By Ritu Khanna
New Ager takes Earthman on a journey through time and space
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting that at a distance of roughly 92 million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think cellular phones are a pretty neat idea.
This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but the problem refused to go away. Lots of people were mean and selfish, most of them were miserable, even the ones with the cellular phones. Everyone was looking for some instant cure to solve their problems.
And then a terrible catastrophe occurred. This is the story of that catastrophe and its aftermath.
It is also the story of a book called The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the New Age, not yet available in bookstores. It is the unauthorized sequel to The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. It is dedicated to, and draws its inspiration from, Adams.
The story begins very simply. It begins with a house.
The house belongs to Earthman. He is rich, unhappy and fed up with life. To make matters worse, he has just been informed on his mobile phone that his house is to be demolished, to make way for the flyover a certain political party is building, in an attempt to garner more votes.
Earthman has a friend called New Ager who has hitch hiked the length and breadth of the Earth. He’s roughed it, slummed it, and has struggled against terrible odds. New Ager has helped with the research for this article and also for the revised edition of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the New Age.
Having received some inside information that, along with Earthman’s house, the Earth too is about to be demolished to give way to a greater scheme of things, New Ager rescues his friend. They escape in a dark and dingy flying saucer.
‘New Ager,’ asks Earthman, ‘I don’t know if this sounds like a silly question, but what exactly am I doing here?’
‘Well, you know that,’ replies New Ager. ‘I have just rescued you from the Earth.’
‘And what’s happened to the Earth?’
‘Ah. It’s been demolished.’
‘Has it,’ says Earthman unbelievingly, longing to grab his mobile and quickly touch base with his Earth-based buddies.
‘Yes. It just boiled away into space. But don’t panic. You come along with me and have a good time. The New Age is a fun place. And, when in doubt, read The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the New Age.’
The ride is bumpy and Earthman is unable to sleep. He decides to take New Ager’s device and opens the book, admires the cover, and begins reading the foreword:
‘What is the New Age? For some, it is a misnomer. It should be called Old Age, they feel. Those who regard it as an anachronism staunchly believe that it has always been there, but we were all too busy to look for it. For others, the New Age is a mistake, sheer fantasy. Things will just get worse, they prognosticate.
‘Then again, there are two kinds of New Age people. There are some who are in the trip just for the heck of it. They are offer the loonies who think of the New Age in terms of UFOs, channels and lost continents. For the true adherents of the New Age philosophy, however, the journey itself is the destination. They look backward only to get ahead. And they are looking to the new millennium for the dawn of a new era of hope and happiness.
‘The New Age gives a new vision to the world. It is about transformation, both individual and cultural. It is the present reality that is in the process of emerging. It is an divisible, unobtrusive movement, a silent revolution as it were. Its focus is on the whole, on sharing, caring and giving. Its emphasis is on the self, on networking, on the…’
A rude jolt, and Earthman’s reading is abruptly ended. We seem to have handed, thinks Earthman, enviously looking at New Ager who is sleeping blissfully. Earthman is not in a good mood—his cellular phone seems to be temporarily out of order. Angrily, he pokes New Ager.
New Ager, true to character, is patient and calm. Actually he was not sleeping, he was meditating. ‘ We have traveled in time,’ he says gently. ‘We are both of this world and out of it. I am going to take you to places that you have probably never dreamt of. You have closed your eyes to things around you. Let me be the guide in this, your journey to the New Age. Our first stop is Esalen.’
On the way New Ager informs his friend, if we can really call it that, with its emphasis on environmentalism, feminism and many other isms, grew out of the human potential movement.’ And a lot of New Age thinking can trace its origins to the Easlen Institute on Highway I, Big Sur, California. It was founded in 1962 by Michael Murphy and Richard Price (who were inspired by Aldous Huxley) as an educational center devoted to the exploration of unrealized human capacities. Over the years it has become famous for its commune-like lifestyle, its workshops and its hot springs.
Eathman looks horrified. No prude, yet he had not visualized that the New Ager would take him to the hot springs of Esalen, where nudity is the norm. ‘We encourage each individual to choose what is most comfortable, either wearing a swimsuit or not, and emphasize that the environment we strive for at Easlen is one of personal sanctuary and respect for the human body.’ Adds New Ager: ‘The New Age generation is totally fascinated with the body. For them, the body is not a dirty word; on the contrary, the body is real, and never before have they been so aware of it.’
A workshop, Singing Gestalt, is in progress. New Ager suggests that they attend it. The participants are singing loudly, some melodiously, others horribly out of tune. The coordinator explains: ‘Singing Gestalt is singing about yourself, who you are, what you feel. It is about being yourself in front of other people without judging how well you sing. It is not about performance—it is about making contact, feeling, expressing, and being there, with and for yourself and others.’
