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Rationalism A Speech On Spirituality By Javed Aktar


Jun 6, 2018
I am quite sure ladies and gentlemen, that in this august assembly nobody would envy my position at this moment. Speaking after such a charismatic and formidable personality like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is like coming out of the pavilion to play after Tendulkar has made a sparkling century. But in some weak moment I had committed myself.

There are certain things that I would like to make very clear at the very outset. Don't get carried away by my name - Javed Akhtar. I am not revealing a secret, I am saying something that I have said many times, in writing or on TV, in public. I am an atheist, I have no religious beliefs. And obviously I don't believe in spirituality of some kind. Some kind.

Another thing. I am not standing here to criticize, analyze, or attack this gentleman who is sitting here. We have a very pleasant, civilized relation. I have always found him to be an extremely courteous person.

One is talking about an idea, an attitude, a mindset. Not any individual. I must tell you that when Rajeev opened this session, for a moment I felt that I have come to the wrong place. Because, if we are discussing the philosophy of Krishna and Gautam and Kabir, Vivekanand, then I have nothing to say. I can sit down right now. I am not here to discuss a glorious past of which I suppose every Indian is proud, and rightly so. I am here to discuss a dubious present.

India Today has invited me and I have come here to talk of spirituality today. Let's not be confused by this word spirituality, you can find two people with the same name and they can be totally different people. Ram Charit Manas was written by Tulsidas. And the television film has been made by Ramanand Sagar. Ramayan is common but I don't think it would be very wise to club Tulsidas with Ramanand Sagar. I remember, when he had written Ramcharit Manas, he had faced a kind of a social boycott. How could he write a holy book in such a language like Avadhi? Sometimes I wonder fundamentalists of all hues and all colors, religions and communities. how similar they are.

In 1798, a gentleman called Shah Abdul Qadir, in this very city, for the first time translated Quran in Urdu, and all the ulemas of that time gave fatwa against him that how could he translate this holy book in such a heathen language. When Tulsi wrote Ramcharit Manas and he was boycotted, I remember a chowpai that he had written.

"Dhut kaho abdhut kaho rajput kaho ki julawa kohu
Kohu ki beti se beta na biahab, kohu ki jaat bigaar na chahu
Mang ke khaibo, mehjid ma raihbo, lebe ka ek na debe ka dohu"

Ramanand Sagar, when he made his television serial, he made millions. I am not undermining him, but obviously he is much on the lower rung.

I will give you another example. Perhaps it would be more direct and more appropriate. Gautam came out of a palace and went into wilderness to find the truth. But nowadays we see, the modern age gurus, come out of the wilderness and wind up in the palaces. They are moving in the opposite direction. We can't talk of them in the same breath. So let us not hide behind names which are dear and respectable for every Indian.

When I was invited to give this talk, I felt that yes, I am an atheist, try to be a rationalist in any given situation, Maybe that's why I have been called. But suddenly I have realized that there is another quality that I share with Modern Age gurus. I work in films. We have a lot in common. Both of us, sell dreams, both of us create illusions, both of us create icons, but with a difference. After three hours we put a placard - the end. Go back to reality. They don't.

So ladies and gentlemen, let me make it very clear that I have come to talk of this spirituality that has a supermarket in the world. Arms, drugs and spirituality - these are the three big businesses in the world. But in arms and drugs you really have to do something, give something. That's the difference. Here you don't have to give anything.

In this supermarket you get instant Nirvana, Moksha by mail, a crash course in self-realization, cosmic consciousness in four easy lessons. This supermarket has its chain all over the world, where the restless elite buy spiritual fast food. I am talking about this spirituality.

Plato in his dialogues has said many a wise thing, and one of them is - before starting any discussion decide on the meanings of words.

Let us try to decide on the meaning of this word spirituality. Does it mean love for mankind that transcends all religion, caste, creed, race? Is that so? Then I have no problem. Except that I call it humanity.

Does it mean love of plants, trees, mountains, oceans, rivers, animals? The non-human world? If that is so, again I have no problem at all. Except that I call it environmental consciousness.

