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Buddhism

The construction of ‘Spiritual India’

I went to India for the first time last year.  I’d always been drawn to ancient Indian philosophy, but had put off visiting the country until I had some time to dive in. It was, I guess you could say, ‘spiritual tourism’: travel for the purpose of spiritual growth. There have been spiritual tourists at least since the Crusades, but spiritual tourism really took off in the 1960s, when hordes of Westerners headed to the sub-continent looking for meaning, wisdom and drugs. In the last few years, the Indian government and tourism companies have sought to capitalize on this, with lurid adverts like this (aimed, it should be said, as much at Indians as Westerners):

The spiritual air in the country humbly carries the fragrance of Karma, Dharma and most importantly Forgiveness. Trudge through the mighty mountains and you shall experience divine presence, or traverse through the meandering alleys, where spirituality combined with history waits to greet your spiritually thirsty souls. 

You shall experience divine presence…or your money back!

Western spiritual tourists travel to many different parts of the world, but India in particular attracts them. When and why did some Westerners construct this idea of India as a unique well of spiritual wisdom? And is that bollocks?

The construction of ‘spiritual India’ began, I’d suggest, in the 19th century, when a handful of Romantic intellectuals like Schopenhauer, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Madame Blavatsky started to read the Upanishads, the Dhammapada and the Bhagavad Gita, and were struck by their spiritual depth. The ideas of samsara, reincarnation, Karma, and a Supreme Being behind all religions fitted well with Platonism, and gave succour to those intellectuals who felt alienated from traditional Christianity.

Around the same time, educated Indians started to pride themselves as belonging to a uniquely spiritual culture.  Amartya Sen writes: ‘Colonial undermining of self-confidence had the effect of driving many Indians to look for sources of dignity and pride in some special achievements in which there was less powerful opposition – and also less competition – from the imperial West, including India’s alleged excellence in spirituality and the outstanding importance of her specific religious practices.’

Indians started to produce spiritual gurus who received great recognition in the West, like Vivekananda, a travelling preacher who was a smash hit at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1892. His success there was a huge deal for Indians – their culture had finally stepped out on the world stage and been recognized for its spiritual greatness. 

In another speech, he declared:  ‘From the West we have to learn the sciences of physical nature, while on the other hand the West has to come to us to learn and assimilate religion and spiritual knowledge…All the nations of the world have to sit down patiently at the feet of India to learn the eternal truths embodied in her literature’.

How refreshing this must have sounded to Indians under the heel of the racist British Empire. Sit patiently at our feet! ‘Spiritual India’ was a way of asserting national pride in the face of colonial subjection. But it was also a way of winning Western attention and approval – look how the West loves Vivekananda, see how he is surrounded by swooning rich white women! 

Vivekananda with some Western disciples.

The idea of ‘spiritual India’, hitherto confined to the Western intelligentsia, then went mainstream in the 1960s, thanks to figures like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Ram Dass, and above all the Beatles. As one commentator put it, ‘if meditation is good enough for John Lennon, it’s good enough for me’.

Spiritual but not religious often means being a sort of half-baked Indian

‘Spiritual but not religious’ became a fast-growing demographic among baby-boomers, and what that often meant was leaving Christianity and becoming a sort of Indian manqué, practicing yoga, trying meditation, learning a mantra, visiting an ashram, and if you were lucky finding your guru. The 1970s was the boom-time for Hindu and Buddhist gurus coming to the West and attracting thousands of followers. More often than not, the guru – this supposedly-divine being – turned out to have feet of clay.

The commodification and export of ‘spiritual India’ could be said to be bad for everyone. For Indians, it created this incentive to play the guru, a childlike idiot spouting banalities to get the attention, sex and money of gormless Westerners.

As a teenager, Krishnamurti was seized on by a cabal of spiritually-excited Westerners who decided he was the Messiah of their new world religion, Theosophy. To his credit, he refused to play the role once he’d grown up. He disbanded the Theosophists, and spent much of his life warning people not to seek for gurus. ‘The follower is the destroyer, the follower is the exploiter’, he once said. In other words, you can blame Eastern gurus for abusing their followers, but you can just as easily blame gullible Western followers for abdicating their responsibility and making a god of their teacher. That’s abuse too. 

