Snatam Kaur: Chanting for peace from Oprah’s home—to a neighborhood near you

By Lynne Meredith Golodner

Snatam Kaur recently got a phone call, asking her to perform at Oprah Winfrey’s Hawaii abode. It just so happened that the sacred chantress from Santa Cruz, California, was around the corner from Oprah’s Hawaii retreat so it was an easy request to grant. She and her band went and hid upstairs in Oprah’s bedroom, then surprised Oprah by walking down the stairs, playing music.

Every night before she goes to sleep, Oprah plays Snatam Kaur’s sacred chants. It speaks to the power of Kaur’s distinctive music, which she is performing nationwide this spring. This week—April 11-14, 2013—she is performing at Joshua Tree, California. Later this month, she will be in Ashville, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia. May 10-11, she will be in Chicago. On May 12 and also on May 13, she will be in Birmingham, Michigan. Then, it’s off to Oregon, Washington and California. Her travels continue into summer. You can see her entire schedule at her website by selecting her 2013 concert tour page.

“The world is becoming a much smaller place, especially with Oprah being familiar with all of our chants—that was really quite surreal,” said Snatam Kaur in a recent telephone interview. “It was a beautiful experience to connect with her and see the integrity she holds in her work and her own inner strength as a powerful woman. I walked away from the experience very inspired by being with her and also seeing just how these mantras can really serve a wider population.”

Kaur is a Sikh raised in the Kundalini Yoga tradition under the leadership of Yogi Bhajan. Her music sells widely—more than 70,000 albums a year. She tours the world, bringing her spiritual practice to audiences of people from all walks of life because her universal message praises God and honors the Divine in every being. The daughter of a Grateful Dead manager, Kaur dresses in Sikh attire, wrapping her head in a turban as a sign of modesty. She is married and a mother, and the Gurmukhi mantras she sings in concert are part of a daily practice she herself grew up with.

“I live with these mantras,” she says. “They are very much a part of my life and rhythm and way that I can access the divine every day.”

Children attend her concerts and often doze off in the middle from the soothing sounds of the music swirling around them. During her Michigan visit in early May, Kaur will perform a concert with her band one night and lead a Kundalini Yoga workshop the next night, with her bandmates playing living music alongside.

“Before I started touring, I was teaching,” she says. “It feels like it’s coming full-circle, coming back to the teaching. To empower people to really learn about the power of these chants—I’ve experienced in my own life very profound healing through the chants and so I try to give the concert an experience mode as opposed to a performance mode.”

Kaur is accompanied in concert by Todd Boston on guitar and flute and Ramesh Kannan on percussion.

Snatam Kaur: What Is Mantra?

A mantra is a sound, syllable, word or string of words that people recite in repetitive formation as a way of creating transformation. Mantras originated in the Vedic tradition of India, before the formation of what today is known as Hinduism. Mantra is also prevalent among Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains. However, Snatam Kaur’s concerts are not aimed at specific religious groups. Her goal in touring is peacemaking—performing this type of music to bring a simple, soothing and healing sound to everyone.

For the authors of the Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads, the syllable Om represented Brahman, or the godhead, as well as all of creation. It is a sound that is uttered in many yoga studios across North America today as a calming and unifying chant.

Many people, when first coming to yoga or mantra from a Judeo-Christian tradition, feel uncertain as to whether chanting will in some way praise a foreign deity. However, the practice of yoga and mantra in Western settings usually is a religiously neutral discipline, uniting people around the practice of physical posture and music in a way that accepts participants’ individual beliefs.

Snatam Kaur: ‘I Am a Sikh’ shows solidarity in tragedy

Sikhism began in India in the 15th century with the master Guru Nanak. Sikhs believe in living their lives according to the teaching of the Sikh gurus, devoting time to meditation on God and scripture, chanting and living a life that benefits others. Kaur chants in the sacred tradition of Shabad, a term that refers to the sacred energy in speech and sound—similar to some Western traditions of sacred, meditative hymns. Among world religions, Sikhs have a special reverence for the timeless power of words. The Sikh community around the world refers to a holy book of collected writings, the Guru Granth Sahib, as the final teacher in its long line of gurus.

Recently, Kaur recorded an 11-minute YouTube video called I Am a Sikh, after a shooting incident last summer at the Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Sikh community. (Wikipedia has an overview of the tragedy in which a white supremacist opened fire killing six and injuring four others, before taking his own life.) A petite, Caucasian woman, Kaur’s turbans and all-white clothing mark her as distinctively different as she moves around the country. She produced the video to explain what it means to be a Sikh and to express solidarity with that community in the wake of the shooting. Kaur will be performing a concert there on May 9 at 7 pm to honor the Sikhs in that community. It is open to the public.

The shooting “was just so devastating,” she said. “It felt like it happened right in my own home—that real and personal for me. I had heard about the Sikhs in Oak Creek and how incredible they were, and I was just inspired, and I wanted to do something in service to the Sikh community to get the word out about who the Sikhs are.”

“I see myself as a representative of the Sikh community and because it has such a strong root in healing through sound current and mantra, it’s accessible for people of all walks of life,” she says. “That’s essentially what I represent and share with people.”

“Everyone’s seeking happiness in some way and seeking a way to feel fulfilled. And if they feel just a little sense of healing or happiness, they’re incredibly grateful and don’t really care where it comes from,” she says. While people are often curious about her attire and her devotion, Kaur says she doesn’t run into much stereotyping or judgment. How she lives, what she performs and the message she brings are “gifts for everyone and every walk of life,” Kaur says.

