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New Age: Cultural Colonialism

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There are few things that are liable to rile me up more than the exploitation of one people’s culture by another group. The only thing that can usually anger me more are the instances wherein the group doing the exploiting is also responsible for attempting to obliterate those cultures.

New Age religion is just another attack on a former subject race by its masters. Look over the history of the past two centuries and you will find it rife with examples of colonial masters working to suppress people. The easiest way was to destroy their language, which in turn would lead to the suppression of their culture.

In a move typical of empire-building the world over, closely following the armies would come the missionaries to bring the natives news of their salvation. Surely they could not want to live without the benefit of Christ and suffer the eternal fires of damnation.

While the missionaries taught English and spread the gospel according to King James or the Pope from Shanghai to Bombay to the deep woods of Northern Ontario and the Amazon basin, governors passed laws to assist them in their holy duties. The laws would create schools for children to be shorn of their culture, ban the use of religious languages in sacred texts, and encourage the development of the narcotic trade.

Through the obliteration of languages and religion, it became easier to assimilate and convert an indigenous population. The Victorian English gave this process the quaint name of “The White Man’s Burden,” wherein they saw it as their responsibility to take the coloured people of the world and lead them into civilization whether they wanted to be led or not.

Once they had settled the issue of culture, the creation of the period’s history had to be taken care of. Historians and anthropologists would look for proof that supported theories that pointed out the primitive nature of the indigenous people’s lives and how much better off they were under their new rulers.

Of primary importance, and before anything else was to turn them into good Christians whether they wanted to be or not, it was just another part of the White Man’s Burden to ensure that the poor, ignorant, people weren’t allowed to miss out on having their souls saved from eternal damnation.

So what’s changed? Why are the grandchildren and children of the oppressors now seeking answers to their questions about God, religion, and spiritual enlightenment from the same cultures that their ancestors tried to obliterate? Or has anything changed at all in the way cultures of other nations are treated by the people who call themselves New Age.

On the surface, it looks as if there is a movement toward treating the teachings and religions of other cultures with respect. People certainly seem interested enough in learning about them. But is that the reality?

Look closely at some of the books that are for sale in either the new age section of your bookstore, or even scarier, a new age bookstore, and check out the titles. Predominate will be stuff like Ten Easy Steps To Empowerment, Hidden Secrets Of Mystical Buddhism Revealed, Shamanism, Dreams, And Power, or Bang The Drum Slowly: Power Dances of the Native Americans.

If the titles of the books didn’t make you gag, wait until you see the authors of the books and their biographies. There’s never been a collection of blonder, more blue-eyed Indians, Hindi, or Amazon-basin Shaman in history. Maybe they’ve studied or done research and, in spite of their cheesy titles, the books are legitimate works of scholarship. If you call channeling the spirit of a 10,000-year old shaman, or being the reincarnation of a Cree medicine woman, or making it up off the top of your head study or research, then yes they have. But even if they had some sort of access to knowledge, and even if what they were saying had any basis in reality, what right do they have to set themselves up as teachers and purveyors of another’s culture?

Less then 200 years ago, European and North American governments were doing whatever was in their power to obliterate these cultures. By some miracle, these people managed to survive our best attempts to destroy their traditions, and in some cases are only now managing to begin their recovery.

How do you think it feels for them to see the faces of their former oppressors looking back at them from the dust jackets of books claiming to sell their practices? Wouldn’t it piss them off just a little?

I don’t know if any of the titles I listed above exist or not. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did, but there are many of similar type written by people claiming some sort of knowledge or other. What it boils down to in the end is just another form of imperialism. These people have decided that they, and they alone, are the ones qualified to teach people about cultural concepts belonging to other peoples.

That no one seems to question the right of buxom, buckskin-clad, blondes or red-headed sari-draped seers, or golf slacks-wearing gurus, to sell and teach paths to enlightenment based on cultures that are not their own only serves to show how little respect our society has for other people’s faiths.

