‘White Utopias’: Investigating Spiritual Festivals’ Religious Exoticism with Professor Amanda J. Lucia

Amanda J. Lucia is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Her research engages the global exportation, appropriation, and circulation of Hinduism. In 2020 she published White Utopias, The Religious Exoticism of Transformational Festivals, a book based on her long-term ethnographic research on ‘transformational’ spiritual events (like Burning Man, Lightning in a Bottle, Bhakti Fest, Wanderlust etc.) where participants create temporary utopias focusing on spiritual growth and human connection through music, arts and various spiritual practices – including yoga. 

Between 2011 and 2019, Lucia attended twenty-three festivals both as a participant and an observer, and worked as a volunteer, met people, made friends, and took notes. She sorted, transcribed and coded audio recordings from approximately ninety-seven interviews, fifty-six spiritual workshops and lectures, and sixty-two yoga classes. Her book examines the complicated, often contradictory relationship with race at these events, wondering why these particular spaces of spiritual seeking remain predominantly white. She investigates the intersections of whiteness and religious exoticism among the “spiritual, but not religious” (SBNR) communities, with a focus on yoga practice and their adoption of Indigenous and Indic spiritualities. 

Citta Vritti | Why did you decide to work on this very specific topic which are worldwide transformational festivals ? 

Amanda J. Lucia | This project unfolded mostly by coincidence and as a result of a surprise. I really thought – because I was new to the Los Angeles area – that when I went to Bhakti Fest in Joshua Tree, California, that it would be filled with Indian Hindus celebrating bhakti (devotion). And so I was really quite surprised when I went there and there were hardly any Indian Hindus at all present. I realized at that moment how deep the culture was for this kind of white bhakti yoga (devotional yoga) world, not only in Los Angeles but in California more generally. It was very different from where I had been living before, in Chicago. Among the yogis attending Bhakti Fest, I also found generational stories of people who were interested in Indic religious fields like Tantra, yoga, meditation, chanting, and all sorts of related practices. In particular, I found that some practitioners were even born into and raised in these traditions, even though they were white. So my questions about religious belonging and cultural heritage didn’t resonate in the same way, and I began to ask deeper questions about white participation in and representations of South Asian religious practices.

At the time, when I was starting this research, there was also a lot of media and scholarly attention that was framing ‘New Age’ spirituality as a space where a certain demographic of privileged whites were playing, and acting as tourists, being exploitative, and overall were very superficial in their engagements. In contrast, I found the people in these fields served as a sort of counterexample, in some cases, because in fact, many weren’t being superficial in any sense. They were very serious in their yoga practice, and often there was a generational legacy to their devotional commitments. So I wanted to know why these populations were being misunderstood, and how they were perceiving their own involvement in the multiple fields of Indic religions.

What are ‘white utopias’ and why did you choose this term as a title for your book ? 

As I mentioned, at the beginning I was quite surprised by how very white the demographic actually was. But I also know that I shouldn’t plead ignorance in any sense. Because if you think about Orientalist explorations in the 1850’s they were also very white. If you think about Theosophical Society, again at the mid/late-nineteenth century, they were very white as well. In 1920, Paramahansa Yogananda operated a very white organization focused especially in the West. And both he and before him Swami Vivekananda were some of the early proselytizers who brought yoga into the West and were specifically targeting white (mostly female) audiences. So it wasn’t fully a surprise. But still, seeing it in the present day, it was somewhat shocking to me. 

Perhaps I should say a bit about the demographic of California then, because 60 percent of the festivals in the book are either based in California or draw their participants from California. In California, whites are no longer the ethnic majority. In fact, they comprise only  37 percent of the population.  But these events, which are being held and marketed as a ‘cool’ place for young people to attend, are predominantly white. I also found that the more yogic the transformational event, the whiter it was. For example, in 2017 according to its own census, Burning Man was approximately 77 percent white, as was Lightning in a Bottle, but the more yogic events, such as Wanderlust festivals, Bhakti and Shakti Fests, were nearly completely white (upwards of 90-95 percent). So this demographic disparity made me realize that either these events are targeting and marketing explicitly to white youth, or that white youth are particularly attracted to this kind of event. Regardless, there was a demographic fact that could not be ignored. It became a sort of puzzle to me to question ‘why’, because in the ethnically diverse state of California – and especially when taking into account that the festival focused on the celebration of non-white cultural forms –  it didn’t make any sense. 

