Spiritual Turnpikes

by | Nov 15, 2023

I recently met Mr. Chandu Thota, Vice President at Google, when he was here in Hyderabad, where he studied at Osmania Engineering College. Chandu played a pioneering role in the development of digital mapping. He worked at Microsoft from 2002 to 2007 on maps and later established his own company Dealmap, which was acquired by Google in 2011. Since then, Chandu has been at Google.

Born and brought up in coastal Andhra Pradesh, Chandu comes from a traditional family where dogmas and rituals are integral parts of life. While we were discussing how the modern generation is becoming superficial about religion and lacks conviction about timeless traditional wisdom, Chandu brought up the example of a map. Moving a stylus from one place to another is so easy on a map. Thousands of miles can be crossed–oceans, mountains, and deserts—in a moment—without even getting up from your chair. Even the thrill of going to faraway locations can be felt, if only on a map. 

So, this is exactly what is happening with the younger generation in the realm of religion. When we spend hours discussing scriptures, theories, enlightenment, and spiritual gurus and their miracles—the Internet is flooded with them—we may not realize it, but it is just like moving the stylus on the map. The confidence with which “gurus” narrate morally superior concepts often deludes the “chelas” into thinking that they have arrived, even though none of them have even started.

Tokenism is the trend. Wearing a mala, tying a thread on the wrist, and even applying a tilak, can never make a difference unless it represents a change in attitude. But merely done as a fashion, this comforting illusion of having “arrived” bleeds out the reasons, motivation, and energy from our ambition to undertake the journey. Some of us may get addicted to the “high” we get from moving the stylus on the map and consequently fritter away a significant part of our lives doing just that—and many may never undertake the actual journey. Chandu casually called it “spiritual turnpikes” but it drove me into reflection and to write this blog.

I was introduced to the word “Turnpike” by Bhooshan Sawant. He lives in North Brunswick, New Jersey. In 2011, I spent a week at his home. Many times, he drove me to New York City and took a toll road to bypass the perennial traffic on the Garden State Parkway. Bhooshan told me that the Turnpike originated in Britain during the 18th and 19th centuries when the Parliament allowed the formation of Turnpike trusts to build roads and bridges and collect tolls from the users. Basically, the turnpike is the horizontal bar lowered to block your way and lifted when the tax is paid. 

This later became a practice for the governments to collect taxes from travellers and in India, almost all new roads are created as turnpikes. Similarly, spirituality is taken over by religion and we are conditioned to believe that one must follow some religion to attain spiritual enlightenment. There are organized events, “paid” services, ritualistic performances, and obnoxiously collected subscription models selling spirituality. This is on the supply side. Even more problematic is the demand side.

Hordes of young people are turning into spiritual addicts. Like parrots, they talk indefatigably about how yogis can leave their physical bodies and travel to distant planets or what happens after death. They perceive themselves as spiritually evolved people but their behaviors could not be further off. They are arrogant, absent-minded, irresponsible, undisciplined, and unethical. No wonder the roads are full of rage and people in crowds and on social media are impolite and rude.

What is spirituality? Understanding the basic fact that we are an immortal spirit living in “this body” that grows, decays and eventually dies, is spirituality. The purpose of life is the evolution of this spirit, which means sorting out the bad embedded in us, like dust on a mirror. Each one of us has our demons, the shadow selves. The art of living is about going by our values and bravely confronting these shadows; acknowledging, feeling, and transcending our inconvenient emotions.

All this holds a purpose. By discarding all that is not good, building mutually empathetic and rewarding relationships; resolving problems; and shouldering our responsibilities we not only lead a good life but also create conditions where others can better theirs. However, most of us unconsciously use religion and rituals to distract ourselves from the feelings of guilt, frustration, and inadequacy we do not want to experience, the responsibilities of life we do not want to bear, and the hard work required to resolve the issues we want to escape from.

We pick up phrases like, “Life is suffering”; “Suffering is the nectar that cleanses the soul”; “God tests and strengthens our faith through suffering,” and so on. These are in essence our vain attempts to avoid facing the mirror – to see our faults and fix them. It is a pity and a waste of human life to miss the chance of expanding consciousness and using it to create sensory pleasures and conveniences – no less ludicrous than an astronaut riding a horse. 

