Wednesday, May 4, 2011

On God, Spirituality and the Self in the Later Years of Life

I am happy to give below a complete article written by Prof Ramamurti on a topic that is very difficult to approach or describe - spirituality and its desirability in later life. It is comforting to learn from others' experiences that turning to God, religion or spirituality has a positive soothing effect in stress relief in older persons. Read on....




Hon.Director (emeritus) Center for Research on Aging,

Dept. of Psychology, S.V.University, Tirupati-517 502, India.

The evening of human life is looked upon as a period of wisdom, maturity and fulfillment. With the goals and tasks of life mostly completed, one looks forward to a calm, restful and peaceful time. For many, the period is best spent in prayer to God, practice of spirituality and service to fellowmen. An attempt is made in the following pages, not so much to discuss whether God (or the soul) exists, as it is to capture the unique significance and utility of the conceptions of God, spirituality and the self for the older person. They are considered as of special relevance in the context of the stresses and strains of modern living. Most of the observations in this write up, are empirically based on the interactions with the older people, as they were interviewed by the author, as part of a research project on healthy ageing.

The concept of “God” has been found to consist of a variegated manifestation of ideas, across the times and cultures of people. Succinctly stated, many religions and faiths regard God as a supreme entity, beyond all life and matter and as responsible for everything in the cosmos. God is often viewed as omniscient, omnipresent and all pervading in the universe. Some consider God as the cause of all phenomena, while others view God as the phenomena itself. A host of behavioral norms and customs, that vary widely in their detail, characterize the multitude of faiths. Each faith has its own unique set of beliefs and practices. But, most of them contribute to the “one God” concept. For instance, in the Hindu faith, the scriptures conceive God as the ultimate formless energy (Shakti) that is all pervading. The conception comes close to the view of modern science, that everything is ultimately reducible to diffuse energy. This diffuse energy takes on the various forms of matter in the universe.

Interviews with older people, have revealed that people may turn to God, for various reasons. Many seek the support and blessings of God, in their day to day endeavours, to reduce their sufferings, to protect them from harm and evil, to act as a guiding force as they navigate through life and help them realize their wishes and aspirations. In the older years, there is an increased realization that this unseen, supreme force appears to shape the events in the universe and those in one’s own life. This belief may humble them to an emotional surrender to Him. It is regarded as a sacred relationship that may become at times, very intense, bordering on deviance.


The term spirituality is derived from the word ‘spirit’, the non material animating aspect of the human being, that is believed to leave the body on the death of the individual. Spirituality (as described in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1966), is the highest or most moral, sacred or religious set of qualities of a person. However, in a practical sense, it pertains to a set of behaviours, practices and dispositions, that relate a person to God. Spirituality may be woven into the practices of a faith, but is not necessarily tied down to any single religion. It is supposed to be a virtue of human character and a very desirable trait. It is increasingly seen in the older years and even considered as a characteristic of old age.

The older persons, as part of their spiritual behaviour, may pray to their Lord in whom they repose their faith. They strongly believe, that their prayers will be heard and that God (as personified by them) will come to their rescue and help them face their problems and realize their aspirations. Many of them stated that the prayers were rewarding to them. The benefits of prayer, have been reported across religions (eg Christianity, Islam, Hinduism), across cultures of the East and the West, across genders and across economic classes. Many may be familiar with the effects of prayers offered at the famous temples of (Christian) Lourdes in France, of (Hindu) Balaji in India and a large number of others across the globe involving different faiths.

Attempts to analyse some of these effects reveal the strength of the mind, operating through intense thought and prayer, that could affect body processes and facilitate the desired changes. Several laboratory experiments have shown, for example, that the experiences of pain or other tactile sensations (eg. Warmth) can be amplified or reduced through suggestion. Individuals who are more suggestible than others, easily accept them and internalize them. Practicing psychologists and behaviour therapists are well aware of such psycho physiological effects.

Similar effects (as above) were once reported in a B.B.C. Television programme. Individuals suffering from several ailments (like arthritis pain) were either treated with an appropriate drug or a placebo (a drug like tablet with no medicine in it), without being told of the fact. After some days both (those treated with medicine containing tablet and those treated with the placebo) reported a reduction in the ailment. Evidently, those who took the “placebo”, strongly believed (like those who took the medicine), that they would get better. This strong auto suggestion, has brought about a psychophysiolgoical effect of reducing the pain in them. Such episodes are not uncommon in clinical practice. Only, they exemplify the possible effect of the mind on body.

The foregoing discussion goes to show, that there is a palpable effect of the mental processes on bodily experiences. The power of prayer, of positive thinking and of autosuggestion is apparent. In fact, it shows that several of the “faith cures” widely reported in the media from several parts of the world would have been brought about in a similar fashion.

