Spiritual Quest or Corny Tourism?

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In “Holy Cow,” a Western woman who never thought much about spirituality and religion moves to India and begins to explore different religious traditions. Yeah, it’s not exactly an original tale. It is, however, written well, by a woman with a nicely wry sense of humor.

I struggled with this book, because I can’t quite decide what I think of Sarah. She goes to a 10-day, free, seminar on meditation and makes it the whole time, in silence. The course she attends includes only Westerners, the two Indian women dropping out within a day. Is that a sign of a touristy sham of spirituality? Thousands of years of religious teachings being boiled into a ten day long seminar that’s really just a trap for Westerners? Or does it mean that the teachings have been adapted into something that Westerners, with a Western cultural background, can understand?
And what is all this talk of “East and West,” anyway?

Sarah, looking to occupy her time while her husband traveled the country and region for his job, explored many different religions in their Indian iterations, including Zoroastrianism, Judaism with some Israeli tourists, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism (and a brief foray into a crazy New Age alien cult). Yet, even as she seeks knowledge, what comes across most when I look back at the book is the distance that Sarah felt. Her status as a woman, often traveling alone, set her apart. She ended up feeling excluded more often than included, and rather than embracing that exclusion and using the perspective it gave her, she chafed under it.

In the end, the problem with the book I simply cannot get over or give Sarah any credit for is her failure to do her homework, and her occasional judgements on people for practicing their faith “wrong.” For example, she complains that the Dalai Lama and monks in Dharmamsala aren’t vegetarian, saying it’s a piece of hypocrisy they’ll need to move away from. Apparently, she is unaware that Tibetans like the Dalai Lama are anemic, and become extremely ill when they attempt vegetarianism. The Dalai Lama only gave up when his doctor ordered him to eat meat.

It’s an exploration of India worth reading, both for its moments of success and failure.

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