The export of ‘spiritual India’ also creates this warped idea of a country so spiritually rich that the government doesn’t need to clean the streets, help the poor, protect women from assault or de-pollute the Ganges. It can lead to complacency and stagnation. It denigrates those aspects of Indian culture that don’t fit ‘spiritual India’ – modern India, liberal India, scientific India, capitalist India. And Vivekananda’s idea of ‘spiritual India’ has unfortunately evolved into Hindu nationalism, with xenophobic yogis in positions of political power. If Hinduism is what makes India great, where does that leave the 20% who aren’t Hindu? What of the Buddhist and Muslim contributions to Indian culture? 

For Westerners, genuflecting before ‘spiritual India’ might alienate us from our own power and  our own spiritual traditions. It can turn the spiritual life into a consumer tourist trip, searching for Instagrammable ‘experiences’ rather than embedding your practice in your local community. And it can make mugs of us – we’ll always be second-rate Indians, mumbling Sanskrit phrases we don’t understand. It’s like colonial Indians pretending to be upper-class Brits. It’s not just cricket, my good fellow. 

So yes, ‘spiritual India’ is somewhat bollocks. For a really pessimistic take, read Gita Mehta’s Karma Cola, a scathing exploration of spiritual tourism, which concludes: ‘the experience of the East is simply not accessible to the Western mind, except after an almost total reeducation’.

And yet…

…there really is something incredible about India, and going there really can be a spiritually-enriching experience for Westerners.

Indian culture really has produced some spiritual classics, like the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Dhammapada. It also gave the world sophisticated forms of meditation. The ancient Greeks arrived at some of the same insights about the mind, the emotions and the ceaseless change of all things – compare Stoicism to Buddhism, for example, or Platonism to Hinduism. But the Greeks never developed nearly as sophisticated a body of practical methods for transforming the mind. 

What struck me most on my travels was how normal spirituality is in India. In Britain, spirituality is so erased from the cultural landscape, I find it suffocating. The churches have been converted to luxury apartments, the bells have been silenced, the TV and radio never discuss spiritual matters like God or the afterlife. We’re embarrassed to discuss such topics, and if we do, we apologize with statements like ‘but I’m just a bit crazy’. No you’re not – it’s our totally materialist culture that’s weird! 

In India, religion and spirituality are everywhere. Even for modernized middle-class Indians, it’s quite normal to spend time in an ashram, say, or to follow a guru. The media isn’t embarrassed to discuss spirituality – in fact, some newspapers have supplements devoted to it. Granted, they’re often rather boring and vapid, but I’d rather that than the complete exclusion of spirituality that we have in the British media. It was such a relief to be in a culture where the spiritual isn’t taboo, after feeling like an alien in my own culture.

It’s much more normal to discuss ecstatic experiences and altered states of consciousness in Indian culture than in the UK. At the Jaipur Literature Festival, for example, one of the main speakers was Sadhguru, a yogic teacher who spoke about his ecstatic experiences as a young man. Compare that to the Hay book festival last year, where even though the theme was ‘Reformations’ there was an almost-total lack of any talks on religion or spirituality. Pretty much the only talk on such matters was by me, God help us.

Things you won’t see in the UK: a guru at a book festival

What I like about Indian spirituality – what has often drawn Westerners fleeing the tribal exclusivism of Christianity – is its generous pluralism. As Vivekananda declared at the World Parliament of Religions: ‘We believe not only in universal toleration but we accept all religions as true.’  It’s not either Hinduism or Christianity or atheism or agnosticism but all of them! The Vedas and the Ramayana include agnostic and atheist voices, including the perennialist line ‘God is one but the learned call him by many names’, and the wonderfully agnostic declaration:  ‘How did this creation arise – perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not – only the One who looks down on it from the highest heaven knows – or perhaps He does not know.’  Now there’s a hymn after my own sceptical heart.

