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The New Age Cycles Back to India
Category : April/May/June 2009

Culture

The New Age Cycles Back to India

A Western movement sparked by Hindu mysticism is embraced through books and magazines by some in the culture that gave it birth



The "new age" is a movement that became popular in the West in the 1960s and 1970s. At that time, it carried a clear Eastern pedigree, drawing from Hindu mysticism and Western occult teachings that appealed to the idealist counterculture then in the ascendancy. But over the course of the 80s and 90s, virtually all overt signs of Hinduism faded away. New Age authors, writing for a Christian and Jewish readership, retained popular Sanskrit words in their books, such as chakra, but with a nonspecific spiritual connection. Cut from its Eastern roots, the still popular New Age morphed from a quasi-religious movement to a loose spiritual philosophy with a strong marketing angle, aimed primarily at women, promoting health, beauty, inner peace and successful relationships.

Recently, decades after its blossoming in the West and 8,000 miles away, the "New Age" has surfaced in India in the form of popular books, magazines and products. But in the process, someone forgot to tell the Indian journalists (who were writing for Hindu readers) that the "New Age" isn't supposed to be overtly Hindu. But this lapse has not stalled its popularity. Hinduism Today dispatched its correspondents to investigate the nature of India's New Age mystical, cultural phenomenon which journeyed India to the West and back to India again.

In India, It's Just Hinduism

Priyanka Malhotra, director of Full Circle Books, tells us, "The term New Age was coined in the US, and there people connect it to the hippie culture, or to magic. But it's actually about peace, love and understanding. Over the years, people misused and misunderstood the term in the West." Priyanka's Delhi-based publishing house and bookstore chain specializes in what she calls the "body, mind, spirit" segment of the publishing trade. "If I have to define the concept of New Age in the Indian mind, it is anything that goes beyond the physical body, and anything alternative to the mainstream."

"Our books on yoga, meditation and finding inner peace do very well," Priyanka explains. "There is a wide demand for these from people who are looking for a life beyond materialism." Intent on also appealing to the five senses, her stores offer music, candles, incense, herbal food and natural drinks, as would a comparable store in San Francisco. Priyanka says that men and women are equally drawn to their products.

One of the most popular titles at Circle Books is You Can Heal Your Life. Another top seller is Mind the Gap, which Priyanka tells us is about "bringing spirituality into daily life without renouncing the world and material possessions." The shelves are brimming with such guides on how spirituality can improve your personal life.

Swati Bhise, a customer at the Delhi store, comments: "It is good that in today's fast-paced life people can find spiritual books this easily, or audio books to listen to while on the move. New Age books have made it very simple. If we need a particular mantra, for example, we can find it on a tape or in books that are easily understandable and not complicated." Swati sees no conflict between the New Age trend and her Hindu background. Hinduism, she explains, is an essential part of her profession. "I was the first disciple of Sonal Mansingh (a famous Odissi dancer). To be a dancer you have to have knowledge of our ancient Hindu scriptures. You have to study sculpture and temple architecture; without this, you cannot learn the art of dancing."

Prakash Kumar, also here shopping for books, relates, "New Age books are an extension of Hinduism. It is clear when you read these books. I even feel it is good that New Age authors do not mention that their works are sourced from Hinduism. Otherwise their readership would be restricted. What I like the most is that they project the message in a simple way. Our traditional books are vast and difficult to digest."

Abhishek Jain of Motilal Banarsidass, one of India's largest and most respected publishers, started a New Age line eight years ago. Abhishek, who now specializes in that niche, explains, "These are books to heal yourself, to study yourself. Chakras, yoga, meditation, Reiki, auras, self-healing and alternative therapies are some of the popular subjects. Tai Chi, Chinese medicine, vastu and parapsychology are also part of our New Age section. Our collection also includes titles on Hindu Gods and Goddesses, Sai Baba, Buddhism, Ramana Maharishi and Hindu philosophy." Describing a market that is just the opposite in the West, he says, "We even carry a few titles on Islamic mysticism, but no books on Christianity. Christians don't buy these books, only Hindus and Buddhists do." He notes that there is plenty of room for growth in this segment: "I can see increasing market possibilities in India and in the Southeast Asian markets. Sometimes we buy the rights to a title for all of South Asia."

New Age Magazines

A popular side of India's New Age niche is the magazine market, paralleling the American trend. Titles in top demand include Life Positive, Soul Curry and The Eternal Solutions, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. It is published monthly in color with a respectable print run of 65,000. Its many advertisers exemplify the favorable winds propelling this progressive market.