Snatam Kaur in southeast Michigan

Katherine Austin, owner of Karma Yoga in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and a fan of Snatam Kaur and of Kundalini Yoga, is producing the May 12-13 events in metro Detroit. Kaur’s concert and yoga workshop will take place at Seaholm High School in Birmingham.

“Over the years, I’ve had a few tracks of Snatam’s albums but it wasn’t until I was in Rishikesh, India, in 2011 that I fell head over heels in love with her singing through the practice of Kundalini yoga,” says Austin. “I was quickly transformed by the purity and power of the mantras and immediately brought them back to Karma for my classes—whether they were Kundalini or Hatha yoga. I felt the power and healing from these ancient mantras and knew they would instantly affect my students in a positive way.”

Austin plays Kaur’s music in class frequently. Many students in her studio, which attracts 3,500 people each month, say they are excited for the upcoming performances. Austin hopes to pack the 900-seat Seaholm auditorium and have hundreds attend the yoga workshop. The concert takes place on Mother’s Day evening, a perfect synergy for the message and the mantras, she says.

Kaur agrees that her concerts are perfect family events, as the soothing, uplifting music is accessible for all ages. At a recent Mexico City yoga workshop, Kaur says there were two 8-year-old girls in attendance who did every pose and posture with ease. At her concerts, children dance and sing and drift off into sleep when the music gets ultra-soothing.

“Mantras are high vibrational sounds that go beyond the thinking mind to clear, reorganize and create new higher thought patterns and emotions that help us make better choices,” says Austin. That they come in musical form means they are even more accessible. The yoga taught at Austin’s studio “has always included the spirituality of yoga,” she says. That said, students come from all walks of life and all faiths. In March of 2012, Austin attended a retreat with Kaur and her band. After that week of “bliss,” she decided she wanted to share Snatam Kaur’s inspirational performances with her students and community.

“I am beyond thrilled that Snatam is coming! Metro Detroit is in for such a gift,” says Austin. “Her unique delivery of the sacred sound current is profound. Everyone will come away with only love and bliss in their hearts after spending these two days with her.”

The concerts themselves become a sacred setting, Kaur says, as the audience grows toward chanting the words together. “It’s an opportunity for transformation for me and for people that come,” she says. “I feel it in every concert. A very deep personal transformation happens.”

SEE SNATAM KAUR’S ENTIRE SCHEDULE AT HER WEBSITE—by finding and clicking on her 2013 concert tour page.

Lynne Meredith Golodner is  an author with ReadTheSpirit Books. Visit her author page to learn more about her remarkable career and her newest book, The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads.

(This profile and interview of Snatam Kaur, by Lynne Meredith Golodner, was originally published in, an online magazine covering religion, values and cross-cultural issues. You can feel free to reproduce this column if you include this credit line and link.)

‘Distilled Spirits’: The untold story of how Alcoholics Anonymous became an all-American spiritual movement

Don Lattin is one of America’s most important chroniclers of untold stories that are shaping our religious culture. A veteran journalist based in San Francisco, his previous books have thrown open windows into one mysterious spiritual movement after another. Earlier, we highly recommended his book, The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America. That book told the strange story of how four of the most important spiritual voices of the late 20th century passed through a powerful and painful convergence at Harvard.

Don steps back a couple of decades in his new book: Distilled Spirits. In today’s wide-ranging interview with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm, Don talks about how this new book finally reveals the connections between three major figures: Bill Wilson, Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard. The result of their creative collision, among other things, shaped one of the most important grassroots spiritual movements in American history: Alcoholics Anonymous.


DAVID: Let’s begin by explaining why your book is a “must read.” When I first saw your new book, I wondered: Why would general readers want to learn about these three fairly obscure guys? Now, having thoroughly enjoyed your book, the answer is obvious to me: You’re telling an untold story about Alcoholics Anonymous and the subsequent host of 12-step groups that touch millions of men and women every day. From its founding in the 1930s, AA really represents a huge change in American religious life, right?

DON: It’s one of the most important spiritual movements of the 20th century and I’m not alone in that assessment. Aldous Huxley called Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson the greatest social architect of the 20th century. That’s high praise, indeed, coming from someone like Huxley! Wilson is important not just because he founded AA and helped millions of people that way. His work also is important because his ideas inspired what sociologists of religion call the small-group movement.

DAVID: A huge number of our ReadTheSpirit readers are involved in small groups. From 12-step groups to Sunday school circles to library book clubs, from men’s breakfasts to women’s groups there are millions of these circles.

DON: That’s right and scholars who study these movements tell us that what came out of the 1930s shaped today’s widespread interest in small groups—some of which meet in people’s homes, some of which meet in churches or synagogues, meditation groups, some affiliated with religion and some not. After all of the research for this new book, I have to agree: Bill Wilson was a genius.

DAVID: There is a long-running debate about whether AA and 12-step programs are “religious” or “spiritual” or “secular.” Your book is fascinating because you look at the interconnections between a huge host of people in the first third of the 20th century. We encounter World War I, Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Woolf, the strange histories of a number of famous drugs, Hindu immigrants and the Vedanta Society. This true story is one strange ride. I’ve been writing in this field for decades—and I discovered lots of things in this book that I never knew! For example, I’ve written about Bill Wilson over the years, but I never new that he read William James. In other words, he was studying one of the founding figures in trying to understand spiritual movements.

DON: Bill Wilson wasn’t just reading William James. He was reading William James the day after he had an important revelation at an asylum for alcoholics in New York. That’s where he had these visions and formative ideas about starting Alcoholics Anonymous. So, Bill Wilson was reading William James, we know, at the exact moment when he was more open to new ideas that at any other time in his life. A friend had given him a copy of James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience and Bill Wilson read it cover to cover. James is a very important influence on the development of Alcoholics Anonymous.