Earthman, who has skipped breakfast, realizes how hungry he is. Almost reluctant to disturb the joyous singers, he nudges New Ager, and reminds him of lunch. Quite convinced that New Ager would, in all probability, take him to a restaurant at the end of the universe, he suggests that he use his cellular phone to call Domino’s for pizzas and cokes.
It is New Ager’s turn to look aghast. ‘In the New Age the process of eating takes on a different meaning altogether.’ He elaborates: ‘For us, the body is a temple. When we think of food, it is usually stuff that is good for us, mostly vegetarian and mostly harmless. We view the human being as a total system of body, mind and spirit—each of them has to be nurtured with care.
‘As for the body,’ he continues, ‘our emphasis here is on health and healing, on proper diet and exercise. When unwell, we turn to alternative methods of therapy, instead of just pill-popping at the slightest pretext. [Earthman makes a mental note of never swallowing his melatonin tablets in front of New Ager] We use music, aromas, crystals, flowers, herbs, even colors, for treatment. We believe in acupressure, acupuncture, ayurveda, biorhythms, chiropractic, homeopathy, iridology, massage, naturopathy, osteopuncture, phrenology, pulse diagnosis, rellexology, reiki, rolfing, shiatsu…’
One look at Earthman’s face, and he stops mid-sentence.
They sit together in uncomfortable silence. The spaceship is approaching Hollywood, and soon lands with a loud thud outside House of Blues. They seat themselves at a corner table and order their meal. House of Blues is probable the closest Hollywood has come to having its own exclusive spiritual club. There’s a Buddha Room here, complete with statues of Hindu gods. You can find portraits of Sathya Sai Baba, Om stickers, and slogans that state: On a mission from Godand Who do you love?
Earthman looks around, absorbing the almost godly ambiance. To his surprise, he comes across some familiar faces: Sylvester Stallone, Francis Ford Coppola, and yes, the material Girl herself who is said to have written her hit song secret as a tribute to Mother Meera, a mystic living in Germany. He reluctantly tears his eyes away from Madonna, in an attempt to pay attention to what his host, New Ager, is saying.
It’s time for some food for thought now. Their next destination is the Bodhi Tree Bookstore at Melrose Avenue, West Hollywood, that was opened in 1970 by three aerospace engineers. The world’s biggest store for spiritual literature (it has around 30,000 titles), it also stocks New Age accessories such as cassettes, both video and audio, crystals, tarot cards and incense.
On the way to the Bodhi Tree Bookstore, Earthman refers to the glossary in The Hitch Hitch’s Guide to the New Age to find the meaning of some of the esoteric terms that New Ager had rattled off earlier:
‘Reiki: A Japanese technique that uses hands to being about an energy transfer to bring about an energy transfer and thus promote healing
Rolfing: A muscular realignment therapy for the release of muscles frozen by stress.’
There is a large crowd outside the Bodhi Tree Annex, ‘This is an even bigger gathering than when a scene was shot here for the television adaptation of Shirley Maclaine’s book, Out on a Limb‘, observes New Ager, adding that MacLaine had written about her visits to this store in her book.
People have collected today to hear Dr Deepak Chopra introduce his first novel, The Return of Merlin. Dr Chopra is a familiar face in New Age circles, his bestsellers include Ageless Body, Timeless Tips and The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. ‘As I look back over the last 15 years at my owns spiritual journey,’ says Dr Chopra, ‘I see that it has unfolded in a very sequential manner. My own quest started with a simple desire—to quit smoking. And now I find that I’m looking. And now I find that I’m looking for God.’
New Ager and Earthman go across to the store, where they browse through the titles, old and new. New Ager’s recommendation for the novice: The Celestine Prophecy by James Radfield; The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, a book that appeals to all; books by Richard Bach, who taught a multitude of readers to so spiritually, and who, incidentally, can be reached on CompuServe by typing ‘go new age'; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig; The Aquarian Conspiracy by Marilyn Ferguson, about personal and social transformation in the 1980s; all books by Aldous Huxley; Thee Art of Dreamingand other books by Carlos Castaneda, about the teachings of the Mexican sorcerer Don Juan Matus; Be Here Now by Baba Ram Dass (actually Richard Alpert, a transformed refugee from the psychedelic age of hippies and drugs); Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda; The Tao of Physics…
‘ Hey, that’s enough.’ Declares Earthman. ‘All this is getting to be a bit heavy for my wallet and my mind. Let’s look at the music.’
The music bestsellers at the shop are in various categories: music, spoken word and subliminal. Earthman listens to Steven Halpern’s Inner Peace and Gifts of the Angels, and contemplates buying Attracting Perfect Love by Dick Sutphen. New Ager has already chosen One Hand Clapping and a new, unabridged version of Creative Visualization by Shakti Gawain.
