Continental GriftWellness and the Western Consumption of India

Illustration by Priyanka Paul

This article was published in Sick Issue #86 | Spring 2020

There is no phrase that better summarizes America’s historic perception of India than Gita Mehta’s brilliant coinage “Karma Cola.” In her 1994 book by the same name, Mehta outlines the bizarre phenomenon of Westerners flocking to India in the 1960s and beyond, seeking spiritual enlightenment and Karma. The conflation of Karma and Cola goes straight to the heart of the commodification of India and neatly sums up the way capitalism embraces Orientalism at large, serving an exoticized land to Westerners as something to be consumed until it yields enlightenment. There’s a lot of history here. Even before the ’60s, India occupied a particularly transgressive space in the Western construction of the Orient. Nestled between the Far and Near East, India managed to escape stereotypes ascribed to the Islamicate world and East Asia. Instead, its position as the birthplace of both Hinduism and Buddhism produced a different set of stereotypes. What India came to represent in the colonial imagination was a foil to Western decadence, individualism, and industrialization. It became the land of escape, of peace away from toxicity.

This wasn’t always the case. For most of colonial history, India had been lumped together with a broader idea of the Orient, representing the same decadence (gold, jewels, silk, spices) that made colonizers flock to these faraway countries in the first place. However, starting in the mid to late 1800s, Hinduism began to acquire a distinct place for itself in Western philosophical thought, with thinkers like Arthur Schopenhauer and Henry David Thoreau engaging with Hindu texts such as the Bhagavad Gita. However, the moment that really brought Hinduism as a practice of spirituality into common parlance was when Hindu spiritual leader Swami Vivekananda made a historic speech about the tolerance of Hinduism at the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. American newspapers raved about him, with the Boston Evening Transcript reporting that he was “a great favourite at the Parliament…if he merely crosses the platform, he is applauded.”

This reshaping of Hinduism and, by extension, India sparked interest throughout the 20th century, but really took off in the ’60s. American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg brought India to the hippies in his famous poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” Around the same time, George Harrison, collaborating with sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, described him as “my link into the Vedic world. Ravi plugged me into the whole of reality. I mean, I met Elvis—Elvis impressed me when I was a kid…but you couldn’t later on go round to him and say, ‘Elvis, what’s happening in the universe?’” All the Beatles were deeply influenced by manufactured ideas of Hinduism, joining the cult of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi alongside the Beach Boys in the late ’60s. By the 1970s, the relationship between India and a transcendental spirituality had been firmly inscribed in the U.S. imagination, and many other gurus and spiritual guides, looking for a quick buck, made their way here, establishing schools and centers to service the impoverished American soul.

It’s hard for this kind of exoticization to be served without a dose of othering. Inevitably, what India as a spiritual land represented to Western seekers of enlightenment was not extended to Indians who actually lived in the West. Indian culture might have been intriguing and exotic, but “Hindoos,” as all South Asians were often incorrectly labeled, were decidedly not. Thirty years after Swami Vivekananda made his speech, Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian Sikh resident of the United States, was denied naturalized citizenship for not belonging to the “common understanding” of whiteness. It was a huge blow to the small but growing desi community members in the United States, who understood that they were valued only for their labor—not for their cultural or social diversity and certainly not for their inherent humanity. As Westerners began to encounter real-life Indians, as opposed to “Indianness” as an abstraction, the gap between the real and the imagined grew.

It’s much harder to romanticize actual human beings you work with, do laundry with, and resent for having stolen your jobs than it is to exoticize a faraway land you’ve never visited. We discovered statements like this one in the Special Report of State Bureau of Labor Statistics (6 January 1919): “The Hindu has no morals.” The Indian “is the most undesirable immigrant in the state. His lack of personal cleanliness, his low morals and his blind adherence to theories and teachings, so entirely repugnant to American principles, make him unfit for association with American people.” The burgeoning industry of India-inspired Western spiritualism suddenly had a dilemma on its hands.