What does it matter to them that there are millions of people alive today who are legitimate followers of those faiths, who were born into a society governed by those philosophies? The implication is that they don’t know as much about their own faith as these members of the elite.

Is it any wonder that in more and more cultures, especially those of former colonial countries, the populations are turning against North America and Europe? Our general attitude towards them is still condescending and arrogant, from our theft of their culture to our unwillingness to recognise their rights to have control over their own natural resources. In spite of their having gained independence, they must still feel like they are treated as a lesser among equals.

In colonial India, the British East India Tea Company forbid the printing of Hindu religious texts and histories in Sanskrit and would only allow them to be produced in approved English translations. Not only did that destroy Sanskrit as a language but it also ensured that everything colonial Indians read about their own religion and history was from a British point of view.

Walking into a New Age bookstore today is like seeing that policy put in effect for the whole world. It’s rare to find a book instructing you in the practices of a culture written by a person of that culture. Scarcer still are those that have anything to do with the original intentions of that culture.

For people who claim to have found the path to enlightenment, the authors of these books are at best ignorant and at worst exploitive thieves. Cultural colonialism hasn’t ended; it’s just wearing a new disguise, and it’s called New Age.

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Dyrkness

    My experience of “New Age” has been that it is only a mish-mosh of ideas,not wholesale exploitation of any culture in particular.It seems to me that they are using the jargon or key words of Enlightenment without the legitimate knowledge of all that entails.
    That being said,I don’t see why a Westerner could not learn all the “secrets ” of another’s culture.Or even TRUE Enlightenment. You say “How do you think it feels for them to see the faces of their former oppressors looking back at them from the dust jackets of books claiming to sell their practices? Wouldn’t it piss them off just a little?” I’d say no,because truly Enlightened people would welcome the spread of Enlightenment and would not have the feeling of being “pissed” at anyone at all.
    But maybe I’m just dreaming.I have never read or heard of anyone complaining that their culture was being exploited when it pertains to being Enlightened except when they claim it as their own ideas and not from the original culture.

  • http://noumenal.net/blogs/weblog.php Che

    Hmm not sure I agree with this. My dad was a Cherokee and my mother a Tennesee hillbilly. What does this mean for me? I’m supposed to keep my spiritual life limited to to either sweatlodges or holy-rolling snake handling? I think not.

    I see nothing wrong with seeking wisdom in a variety of cultures. Good gods, anything that steers people in the US AWAY from right-wing evangelical fundamentalism is fine with me. If they find something spiritually valuable in my dad’s culture, fine. (as far as my mother’s is concerned, I don’t see too many people lining up to handle pissed off poisonous serpents). It seems to me gaining familiarity with other cultures and religions engenders acceptance and understanding. We sure as hell could use a little more of that.

    And once someone has gained experience and understanding they’re supposed to do what? Keep quiet about it so as not to piss you off?

    Cultures change, grow, develop, expand, and mix with other cultures. These days more than ever. Something new often arises from these mixtures. When western-african tribal religion met native carribean and american religion and catholicism, Vodun was spawned (a religion which very heavily influences my own spirituality). The fact is, I don’t like the philosophies that predominantly govern my society so like many other dissatisfied people, I take it elsewhere.

    And as far as the new age is concerned, I’m still trying to figure out what thats about. It does indeed, as Dyrkness pointed out, seem to be a hodge-podge of traditions, beliefs, ideas and practices loosely woven together from a variety of sources, some of those sources old, some new (such as extraterrestrial influences). You seem to be lumping everyone who seeks insight, inspiration and enlightenment in cultures foreign to their own under the umbrella of “New Age”. But just because a new age book store sells a book on Buddhism doesn’t mean all white people who find value and comfort in the teachings of Buddha are “new agers”.

