Non-Judeo-Christian forms of spirituality in America run the risk of being misinterpreted and commodified; I know I got weirded out in my yoga class when our teacher waxed philosophically and vaguely about Hinduism, as it reminded me that a class full of non-Hindu (or Buddhist) women taught by a non-Hindu woman were co-opting a Hindu and Buddhist meditation technique. Awkward. This dilemma fascinates me, when I’m not caught in the middle of it. To this end, today’s two books focus on commodification and representations of non-Judeo-Christian forms of spirituality in the US.
Karma Cola by Gita Mehta
Beginning in the late ’60s, hundreds of thousands of Westerners descended upon India, disciples of a cultural revolution that proclaimed that the magic and mystery missing from their lives was to be found in the East. An Indian writer who has also lived in England and the United States, Gita Mehta was ideally placed to observe the spectacle of European and American “pilgrims” interacting with their hosts. When she finally recorded her razor sharp observations in Karma Cola, the book became an instant classic for describing, in merciless detail, what happens when the traditions of an ancient and longlived society are turned into commodities and sold to those who don’t understand them.
In the dazzling prose that has become her trademark, Mehta skewers the entire Spectrum of seekers: The Beatles, homeless students, Hollywood rich kids in detox, British guilt-trippers, and more. In doing so, she also reveals the devastating byproducts that the Westerners brought to the villages of rural lndia — high anxiety and drug addiction among them.
Brilliantly irreverent, Karma Cola displays Gita Mehta’s gift for weaving old and new, common and bizarre, history and current events into a seamless and colorful narrative that is at once witty, shocking, and poignant.
This is one of my Nancy Pearl recommendations; I believe it’s on the first page of my physical reading list. I don’t know much about the ’60s, to be honest, and I think I only really realized that people became interested in Indian spirituality then when I watched Walk Hard. I’m intrigued.
Karma Cola was published on November 29, 1979.
Not in Kansas Anymore by Christine Wicker
Magic has stepped out of the movies, morphed from the pages of fairy tales, and is more present in America today than you might expect. Soccer moms get voodoo head washings in their backyards, young American soldiers send chants toward pagan gods of war, and a seemingly normal family determines that they are in fact elves. National bestselling author and award-winning religion reporter Christine Wicker leaves no talisman unturned in her hunt to find what’s authentic and what’s not in America’s burgeoning magical reality. From the voodoo temples of New Orleans to the witches’ covens of Salem to a graveyard in north Florida, Wicker probes the secrets of an underground society and teaches lessons she never dreamed could be taught. What she learns repels her, challenges her, and changes her in ways she never could have imagined. And if you let it, it might change you, too.
I came across this while doing holds at my local library and was intrigued by it—an exploration of pagan and neo-pagan faiths in the United States? I am a little fearful that Wicker might make her subjects the object of some humor and ridicule, but I’m more interested in seeing a variety of American spiritual life that you often don’t encounter.
Mikita Brottman, writing for Pop Matters, enjoyed it, especially Wicker’s fun personality. But Pysche at Spiralnature.com didn’t find Wicker’s conflation and confusion of different subcultures and attitude towards her subjects very fun at all.
Not in Kansas Anymore was published on October 4, 2005.