‘New Age music does not specifically refer to any particular music,’ notes New Ager. ‘ It is an umbrella term for any kind of music that can be used for therapeutic purposes, or to create an environment with. It’s great for meditation. My all-time favorite is Paula Horan who visited Agra in 1968, where he recorded the first of his ‘Inside’ albums—Inside the Taj Mahal.’
Agrees New Ager: ‘Yes, and that’s where we are now heading. The way I see it is that many New Age systems trace their beginnings to Eastern practices. But along the way they got exported to the West where they acquired an altogether different flavor, and then were repackaged and sent back.
‘Over six decades ago, the historian Arnold Toynbee had predicted that the most significant development of the age would be the influence of the Eastern spiritual perspective on the West. It still is.’ New Ager goes on to quote Marilyn Ferguson who had written that the East contemplated the forest; the West counted the trees…’The mind that knows the trees and the forest is a new mind.’
Earthman is quite excited about visiting India. He reaches for his mobile phone to tell his girlfriend about his adventures, but fails to connect with the Earth. Realizing that Earthman had not watched any television for the last 24 hours and would soon start showing withdrawal symptoms, New Ager decides to distract him with the story of the Hundredth Monkey:
‘There is this old folk tale of a monkey who was placed in a cage. More monkeys were subsequently captured, and put in the cage. However, at the arrival of the hundredth monkey, the cage gave way and all the monkeys escaped. The moral: A change can only occur after a critical mass of believers has been reached. In faceted, TM practitioners feel that if enough people meditate, its effects will be felt the world over.
‘Yes, the effect of the New Age movement is being perceived everywhere,’ says New Ager, replying to Earthman’s unspoken question ‘ Like all movements, it has its followers and critics. But when and island in the Seychelles is devoted to new Age activities; when New Age festivals attract large numbers; when the residents of communes seem to spill over; when a whole new industry seems to be coming up to cater to the whims to the so called New Age generation: when supermarkets start stocking things like aura cameras; when rainbows, pyramids and dolphins acquire a new, almost symbolic meaning..’
‘Okay. I get the picture,’ snaps Earthman, impatient and grumpy as always (Don’t forget, he doesn’t have his pills with him. Also, he is will aware of New Ager’s habit of spending a lot of time thinking about the cosmos and his place in it). ‘Now don’t start lecturing me on life, the universe and everything. Tell me, how long for India?’
India. An odd-shaped mass of land with a triangular bottom, whose northern boundaries are not too clearly delineated (there is a problem with one of its neighbors). India, with its good and bad; an amalgamation of beliefs sacred and profane. Where gurus and godmen coexist with cheats and common. Where reiki is given to computers and newspapers. Where vipassana courses are not publicized, yet there is a waiting list of at least three weeks.
Where some doctors turn to the pendulum to help diagnose their patients’ ailments. Where vaastu shastra principles are used to design houses as well as corporate logos. Where bookstores are suddenly finding an unprecedented demand for personal growth books—in fact, you can see books on mind maps prominently displayed next to Shobha De’s latest attempt at literature.
Their first stop is Auroville, near Pondicherry. Conceived as a New Age planetary village, and inspired by the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, Auroville is said to belong to humanity as a whole. Its residents depend on the Earth for its survival. Mira Richards, affectionately called The Mother, devoted her life to make Auroville a place ‘where all human beings of goodwill could live freely as citizens of the world and obey one single authority, that of supreme truth’.
‘Wow! This is totally out of this world,’ exclaims Earthman as they approach the Matrimandir, giant sphere situated at the center of Auroville, a symbol of the community’s aspiration for the divine. In an almost tourist mood, Earthman cycles of the house of a French architect, so built that it can take full advantage of the elements. ‘There’s no air-conditioning, but just see how cool it is inside,’ he says enthusiastically to New Ager.
A slow, almost unrealized, change is coming over Earthman since they have landed in India. After a fairly shaky start to the journey, his mind is beginning to reassemble itself. The ayurveda tablets that New Ager gave him are helping his digestion. He’s feeling less stressed; in fact, he has almost forgotten his cellular phone and the sense of false security it used to bring him. Earhtman is even seriously thinking of turning vegetarian. New Age concepts are beginning to interest him, he wants to know more. He turns to The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the New Age for its entry on History:
‘It all began in 1875 when the Theosophical Society was formed in New York City by Helena Petrovan Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott and William Quan Judge… After Madame Blavatsky’s death in 1891, Annie Besant became the head of the esoteric section of theosophical students…The World’s Parliament of Religions was held in Chicago in 1893. One of its speakers was Swami Vivekananda, the first Hindu spiritual leader to go to the West and create an impact there…. he founded the Vedanta Society in the USA in 1894.’