The other aspect that drew my attention emerged from the fact that I teach at University of California-Riverside. There, most of my students are first-generation college attendees and students of colour. In my first years of teaching there, I noticed that the kinds of classes that I was offering didn’t have the social capital, that is to say, they didn’t have the “cool” factor that they did at other predominantly white, affluent, elite universities. I found myself asking why this kind of Orientalist fascination with the East, including ‘spiritual India,’ mysticism, and yoga didn’t really resonate with my POC students. They were simply not attracted to these topics in the same way I, as an ‘alternative’ white woman had been as a young adult or in the way other white ‘spiritual explorers’ currently were. This manifested in the classroom, in that, instead of having to dissuade students from their Orientalist assumptions, at UCR I had to convince them that the material was worth studying at all. So that was a very interesting pedagogical dilemma. It was like a wake up call to me.

What is exoticism and how does it manifest in those festivals ?  

I want to give credit to Véronique Altglas, a sociologist of religion, who introduced the term religious exoticism and focused particularly on the ‘New Age’ attraction to alterity (Altglas 20014). In brief, exoticism is an attraction to the other, based on a fictional imaginary of the other, relying on a lack of knowledge and a lack of actual intimacy with the other. It is a very old concept and I like the philosopher and historian Tzvetan Todorov’s useful framing, when he characterizes exoticism as the opposite of nationalism. So, if nationalism is the idea that you are attracted to people who are very much like yourself, then exoticism is the idea that you are attracted to the other, who is very much different from yourself. In the context of South Asia, the idea is inherited from Orientalist discourses, where it took the form of a fascination with the East, imagined as a solution to the crisis of the West. It was particularly present in the Romantic resistance to Enlightenment reason and rationalism, as in the example of the famous figures in German Romanticism. Their idea was that the East had preserved something that the West had lost or corrupted. This notion transformed the imaginary of the  East (in particular, the ancient East) as the source of an ancient purity, beauty, and a timeless spirituality. In my view, the idea of exoticism is inextricably linked to the Romanticist rejection of technology, industrialization, Enlightenment rationality, and a Hegelian idea of linear time, that is to say, the imagined trajectory of a relentless and ‘progressivist’ march forward from ‘primitive’ cultures to ‘civilization.’ And while a Hegelian metanarrative or German Romanticism is far removed from many of my informants’ minds, in the book, I show how this exoticism draws on this heritage and  gets actualized in everyday conversation, regardless. For example, many people in these fields would easily speak of the importance of a return to ‘Indigenous knowledge’ and would agree with the claim that “Indigenous cultures have preserved spirituality, whereas religion in the West has been corrupted.” In a similar vein, many would claim that  “India is authentic, spiritual, and mystical,” but they would not see Paris or Los Angeles as such. It manifests as a kind of assumed narrative that the East (and also Indigenous) populations have preserved a kind of wisdom that is pure, uncorrupted, and ancient – and that the West (and its religions) is its antithesis: impure, corrupted, and modern.

In these fields, this underlying view operates in a variety of ways, many of which are  generated in the aesthetic, for example by the assumption of dress that privileges non- Western ways of being. Sometimes it can be through the valorization of primitivism or survivalism, as in back-to-the-land, permaculture, or tool-making courses. It can also arise through the exploration of altered states by engaging with Ayahuasca and Indigenous medicine. It arises in the practice of yoga, mediation, mantra recitation, and kīrtan. It comes up in all kinds of ways. Generally speaking, it is the construction of the self through an encounter with imagined alterity. 

But this idea of the ‘light in the East’ Vs. a ‘corrupted West’ was also brought by Vivekananda himself and other Indian gurus in order to export Hinduism and yoga to the West … 

Yes, absolutely. I actually wrote an article on this precise point recently for a forthcoming book on Hinduism in Diaspora. Therein, I discuss the binary of East and West, that was produced during colonialism and furthered through Orientalist narratives. In the title of the article, I call this a “persistent fiction” because this false binary of ‘East’ and ‘West,’ ‘Indians’ and ‘Westerners’ – and then the qualities of spirituality and materialism attributed to each respectively, is a fictitious Orientalist construction that is persistently reproduced by nineteenth and twentieth century proselytizing Indian gurus. If we might think with the colonial theorist Franz Fanon, it is a very good example of the phenomenon where the colonized mimic the language of the colonizer and subsequently reproduce colonial ideologies. 