Does spirituality mean heartfelt regard for social institutions like marriage, parenthood, fine arts, judiciary, freedom of expression. I have no problem again sir, how can I disagree here? I call it civil responsibility.

Does spirituality mean going into your own world trying to understand the meaning of your own life? Who can object to that? I call it self-introspection, self-assessment.

Does spirituality mean Yoga? Thanks to Patanjali, who has given us the details of Yoga, Yam, Niyam, Aasan, Pranayam. We may do it under any name, but if we are doing pranayam, wonderful. I call it health-care. Physical fitness.

Now, is it a matter of only semantics? If all this is spirituality, then what is the discussion? All these words that I have used are extremely respectable and totally acceptable words. There is nothing abstract or intangible about them. So why stick to this word spirituality? What is there in spirituality that has not been covered by all these words? Is there something? If that is so then what is that?

Somebody in return can ask me: what is my problem with this word? I am asking to change it, leave it, drop it, or make it obsolete. But why so? I will tell you what my reservation is. If spirituality means all this then there is no debate.

But there is something else which makes me uneasy. In a dictionary, the meaning of spirituality is rooted in a word called "spirit". When mankind didn't know whether this earth is round or flat, he had decided that human beings are actually the combination of two things. Body and spirit. Body is temporary, it dies. But the spirit is, shall I say, non-biodegradable. In your body you have a liver and heart and intestines and the brain, but since the brain is a part of the body, and mind lies within the brain, it is inferior because ultimately the brain too shall die with the body, but don't worry, you are not going to die, because you are your spirit, and the spirit has the supreme consciousness that will remain, and whatever problem you have is because you listen to your mind. Stop listening to your mind. Listen to your spirit - the supreme consciousness that knows the cosmic truth.

All right. It's not surprising that in Pune there is an ashram and I used to go there. I loved the oratory. On the gate of the lecture hall there was a placard. Leave your shoes and minds here. There are other gurus who don't mind if you carry your shoes. But minds? Sorry!

Now, if you leave your mind what do you do? You need the Guru to find the next station of consciousness. That hides somewhere in the spirit. He has reached the supreme consciousness, he knows the supreme truth. But can he tell you. No sir, he cannot tell you. So can you find out on your own? No sir, you need the guru for that. You need him but he cannot guarantee that you will know the ultimate truth. And what is that ultimate truth? What is the cosmic truth? Relating to cosmos? I have really not been able to understand that.

The moment we step out of the solar system the first star is Alpha Centaury. It is just four light years away. How do I relate to that!! What do I do!! So the emperor is wearing robes that only the wise can see. And the emperor is becoming bigger and bigger. And there are more and more wise people who are appreciating the robe.

I used to think that actually spirituality is the second line of defence for the religious people. When they get embarrassed about traditional religion, when it starts looking too down-market, they hide behind this smokescreen of cosmos and super consciousness. But that is not the complete truth. Because the clientele of traditional religion and spirituality is different. You take the map of the world, you start marking places which are extremely religious, within India or outside India, Asia, Latin America, Europe. Wherever. You will find that wherever there is an excess of religion there is a lack of human rights. There is repression. Anywhere!

Our Marxist friends used to say that religion is the opium of the poor masses, the sigh of the oppressed. I don't want to get into that discussion. But spirituality nowadays is definitely the tranquilizer of the rich.
You see that the clientele is well heeled, it is the affluent class. Alright, so the guru gets power, high self-esteem, status, wealth--which is not that important--power. And lots of wealth too. What does the disciple get? When I look at them carefully I realize that there are categories and categories of these disciples. It's not a monolith. There are different kinds of followers. Different kinds of disciples.

One, who is rich, successful, doing extremely well in his life, making money, acquiring property. Now, since he has everything he wants absolution too. So guru tells him - whatever you are doing, is "niskaam karma" - you are playing a role, this is all "Maya", the money that you are making everyday and the property that you are acquiring, you are not emotionally involved with it. You are just playing a role. You come to me because you are in search of eternal truth. Maybe your hands are dirty, but your spirit and soul are pure. And this man, he starts feeling wonderful about himself. For seven days he is exploiting the world, and at the end of the seven days when he goes and sits at the feet of the guru, he feels - I am a sensitive person.