Earthman skips through the pages, skimming through the entries on the period of exploration and experimentation, on the baby boomers, who are considered the chief carriers of the New Age movement, when in turn had its earliest manifestation in the 1950s, with the beatniks, writers such as lack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, folk music, the Age of Aquarius, the spread of a new consciousness…
Ever alert, New Ager is a silent witness to Easthman’s recent transformation. To help his restless friend some more, he decides to explain the New Age attitude toward money:
‘We enjoy money,’ he says matter-of-factly. ‘And we are not ashamed of that. We’ve got rid of the guilt complex that inevitably strikes the rich, especially in a poor country like India.
‘We believe in making a living and making a difference,’ sums up New Ager.
The conversation turns from materialism to mysticism. ‘For us there is one universal religion, in a way we are borrowing the best from all religions,’ explains New Ager, noting that Earthman is becoming increasingly attentive. ‘Take the example of forgiving, a virtue New Age people believe in. It’s a very Indian concept, in Jainism they even have a day earmarked for forgiving and asking for forgiveness. Then again, according to Vedic philosophy, debt to your parents heads the list of debts we have to repay. The forum sessions focus on making up with your parents.’
The spaceship needs refueling, and some rest, so they decide to take an overnight stop at Bombay. ‘The New Age is really a nineties phenomenon for Indians,’ observes New Ager.
New Age signs are all over India, especially visible to those looking for them: Herbal cosmetic boutiques in all upmarket areas; advertisements such as the one on the Kit Kat break (a yoga teacher offers his student a chocolate bar); reiki master in Bangalore has called her center New Age Movement; The Forum and Silva sessions are growing in popularity, so are workshops that teach you, among other exciting things, fire walking as a means of overcoming fear.
New Ager takes Earthman to the office of Jayesh Shah. A successful stockbroker who gave up his family business to publish Humanscape. Shah also runs a 24 hour online service for answering queries on humanism. He tells Earthman: ‘ It is important to experience oneself as a human being. This brings coherence and unity within, and places you at one with the world.’
The also meet Darryl D’ Monte, who heads a forum of environment-minded journalists. D’ Monte’s concern for environment is reflected in his lifestyle. Says he: ‘I’m conscious of not wasting food and electricity. I try not to accumulate plastic bags and I always recycle.’
New Ager and Earthman enter Crossword. Observes Sriram, consultant at the bookstore: ‘Around three years ago, there was a real interest in New Age books. People used to refer to them by that name. Now they no longest feel it is necessary to define these books in that manner, so my guess is that New Age literature is now part of mainstream thought.’
Sriram narrates the example of a lady who came to the bookstore after reading The Celestine Prophecy and declared that the book had changed her life, Eager to meet other ‘celestines’, she even put up a poster in the store.
New Ager meets an acquaintance who describes scene he recently witnessed at a session conducted by Ramesh S. Balsekar, banker-turned-guru. ‘During the course of the talks, a lady suddenly screamed: ‘It’s so easy, it’s so simple. There is no enlightenment… the seeker doesn’t exist’.’
On the way to the spaceship New Ager decides to let Earthman enter the stream of consciousness of some people who, in a way, are critical of the New Age. Over to Delhi and into past-life therapist and guided meditation instructor Aparna Jha’s mind: ‘The New Age panders to the ego, which in turn means that no real spiritual progress can be made.’
While in Delhi, Rajiv Vora of the Gandhi Peace Foundation cautions them: ‘For India, too much social energy will be wasted to get to the New Age, it will mean taking a very long route. Instead, we should tap our traditions directly.’
‘Another criticism of the New Age is that many times it takes the form of spiritual materialism,’ observes New Ager. ‘People begin to collect crystals and pyramids. They even turn into workshop junkies, attending one personal or spiritual growth course after another.’
Earthman is distracted. His mind is bursting with a million possibilities. Ever the pragmatic, he’s thinking of how he can benefit from the New Age. Also, New Ager has taught him a different way of looking at things—he wants to share this knowledge with his friends.
‘However, one last stop,’ insists New Ager.
They’re in Delhi now. Maneuvering their way through narrow streets, and an extremely confusing and a rather senseless system of house numbering, they reach the first-floor office of Life Positive, India’s first body-mind-spirit magazine. The predominant colors here are yellow and green. The editorial is abuzz with activity, phones are ringing, the printer is churning out reams of matter, so , it appears, is the fax machine. The Laughing Buddha, Life Positive’s lucky mascot, looks on indulgently. The editors are busy poring over the first page proofs of the cover story of their inaugural issue. Its title: The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the New Age.
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