Death on the Path to Enlightenment: Inside the Rise of India Syndrome

Every year thousands of westerners flock to India to meditate, practice yoga, and seek spiritual transcendence. Some find what they're looking for. Others give up and go home. A few become so consumed by their quest for godliness that it kills them

Details/October 2012

Jonathan Spollen, a 28-year-old Irishman with long brown hair and a delicate brogue, was at a crossroads in his life. He'd embarked on a career as an overseas journalist, working first as a reporter at the Daily Star Egypt in Cairo and then as a foreign editor at The National in Abu Dhabi. But now he was a copy editor for the International Herald Tribune in Hong Kong, approaching 30, and wondering if he liked where his life was going. In October 2011, following a split with his girlfriend, he bought some trekking gear, sent his laptop home to Dublin, and booked a flight to Kathmandu, Nepal. From there, Spollen made his way to India. He had visited before, spending time with an octogenarian yogi named Prahlad Jani—who claims his mastery of the ancient arts has allowed him to live without food for 70 years—and had come away entranced with the country. This time, Spollen roamed the subcontinent for several months, visiting the holy city of Varanasi, India's oldest inhabited settlement. In early February, Spollen called his mother, Lynda, to tell her he planned to spend two or three weeks hiking in the Himalayas near the pilgrimage site of Rishikesh, the yogaphilic city on the Ganges where the Beatles visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. She reportedly asked him not to go alone, but he told her that was the whole point. "It's a spiritual thing," he explained.

He was never heard from again.

A little over three weeks after that conversation, his parents were worried enough to post to, a forum for Western travelers to the subcontinent. Their message contained a picture of Spollen, the details of his last known sighting, and a plea: "Please, all of you, keep in regular contact with your families. Even if they don't say it, they care for you and worry about you!" A few days later, Spollen's father, David, flew to Rishikesh to organize a search party. In mid-March, local authorities found Spollen's passport, rucksack, bedroll, and cash beside a waterfall near the village of Patna, a few miles outside Rishikesh. From there, however, the trail went cold. Members of the IndiaMike community circulated missing-person posters that travelers hung along the Banana Pancake trail, a network of backpacker routes that stretches from Goa to Hanoi, but there were no new leads.

Today, the thread on Spollen's parents' initial post has grown to more than 1,700 responses. Some commenters believe he's dead, while others have speculated that he chose to renounce his previous life and is still living in the mountains somewhere, alone or with some cloistered sect. Many presume that whatever happened to him, his "spiritual thing" is responsible. They've seen it before: Some remember Ryan Chambers, a 21-year-old Australian spiritual seeker who visited ashrams before vanishing from Rishikesh in 2005, leaving his passport, wallet, and cell phone behind in his hotel room, along with a note that read, "If I'm gone, don't worry. I'm not dead, I'm freeing minds. But first I have to free my own." Other pilgrims have been taken in by false gurus who lure them with sham spirituality, then drain their bank accounts and sometimes imprison them; in March, just weeks after Spollen's disappearance, Nepalese police freed a 35-year-old Slovakian woman who'd reportedly been held captive for two months by the followers of a man claiming to be the reincarnated Buddha. Neeru Garg, the district police chief of the nearby city of Dehradun, says of his ongoing investigation into Spollen's disappearance, "We are concentrating on the ashrams and holy men in the area."

Stories like Spollen's feel like Eastern versions of Into the Wild, the 1996 book about a young adventurer who died after trying to live off the land in Alaska: They're tales of willful idealists whose romantic notions of remote lands lead them to embark on quixotic journeys. In April 2010, Spollen wrote a travel story for The National, about spending time with a peasant family in Kashmir, that supports that interpretation: "The simplest things became fascinating," he wrote. "I found myself becoming enthralled in their lives. And strangely, I felt part of it all." The region's spiritual underpinnings appear to have factored into its appeal for Spollen. "He did have a strong interest in spirituality," a college friend remarked on IndiaMike. "It doesn't explain . . . why he's been incommunicado, but it could be an indication that people are searching along the right lines." Although Spollen's parents have stopped commenting on his disappearance, his father told an Irish newspaper in late April that visiting India was an eye-opening experience. "I have, at times, thought I was looking at somebody completely different to the son that I knew," he said. "To suddenly discover that there may be a whole spiritual aspect to his life that we hadn't really touched on is astonishing."