    It is one of the unique marvels of the time in which we live that people CAN gain knowledge of other cultures and religion so very easily. This very second I could log into a chat room and have a conversation with a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Christian or a Siberian shaman. And while it is true that there are always going to be people cashing in on any and everything, including spirituality, faith and religion in its myriad and diverse forms, I don’t think anyone should have their spiritual life defined and bound by the expectations of their society. Thats one of the big problems with this one. Too many people believing what preacher tells them without bothering to find out for themselves. Too many people blindly accepting the limitations set upon them by the faith of their parents.

  • http://blogs.epicIndia.com/leapinthedark Richard Marcus

    Che: I have no problems with anyone learning another religion or way of life. That’s not cultural eploitation, that’e exploration. But it becomes exploitation when you start using it to make money and you’re taking it out of its context.

    If you want to be a Hindu or a Muslim more power to you, but you can’t just take the little bits you like, cut out the rest and call it being a Muslim or a Hindu and set yourself up as a teacher who knows more than people who have lived it all their lives.

    People are free to believe what they want, it’s those who proclaim themselves teachers and masters or whatevers of something, without bothering to either acknowledge their debt to the people who developed it, or make themselves out to know more or better than those who were born into it that bother me.

    I know plenty of people who are “pissed” about how their cultures are used and twisted by “new age” people; most of them are First Nations,of various tribes, but some are Hindu. Me I pesonaly am at a loss about all these people claiming to be Kabbalists, when most kabbalists spend their entire lives in religious study before even attempting that branch of Jewish mysticism. But I’m sure folks like Madonna know better then rabinical scholars.

    Richard Marcus

  • RedTard

    So basically your pissed of because some people are exercising their freedom to write books that others are freely buying…hmmm.

    I thought you long haired hippies shunned negativity. Also judging the author of books based on race is generally frowned upon, I suppose you get a pass because they were white though.

  • http://noumenal.net/blogs/weblog.php Che

    Richard, I do agree with your comment to a certain degre, I just can’t help but feel there’s this muddled area here where the definition of new age is getting construed with the practice of indiginous faiths by non-indiginous peoples. The New Age is a murky murky realm, for all its supposed enlightenment.

    But one also has to ask at what point does one become Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Buddhist? What is the defining moment. It is a matter of expertise, cultural inheritance, or faith? Believe me I’m not thrilled with Kabbalah becoming a “craze” with madonna in the lead, of all people, but what makes her a Kabbalist or not a Kabbalist? Who defines?

    Does the preacher who dunks one in the water make one a christian, or is it the belief, or is it the actions, or the knowledge? Who decides?

    In mast cases, tradition decides, or should. In initiatory religions, the initiator decides. In experiential religions, experience – which is entirely subjective – decides. And in revelatory religions, one need only make the decision to accept the revelation in order to be deemed among the flock. You’ve certainly raised a lot of interesting issues and questions with your article. Definitely bears pondering.

  • VGR

    Alright, somebody fake-posted your blog as a “new york times” link on the sulekha.com news portal, and I clicked through to find myself in blogoland, where I usually lock my car windows and immediately hunt for a way out when I wander in by accident.

    Friend, I will cheerfully presume to speak for all Indians (my ‘Apu’ kind and, what the heck, the American kind :) and put you out of your misery. You are hereby absolved of all shared and inherited guilt for the colonial era. You are not responsible for the condition of the world. If it helps, I assure you, we brown, yellow, black and red people of the world would have screwed up the world as effectively as the pink ones happened to. Rejoice and get a haircut.

    And if you manage one laugh at yourself in the next 5 minutes, I’ll double this incredible offer. All the blond-blue-eyed new age writers whose souls you worry about will also be absolved of any sins of omission and commision, past and future, in their repackaged publishing excesses.

    Where’s that darn ramp?
    Please do not feed peanuts to my god.

    VGR

  • http://desicritics.org Aaman

    What’s the Sulekha.com article URL?

  • http://desicritics.org Aaman
  • http://newagefraud.org/smf/index.php Barnaby McEwan

    Hello, I’m a member of NAFPS (New Age Frauds Plastic Shamans), an informal group set up by (American) Indians to campaign and inform on this issue (I’m not Indian myself: I just live in a town full of annoying hippies). I really liked your piece and would just add two things.

