While being here in India and after going to more touristy places outside of Lucknow (namely Rajasthan and Varanasi), I find myself a bit taken aback by this concept of “finding oneself” in India. I will not lie, it makes me laugh inside when I see yoga billboard signs here in India with the face of a White person doing a pose, for instance. I also find myself giggling when seeing groups of stoned, dreadlocked, barefoot men and women follow a wonderfully business-minded Guru (see picture of my friend below who tried this out, only to find out that the Guru was not too down with the fact that we did not have real “non-student” cash to spare. Also, this is not how every Guru is. I am sure there are awesome ones too, so I have no intention to overgeneralize)
While I find it all strange, I wonder if travelers, tourists, self-help seekers themselves find it strange? I understand it needs to be marketed towards a tourist, but what makes it “Indian” anymore? What is “Indian” anyway? I suppose the concept of “Indian” cannot even be clearly defined, as India is itself so diverse. It’s like saying that Europe should be considered one homogeneous entity, when it is clearly not. Hence, the many languages and cultural nuances within such a small radius of land space.
So let’s just put this out there: please do not give me the globalization argument in regard to this, and then try to apply the cultural evolution arguments here (i.e. India is changing and it is not a static culture, so change just needs to be accepted). That’s a cop out. While I understand culture is a very fluid concept and changes with situations, its too simplistic and completely ignores the many scars left from colonialism in South Asia that push many to try to hold onto certain aspects of “being Hindustani” (depending on where in Hindustan we are talking about) all while “progressing”.
Let’s go back to the yoga. I mean there is nothing wrong with the embracing of yoga, for instance, but to hear of these ridiculously expensive yoga schools where only Westerners go just seems intuitively wrong to me. In fact, I cannot help but find it a bit offensive. I am by no means well-versed in yoga or claim myself to be an expert, as I have only experienced it on the surface. It is way more than just “exercise”, “calming the mind”, and saying a cute little “namaste” at the end. I cannot speak to the spiritual history behind it let alone to its connections to Hinduism (as I still need to get myself better versed in it), but marketing it this way just seems to kill the concept for me – a lot. Maybe I’m being cynical. Well, not maybe, I am.
Of course, this type of exotifying of cultures is not just something the “West” is guilty of, but the “East” as well (the notion that women from the West are “easy” still remains quite a hungered notion). Although, I do not feel just turning the blame around really solves the disconcerting feelings that arise from this surface level notion of “globalization”. Oh, another one of those conversations for yet another day – I think the list of such “another day” topics is just piling up.
For now, I am only posing the question of the title of this post from a very observational perspective and based perhaps on some biases that come from my educational background and experiences. There will hopefully be a part two. I certainly would like to hear more from people who are actually involved in spiritual tourism, whether from the supply or demand side of it. I am currently reading my first book on the topic, called Karma Cola by Gita Mehta. It’s a topic I have not taken up enough, so here is my opportunity. Finally, one more disclosure before I get chewed up for using the term Orientalism. I in no way imply that I am somehow on Team E. Said simply because I use the term, but I have to say the term completely fits here. So let’s just leave it there.
Till then, readers, as you learn with me or provide input, here’s an anecdote from the book’s introduction that I found interesting, and a great capture of the lunacy found in the spiritual tourism industry. This, of course, is a very direct case of spiritual tourism that I have only begun to learn about after my trip from Varanasi.
“An Indian journalist told me of an interview she conducted with the members of a commune who styled themselves the Stone Age Cult. This group of Westerners had given up everything to follow a large, bearded American living in India who claimed to have discovered the secret of immortality. Unfortunately, immortality had not saved him from falling prey to the temporal and he had contracted an Indian disease. While his followers waited for his recovery, the immortal one died.”
After asking the believers what they thought, the journalist ended up finding out they were not in the least bit shaken in their views. Instead, as Mehta quotes, they said:
“The master isn’t dead [as the journalist was admonished]. He’s being recycled.”
-Gita Mehta, Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East
Le sigh. Happy Weekend.