Spiritual tourism

Mick Brown. The Spiritual Tourist: a Personal Odyssey Through the Outer Reaches of Belief. Bloomsbury, 1999.
Journalist Mick Brown’s journey throught the fringes of belief in India and the United States begins with his encounter with the notorious Benjamin Creme, who throughout the 1980’s proclaimed that the new world teacher or Maitreya was alive and well and living among the Asian community of London’s Brick Lane. This leads Brown to a long pilgrimage through India, all the while inhabiting the no-mans land between belief and scepticism, as he encounters gurus such as Sai Baba, the boy lama Osel Hita Torres, Mother Meera and others, listening to the stories told about them by believers and detractors (sometimes the same person).

These stories bring us up against the same problem that we are constantly encountering in this field: how do you evaluate accounts of manifestly impossible events by apparently sincere people. Many of these stories have common themes, the range of rather minor experiences reported , the strange dreams, peculiar coincidences etc, the small signs of ‘otherness’ are reported in many contexts, while the even more amazing stuff can be paralleled from tales of the miracles attributed to Saints to the claims made on behalf of physical mediums.

One of the attractions of the gurus, and the willingness to believe extraordinary things about them, is their very exoticness, the same tales told of a suburban Mrs Sludge giving a séance above a fish and chip shop in New Brighton doesn’t have the same resonance; and its significant that Brown is a good deal more sceptical about the Western miracles he encounters, such as a spate of crosses seen in the windows of a church in Knoxville Tennessee.

It also has to be said that Brown displays the naivete about human motivation that many people ion the paranormal field do, the belief that if people are not obviously mercenary liars then they must be ‘telling the truth’, not just their own personal truth either, but the truth.

It has to be said that though most if not all of the characters found in India have a disturbing habit of liking the adulation of their supporters too much, and a great desire to attract the rich and the powerful while doing little for the poor and oppressed, they rarely exhibit the pure malignant bigotry of the Christian fundamentalists also encountered by Brown.

If people have experiences which they consider numinous, however mutually exclusive and incompatible the beliefs that inspire them, then the answer lies surely in the psychology of belief itself and not the object of belief. If people could be convinced that a disused Coca-Cola can was a visible manifestation of the divine, would they not end up reporting miraculous healings at its hands, or that it still gave an inexhaustible supply of miraculous holy coke? -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson

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