India's New Age journals closely follow their American precursors in content and style, with a look that is sometimes almost identical (see photos on page 63). Most articles celebrate success, harmony and, inexorably, consumerism. But there are two notable differences between the American and Indian magazines. First, overt religious content in Indian articles is far more abundant, mostly Hindu, and unapologetic--rarely toned down, simplified or disguised. Second, women are assumed to be the substantial part of the readership, but not all of it. Many Indian advertisers clearly aim at a male audience.

Pandit R.K. Sharma, an astrologer, is the main figure behind The Eternal Solutions, which he dubs "India's first manual to life" in a magazine format. Sharma writes about dharma, astrology, karma, Hindu Gods, reincarnation and other spiritual subjects, and uses excerpts from the Gita and the Vedas to address questions sent by readers. Still, he sees it as a New Age magazine. "If we had tried to pass on Hindu knowledge more overtly, people may not have accepted it easily. So we described our magazine as a 'manual to life.' We must use the New Age material for bridging the gap between the old and new generations, because what happens is that it actually passes on the message of Sanatana Dharma."

"The whole idea behind The Eternal Solutions," Sharma explains, "is to improve the intentions of people. Negativity is being promoted by so many in the media. When I had started the magazine, many friends in the media were skeptical of its commercial viability. But I was inspired from within. I proceeded, thinking that even if it brought no profit, it would still be my way of serving people. Today we are a commercial success while still keeping to the original intentions."

The Eternal Solutions bears resemblance to its American counterparts. Sprinkled among the feature articles are tidbits of news and advice that reflect a secular side of the magazine. Advertisements for housing developments, fashionable clothing and spa retreats target an upscale readership. Sharma confirms, "We are read by intellectuals, businessmen, politicians and industrialists. A sizable number of our readers are judges."

"Though New Age publications are using a lot of ideas from Hinduism," Sharma points out, "they do not give due credit to it. In our case, what I write is based on what the spiritual masters and scriptures of my tradition have said. The rishis created it all. That has been the foundation of my learning; how could I deny that?"

Another magazine in this genre, Life Positive, takes a holistic approach to news that encompasses mind, body and spirit. Touting itself as an early example of "spiritual journalism," the magazine often focuses on the life-affirming initiatives of high-minded individuals. The theme of spirituality runs throughout the articles, as contributors work to weave spirit into all facets of daily life, from home decor to fashion, from food to work. Advertisements take an interesting departure from its Indian New Age peers. They are, by far, the most mystically oriented, featuring New Age remedies to ailments, New Age solutions to personal problems, workshops and consultations for those seeking divine energies, retreats to achieve Self-realization, and herbs and naturopathic supplements to restore health.

Soul Curry is a newcomer to the market. Well written and intellectually dense, it is published by devotees of Haryana-based Anandmurti Gurumaa, whom Wikipedia calls "a New Age spiritual guide." She is known for her universalistic discourses and for translating the Sufi poems of Rumi into the Hindi language.

With regular sections on spirituality, meditation and Zen, Soul Curry presents itself as a voice for those who wish to be "free from the clutches of religion, dogmas and societal conditioning." Nevertheless, the articles are permeated by spirituality and reference to religions and religious figures. Soul Curry publishes mystical texts from many traditions, focusing primarily on the philosophy of Advaita and connecting with one's inner divinity.

Soul Curry is more oriented to women than its counterparts, repeatedly encouraging women, for example, to "empower" and "divinize" their lives. Though its editorial line closely follows the philosophy of Gurumaa, the magazine has an appeal beyond her devotees. Its advertisements, always a good indication of who is thought to be reading a magazine, are upscale and include engineering firms, high-end real estate projects, health products and pharmaceutical firms.

Where does all this leave us? In "The Hostile New Age Takeover of Yoga," back in America (an article in the online journal Slate, March 2007), Ron Rosenbaum laments the "commodification" and "dumbing down" of yoga and the Eastern philosophy that gives meaning to the practice. One of his readers agreed wholeheartedly, writing that she stopped subscribing to Yoga Journal "when there were more recommendations for $130 pants and $4,000 retreats than there were actual discussions of philosophy and form." They could not have made the same complaints about the New Age in India--and that's a good thing. PIpi

India interviews by Rajiv Malik; New Age magazine analysis by Colleen Morrison