Devotion in the Desert: Religion and Emotion on the Margins of Hindu and Hippie


Bhakti Fest 2016 (Drew Thomases)

By Drew Thomases

Smelling of sunscreen and fear, I stepped outside of my rented Dodge and took a deep breath. Bhakti Fest. I had months ago thought of researching this yoga festival in California’s high desert, but back then I was in New York City, and in air-conditioning, and hoping still that someone—anyone—would join me on my little adventure. Alas, I was here alone, in the parking lot of the Joshua Tree Retreat Center. But having done this type of fieldwork before, I knew that the best way to kick the ethnographic jitters was to jump right in. So it took all of fifteen seconds for me to greet and too eagerly complement a fellow parker on the fine parasol she held. Her name was Cathy. And she appreciated the comment, so we walked along and shared some shade.

Cathy’s first Bhakti Fest was in 2008, a time at which she was new to yoga, but looking to deepen her practice. She had never heard of the festival before, and did not know that bhakti was a Sanskrit word for devotion, but she figured that “there were going to be a lot of really interesting people on the spiritual path,” and said to herself, “you know, I’m gonna find something, or I’m gonna meet somebody, and things are going to happen.” And things did happen:

So I decided to come to it one day—just for one day—and I met a friend here because neither one of us knew what we were getting into, so we kind of clung to each other, for support I guess. And I got overheated, which is common here. So I went to the main sanctuary and I lay on the floor. It was nice and cool, air-conditioned. It was a lecture about divinely guided art, you know, painting or something, and there was something that the lecturer said that clicked something in my mind. It was about re-establishing a conscious connection with the divine…It suddenly occurred to me…that’s my problem…it was the separation. Separation anxiety, I call it, from the divine. That’s what it was. I walked out and I found my friend, and we each got a coconut. And I said ‘I need to tell you something that just happened to me,’ and I started to describe to her what I just said to you, and I started to bawl my eyes out. And I’ve come to every Bhakti Fest ever since.

As a “conscious seeker,” Cathy is far from alone in the endeavor to connect with the divine. Every September, a few thousand people from all over California and beyond come to the desert to do yoga, chant devotional songs, and participate in a huge array of workshops with titles like “Astrology in Changing Times” and “Unveil the Power and Beauty of Your Mystical Shakti Essence.” They are largely white, with a small, but not insignificant presence of South Asians, and a tiny handful of folk from the Latinx and African-American communities. Even so, Bhakti Fest takes all kinds. There are the people still dusty from Burning Man—called “Burners”—who come to Bhakti Fest for post-party relaxation, but whose furry boots, feathers, and ornate headgear make them easy to spot. Then there are the lithe yogis and yoginis sporting athletic gear and ready for complex posing. Some correspond all too well to Lululemon’s “Ocean” and “Duke,” the brand’s fictional names for their ideal customers—rich, fashionable, and urban. Finally, there are the children of the New Age, who we might call “hippies” for all intents and purposes, but who actually comprise a diverse group with varied orientations and interests. Some are into sound healing. Others have crystal collections. Many meditate. The list goes on. This group tends to be older, and tends to show more interest in the festival’s workshops and spiritual music than in yoga. But of course, all of these communities are intersecting, porous, and indefinite.

Still, what seems to drive everyone out to the desert—from the Burner brandishing a unicorn-headed hobby horse, to the grey-haired woman in tie-dye swaying left and right to the Hare Krishna chant—is the enthusiasm and impulse to “be in the bhav.” That’s the motto of Bhakti Fest—“be in the bhav”—the latter being a Hindi word that here refers to a heightened emotional state, often of devotion or ecstasy. And this urge towards the affective was fully on display throughout my weekend at Bhakti Fest. I cannot recall a time at which I received more kind hellos or sympathetic smiles. And the hugs! Perfect strangers hugged me time and again, often accompanied by a waft of patchouli or some other hair oil unknown to my novice nose. One could see the ecstatic side of things at any number of the musical workshops and concerts. During one of the more exciting kirtan (chanting) sessions—featuring Dasi Karnamrita, a West Virginia-raised white woman with a powerful voice and considerable following—I witnessed an audience enraptured: people stood and twirled, shook and bounced; couples performed acrobatic yogic postures; one woman danced the whole time, very much to her own beat; one man, muscular and tan and half-naked, leaped around the hall like a lamb on the pasture. These were people entirely without inhibition, and most definitely “in the bhav.”

