Eat Pray Love's Spiritual Tourism

Elizabeth Gilbert’s search for nirvana in India is a part of a long tradition of misguided Western spiritual tourism in the country, writes author Gita Mehta.

08.13.10 7:52 PM ET

The film based on Elizabeth Gilbert's bestselling book Eat, Pray, Love suggests that spiritual tourism is still alive and that India remains a magnet for such tourism, despite the snares awaiting the naïve seeker, or the irony contained in the title. I mean, aren't these three actions the very essence of the pursuit of happiness? Still, because there's big money in spiritual tourism, we Indians aren't complaining. We are also pursuing happiness, preferably material.

In India we hate to offend, so it is not uncommon for charlatans to dress up as sages and offer platitudes as transcendent knowledge, hoping to reel in rich foreign suckers with proto-ascetic razzamatazz.

The world has been here before. The prime time of spiritual tourism was the '60s and the '70s, when everyone from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to the crowned heads of Europe followed thousands upon thousands of hopeful young Americans to India seeking enlightenment, while materialistic Indians happily raked in the money. In my book Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East, I wrote of that time, "Never before had the Void been pursued with such optimism and such razzle dazzle. Everyone suspected that whatever America wanted, America got. Why not Nirvana?"

Alas, many only got disillusioned because the Indian dream is about endurance, not happiness. We believe in re-incarnation, the cycle of birth and rebirth. So our fondest hope is not for eternal life, but an end to this wheel of existence through eternal death. Similarly, when the seeker asks an Indian master, "What is the answer?” instead of coming up with some profound revelation, the master irritatingly replies, “Who is asking?"

Because of such paradoxes, heavy hitters from the West once issued grave warnings to foreigners determined to find answers in India. Carl Jung maintained he had met many Western seekers who were insulated from India by Western thought processes, adding that if this insulation broke down, India would drive them quite literally mad. Nietzsche wrote that seekers hoping to reach India might find themselves wrecked against infinity. Aldous Huxley, whose book The Doors of Perception made him the guru of all acid-heads, left India in disgust, though he prefaced his writings on India with this quote from Milton, "What is truth? said Jesting Pilate, “And would not stay for an answer."

Appropriately, Huxley's book is titled Jesting Pilate, and in today's vortex of mass communication and global marketing, the demand is for instant gratification, even in matters of the soul. Like Pilate, seekers want answers to the big questions NOW and, unlike Elizabeth Gilbert, they are not prepared to accept that enlightenment is an arduous, even dangerous, undertaking.

Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East. By Gita Mehta. $13.95.

Fortunately, in India we hate to offend, so it is not uncommon for charlatans to dress up as sages and offer platitudes as transcendent knowledge, hoping to reel in rich foreign suckers with proto-ascetic razzamatazz.

So, for those still determined to look for answers in the East, it may be helpful to remember two names India has given herself: Rishi Bhoomi—the Land of the Masters—and Karma Bhoomi—the Land of Experience. You might get lucky and find a real guru, in which case you might leave India enlightened. Or you might get conned and only leave India experienced.

As any Indian could tell you, it all depends on your karma.

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Gita Mehta is the author of three works of nonfiction, Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East, Snake and Ladders: Glimpses of Modern India, and Eternal Ganesha; and two novels, A River Sutra and Raj. Her books have been translated into 21 languages and been on bestseller lists in Europe, the U.S. and India. She divides her time between New York, London, and New Delhi.