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McLeod Ganj, seat of Tibetan's spiritual leader His Holiness Dalai Lama, in India, becomes an unusual spirtual pilgrimage destination of the world as the spiritually-starved Westerners pour in. And, many a  spirituality sellers join the bandwagon to easy lucre.

Manpreet Singh in India

The place is a spirituality-sellers’ paradise. Tibetan Buddhism is the new fad--`like blue jeans’—amongst the world’s spirituality shoppers who flock to Dharamsala, known as the "Little Lhasa in India". Home to near 15,000 Tibetan refugees in India it became a hot destination with foreign spiritual pilgrims and tourists after Tibetans' spiritual and political leader His Holiness Dalai Lama got Nobel Prize for peace in 1989.

With Tibetan image becoming popular world over anything with Tibetan and Buddhist tag is a big business here. Ready-made variety of spiritual experiences is the packaged deal. The walls of McLeod Ganj are cluttered with posters of Buddhist spirituality, meditation, philosophy, rainbow reading, moon power, Zen; besides Tibetan cooking medicine and yoga which overshadow a few signs exhorting the boycott of Chinese-made goods and seeking Tibet’s freedom. Teaching Buddhism is a lucrative business proposition. spiritualityonsale1.jpg (39896 bytes)

A large number of young and old foreigners with freshly tonsured heads (some in newly acquired maroon Buddhist robes) make a beeline to attend philosophy and meditation classes. Squatting in the dimly-lit incense-smoked rooms, and struggling to chant in Tibetan language some `mantras' after the Lama's voice-- is the scene they love to be in.

Thubten Samphel, Information Secretary with the Tibetan Government-in-Exile sees the commercialisation of Buddhist spirituality in a larger context, "Any philosophy from the east has become industry. The materialistic western world finds itself in a spiritual vacuum and looks towards the east and it becomes a demand-and-supply kind of thing. It’s sad, but you can’t prevent people from desiring to make more money."

Thubten even justifies foreigners’ `flirtation with Tibetan Buddhism' as it leads to desired political objectives: "It all may seem commercial but it is an opportunity for us to make the world aware of what’s happening in Tibet. There are some foreigners who have taken serious interest and supported our cause of Tibet’s liberation from China, only after taking interest in Tibetan Buddhism, wisdom and culture."

But many Tibetans find this idealised and romanticised view of Tibetan culture and Buddhism as `crazy’. A sort of experiment and fashion with foreigners. "Buddhism is quite a fashion here," says Tenzin Kunga, a young monk at Tse Chok Ling Monastery. "It’s even ridiculous. After attending a 3-4 day course, they think themselves to be masters of religion. Some even start teaching Buddhism to make money. Most foreigners are simply crazy, a few serious and some really clever."

spiritualityonsale2.jpg (49099 bytes)Buddhism is a very intensive and deep religion. There also are serious students of Tibetan culture and religion, though a few. Says Tyler Dewar, 24, a Canadian studying Buddhism for the last two-and-half years; and is in McLeod Ganj for the second time, "I find the handful of people in Canada who take interest in religion have more solid grounding in Buddhism than the overflowing streams of foreigners taking classes here. I think most foreigners are testing waters or may be looking for some entertainment through spiritual experimentation. Moreover, they also need to fill time in a remote country." Tyler's ambition is to land in a job as a translator of Tibetan language.

Admitting spiritual starvation of the west Tyler explains: "The young people in the west find Buddhism and other eastern religions attractive as they are not authoritative like Christianity. Although I was born to a Christian family but in my heart I never felt I was a Christian."

"Religion of convenience" is how Ella Benami, an Israeli woman finds Buddhism. Ella studied Buddhism in Nepal for two months but finds practicing religion quite easy here: "Buddhism in Nepal was more ritualistic, while here it’s more comfortable and convenient."

Most of the westerners spiritual-shopping in the world land in McLeod Ganj due to the presence of His Holiness Dalai Lama which lends an aura of spiritual ambience to the place. Tibetan Government in Exile holds classes in Buddhist philosophy at Tibetan Library and Archives at nominal prices. Only these classes have some amount of seriousness and are quite favourite with the foreigners. Other spirituality-shops that have mushroomed all over the town seek to rake moolah, religiously. Spiritual healers, Yoga and Reiki masters have also joined the bandwagon, lured by lucre. Such commercialisation certainly undermines religious sanctity.

As an old Buddhist monk R. Tsering puts it: "Most foreigners don’t find anything sacred about religion. It's a new experiment like a new dish. For them it’s a plaything, a time-pass in a foreign land. And they have dollars at which the growing number of spirituality-sellers aim at. As religion becomes secondary in the race for money, reverence is lost." Sanctity in any business is in terms of profit making. Targeted by spirituality-sellers the foreign tourists are promised `complete awakening', `spiritual clarity' or `multi-dimensional vision' in this `unusual spiritual pilgrim's destination in the world'. The only enlightenment they may get, if they are seeking any, from the roadside spiritual gurus is in the lighter weight of their wallets. Spiritually, they may return as dry as they had come, some even disillusioned.


Updated: 25-8-2000

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