Moreover, it is likely California itself—what Erik Davis calls “the Visionary State”—that encourages “the bhav” to really flourish. This was the argument put forward by Manoj Chalam, a Mumbai native who has come to every Bhakti Fest in order to teach workshops on Indian iconography and philosophy, and to sell his impressive collection of Hindu and Buddhist statues (murtis). Here is his take on “the bhav” in California:

I have another home in Massachusetts, Amherst. [It’s] intellectual, Buddhist, very activist. No bhakti (devotion), no bhav. The bhav is here, in California… They’ve embraced it, especially Southern California… [Here] a person smiles more, they look in your eyes more, they’re not abrupt. And they’re pretty relaxed, they give you time. And it’s an outgrowth of that. So you have that, and then yoga and kirtan. So automatically that fosters the bhav. It’s there on the East Coast, but it’s slower to develop. Because, you are the company you keep… On the East Coast, you go back, and everyone’s in a hurry. That’s a generalization, but largely true. So that’s my take. There’s more bhav, especially in Southern California. Northern, San Jose area, is more jnana (knowledge-based). When I teach there, people are more intellectually curious… Here, they just want to feel. So, somebody told me a couple of nights ago, they heard me speak before. And he said ‘I don’t remember what you said, but I remember how you made me feel.’ That feeling is very emphasized: that’s the bhav.

For Manoj, the festival’s California vibe—where the idiom of expression is emotional—would also ideally channel a certain degree of intellectual curiosity. And this requires a balancing act of sorts: without emotion, philosophical thinking has “no juice,” no sweetness or joy; on the other hand, without philosophy, a person might fail to grow and subsequently stagnate as “an experience junkie.”

Thus, Manoj brings this intellectual aspect to Bhakti Fest with his murtis and his lectures, where he “operates on the fuzzy line between the rational [i.e., philosophy] and irrational [i.e., the bhav].” Influenced by Deepak Chopra—who was, in turn, influenced by Carl Jung—Manoj lectures about Hindu and Buddhist deities as “archetypes,” which it to say, symbolic assemblages meant to inspire individuals toward action. As a lover, for example, Krishna might inspire compassion. As a warrior and devotee, Hanuman might encourage strength and resolve. So instead of worshipping deities for their supernatural agency, as would be the case in any number of Hindu temples throughout the world, people here “meditate upon” their archetypes.      And archetype-talk is everywhere at Bhakti Fest. Once, while standing in line for lunch, I complimented a woman in front of me regarding the Ganesh tattoo on her shoulder. “Is he your favorite deity,” I asked. “Yeah,” she said, “Ganesh is my archetype.” Over the course of the festival, I participated in and overheard many more conversations about archetypes, and I can think of at least two reasons why this might be the case. First, according to Manoj, the sheer number of gods and goddesses provides a “buffet” of options for the spiritual seeker: “you choose what you want, so it’s very American.” This “American” option is especially important for the people at Bhakti Fest, many of whom have felt constrained by the religious worlds into which they were brought up. For them, the possibility of a chosen archetype—or several—can seem very appealing. The second reason relates to the first, namely, that the discourse surrounding archetypes offers a taste of polytheism without really requiring a person to sink their teeth in. Here, the gods are merely representations, not realities. And while seekers may be, by their very definition, looking for something else or something new, the sensibilities of their older religious upbringings often leave lingering anxieties about idols of many gods with many arms. Thus archetypes provide a very American way of sampling from polytheistic traditions without raising the idol anxieties sometimes cultivated since childhood.

