Creativity and Spiritual India

How creativity builds empathy

Life is diverse indeed

Bad guys have their own motivations.

In nuanced stories, no one is just plain evil. That’s true in real life too. This ‘evil-doer’ is just carrying on the inheritances of a bad childhood. She’s trying to uphold tradition and order. He wants the land back that was stolen from his people generations ago. She’d determined to save her country’s principles, and the only way to do it is to rule it with an iron fist. An antagonist is a hero in her own mind.

Good guys have their faults.

An anti-hero has more faults than most. Clint Eastwood’s characters, Wolverine, the couple in Natural Born Killers, the dudes in Pulp Fiction. They’re so twisted that they’re protagonists but not heroes, in my mind. I don’t have friends as heavy as that, but most of the people I look up to aren’t perfect. I love them anyway.



In any discussion or debate, it’s nice to see characters representing different points of view. It’s the same in fiction. It’s boring if everyone sees things in the same way, like a herd of animals. If a theme of a story is spirituality, it’s uninteresting if everyone’s of the same faith, and of the same flavor of that one faith. Rather if we have a cast of atheists, theists, polytheists, scientists and ex-believers, we can flesh out the issues in their discussions, conflicts, actions and reactions.

Straw men. Built to burn.

A straw man is a character who’s there just to prove his world-view wrong. His failure shows that his world-view is flawed. Now, a character may fail because his world-view is unworkable, because his opponents take him down. But he’s got to have reasons for doing what he’s doing. He’s got to make a convincing case, if only to himself, if the story’s going to feel realistic. I may be a theist, but the atheist in my book has to represent himself well.

An aggressive, angry person has their reasons for being that way. It might seem convoluted and hypocritical to me, or to other characters, but he feels he’s justified or he wouldn’t be doing it. I, or the character who’s convictions are most like mine, might vehemently disagree with the villain, but if I’m going to write that character convincingly, I need to understand people who have that nature.


In order to write about people who think differently from me, who hold beliefs other than my own, I need to empathize with such folk in real life. I find that as I write more fiction, my appreciation of diverse kinds of people increases.

Bengali people are very different from Canadians

Bengalis and Canadians

I grew up in Canada. Right now I’m in West Bengal. Bengalis as a whole have a very different nature than Canadians.

Broadly speaking, I find Bengali people to be extremely social, family-based, emotional, and devotional. They’re expressive without inhibitions, well into gossip, devotional to the point where they’ll roll around in groups inside of temples, calling out the names of the deities on the altar there.

By contrast, Canadians are reserved, polite, pragmatic and individualistic.

People are a bit like their climate.

The sub-tropical lands of West Bengal are rich with intertwined, often competing life. Canada is cool, vast and sparse by comparison. There are fewer flora and fauna, and what’s there is starkly differentiated. The people are like that too. Everyone sails their own ship. They meet with others, then go on. They don’t like to huddle in huge groups for long.

I may come from a polite and practical people, but how fascinating it is to put expressive, deeply spiritual, collectively-minded people in my stories. Though it irritates me to be shoved aside in a temple, by an eager old-lady-pilgrim’s steel-bar elbows, when I think of her as a character in a story, it’s suddenly a fascinating scene.

artwork by Alina Gaboran

(courtesy of Alina Gaboran, used with permission)

It’s like artwork

If you’re going to draw a person on an object, at least in the post-renaissance style, you have to understand the three-dimensional shape of it, how light plays on it, how shadows fall on it and how it casts shadows, how the shapes join with each other. Some would say that if you want to really show the life of a living subject, you have to be in touch with that life in them. You have to empathize with them, then their likeness will come from your brush.

Diverse spiritual viewpoints


I just participated in a week-long spiritual festival here in Navadvipa town, West Bengal, India. It’s a beautiful place. The Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati rivers all run through the land, dividing it into nine islands. We roamed from temple to temple, singing and dancing like mad. The festival is called the Gaura Purnima festival, celebrating the appearance day of the great spiritual personality, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu (affectionately known to the elder ladies of his time as little Nimai)

An incredible diversity of people came to this little town

They came from around the world. Some are by nature creative and artistic, others scientific and practical. Some were born into spiritually-minded families. Others grew up in homes where such discussions never came up. Although coming to the same place under the same spiritual banner, people bring their own convictions with them. Some disagree strongly with others.