There is another category. That too comes from the affluent class. But he is not the winner like the first one. You know winning or losing that is also relative. A rickshaw-puller—if he is gambling on the pavement and wins hundred rupees—will feel victorious, and if a corporate man makes only 300 million dollars, while his brother is a billionaire, he will feel like a failure. Now, what does this rich failure do? He needs a guru to tell him - who says that you have failed? You have other worlds, you have another vision, you have other sensibility that your brother doesn't have. He thinks that he is successful. Wrong. The world is very cruel, you know. The world tells you honestly, no sir, you have got three out of ten. The other person has seven out of ten. Fair. They will treat you that way and they will meet you that way. There he gets compassion. There he plays another game.

Another category. And I will talk about this category not with contempt or with any sense of superiority, not any bitterness, but all the compassion available to one that is a very big client of this modern day guru and today's spirituality, is the unhappy rich wife.
Here is a person who put all her individuality, aspirations and dreams, and her being at the altar of marriage and in return she got an indifferent husband. Who at the most gave her a couple of children. Who is rather busy with his work, or busy with other women. This woman needs a shoulder. She knows that she is an existential failure. There is nothing to look forward to. She has a vacuous, empty, comfortable yet purposeless life. It's sad, but it is true.

Then there are other people. Who are suddenly traumatized. They lose a child. The wife dies. The husband dies. Or they lose the property, they lose their business. Something happens that shocks them and they ask - why me? So who do they ask? They go to the Guru. And the guru tells him that this is Karma. But there is another world—if you follow me—where there is no pain. Where there is no death. Where there is immortality. Where there is only bliss. He tells all these unhappy souls - follow me and I will take you to the heaven, to the paradise, where there is no pain. I am sorry sir, it is disappointing but true that there is no such paradise. Life will always have a certain quota of pain, of hurts, a possibility of defeats. But they do get some satisfaction.

Somebody may ask me: if they are feeling better, if they are getting peace then what is your problem? It reminds me of a story that I have read. It's an old Indian story told by a sage, that a hungry dog finds a dry bone and tries to eat it and in the process bites its own tongue. And the tongue is bleeding and the dog feels that he is getting nourishment from the bone.

I feel sad. I don't want them, these adults, to behave like this because I respect them. Drugs and alcohol are also supposed to give mental peace and serenity, but is that kind of peace or serenity desirable or advisable? The answer is no. Any mental peace that is not anchored in rational thoughts is nothing but self-deception. Any serenity that takes you away from truth is just an illusion - a mirage. I know that there is a kind of security in all this which is like the security of a tri-cycle. If you are riding a tri-cycle you can't fall. But adults do not ride tricycles. They ride bi-cycles. They can even fall. It is a part of life.

There is one more kind. Like everybody who is a member of the golf club is not fond of golf. In the same way everybody who is seen in an ashram is not a spiritual person. A film producer who is an ardent follower of a guru, whose ashram is about two hours from Delhi once told me that you must go to my Guru. You will see the who's who of Delhi there. Let me tell you my Guruji is another Chandraswami in the making. Now this is a contact point for networking.

I have great respect for people who are spiritual, or religious, and in spite of this they are good people. And I have a reason. I believe that like every emotion or feeling, you have a limitation.

I am feeling slightly pressurized about time, can I get another five six minutes please. may I sir. [Rajiv Mehrotra "yes, you can"]

You can see up to a point. And you can't see further. You can hear up to a point, but beyond that you won't be able to register sounds. You can mourn up to a point and then you will get over your mourning. You will feel happy up-to a point and then you will be through with your happiness. Same way, I am sure that you have a certain capacity for nobility also. You can be as noble and no more.