It felt such a relief to be in this tolerant, accepting, ‘who knows’ culture after the rationalist ‘there must be one right answer’ culture of the West. I met a rickshaw driver, Ram, who goes to the temple of Ganesh on Tuesday, the temple of Hanuman on Wednesday, and the church on Sunday. He’s also a communist. I stayed at a Zen retreat in Tamil Nadu, set up by an old Indian man who was raised by Jesuits, became a Jesuit priest, travelled to Japan and converted to Zen, and now runs a ‘Zen-Christian’ centre. What happens after death, he was asked. He shrugged. ‘Who knows?’

For some spiritual tourists, absorbing this relaxed Indian spirituality – more focused on practice and states of mind than exclusivist dogma – opens a door for them to come back to their inherited faith. For me, I started to appreciate that Christianity can be a wonderful bhakti yoga, a devotion to the Lord, a heart-opening. It didn’t convince me that Jesus is the Only Son of God, but it did persuade me to join a gospel choir, as a way to open my heart in worship.

Today, we are slightly less wowed by ‘spiritual India’, slightly less likely to surrender to the latest guru arriving at Terminal 5. But the Indification of western culture is not a fad, it’s a long-term shift in the oceanic currents. Around 8% of Americans now meditate, and 10% practice yoga. Over 20% of British people believe in reincarnation, including a quarter of Christians. And roughly two thirds of Americans now believe that ‘many religions can lead to eternal life’, prompting Newsweek to declare ‘we are all Hindus now’.

It’s wrong to see this as an invasion of one culture by another, or as the loss of our cultural identity. Human cultures are constantly melding, blending, clashing and cross-fertilizing, nowhere more so than in religion. Nothing exists in separation, there is no pure, separate and eternal essence called ‘Western civilization’ or ‘the Eastern mind’. Plato has far more in common with the Buddha than Jesus.

Our cultures exist in relation to one another, steal from one another, remix each others’ ideas. ‘Spiritual India’ was created out of the encounter with the British Empire, and was somewhat influenced by Victorian chauvinism and muscular reformist zeal. When Indian spirituality travelled West and was absorbed into our bloodstream, it mutated again, and became something new. Nothing stays the same, everything changes and flows. 

We’re in a period of dizzying cultural change, prompted by mass travel, mass immigration and the development of a globalized culture. That’s led people around the world to cling to a rather fundamentalist and reductive version of ‘their’ culture and insist that its the best, and all other cultures are alien invasions and existential threats. I see this as much among some Westerners as among Indians or Pakistanis – I hear people like Douglas Murray say the West has an identity crisis and needs to return to Christianity. But what I see, instead of clear lines of demarcation and conflict, is a long history of stealing, imitating, and remixing. And that’s OK.

What’s the evidence for reincarnation?

Things used to be so much simpler

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I’ve believed in reincarnation longer than I can remember. It must have started in a previous life. I’ve never really examined my core belief. It’s just been there, part of the furniture. But a new book has stung me into examining that comfy old sofa. Do I really need it? Is it time to chuck it out?

The book is Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright, an American popularizer of evolutionary psychology and author of best-sellers including Non-Zero and The Moral Animal. Wright has spent much of his literary career trying to construct a scientifically-valid moral philosophy to replace the Baptist faith he lost as a teenager. Now, in Buddhism, he has finally found it.

The book should really be called ‘Why my version of Buddhism is true’. Wright’s Buddhism is secular and naturalistic. He assures us early on that he’s not championing ‘the most exotically metaphysical parts of Buddhism – re-incarnation for example’. He tells us Buddhism has some shockingly radical ideas – there is no self, emotions are usually delusions – but re-assures us that these ideas are supported by modern science, and would ‘fit easily into a college psychology or philosophy course’ (indeed, he ran such a course at Princeton and you can do it at Coursera in September).

Wright’s secular, naturalized Buddhism is all the rage among western intellectuals. There is Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, who (like Wright) is a follower of Vipassana meditation minus reincarnation. There is Owen Flanagan, a leading virtue ethics philosopher, who proposes a Buddhism shorn of ‘the mind-numbing and wishful hocus pocus that infects much Mahayana Buddhism’. There is Sam Harris, New Atheist provocateur, who thinks Buddhism is ‘unique among the world’s religions as a repository of contemplative wisdom’, but still says ‘there are ideas within Buddhism that are so incredible as to render the dogma of the virgin birth plausible by comparison’.

