Would you read a book on spiritual practice written by an author who was once a heroin addict and convicted bank robber who ran away from prison while serving his sentence? When I ask myself this question, the answer is, “Yes, of course!” People, who recognize the harm that they have caused and make sincere efforts to transform their lives, inspire me. Learning about their journeys reassures me that I too can weed out deeply ingrained habits.
Gregory David Roberts, who wrote Shantaram (2003) and The Mountain Shadow (2015), is out with a new book titled The Spiritual Path (2021). In it, he writes about his experiences as a spiritual seeker. If you are expecting juicy anecdotes related to crime and punishment, this book will leave you disappointed. Roberts focuses on his six-year training with his spiritual mentor, Guruji Shri Prabir Priyaranjan Bhattacharjee.
Roberts writes, “There’s a lot in my life that I’m ashamed of and deeply regret… I definitely had a clear understanding of the harm I’d done in my life, I was deeply remorseful, and for many years I’d followed the sincere intention not to repeat the harm. But I still didn’t feel ‘clean’ enough.” How did he work with these feelings? What led him to trust his guru? Why did a man committed to science, logic and reason turn to faith, devotion and worship?
You will find answers to these questions in the book. Roberts writes to share, not impress. He writes about his own path with gratitude and vulnerability and without pretending that this is a blueprint for you to follow if you are grappling with issues similar to his own. This is worth mentioning because spiritual practice can become an ego trip if the seeker is not vigilant enough to notice when arrogance seeps in and overtakes ethical conduct.
Roberts is devoted to Kali, and relates to the goddess as his mother. He writes, “My spiritual teacher had assured me that blowing the conch shell with utmost innocence and sincerity in active physical devotion could, and would, connect me with the spiritual.” The book has detailed descriptions of him both enjoying and struggling with this practice, which acknowledges and involves the body instead of dismissing it as an obstacle on the path.
Connecting with an idol of Kali was not easy for him, as someone who “came from a background that inconsiderately derided idols and idol worship.” Over time, thanks to his practice, he realized that the term “idol worship” is inaccurate. He writes, “Devotees do not worship idols, no matter how much they may revere and cherish them. Idols are gateways to connection.” His guru taught him not to look at idols as ends in themselves but to use them to deepen his devotion so that, one day, he experiences “direct communication with the Divine.”
Like many other seekers who dislike or feel a sense of discomfort with various aspects of organized religion, Roberts defines himself as spiritual but not religious. He writes, “I went off the grid and stopped going to lunches, dinners, parties, events, festivals, concerts, cinemas, theatres and just about everywhere else. I renounced many of my favourite things and focused on trying to be worthy of walking the path. And then I blew the conch shell with my utmost sincerity twice a day, every day, in active and strenuous devotion, for six years.”
These revelations might help you appreciate how Roberts – despite all the baggage of his life story – could write and produce the music album Love and Faith in 2020. Having a spiritual practice that revolved around blowing the conch fed his music. He writes, “The conch, being a shell from the sea, produces a completely natural sound: a sound from Nature. It’s a soft wail, a siren sound that is sometimes sombre and sometimes electrifyingly uplifting.”
I will not be surprised if Roberts is blamed for cultural appropriation once this book receives wider attention. Since the history of colonization is so intimately woven into our sense of being Indian, we tend to be skeptical of white people who want to learn from traditions and practices that we zealously guard as Indian. If we truly believe in Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – the idea that the world is one family – we must be more open to Roberts and people like him.
He is not trying to be Indian or even Hindu. He is keen to absorb what he finds valuable in India. Though he calls himself “not religious”, he has “prayed with believers in synagogues, mosques, temples, churches, gurudwaras, stupas, fire temples, caves and stone circles.” He also knows and recites prayers in three languages. Does the reluctance to be seen as religious come from observing how religion mixes with politics and drifts away from its function of providing anchor amidst uncertainty? Perhaps. Roberts does not address this question.
Thankfully, his book refrains from constructing an idealized picture of India. Those who have watched Umesh Shukla’s film OMG: Oh My God! (2012) and Rajkumar Hirani’s film PK (2014) will not be surprised by Roberts’ account of how deceit also thrives in sacred places. He writes, for instance, about so-called holy men who got gold watches, chains and rings from “Westerners” as gifts and then sold these to him “at cutthroat black market prices”.
The book’s emphasis, however, is on changing the world by working with the self, not by fixing others. Roberts writes about how he learnt to cultivate “absence of malice in thought, word or deed” and how his understanding of seva grew to include caring for stray animals and removing plastic waste from beaches. His guru taught him that self-abasement is not helpful; he must “purify” himself of pride and vanity and make different life choices.
Roberts’ book spoke to me because Angulimala and Ashoka – both of whom gave up killing and embraced the Buddha as their teacher – are glorious examples of what can happen when an inner awakening makes people mend their ways. They sought refuge in faith, and it freed them from their destructive actions. The book also serves as a reminder not to write off people for eternity, to be kind in our critique, and to retain our hope in the power of renewal.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer who tweets @chintan_connect