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Book review: from Yoga to Kabbalah

A common refrain in contemporary western culture is that “traditional” religions and roles are in decline and, supplanting them, is a turn to the “spiritual” in which individuals discover and shape their own sources of meaning through a playful and eclectic “pick and mix” approach to religious traditions and practices. This is sometimes referred to as the “subjectivist turn” in social studies, and frequently hailed as a “spiritual revolution” (and occasionally, lamented). But how does this eclecticism – often characterised by the French term bricolage – operate? Why is it that some religious traditions and practices are appropriated, and others not? Why are people attracted to “foreign” religious resources and what role do these practices play in people’s lives?

VĂ©ronique Altglas addresses these issues in From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage Oxford University Press 2014). Drawing on her transnational research on two neo-Hindu movements – Siddha Yoga and Sivananda Centres in France and Britain; and the Kabbalah Centre in France, Britain, Brazil and Israel – Altglas uncovers the hidden “logics” of bricolage, and in doing so, presents some intriguing and – possibly – uncomfortable conclusions.

Throughout From Yoga to Kabbalah Altglas draws attention to several key processes which make bricolage possible, and how these processes support each other. She presents Exoticism for example, as a modality which – whilst suggesting an engagement with difference and otherness – is less concerned with accounting for cultural differences than constructing an fetishised ideal. Universalisation is another key process which Altglas explains as being fundamental to the process of bricolage – allowing practices to be removed from the cultural context in which they emerge and making them “available” for all.

from Yoga to KabbalahIn the first chapter, Altglas provides a brief historical review of the emergence and dissemination of neo-Hindu teachings in Euroamerican societies, and the spread of Kabbalah teachings. She argues that Nineteenth Century orientalism, Western Esoteric movements and 1960s counter-culture all contributed, in various ways, to representations of Vedanta and Kabbalah as both mystical and timeless sources of wisdom, and that such representations are inextricably linked to the representation of the West as “individualistic, materialistic, secular and decadent” (p24). She asserts that the “elaboration of otherness” precedes bricolage – and that the availability of exotic religious resources is shaped through specific (and asymetrical) historical encounters. Moreover, the dissemination/appropriation of these traditions requires that they be made – or distance themselves from their cultural location – and that the representation of these resources as transcendent, universal or primordial entails an indifference to the particularities of how these religions are lived or practiced.

In chapter 2, she discusses how this exotic idealisation has its limits – that for example, whilst many people that Altglas interviewed in her research on the Siddha Yoga and Sivananda centres were enthusiastic about yoga and meditation; they were less comfortable – and sometimes actively critical of – elements such as guru-devotion, ritual, and the use of Sanskrit in liturgy. She points out that her interviewees tended to view Buddhism, Hinduism and other Asian religious traditions as comprising of an undifferentiated “whole” – often providing a counterbalance to the “deficiencies” of the West – and fundamentally tolerant and inclusive “to which people do not need to convert of conform”. Such representations, Altglas says, transcend knowledge of how Hinduism is practiced – “involving, rules, norms, institutions, and authorities, as a source of contestation between different sects, as a basis for political mobilisation in India and among the South Asian diaspora” (p77). She also highlights how universalism – in the form of the notion that all paths lead to the same place and that all religions are essentially saying the same thing allows the disregard of cultural and religious particulars, and notes that it enabled some of her interviewees to “re-discover” their Christian upbringing via their detour into neo-Hinduism. Her research at the Kabbalah Centre indicates similar trends – that non-Jews initial contact with Kabbalah Centre teachings through courses that downplay overt references to Judaism – but as they become more involved, they are confronted with “a disorienting, unfamiliar and unsought liturgy in which their participation is restricted by their not being Jewish or knowledge about Judaism” (p83).

Altglas also highlights the pragmatism with which elements of spiritual teachings and practices are evaluated. Quoting one interviewee: “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where it comes from, whether old or new, if it is effective, then that’s for you.” This “pragmatic logic” Altglas asserts, legitimises the combinations of various practices – but also “organises” bricolage around the values of efficiency and usefulness. of course, religious teachers have played a key role in the decontextualisation of traditions, and this is the focus of chapter 3. Here Altglas examines the work of contemporary indian gurus such as Muktananda who have stressed the universal dimensions of their teaching – often to the extent of refuting that these teachings had any direct relationship to Hinduism. Similarly, Altglas examines how the Kabbalah Centre followed a similar trajectory – distancing itself from its original revivalist goals and gradually adopting a universalistic rhetoric.