Of course, Spollen is not here to describe the role that devotion played in his disappearance. But he fits the profile of the fervent young enthusiast of yoga, meditation, and Eastern thought who becomes lost—or worse—on a journey of spiritual self-discovery.

India today is a burgeoning global superpower, a place of outrageous poverty, and a land of tech-support call centers. But many still think of it primarily as the birthplace of yoga and meditation. Westerners have been exploring Indian spirituality since the late 19th century, but they started traveling to the country in large numbers after the Beatles visited Rishikesh in 1968 to study under the maharishi. In 2010, nearly 5.8 million people, including about 930,000 Americans, traveled to India. Roughly a quarter of those who visit the state of Uttarakhand, where Rishikesh is located, go for spiritual reasons—to attend a meditation seminar or go on a religious pilgrimage.

Some are drawn by accounts of the powers of dedicated practitioners—yogis who can levitate, breathe for months while entombed underground, melt giant swaths of snow with their body heat—believing that they too will be able to accomplish extraordinary things. This quest to become superhuman—along with culture shock, emotional isolation, illicit drugs, and the physical toll of hard-core meditation—can cause Western seekers to lose their bearings. Seemingly sane people get out of bed one day claiming they've discovered the lost continent of Lemuria, or that the end of the world is nigh, or that they've awakened their third eye. Most recover, but some become permanently delusional. A few vanish or even turn up dead.

This psychosis has a name: India syndrome. In 2000, the French psychiatrist Régis Airault wrote the definitive book on the phenomenon, Fous de l'Inde, which means "crazy about India." It relates his experiences as the staff psychiatrist for the French consulate in Mumbai, where he treated scores of his countrymen whose spiritual journeys had taken tragic turns. "There is a cultural fantasy at play," he explains. "[India syndrome] hits people from developed Western countries who are looking for a cultural space that is pure and exotic, where real values have been preserved. It's as if we're trying to go back in time."

Unfamiliar environments have long been known to bring on episodes of short-term delirium. In 1817, the French writer Stendhal described being physically overcome by the experience of viewing Florentine art; a century and a half later, the psychiatrist Graziella Magherini coined the term Stendhal syndrome (also called Florence syndrome) after treating patients who'd become dizzy and confused, even hallucinating or fainting, while visiting the Italian city.

Neither Stendhal syndrome nor India syndrome is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV, the bible of psychological illnesses, but 25 "culture-bound syndromes" are. One is called Qigong psychotic reaction. A psychosis whose symptoms include paranoia and visual and auditory hallucinations, it has been observed among practitioners of the ancient Chinese breathing-and-movement discipline Qigong and of extreme variants of yoga like Kundalini. When the intense cognitive effort required in these practices is combined with a strange, possibly frightening new place, it's more likely to result in a mental break.

India syndrome may not be an officially recognized disease, but many doctors are convinced it's real. Kalyan Sachdev, the medical director of Privat Hospital in New Delhi, says that his facility admits about a hundred delusional Westerners a year, many of whom had been practicing yoga around the clock. "There's the physical side of yoga and the psychic side, and sometimes people get it all out of order," he says. "Peaceful people can get aggressive even if they haven't taken any drugs." His treatment tends to be simple: Send them home as soon as possible. "People come to us with acute psychotic symptoms," he says. "But you put them on the plane and they are completely all right." Sunil Mittal, the head of the psychiatric unit at Cosmos Institute for Mental Health & Behavioral Sciences in New Delhi, recently had to send police to retrieve a California woman who'd overstayed her visa and refused to leave an ashram outside Rishikesh. There, Mittal says, she danced erotically in the courtyard each night for the yogis and was often observed in a "trancelike state." His prescription for her was also a return flight home.

