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The Truth About Western Cultural Appropriation of Eastern Spirituality

Western media often criticize Eastern spiritual practices. Instead, they must shine the light on the ignorant, dishonest and greedy self-proclaimed prophets of the modern wellness industry. They are guilty of cultural misappropriation as well as preying on vulnerable people looking for solace in their own societies.
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Western Cultural

Indian Sadhu baba takes a boat ride on river Ganges overlooking the historic Varanasi city architecture at sunset © Roop_Dey / shutterstock.com

February 27, 2023 12:22 EDT
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“Themes like everything is connected, nothing happens without a purpose, and nothing is what it seems are central to both yoga philosophy and conspiratorial thinking.”

When NPR wrote about a yoga guru in the US who also turned out to be a QAnon believer, a far-right conspiracy theory cult, it seemed odd that the writer and experts critiquing the controversy should have made the above claim. Because after all, what does the instinct for paranoia or delusional thinking have to do with the themes of interconnectedness that one encounters in Eastern thought as well as quantum physics? As far as apparent correlations go, this is tenuous at best except if the writer too was subconsciously biased against a non-Western line of thinking. 

NPR’s blasé mischaracterization begs the question—despite the popularity of New Age capitalism under which the modern wellness industry in the West exists—can the West and East truly ever meet? A sizable portion of this industry includes Eastern practices such as yoga, ayurveda, qi, mindfulness, gua sha, essential oils therapy and more. However, the way in which these practices are understood, performed and articulated in the West for their audience leaves much to be desired. 

Shreena Gandhi, an academic who researches yoga and its history of appropriation, in an interview to Vox said, “The thing about the spiritual ‘East’ or the ‘Orient’ is that there’s a history of Westerners cherry-picking customs, traditions, and practices to serve their needs, that they can tie to a particular political agenda.” 

An example of this phenomenon can be found with the Buddhist concept of mindfulness. Here, corporate America found it fit to appropriate it as a productivity tool for all sorts of issues at the workplace—responding to an angry email, tuning out workplace noises, and, of course, firing employees without any guilt. Companies like Google, Aetna and Goldman Sachs instituted programs that gave their employees mindfulness training. Yet, there were experts who were concerned that practicing mindfulness may make people passive and defeatist in their lives. “Meditation wasn’t originally designed as a secular stress relief technique,” said Catherine Wikholm, the author of The Buddha Pill, a book that explores the unexpected side effects of mindfulness.  

We see that the practitioners in the West repeatedly import practices from the East, package them into something easy and secular for their audiences, and then crop up criticisms that the particular practice is harmful, unscientific, and conspiratorial. This import is more often than not without the consent of or context from voices from the East where such practices originated. 

Spirituality as Consumption

While the intermingling of thought and practices is unavoidable in the globalized and online 21st century, it bears investigation if the Western import of Eastern spirituality is a true meeting of minds. What we now understand as Western culture has its roots in the Enlightenment, the 18th century movement also known as the age of Voltaire. This movement promoted a way of life that was decidedly secular and rational. Eventually, the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions ushered in a new way of life. Accumulation of material resources and empiricism became the driving force in Western, especially Anglo-Saxon, society.

In recent decades, having achieved their ideal of materialistic excess, many in Western countries found that the answer to life did not, in fact, lie in secularism, rationality and consumerism. The spiritual and emotional void that came with living one’s life to fullest materialistic potential had to be filled and, true to its material nature, it had to be quick, easy, and affordable enough. Thus began the industrialization of spirituality, except it had to be mostly Eastern spirituality, which could be sold as a fresh product to Western audiences looking for “answers.” The product worked because Eastern spirituality was seen as exotic, legitimate and, most importantly, it was inaccessible enough for an average Westerner to verify from the original sources in the East. Hence, this spirituality was ripe for cultural appropriation. Notably, the new gatekeepers weren’t people who were true believers. Instead, they were true entrepreneurs.

Many of the Eastern practices, then, come into direct conflict with the Western way of life because they are often meant for aspiring ascetics and monks. Even when they are meant for the householder, Eastern practices foster a balanced, frugal and ethical life. In either case, the idea is to let go of worldly attachments and possessions that the modern Western individual accumulates and accentuates painstakingly over the course of a lifetime. How, then, could a yoga mat-toting and athleisure-clad New Yorker feel comfortable with the idea that their “self” is nothing special or unique but a drop in the seemingly infinite ocean of souls living through endless cycles of life and death, going through their share of good and bad karma, just like every other person on the planet? 

There is nothing wrong with an entirely materialistic existence. However, misunderstanding and misappropriating forms of philosophical, metaphysical, and traditional thought systems to deal with the petty frustrations of daily life is not quite kosher. Western salesmen of Eastern spirituality are guilty of cultural misappropriation as well as preying on vulnerable people looking for solace in their own societies.

Therefore, NPR and Western media are unfair when, time and again, they criticize Eastern spiritual practices. Instead, they must shine the light on the ignorant, dishonest and greedy self-proclaimed prophets of the modern wellness industry. What we need is an honest appraisal of two distinct approaches to life, one of which can be broadly said to be located in a Western or materialistic way whereas the other in an Eastern or spiritual tradition. To conflate the two is to understand neither and malign both.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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