In all this sizzling pot of spiritual diversity, I found that my own writing of fiction helps me. The mindset of being a storyteller is allowing me to step back from the intensity of inter-personal drama. I can see it all as a story with an astoundingly diverse cast. With the detachment that comes from imagining it to be unreal, I can better understand people’s motivations. I can take what’s good in them, and the rest is spicy chutney. Certainly a story without conflict would be boring.

There’s a tendency in real life to make people fully good or bad, but in fiction it doesn’t fly. You want some gradations of motivations and selfishness.

Fiction is a kind of allegory, or simplified representation, of the real world’s in its infinite complexity. Often, it can help us understand, accommodate and live life.

How is communication even possible?

The diversity of people throughout the world is so great that I sometimes find it amazing that we can communicate at all. Yet we can, if we try, relate with people very different from ourselves.


Some say this is because we have parts of our brains which mirror the thoughts of others. We give them a temporary house in our heads, and thus come to understand them. By imitating their brains with parts of our own, we come to know them. 


Energetically, we hear that people exchange energies when they communicate. Different colors and flavors of energy come from one person and make themselves part of the other. Either way, we take something of the other onboard. We make it our own in order to understand it.

This makes sense to me.

Human beings generally have two arms, two legs, two eyes and so on. There’s a kind of standard physical composition. Women and men aren’t that much different anatomically, except in a few key places. The physical diversity is built on the commonality. We’re much more similar to one another than we are different. Even the bodies of animals have many of the same structures as ours.

I believe that we also share a likeness in our fundamental makeup as conscious beings. We could say that we can understand each other because our fundamental makeup is largely alike. It’s not that we’re all one personality, but our personalities are made up of the same building blocks, arranged and shaped in different ways. I think councilors and psychologists would agree.

Spiritually speaking, I’ve heard we all come from the same source, and that we are wee versions of the supreme conscious entity. 

Most spiritual paths advise us not to judge or criticize others. My own path, bhakti-yoga, certainly emphasizes this. It’s said that if we criticize someone, the faults we perceive in that person will become our own. Conversely, if we see good qualities in others, those virtues will come to us.

Writing fiction helps me to understand and empathize with others. My spiritual path also helps me accept others, which in turn helps my creation of fictional characters. This then helps me spiritually. It’s a sweet back and forth augmentation of goodness.

Plus I’d go crazy if I didn’t get my creativity out somehow. I’m not ready to be a full-on monk just yet.

Thanks to the writing excuses podcast for part of the motivation for this post.


Have you got any thoughts on creativity, spirituality and empathy? Share them below.

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3 responses

  1. Bruce Neale

    liking the detachment talk…see the daily goings on around us as just a story, or a movie…temporary, not real…in meditation often one is advised to watch the breath, just observe, dont control it – if you go really deep into the point between the eyebrows you come to perceive that you arent breathing at all! – either you go breathless for short moments or feel that God is breathing through you, a state of conscious passivity. “Thou art the doer. Never I. Never I.” Anyway, its said that seeing the world and one’s daily comings and goings in it as just as a dream (which equates to Venuji’s description re seeing his daily activities as a story being told by some unknown author) is the greatest way to practice wisdom. Consider that one falls asleep at night and awakes in the morning to find that all the events that had transpired within one’s consciousness were not real and were just a dream. And so the truth-seeker ponders “if my night-time experiences are unreal what makes me think my daytime experiences are real?!” Which beckons the only real question “What is Reality!” Another way to cultivate wisdom is the “neti neti” philosophy….”not this, not this” – whatever one can take away from oneself and one still exists – well then, that is not what one is! …location of body, dress, diet, name, possessions …even the physical body. …so my friend Venuji I want to say with thoughts like these one is actually practising jnana yoga – which goes hand in hand with bhakti yoga of course (“I want only you Lord”). We each have a brain and a heart and are supposed to use both, and in our ultimate act of sacrifice we are supposed to offer both to God. (i like the term raja yoga – royal yoga . all encompassing. using all approaches to God which befits our multi-faceted personality).

    Liked by 2 people

    April 3, 2015 at 12:19 pm

  2. gaudiyakirtan

    I really like your way of thinking. I wish I had read this before you came to Puri so that we could have discussed this more. After reading that I’m all the sudden inspired to write fiction! haha.


    April 22, 2015 at 7:30 am

    • Alas! Glad you like it though, and if you write some fiction, send it to me first!


      April 22, 2015 at 8:32 am

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