Came across a very interesting article titled “Death on the Path of Enlightenment: Inside the Rise of India Syndrome”. It talks of the Westerners who are drawn by the Spiritual aspect of India and get “afflicted” by a condition which some Western psychiatrists are calling “India Syndrome”. Basically, India Syndrome is a condition where a person gets besotted by India and after travelling to India comes back a delusional person going into bouts of hallucinations and weird imagination.
The author also laments how some Westerners in their quest have either died or been lost. One such person he talks about is Jonathan Spollen.
Jonathan Spollen, a 28-year-old Irishman with long brown hair and a delicate brogue, was at a crossroads in his life. He’d embarked on a career as an overseas journalist, working first as a reporter at the Daily Star Egypt in Cairo and then as a foreign editor at The National in Abu Dhabi. But now he was a copy editor for the International Herald Tribune in Hong Kong, approaching 30, and wondering if he liked where his life was going. In October 2011, following a split with his girlfriend, he bought some trekking gear, sent his laptop home to Dublin, and booked a flight to Kathmandu, Nepal. From there, Spollen made his way to India. He had visited before, spending time with an octogenarian yogi named Prahlad Jani—who claims his mastery of the ancient arts has allowed him to live without food for 70 years—and had come away entranced with the country. This time, Spollen roamed the subcontinent for several months, visiting the holy city of Varanasi, India’s oldest inhabited settlement. In early February, Spollen called his mother, Lynda, to tell her he planned to spend two or three weeks hiking in the Himalayas near the pilgrimage site of Rishikesh, the yogaphilic city on the Ganges where the Beatles visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. She reportedly asked him not to go alone, but he told her that was the whole point. “It’s a spiritual thing,” he explained.
He was never heard from again.
The article talks about many things including how people are abused by some so-called Gurus and Ashrams which are only there for the purposes of making money and abusing.
For a Westerner, like the author is, it is extremely disconcerting that someone has become incommunicado while on his “Spiritual Quest” – probably roaming in some Himalayan nooks and crannies with Sadhus. The article and those who have been interviewed come from a certain mind set. To them, the fact that someone can leave a “normal life” of wealth, money, “social sanity”, and conveniences – and go to becoming a wanderer is a disease. It is not kosher for such minds that someone can live a nomadic and minimal life.
But it is very common to find people – Indians – who have left everything and gone to live in caves or in the mountains and never come back. What do you call that? “Indians with India Syndrome”?<
Spiritual Sadhana or Yoga is not Simple nor Harmless
Some of the retreats are done in some very powerful places in India – where a lot of spiritual work has been done and energy “deposited” of many kinds – by “Gurus” who can’t differentiate between their elbow and arsehole. So, when conducted inappropriately, it can do things that lead to very bad results.
This energy is not easy to detect and specially the modern mind discounts it, but it has a tangible impact.
Also Yoga is done in the most craziest ways across the world – from Bikram’s “Hot Yoga” to “Christian yoga”. Yogic practices are not a joke. Working with kundalini is not something that can be done by amateur (and proficiency doesn’t come from Certifications that Yoga teachers flaunt today) because it can be profoundly dangerous.
There is an entire study area for “Kundalini Syndrome” today. This again comes from a mindset that views the impact of how energy changes in a person impact his overt physicality from a pure biological viewpoint.
Inability of Western Mind to Perceive Mysticism and Spirituality
Some of the reaction is just ignorance or what I would call a “Western Bias to Eastern Spirituality”. By this I mean, Western world has not really seen spiritual work of any significance. Whatever spiritual experiences happened, were individual based and primarily accidental.
Even Jesus was an accident in that society.
And, that is why he was killed. For, he was a freak. Those, who called themselves “Christians” later, used him as a useful mascot to continue the terrible persecutions that Roman Emperors were indulging in anyways. Just the victims changed. Constantine, and NOT Jesus, is the father of Christianity! For, his Nicean creed dictates the missions of ALL Christian denominations in the world today. Gnostics, the mystical stream based off of Christ’s work, were systematically destroyed and killed by Pistics – predecessors to today’s denominations – and Romans alike. So, mysticism has been at the receiving end of the Western mindset always. If anything mystical has ever happened, it wasn’t because it was prepared for and cultivated, but because of a freak accident.
Anyways, this Western Bias is predicated on a very sanitized view of the world and life. It believes that life lived in a certain way is “Civilization” and it is the burden of the “civilized” Western mind to set things in these “strange barbaric lands” right. That is why they invaded, captured, raped and killed the entire American continent of one of the most vibrant spiritual population the world has ever seen over such a large expanse of area. The very people who shared their food, their land, their houses and hearts, to the Europeans, out of self-less love; were killed by them by hook or crook in cold blood often because these people were “barbaric”. Anyone who showered love and helped them live was a fool or a barbarian.
