Buddhas in Suburbia

In his new book 'The Nirvana Express', Mick Brown explores the enduring attraction in the West of Eastern paths of enlightenment and the well-trodden route heading West taken by an assortment of holy men, God men, gurus and lamas.

London Calling: How does India look from afar? Looming world power or dysfunctional democracy? And what’s happening in Britain, and the West, that India needs to know about and perhaps learn from? This fortnightly column helps forge the connections so essential in our globalising world.

Part of the allure of the East has always been its rich religious heritage. Spirituality in all its guises, from ashrams to yoga, gives India at least as much global street cred as those more widely touted cultural staples, curry and cricket.

And one of the attractions of the West for purveyors of Eastern-style enlightenment has been the small but highly visible bohemian audience for all sorts of spiritual and quasi-spiritual esoterica. The two haven’t always combined happily.

Among the seekers and the gurus, there have been quite a number who were either charlatans or easily seduced from their chosen path. But there have also been remarkable women and men who have willingly adapted to an entirely new spiritual register.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

In his new book The Nirvana Express, Mick Brown explores the enduring attraction in the West of Eastern paths of enlightenment and the well-trodden route heading West taken by an assortment of holy men, God men, gurus and lamas.

His engrossing account has twin starting points. One is Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia, a rendition of the life of the Buddha at an almost intimidating length (5,300 lines of prose poetry). It was published in 1879, selling more than a million copies and attracting much favourable comment. In Brown’s judgment, the verse epic ’made Buddhism fashionable’ in London drawing rooms. Queen Victoria even lobbied, unsuccessfully, for Arnold to become Britain’s poet laureate.

The other point of embarkation is Swami Vivekananda’s astonishingly bold and successful appearance at a huge gathering in Chicago in 1893 which christened itself the World’s Parliament of Religions. This was ‘a historic attempt to bring together for the first time in a public forum the spiritual traditions of East and West’. Christianity’s foray into India was in large part as the creed of the coloniser; Eastern spirituality’s venture in the other direction relied much more on the mystical, life-affirming message of some of the world’s most venerated religious traditions.

Mick Brown
The Nirvana Express: How the Search for Enlightenment Went West
Hurst Publishers/Penguin India, 2023

The Nirvana Express snakes its way through Sri Aurobindo, Meher Baba, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and many others right up to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, ‘the most brilliant and most controversial guru of the age’. It’s difficult to find any holy man who was untouched by the adulation of those desperately seeking enlightenment, or at least a quieter soul. Several come across as complete shysters. But amid their ranks were several spiritual teachers of profound wisdom and humility. And among the western seekers, jostling with the naïve and the needy, were such luminous talents as Annie Besant, Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg and George Harrison.

The East – or perhaps a part-obscured vision of the Orient – was embraced by America’s Beat movement, shaped Hippy-dom, and lives on in New Age-influenced beliefs and practices. There were casualties, of course; some followers were exploited, financially and sexually, by men who pretended they were bestowing blessings. But a greater awareness of Eastern spiritual beliefs and practices has been of universal benefit and Brown’s story – well researched and sparklingly told – is uplifting as well as hugely entertaining.

Brown is a onetime rock music journalist who has become a well-regarded author and feature writer. In his books, he keeps returning to the theme of Eastern religions – he has written about spiritual tourism to India and about the Karmapa Lama controversy – with a persistence that might suggest he has hopped on board the Nirvana Express himself. In fact, he goes along every Sunday to his local parish church in London.

If his name seems familiar, well, four years ago he was the journalist who famously tracked down and filmed Nirav Modi, the fugitive billionaire whose idea of going incognito was to promenade down London’s Oxford Street in an ostrich-hide jacket.

There are some curious silences in Brown’s account: very little about Islam in general and Sufism in particular, which for quite a few British spiritual acolytes was encountered as an Indian religious practice even if its roots were elsewhere; and a reluctance to explore the cross-over, in the first half of the 20th century, between pursuing Eastern religious beliefs and endorsing India’s national cause.

In an era of unforgiving religious nationalism, there’s now less opportunity for seeking shared spiritual space and travelling – literally and figuratively – to seek, or offer, enlightenment. That diminishes us all. Those tiny models of the Buddha which were once commonplace in British suburban parlours didn’t point to any great spiritual understanding, but they did express an inquisitiveness and appreciation for ideas rooted in another country and culture.

Andrew Whitehead is an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham in the UK and a former BBC India Correspondent.