So, what can we make of Bhakti fest? What can I, an anthropologist of religion and specialist in the study Hindu traditions, say of these fascinating folk? One person told me that she was simply “Californian: kind of Buddhist, kind of Hindu, and fluent in astrology.” Indeed, most people saw themselves as “spiritual, but not religious” or “eclectic,” and therefore unwilling to submit to the categories and labels and boxes into which mainstream culture—and academics—demand they be corralled. Manoj steered a different course, telling me that everyone at Bhakti Fest is Hindu even though they might not say it or see it. After all, kirtan is the Hindu practice of chanting, and in India bhakti itself is synonymous with Hindu devotionalism. Yoga has become an increasingly global phenomenon—and is therefore more secularized and hybridized than the terms above—but it too emerges from a distinctly South Asian context. This represents the if-it-walks-and-squawks argument, which is to say, that a person is Hindu if they say and do Hindu things.


Bhakti Fest 2016 (Drew Thomases)

Yet, surely self-representation matters. On this front, very few at Bhakti Fest described themselves as Hindu. Replying to my question as to why this might be the case, one person simply said: “because maybe they don’t feel Hindu” [emphasis mine]. Given Bhakti Fest’s commitment to “the bhav,” such an appeal to feelings does not surprise. On the other hand, I also met a woman, named Lisa, who admitted that although she sometimes did, in fact, feel Hindu, she also wondered whether laying claim to a Hindu identity was too appropriative. In claiming such an identity, Lisa thought, was she somehow exploiting a culture and religion about which she did not know enough? For me at least, this raises an even more confusing question: what is more appropriative, to call oneself a Hindu when not totally versed in Hindu culture—and when not of South Asian descent—or to deny the label of “Hindu” when all the while doing many explicitly Hindu things? This is a curious analytical place, a point where the question of appropriation is both important, and risks collapsing in on itself. For people like Lisa, it is at this very point where intellectualizing seems to do little good. In that sense, then, why not just “be in the bhav”?

Regardless of the fact that people at Bhakti Fest distance themselves from organized religion and celebrate instead the eclecticism of the “spiritual, but not religious” ideal, they nevertheless share some family resemblance to far larger communities in the American religious mainstream. In particular, I’m thinking of the 80 million Evangelicals in the United States, for whom “spiritual, but not religious” is an increasingly popular mode of self-representation. Among this group, “religion” is said to distract from a personal, devotional relationship with Jesus Christ. Take, for example, this excerpt from Jefferson Bethke’s spoken-word poem, “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,” now with 30 million views on YouTube: “One thing is vital to mention: how Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums. See, one’s the work of God, the other’s a man-made invention. See, one is the cure, but the other’s the infection.” Moreover, such a personal relationship with Jesus entails an experiential world in which “feeling the spirit” takes center stage. So “spiritual” comes to mean being filled quite literally with the Holy Spirit.

Of course, these two notions of “spiritual, but not religious” are far from identical; the family resemblance makes for distant cousins, once or twice removed at best. But given the comparison, how different or odd really is the notion of “being in the bhav”? Indeed, Bhakti Fest seems at first blush a narrow or circumscribed world, confined largely to California, hippie-types, and the New Age. And yet, that is only true when we focus primarily on the interesting, if obvious, conversation about extreme eclecticism. Such a conversation attends to the spiritual “buffet” of archetype-talk, Hinduism, crystals, sound healing, astrology, etc. But beyond eclecticism, there is a lot more going on here. And so, if we shift focus and look instead at devotion, emotion, and experience—bundled, as they are, in ideas like “the bhav” and “the Spirit”—we encounter an idiom of expression both popular and pervasive. Despite the furry boots, Ganesh tattoos, and half-naked ecstatic dancing, devotion in this desert is a lot like the devotion seen and felt across the country. And this suggests that the margins of Hindu and hippie might reside squarely at the center of American religiosity.


Drew Thomases is assistant professor religion at San Diego State University. His work focuses on the anthropology of religion in North India—more specifically, Hindu pilgrimage and practice—though he is broadly interested in tourism, globalization, environmentalism, and theoretical approaches to the study of religion. His current book project, Guest is God: Pilgrimage, Tourism, and Making Paradise in India, analyzes the dynamics of religion and tourism in the pilgrimage site of Pushkar, Rajasthan.


Published with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs.

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