By Anu Sahota
Passage O soul to India!
Eclaircise the myths Asiatic, the primitive fables.
Not you alone proud truths of the world,
Nor you alone ye facts of modern science,
But myths and fables of eld, Asia's, Africa's fables
- from Walt Whitman's poem A Passage to India in Leaves of Grass (1855)
These lines from Whitman represent a plea for the romantic's soul to reject the materialism of the capitalist West and to instead be tamed by the East, and all its mysteries. Whitman was not alone in entreating the Occident to take up the spiritualism of India (Emerson and Thoreau mused in a similar vein) and he would not be the last to invoke a fantasy of India as a panacea for all that ails the modern man.
The character of the enlightened but pliant Indian who has come to save the West is a part of Asian History in the sense that it, along with much uglier stereotypes of the Oriental, has influenced interpretations of Asians and Asian culture. From the Swamis of the 19th and early 20th Century, who traveled through California sharing the wonders of the 'primitive' religions, to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1960s with his introduction of transcendental mediation, to Deepak Chopra, and his peddling of homeopathic cure-alls for atomized baby-boomers - ascetics and Yogi Godmen are Western perennials. In his collection of essays about such "sly babas," The Karma of Brown folk (2000), Vijay Prashad offers that "the 'mystery' of India resides in the other, somewhat archaic, meaning of the word: a revealed religious truth. The East is mysterious in that the texts of its ancient past hold within them something akin to a Holy Grail." Today's CBC Archives clips illustrate aspects of this current in Asian-Canadian history.
The Maharishi Mahesh was the founder of the Transcendental Meditation Movement. The Maharishi was a disciple of Swami Brahmananda Saraswati (or Guru Dev) with whom he spent much of the 1940s and 1950s in the Himalayas. Though his professional training was in physics, in 1957 the Maharishi initiated the Spiritual Regeneration Movement in Madras, India and later brought it to Hawaii and then the rest of the West. In the late 1960s and 1970s he was prominent in the counter-culture scene, and is arguably best known for his association with celebrities like the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Clint Eastwood. [The Mahesh passed away in February 2008 at the age of 91]
In October 1966, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was interviewed in Vancouver by Bob Quintrell for the 7 O'Clock Show. In this clip, the Maharishi muses on the philosophy and practice of yoga and transcendental meditation. He also compares thoughts to air bubbles arising from the bottom of the sea and laughs hysterically after doing so.
In May 1973, CBC Television's Hourglass aired a feature on the Yasodhara Ashram Society or Yoga Retreat & Study Centre, a 83-acre retreat on Kootenay Lake, B.C. where people of all religions and backgrounds were invited to pursue their self-development. Host Mike Winlaw visited with Sylvia Hellman, also known as Swami Sivananda Radha, and captured her disciples in various stages of mystic revelation.
Sikhism is a 500 year old religion that was boosted in late 1960s North America by the hippies. In May 2006, CBC news reporter Belle Puri interviewed the Yogi Bhajan, who had arrived in Surrey, B.C. to lead a Kundalini yoga workshop. A spiritual leader mostly to unorthodox (that is to say, Anglo) Sikhs, the Yogi Bhajan arrived in Los Angeles in 1968, by way of India. The Yogi founded the non-profit 3H (Healthy, Happy, Holy) Organization in 1969. Any devout health food store shopper will recognize the products he owned and endorsed, which include Yogi teas, cereals and beauty products. He died in 2004.