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Indian spirituality

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.

Searching for the Guru

Neem Karoli Baba reading Ram Dass’ Be Here Now

I’ve come back from India after an interesting three weeks. I went there with the vague intention to find a guru and take my spiritual practice to the next level. I say ‘vague’ because I wasn’t quite sure how one went about finding a guru.

I was inspired by the story of Ram Dass, or Richard Alpert as he was known when he was a psychology professor at Harvard. After he was thrown out of Harvard for giving psychedelic drugs to his students, Alpert went to India in 1967. He’d been taking vast amounts of LSD and psilocybin, and would reach these states of bliss and ego-transcendence. But he always came down. How to stay up there?

While travelling in India, he met an Indian holy man,  Neem Karoli Baba, and eventually became his disciple, taking the name Ram Dass.  Of all the Eastern gurus one could have followed in the 60s and 70s, Neem Karoli Baba seems to have been a pretty good one.

His followers took him to be an enlightened being, even the avatar of Hanuman, possessed of incredible spiritual powers like clairvoyance and translocation, and with an unrivalled capacity for unconditional love. But that’s what most devotees think of their gurus. Unlike most gurus, Neem Karoli Baba didn’t turn out to be utterly corrupted by money, power or sex – at least, not as far as I can tell, although there are some stories of him fondling his female followers.

Ram Dass came back to the US, and wrote a book called Be Here Now, which came out in 1971. It was a massive success, and was a sort of DIY book of Western and Eastern spiritual techniques for the hippy movement. It did a lot to introduce the idea of the guru to Western spirituality.

He wrote:

At certain stages in the spiritual journey, there is a quickening of the spirit which is brought about through the grace of the guru. When you are at one of the stages where you need this catalyst, it will be forthcoming… If you go looking for a guru and are not ready to find one, you will not find what you are looking for….All you can do is purify yourself in body and mind. Everyone already has a guru. However you may or may not meet your guru on the physical plane in this lifetime. 

The stories of Ram Dass and other westerners interacting with Neem Karoli Baba were so far out, so full of wonder and magic and love, that naturally everyone who read Be Here Now thought, I gotta get me a guru!

So the idea was introduced into Western culture of teachers who were in fact enlightened beings, omniscient and infallible, whom one should treat as God. As another great Indian sage of the early 20th century, Ramana Maharshi, taught: ‘God, the guru and the Self are the same’.

The same idea was introduced into western culture in the 50s, 60s and 70s by Buddhist teachers like Chogram Trungpa Rinpoche (pictured on the left). One should utterly surrender to the guru, even if they behave weirdly or abusively –  that’s just what Chogram Rinpoche called ‘crazy wisdom‘. Their erratic behaviour will break down your ego-defences and lead you to the divine spark within you – just as Tilopa brought Naropa to enlightenment by hitting him in the face with his sandal. 

The idea of the divine guru was something new in Western spirituality. Yes, Catholicism has the idea of Papal infallibility, and Roman emperors had been worshipped as gods, but in both cases this was more about political authority over countries than mystical authority over individuals. There were always charismatic Christian preachers who inspired great devotion among their followers – some good, some bad. But they never claimed to be mouthpieces of the divine (rarely, anyway, although this occurs more often in Pentecostalism, where it often lead to spiritual abuse).

In general, Christians believe that only Christ is divine, and to suggest you or your teacher is also perfect is idolatrous. And it’s setting yourself up for a fall – all humans in this realm are imperfect and flawed, even Christ’s closest followers are shown to be imperfect creatures, again and again. Jesus is the only Guru – you surrender to Christ. 

I wonder, has the idea of the guru done more harm than good in western spirituality over the last 50 years? Of the various people who have either proclaimed themselves as gurus, or who have been followed as gurus – including Ram Dass – how many of them turned out to be genuinely enlightened, and how many turned out to be bad ‘uns? I’d say about 95% turned out to be corrupt in some way – you can read the long sad litany in this book ‘Stripping the Gurus’. [Edit – I think I’ve probably way over-estimated this figure. And for a critique of that book, see Don’s comment below]. 

