By O. Chenua, New Age Islam
16 August 2016
If you’ve had the good fortune—as I’ve had—to travel in parts of the Himalayas inhabited by people who follow the Tibetan form of Buddhism, you would probably have been struck by how deeply-rooted their society—at least the older generation—is in their faith. Their religiosity isn’t something that’s compartmentalised apart from the rest of their lives, limited to, say, worship that takes up a couple of minutes a day or attendance at a place of worship once a week. Rather, religion infuses much of their daily life even as they go about doing their daily tasks.
One striking visible indicator of this are the many people you see counting their prayer-beads and whirling their prayer-wheels while reciting ancient mantras, not just as they worship in their monasteries and temples, but even as they sit in their shops, sun themselves in the courtyards of their homes, stroll around in marketplaces, relax in parks and travel in buses. In this way, their bodies and minds are together busy remembering the Divine as they go about their daily lives.
Remembering, and thus connecting with, the Divine is at the core of all religions, and many religious traditions have practices similar to that of Tibetan Buddhism in this regard. Chanting the names of God is part of devotional Hinduism or the Bhakti tradition, as well as in the Sufi form of Islam, and often devotees find it easier to do this with the help of prayer-beads, through the use of which both body and mind are brought to focus on God. In some Muslim societies, it is common to see people doing Zikr or remembering God, using prayer-beads for this while walking in the streets or even while chatting with friends or conducting business. And in the Christian case, Catholics have the practice of saying the rosary.
Bringing the mind and the body together to remember and celebrate the Divine is thus something that various religious traditions have in common. In many such traditions, the use of prayer-beads forms an important part of this practice, for it helps devotees coordinate their bodies and their minds as they seek to dwell on the Divine.
Contrast this to many societies today where, in the name of ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’, religion has been either completely displaced or else relegated to a marginal corner of many peoples’ lives. In such societies—which now account for the majority of the world, I suppose—you would hardly ever see anyone counting prayer-beads while strolling in a park or travelling in a bus, for instance, as you would still be able to in places where Tibetan Buddhists live. And, of course, if you ever went out into the streets whirling a prayer-wheel, people would think you to be very, very odd, to put it very, very mildly!
But if prayer-beads are out in such places, there’s something else that’s in. In much of the world today, the ‘smart’-phone has become the new prayer-beads for huge numbers of people. Almost everyone possesses one these days, just as in many traditional religious societies, almost everyone had a set of prayer-beads.
Walk down a street or sit in a park and simply observe people around you. Chances are that you’ll find that well over half of them are clutching onto their ‘smart’- phones even if they aren’t using them—like children who just refuse to let go off their dolls and teddy-bears! And a good proportion—perhaps even the majority— of them would be doing something or the other with their phones—using it to speak to someone, to watch a movie, or to listen to music. Or, maybe they are furiously texting away or obsessively ‘Facebook-ing’, often simply to keep themselves engaged and amused.
Of course, people do use their ‘smart’-phones to do necessary things. But for many, it’s often simply because they think they have nothing else to do. It’s become their way of keeping themselves busy. For some people, it’s become such a compulsion that if they didn’t have their phones with them, they might lose their minds, not knowing what to do with themselves! For such people, fiddling around with their ‘smart’-phones is a very serious addiction, which, researchers are finding, can inflict heavy psychological as well as physiological damage.
Prayer-beads and ‘smart’-phones can stand as metaphors for two very different worldviews and ways of life. In the first case, remembering and connecting with the Divine is the basis and the purpose of life, and people’s bodies and minds are to be trained to be kept busy doing that even as they go about with their day-to-day tasks. In the second case, the Divine has been completely displaced or else relegated, for all practical purposes, to a distant corner of people’s lives. Maximizing sensual stimulation, including ‘having fun’ and ‘being busy’, assumes the place that remembering the Divine once did, and for which purpose people’s minds and bodies are trained to be occupied with.
I don’t of course mean to say that to be oriented to the Divine, you have to shun every form of modern technology, or that if you use such technology, including ‘smart’-phones, you can’t be God-oriented at the same time. As with everything else, it’s the intention that goes into the use of things—including prayer-beads and ‘smart’-phones—and the uses that these things are put to that makes the difference.