    Firstly, Indian people themselves have been protesting about exploitation of their cultures as soon as they got wind of it.

    Secondly newage exploitation of native religious ceremonies is dangerous for white people, as well as causing immense disruption in Indian communities. People have died in bogus ‘sweat lodges’ operated by fakes who cannot possibly know how to conduct one safely. Many others have been sexually, emotionally, financially and otherwise abused by these frauds. There are also spiritual dangers.

    Using Native Americans or any other ethnic group as a spiritual security-blanket is a dehumanising, racist attitude. Do drop by our forum if you have any questions.

  • Caridad

    Cultural Spiritual Colonialism; Witness a Theft in Progress; West Central Africa. Below is a posted response (tribenet Iboga) to a White So.African businessman who publicly slandered Gabonaise (Africa) Traditional Practitioner Nganga Mallendi.

    So.African Simon, Subjects Nganga Mallendi to the Erroneous Criteria of A NewAge Plastic Techno Shaman.

    Simon, A So.African, Nganga wanna-be, has the gaul to Subject Multi- Generational Nganga Mallendi to NewAge Concepts of Neo-Shamanism.

    Spiritual Genocide; Simon’s Super Plastic Shaman Criteria is an Assault on the Prior Art of Nganga Mallendi. Simon & the likes are going for the throats of Traditional Practitioners to eliminate the competition. Simon & other Spiritual Neo-Colonists are patently damning African Indigenous knowledge into Oblivion.

    Will Nganga Mallendi’s great great grandchildren be persecuted by the WTO for patent infrigement for using Iboga? or perhaps be forced to use Sythetic derivitives at a high cost?

    Contrary to SyntheticSimon’s BS…..Iboga is safer than ibogaine and being treated in Gabon by an Nganga would be first on my list just because of the history of Pentagon funded ‘Skunk Projects’ aimed at data collection, & duping unwitting guinea pigs into submitting to experimentation & unessessary screening. Medical Apartheid.

    Go for treatment from SyntheticSimon, & he won’t even give you a little soup after, what a Schlump!

    Simon could learn alot from Mallendi. Mallendi fed us after Iboga.

  • True North

    Barnaby are you an Indian? If not which nation gave you the right to “expose” frauds. Are you endorsed by any nation? Its my understanding that NAFPS is almost all non Indian, in fact non North American. I have seen people vilified and abused by white non Indians, non Americans. Doesn’t your leader think that its a bit insulting to call himself “educated indian” when he is NOT an Indian. There are quite a few educated Indians, real Indians. Your group is not endorsed by any nation or national Indian/Aboriginal organisation, correct. You are self appointed self annointed, fraud busters, who insult people, destroy their careers with you stalking, liar and I have seen evidence of a really sick sexual obsession. As far as I and all of the Indians (real Indians)are racists, white people who preach to Indians about being Indian. There is white supremacy in the group its because its members are WHITE. I found that out as a member of the group. White wannabees are still white and many are racists.

  • Identity revealer

    This happens all the time in the television industry. I attended a info session recently where the commissioner stated how much she wanted diverse stories from diverse directors but she didn’t want any stories about race. (as if that’s the only thing people of colour can talk about) but that same week I saw a story that delved deeply into racism but guess what it was told by a white director…the bottom line is whites continuously are given carte blanche when it comes to racial or cultural stories of others for years and it continues even in our so called modern times

  • http://www.copperbasin.com Danna

    Culture, whether from the past down to the present should have an interrelation, a synergy. It should have a diverse action in a unified approach.

  • BMX

    The key is to not take these people seriously. They can only be fueled by reaction.

    That’s the way it is with any “spiritual guru”. It’s a symbiotic relationship, where the followers feed off of the guru’s certainty and the guru’s certainty grows with the number of people following him.