Where does this idea come from ? 

I think it’s a colonial, and before that, an Orientalist idea, one that even predates colonialism, but certainly is activated in the colonial period. Most importantly for modern yoga, it is activated by gurus like Swami Vivekananda and Paramahansa Yogananda. But we can also see that it is activated today amongst contemporary Hindu nationalists who argue that spirituality and yoga are India’s ‘gift to the world’ and for that reason we need an International Yoga Day and such. So, it is a very long and interesting history. 

Why are those festivals more attended by white people ? 

I think that the answer to that is actually very complex. First, I would like to emphasize that my book focuses on “why white folks are there,” and that is the main question it attempts to address. As for that answer, I remember there was one Native dancer at Burning Man, I believe, who began his talk to the predominantly white crowd by saying “you people [white people] have lost your heritage and that’s why you have this crisis of identity and that’s why we are here to transform and work through that so you can be more at peace”. I noted it because that was a really interesting statement coming from his perspective, and I think he was right. There is a significant identity crisis among white liberals, who are uncomfortable in reckoning with their white heritage that they feel that is unethical, unaddressable, or uncelebratable. And there is also a sense of “I don’t want to think about what my ancestors did in the past, so I am going to look for better solutions and inspiration in other non-white cultures”. It is a kind of escapist fantasy that side-steps any real reckoning or reconciliation with the problematic white past.

Conversely, if one were to do any real work on “why non-white folks are not there”, then we would have to go to them and ask. That would require doing ethnographic work not in transformational festivals, but in the places where POC actually are; it could be churches, community centers, protests, schools … I don’t know. But to answer that second question, one would necessarily need to go and find people of colour and ask them why those transformational festivals do not appeal to them as potential leisure options for a long weekend. 

One argument that I hear frequently – and I don’t fully share this analysis – is that these events are exclusively white because of economic and class privilege. Of course this is true, in part. But one of the reasons why I don’t like this argument enough to fully embrace it is the fact that there are a lot of wealthy people of colour who are spending money doing lots of different things in the world, but they are not going to these festivals. It is also very easy to slide into this racist idea that people of colour are too poor to attend, or that they don’t have the available leisure to attend – neither of which is true. So that makes me uncomfortable. 

And overarchingly, what my book attempt to argue is that the fact that these festivals visibly exhibit practices of religious exoticism and ‘white possessivism’ (Moreton-Robinson 2015) is a deterrent to non-white people. That is to say, that when these festivals appear to be (and market themselves to be) spaces for affluent whites to explore and experiment with inhabiting and representing non-white cultural and religious forms, then that serves as an an exclusionary practice, which is an active deterrent to non-white participation.

How do the organizers react when you point out the lack of representation in their festivals ? 

Many of the festival organizers are actually very concerned about the lack of diversity because they want to be inclusive, and they imagine themselves to be celebrating difference. Some are more reluctant to acknowledge the fact of their lack of ethnic diversity and instead highlight other kinds of diversity that are represented, such as gender diversity, sexual diversity, or geographical diversity. They are all working on this issue in different kinds of ways – and some of the festivals more than others. I think Summer 2020 was a huge catalyst for recalibration and reckoning, and we will see what kind of lasting impacts it will have. And also this Covid induced break from festivals has given everyone some time away to rethink and recalibrate. In some cases, the festivals have not been attended for a year at least, if not two years. For many producers and leadership teams, this is an opportunity to reevaluate and reset who is invited to the party.  Of course, it is hard to control who your ticket buyers are, but if you control the cost, the line up, the marketing plan, and what is presented at the event, then that can shift the demographics of participants.

I was wondering if the universalist ethos (which has been brought by Vivekananda, following Ramakrishna, and the Advaita Vedanta monist doctrine of unity), once used by white people (“We are all one”, “I don’t see colours etc.) could be a threat, a danger or even an excuse for the whites to keep their authority in modern spirituality ? 