DAVID: The famous phrase—“Higher Power,” the god of your own understanding—is popularized through AA. It sounds so simple, yet it was a revolutionary idea. For two millennia, Christians liked to beat themselves bloody over fine distinctions about the nature of God. Here was permission to envision your own version of God.

DON: Yes, that’s one reason Wilson and Huxley and Heard are so important. They influenced each other and laid the foundation for this revolutionary idea of what today people like to describe as the spiritual-but-not-religious movement. Today in AA, the Higher Power is defined in many, many different ways. There are even people who take a secular view of this. GOD could be defined as Group Of Drunks, the community itself. But these early thinkers who influenced each other—Huxley, Heard and Wilson—they definitely had a serious interest in studying the mystical and divine.


DAVID: So let’s turn to Huxley for a moment. If our readers know anything about him, they probably recall the guy who wrote Brave New World, which they were forced to read in high school. But Huxley was so much more! He came from a very famous family. He was a journalist, a poet, a screenwriter, a broadcaster. He was a pacifist and an early proponent of using drugs to alter consciousness. He was British but also lived in the U.S. and helped to bring Asian religious traditions, specifically Hinduism, to America.

So, my question to you is: What conclusion did you reach after all your research into Huxley’s life? Was he a serious scholar—or a restless amateur? Did he know what he was talking about?

DON: Really, we should think of Huxley as one of the last great polymaths. This was a long line of brilliant thinkers who were interested in everything. They studied science. They studied religion. They studied other disciplines. In the modern age of increasing specialization, it’s hard to appreciate that they were interested in studying everything. They were finding connections between different disciplines that, today, people aren’t as well equipped to find.

Huxley was part of the Lost Generation that was so deeply influenced by World War I. In Huxley’s early writings as a young novelist, he focused on satire and had no interest in religion or spirituality or philosophy. It really wasn’t until Huxley met Gerald Heard in 1929 that he developed this interest in religion and spiritual disciplines that would consume him later in life. One reason that Heard is so important to this story is that he got Huxley interested in these realms. In 1945, Huxley published The Perennial Philosophy, a book that was so important in helping people to look for common spiritual truths. In my book about Huston Smith and the Harvard connections—we see that it was Heard’s influence on Huxley that led to Huxley’s strong influence on Smith and later generations.

DAVID: That influence continues to this day. We recently featured a new interview with the very popular Catholic author Richard Rohr, whose writings reach back to The Perennial Philosophy.


DAVID: Some religious people scoff at the idea of “spiritual but not religious”—and the notion that we can feel free to describe our own version of God, our own Higher Power. Yet, this idea is very serious stuff for millions of men and women, right?

DON: People who come into Alcoholics Anonymous don’t have a lot of time to worry about the fine points of theology. They don’t want doctrinal distinctions. These people are desperate to save their lives. They need something that works—and they need it now. Wilson called it “a faith that works.”

I called this book Distilled Spirits for a number of reasons—one is a reference to a letter from Carl Jung to Bill Wilson in which Jung pointed out that the Latin word for alcohol is spiritus. Jung wrote: “You use the same word for the highest religious experience as for the most depraving poison.”

DAVID: In your book, you call spirits “double-edged swords.”

DON: What’s so interesting to me is that a lot of people who hit bottom with addiction or alcoholism realize that this really is a spiritual thirst in their lives—trying to fill up an emptiness in themselves. Some people call it a “God-sized hole in the heart.” The spiritual aspect of this is very, very important, but you’re right—it’s not about doctrine or dogma. It’s really about your own powerful, personal spiritual experiences. And it doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or part of no religious belief system at all.


DAVID: At ReadTheSpirit, these days, we regularly review important television debuts—and we’re now the publishing house of faith-and-film writer Edward McNulty. Your book makes it clear that Hollywood has been a spiritual melting pot since its origins. Your book includes brief appearances by Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and others. Heard and Huxley were part of that melting pot, right?

DON: Yes. And, actually, I’ve thought of doing a book called Holy Hollywood about the whole history of spirituality in Hollywood. Lawrence Wright’s new book is called Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. He has a chapter in his book about this general theme of religious movements in the movie industry.

The main thing to realize is: These connections go back a very long way. From its earliest history, Hollywood attracted a lot of creative people with lots of money—people who were famous for challenging the prevailing notions of their day. A major Vedanta center was set up in Hollywood in the 1920s. We might think of this as a missionary movement within Hinduism and of course Huxley and Heard were very interested in exploring Vedanta. A lot of the spirituality we think of as “Sixties Spirituality” really dates back to the 1920s. Another way to say it is: The 1920s were a lot like the 1960s in many was.

DAVID: You’re mentioning the Asian connections that certainly were a big part of the inquiries Huxley and Heard were undertaking in California. But this movement also connects with America’s distinctive positive-thinking and self-help movements as well, right?

DON: Yes, there are a lot of similarities and cross overs. One place these lines all connect is William James. In a way, all of these movements we’re talking about are very American approaches to religion—very utilitarian. Give me a religion that works. That’s what I want as an American. Today, many people say: I want personal growth from my spirituality. It’s a very consumerist mentality and it connects with all the ways people market spirituality in America. In my earlier book, Following Our Bliss, I give a lot of examples of the ways that ‘60s notions of therapeutic, utilitarian and consumerist spirituality have come to define a lot of religion today. You see this influence in lots of churches today.