And there is Stephen Batchelor, who spent many years practicing Buddhism in Korea and India, and is now trying to develop a secular Buddhism. In After Buddhism, he writes: ‘I find it disturbing when Western converts to Buddhism with a background and upbringing similar to my own [ie rational humanist] uncritically adopt beliefs – in karma and rebirth for example – that traditional Buddhists simply take for granted.’ Unlike Flanagan or Harris, Batchelor doesn’t argue his secular Buddhism is superior to animist Buddhism: ‘My approach simply reflects an embedded cultural worldview that I could no more discard than I could wilfully cease to comprehend the English language’. Secular rationalism is simply the core belief he grew up with.

I want to address three questions. First, does a naturalistic Buddhism make sense? Second, is reincarnation utterly incredible? Third, does it really matter what we believe about the afterlife?

Firstly, does a naturalistic Buddhism make sense? I don’t think an entirely materialist-mechanistic Buddhism makes sense, unless it finds a place for free will and moral choice. As Richard Gombrich argues in his excellent What The Buddha Thought, the Buddha’s teachings on karma – as ye reap, so shall ye sow – makes no sense if we don’t have free moral choice.

Can one remove reincarnation without the building of Buddhism collapsing? Yes, but it challenges the Third Noble Truth – that it’s possible to attain a permanent end to suffering in Nirvana. That was the whole aim of the Buddha’s teaching, if I understand it correctly. Very few people actually do seem to attain Nirvana (in the sense of a permanent liberation from the self and from suffering). I’ve met a lot of Buddhists, but never an Enlightened person. Have you?

Either the Buddha was selling us a dud; or the journey to Liberation takes place over many lives; or the dharma only brings us occasional release from suffering, rather than permanent Liberation. Wright writes: ‘The object of the game isn’t to reach Liberation and Enlightenment on some distant day, but rather to become a bit more liberated and a bit more enlightened on some not-so-distant day. Like today!’

OK, but this is a different game. This is not the game the Buddha was playing when he sat under the bodhi tree and refused to move until he was Liberated. This is not the Great Crossing – there is no other side we can realistically hope to reach. And a bit of me wonders, if there is no Liberation, whether it’s worth it to forego the attachments of this life and sit on that cushion for many, many hours. If there is just this one life…maybe just go for it, play the game of this life, this world, attachments and passions and all. Sure, it will hurt, but it will be over soon.

Removing reincarnation also removes the Buddhist explanation for suffering and misfortune – that they’re karmic retribution for past misdeeds. It means that bad things happen to good people because life is random. The universe is not moral, bad people live wonderful lives without punishment, good people live awful lives without reward. Deal with it. This secular Buddhism seems close to the pessimism of late Stoicism – life is tough, the universe is amoral, but wisdom helps us bear it before we die.

Second, is reincarnation a ridiculous belief? Well, it’s certainly weird. How the hell would it work? You’d need some cosmic filing system, to match your soul with its virtues and vices to the proper re-birth. Most species don’t have the capacity for moral choice, so what decides their rebirth? Why is the human population growing?

Materialism, by contrast, is very clean – when you’re dead, you’re dead. No need for an elaborate soul-clearing system. That’s why most academics are publicly materialists, although 25% of people in both the US and UK believe in reincarnation, including a quarter of Christians and many Jews (particularly Kabbalists). Materialism has its own weird stuff to explain, of course – like how matter becomes conscious. But reincarnation is still a very weird theory.

I think I’ve tended to accept it, perhaps, because my two greatest spiritual heroes – Plato and the Buddha – both argued for it. If they were so wise about ethics and psychology, maybe they were right about the metaphysics too. Maybe when you reach their level of spiritual awakening, re-incarnation doesn’t seem so fruity. Some contemporary meditation masters say they remember past lives, such as Sharon Salzberg and Russel Williams. But the Buddha himself said we shouldn’t take things on trust just because of ‘the seeming competence of the speaker’.