Things have changed a lot for Indians over the past century. No longer seen as “undesirable,” Indians have become arguably the hottest immigrant commodity in the contemporary United States. Self-selectivity coupled with what is perceived as a docile willingness to uphold the status quo has positioned Indians as a model minority who present an idealized American version of the “good immigrant.” Upholding the image of a good immigrant requires work. Fortunately, much of that work had been done by the aforementioned gurus and idols of hippie culture. While the first set of Indian immigrants who arrived in the United States didn’t have the cultural capital to take advantage of this flourishing imaginary narrative, the professionals who entered the United States after immigration reform in the 1960s were primed to benefit from the characterization of India as a place of profound spirituality. It was an unintended symbiosis that paved the way for Indians to not only indirectly benefit from the assumptions of benevolence afforded to them, but to actively participate in (re)producing this imagery. It was in this fecund environment that Deepak Chopra emerged.

One of the many doctors who traveled to the States during the South Asian professional boom of the 1960s and ’70s, Chopra arrived already steeped in the narrative of Indian superiority. He studied at a prestigious medical college in India before teaching at Tufts and Harvard. After establishing a successful private practice in endocrinology, he stumbled upon Ayurveda while visiting New Delhi in 1980. This led him to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who asked him to establish an Ayurvedic health center, laying the foundation for the wellness empire Chopra built in the 1990s. In many ways, it also laid the foundation for wellness in its contemporary form. The fundamental critique of Western medicine that underlies Chopra’s philosophy of wellness is that it treats the symptoms of disease rather than the root. Chopra argues, “If you can’t sleep at night, there’s a sleeping pill. It will cure insomnia. You’re feeling anxious? There’s a tranquilizer. It will give you tranquility. You have an infection? Take an antibiotic….If you have chest pain, you can pop some nitroglycerin. Better still, have a bypass operation.” This approach “relieves symptoms or at best masks symptoms while the underlying process remains unchanged.”

The same idea runs through the contemporary wellness industry. The traditional capitalist healthcare industry is failing consumers. It treats symptoms with wildly expensive drugs and treatment plans, but rarely offers forms of prevention, putting people into cycles of lifelong dependency and debt. In the wake of the Trump presidency, more and more people are waking up to the deficiencies of the current healthcare system in the United States. Perhaps this is why the past few years have seen a burst of new writing on sickness, much of which recognizes that sickness isn’t just disease; it’s the absence of health, both individual and societal, that can cause suffering, isolation, and trauma that may not be visible in a doctor’s office. In many ways, the turn to wellness is about fixing a damaged society. 

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This kind of disillusionment inevitably makes people turn to alternative (and necessary) ways of healing. Activism is one avenue. Much personal healing can come from rallying around a common cause to heal a toxic society. But here’s where the problem lies: Capitalism is fundamentally antithetical to community-building, and the wellness industry is steeped in capitalism. In a society plagued by rampant consumerism and atomization, it’s far easier to adopt the quick-fix matcha latte and kitchari cleanse route that allows people to heal themselves without having to accept that there’s anything wrong with the world as it is. Perhaps the most disconcerting example of this transformation from wellness as social good to wellness as atomized healing is in the co-option of meditation as a commodity.

As David Forbes, author of Mindfulness and Its Discontents, puts it, “Buddhists seek to let go of attachment to the myth of the private, solid, unchanging self, and to promote universal compassion and end universal suffering. But capitalist culture enforces the myth of the privatized, self-centered self….[Meditation in capitalist culture] help[s] people adjust to the status quo rather than helping to transform it.” This is what Chopra preaches in spades: “Don’t struggle against the infinite scheme of things,” he wrote in 1993. “Instead, be at one with it.” His model of meditation and self-care fits right into the individual-centered version of wellness as a path to inner peace. It’s hard not to see the relationship between this model and the Indomania of the ’60s and ’70s. Although India isn’t explicitly mentioned in every trend of the wellness industry, the fundamental idea that we can prevent disease and discontent through some sort of spiritual reconfiguration is a characteristic feature of early Indophilia.