These results also go to suggest that in a similar fashion, strong negative thoughts and suggestions may have negative effects on the individual. Worry, anger, fear and anxiety may act negatively and aggravate body conditions that are susceptible and sensitive to emotional disturbances (eg. blood pressure, gastric acidity). Medical evidence is suggestive of such effects. Therefore, positive thinking and a peaceful spiritual orientation may have a salutary effect on one’s physical health.

Not only do spirituality, prayer and faith in God positively influence the body processes, but also the mind. They produce a feeling of quiet, equanimity and peace in the mind. Empirical studies, on the effects of prayer and meditation on the mind, are many in psychological and health literature. Meditation, combined with spirituality, fully occupies the mind, expelling fear, anxiety and stress. In the result, the mind, bereft of worry would remain calm, peaceful and happy. Also, as a part of spirituality, the belief that all humanity has originated from God, encourages a feeling of brotherhood and oneness among our fellowmen. This idea would instill feelings of love and affection and eschew hatred towards others.

The self

Empirical studies and interviews reveal, that as old age sets in, one becomes increasingly aware that the end of life is approaching. Many older persons entertain anxiety and distress, regarding the end of life. Older people have exhibited an inhibition to freely discus matters concerning death, especially as it applies to them. Some have expressed their concerns of the processes that attend the last years, like disease, disability, loneliness and insecurity. They find it difficult to accept the destruction of their own “self”. Questions like where do I (my “self”) go after death; will the “self” and “consciousness” continue after death and if so, in what form? These are anxiety provoking thoughts, and as such, one would like to avoid countenancing them. The less they are thought of, the better. As the end of life seems to draw nearer and nearer, the greater is the worry and distress associated with such thoughts(Ramamurti and Jamuna,2004).

The “self”’ of a person and what becomes of it after death, is a concern that most older people brought out during the interviews. An analysis of what the ‘self’ is goes to show, that it develops as one grows up. Psychological studies of human development have revealed, that the self is a composite of the body (mirror) image, the idea of “myself” as gained from how others regard “me” (reflected appraisals), one’s own thinking or reflection about oneself and the memory of cumulated experiences of one’s own past as stored in the mind of the person (Ramamurti and Jamuna,2004). It is no real entity and has no independent objective existence, other than this. But, this is a sort of identity that one bears and carries of oneself and distinguishes him from others, that makes the person believe, that the self has a real, independent existence. However, it ceases to exist and disappears on the death of the person. Nevertheless, as long as the individual exists the phenomenal self is a very real entity in the mind of the person.

Some faiths, like Hinduism, hold the view that there is a ‘soul’ (Atma) that enters at birth and leaves the body at death. The soul (as an aspect of God) is believed to have no death. It either rejoins God, as some faiths believe, or it may be reborn somewhere else with a fresh lease of life.

Studies on the elderly have shown that such a conception of immortality of the soul, has distinct advantages for the older person. It suggests, that death is only for the body, but not for the soul which seems to outlive the body and also that there is a continuity of its existence. People who owe allegiance to this conception, have reported less anxiety about death. They also showed better acceptance of and adjustment to, the process of ageing. Therefore, it appears that the concept of a soul and its immortality is a belief of significant value to the older person.

In summary, the foregoing discussion makes it increasingly clear that the concepts of God, spirituality and prayer play a significant role in creating a positive effect on the lives of older people. The idea, that all human beings have originated from a common source, as the children of God, encourages the feelings of fraternity and universal brotherhood. The practice of a spiritual way of life, of prayer and meditation, relieves the tensions and tribulations gathered as one passes through the motions of modern living. They instill tranquility and peace of mind. Studies have revealed that the idea of an immortal soul and belief in its continuity beyond bodily death, mitigates considerably, the anxiety associated with death and the annihilation of the psychological self ( Ramamurti and Jamuna,2009). In essence, the practice of spirituality, of godliness, and prayer to the Lord, create a strong beneficial effect on the lives of older people. They enable the person, to lead a life of tranquility, of equanimity and peace of mind, despite the vicissitudes of life. This for sure, is a good enough reason, for their adoption as a way of life, in the later years.


Ramamurti, P.V. and Jamuna, D. (2009) – Gero Psychology in India in Girishwar Misra (ed) Psychology in India; -vol. 3: Clinical and Health Psychology, New Delh, Indian Council of Social Science Research..

Ramamurti, P.V. and Jamuna, D. (2004) – Handbook of Indian Gerontology, New Delhi, Serials Publications.

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