But again, there is a tension between the representation of these movements as universal and the ambivalence of their exoticism. One source of tension Altglas discusses is the way that both the Kabbalah Centre and Neo-Hindu movements find their legitimacy within their respective particularisms – in the unbroken line of Kabbalistic teachers, or Muktananda’s efforts to ensure that his monks would be acceptable to the wider community of dasanami swamis. Using the examples of Muktananda’s turn to Kashmir Shaivism and the Kabbalah Centre’s deployment of Morrocan Kabbalah and Judaism, Altglas demonstrates that bricolage “demands resources that are “special” and mysterious whilst at the same time acultural and universal” De-contextualisation also requires de-ethnicisation – the re-interpretation of core tenets that bind religosity with a particular land and people – and sometimes – adopting a “double language” and concealing contradictory messages. She discusses the Kabbalah Centre’s relationship with Israel as both symbolic and spiritual – the metaphysical epicentre of world spirituality – which can become another source of tension.

Chapter 4 examines how transnational religious organisations interact with their local social environments – and in particular, Altglas illustrates how these organisations are affected by national approaches to religious diversity and the public sphere. She examines the case of ISKCON – which in Britain (and America) has undergone a process of “re-ethnicisation” – becoming a key representative of the UK’s ethnic Hindu community through its contributions to to the National Council of Hindu Temples (NCHT) and the Hindu Council of the United Kingdom; and shows how this move relates to wider British religious politics. In France however, the situation is very different, and she explores how state hostility to “cults” (beginning in the 1990s with the Guyard report) entails that neo-Hindu movements are in a much more “precarious if not marginalised position” in France. The Sivananda Centre for example, in order to gain legitimate status with the government, positioned itself as a “religious congregation” – which required both changes in structure and organisation and demonstrating its relation to Hinduism. Altglas also shows how the success of the Kabbalah Centre in London – contrasted with the closure of Paris’ Kabbalah Centre in 2005 – is in part related to the different organisations of Judaism: “In Britain, the Kabbalah Centre gained an audience outside the sphere of influence of Orthodox Judaism and was not affected by the hostility of the latter. In contrast, its temporary success among the French Jewish population protected the Kabbalah Centre against anti-cult attacks, but made it vulnerable to Jewish authorities’ opposition” (p199).

In Chapter 5, Altglas turns to processes of “psychologization” with respect to exotic religious resources. She argues that the deployment of exotic religious resources as “tools” for personal growth and self-realisation needs to be understood within the wider context of the increasing “psychologization of social life” and its attendant therapy culture. Beginning with a brief overview of the religious roots of this process in nineteenth century America and Europe and through the 1960s counter-culture and Human Potential movement, Altglas makes the point that increasingly, a wide number of social issues are now understood and codified in psychological terms – and that this is intertwined with the production of dependencies and the proliferation of experts. In the USA, she notes, the self-improvement sector as a whole has become a $2.48 billion-a-year industry.

Drawing on her fieldwork interviews with students from the Kabbalah Centre, Siddha Yoga and Sivananda Centres, Altglas shows how the adoption of exotic resources is motivated by life changes and narratives of personal growth – particularly in terms of resilience and self-sufficiency, but also contribute to a discourse of vulnerability and uncertainty. She shows how spiritual development has become increasingly entwined with therapy culture – in both its objectives, effects and authentication in terms of pragmatic effectiveness. Modern teachers and gurus have responded to their audience’s expectations for personal growth and presented this as the ultimate objective of their teachings. These processes, Altglas asserts, leads to a relative standardization of religious teachings, and “domesticates” exotic religious resources by rendering their aims and practices in terms of self-help methods – stressing their simplicity and accessability.

In chapter 6, Altglas turns to the issue of self-realization – and how the sociology of religion has tended take it as evidence of a general turn to “this-worldliness and individualism. Altglas counters this view – showing that self-realization is itself an imperative which conforms with wider social restraints, and that “Ultimately, the realization of the self (and what kind of self is desired to be realized) is not “natural” or even unique to each individual’s subjectivity; rather, it reflects the political and economic structures of contemporary Euroamerican societies” (p241).