Now suppose if we count this capacity for nobility in the average man as ten units, now anybody who goes to pray in a mosque five times is consuming his five units, there anybody who goes to the temple or sits at the feet of the Guru, he is consuming his quota of nobility there. And in a totally non-productive manner. I don't go to pray. I don't pray. If I don't go to any guru, or mosque or temple or church, what do I do with my quota of nobility? I will have to help somebody, feed somebody, give shelter to somebody. People who use their quota in worshiping, praying, adoring religious figures and spiritual figures, in spite of that, if they are still left with some nobility, hats off to them.

You may ask me, if I have this kind of ideas about religious people, why should I show such reverence for Krishna and Kabir and Gautam? You can ask me. I'll tell you why I respect them. These were the great contributors to the human civilization. They were born at different points of time in history, in different situations. But one thing is common in them. They stood up against injustice. They fought for the downtrodden. Whether it was Ravana, or Kansa or the pharaoh or the high priests or the British Samrajya in front of Gandhi - or the communal empire of Firoze Tughlaq in the times of Kabir, they stood against that.

And what surprises me, and confirms my worst feelings, that today, the enlightened people who know the cosmic truth, none of them stand up against the powers that be. None of them raises his voice against the ruling classes and the privileged classes. Charity, yes, when it is approved and cleared by the establishment and the powers that be. But I want to know which was that guru which took the dalits to those temples which are still closed to them. I want to know which was that guru who stood for the rights of the Adivasis against the thekedaars and contractors. I want to know which was that guru who spoke about the victims of Gujarat riot and went to their relief camps. They are human beings.

Sir. It is not enough to teach the rich how to breathe. It is the rich man’s recreation. It is the hypocrites' pretension. It is a mischievous deception. And you know that in the oxford dictionary, mischievous deception is a term that is used for a word, and that word is. HOAX. Thank you


Jul 8, 2019
I have seen Akhtar in debates and otherwise, but oftentimes it appears to me that he has his own version of atheism, and he also has some metaphysical ideas which won’t conform to say the atheism of a logical positivist. I can give some anecdotes for the same,

1. His reference to potentiality for nobleness, happiness etc having limits. This may be based on some psychological readings, but there is no gold standard as if someone has for eg 1000 credits of nobility in life, and he may consume 800 on devotional worship etc. this is so because we can reasonably presume a person who is noble all throughout, eg Bhagat Puran Singh, or on the other hand someone who isn’t noble at all, like say Kim Jong Un or Joseph Stalin etc. So yes while he can be against spirituality from this metric, it certainly doesn’t flow from pure and applied reason and his thesis of potential utilisation of certain abilities (as if we know that a certain object or worship would expend X credits of nobility like calories is his own metaphysical creation.

2. He refers that there is a certain place in the mind, while talking to sadhguru where poetry comes in. It seems he has amassed himself stature through intellectual activity, yet he fails to establish his position on the mind, is he a materialist? Epiphenomenalist etc? If he is an atheist and if I may presume also a materialist, then he must acknowledge that the self is a profound illusion generated by random flow of electrons in the cranium and the CNS, and his works thus emanating from such space are not creative genuine but a flux of that randomness, and so is the vast body of knowledge of the sciences and even the premise of reason. But he sounds very firm on the ability of man to causatively determine actions in the material world as is evidenced in this article for hinting at devotion to be non productive, and thus he must explain how does he establish man’s causative nature, will etc if he assumes himself to be a materialist.

3. If he presumes the non materialist position and says intellect is something obscure, yet materially determined or some weird combination in the arrangement of things causes it, it requires further explanation, and it is certainly an epistemological problem to explain subjective experience with and objective tool kit.

4. I personally think he has not come to grips with a logical positivist derivation of atheism. This is the problem with all humanists, while they chide religion, they stand up for humanely things (which is what I like) however they too are irrational in doing so or may I call act extra-rationally like the spiritual, as reason (the logical positivist type) is teeming to tell that the cosmos will eventually die out, the big freeze etc etc, so I think if he chides the spiritualists in some way as above, the argument applies to him as well. Atheism of the logical positivist type leaves no room for cosmic optimism And cannot be divorced from nihilism. It requires a transgression of reason, call it irrationalism or extrarationalism to create meaning whether existentially or transcendentally.