My 33 years of tutelage under Dr APJ Abdul Kalam helped me immensely to discern between religion and spirituality. Not that they are exclusive but that they are different and must be understood and practised that way. Armed with this awareness, I keep coming across people who are not seeking but escaping their true selves, and I could recognize myself as one of them, and see this game of using spiritual discussions and practices as a substitute for our transformation instead of a means to support it. 

During my first visit to San Francisco with Dr Kalam in 2007, after he relinquished the presidency, I was given a book by John Welwood entitled, Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships, published at that time. Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, Welwood coined the term “Spiritual Bypassing” in the early 1980s and I enjoyed discussing it with Dr Kalam on our flight back home. The tendency to use spiritual ideas, discussions, and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks has always been there. Welwood articulated it well now using the familiar term “bypassing.” 

The spiritual journey begins with the realisation that our reality is the immortal spirit present inside our body and not the body itself. It is like “grounding” to our basic existential fact.  Opposite to adorning artefacts – lockets, bracelets, particular dresses – and undertaking retreats, pilgrimages, and attending congregations we can brag about, discovering who we are at our deepest core is a very quiet affair. 

It is a process of gradually removing “onion-like” layers of anything that is neither factually true nor who we are at our core in order to inch closer to the truth or our true selves. Being cognizant of our haughtiness ought to humble us a little, but if we act as though we are pursuing and carrying out all righteous deeds, we are subconsciously creating an alibi to do what is not right. In addition, there are no speed breakers on this slick slope. In the shadow of the light we believe we are heading towards, it is hard to perceive or assess how much misery we might be causing to ourselves and others once we start to believe we are holy, pure, and one with God, and therefore already nearly flawless. Dr Kalam used to caution me before planning out a project that man is indeed a formidable rationalizing machine capable of making even the most irrational things accepted.


Can the Change be Stopped?

Can the Change be Stopped?

Meeting people gives meaning to life. I consider myself profusely blessed to have met some of the finest people and learned from them. Chandu Thota, Vice President and Head of Engineering at Google Headquarters in Silicon Valley , is one such person whom I met rather late, but except for a wish that we could have met earlier and worked together…

Paradox of Life

Paradox of Life

I met Dr Dilip Pawar by chance. But what a good chance it turned out to be. He is an oncologist turned clinical pharmacologist and a leading figure in the discovery of cancer drugs. A sagacious person of calm temperament, Dr Pawar worked with cancer patients throughout his career, especially the poor…

Minimum Working Hypothesis About Life

Minimum Working Hypothesis About Life

It is normal to consider the meaning of life after leading a fulfilling life. I lived an active life that included travel, met many saints, outstanding people, and celebrities, and had my due share of disappointments and accomplishments…


  1. Dear Sir, Thank you for sharing your spiritual thoughts. In my view spirituality comes within us when we are on the path of righhtiousness to fulfil our sole purpose of existence in this world. Regards,

  2. Scathing illustration of the fallacy of contemporary worshipping. Rituals turn into an aim in and of themselves when we lose sight of their divine purpose and become preoccupied with opulent, noisy externals. But rituals are necessary as they serve a function, just like traffic laws. Traffic laws facilitate drivers’ seamless arrival to their destination. But even with meticulous adherence to traffic restrictions, a driver who doesn’t know where they’re going eventually gets lost. In the same way, a religious ritual performer who does not know that the ultimate purpose is to realize God within, is lost in the world.

  3. Respected Sir, excellent message. The image of an astronaut, who can go to space riding a horse is a powerful portrayal of the tragedy of a human life. We are endowed with power of perception, imagination, and comprehension to penetrate the apparent phenomena and understand the reality. But we waste it by pursuing trivia. Even doctors are trying to treat patients based on images and lab reports, missing the reality of the human body as a wholesome psychological-physical system. Not only people fail to see God inside their own bodies, they totally miss God present inside others around them and behave inappropriately with them.

  4. Always said, will say it again – the best genre of your blogs is THIS VERY AREA.

    I have read Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships. What a beautiful book. Welwood has kept it non-denominationally spiritual and psychological. Just as this piece of writing of your’s.

    Basically he’s all about the idea that people are mostly pretty wounded and imperfect and you have to accept yourself for being broken and learn to love yourself so you can love other people.

    Pretty wise stuff.

  5. Good and thought provoking blog.
    It is for us to turn inwards and reflect upon the past and move forward towards a more meaningful life – a life of consideration and empathy towards all the people in our lives.