DAVID: Finally, we should explain to readers of this interview that Distilled Spirits also is a personal story. Perhaps readers may have sensed, already, from the tone of your comments that you understand all of this from a first-hand perspective. Woven into the fascinating historical stories you give us here, you reveal that you were addicted to drugs and alcohol for many years. This book also is about your own journey into 12-step culture.

So, let me ask: I’ve known you as a colleague in journalism for many years. How did you come to this difficult decision of including yourself in the book? Traditional journalism avoids the word: “I.”

DON: This book actually didn’t start with me in the pages. The idea was really to write a prequel to The Harvard Psychedelic Club. These three guys who readers will meet in the pages of Distilled Spirits are the ones who created a situation that allowed Huston Smith, Timothy Leary, Ram Das and Andrew Weil, much later, to collide in the way they did at Harvard.

Because this new book is published by the University of California Press, there were early readers who provided their reactions. One of the scholars who read my proposal said: “This is interesting but why is Don Lattin interested in these particular people? Why do they matter to this day?”

Well, the answer is: I understand their importance because I’m one of the people helped by what they started so long ago. Of course, I do make it clear to readers: I didn’t know these three guys: Huxley, Heard and Wilson. I didn’t meet these guys. They were really my grandfather’s generation.

But the decision to weave my story into the book really allows readers to see clearly why their lives and ideas are still so important today. Many people’s lives depend on what they started.


ReadTheSpirit recommends all of Don’s earlier books, which are both compelling to read—and reveal surprising corners of America’s spiritual heritage.

SPIRITUAL STATE OF THE MILLENNIUM: Don and co-author Richard Cimino look at emerging trends—from “mix-and-match” forms of religion to the rise of women’s voices in leadership in Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millennium

THE DARK SIDE: American religious history is full of tragedies, as well as triumphs. Don tells the story of a tragic offshoot from mainline religion in Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge

PRODUCTIVE COLLISION OF FOUR LIVES: In today’s interview, above, we already have recommended The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America

THE POWER OF THAT ‘SIXTIES’ VIBE: From Esalen through New Age to Dharma Kids, Don traces the ties that still bind us in the quest we like to call Following Our Bliss: How the Spiritual Ideals of the Sixties Shape Our Lives Today


Don’s Internet hub is his professional website: But, you’ll mainly want to seek out his newest online project—a blog for Spirituality & Health that he simply calls Spiritual Search.

(This interview originally was published at, an online magazine covering religion, values and cross-cultural diversity.)

Meditate in harmony with seasons in ‘The Lunar Tao’

CLICK THE COVER to visit the book’s Amazon page.Seasons, gods, family and us—
We are tethered on the same cord.

From The Lunar Tao

AMONG THE THOUSANDS of books about the Tao, Deng Ming-Dao’s new book, The Lunar Tao: Meditations in Harmony with the Seasons, invites us to explore the Chinese spiritual world in fresh ways. At first glance, readers can tell this book was designed with great care—from a soft-to-the-touch matte cover to the hundreds of black and white sketches and photographs that draw the eye into the 365 daily meditations.

Why choose this volume over the heaps of other books exploring the Tao? First, consider the author’s stature. Author Deng Ming-Dao has been writing about the Tao for 30 years. His grandfather emigrated from southern China to San Franciso 100 years ago and Deng (that’s his family name) grew up immersed in Chinese culture. His first name, Dao, is the same as the Chinese word we Anglicize as Tao—so he grew up immersed in The Way.

Deng is no latter-day convert—some former Baptist or Catholic who left a career in marketing to start a meditation center and attract seekers. Deng has been in this for the long haul and his work stands up over time. After 20 years, his 365 Tao: Daily Meditations still sells briskly on Amazon. (That 1992 book currently has 87 of its 94 Amazon reviewers ranking it with either 4 or 5 stars!)

What is the Tao? The Way?

The Tao is the more-than-2,000-year-old spiritual system founded by Lao-Tsu (sometimes spelled Laozi, as Deng does in his book). “Taoism is China’s oldest and only indigenous spiritual tradition,” Deng explains to readers. “Buddhism came from India, and Confucianism is a system of morality, philosophy and governance. Taoists believe in following Tao—the Way. They believe that there is a Way that all of nature and all human endeavors follow. Furthermore, they believe that everyone has a personal Way.”

While firmly rooted in the tradition, Deng is gracious in broadening his presentation of the Tao. He touches on Confucian and Zen teachings, as well, and says that the Tao is not limited to Chinese people or Chinese culture. He writes: “Nothing is true just because it’s Chinese. We still need to take the ideas and find the right way to apply them to our own lives, regardless of who we are or where we live. … There is no reason to try to be Chinese if you aren’t.”

What’s inside this massive book? A lot! The Lunar Tao is as big as an old-fashioned telephone book. This certainly isn’t a little volume of meditations to tuck into your bag on a busy day. The trade off is that Deng is able to pack a startling amount of material between these covers. Do you enjoy the New Year’s Lantern Festival? Deng not only explains the festival, he also provides a meditation about lanterns, a tip for experiencing the holiday, an overview of how this holiday relates to other festivals—plus three fascinating legends about the Lantern Festival involving emperors who were surprised at this time of year.

Every day of the year is given at least a full page with at least two different texts to consider. Pick up a copy of this book of wonders, whatever your faith may be, and you’re sure to find something enlightening as the seasons turn this year.


Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Help us launch a landmark series with Indian-Americans

DIWALI, the Indian Festival of Lights, is celebrated in many American communities, now. Here, family members kindle a carefully arranged array of Diwali lightsWELCOME Joe Grimm, known nationally as a columnist for the Poynter Institute, an author and part of the Journalism School faculty at Michigan State University. Joe’s previous collaboration between MSU and ReadTheSpirit was The New Bullying, the experimental book that made headlines for its production last year in only 101 days.

TODAY, Joe is inviting all of our readers to pitch in and help us with a new landmark series …

Help Us
Create a
New Generation of Cultural Guides

JOE GRIMM writes …

QUESTIONS—like roads—can connect or they can divide. 

Where are you from?
How did you get here?
Why did you come here?

We can ask those questions to draw people closer or to push them away.

Journalism students at Michigan State University are using questions just like these to understand people better. They are asking 100 questions to better understand Indian-Americans. No one in the class is Indian. These are talented young journalists full of questions and they understand that they are asking these questions on behalf of all Americans who are curious about the answers.

Their goal is to publish a guide of 100 questions and answers that will represent a simple step toward greater understanding. They plan to ask some of the big questions about demography and religion and language and some of the little questions that we just don’t know how to ask politely.

The national emblem of India reminds Indians of the beloved ancient ruler Ashoka. The four lions face in four directions with smaller symbolic animals beneath them. Overall, they symbolize power, courage and confidence. The lotus blossoms symbolize creative inspiration and the renewal of life. The motto translates: “Truth alone triumphs.”A LANDMARK SERIES: This guide will be the first in a series of guides on cultural competence, each one focused on a particular nationality, ethnicity, race or religion. The project is a joint undertaking by Read the Spirit and the MSU School of Journalism. And we’d like you to help. More about that soon.

Working across cultures can be awkward. It can be embarrassing. We don’t want to seem stupid and we don’t want to bruise people’s feelings. But many of us wonder:

What does the dot on someone’s forehead mean?
Is it related to religion?
Why are so many Indians in IT and engineering?
Or medicine?
And what do Indian-Americans want the rest of us to know about them?

Finding the right questions, reporting through the answers and then disseminating them is classic, brass-tacks journalism. We think we can use our journalism skills to help close some gaps.

This is what student Hayley Shannon wrote said after completing her first assignment, which was to sit down with someone who is Indian and ask about the biases, misconceptions and questions they encounter: “After speaking with an Indian colleague of mine, it became clear that she faces biases constantly in regard to her race and culture. While it mostly comes from ignorance and is in no way malicious, the extremity of misunderstanding often becomes offensive. This guide will provide an easy, all-in-one resource to gain a broad understanding of Indian culture so that fewer Indian people are offended by outlandish questions and assumptions made by others. I am proud of this project because it provides people with the means to take responsibility in understanding other cultures besides their own, and will hopefully help create a more welcoming community for Indians.

It’s funny how the words “community” and “communication” are branches from the same root. And here’s how the Read the Spirit community can help …


YOU CAN HELP: We already have a lot of questions, but we want to have the right questions. We need all the help we can get. If you are Indian-American or Indian or South Asian, send us the questions you wish someone would answer for general readers. If you are not Indian, tell us what you want us to ask. These Michigan State journalism students will get some answers. We will publish the guide by mid-2013. We’ll follow up with you on Read the Spirit, of course.

SEND SUGGESTIONS TO: Email [email protected]

‘China Heavyweight’ shows us rural lives driven by hope

‘CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT’ Qi Moxiang trains in Huili County, Liangshan Prefecture, Sichuan Province. Photo by Sun Shaoguang, courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.THE WEALTH GAP is emerging as one of the biggest political, cultural and moral issues of our era. Not only is America’s wealth gap widening until upward mobility seems impossible for millions of poor Americans—but the global wealth gap threatens to keep world peace a distant hope. That’s the larger drama that keeps us watching China Heavyweight, the latest feature-length documentary from director Yung Chang and Zeitgeist films.

CLICK THE DVD COVER to visit the film’s Amazon page.Dirt-poor, rural Chinese kids are given opportunities at middle-school age to take a shot at wealth and success by competing in boxing camps. In 1959, Mao Tse Tung banned Western boxing for many years—as “too American and too violent,” as we learn in the opening minutes of this new documentary. But boxing is back now in the new China! As you watch this film, you will spot dozens of American icons from framed photos of Muhammad Ali to the Nike Swoosh surrounding these communities. That rising public interest in China frees educators, trainers and sports promoters to lure children toward the growing sport.

That description may make this movie sound like a simple tale of Good vs. Evil, of Western temptation threatening the health and wellbeing of China’s next generation. But filmmaker Yung Chang is a far better documentarian than that. Think of Hoop Dreams, the 1994 American documentary about poor, urban kids trying to make it in professional basketball. That documentary was showered with awards and has been listed, now, in the prestigious National Film Registry as an important depiction of American life.

Think of China Heavyweight as a kind of Asian Ring Dreams—as we watch stoic-looking young people pull on padded sparring helmets and thick gloves to train for their longshot of an Olympic berth. If you dislike sports films and perhaps hate boxing films, you should know that there is, indeed, some real boxing shown on screen. But much of this feature film takes us to the home communities and informal circles of friends and family that surround these boxers.

We are not alone in highly recommending this film for anyone interested in understanding global culture today. Variety magazine calls the movie “an intimate and affecting account of two aspiring boxers from the sticks training under the same hard-working coach. As he did in his Three Gorges Dam documentary Up the Yangtze, Chang examines how a particular strain of Western culture promises opportunity and prosperity for Chinese youth, even as it remains a continual source of intergenerational tension.”

