In the Western world, it is currently in vogue to practice elements of far-off religions and spiritually-driven practices. Yoga studios are cropping up all over the United States, as are practitioners of meditation, and believers in Ayurvedic medicine. It is no surprise that some of these individuals take an interest in journeying to the birthplace of their new found beliefs, and in doing so they participate in "spiritual tourism". India is perhaps the most popular destination for so-called spiritual tourism, and it is a logical selection based on the number of religions that began in India and still flourish there today.
During my one-month stay in India I was at times a spiritual tourist, though while in residence at a Christian retreat center I also listened to lectures on the religions of India, and the the roles that their followers play socially, politically, and culturally around the world. As I learned about all of these religions it was clear that for most believers in India, spirituality transcends the actual institution of religion, whatever it may be. To me, it is this overarching spirituality that draws curious religious pilgrims from far and wide. Below I've written a little bit about places and terms typically associated with spiritual tourism.
Ashrams are typically set deep in the natural world, and at the simplest level are a place of religious hermitage. Typically inhabitants of the ashram are involved in activities like yoga, music, or meditation. We visited an art ashram just outside of Bangalore where religion and spirituality were explored through painting, sculpture, and ceramics. Ashrams can be grounded in any religion, and this particular one housed a well-known Christian artist by the name of Jyoti Sahi.
From our lectures given by various religious practitioners (Sikh, Hindu, etc.) I learned that a guru is simply one who "shows the light" or enlightens their followers. The role of the guru varies with different religious practices, but they are uniformly respected and revered. Additionally, one need not be in residence at an ashram to follow a particular guru. While in India we visited the ashram of Guru Ravi Shankar. His "Art of Living Ashram" is immense in scale, and boasts a similarly large cohort of followers around the world.
Westerners, (myself included) tend to think of "yoga" as the physical practice that is done on mats in studios to gain strength, flexibility,and body awareness. From one of our lecturers, I learned that yoga is actually so much more than this. Yoga is a way of life that offers guidelines for behavior and beliefs, and the "asanas" (poses) are one small aspect of these guidelines. Although yoga stems from the Vedas and the Hindu religion, it has been co-opted by those of many different faiths. Recently, the New York Times ran an article on this practice, one that is criticized by some Hindus.
During my stay in India I can't say that I had any spiritual revelations a la Elizabeth Gilbert, but it was remarkable to see the power of faith and spirituality that resides in the people and culture of this beautiful country. It will be interesting to see whether or not spiritual tourism will maintain staying power, or whether it will simply be another trend that waxes and wanes with popular culture and celebrity interest.