IT may surprise some people, the young in particular, but Julia Roberts is not the first big-time celeb to embrace elements of Hinduism and, as a result, inadvertently educate vast numbers of people about the tradition. And Elizabeth Gilbert is not the first author to write about a personal transformation resulting from time in an ashram and the practice of yogic disciplines. Nor is Eat Pray Love the first film to depict India’s primary religious tradition in a positive way (a group that does not include The Love Guru).
The list of famous folks drawn to Indian-style spirituality goes back to the days when no one had seen a photograph, much less a moving picture.
In the 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a literary superstar in the days of the Lyceum Circuit, was deeply indebted to the Hindoo (that’s how they spelled it then) texts that sailed into Boston Harbor from Europe. So was Emerson’s acolyte, Henry David Thoreau, who rhapsodised about the Bhagavad Gita in Walden. Beginning in the 1920s, Paramahansa Yogananda – a celebrity in his own right after the publication, in 1946, of his Autobiography of a Yogi – attracted students like the composer Leopold Stokowski, the scientist Luther Burbank and the reclusive actress Greta Garbo. Long before Sting and Madonna posed in yoga postures, the gossip pages linked stars such as Gloria Swanson, Marlon Brando, Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe to various Yoga teachers.
Marilyn, Walter Winchell reported, took up Yoga “to improve her legs,” but some of her fans who followed her lead no doubt discovered more profound uses for the discipline.
In the 50s and 60s, musical celebrities like violinist Yehudi Menuhin, jazz legend John Coltrane, and, of course, George Harrison, linked up with Ravi Shankar and turned on their fans to the spiritual tradition than underlies Indian classical music. Then came the mother of all spiritual media frenzies, when the Beatles, Donovan and Mia Farrow made their way to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram on the Ganges. Celebrity links to Hindu-derived teachings continued to crop up on a regular basis, from Mary Tyler Moore, the 1970s version of America’s sweetheart (who endorsed Transcendental Meditation on national TV) to today’s sweetheart, Julia.
As for Elizabeth Gilbert, she is the latest in a long line of authors whose personal quests inspired literature that brought Eastern ideas to large numbers of readers. Emerson and Thoreau were the group’s progenitors, and later memoirists and essayists took up the mantle: the British adventurer Paul Brunton; the American yogi Theos Bernard; the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton; the British expatriots Christopher Isherwood, Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley; the psychologist Richard Alpert, who metamorphosed from Timothy Leary’s psychedelic sidekick to Ram Dass after meeting Neem Karoli Baba, the very guru whose photograph reportedly inspired Ms. Roberts to explore Hinduism; and, in the 1980s, Shirley MacLaine whose Out on a Limb sold a zillion copies and was made into a TV movie. Other authors-Hermann Hesse, Somerset Maugham, J.D. Salinger chief among them-converted their explorations into fiction that turned many a reader toward India. T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats and others did it in verse. And now the film version of Eat Pray Love joins a cinematic tradition that includes two adaptations of Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, Louis Malle’s Phantom India, several Merchant-Ivory films, Satyajit Ray’s magnificent Apu Trilogy and, of course, Gandhi, 1982’s Best Picture of the Year.
Artistic merit aside – Gilbert is not Salinger and the movie version of her memoir is to the Apu Trilogy what Britney is to Bach – the point is that once again the powerful forces of celebrity and popular culture have thrust India’s Vedic heritage into the spotlight. All the media attention inspires some to cynicism and others to a genuine spiritual enquiry. On the whole, we are better for it, because the key ideas that get transmitted, however imperfectly, through the books, films and tabloid ballyhoo point to a pragmatic spirituality of openness, universality and freedom. As the saying goes, we have seen this movie before, and we shall see it again, because India’s greatest export is neither spices nor high-tech entrepreneurs, but its ancient legacy of spiritual genius.
(Interfaith minister; author of the forthcoming book American Veda)