In Film Comment magazine, Meredith Slifkin writes: “China Heavyweight isn’t just a story about boxing or about three individuals and their personal relationships to the sport. It’s about the significance of a traditionally Western sport’s emergence in a changing Eastern culture, the philosophy of chasing a dream—and the way that the trajectory of this trio comes to represent the cultural shifts of a disappearing rural China.”

If you like this film, you will also want to know about a related documentary about the huge annual migration across China for the New Year’s holidays, called Last Train Home, which also shows us the tensions in China between life in the nation’s industrial centers and fragile survival in rural homes.


Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Madame H.P. Blavatsky: Dawn of interfaith exploration

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.MILLIONS OF AMERICANS are celebrating the lives of visionary anti-slavery activists who dared to cross religious and cultural boundaries to build a nationwide coalition that finally led to freedom. We have published lots of stories about the 150-year milestones this year. See our interview with scholar Stephen Prothero as well as our overview of PBS Abolitionists series running all month. For nearly two centuries, prophetic American activists like Angelina Grimke were crisscrossing the religious landscape in pursuit of human rights. 

FLASH FORWARD A CENTURY and we celebrate interfaith pioneers like Huston Smith (public TV personality and author of major books), Jacob Needleman (scholar-philosopher charting new paths into religious diversity), Bill Moyers (bringing these themes to PBS), Karen Armstrong (historian and peace activist), the Dalai Lama and Pope John Paul II (hosts of global gatherings).

THIS WEEK, thanks to Gary Lachman—a talented author and historian—we invite readers to rediscover a giant from the dawn of interfaith relations: “Madame” H.P. (or Helena) Blavatsky.

TODAY, we recommend that you enjoy Lachman’s newest biography, Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality. If this is your first encounter with this larger-than-life woman, you are in for a treat! What’s more, you are learning about a true pillar in worldwide religious history. At first glance, she can appear to be an outrageously mysterious P.T. Barnum of spirituality! But historians and scholars of religion agree: Blavatsky’s promotion of non-Christian religions in the 1800s led directly to a wider American discovery of these huge religious groups. And, long after her death, the movement she founded played a role in helping Gandhi achieve freedom in India. Intrigued?

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Gary Lachman and here are …


DAVID: At first glance, Madame Blavatsky’s life seems more like an over-the-top novel than a serious matter for readers concerned about international peacemaking today. I’ve often described her as a kind of P.T. Barnum of world religions. She and her movement stacked up some amazing achievements—but she also cultivated this air of international mystery, didn’t she?

GARY: She was this kind of wild child who emerged out of Russia in the mid 19th century. She grew up in an aristocratic Russian family. Her grandmother was a princess, so she had a noble pedigree. Her father was a captain, and later a colonel, in the horse guards in the Russian Army. But, early in her life, she developed this appetite for the unknown. She had this strong sense that truth was out there in the world—answers to religious and metaphysical and spiritual questions. This desire to find those answers came to her at a very early age.

When she was 17 or so, she wed this Mr. Blavatsky who was older. He was in his 40s. The marriage was unconsummated and, after just a few weeks, she ran off and went on her quest into the unknown. Depending on how much you believe of the story she told, she went around the world a few times. Then, she landed in New York in 1873 and that’s when she surfaces on the public record. She goes to Chittenden, Vermont, to a place where a series of spiritual manifestations were reported.

Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott later in their lives. Photo from 1888. Learn more about the online archive of Blavatsky photos at the end of this article.DAVID: We’re talking here about the Eddy Brothers, who were hosting some séances that had received attention from around the world. One person attracted to the town was Colonel Henry Olcott, who had been a longtime journalist and was famous as a Civil War veteran and a member of the team that investigated the assassination of President Lincoln. We’ll be doing a lot of coverage of Lincoln this year. But, back in the 1870s, Olcott moves on to investigate the occult movement sweeping through parts of the American heartland and he winds up in Chittenden. Then, Madame Blavatsky shows up—and there is this historic convergence of these two major figures.

GARY: She had read articles by Col. Olcott, who was considered an American war hero. But, he also was a businessman, an insurance agent and he had a deep interest in spiritualism and what we would call today the paranormal. He was covering the story of the Eddy Brothers, who lived in Chittenden.

Madame Blavatsky sought out Olcott and their lives connected in a way we see happening in other important relationships related to religion and spirituality. A few decades later, the Russian esoteric master Gurdjieff would connect with P.D. Ouspensky, a well-known journalist and writer in their era, and their resulting relationship would become important to both of them in the early 20th century.

In the 1870s, Blavatsky met Olcott in Vermont and that changed both of their lives. In New York, she became this powerful figure in the occult community and the Theosophical Society was founded in 1875. But Blavatsky rarely stayed in one place. She stayed in New York for a while. Then, she had to leave for India by the mid 1880s because of scandal surrounding claims that she was a fraud. She spent the last years of her life, before her death in 1891, as a refugee in Europe.

She moves around so much in such a fascinating era that in my book about her, I try to help readers get a feel for the era and the places she traveled. For example, she was in London at the same era as the Jack the Ripper case and the gas-lit Sherlock Holmes stories were starting to appear in print.


DAVID: It’s easy today to make fun of some of the more bizarre twists and turns in early interfaith history. But, I tend to regard a lot of these early figures as good, intelligent people with a noble desire to expand humanity’s appreciation of religion. We have to remember that the typical junk Americans were reading about other world cultures was served up in pulp novels and penny newspapers and tended to regard other religions as savage and, by default, dangerous if not downright evil.

GARY: One way to describe Madame Blavatsky is: She’s the person who kick started modern spirituality.

