Three weeks into my vacation abroad, I realized I was having a great time, sure, but something was missing. It bothered me until I was able to put my finger on it. I was missing 'God'! Coming from a country like India, where the Divine accosts you at every step and infiltrates every activity and space, I found a total lack of reference to any 'Higher Being' or 'spirit' around me.
A second realization was that I was simply drowning in style. There were smart shops, smart merchandise and smart people everywhere. It was diverting to a point -- until my senses became oversaturated, and then numb.
Style is always pleasant; it's an offshoot of culture and also of ''being cultured.'' It's the smart and the wealthy who adopt style in their lives. That style, in turn, becomes a badge of their class and sophistication. But, culture? What is real culture? In the broad sense, there is culture of races and countries and the culture represented by the arts and music and fine living, entertainment culture, and so on and so forth. However, narrowed down to its basic meaning, it can be understood to mean "refinement." Outward refinement means being skilled in matters of deportment and having a preference for "classy" things (decor, clothes, art). But, does a classic taste and a good lifestyle automatically cover inner refinement, too? And is this inner culture arbitrary, or a basic universal value that can be common to all? And how do modern societies rate on the scale of this refinement that goes beyond clothes and lifestyles?
There is a difference between the West and East here.
In the Western world, "being cultured" is predominantly about the etiquette of living well and being smart in body and mind. However, the danger is, excessive focus on external éclat often obfuscates the inner core or spirit. This is not to advocate plainness or banality in style of clothing or living, but just about defining an outer limit. Where does style stop and allow soul to come in? Life cannot stop at style.
In our Indic traditions, primacy has always been given to inner values more than outer sophistication. Respecting parents and teachers; controlling the senses; tolerance of diverse peoples and faiths and non-violence are all part of being cultured. Culture here has a meaning which goes beyond high living. And, importantly, it also incorporates spiritual values. This is because in countries like India, the secular and the sacred have a meeting point. In secular activities, the divine, too, has its place. Thus, in the hub of the business world, Lord Ganesa sits atop every venture as the God who removes obstacles and ensures success. Names of business enterprises, and people and homes etc. are based on holy personages from our scriptures, in an attempt at infusing divine presence and blessings into everything. Thus, we have Krishna Tyres, Rama Motors, Sai Enterprises, etc. in plenty. The sublime and the mundane happily coexist, pronouncing the basic unity of all things.This fusion of the material and the spiritual is a natural part of our culture and though largely swamped today by modern demands, it holds strong claims which cannot be altogether denied. The extent to which this ubiquitous reference actually infuses divinity into actions is another matter, but the fact remains that spirit concerns remain visible everywhere as a strong reminder. It is not uncommon to see people of all classes genuflect with reverence when they pass by the numerous wayside shrines that dot the roads, everywhere. You are never allowed to forget God/Higher Power/Divinity.
In the West, this spirit awareness is conspicuously absent. A visit to any western city is always phantasmagoric for the Indian. Everything is super swanky, and modern innovation shows up everywhere. Apart from that, everything works beautifully, is organized and has a system which is reliable. For the Indian, used to mostly crummy streets, unprepossessing exteriors, drab shops and shoddy functioning, this is unalloyed joy. A walk down any street is supremely diverting, with the glitz it has to offer. But then, the startling discovery, at some point, is that nowhere is there any reminder or symbol of the presence of inner consciousness or soul... Nothing to suggest that there is something more to human life beyond the physical body and its pleasures and comforts. (And a smart-brain to facilitate it all.)
In Indian thought, where transcendence is always imminent and there is a God/Spirit/Soul figure in everyday life, in some form or the other, it is strange to encounter a total submergence of spirit in the West and an exaggerated preoccupation with body and mind. Is it self-consciousness or hubris or the modern belief that in today's advanced societies, faith is irrelevant? Or is it human ego that believes it has overtaken the Creator?
And, is getting a better life only about getting a better lifestyle? I doubt it. Give me a bare room, with windows that look not only outside, but within, and keep my spirit, more than my decors, plush and shining.