The Appropriation of Eastern Spiritual Practice by the West

By Nivedita Nambrath ’23 for Fall 2020 Issue

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Eastern mysticism has always fascinated and intrigued the Western mind. More than its philosophy and teachings, it is often the aesthetics of Eastern spirituality that capture the Western imagination most. Saffron-clad yogis with matted locks, altars hidden in mountain-top caves, fire, camphor, and incense, singing bowls, third-eyes, mandalas, big-bellied Buddhas carved from jade – the list is endless. As an Indian, I have seen extensive appropriation of Indian culture and spirituality in all realms of the Western commercial sphere. From Coachella fashion to Urban Outfitters products to the crude commercialization of yoga, the West has sunk its teeth into the riches of the East. One avenue of appropriation that has always irked me is the way Eastern spirituality is distorted into “hippie” culture by Western media. Tying into this is the way in which age-old psychedelic traditions, stemming from a multitude of indigenous cultures across the globe, have been appropriated and corrupted by a Western hunger for “exoticism”.

This isn’t a surprising phenomenon. Indian culture and Eastern spirituality were popularized in the United States during the ‘60s, a period of social liberalization that led many young adults to seek alternative lifestyles removed from Western familiarity. Americans became increasingly interested in foreign cultures and experiences. In this way, Eastern culture and psychedelics were unexplored territories, ripe for the taking. Because of this, Eastern culture in the West is tied to the explosion of “hippie” culture, resulting in the rather unfortunate conflation of these two phenomena in the minds of many Westerners. Eastern spirituality also came to be linked with the substance-usage aspects of counterculture because people sought a deeper cultural reinforcement for hallucinogenic experiences. To them, there was nothing in Western philosophy or religion that provided an appealing cultural backdrop to the colorful and surreal experiences induced by psychedelics. But the East was a completely different world. The East has always been where the West has sourced its flavors. In Western culture, the East has been seen as a whimsical wonderland of colorful, surprising, bizarre, and radical things. In Indian culture alone, the sheer amount of sensory input in artwork and imagery is overwhelming to the Western mind. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the many-headed Hindu gods and kaleidoscopic mandalas have become a part of American psychedelic imagery. Through its aesthetics alone, the East offered a rich cultural backdrop against which Western psychedelia could develop. 

However, as one might suspect, there is so much the West doesn’t understand about Eastern culture. After all, why do Hindu gods have so many heads, and what could those spiralling mandalas possibly represent besides LSD trips? Of course, the answers to these questions are very complex, and would require separate articles of their own to answer.

In the East (and in global indigenous cultures), it has always been understood that there is far more to this reality than what can be ordinarily perceived with our human senses. In ancient Indian culture, this insight into the deeper nature of reality has been expressed through mythology, scriptures, and symbolism for centuries. 

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Because of this, people in the West often turn to the East to make sense of psychedelic experiences. To the perceptive user, the out-of-the-ordinary sensory experiences induced by psychedelics result in the realization that our senses give us only one very limited perspective on the story of reality. In order to comprehend their new experience, a person may look towards all the established sources of wisdom they know of for guidance, and finding that Western culture and knowledge doesn’t have much to offer in this avenue (being primarily concerned with mechanistic reality), they might turn to Eastern culture and suddenly find a gateway to answers for all of their questions about reality beyond the senses. Much of Eastern spiritual artwork reflects these ideas about reality, which is why they have been taken up by Westerners to add to psychedelic culture. Unfortunately, because of this, Eastern spirituality has become associated with drugs in the West, and in many cases is reduced to an aesthetic adornment to drug culture. This superficial commodification is disrespectful because Eastern spirituality is in fact a multifaceted intellectual world comprising countless profound systems of philosophy and practice.

Furthermore, psychedelics are not remotely central to many mainstream Eastern spiritualities. According to certain Eastern spiritual paths such as Hinduism and Buddhism, it is believed that enlightenment is not easily achieved, and that it can literally take multiple lifetimes before one can achieve nirvana or moksha. Generally speaking, many Eastern spiritualities involve practice and living a wholesome lifestyle.  Many of these spiritual paths in fact advise against drugs and stimulants. This is why I find it so disrespectful when Westerners use Eastern spirituality to justify their own indulgence and escapism. 

That said, there are traditions of psychedelic usage in the East, as there are in several indigenous cultures around the globe as well. What must be noted is that in these cultures, psychedelics are not a source of indulgence, a form of rebellion, or a means of escapism as they are in the West – rather, they are ritualistic practices often reserved for ascetics and the most spiritually advanced people. They are not indulged in carelessly by regular people, presumably because people in these cultures have a respect for their power and their effect on the mind and body. This is where Eastern and indigenous psychedelic traditions differ from Western drug culture – while some Westerners turn to drugs to get high and escape reality, people in some Eastern and indigenous cultures look to certain psychedelics as sacred and powerful means of confronting reality in a deep way that not everyone is capable of. This is why there are such particular rituals around psychedelic usage in these cultures. This is also why when tourists flock to indigenous psychedelic retreats to indulge their curiosity, they are disrespecting the culture and history of these places. 

However, there have been many who have made genuine efforts to learn and practice aspects of Eastern spirituality. For example, George Harrison of the Beatles, who helped to popularize Indian culture and spirituality in the West, eventually became totally immersed in Indian culture and Hindu spirituality. While he may have been attracted first on a more superficial level by Indian music and the explanations Indian spirituality had for his own psychedelic experiences, these eventually prompted him to learn about Hindu spirituality in a much deeper way, which resulted in him leaving psychedelics behind to begin a deeper and more genuine pursuit of Hindu spirituality. I argue that, in order to truly delve into Eastern spirituality, the shallowness of Western appropriation must be left behind. For example, yoga is a deeply spiritual practice that is supposed to help people transcend egoism, materialism, and superficiality. We can never experience what yoga is meant to be from the confines of a superficial industry commandeered by LA influencers. 

At the end of the day, while people like myself may be miffed by the crude and inaccurate way in which our spiritual traditions are being characterized in the West, I don’t think the vast majority of people from Eastern cultures are really all that bothered. People from Eastern cultures may not see the West as ill-intentioned, or they may feel that Western appropriation of Eastern culture is just about the most representation Eastern culture gets in the West, despite the presence of a rich diaspora. Also, within Eastern spirituality, the way in which it is appropriated by the West does not matter. This is because to one focused on what does matter in life, the delusional behavior of a few people should not be a source of vexation or concern. After all, the Buddha stated that rather than filling one’s mind with negative emotions, one should instead channel compassion and pity to those who anger us. While writing this article may have been a therapeutic way of explaining some of the things I see around me that annoy me, it is finally compassion that I feel the most, because I know that everyone is on a journey of their own, and it serves no one to hold grudges against one another. Regardless of any cultural differences, we are all on the journey of the human experience together, and working together and sharing our wisdom with one another is surely the best way ahead.

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