Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi: Orientalism and the Mystical Marketplace, by Sophia Rose Arjana

Ruby Guyatt enjoys a sharp account of the shallow Western infatuation with Eastern religions

November 16, 2020
Man taking a selfie in front of a Buddha
Source: Getty

Since 1986, Black Rock Desert in north-western Nevada has been the home of the annual Burning Man event. This year’s gathering was among the many casualties of Covid-19, with the Burning Man Project forced to beg Burners to donate to save Black Rock City. For a week in late August and early September, tens of thousands of hipsters, influencers, creatives and assorted spiritual seekers usually descend on the desert. Attendees live together in themed camps, experience art, theatre and music, and enjoy communal rituals such as the burning of a “temple” installation.

The Burning Man event (which its organisers insist is not a “festival”) is guided by 10 lofty principles, including “radical inclusion”, “decommodification” and “communal effort”. In 2019, this inclusive, decommodified existence could be purchased for $425 (£345) to $1,400, plus $100 for parking.

Burning Man and its contradictions epitomise the mystical marketplace examined by Sophia Rose Arjana in her new book, Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi. Here, she critically examines the intersections of colonialism, consumerism and “modern mystic-spirituality”: the modern search for meaning and well-being beyond institutionalised religion, which often borrows from religious practices and traditions of “the Orient/East”.

The clumsy appropriation of Eastern religion is evident in Burning Man’s Hindu- and Buddhist-themed camps, and in their programmed activities, which have included “no-bullshit meditation” and mud wrestling “in honour of [Hindu monkey god] Hanuman”. But the mystical marketplace Arjana analyses is a global phenomenon. High-street Buddhas populate bathrooms and living rooms across the UK, and the bestselling poet in the US is the 13th-century Persian Sufi master Rumi. In the West, the exercise regime we call “yoga” has become a form of secular spirituality, mindfulness apps founded by ex-Buddhist monks rake in millions, and modern mystic tourists (spiritual – not religious) flock to Bali and Thailand in search of enlightenment and Instagram likes.

Modern mystic-spirituality is not only a lucrative but also a whitewashing force. In the case of Rumi, Arjana recalls how Sufism has been artificially separated from Islam in Europe and North America, presented as a universalistic spirituality headed by a dashing moustachioed poet. The complexities of modern mystic-spirituality make Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi a valuable read for anyone interested in the relationship between colonialism and capitalism (or amused to meet the weary gaze of Siddhartha Gautama from a perch adjacent to the hand cream).

The modern mystic “Orient” is an atopic idea rather than a mappable place, and the mystical marketplace is booming not only in Santa Fe or Somerset but across the world. China uses the orientalist notion of Shangri-La to market everything from holidays to candles, while whirling Sufi dancing has been popularised in Israel by an American woman named Sheikha Khadija.

Arjana coins the helpful term “muddled Orientalism” to describe the hodgepodge of images, cultures, symbols and traditions combined in the confused cultural exchange of modern mysticism. In her compelling account, the brands, ideals, rituals and products of modern mystic-spirituality comprise what Michel Foucault described as “heterotopias”: illusory sites of escape or deviation from the crisis of modernity.

Whether you visited this year’s “ever-expanding virtual Burning Man Multiverse” or not, Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi is an engaging and wide-ranging read. Well researched and compellingly written, Arjana’s book refines our understanding of capitalism, orientalism and belief, and calls attention to the paradoxes of the modern search for meaning.

Ruby Guyatt is a researcher, teacher and writer who recently completed a doctorate in the philosophy of religion at the University of Cambridge.

Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi: Orientalism and the Mystical Marketplace
By Sophia Rose Arjana
Oneworld Academic, 320pp, £20.00
ISBN 9781786077714
Published 6 August 2020

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