What about scientific evidence? There was a Canadian psychiatrist called Ian Stevenson, who headed up the University of Virginia’s psychiatry department, and spent most of his life investigating cases where children claimed to remember past lives. He was given $1 million by the inventor of the Xerox machine to carry on this work. Stevenson spent decades travelling the world and investigating cases, and claimed to have discovered around 3000 reliable instances where children knew things about previous existences that were corroborated by ‘former relatives’.

According to Stevenson’s findings, people tend to be reincarnated around two years after they die, usually in a place near where they previously lived. They may retain desires and fears from their previous existence (if they drowned, they might retain a fear of water). They tend to forget their previous life by the age of six or so. Stevenson also suggested birth marks relate to death-wounds from the previous existence.

All rather strange, although some leading Skeptics are quite open to his research. Jesse Bering, author of The Belief Instinct, researched Stevenson’s work and decided: ‘I’m not quite ready to say that I’ve changed my mind about the afterlife. But I can say that a fair assessment and a careful reading of Stevenson’s work has, rather miraculously, managed to pry it open.’ Sam Harris also says he found Stevenon’s books ‘interesting, and I cannot categorically dismiss their contents in the way that I can dismiss the claim of religious dogmatists’.  Others, however, suggest Stevenson could be very prone to confirmation bias – he was looking for evidence to support his pre-existing core belief, after all. And why did none of the children recall previous existences as animals?

Finally, does any of this matter? Does it matter what we believe about the afterlife?

Certainly, humans have traditionally believed that our beliefs about the afterlife matter. The ancient Greeks venerated the Eleusinian Mysteries above all other rituals precisely because they thought initiates ‘died with a better hope’ for the afterlife. The Mysteries reduced their death-anxiety by improving their hope for the afterlife – just as psychedelics do, according to recent trials.

Christianity is also founded on the central idea that Jesus’ sacrifice enables the resurrection of the faithful in heaven. If that belief is not true, ‘if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable’, says St Paul. The belief in posthumous judgement animated medieval culture, inspiring its great cathedrals, its vast economy of penance and indulgence, its constant reminders of death.

Since the decline of Christianity, western culture has embraced a more Epicurean view – death is the end, there is no God and no eternal judgement, so get the most pleasure from this life while you can. But in fact our faith in the finality of death can make us somewhat neurotic about success and status – we’re anxious to leave something behind us once we’re gone (a family, a book, a selfie). I’ve wondered how western culture might change if our beliefs about death change, as presumably they will.

I think my beliefs about the afterlife inform how I live and feel. The near-death experience I had when I was 24 helped to heal me from PTSD because it gave me the strong belief there is something in me beyond the ego, which can’t be harmed and doesn’t die.This helped me overcome my ego-anxiety. 

Groundhog Day – would you behave differently if you knew you had multiple lives?

Since then, my faith in the afterlife has somewhat faded but never gone. It occasionally makes me more detached about my ego. I reflect that I have been many different people, of many shapes, sizes, sexes, colours and talents, so why get anxious about this latest incarnation? In mystic moments, I imagine life as a computer game where we get infinite rebirths – would we live differently if we really believed this? Would we get less wound up, and stop to appreciate the beauty of the game?

No, probably not! We’d get just as absorbed in the game, just as caught-up in the movie, just as attached and emotional. The fact is, our beliefs about death don’t affect us much, because life is so damn absorbing. We barely think about death until we or one of our loved ones die. When you compare religious and non-religious cultures, there’s just as much wrong-doing, and cruelty, and avarice, and vanity in both. Any belief can be held wrongly – a belief in reincarnation could make one lazy, or unkind, or proud of one’s position in the social hierarchy.

I think Stephen Batchelor is right – the truly radical thing in Buddha’s teachings is that he said our beliefs about the afterlife are of secondary importance. Don’t get hung up on it. We can’t know for sure. Practice the dharma now, see what happens, see if it makes life better. He is supposed to have said:

Nowhere does a lucid one

hold contrived views about it is or it is not,

How could he succumb to them,

having let go of illusions and conceit?

The priest without borders

doesn’t seize on what he’s known or beheld,

Not passionate, not dispassionate,

he doesn’t posit anything as ultimate.