Altglas demonstrates that her interviewees’ discourses of the rejection of religious norms, rules and obligations in favour of personal experience and realization should not be taken as evidential of individual subjectivities as they are articulated and reinforced collectively, by teachers and students alike – it is a socially-produced discourse. Moreover, these discourses can act to legitimate religious observances, particularly with reference to “spiritual laws” (such as the law of Karma or “energy”) which operate transcendentally. She also shows how the ideal of “freedom of choice” can become a normative regulation – and that whilst spiritual teachers present their methods as simple and flexible – they are at the same time highly prescriptive in regard to the dedication, work, and seriousness of purpose that self-realization requires. Self-realization entails personal responsibility – through “choices” which are pre-defined by authorities in relation to transcendent laws – collectively shared and internalised as imperatives. This requires a normative code of conduct – which she explains – requires work on the self and self-regulation – and which lays a particular stress on control of the mind and emotions – the necessity to work on one’s ego being a prime example, as is the cultivation of the proper moral values associated with being “spiritual”.

This normative dimension of spirituality, Altglas argues, is also demonstrated by asymetrical gender roles. Pointing out that these movements tend to attract more women than men, she examines how men and women’s spiritual roles are differentiated – and sometime “re-traditionized”. For example, in the Kabbalah Centre’s teachings, being a woman “entails being the enabler of her husband, a receiver rather than a channel of of the Light, a sharing, nurturing being who has limited access to important roles and practices in the movement but predominates in subaltern tasks” (p265).

She also examines the role of courses, workshops and seminars as sources of socialisation – particularly in respect of assimilating and internalising appropriate morals and values, via, for example, the sharing of experiences and “transformation stories”. Altglas points out that it is important to examine the imperative towards “self-actualisation” and self-realisation in the light of the increasing psychological regulation of social life and neoliberal governance of the self: “I contend that the exploration of yoga, meditation or Kabbalah as a means to enhance the the self epitomize the imperatives and constraints that are exerted on individuals in Euroamerican societies today – to be “enterprising selves” who have understood that only “working” on themselves will enable them to be realized and fulfilled.” (p274)

In chapter 7, Altglas turns her attention to social class as a determinant of patterns of religious bricolage – and how the teachings of neo-Hindu movements and the Kabbalah Centre resonate with participants’ social and professional aspirations – particularly those she terms the “new petite bourgeoise”. She explores how the different movements tend to foster different attitudes to the relationship between self-realisation and material prosperity – that whilst the Kabbalah Centre teachings invite students to “recognize the spiritual potential of money” – the neo-Hindu movements tend to view “spirituality” as opposed to materialism. Noting that several of her neo-Hindu interviewees expressed a desire to distance themselves from professional aspirations and material comforts, Altglas poses the question of whether, in some cases, it is because social and professional expectations have been unfulfilled that some – often highly educated – individuals choose alternative priorities – that their “educational and cultural capital” is diverted – and moreover, they can afford to do so: “the users of exotic religious resources tend to belong to an educated but dominated fraction of the middle classes … some strive to remain in this fraction, while others aspire to reach it; they then disinvest their current occupation to identify with their “spiritual” practice, which in some cases, involves a new lifestyle.” (p291)

Altglas also examines the relationship between self-improvement and professional development – and how emotional management and the cultivation of “soft skills” have become crucial in a wide variety of workplace environments – particularly middle class occupations: “educated middle-class individuals are expected to exhibit efficiency, responsibility, initiative, flexibility, and a willingness to permanently update their skills; unsurprisingly, they are therefore particularly receptive to this encouragement [the control of behaviours and emotions encouraged by the movements Altglas studied] to develop personal potential.” (p305)

She suggests that for the new petite bourgeoise – exotic religious bricolage “contributes to the ways in which a fraction of the middle class reproduces itself by accessing, appropriating and domesticating the cultures of others. Drawing on the work of Beverley Skeggs (Class, Self, Culture Routledge, 2004) Altglas suggests that the deployment of religious bricolage is not – as it is so often portrayed – as an embracing of a pluralist or cosmopolitan worldview – but rather, a means to turn aspects of exotic culture into “objects of distanced contemplation for oneself” – where otherness constitutes primarily a “resource for self-enhancement”. This, Altglas points out, goes some way towards understanding the limits of “otherness” which she discussed in chapter 2 – that whilst exotic religious resources are “domesticated” in the service of crafting a “culturally competent self” but that at the same time, cultural elements which offend middle-class sensibilities are rejected.

From Yoga to Kabbalah is an important book which I feel will be invaluable for anyone with an interest in examining contemporary religious movements and spiritualities.