A bookish, bespectacled man in his forties with a fedora on his head walked onto a neon-lit stage decorated with fluorescent tapestries of Ganesha, Shiva, Vishnu, Lakshmi and Kali and started rapping. The staccato rhythm of the lyrics was punctuated by his propulsive body language: “Ganesh is so fresh chillin on his throne / surrounded by incense fruit and gold / With a heap of sweets piled in his bowl / he guards the gate and protects the threshold / When your blessed by Ganesh than you can travel / on a sacred journey to an inner temple / He paves the path that leads to the soul / & he’s known for removing all obstacles / Now some may think it’s illogical / a myth or it’s just philosophical / But Ganesh makes everything possible / because elephant power’s unstoppable.”

A large crowd swayed to the beats of rapper Nicholas Giacomini’s Ganesh is Fresh from his hit album Elephant Power. Not wanting to be left out, I joined in the revelry. A woman twirling neon hoops on different parts of her body danced in a clearing while a juggler threw fireballs in the air. It was a fascinating spectacle. “Love is the drug, man,” said Narayan Das, passing me a joint. Clearly it was not the only one. He was a tall, gangly man with waist-length blonde dreadlocks, adorned with tattoos of Sanskrit alphabets on his arms. I had met him earlier at a vegan burrito stall.

Giacomini aka MC Yogi started rapping when he was 13. His memoir Spiritual Graffiti describes him growing up as a delinquent who was expelled from various schools, sent to live at a home for at-risk youth, arrested for destruction of property and caught up in a world of drugs and chaos.

At 17, a yoga class at a home for juvenile delinquents had such a profound effect on Giacomini that he travelled to India a number of times, stayed at ashrams and often collaborated with Indian musicians. He says he is inspired by Indian myths and cosmology, an influence that is visible in his musical repertoire, with tracks such as Rock on Hanuman, Renegade Rickshaw, Breath Control, Son of Shiva, Krishna Love and a song dedicated to his idol Mahatma Gandhi called Be the Change. No doubt many of his fans can identify with his rocky road to redemption.

The MC Yogi concert was one of several events I attended at a sprawling 420-acre retreat centre called the Institute of MentalPhysics in Southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park in September 2018. Built by architect-writer Frank Lloyd Wright in 1946 as a desert sanctuary for California’s higher consciousness community, the retreat has become known for hosting the Bhakti Fest, a yearly gathering of yoga buffs, devotional musicians, astrologers, Hare Krishnas, herbalists, shamans, tantric healers, cannabis entrepreneurs, whirling dervishes, born-again Hindus and all manner of spiritual hucksters.

MC Yogi at the Bhakti Fest 2018. Video courtesy: Bhakti Fest/YouTube.

Many visitors at the Bhakti Fest were driven by a genuine drive to “transform the individual consciousness and reinvent the global paradigm”, as a yogini informed me, but there was no denying that they were tapping into the New Age boom for more than just spiritual sustenance. Among the luminaries present at the festival were self-help guru Deepak Chopra, yoga celebrity Shiva Rea and kirtan rock star Krishna Das.

Access to the divine

The Bhakti Fest was conceived as a spiritual Woodstock by its founder Sridhar Silberfein, who hosted the first gathering in 2008 as homage to his late guru Swami Satchidananda. He became a devoted follower of Satchidananda (a Sanskrit term meaning truth-consciousness-bliss) after being blessed by him before of a crowd of 4,00,000 swaying hippies at Woodstock in 1969, an event that captured the zeitgeist of a generation. “People come to festivals now to do the same things they do every day: get stoned, drink a lot of alcohol, and f**k a lot of people,” Silberfein told the website Vice in 2017. “Everyone thinks you’re going to go and get high and have the best time, but you really don’t because you’re coming back to the same problems. We wanted to establish a different paradigm.”

The Fest prides itself on being vegan, free of alcohol, meat, dairy, gluten, genetically-modified organisms, plastic and processed foods.

Photo credit: Bhakti Fest/Facebook.

The mainstay of the festival is the rocking kirtan scene that attracts thousands of people willing to fork out a few hundred dollars for a pass. Kirtan exploded in the United States in the nineties after pioneers like Dave Stringer, Krishna Das and Jai Uttal brought traditional Indian devotional chanting into yoga studios, accompanied by their harmoniums, tablas, incense and idols of Hindu gods and goddesses. They introduced Americans to India’s Bhakti tradition, a movement that emphasises direct access to the divine through devotional love, and rejects barriers of caste, gender or priestly mediation.

