When I was in my second year at University an older, quite eccentric post-graduate set me a task of writing an essay about Timothy Leary (the principal proponent of LSD as a guide to spiritual enlightenment). My friend thought this was hilarious. For some reason, I was a little drawn to his counterculture ideas and rather bohemian lifestyle and so I duly found myself going to the Inner Bookshop, Oxford on Magdalen Road. (quite close to where I now live)
In a pre-Amazon world, it’s hard to imagine that this kind of bookshop used to exist. Full of esoterica, spirituality, yoga, counterculture, magic – a non-conformist, vegetarian yoga paradise. It was deeply infused with incense and an other-worldly vibration and I was fascinated. At various times I went through just about every section in the bookshop, before its sad closure around 2012, a victim to online convenience and a real loss. It was at the Inner Bookshop, that I even once went to a spirit channeller who told me who I was in a past life (sadly I can’t remember) Though I do remember asking the spirit of Karl Marx a question (I must have flirted with Marxism for a time). But, the channel guide seemed to have difficulty finding Karl Marx in the spirit world, which I thought was quite funny. Maybe as a staunch atheist, Marx was sticking to his principles….
Anyway, I digress. Ironically, I found I had absolutely no interest in Leary and his theories of LSD. But, I did gravitate to the modern Hindu yogis, – Yogananda, Vivekananda, Ramakrishna, Aurobindo, Sri Chinmoy to name a few. I was particularly taken by Paul Brunton’s book “A Search in Secret India”. This was the book that really awakened my own spiritual search, an Englishman who travelled to India seeking enlightenment. He found frauds, magical tricks, and genuine spiritual souls, but the book’s climax at Arunachala and his meeting with Ramana Maharshi left a profound mark. His words touched a chord – the hidden promise of delight and nirvana seemed to be a worthy goal for life.
This all happened at a time when a few other things were happening in my outer life. Old certainties falling away and a sense of looking for something new. The truth is that despite my great initial enthusiasm, enlightenment was a lot more difficult than Brunton suggested (something he later admitted himself in his posthumous notebooks) It’s not so much “Nirvana Express” but, the long-hard slog of countless years, if not incarnations. “Nirvana for the patient.”
Spirituality is not like coasting
But exactly like climbing —
Climbing ten thousand Himalayas.
To cut a long story short, I became badly ill, and had to leave university and retake my last year. But in my year off, when I had got over a very bad patch of physical and mental health, I decided that when I returned to Oxford, I would become a disciple of Sri Chinmoy. That was March 1999 and next March it will be 25 years that I will have been on Sri Chinmoy’s Path.
Nirvana Express by Mick Brown states it is
“The captivating story of the West’s love affair with Indian spirituality – From the orientalism of the British empire to modern counterculture.”
I knew this was a book I had to buy, it is a subject close to my heart. The first section was fascinating, it weaved the story of the first pioneers of bringing Indian yoga to the West. It was fascinating how the author weaved in different spiritual figures, showing a close level of connection between many of the main characters. The most interesting thing I learnt was about the life Charles Henry Bennett – the first Englishman to be ordained a Buddhist monk. He was something of an inspiration for Paul Brunton.
The book also filled in gaps about certain figures I had never been inspired to read.
Above all else, the most inspiring part of the early chapters is undoubtedly the arrival of Swami Vivekananda and his triumphant arrival at the World Parliament of Religions. My Guru, Sri Chinmoy has frequently praised Swami Vivekananda, offering a few books, songs and 39 concerts in his honour. Although I cannot vouch for its authenticity, I believe Sri Chinmoy said in private that without Vivekananda’s coming to America, his Mission in the West would not have been possible.
In the second section of the book, there is a lot attributed to the LSD culture and Timothy Leary. I’ve always felt this to be an anathema to genuine Indian spirituality. But, the chapter did help me understand two things.
- Why Sri Chinmoy was always getting asked his opinion on drugs when starting his mission in the late 60s/ early 1970s (I think he got tired of that question!)
- Why so many early disciples of Sri Chinmoy who joined in 60s and 70s, had taken drugs before joining the path.
I also found difficult the chapter on Rajneesh. I never paid any attention to Rajneesh because a “Guru” who preaches sexual promiscuity and has 98 Rolls Royces is to me the opposite of what Indian spirituality is about.
I should add I never heard Sri Chinmoy criticise another spiritual teacher. he generally didn’t pass any comment on living spiritual teachers. There were one or two exceptions – such as Anandamaya Ma and his good friend Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan – the head of the Sufi order in the West. (A notable omission from the book). Another interesting possibility was Shri Purohit Swami – close to W.B. Yeats. But, overall it is quite extensive in mentioning the main personalities involved. It is the nature of the world, that those who create the most stir get the most coverage. A yogi and disciple meditating in silence is not the stuff of gripping books.
In the book, Sri Chinmoy is given two pages, mostly through the eyes of his two most famous musician disciples Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin. I felt the section was fine. Though one day I feel I ought to try and write a ten-volume book on Sri Chinmoy’s activities in the West.
Overall, I think the book has a basic sympathy and appreciation of Indian spirituality. It is factual and well-researched, and there is a light touch of humour, useful for some of the more ‘eccentric happenings’ let us say. There is no glossing over the failings and limitations of the people involved, but nor does it seek to denigrate unfairly. It is even-handed. You do see a lot of the Indian Gurus through the eyes of famous people, which of course has its limitations ( never to judge a Guru through the opinions of other people), but it does make for an interesting book.
If I had one disagreement, the book ends on a rather pessimistic note, with the chapter on Rajneesh and the whole circus surrounding those shenanigans. (Though it was perhaps at least useful to help understand, why there was such a strong “Anti-Cult” movement in America in the 1980s. )
From my own experience of Indian spirituality in the West it has been a very positive and life-changing experience, I can’t imagine life without the possibility of the spiritual quest. There is no Nirvana Express, but to be on the path is enough. Three times a year I go to New York, US to meditate, pray and sing the devotional songs of an Indian Guru and it feels quite normal and natural.
In 2003, I remember Sri Chinmoy lifting 20 distinguished university professors at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford (which ironically was my own college) I was really blown away by how nicely the professors spoke about Sri Chinmoy – an Indian Guru with no formal qualifications, yet they felt something in him. Later in the day, Sri Chinmoy remarked it was a unique coming together of the mind and heart. You could add a coming together of east and west.
I think the arrival of Indian spirituality in the West is a very significant and cultural moment, which at the very least has broadened Western perspectives and provided a welcome antidote to materialism. It is perhaps ironic, that these days, India has adopted much of the Western business dynamism and is one of the fastest-growing economies.
It is the nature of the world, that when there is a huge cultural revolution, it is never smooth and we tend to focus on the crashing of the waves not noticing the underlying current. Even if there is a sense of fading from the heights of Vivekananda’s arrival or the 60s revolution, I feel, that the Indian spirituality of the great teachers, has put down strong roots. Less showy, more mature. Stay tuned!
- Nirvana Express at Amazon