So goes the Western co-option of yoga, Ayurveda, Buddhist meditation, and so on. In theory, all of these are fundamentally antithetical to Western capitalist lifestyles, which encourage mindless consumption and cure rather than prevention. Yet in the hands of the wellness industry, they become a means to an end that simply perpetuates the neoliberal healthcare system instead of disrupting it. A cultural obsession with Indian-centered wellness also comes from a place that acknowledges that everyone, sick or not, is in some way fundamentally broken. We’re on a constant quest for wellness as an elusive goal that isn’t about curing disease but about curing the world we live in.

Much personal healing can come from rallying around a common cause to heal a toxic society. But here’s where the problem lies: Capitalism is fundamentally antithetical to community-building, and the wellness industry is steeped in capitalism.

There’s nothing intrinsically problematic about sharing systems of medicine across cultures. Diaspora Co., a company that sells turmeric (and other Indian spices) in the United States, offers one model of the “right” way of doing cultural exchange. Started by a queer Indian American woman, Diaspora Co. sells high-quality turmeric while creating a supply chain that is ethical, sustainable, and not built on an appropriative colonialist foundation. The company pays its farmers in India 10 times the amount that they generally receive from exporters and middlemen, who absorb much of the eventual cost at which it comes to American consumers. By doing this, it disrupts a colonial supply-chain model that disregards the well-being of producers in the global south to cater to the desires of consumers in the global north. As Sana Javeri Kadri, founder of Diaspora Co. explains, “The original intent of colonial conquest of the Indian subcontinent was a desire for domination of the spice trade….Decolonization of food [i]s putting power and resources into indigenous spice farming and creating a radically new and equitable vision of the spice trade, decoloniz[ing] a commodity back into a seasonal crop, and a broken system into an equal exchange.”

Contrast this with the way turmeric is marketed and sold when a dominant force (whiteness) co-opts and “reinvents” it as a cutting-edge discovery: It’s been called a “miracle herb,” “a superfood hero,” and a “total wellness rockstar.” It’s been mixed with beets, mixed into protein shakes, and added to cakes and cookies for “superfood desserts.” This co-option feels deeply disconcerting to Indians both on the subcontinent and in the diaspora. As Tara O’Brady at the Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail writes, “When my relatives make golden milk, it is charming but largely dismissed, or reduced to exoticism, complete with sitar soundtrack. When Goop’s beauty director makes it, it’s heralded as revolutionary.” But here’s the most tangible impact of white co-option of turmeric: It’s been completely deracinated from its violent history in the colonial spice trade and is now sold on Amazon for exorbitant prices—and most of the profits will never reach the farmers who produce it.

So many of the herbs, recipes, and lifestyles trending in the wellness industry have been used for centuries—even millennia in other parts of the world—in a largely sustainable way. But when products are repackaged and sold by white models using clever capitalist marketing, they are sold at many times their actual value to naive customers waiting to receive health in a package, while the actual producers get next to nothing as compensation. Everyone is exploited. Nobody wins. Tracing the history of India’s place in Western wellness lands us at the contested intersection of culture, politics, and economics—a place where celebrities have bigger medical platforms than doctors, where the idea that everyone deserves healthcare and insurance coverage is controversial, where people literally cannot afford illness.

India continues to offer the dream of another way to live, an imagined land where health is derived from within rather than from without, where celebrities discover their depths, and where doctors find fame by exporting this fantasy to desperate consumers. As health becomes more of an aspirational commodity than a human right, the promise of India is one that gives us free reign to consume another culture in the name of wellness—and to forget that what causes our own suffering often comes not from inside our bodies, but from the ugly, ravaging greed on the outside.

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by Mallika Khanna
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Mallika Khanna is an aspiring academic studying South Asian media, feminisms and the desi diaspora at Indiana University’s Media School. She writes about gender, the immigrant experience and pop culture and has words at Catapult, Himal Southasian, and The Establishment, among others.