The prevailing view of the cultural aspect of globalization is that of a massive process of Westernization. It is producing a synthetic international culture. On the popular level it is sometimes called “McWorld” (a term felicitously coined by Benjamin Barber), sometimes “airport culture”. Here the world dances to American music, eats American fast food, affirms (in rhetoric if not always in practice) American notions about love and sexuality. In this world people communicate in a kind of pidgin English, which also adorns T-shirts in luxurious forms of misspelling. On the elite level there has been an equally catchy term (this one invented by Samuel Huntington): the “Davos culture”, named after the Swiss mountain village in which every January world leaders from business, government and (to a lesser extent) academia trudge through the snowdrifts to assure each other of their importance. The English here is of better quality, but it too has an American intonation. Perhaps the denizens of this culture can be succinctly described as people, wherever they originally come from, who find Woody Allen funny.
This view of globalization as a powerful movement from the West to all other parts of the world also pertains to beliefs, secular as well as religious. Western ideologies—democracy, human rights, feminism, environmentalism, the very notion of psychotherapy—have gained widespread acceptance in non-Western countries. The global spread of Evangelical Protestantism, especially of its most dynamic version—Pentecostalism—can also be seen as part of the Westernizing movement. The new Pentecostals in Latin America may worship in Spanish, Portuguese or Quechua, but their style of religion has an unmistakably American flavor.
This picture is not wrong, but it is not the whole story. Yes, the mighty train of Westernizing culture has left the station. But other trains are coming in from the opposite direction. Most of them originate in Asia.
A book that has just been published provides an instructive case in point, a careful study of a neo-Hindu movement by an up-and-coming anthropologist from India—Tulasi Srinivas’ Winged Faith. Its subtitle is a bit ponderous, but it sums up the book’s thesis: “Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism through the Sathya Sai Movement.” The story told by Srinivas is fascinating. She takes the movement’s founder, usually known as Sai Baba, from his birth in a South Indian village in 1926, to his claim at a young age to be an incarnation (avatar) of the god Shiva, through the development since the 1960s to his present status of “global guruhood”. As with other Hindu godmen, Sai Baba’s teachings are not particularly original. But his followers are not mainly attracted by teachings. They seek his presence (darshan) to experience a powerful transformation of their self and their sense of reality. The most original feature of his activity is his alleged capacity to “materialize” objects out of nothing—such as waves of ashes spilling miraculously over an adoring devotee.
What Sai Baba has done is to take a religious configuration of unmistakably Hindu origins, and to mutate it to a syncretistic faith that has attracted a sizable number of Americans and Europeans (who have been happy to tell their stories to Srinivas). The following quote from Sai Baba neatly sums up this appeal: “Call me by any name—Krishna, Allah, Christ. Can’t you recognize Me in any Form? Continue your worship of your chosen God along the lines familiar to you and you’ll find you are coming near to Me, for all Names and Forms are Mine” (page 68). Note the phrase “your chosen God”: a modern phrase par excellence, faith no longer given by the fact of birth in this or that region or caste or tribe, but faith as an act of individual choice (as also expressed very clearly in the prototypically American phrase “religious preference”).
The Sai Baba movement has made claims to large numbers of converts worldwide. One must be skeptical about these claims. In any case, the numbers are modest as compared with the major religious explosions of our time, such as those of Evangelicalism and resurgent Islam. But one must see this particular movement in a much larger context—precisely that of religious ideas and practices moving from East to West. For most of its history Hinduism has not been a missionary religion. Because of the roots of Hinduism in the caste system, it was difficult to be a Hindu outside India in the first place. In modern times there have been Hindu missionary movements, such as the Ramaskrishna-Vivekananda mission which arrived with some fanfare in 1893 at the Chicago World Parliament of Religions. Buddhism of course has been actively missionizing from its beginning, with enormous successes in East Asia. Buddhist movements have attracted respectable numbers of converts in the West (an estimated number of 800,000 in the United States), but still modest on a world scale of religious demography—most Buddhists in the world, as most Hindus, are in populations that were traditionally identified with these two religions.
But the much more significant impact of Asian religiosity on the West has not come by way of missionary organizations. It has been much more diffuse, seeping into the culture through miscellaneous informal channels—books, periodicals, electronic media, small groups of friends and acquaintances, and last but not least through the influence of celebrities (“Hollywood Buddhism” and the like). The diffusion probably dates from the late 19th century, when the alleged wisdom from the East attracted wide interest in Europe and America. Later this trend grew into the so-called New Age movement, then burst into prominence with the counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s, and today can be found in the many cases when people say that they are “not religious, but spiritual”.
The British sociologist Colin Campbell has coined a useful term to denote this phenomenon, in the title of a recent book, The Easternization of the West. He describes the phenomenon in great detail. He doesn’t like it—one chapter is headed “How the West was Lost”. But one can profit from reading the book, even if one does not share the author’s bias. For a less negative presentation, one can consult Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead’s The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality. Whether one uses the terminology or not, “Easternizing spirituality” is a very real and quite massive phenomenon in Western countries today.
Practices deriving from Asian religion have proliferated—yoga, meditation, alternative therapeutic techniques (such as acupuncture and Ayurvedic medicine). To be sure, sometimes these practices have been detached from their original religious meanings. One may do yoga to lose weight (to misquote Freud—“sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”). Much of the time, though, the religious/”spiritual” intention is deliberate and overt. That is even clearer with expressed beliefs. Large numbers of Westerners believe in reincarnation, and some think that they can, with the right exercises, remember previous lives. A survey in Europe reported that a surprising number of Catholics think that reincarnation is a doctrine of their church. Probably more importantly, many people believe that Western civilization has disrupted the harmony between human beings and nature, and that this is a pathology that should be remedied. There is a strong anti-individualistic theme in the latter belief, often linked to leftist ideology (capitalism as the source of “excessive individualism”), environmentalism (reconciling with a supposedly benign Mother Nature, or with Gaia, the earth as a living being), and radical feminism (the healing power of female spirituality).
In think that Campbell is correct in seeing this last complex of ideas as offering the sharpest challenge to core Western values. If one goes back in history, everywhere, one comes on what may be called the mythic matrix of all human cultures—a worldview in which the individual is embedded in a community that includes humans, animals, nature and the gods. I think that Eric Voegelin’s philosophy of history has given the best descriptions of what he called “leaps in being”—ruptures in this fabric of cosmic unity. Two ruptures have been seminal for Western civilization—those of ancient Israel and ancient Greece—the exodus of the people of Israel from the mythic world of the surrounding cultures of the Near East—and the different but equally powerful force of Greek reason in challenging the compact universe of myth. Of course these two ruptures did not immediately bring about what we now call Western individualism. It took centuries for this to happen. Perhaps the best metaphor of the original rupture is that moment in Greek sculpture when individual human figures stepped out of the archaic friezes and stood free, by themselves. “Easternization” in all its forms implies the suggestion that we should step back into the frieze. This would be a far-reaching reversal of the entire course of our civilization. We should think very carefully before we recommend such a step.
A young man of my acquaintance is a teacher of Taichi, the Chinese practice of what can be called meditational dance. He wanted to teach a course in this practice at a Baptist university in Texas. The dean called him in and asked him whether he would teach Christian Taichi. When I was recently told this story, I was at first amused at the dean’s parochialism. Upon further thought I changed my mind. The dean had a point. He wanted to make sure that the techniques of Taichi would be taught as a form of physical education, or perhaps anxiety management, and not in order to smuggle covert Buddhist or Taoist ideas into the innocent minds of young Texan Baptists.