We received our latest pre-yatra “newsletter” and, in a few words, it described how India can really turn you inside out, how it offers up a spirituality ingrained into the fabric of life and landscape that is extremely alien to our Western way of thinking.
For those going on the Namarupa yatra, this potential awakening is the point. It’s a positive. It’s a goal.
But it apparently can also be very, very dangerous. Perhaps you can imagine that I raised a healthy eyebrow when I saw a few mentions of “India syndrome.” It’s popped up on the Internet’s radar thanks to a piece in the latest Details magazine. A link to the story online is right here.
Here’s the crux:
Some are drawn by accounts of the powers of dedicated practitioners—yogis who can levitate, breathe for months while entombed underground, melt giant swaths of snow with their body heat—believing that they too will be able to accomplish extraordinary things. This quest to become superhuman—along with culture shock, emotional isolation, illicit drugs, and the physical toll of hard-core meditation—can cause Western seekers to lose their bearings. Seemingly sane people get out of bed one day claiming they’ve discovered the lost continent of Lemuria, or that the end of the world is nigh, or that they’ve awakened their third eye. Most recover, but some become permanently delusional. A few vanish or even turn up dead.
India syndrome may not be an officially recognized disease, but many doctors are convinced it’s real. Kalyan Sachdev, the medical director of Privat Hospital in New Delhi, says that his facility admits about a hundred delusional Westerners a year, many of whom had been practicing yoga around the clock. “There’s the physical side of yoga and the psychic side, and sometimes people get it all out of order,” he says. “Peaceful people can get aggressive even if they haven’t taken any drugs.” His treatment tends to be simple: Send them home as soon as possible. “People come to us with acute psychotic symptoms,” he says. “But you put them on the plane and they are completely all right.” Sunil Mittal, the head of the psychiatric unit at Cosmos Institute for Mental Health & Behavioral Sciences in New Delhi, recently had to send police to retrieve a California woman who’d overstayed her visa and refused to leave an ashram outside Rishikesh. There, Mittal says, she danced erotically in the courtyard each night for the yogis and was often observed in a “trancelike state.” His prescription for her was also a return flight home.
The piece goes on from there, describing individual cases with which the author — who lived in India — is familiar. The most jarring is the story of the 21-year-old woman who jumped to her death not long after writing in her journal, “I am a Bodhisattva.” Our fundamental Yoga Sutras get a mention — as does Ashtanga.
It’s scary stuff — which certainly is one of the story’s points. You’ve got to catch attention, get readers, sell magazines, get clicks on the website. It’s also, as a result, in some ways something easily dismissed. The stories gathered are the most extremes, the few of the few that are the basis for this syndrome. There’s no news in someone going to India, enjoying the trip — even learning valuable lessons — and then returning home, a better person for the experience. Man needs to bite dog, as the old journalism saying goes.
The key part of the piece, for me, is when the author notes this question: Was being in India what caused someone to get unhinged, or was that person unhinged already? India perhaps is just our latest exotic, spiritual frontier; similar types of syndromes (as the author also mentions) have a long history.
Posted by Steve