By Sheesha He, New Age Islam
14 May 2018
She had studied in what were claimed to be
some of the best educational institutions in the country and abroad. Over the
years, she had developed a deep academic interest in religion. She earned a
Ph.D. in Religious Studies and went on to do further research in that area—at
what were called ‘international centres of academic excellence’.
Soon, she was considered a leading ‘expert’
in her field. She wrote a dozen or so books—on various aspects of religion and
religious identity. She was regularly invited across the world to speak at
academic conferences, all expenses paid. She taught at several so-called
‘top-notch’ universities in different countries. She received generous
fellowships and research grants for her work. Reading, writing and talking
about religion became a lucrative career for her, through which she managed to
tot up a fairly comfortable bank balance.
Paid well to do what she loved doing, her life, as she would put it, was
‘one long paid holiday’.
But holidays must come to an end some day.
And that’s what happened with her. Over the years, but unknown to anyone else,
she had been struggling with many dark emotions, which she sought to bury deep inside. She tried to
escape from them by keeping herself extra-busy with her academic work. No one
could have guessed this—the harsh reality that lay behind her ever-smiling
face—but pretences can’t last very long. One day, she had a nervous break-down
and was rushed to the hospital.
It took her
quite a while to be able to function reasonably well. Not long after her
two-month stay at the hospital she made a drastic decision. She quit her job!
Suddenly, she felt she just couldn’t bear to read even a paragraph of an
academic book on religion (or on any other subject for that matter) again!
She sold off her house and, taking along a
few possessions, shifted to a spiritual centre in the mountains. Here, amidst
the quiet and in the company of spiritually-minded people, she was able to
reflect on her life and think about what she wanted to do with whatever
remained of it.
One thing that struck her forcefully now
was how foolish she had been all these years trying to know about God (and
making a living out of it), instead of seeking to know God. To know about God
was one thing, but to know God was quite another. It was like the difference
between knowing about a country by reading books about it and knowing that
country by actually visiting it and experiencing it for oneself. She might have known, from the scores of
books she had read, many things about what different faiths said about God, but
of what use was that knowledge, she now asked herself, when she did not know
God personally? Not once in all those many years that she had spent in the
business of academic scholarship about religion had she ever thought of seeking
to know God as a living presence in her life. For her, God and religion were
matters of mere academic curiosity, writing about which had become her source
of livelihood—her long paid holiday. It had never once occurred to pray to God,
to talk with Him, to seek His guidance or even to thank Him for His many
blessings, including that long paid holiday of hers.
Now, as she reflected on what she had done
with her life, she had no words to describe how stupid she had been spending
all those years reading, writing, talking and philosophising about God without
ever thinking of cultivating a loving, personal relationship with Him.
A related discovery that she made at this
time was that while she had accumulated a great deal of academic knowledge
about the religions of the world (which had enabled her to build up a fairly
large bank balance), it hadn’t led to any inner change in her at all. She
hadn’t become any better for all the many things she knew about religion. For
her, this had been mere information, which had not resulted in any
transformation as far as she as a person was concerned. For instance, she had
written several papers on religion, love and peace (complete with footnotes and
all!), which she had presented at various international conferences and which
had later been published in ‘learned’ journals, but she wasn’t at peace with
herself and her own parents and she just couldn’t stand her neighbours!
Moreover, despite her abundant theoretical knowledge of religion, she had led
what she now recognised to be a very unethical life. Driven by the dogma that
her life was hers to do just as she pleased, she had trespassed many a moral
boundary in the belief that the purpose of life was to ‘enjoy it to the hilt’.
But now, as her life lay about her for her to inspect, she recognised how
utterly useless it had all been: this knowing many things about religion
without caring to put into practise its ethical teachings in her own life.
The months it took for her to be back on
her feet were a period of painful realisation, but they turned out to be among
the most rewarding in all her life. Confronting her dark secrets and reflecting
on some of the many mistakes she had made hadn’t been at all easy. But at the
end of it she was very glad that she went through the process, for two valuable
lessons it had helped her learn—the need to develop a close relationship with
God, and the need for this relationship to be expressed in the form of an
ethical life, lived for a purpose higher than a mere paid holiday.