My perspective on this from what I know from Gurmat-

1. Spirituality or practice is a way of living, it is not a matter of reason, just as ethics follow a different kind of reason so does spirituality, which is the inherent human need to be at peace.

2. Spirituality is confined to the subjective and experiential, not to the objective world (only as a practice rid of metaphysical notions)

3. The purpose of life according to gurmat is to find Waheguru, the nirankar, Akal within life and the living, and instil the emotion of humility and compassion derived from Simran outwardly to the world in the herein rather than sit as a recluse (As is evidenced by the life of the gurus, and the Sikhs, kirt, naam, and Vand) Thus our spiritual practice is not a way of spending nobility like credits, but actually cultivating and creating it. Basically like earning a salary of the said virtue.

4. The corollary of nihilism is that life as all meaning possible, if life has no meaning, it has all the meaning possible. Similarly if there is no God, and all is an endless void, all is God as the impersonal immanent yet transcendent through creation. Thus the divide between theism and atheism is trivial for the Sikh as parmatam is sargun and Nirguna, formless and of all forms. What is important is to realise the falsehood of the ego. To be silent, to be nimana, realise one’s triviality to the grandeur of creation, which being synonymous with Waheguru exists for itself, creates life for itself through itself and will at some future stage remain by itself. (Not very different from modern cosmological views about the future of the universe and its ultimate state)

5. Akhtar sounds atheistical only to generate noise it seems, he has himself developed some metaphysics of his own in life and I respect him for that, it can be a way for him realising the highest inner potential within all.

6. Notions and assumptions that everything must conform to reason are yet again philosophical assumptions, we can’t reasonably say that all knowledge is what we can see through reason, that’s why the body of science as a system establishes ‘methodological naturalism’ not metaphysical naturalism, and I must quote metaphysical naturalism or monism or materialism are what they are, assumptions just taken, and hence are metaphysical views. (But only methodological first steps for science as that is what one requires to do it). It is science to test falsifiable assumptions through evidence and subsequent theorisation in a process that appears dialectical in the long run, but it is ‘not science’ to claim that all knowledge comes through science or that all knowledge should conform to the scientific process of falsification as this statement is in Metaphysics or aesthetics rather than a statement derived from science, ie it is itself non falsifiable(Karl Popper’s gold standard for science). This is where I feel atheism is more an aesthetic and philosophical position and this is what I reiterate to people espousing similar views that they are not ‘holier’or wiser than equally informed people who may make metaphysical assumptions different from them.

7. Akhtar as his case is, oftentimes brings or shows this holier than thou in his views and critiques of the spiritual. But I have seen many atheists who are honest that deep down they too like the spiritualists make a metaphysical assumption on asserting that everything must conform to empiric reason, as this statement is not evidenced in the scientific method but an aesthetic or metaphysical position which itself cannot be falsified. This is where the Granth Sahib is right that irrespective of our views, we all are the same.

8. I agree with his critique on modern day spirituality in its sociological dimensions, but when it comes to craft an admixture of the sociological with the metaphysical and a claim for a holier than thou, I believe he should be put back to his place.

9. Akhtar should be mindful of what FW Nietzsche has said, “we the godless anti metaphysicians of today take the same fire from the thousand year old faith, which was also of plato, that God is Truth and Truth is divine.” It is here Nietzsche is intellectually honest by saying that even atheism;

Or anti metaphysics requires a metaphysical position at the first place, and so does any body of knowledge. Yes, Akhtar can claim to be holier on grounds moral, aesthetic, utilitarian etc, but he cannot claim to be rid of metaphysics for that statement too is metaphysical and the other categories can espouse for their superiority over other world views through the various grounds enumerated above.

I personally don’t find this cosmic pessimism accompanying his worldview pleasing, liberating or useful. It cheapens life and kills love for me. It maybe the other way around for others, but I don’t want their evangelism. For my metaphysical assumption is “ਮਨ ਤੂੰ ਜੋਤ ਸਰੂਪ ਹੈ ਆਪਣਾ ਮੂਲ ਪਛਾਣ।।”