If modern Westerners could assign just one phrase to what India excels at, it would be spiritual enlightenment. Need to find answers? Need to find yourself? Need to take a break from the senselessness of the rat race? Come to India.
At some point in recent history, India cornered the market on spirituality. Perhaps starting with Vivekananda in the late 19th century, many Indian gurus have become famous on an international level. Their teachings were strikingly different from either the Protestant work ethic or traditional Catholic theology that had dominated Western concepts of spirituality for so long. Everything about Indian spirituality (and therefore India) seemed different, deeper, more mysterious, and perhaps better.
So, when someone sets off on a world tour and needs a stopover to help discover her ‘true self’, there is really only one option: India.
Eat Pray Love
- Release Date: 13 August 2010
- Box Office Revenue: $205 million
- Ranking: #37 worldwide
- Other top movies of 2010: Toy Story 3, Iron Man 2, Inception
I’ll start by admitting that I’ve never read the book, but that’s the point of these reviews anyway – the lazy man’s education about India. The film version was not the blockbuster it was hoped to be, but it did garner a lot of attention and is the best-known modern movie that carries the theme of India being the spiritual epicenter.
The film is about Liz Gilbert, a successful woman who leaves her life in New York for a three-stop worldwide tour: Italy (to learn to eat), India (to learn to pray), and Bali (to learn to love). I’ll only bother with the India section, although I thought this article was an interesting take on Italian stereotypes.
Liz in India
To be fair, this film is not trying to teach the viewer about India. However, many people are still educated about India through it.
Liz’s India experience is quite fenced-in, but more in the hippie style rather than the expat ‘gated community’ style. She spends her entire stay at the internationalized ashram of a famous guru. She ventures out occasionally for a meal, but never interacts with any other part of India. Her Texas mentor, Richard, tells her, “Don’t touch anything, other than yourself”. She interacts almost exclusively with other expats during her time in the country. In the book, when describing the village, she says, “Outside the walls of the Ashram, it’s all dust and poverty.”
While she is not staying at the Leela Palace, there is still a strong wall built between Liz and any other part of India. She never interacts with the very modern, the very ancient, the very rich, the very poor, or much in between. It is all limited to her time at the ashram. It would be like someone writing about their experiences in the UK after studying there in a special program for international students and never leaving the campus.
The only attempt to interact on a deeper level with the culture becomes an easy target for American critique. Liz befriends Tulsi, a seventeen-year-old Indian girl who is depressed because she is bemoaning her upcoming arranged marriage. This continues the myth of this archaic, authoritarian system oppressing teenagers who deserve their freedom. Anyone who has spent time with a large group of young Indians knows that this is far from the truth. Not only are most Indian families quite accepting of their son or daughter’s preferences, many young Indians actually prefer that their parents find spouses for them.
So while the ashram-visiting storyline is still a valid one for outsiders, it is far from the only one that needs to be told.
India as a Spiritual Guide
But Liz doesn’t come to India to experience the culture – she comes to be enlightened and to learn to pray. While the ashram is run by a celebrity guru, Liz’s main spiritual guide becomes ‘Richard from Texas’ who loves to speak in platitudes.
The teachings of the guru and Richard are consistent with most ‘pop’ spirituality inside and outside of India. Quiet your mind, surrender your thoughts, find the God inside you, forgive/love yourself, etc. The focus of Liz’s spiritual practices is chanting difficult scriptures and focusing on her daily meditation (difficult for Indians and outsiders alike).
Liz attains a spiritual equilibrium towards the end of her four-month stay (quite fast for any serious practitioner!). However, I was very confused by the final scene in India. With this new balance, she takes on a vow of silence, only to break it 20 minutes later when she accepts the role of ‘Little Suzy Creamcheese’, a bubbly hostess to welcome foreign devotees. I have no idea how that suggests that she has reached a new spiritual balance.
Where are the Indians?
What came across most obviously in this film was the lack of Indians. Aside from Tulsi, there are no other Indian characters. The boyfriend who led Liz to the guru is white. The monk/priest who leads the devotional sessions is white. Liz’s roommate is white. Richard from Texas is extraordinarily white. All this is not too far from reality at international ashrams, where outsiders tend to stick around.
Without stretching the connection too far, I couldn’t help comparing Eat Pray Love to Octopussy. A man/woman on a mission, surrounded by beautiful people of the opposite sex, interacting almost entirely with foreigners in India. In both movies, India is merely a new backdrop or a reason for a quick wardrobe change. In regards to spirituality, India is a place where you come to be enlightened, but the people are secondary. Again, this is a major lesson for outsiders coming in – don’t just focus on the scenery; the secret of India is in its people.
The Spiritual Brand of India
India has had the ‘brand’ of being a spiritual place for a long time, but Indians have differing opinions about it. Some embrace it and actively participate in very spiritual lifestyles, visiting temples, ashrams, gurus, satsangs, etc.
Others despise it. They see these spiritual teachings as a commodity that had its roots in India, but has now been exported back to Indians in a Westernized format. If any foreigner mentions the words ‘guru’ or ‘ashram’, they immediately get defensive and make sure they are not giving money. These Indians feel the country has many more things to be proud of rather than gurus whose integrity is often dubious.
This split is not reflective of age, gender, region, or religion. In every pocket of society, you find those people who embrace the ‘spirituality’ of India and those who reject it. There is perhaps not a more evenly divisive issue.
However, it is rare to find any mention of India in a major Hollywood film that doesn’t have a strong spiritual component to it. Therefore, it is still a label that everyone will have to learn to accept as the dominant Western view.
Is India a place of spiritual enlightenment?
Definitely. India will challenge your view of humanity and the way you look at time, life, food, and ethics. But don’t limit its spiritual impact to a few famous gurus. India’s spirituality runs much deeper. It is seen in the devotion of the middle-class housewife doing her morning puja. It is seen in a doctoral research scientist who keeps an image of Ganesha nearby and blends his science and religion perfectly. It is in the conversationalist who treks in the Western Ghats to find new solutions to biological problems.
India is a place to find yourself. But more importantly, it’s a place where you can find people who will show you what you are looking for.
This closes out the series on Movies About India – films that educate the common Westerner about India. Next week, we’ll restart with some more articles on getting things done in the office. Stay tuned!