  6. Really stimulating blog sir. Rituals are specific to each religious tradition and prescribe ways to worship God. However, these traditions are frequently misinterpreted, and as a result, many people associate them with mundane things. The fact that they are frequently employed for goals other than serving God just makes the issue worse. For instance, they frequently assist individuals in expressing their religious commitment or gaining acceptance in a group. Rituals can take a significant amount of time, money, and energy because they may be required at different points in life. Originally meant to aid in our memory and service of God, they become watered down and reduced to mechanized, repetitive tasks. It should come as no surprise that these mindless rituals repel bright young things.

  7. Rituals that are conducted correctly gradually purify our consciousness, and each time we execute one, it becomes more meaningful and newer. They may seem repetitive, yet they are healthy for the soul. Rituals need to incorporate the memory of God to be transformative. God should constantly be recalled and never forgotten.

    Rituals and other external elements, such as exquisite temples, beautifully adorned deities, and singing foster a positive atmosphere and inspire followers to have a closer relationship with God. The exterior formulae that are provided through the rituals have an impact on the internals, even though the internal mood is crucial to our relationship with God. In the end, content is crucial, but form also plays a role in carrying and protecting it.

    We become spiritual by following ritual.

  8. Dear Sir, the longer I look at the picture of an astronaut riding a horse the more I can feel the absurdity of the modern way of living. I have been working in healthcare and hospital management for over a decade now and I have seen this sentiment expressed many times by physicians and advanced practice providers who appear to long for a time when the biopsychosocial model was in vogue – to understand a person’s medical condition it is not simply the biological factors that must be considered, but also the psychological and social factors. In my view, social determinants of health account for approximately half of all health outcomes.

    Going by the list published by the World Health Organization the social determinants of health, which can influence health outcomes (and equity) in positive and negative ways are: Income and social protection, education, unemployment, and job insecurity, working life conditions, Food insecurity, housing, basic amenities and the environment, early childhood development, social inclusion and non-discrimination, Structural conflict, and access to affordable health services of decent quality. It seems to me, however, that the concept of whole-person treatment has waned more in the last one decade. We are ignoring the psychological and social substrates of health care, and in doing so we fail to truly understand our patients’ concerns, including their needs and desires. Thank you Sir.

  9. Reawakening the divine love of God within all living things is the aim of rituals. That innate love is now hidden beneath the heavy veil of material consciousness. Therefore, each faith’s founders and instructors provide a series of rites to aid in the followers’ gradual purification of their awareness from material contamination.

    The aarti ceremony is performed in Sanatan Dharma, when a devotee presents God with various offerings, including water, a burning flame, aromatic incense, and other items. The purpose of this ceremony is to assist the devotee in realizing that God is the source of all components in the material creation, including heat and smell. The chance to recognize God’s ownership and our reliance on Him for our basic needs is provided by the aarti ceremony.

  10. Sir,

    कस्तूरी कुंडल बसे मृग ढ़ूँढ़ै बन माहि।
    ऐसे घट-घट राम हैं दुनिया जानत नाँहि॥

    इस दोहे के माध्यम से कबीर बता रहे हैं कि जिस प्रकार कस्तूरी हिरण की नाभि में रहती है पर उसकी सुगंध से आकर्षित होकर हिरण जंगल में इधर-उधर भागते हुए उसे ढूंढता रहता है कि वह सुगंध कहां से आ रही है, उसी प्रकार मनुष्य भी भगवान को जगह जगह ढूंढता रहता है परंतु ईश्वर उसके अपने भीतर व्याप्त है यह बात मनुष्य नहीं समझ पाता। ध्यान में बैठना सबसे बड़ी पूजा है।

  11. Such brilliant piece of writing. Such clear thoughts are generally the product of a mind which is high on spirituality or marijuana. In your case it has to be spirituality. Younger generation will find their mooring in their own way…as you wrote last time..Can the change be stopped??

  12. Arun, enjoyed reading your latest blog. Yes, people mistake religion vs spiruality. ONE CAN BE ATHEIST OR AGNOSTIC BUT STILL BE SPIRUTUAL.

    I APRECIATED THE DIFFERENCE WHEN READING VIVEKANANDA’s speeches on religion, spirutuality and science. Thanks for an enlightening blog, best wishes.

  13. Sir, we always enjoyed your blogs and learn many things. I believe that spiritual path of life is indeed required to connect with the science and scientific credentials.

  14. Sir, Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Infact a guideline, eye opener, for one to walk the right path.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share This