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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.

The best of times, the worst of times

This is the best time ever to be alive and human. Global life expectancy has doubled in the last century, from 31 to 71. A century ago, 20% of babies died in childbirth, now it’s less than 7%. You’re far, far less likely to die violently than in the Middle Ages, the 19th century, or even in the 1960s. In the last 30 years, the percentage of the world living in abject poverty has fallen from 37% to below 10%. Global literacy has risen from 40% in 1950 to 86%. In 1900, girls in Sub-Saharan Africareceived 7% of the education (in years) that boys’ received, now they receive 82% – and its close to 100% in Latin America and Eastern Europe.

The world is better off in terms of health, education, wealth, gender equality, democracy, and peace, than it was 50 years ago, and far, far better off than it was 200 years ago.

Yet if you ask people in the UK, Germany, the US, France and elsewhere if they think the world is getting better, only around 4% of people think it is. 

Why has the west got the blues? Why aren’t we celebrating the incredible progress we have made? Why do we say things like ‘2016 was the worst year ever’, based on two right-wing election victories and the death of some celebrities?

Firstly, I think it’s fair to say we are spoilt. We have been spoilt by 50 years of peace and affluence. We thought the 90s were normal, when the biggest problem the US faced was Bill Clinton’s zip, rather than a decade unusual for its lack of serious crises or major wars. When we returned to the historical norm of crisis and war, we were bewildered, and we wailed.

Secondly, while the world is doing better, the West, by some measures, is doing worse. Western countries are seeing less dramatic gains in measures like literacy or life expectancy, a relative decline in our global share of GDP versus emerging markets, and actual declines in domestic measures like real income, living standards, home-owning and inequality. The 2008 financial crisis eroded our faith in democracy and capitalism. Liberal capitalist democracy is less obviously the globally triumphant system it was in 2000. It doesn’t seem to be working very well in the US and elsewhere, and the percentage of those in the West who support the idea of military dictatorships is rising, particularly among millennials.

Third, migration has rapidly reshaped the demographics of western countries, with the share of immigrants in some populations almost doubling in the last 20 years. This has changed the look and feel of many European cities – they have become far more multicultural or, sometimes, more segregated. Unfortunately, this sharp rise in immigration in the last 20 years has come at the same time as a period of war and international terrorism in the history of Islam. Every terrorist attack in the West emboldens and amplifies far-right voices saying Western civilization is heading for Islamic destruction. 

Fourth, we’re growing up with the prospect of species-threatening climate change in the next few decades, and we don’t know what to do about it. Some scientists, including James Lovelock, tell us there’s nothing we can do – the world will, in the next 30-50 years, become largely uninhabitable, much of humanity will become refugees, and the human population will be literally decimated. It’s such a dark prospect, and we’re so obviously failing to deal with it, that we don’t really talk about it. But I think it profoundly shapes our emotional and psychic reality.

Finally, there may be an emotional crisis in the West – a rise in loneliness, and in emotional problems like depression and anxiety. I’m not entirely sure on this – I think the rise in those seeking treatment is probably because of greater awareness and access to treatment. Nonetheless, George Monbiot may be right, in his new book Out of the Wreckage, when he argues we’re facing a crisis in meaning brought about by a lack of an over-arching narrative or myth.

Instead, we look to social media for meaning and narrative. We out-source our thinking to pundits like Owen Jones or Glenn Beck, or to a handful of trusted Twitter heroes like Gary Lineker and JK Rowling, who never disturb us with new or contrary ideas, but instead comfort us by articulating what we already feel, and shape the incredibly complex world of global politics into simple narratives of good versus bad, heroes versus villains. This is a perfect recipe for emotional disturbance, social division and political disfunction. Twitter is making us stupid, and sick.

Such is the complexity of the ‘wicked problems’ we face, a part of me feels the allure of unplugging and dropping out. The public space has become too noisy, too bitter. We feel we must have an opinion on everything, yet much of what is happening is beyond our individual or collective control. Perhaps now is the time for a tactical Daoist retreat – the wise man ascends the mountain, and lets nature take its course. 

But I think a better response than Daoist retreat is Stoic engagement: you accept that much of the situation is beyond your control, you accept that some fairly dreadful things are going to happen this century, but you engage politically anyway, with firm resolve, and a hope and faith in the long arc of the cosmos towards wisdom and justice.

We must keep hope, and remind ourselves of humans’ natural bias to negativity. We must remember how often, over the last 2000 years, humans thought the end of the world was nigh, and were proved wrong.We must remind ourselves loudly of the victories we have achieved and are achieving, even if these victories happen thousands of miles away. We must remind ourselves how sudden technological innovations have utterly transformed human existence in the past, and are likely to do so in the future. We must consider the ‘long now’, and plan not just for five years in the future, or 50, but 500.

I think my country – the United Kingdom – needs a ‘Doomsday Trust’, like the Rand Corporation, to go away into a farmhouse in the countryside for five years and think deeply about the challenges our country faces from climate change – to face difficult questions about arable land, dependency on food exports, mass migration, relations with the EU, the possibility of social breakdown – and find a way to help our nation survive this century. That thinking can’t be done on Twitter.

We must re-learn to engage not just through social media, but through face-to-face neighbourliness – speaking personally, I must shake myself out of a period of withdrawal from community organizing and start to organize again, for the common good and my own good.

Finally, what about the crisis of meaning in western culture, and the need for a new narrative? I can only repeat my brother, Alex Evans, whose book The Myth Gap earlier this year called for a new myth to change our relationship to nature and each other.

I also think the new narrative will be a shift from the Cartesian / Hobbesian narrative of the individual rational ego competing with other humans and exploiting a world of inanimate matter and soulless animals, towards a narrative where our consciousness is extended and deeply connected to each other, to other species, and to all of nature and all matter. 

When I develop my consciousness into wisdom and love, you benefit, even if we never meet. When you suffer, I suffer, even if we never meet. When the corals bleach in Australia, I am poorer. When literacy rises in Nigeria, I am richer. We are literally one organism, one consciousness, one interlocking eco-system, one vast I AM. That, I think, is the astonishing and in some ways terrifying truth that humans have been groping towards for millennia.

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