If you surrender to a guru and they turn out to be corrupt and abusive, that must be utterly crushing. And what bad karma for the teachers! ‘Their actions are like pouring the liquid fires of hell directly into their stomachs’, wrote the Dalai Lama. 

So many Eastern celebrity teachers turned out to be frauds, sex abusers, alcoholics, violent, or greedy. And the Eastern idea of the guru also inspired many western charlatans to declare themselves divine avatars in the last few decades, almost always with disastrous consequences.

Being highly articulate and insightful does not mean you’re enlightened. Being incredibly charismatic and able to provoke ecstasy in your devotees does not mean you’re enlightened. Being able to perform wonders does not mean you’re enlightened. But the craze for guru-worship has led people to take all these things as surefire signs.

It’s even got Ram Dass in trouble. Although he’s always been pretty honest about his failings, it’s failed to put off devotees who still sometimes worship him as God.  And he himself was bamboozled by a New Jersey housewife who claimed to be an enlightened being, and who successfully demanded sex, money, and complete surrender from Ram Dass and her other followers.

Anyway, I wanted to find a guru, or at least, a teacher who could help me progress. I went to a Zen retreat in the south, where I thought I’d start off my journey. It has a nice old teacher who is admirably un-guru-like – his favourite phrase is ‘I don’t know!’ But I had to move on after a few days, because all the places at the retreat had been taken by Germans. Typical.

So I flew to Varanasi, one of the most sacred sites in India. I watched the candles float out onto the foggy Ganges at dusk. I observed the bodies being burnt on the ghats – being cremated in Varanasi supposedly grants you instant liberation. I saw people dipping themselves into the incredibly polluted river in the belief it will wash away their sins.

It’s an impressive place, but I didn’t find my guru (I didn’t look very hard to be honest). Instead, I took a bus to Sarnath, about half an hour outside Varanasi.

This was where the Buddha first taught the dharma. He became enlightened at Bodhgaya, then walked around for a bit, before turning up 250km away in Sarnath, where he met some of his old ascetic chums. He taught them the essence of Buddhism in about 30 minutes: all life is suffering, suffering is caused by attachment, we can overcome attachment, by following the eight-fold path: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. Simple! 

The deer-park at Sarnath, where the Buddha first taught the dharma

And it’s interesting, the Buddha didn’t mention anything about the importance of gurus. On the contrary, he seemed to insist that we have to take responsibility for our enlightenment. We can’t expect the the guru, or the Ganges, or God, to do the work for us.

It’s quite a stark message.

The Dalai Lama has written, clearly in response to the teachings of Chogram Rinpoche and other Buddhist rock-stars:

It is frequently said that the essence of the training in guru yoga is to cultivate the art of seeing everything the guru does as perfect. Personally I myself do not like this to be taken too far. Often we see written in the scriptures, “Every action of the guru is seen as perfect.” However, this phrase must be seen in the light of Buddha Shakyamuni’s own words: “Accept my teachings only after examining them as an analyst buys gold. Accept nothing out of mere faith in me.”..The problem with the practice of seeing everything the guru does as perfect is that it very easily turns to poison for both the guru and the disciple…It is an extremely dangerous teaching, especially for beginners.The disciple must always keep reason and knowledge of Dharma as principal guidelines.

Today, as old certainties and institutions break down, we’re once again seeing a rise in charismatic authority. There are so many confusing complex issues to work out, people want to find someone who can do all their thinking for them. YouTube has made this basic human tendency even easier – we can just watch talk after talk by Ram Dass, or Jordan Peterson, or Russell Brand, or Christopher Hitchens, or Zakir Naik, or whoever. Just hand over our minds to the Perfect One.

Well, I didn’t find my guru, and I started to miss my friends and family, so I came back to the UK early. Evidently, I have not purified myself sufficiently. But I still hope to find teachers who can help me go forward. They don’t have to be perfect omniscient beings, just more advanced than me.