When I hear a yoga teacher saying “We are one,” I want to imagine they are trying to build a community, to create unity among a group of people, and they have the optimism to say that a diverse group of people can come together, and share our intention and purpose. With that said, there is also a hermeneutics of suspicion that I cannot resist, through which we can see how that  language flattens and erases differences, and privileges a singular view which grants authority to the dominant narrative and to the speaker. So, in short, yes. 

I think that there are a lot of ways in which this book, White Utopias, operates in that space of “yes, and” or “yes, both”. In saying such statements like ‘we are all one’, I believe that yoga teachers are genuinely trying to bring together people in like-purpose and to craft a community. But also, that such statements are deeply troubling, and can have violent impacts. Furthermore, statements like “We are one,’ also emerge from a Vedantic history, as you said, and we can think through how this kind of statement is actualized in Vedanta to justify a claim to Vedantic authority that flattens and erases diversity of views as well.  It is a similar issue. Advaita Vedanta was (is)  doing the same kind of thing in the South Asian context: obfuscating differences and consolidating authority. This kind of rhetoric was (and is) definitely used to bring forward a notion of singularity to what it means to be Hindu. So, the counterpoint that argues ‘this also occurs in Vedanta’ is not an effective claim to refute the homogenizing power of the phrase. Instead, I would argue that the phrase ‘We are all one’ flattens difference and claims power for the dominant group in both instances, whether in South Asian expressions of Advaita Vedanta or in your local yoga class.  

This is what I like in your book : it is not totalitarian, black or white, but showing complexity … 

I think this is the primary strength of the book. During my ethnographic research, I was really trying to hear what participants were saying and to witness what they were doing. It was my attempt to really hear and understand their heartfelt and genuine feelings and emotions. But also I wanted to recognize and witness how there were very real consequences – and often violences – to what they were doing. And this is also the reason why I think people on both sides of the extreme don’t necessarily enjoy the book. One extreme would say: “how dare you even name whiteness as a category worth thinking about? and what about freedom of expression, etc.?” While on the other side, the extreme would say “how dare you try to understand the intentions of ‘those people’? They are completely exploitative,  evil, and not worthy of understanding, etc.” It is a difficult position that the book attempts to navigate, to be both empathic and critical – simultaneously. 

Can you see a getaway between the counterculture of the 1960’s, the Hippie movement, the New Age religiosity and nowaday, the neocolonial and consumerist behaviour we can see in  modern spirituality ?  

White Utopias is not fully a historical exercise, but I try to point to the role of Indigenous worldviews and the role of Indian (and more broadly Asian) religions and, in the Hippie movement. Both are very much there as representatives of ‘alternative’ religiosity and lifeways, and both are very much offered as solutions to the crises of Western modernity. Native historian, Philip J. Deloria, wrote about this in his excellent book, Playing Indian (1998). He shows how American whites have turned toward Native culture in concert with the rise and fall of their dissatisfaction with Western modernity. I argue that the countercultural turn to Asian religions (and Indigenous religions) was a similar exploration that many Hippies saw as a solution to the crises of Western modernity. 

But part of the work for me was to argue that it is not just those two famous moments: the Hippie movement and the ‘New Age’ movement. Instead, I wanted to think through this as evidence of a long history of exoticism and Orientalism that has fascinated European and Euro-American white society since before the British colonial period.

To your second point, I also see considerable differences between the ways in which India and Indians operated as a part of the Hippie counterculture and in their presence today. For example, my colleagues Patrick Mc Cartney and Agi Wittich recently did  some research on Yoga Journal covers from the 1970s until the present (2020). At the beginning it is quite striking that a lot of figures on the Yoga Journal covers were Indian men and they looked very religious, the stereotypical figure of the guru. But over time, Yoga Journal has changed the representative form of the yoga aficionado and the Indian yogi has been replaced  by  the fetishized figure of the thin white female, who is perhaps spiritual, but definitely not religious. 

So, it is clear that something has changed in the aesthetics of yoga over the course of its adoption by the second and third generations of “Western” yogis. That’s concerning to me. If you think about it, in the 1960s, the guru was essential, and the figure of the Indian guru was central. Hippies went to India to study with Indian gurus, following the path of the Beatles or Baba Ram Dass. The guru and the experience of India were part of the counterculture in the 1960s, whereas nowadays there is a very strong anti-guru movement, mostly white representations of yoga, and even yoga studios who advertise “No Sanskrit”. I see this as the fullest effect of religious exoticism, wherein the end result is that the human other has been completely erased, and all that remains is the imagined other. All that remains is a conversation among the exoticists (among whites, who have fully possessed and replaced the other). In this second and third generation event, I think we lose any sense of partnership with  the source culture and driving inspiration behind yoga practice. And that disconnect is frightening to me. I see it as quite dangerous. 