DAVID: Yes, from what I know about her, I agree. But let’s talk about her own religious faith. She comes out of Orthodox Christian Russia, at least the aristocratic version of that church. But she left that affiliation far behind. How do you describe her personal faith?

GARY: She called herself Buddhist but she had her own particular meaning for that. This led to a complicated misunderstanding within the movement. She liked A.P. Sinnett’s book Esoteric Buddhism. But the truth is that his version is so esoteric that no Buddhist scholars had heard of it—and haven’t to this day. The author claims that he was writing about a primal teaching that Buddhism came out of. Blavatsky herself says that Buddhism was the kind of teaching that she found on tablets in a monastery. So, a lot of what they were talking and writing about was this esoteric version of Buddhism. However, we also can say that Blavatsky was the one who introduced Mahayana Buddhism to American culture in a popular way. Many of the figures we consider to be early popularizers of Buddhism in the West, like Christmas Humphreys, were part of the Theosophist movement at some point.

DAVID: She was rejecting a lot of aspects of mainstream Christianity in her era, right? She wanted to blow open the potential of spiritual exploration to include other world faiths.

GARY: I think she adopted her particular form of Buddhism militantly against the mainstream Christianity of the time. Think of her as banging her hammer against the citadel of bourgeouis Christianity in her day. She wanted to free people, in her view. She wanted to chip away at the kind of established Judeo-Christian view of the world in the West. There were some negative and even nasty theories that connected with the Theosophist movement, after her death. But, Madame Blavatsky was strongly into progressive movements, what we would call left-wing issues today.


Madame Blavatsky in 1877.DAVID: What was her appeal? Whatever else we may think about her, she had an intense appeal to many people. By the 20th century, a lot of the women who became very popular as evangelists were regarded as beautiful. I’m thinking of Aimee Semple McPherson, who appeared on stage in various costumes and cultivated her exotic beauty. Blavatsky wasn’t a beauty.

GARY: I think her appeal relates to her gravitas. You felt that she was for real—even when she was pulling your leg. Theosophy did have quite a few women in leadership. There was Anna Kingsford, another strong woman who had a less-dominant man attached to her as a colleague—like Blavatsky and Olcott. Another strong woman leader in the movement was Annie Besant. There also were strong men who emerged in Theosophy: Rudolph Steiner and then, of course, Krishnamurti.

Overall, I think we can say it was the strength of their ideas and their chutzpah or charisma that drew people to them. No, Blavatsky did not have any sexual allure. She described herself as having a volcano in her brain but ice in the lower sexual regions in her life. The rumors about her having illegitimate children were untrue. She felt that sex was a beastly trait in humanity and that we should wipe it out. Steiner was another famous celibate. This movement was very different than, for example, the esoteric ideas from someone like an Aleister Crowley who was, I would say, polymorphously perverse and wanted to take spirituality in a completely different direction.

DAVID: OK, so you’ve touched on something we should clarify for readers. When people encounter words like “occult” or “esoteric,” and they begin to scratch the surface of this whole movement—it’s not long before they bump into someone like Crowley with his silly-looking hat that he designed for his so-called Order of the Golden Dawn. In the lives of figures like Crowley there is, indeed, all the kind of wild behavior, including wild sex, that turns out to be the flaw in some of these movements. Crowley consciously tried to use what we would call today dark magic. That’s quite distinct from the Theosophists, as you’ve pointed out. But there were cross-over figures, too, weren’t there? W.B. Yeats for example?

GARY: Yates joined the Theosophist society. He became interested in it when he was living in Dublin and, when he was living in London, we know that he went to the meetings while Blavatsky was living there. Later, though, he wanted to experiment with what we could call practical magic. Blavatsky herself was against things like ceremonial magic. Yates was asked to leave and later he went on to join the Golden Dawn, the most famous occult society of the late 19th century. If you know all of this about Yates and you read his poetry, you can find many references to different ideas from Theosophy. Blavatsky sparked the imagination of many creative people. Wassily Kandinsky, who is considered to be the first painter to create purely abstract paintings, was deep into Theosophy and a lot of his theories about nonrepresentational art come out of ideas he found there.


DAVID: There’s a very long and fascinating history involving Gandhi and the movement toward Indian independence just after World War II. Blavatsky herself lived and worked in India. After her death, Theosophist gatherings were one place that Indians of all classes could gather and seriously talk about the importance of their culture—and their hopes for the future.

GARY: Yes, that’s right. In a fundamental sense, Blavatsky and the Theosophists re-introduced people in India to their own native traditions. They took Indian religious traditions seriously and they actually said: This is better than Western traditions. For Indians, it was startling to meet these influential Westerners coming to them and saying that the Hindu tradition was better then their own in the West. All the other Westerners were coming to tell them that they had to learn about Jesus and become Christians. Here were these eloquent Theosophists praising their traditions to the skies! This was an amazing boost to the self esteem of Indians and, yes, eventually this fed into the Indian indepdence movement.


DAVID: Another easy mistake to make, I think, is to read about some of Blavatsky’s own bizarre parlor tricks, we might call them, and to assume she was a fraud for profit. In your book, you describe a few of these things she did to amaze her followers. But, the truth is, she emerges as an amazing feminist pioneer. She was supremely self sufficient even though her thick spiritual books were close to financial flops. She had to work hard her whole life just to keep going.

GARY: This is absolutely true! She didn’t do this to make money! She worked hard her whole life to make a living. She had to fend for herself and, at one point, she developed an ink factory. She developed an artificial-flower factory. She found these trees with a certain kind of fungus that could be cut and sold to help people in starting fires. She was a very practical, resourceful character. And, she wrote an enormous amount—reams and reams and reams. She wrote her big books on spirituality. She wrote journalism. She even wrote some ripping tales about her world travels.

