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Books: Transcendence, Incorporated

5 minute read
R.Z. Sheppard

KARMA COLA by Gita Mehta

Simon & Schuster; 201 pages; $9.95

The ’60s introduced the medium as the message, and the ’70s perfected the package as the product. Both points converge in Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East, where, from millenniums before Marshall McLuhan and Ernest Dichter, the pitch has been that the substance is the illusion. And vice versa: not long ago, an Indian airline promoted a package tour with the slogan NIRVANA FOR $100 A DAY.

Gita Mehta’s witty documentary satire illustrates that the cost can be considerably higher. This is especially true for the thousands of Europeans and Americans who have flocked to the Indian subcontinent in search of enlightenment, cheap dope and, like the Californian who turned her sadhana into a course on “inner environments,” opportunity. As reckoned by the Hindus and Gore Vidal, this dark, chaotic age of Kali seethes with confusions, corruption and misapprehension. Karma, for example, a rather severe concept of determinism, has been turned into a metaphysical jelly bean by hippies, shopping-center swamis and jet-lagged gurus. “Karma,” writes Mehta, “is now felt as a sort of vibration and Krishna is a doe-eyed pinup.”

Mehta, 36, is an Indian-born, Cambridge-educated former teacher of Greek tragedy. She has clarifying things to say about those who think that life is a bed of roses and those who believe it is a bed of nails: “For us [Hindus], eternal life is death—not in the bosom of Jesus—but just death, no more being born again to endure life again to die again. Yet people come in ever-increasing numbers to India to be born again with the conviction that in their rebirth they will relearn to live. At the heart of all 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 that they are at a christening.”

The East not only accommodates Western delusions but also compliments them with imitation. There are the lyrics of a popular Indian song inspired by a movie that found God in a hash pipe: “Take a drag. Take a drag. I’m wiped out./ Say it in the morning. Say it in the evening./ Hare Krishna Hare Rama Hare Krishna Hare Rama.” There are also Western notions on better transcendence through chemistry. Mehta notes that young foreigners frequently sell their passports to buy drugs; the documents are reported stolen and easily replaced at local embassies. She also reports that villagers who refused to take smallpox vaccinations 15 years ago are now “dropping uppers and downers with the best of them,” and “Benares looks set on replacing Bangkok as Needle City, Asia.”

Opium as the opiate of the people is not a new story; blending religion, drugs and pop culture in an ancient culture is. When Allen Ginsberg made his pilgrimage to India in 1962, his influence was limited to the handful of people who read his poetry. When the Beatles headed east in 1966-68, they affected tens of millions with their celebrity and music. They also laid the foundations of the international guru business. Mehta has an impish eye for the spirit trade; a multinational convocation of celibates meets in Delhi under the motto ROYALTY is PURITY PLUS PERSONALITY; downtown, hundreds of Children of God are demonstrating for the principle of making love for Jesus. A California touch therapist attends a session in an ashram only to discover that his Indian counterparts use 2-ft.-long clubs. The visitor emerges with a broken arm. At a Delhi football stadium the followers of one guru await the miraculous proof of God from their master. His evidence: “God exists because if you look in the Oxford English Dictionary under the letter G, you will eventually find the word God.” The prize for Hindu chutzpah, however, goes to the master who asked an ambassador’s wife about the pain in her leg. “It has never given any pain,” replied the woman. The unflustered guru’s response: “Leg will be better now.”

Not all Mehta’s observations are that amusing. A French couple arrive at their consulate with their dead baby. They demand and get money for the infant’s funeral but then leave the body at a crematorium with a note that reads, “A Present for the French Consul.” Hippies lie stoned and malnourished on the beaches of Goa: a young European woman sits for days in a stupor with her fatherless child hanging onto a withered breast; a cult of ritual murderers, known as the Anand Marg, stalks the streets for victims; an American would-be rabbi buys a six-year-old waif from her father and is shocked when she attempts to demonstrate her gratitude with sexual favors.

In only 201 pages, Mehta embraces an enormous variety of life and death. Her style is light without being flip; her skepticism never descends to cynicism. Given her subject this is a miracle of rational ism and taste.

−R.Z. Sheppard


“At one morning session at the World Conference on the Future of Mankind, the English-speaking delegates in Committee Room B were discussing ‘Science and Spiritual Wisdom.’ After the third speaker, a meteorologist, had delivered his speech, an earnest American student stood up and asked,

‘Sir? Isn’t science leading us deeper and deeper into the possibility of total self-annihilation?’ The meteorologist hunched closer to the microphone . . .

‘Let us say there is a nuclear holocaust. What will it do? I shall tell you what it will do. It will cleanse the world!

‘Don’t you understand? We are going toward a postnuclear, post-Armageddon Golden Age!’

The American student nodded sagely and sat down, grasping the moral significance of nuclear war for the first time.”

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