Isn’t it about the way we now consume spirituality ? Did spirituality become a product of consumption?

It is actually a complicated story. I am often concerned with the way that contemporary scholars tend to analyze spirituality only through a consumerist lens, as in the ‘spiritual marketplace’, or as a particularly capitalistic field. I’ll just remind people that the Gift Shop of Notre Dame is housed in the main sanctuary, rosaries are sold everywhere in Vatican City, and Protestant Christian bookstores abound across the globe. But with that said, I do think there was a moment in the 1970s, when there was the explosion of the book as an access point for ‘New Age’ spirituality. The idea took hold that ‘New Age’ spirituality could be gained primarily through reading and not through contact with people, and that became absolutely transformative for the religious field. As a result, spiritual seekers no longer needed to go to India to find a guru, but instead they only needed to go to their local ‘New Age’ bookstore and find a book by Shirley MacLaine or someone else, who served as a spiritual mediator. For example, Baba Ram Dass, who wrote Be Here Now (1971),  is a great example of this transition. In his spiritual search, he went to India and developed a relationship with his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, but when he came back to the United States he published a book about his experience and became a guru himself. Of course, some people followed his example and went to India to meet Neem Karoli Baba, and others became disciples of Baba Ram Dass. But a great many more simply read his book, Be Here Now, and created their own journey without any connection to an Indian guru or India.

In that way, in the ‘New Age’ scene, the guru ceased to exist, and instead became an imagined idea. So, keeping in mind even this one example of how the knowledge transmission shifts from a person-to-person intercultural interaction to the act of purchasing a book, we can see that the notion of spiritual ‘consumption’ is a complex story. It also has much to do with politics, if we take into consideration the fact that in the 1980s and 1990s, most of the gurus proselytizing in the West were involved in some sort of financial and sexual scandal. Globally, this had a huge impact on their ability to transmit forms of Indic spirituality and to serve as cultural  ambassadors.  Taken in this light, we can see that the shift from ‘New Age’ engagement with people (gurus) to the consumption of things (books), is also related to this legacy of scandal.  So, I am resistant to scholarship that argues that spirituality is defined by capitalist consumerism alone, and doesn’t consider some of these additional factors. 

After spending so much time in these ‘transformational’ festivals, do you think they are still relevant events? Do they offer a real alternative to the selfish globalized society or do they keep on reinforcing it … ? 

We should recognize that each of the festivals that I discuss in White Utopias is very different from each other. They are all very distinctive. So, I would prefer not to flatten that distinctiveness, and that relates to their social impacts as well. In general, I would say that some transformational events are actually activating resistance in creative ways, while others are reproducing some very problematic aspects of society – all the while claiming to enact countercultural resistance! But for most, it is a mix, in that they are reinforcing some themes while resisting others. 

But if there is a ‘moral of the story’ to the book, I would say that throughout my fieldwork I was so impressed with the ability of the ‘transformational’ spaces created in these festivals to bring people together. It was astounding. Particularly great was the ability of those festivals to open up spaces of learning and exposure for novices, not only for experts. It was really inspiring. And that has such a rich possibility for making change, if they can bring a more diverse group of people to the events. Transformational festivals – and the yoga practiced therein –  are wonderful opportunities if, and only if, they can gather together unlike people who don’t already have an echo chamber of cultural understanding. If they could actually bring differently-identified people together, and still do the same kind of connectivity-building work, then maybe they would become generative spaces of social change. It is possible –  but for now it is not just happening. 


Want to read the book ? Please follow this link:
White Utopias: The Religious Exoticism of Transformational Festivals (2020)
* SAVE 30% : Use source code 17M6662 at checkout * :):) Thank you very much Amanda for the discount!

You can find more about Lucia’s work by following the links bellow: www.amandajeanlucia.com
Reflections of Amma: Devotees in a Global Embrace (2014)

Dr. Amanda Lucia
University of California, Riverside

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