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Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East - Linda W. Duddy

by Gita Mehta, Simon and Schuster, New York, NY, 1979. Reviewed by Linda W. Duddy

In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna pleads with Krishna for a valid reason why he should war against others, including his family, friends, and teachers. "Because you are bound to act," replies Krishna. "Only action will save you from the bondage of action." That is karma. Westerners, however, consider it to be anything from coincidence or vibrations to biorhythms. That is not karma.

Karma Cola describes that difference with keen perception, agility, and wit. Worldviews are contrasted, the guru movement flayed. Roots of that movement are traced through four decades of social trends. Gita Mehta is clever, bright. She’s also Indian.

Her fluency in French, English, and Hindi is Mehta’s ticket to ride throughout India, interviewing the myriad guru devotees transplanted from the West. Why have you come?

The simple answer to the whole movement is that we come here to get unwired. Where else is there to go? And here, you’re ignored, you’re not important at all, so you are forced back on your own resources, not the resources of some huge mammary machine, If you can get used to the indifference, you learn to function again.

Fat chance argues Mehta. Citing psychologist Jung, author Kipling, and history, she maintains that the chasm between the thought processes and morality of the Occident and Orient are unbridgeable.

The visitors do not have that profound Indian consolation of knowing that everything and every perception is a con, and worse, a self-induced con, a view enshrined in the Hindu concept of Maya. The gurus, their Indian hosts and fathers, don’t help them to acquire the tranquility that comes from the Oriental ability to see in a plethora of contradictions a literally mind-blowing affirmation. To go from the monomania of the West to the multimania of the East is a painful business.

That pain for many is real. Physical. Mental. Spiritual. It can make you cry.

Canadians, Germans, Britons, French, Americans. All butting up against a solid wall--the Karmic law. They come to escape responsibility only to learn that they alone are responsible--"you are God. You are the Law." They come seeking answers to a question they learn has already asked itself, answered itself: the asker’s identity is the question that remains. Following Ginsberg, the Beatles, Ram Dass in hope of discovering newness of life, they encounter madness, death. Nobody’s telling them otherwise. That’s karma.

The Karmic Law would seem to suggest that there is no heaven, only a series of life sentences, and that salvation occurs not in an after-life paradise but with a successful death. For us eternal life is death...just death, no more being born again to endure life again to die again. Yet people come to India to be born again with the conviction that in their rebirth they will relearn to live. At the heart of all of our celebrations, which are still lively and colorful, is the realization that we are at a wake. But the tourists we draw because of that color and that liveliness appear to think they are at a christening.

Mehta keeps a safe, sane distance from the subjects she observes. Sarcastic, sensitive, poking fun, mourning. Her voice is clear. Hinduism is her faith. But the do-it-yourself, develops-in-just-sixty-seconds approach to Nirvana--presupposed by Western devotees and perpetuated by certain Indian gurus--is harsh and cruel.

Dharma means no distinction between chaos and order, accepting good and evil as indivisible, witnessing simultaneous continuity as the moral order, being as a process of endless becoming. And yet to act. It means you cannot follow the Law. You are the Law. Over and over again when Dharma is acknowledged to be too harsh, our meditations and our spiritual techniques have degenerated into payola systems...used to buy time against Time. We call them Leela, the meditation of the practical joke. Like the practical jokes being perpetrated daily in the ashrams of India.

That is karma, bottled, franchised. That is cola, gone, going East.