The kirtan stars of today are a far cry from their Indian forebears. Their Sanskrit chants are infused with rock, reggae, country, hip-hop, blues and soul music, and their events feel more like a rave or pop concert than a Hindu religious ceremony. Their signature sound – a holistic pastiche of different styles centred on the common theme of union with the divine – has been embraced enthusiastically by mainstream audiences.

One of the pioneers of the scene, Jeffrey Kagel aka Krishna Das, was invited to perform at the 2013 Grammy awards, and his album Live Ananda was nominated for the Best New Age album. Like many of his contemporaries, Kagel found his true calling after a transformative encounter with an Indian guru, Neem Karoli Baba. A Los Angeles-based band, White Sun, inspired by the teachings of Yogi Bhajan of Kundalini Yoga fame, won the Grammy for best New Age band at the 2017 Grammy awards. Most of their lyrics derive from the Guru Granth Sahib, the chief text of the Sikh faith, and apart from their American fans, they attract a following in Punjab.

Video courtesy: Krishna Das Music/YouTube.

Dilution of traditions

The Bhakti Fest is one of several stops on the transformational festival circuit, which includes hugely popular events like Wanderlust, Symbiosis, Lightning in a Bottle, Hanuman Festival, Burning Man, Glastonbury and the Bali Spirit Festival. While the events differ by theme, décor and the types of performers they attract, they are undergirded by common features of the New Age worldview: a disenchantment with mainstream society and the belief that modernity is in crisis, belief in reincarnation, astrology, spirits, extra-terrestrials, psychic mediums and traditional or holistic healing methods as opposed to modern medicine.

Their intentions may be benign, but some of the methods used by New Age healers are dubious. A video on YouTube shows a tantra workshop at the Bhakti Fest called Sex Actualisation hosted by Dawn Cartwright, a middle-aged white lady who claimed she had “discovered the path of tantra by accident, shortly after a period of life-changing mystical experiences in lovemaking more than twenty years ago”. About 20 people sit around her in a circle. Three strapping young men dressed in white are seated to her left. She explains that enlightenment is basically a cosmic orgasm and making love is like merging with Shakti, the infinite consciousness. “It’s all through that same moment, where nothing else exists, except our complete merging and dissolving into all that this is,” she intoned. “It’s just as sacred to have headboard-banging sex, as to chant Om Mani Padme Om…[the] key is, are you there while it’s happening? That’s what makes it sacred.” The people in the room listen earnestly, oblivious to the hilarity of the dialogue.

Traditional kirtan and yoga practitioners criticise the watering down and misappropriation of South Asian religious traditions by the New Age community. Upset with the lack of ethnic diversity in the Shakti Fest line-up (Bhakti fest’s sister event), Charles Ekabhumi Ellik, a sacred art practitioner and yoga teacher from San Francisco’s Bay Area, wrote an open letter to the organisers to draw their attention to it. It did not have much of an impact.

David Newman at Bhakti Fest 2018. Video courtesy: Bhakti Fest/Facebook.

An ardent devotee of the Hindu goddess Kali, Ellik organises spiritual retreats in India for his largely American clientele, and has published books on religious art. “Mā allows me to serve Her through art, ritual, and instruction,” he said in an email interview. “I get to witness Her play. Spiritual practice expands awareness and infuses meaning into every experience and action.” He marked himself as Hindu in the last United States census.

As a long-time service provider to the spiritually-inclined, Ellik is dismayed at the rampant commercialisation in his field. “Unfortunately, all kinds of people are calling themselves yoga entrepreneurs these days,” he said. “This seems to me to be turning yoga into a thing that can be sold. I don’t sell yoga. I sell my labour, skills and craft. The values of modern society are unnatural, so for those of us who are mixing spiritual practice with business, there are continual challenges to choose between making money and serving the dharma. It’s not easy.”

Spirituality is a commodity just like any other in the American marketplace, sold with the same competitive drive, but much less monitoring and regulation. Instead, fuzzy catchphrases like dharma, karma and mindful living, open to a wide range of interpretations, are invoked to guide consumers through the informal networks of spiritual capitalism. Today, yoga and its many spin-offs comprise a thriving multi-billion-dollar industry that continues to grow and is a source of income for many.

