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Ashram or simulation? Cultural voyeurism or yoga vacation?

I’ve been thinking about a remark recounted by the author of our cover story on a yoga vacation in Kerala. “This is not an ashram,” a fellow vacationer says to her, “this is a simulation.” He describes what he believes to be the authentic ashram: a silent hermitage, unadulterated by western administrators, dorm conveniences, and Swamis with American accents.

The remark is intended to shed doubt on the real potential of this ashram-simulation. It is a place to “get a certificate,” not to try to achieve greater spiritual understanding. And, on one level, this rings true. The modern-day ashram, where visitors customize their own yoga vacations, is for paying customers. The experience of challenging one’s body and chanting in groups of devotees is as much a novelty as a necessity.

You go on a yoga vacation out of curiosity; you participate in the program because it’s paid for; and you observe the surroundings, spiritual by design, in order to compare them with the “reality” from which you’ve come, in order to later recount the simulacrum to a friend over coffee at Starbucks.

I hear echoes of the more obviously problematic “slum tourism,” a phenomenon which has caught on from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the open sewers of Mumbai’s back alleys. Slum tours are now conducted all over the world, anywhere where poverty lives alongside prosperity. Tourists, cameras in hand, pack water bottles and board buses in order to see how the other half lives. Invariably, they marvel at the smiling faces of the poor and return to their cushy hotels, humbled by this glimpse of “the real world.”

The ashram experience is designed as an escape from “reality”; the slum tour, by contrast, is a staged encounter with “the real.” But each is itself a simulation of a world for the purposes of consumption.

Could the same be said of the world we inhabit before we go on our yoga vacation? Or the world we return to after visiting the slum? In our media-saturated, hyper-consumerist world, isn’t every scene a reproduction of something else?

I’m not trying to put forth any kind of “life is illusion” spiritual truth. What I’m interested in is more material. Instead of looking for the “real ashram,” we have to reconcile ourselves to the idea that there is no unsullied “authentic” experience, no “realer” reality than the one we know.

The brutality of inequity is evident both on and off the tour bus. The ashram is not an escape from the real—it is a construction for a variety of purposes, higher or lower, that are entirely up to the individual participant.

Ashram or simulation? Choose your pleasure.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan was Editor of India Currents from July 2007-June 2009.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan has been a regular contributor to India Currents since 2001.