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In the memoir Eat, Pray, Love, writer Elizabeth Gilbert gives up her entire way of life to spend a year traveling the world, finding spiritual enlightenment along the way. Julia Roberts, who plays Gilbert’s character in the movie version out this week, apparently found enlightenment of her own through the role, revealing that she has become a practicing Hindu.
As Joan Ball asks in a Guest Voices post, “Is it possible to live a life of deep, transformational faith without dropping everything and hitting the road?”
In your tradition, what is the aim of the spiritual journey?
Every journey–spiritual or mundane–necessarily implies a departure and a destination. Some may speed along that journey, blinders on, looking only at the road ahead, while others may enjoy the odyssey, seeking beauty and texture in the roads travelled, sights seen and people met. Human life, replete with potholes, speed bumps and other setbacks, often seems to be a labyrinthine journey–all the more difficult if a destination with profound meaning or salvation eludes.
The great paradox of human life is that the many faiths describe just as many road maps for life’s journey, and it seems, sometimes, that nearly as many different destinations are offered to the traveler. One must seek out the path that resonates, that gives meaning and, yes, seems rational.
Julia Roberts finds the journey of Hinduism to be the best map for her and her family to travel. For Hindus, moksha, is the way out of that repetitive reality of birth and death–the very banality of human life.
The question posed here is if it is possible to live a life of transformational faith without dropping everything and hitting the road. It is truly a binary question with a dual answer. For liberation from birth and death may be attained without hitting the road; but only if one were to drop everything. The aim of the spiritual journey in Hinduism is to transcend the ego and realize one’s own inherently divine nature.
However, merely focusing on the outward journey trivializes the true inner journey. At its best, the outward journey makes the need for the inner journey clear and points to a path that the seeker can follow. Elizabeth Gilbert, and numerous other Westerners who have sojourned to India over the decades, did not find peace and tranquility because of wanderlust that takes them through Europe and the East. Leaving behind material possessions and attachments, slowly detaching from the emotional matrix of a turbulent relationship and mindful awareness prepared Gilbert to reach India in a state of vairagya–Sanskrit for dispassion and renunciation–where knowledge of transformation focused her life.
Such a transformation can just as well be accomplished in the absence of an outward journey. Millions of Americans have taken to Yoga purely as a physical practice in their own homes and studios. However, they soon discover Yoga’s Hindu roots, and it opens them up to a deeper spirituality that changes they way they live, think and act, which is the real inner journey.
Dharma religions privilege the path of sannyasa–that of detachment and dispassion–at some point in a life lived completely. Either after worldly responsibilities of raising children are fulfilled, or as a monk early in life. Sannyasa once meant retreat into the forests, living a life of collecting alms and possessing nothing. A 21st century sannyasa does not necessarily afford forests or begging for alms; but renunciation is to transcend the world while living within it. As the great 20th century Hindu saint Ramana Maharshi said, “Sannyasa does not lie in giving up possessions…but rather in giving up the possessor”.
Yes, life can be transformed in the here and now. Swami Vivekananda, the revolutionary Hindu monk celebrated as the first to bring Hindu philosophy to the West, offers the key to that realization in the words to the Song of the Sannyasin:
Of shining gold or darker, baser ore;
Love, hate; good, bad; and all the dual throng,
Know, slave is slave, caressed or whipped, not free
For fetters, though of gold, are not less strong to bind;
Then off with them, Sannyasin bold! Say -
‘Om tat sat, Om!’
(Song of the Sannyasin, Swami Vivekananda, 1902)