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Reflections On Living Divinely

May 25, 2008
If you dive into a swimming pool you naturally get wet. No argument there, but if you immerse yourself in the lives of spiritual people for extended periods do you in turn become spiritual yourself? This is not an easy question to answer, even for me, as someone who has done exactly that for the past 11 years.

Along the way I have communed with wise old sages, mystics and holy men; lived within the confines of a remote monastery with monks who never cut their hair and perform colourful and playful dances as part of their divine expression. I have observed and lingered in many places of worship and holy shrines. I have experienced the physical exhaustion of a long, high altitude pilgrimage into a desolate mountain vastness; looked out in awestruck amazement at the sight of so vast a gathering of humanity, performing an ancient religious rite, that it redefined totally my concept of faith. A few days later, as dawn broke I watched hundreds of naked dreadlocked ash smeared sadhus, belonging to an atavistic holy order, wielding swords, tridents and spears, dash headlong into the great formless river in which I was standing. I have travelled with a band of nomadic warriors who live their life strictly by a spiritual code promulgated over three hundred years ago.

The daily life within these spiritual communities is universally uncomplicated, simple and basic, the timetable often hard and uncompromising. A lifetime spent, sometimes from a very young age indeed, dedicated to the Divine requires not a little sacrifice, and inevitably, times of questioning and doubt. The Buddhist monks of Tawang for instance, begin each day at 4.30am with meditation and prayer and for many the day does not finally end until 10.30pm. Let us not forget this routine stretches indefinably into the future, relentless and unchanging. Yet the remarkable fact remains that I never saw or felt any dissatisfaction or regret around me here or for that matter in any of the monasteries or temples that I visited or pilgrimages that I made. There was never any trace of truculence or resentment and no one wished to be somewhere else or living a different life.

What I did see though was a unique cheerfulness, good humour and a get on with it attitude that is largely absent in the real world. This attitude is most keenly developed and purely crystallised in the form of the spiritual warriors mentioned earlier, known as Nihang Singhs. They even have a word for this state of mind, 'chardikala' and it roughly means high morale. If asked how he was, a Nihang would always reply with this word to describe his state of wellbeing and what is more he would mean it. I have watched them in many different conditions and situations some challenging and difficult some more gentle and relaxed and their sense of who they are remained constant. In this unique and tough life there is no room for phonies, spongers or doubters; they simply do not survive the confrontation. Yet the confrontation is not truly with the environment, their living conditions or fellow spiritual brothers it is of course with them self. The Nihangs that I have encountered live their life at a pitch of indefinable intoxication instilled with an unshakable devotion to the Guru and imbued with the spirit of the Khalsa. They have energy and drive, discipline and faith and an independent will that is fiercely defended. In turn they are revered and respected if not a little feared by their fellow Sikhs. Their meanderings all over the Punjab and beyond help to spread and revitalise the Faith, and with their old traditional ways, habits and dress evoking times past, they bring the lives and teachings of the Gurus powerfully to life, particularly to the young.

If the Nihangs represent the muscular end of no nonsense spirituality then the Vaishnavite monks I lived with on an island in the Bramaputra are their divine counterpoints. The gentlest of gentle men they fully embrace the concept of bhakti. I was once told that they see their relationship with God as that of a devoted loving wife has for her husband. They express that love through music and the chanting of His name.

During all this time, I was not consciously on a quest to gain spiritual knowledge or to search for myself or life's meaning. I did not seek religious or pastoral guidance and I did not adopt a master or guru. I hung out with these people as a photographer, an observer, in order to record these unique lifestyles which I perceive to be at the coalface of spiritual worship and understanding. If there was any personal transformation it was subtle. If there was any influence upon my psyche it was stalking me, not confronting me. Whatever my mind was telling me and regardless of my apparent detachment at the time, a greater spiritual awareness was seeping in at the edges. Looking back, it surely could not have been otherwise.

Perhaps the one thing that unites all these different communities is the innate harmony that surrounds them and it is harmony that is most often missing from our lives. The sages and holy saints are disciplined and discriminating both in what they consume and in the company they keep. They wisely reject all forms of poison. They train the mind and intellect to transform negative emotions into positive ones.

Too many people lose the daily battle against ill health, loneliness, despair, insecurity, anger, frustration and ego by ignoring the possibilities open to them. I do not advocate everyone turn themselves into a monk, a spiritual warrior or a sadhu but with a little of their inspiration and example their knowledge and understanding we can find the median between these two polarities - a conscious way of living in which we are open to our own inspiration sustained by the good influence of the wise people with which we surround ourselves. Find someone with natural goodness who has an understanding of ancient wisdoms who can guide you; or failing that, start by only hanging out with people who have only your best interests at heart and only your highest good as their concern.

Nick Fleming's Living Divinely Exhibition is an ongoing project which seeks to portray the common inspiration behind the spiritually devout of all religions throughout N. India. Visit www.nickfleming.com for more...
About the Author
Photographer Nick Fleming focuses on the inspirational in people's ordinary lives and gives the viewer an uplifting experience rather than of the victims of strife. He shows people at ease in their environment, and places in their glory. He travels extensively in India. http://www.nickfleming.com
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