street there you will find signs and posters advertising the different teachers faces and names, and the times that their daily teachings will be given. How wild and intriguing is that? Only in Mother India could one find such a scene. Even amidst such blatant spiritual commercialisation, one still can find so much heart and sincerity.

Spiritual India is most definitely alive and well.

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