Blavatsky is a catalyst who comes into people’s lives and stirs up things. Olcott probably woundn’t have gone to india on his own, for example, but Blavatsky gets him to go to India and the Theosophist movement goes to India with them. Blavatsky’s message is this very positive forward-looking view of the progression of humanity out of slavery in the past into freedom. Even people like Thomas Edison took some ideas from Theosophy. People like Edison weren’t signed up to the full Theosophist creed, but they were attracted to some of the new ideas.

If you peel away all of the layers in Blavatsky’s life, you discover this real-life character who was influential in building our multifaith sensibility today and who promoted this whole idea of a universal pursuit of truth that should be open to everyone. She really was a liberationist. She’s was on the barricades fighting for what she saw as the best in the modern world.

Many other photographs of Blavatsky and early Theosophist meetings are collected at an online archive. Photos include some scenes of Blavatsky at gatherings in India.

Want more from Gary Lachman & esoteric realms?

Gary Lachman has a talent for combining historical research and an enjoyable narrative so general readers can begin to explore religious figures often considered esoteric or, in many cases, simply too difficult to understand. Lachman’s books are wonderful introductory readers—but these biographies also have substantial research behind each subject and real depth in the chapters. We recommend Lachman’s books as the first choice for exploring figures like Emanuel Swedenborg—we recommended Lachman’s biography of the Swedish scientist and philosopher last year. ALSO AVAILABLE NOW for the first time in a paperback edition is Lachman’s Jung the Mystic: The Esoteric Dimensions of Carl Jung’s Life and Teachings

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Eye-popping: Manufactured Landscapes … and NY, too

Documentaries on China and ‘Gotham’
newly released on Blu-ray

REVIEWS by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

Got a Blu-ray system and a TV screen that makes good use of high definition? Then, make sure these two documentaries are in your Christmas stocking as a knock-your-eyes-out glimpse of our world’s ominous twists and turns these days.

Click the Blu-ray cover to visit its Amazon page.MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES (2006) takes us to China for exactly what the title describes: A series of scenes set in vast, man-made landscapes the Chinese have created in their nation’s desire to attain status as the world’s greatest power. A few years ago, when Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary was first released in the DVD format for home viewing, ReadTheSpirit recommended this film as a rare window into Chinese life and culture.

As a documentarian, Baichwal follows the large-format photographer Edward Burtynsky, who spent a couple of years capturing his own images in China. In one part of his photographic project, Burtynsky traveled to the dangerous regions where Chinese families break down the world’s discarded computers. They do this partly by incinerating the debris to harvest rare metals. In this film, he explains, “When you come to a town that’s doing a burning of the boards, you can smell it a good 5-to-10 kilometers before you get there.”

As a journalist for American newspapers, I was posted to developing regions of Asia for short periods on several occasions. I remember standing slack-jawed myself at the sight of what is called “ship breaking” in Bangladesh—another subject of Burtynsky’s photography. “Ship breaking” involves near-naked men wearing little more than loin cloths swarming over ocean-going ships with hand tools, literally breaking up the old ships into component parts that can be used in rebuilding other ships. One’s mind boggles at the danger and the obvious physical cost to these poor men grappling with mountains of steel in their bare skin—while at the same time seeing a mountain-sized ocean liner reduced to bits and pieces by the effort. There is a similar scene in this Chinese documentary of a hulking ship half stripped.

In our 2008 review of the DVD, I wrote in part: Baichwal and Burtynsky decline to preach at us. Even more provocatively, they show us a strange beauty within their most powerful images from China—the interiors of vast factories, ship-deconstruction yards that look like scenes from science-fiction films and even the world-record-setting Three Gorges Dam project. In the end, they almost seduce us into seeing the strange attractiveness, both in the visual imagery and in the values that lead Chinese decision-makers to pursue these projects. And, darn it all, if that doesn’t leave us in a spiritual dilemma about what choices we should make as global citizens. That’s perfect for small-group discussion. You won’t have any trouble at all sparking spirited conversation about this film.

Click the Blu-ray cover to visit its Amazon page.BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK (2010) may seem like a strange dual recommendation, except that the new Blu-ray rendering of the film is equally thought-provoking. The film takes us on a wild ride through New York with famous, eccentric, brilliant “fashion” photographer Bill Cunningham. If you’re questioning my objectivity as a reviewer of these Zeitgeist documentaries, for the Bill Cunningham film, let’s turn to the opinions of other reviewers.

The New York Times’s Carina Chocano wrote in part: Bill Cunningham seeks out and captures humanity amid the maelstrom of life, looking for what Harold Koda, chief curator at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, describes in the film as “ordinary people going about their lives, dressed in fascinating ways.” In these fleeting and otherwise unseen or unremarked moments, Mr. Cunningham finds something creative, life affirming and free—and preserves it forever.

Variety’s Mark Holcomb, invoking Eastern spirituality, wrote: Director Richard Press … has crafted a near-Buddhist reflection on what it takes to fully engage Gotham, as well as an astute snapshot of its evermore avaricious soul: Cunningham’s cheerful asceticism is so out of step with what we currently expect and don’t expect from our city that tagging along with him is a bracing reminder of what’s been lost to the bottom line.

Two eye-popping films about photographers teaching us to see our world in new ways—now released in the dazzling high definition of Blu-ray. Go on. Click on the Blu-ray covers and order these gems.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.