A couple of weeks ago we were in Rishikesh and the place was filling up with participants for the big International Yoga Festival; these people had come from all over the world to attend the event, and one person we asked said that around seven thousand people were expected to be there this year. We were there for two nights en route from Haridwar to stay with friends in Dehradun after eight weeks  travelling in India, and with just two left until our return to the UK.
We had been staying in a hotel not far from the banks of the fast flowing grey blue Ganges, with views of the town, the temples, ashrams and the wooded hills that dominate the valley revered by so many. From our balcony we were able to observe the comings and goings of the clientele of the Pure Soul Cafe and Organic Kitchen, which we ourselves had visited earlier - very nice too. Most of the people that came and went were all you would expect from attendees at such a festival; lithe, physically confident and completely at ease in the spiritual environment of the valley of the Rishis. This is where the Beatles famously spent some time with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in February 1968, thus creating a surge of interest in all things Indian in the West, as well as being instrumental in causing a flurry of gurus to make their way westward.

What, in this world drowning in so many problems, is spirituality?

Just a few days before our visit to Rishikesh we were also by the Ganges, this time just a few metres away from the still rushing river at Haridwar. Here we were able to observe the festival of Shivratri, where the god, Shiva, is celebrated and water from the Ganges is gathered to be taken back to the temples to wash the Shiva lingam. Crowds of people were about, many bathing in the river and others gathering water in plastic bottles being sold nearby. We were told that once the water had been collected the container should not be placed in contact with the ground before it is used in the purification process in the temple.  Apparently, this demanding ritual is all about purification, of the body and of the spirit. We were able to watch the many groups of people pass below the hotel, some clearly from the rural areas nearby who had made the journey to bathe in the river and gather water.

So we had seen in the space of a few days different faces of the expression of spirituality: the apparent packaging and commodifying of an ancient way of living to an affluent world, and the unquestioning continuation of an ancient devotional practice.

Meanwhile in Haridwar  beggars lined the bridge near where all the activity was taking place. Crowds passed them, some gave money, occasionally they were given food by nearby vendors: the awful faces of suffering. Just beyond the river were the shelters of the landless, set in fields of dust, plastic and all manner of rubbish. The road between Haridwar and Rishikesh was clogged with traffic that had to gingerly negotiate partially made surfaces and treacherous driving. One car lay by the side of the road on the edge of the forest, a mangled skeleton from which the occupant or occupants could not have emerged alive.

Has spirituality anything to do with the way we treat our fellow humans? Has it anything to do with our wanton destruction of our world? Or is it just a matter of personal salvation, the achievement of a higher state; higher than you or me?

Or is it the going beyond the self, the ego driven individual that compares and divides? Is it the connection with the suffering of all living beings that comes with cooperation and collaboration? And is it the deep understanding of the indivisibility of all humanity?

Our learning is so deeply conditioned by competition, exploitation and the worship of narrow achievement that to teach our children to go beyond the limitations of their own experience goes against the way the vast majority of us live. However, humanity has reached a point where change must occur in order to divert us from the road to self-destruction; and the ground for this change lies in education and a re-examining of the way we approach learning.  The question is: how can this be done?


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This has been written in the final week of a ten week trip to India; visiting schools, reconnecting with friends, having conversations with young and old alike. Maggie and I have covered significant distances, seen and heard many things, experienced extraordinarily generous hospitality and received so much affection. We have observed the dreadful suffering of humanity and the terrible destruction of the land, for in India all life appears to be laid bare and there seems to be very little that is hidden behind closed doors. When we return I am acutely aware that I will have to continue to respond to this challenge for change; there is considerable responsibility in privilege and, among many other things, this trip has confirmed that we have been, and are, very privileged.