Last year, I went to a pilgrimage that took me across various highly regarded mountainous pilgrimage areas – including Gaumukh, the glacier where River Ganga starts. I have seen Sadhus in every place and here too 1 km below Gaumukh we met this Sadhu who was holding up in a small shack like place with hardly anything to save himself. He was from Calcutta, an educated person. I asked the porter who was with us about another place called Tapovan – which was higher than Gaumukh and needed a special permit to travel. That place had a few Yogis and one Yogini, who was 60-70 year old lady.
Unless one finds the Spiritual longing so strong that it is important to risk your life, one wouldn’t get anything. And for some, Spiritual journey is extremely important quest of who they are and are willing to go all the way.
People like Mirabai (The Divine Lover) or Akka Mahadevi (“I’m married to Shiva) can ONLY be revered in a culture like India’s. Imagine a lady (Akka Mahadevi), who on being asked by her husband – the King to give everything back to him, since she was besotted by Shiva – in the middle of the court shed her clothes and walked off naked, and never wore anything again. Such a person will never be accepted as anything but worthy of mental asylum in modern world. Any Westerner who does that in her devotion to, say, Krishna, would be considered a “Severe case of India Syndrome” or whatever. But in India, this devotee has been worshipped and revered.
This was too much for the king to take and one day he decided, “What is the point of having a wife like this? How does one live with a wife who is married to some unseen man, somewhere?” There was no formal divorce in those days and he was just distraught. He did not know what to do. So he brought her to his court and asked the court to decide. When the court asked her, she kept talking about her husband elsewhere. This was not hallucinatory, it was 100% real for her. Your imagination, if it is empowered by life energies, it becomes reality, 100%.
The king got angry because in front of all these people, his wife was claiming that her husband was elsewhere. 800 years ago, socially it was not a simple thing to take for a king. So in great anger, he said, “If you are already married to somebody, what are you doing with me? Everything that you wear, the jewels, the clothes – everything is mine. Leave them here and go.” Those days in India, there was no way a woman even thought of leaving her husband’s house at all. But in the full assembly of the court, Akka Mahadevi – a young woman of 18 years – just dropped all her clothes and left. She refused to wear clothes from that day onwards.
The entire ethos of Western and Indian sensibility is different.
Some of the Indian sensibility is rubbed off on those who spend some time on the Spiritual trail with a longing to know themselves. Such people do become freaks in the Western world.
As much of freaks as Jesus was in his times. In fact, had these guys been around in Jesus’ times, they would have evaluated his condition also as a “Severe case of India Syndrome”.
Spiritual Tourism and Spiritual Pursuit
Despite many, nay thousands, of the Westerners who are true to their spiritual longing, there are still many who are spiritual tourists. These spiritual tourists are in search of an exotic experience because they find what they hear interesting and cool. And this article talks about the “lure” of Siddhis that people go in search of.
Spiritual pursuit is hard journey which required Sadhana or self effort in a yogic tradition. It requires work in a different dimension than is known in modern world. It is not contemplation or doing chores, but doing some work at an another level.
That hardly any one comes to mind when one thinks of Enlightened Masters from the West in the last 130 years – since Swami Vivekananda introduced Vedanta to West – is testament to the fact that most Westerners haven’t been able to fully go through with Spiritual enlightenment. I can only think of two who do seem to have gone through their awakening – Mooji and Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami (Robert Hansen, from San Francisco) or Gurudeva for the monks of Kauai’s Hindu Monastery.
Curse of Western Influence in India
As much as Western mind is unable to fully come to terms with this dimension that has been so interwoven into India’s fabric; it is a reality that even Indians of today have been slowly but surely losing the ability to understand this dimension, despite the fact that they were steeped into this. Somehow using what they term as rationality, such “modern Indian minds” have started questioning the very basis or usefulness of such a state of being.
Materialism can never let such a crazy yet beautiful way of life be considered normal. And in that lack of acceptance breed severe intolerance to paths that take humanity to pursuit of other dimensions. And when those who pursue one dimension of life start dictating ALL other pursuits as madness or illegitimate, then the society is poorer in outlook and limited in aspirations. It is for this reason that in the Europe and US of today, one cannot get another Van Gogh. Heck, even in his time he was considered an idiot!
To get another Michael Angelo or Vinci, Western world will now need a severe case of “India syndrome”, where a person not just wanders off the beaten path – sometimes walking to his death or insanity – but does so passionately as if his/her life depended on that pursuit!
Meanwhile, one hopes that the curse of modern and Western mind does not rob Indians and India of the ability to revere and worship souls like Mirabai and Akka Mahadevi. Otherwise, we would have ruined the future of mankind.
(Image courtesy: Isha Blog – from a mural at Isha Center representing Akka Mahadevi leaving the court shedding her clothes)