What self-appointed guardians of these traditions ignore is that religion and spirituality has been big business in South Asia for centuries, especially since the early modern period when the sampradayas (ascetic orders) were established to literally protect turf and investments in capital such as disciples and devotees, pilgrimage centres and pilgrimage routes and political affiliations.

Today, the Indian state uses the capitalist apparatus to sell its own essentialism for spiritual tourism – for example, the Incredible India and Maharani of Manhattan advertising campaigns – based on the colonially constructed narratives of orientalism.

Fanna Fi Allah, Bhakti Fest 2018. Video courtesy: Bhakti Fest/YouTube.

Ellik is just one of millions of westerners, who, inspired by eastern religions, have taken on Asian names, mannerisms and lifestyles. Whether it’s the saffron-robed, shaven-headed worshippers of the Hindu god Krishna, better known as Hare Krishnas, the white-turbaned Sikh followers of the late Yogi Bhajan or the numerous Buddhist lineages in America, scores of westerners have enthusiastically adopted a foreign identity, in some cases discarding all vestiges of their birth culture. They can be found roaming the backwaters and bylanes of South Asia, looking for the magic ingredient missing from their strip malls, sitcoms and Super Bowl Sundays.

The popularity of Indian spirituality in the West exploded after the Beatles visited Rishikesh in 1968 to study under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, in turn giving birth to the New Age movement. Renowned authors like JD Salinger, Aldous Huxley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Joseph Campbell, influenced by Hindu philosophy, incorporated the teachings of Vedanta in their works, further catalysing the trend. The arrival of major Indian gurus like Paramahamsa Yogananda on American shores in the 1920s, his iconic work Autobiography of a Yogi and his predecessor Swami Vivekananda’s historic address at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, contributed greatly to push these ideas into the mainstream.

In 2010, nearly six million foreigners, including close to a million Americans, travelled to India, continuing a trend that began long ago. Not all of their stories had happy endings. In 2006, following a 10-day meditation course in Bodh Gaya, the town where the Buddha was said to have attained nirvana two millennia ago, an American college student killed herself by jumping off the roof of the retreat centre. The last entry in her diary read “I am Bodhisattva” – an enlightened being.

India can cause seemingly normal people to wake up believing they are an incarnation of a long-dead Indian saint, or they have awakened their kundalini and acquired latent superhuman powers, or that the world is about to end. A Californian gentleman in his sixties told me about the time he had travelled out of his physical body while on a pilgrimage in India and meditated with the Dalai Lama, Muktananda and Yogananda on the astral plane. His Australian wife was convinced the world will end in 2065. When I asked her how she was so certain, she said that the “ascended masters” of the lost continent of Lemuria had come to her in a dream with detailed instructions on how to prepare for the calamitous event.

So common is this phenomenon that there is a name for it – India Syndrome. Regis Airault, a psychiatrist stationed at the French consulate in Mumbai, wrote a book called Fous de L’Inde (Crazy about India) based on his experiences treating westerners who had suffered psychotic episodes while in India. “There is a cultural fantasy at play,” he told The Cult Education Institute, an internet archive of information about cults and movements. “[India syndrome] hits people from developed Western countries who are looking for a cultural space that is pure and exotic, where real values have been preserved. It’s as if we’re trying to go back in time.”

On the final night of the Bhakti Fest, I sat beside Narayan Das and a motley crowd under the star-encrusted skies of Joshua Tree National Park. The nebulous glow of the Milky Way galaxy was clearly visible in the night sky. People were tired but happily satiated after the day’s exertions. There was a palpable sense of shared joy and bonding. Everyone was refreshingly sincere and earnest about what they do.

One could be forgiven at the moment for feeling that we are all part of a bigger plan, and that things will work out just fine, even if the shrieking news channels indicate the opposite. I was reminded of what Ellik told me – that the most profound benefit of his spiritual practice was the “gradual easing of fear on the soul-level”. Surely, we can all do with a little less fear and a little more hope in these uncertain times. We may feel helpless to do anything about the chaos, but there’s nothing preventing us from changing how we relate to it.

Narayan Das asked what I was thinking about. I told him about the article I was planning to write and enquired about his future plans. He said he intended to go to Nepal to attend a month-long meditation retreat. I sighed. “Don’t go jumping off any tall buildings.” He looked at me quizzically, then laughed, head turned up to the sky.