Often, however, more than just a plane ticket is indicated. Airault, who currently practices in Paris, recently treated a well-traveled, seemingly stable French optometrist in his thirties who'd begun having feelings of persecution after visiting the holy city of Pushkar—according to him, after drinking a bhang lassi. From there he fled to the countryside, then to Mumbai, where he was found babbling about how the Church of Scientology was telling him to cut himself off from society. Back home in Paris, he was twice institutionalized and spent four years refusing to leave his house. "He was completely crazy, in a state of delirium, a psychosis that was set off by his trip to India," Airault says, adding that, through consultations, the man's condition has improved enough that he can hold down a job at a clothing store. The psychiatrist brushes off the suggestion that the patient might have developed the same problems even if he'd never left France. "It's important to understand that sometimes we go crazy in India because it's a culture too different from our own," he says. "It doesn't mean that we're mentally ill."

Beginning in 1997, I lived in India off and on for more than a decade. Westerners whose journeys had taken a wrong turn were commonplace there. The most notorious was Gary Stevenson, a Texan supposedly descended from Robert Louis Stevenson, who, after joining the Aghori—a group of wandering holy men who demonstrate the renunciation of physical and material attachments by covering themselves in cremation ash—could often be seen on the streets of Rishikesh begging for alms, using a human skull for a bowl.

Did India make him come unglued, or was he already unstable? There's no way to know for sure. But in 2006, I met a Westerner who I'm certain did suffer from India syndrome. I was guiding a group of American college students on a trip through the spiritual centers of Delhi, Varanasi, and Dharamsala (where the Dalai Lama lives in exile). The highlight was a 10-day silent-meditation retreat in the town of Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment two millennia ago. The lectures were based on the Tibetan tradition of Lamrim, or "steps on the path." One student, whom I'll call Emily, was a preternaturally calm 21-year-old from an upper-class Catholic family who'd practiced yoga since high school. At the retreat, she sat in a flawless lotus position during three-hour daily meditation sessions led by a bald Swiss-German anee, or nun, in crimson robes. Emily maintained her vow of silence without apparent difficulty, spending much of her free time writing in her journal.

The first seven days of the retreat consisted mainly of breathing exercises and lectures about the karmic cycle of death and rebirth. On the eighth day, the experience turned dark. The instructor told her pupils to imagine that they were decaying corpses and that the bodies of everyone they knew were bags of human shit. The exercise, which is meant to help the students develop psychic tools that they can use in facing their own death, might sound extreme, but Tibetan meditation can get even more far-out: A practice known as Chöd involves meditating over actual decaying corpses in a graveyard.

After the silent retreat ended, the only thing Emily said was, "Maybe more silence would have been better." That night, while the other students chatted enthusiastically in the meditation room, she climbed to the roof, wrapped a khadi scarf around her face, and jumped. A student on his way to bed found her facedown on the pavement. According to the coroner's report, she had died on impact.

I was charged with returning her remains to America. Somewhere along the way, the Indian police gave me her journal. On the eighth day of the retreat, she'd written in flowery, well-constructed cursive, "Contemplating my own death is the key." Then, a few paragraphs later, "I'm scared that I will have this realization and go crazy." One of the last things Emily wrote, in the same steady hand, was "I am a Bodhisattva"—an enlightened being. She believed she was well along the road to transcendence.

Why would a smart, seemingly grounded person like Emily suddenly become so delusional that she would take her own life? Any uncertainty she felt about being in a strange new place may have been compounded by the intensive silent meditation. The principle behind nearly every form of meditation is that by focusing on breathing over an extended period of time, a person can quiet his mind and uncover hidden elements of experience. This is generally regarded as a good thing. These techniques have become so mainstream that most bookstores carry meditation manuals in the self-help section. Many cite the extensive body of research on the benefits of meditation, like MRI scans of Tibetan monks in deep trance states that show how the exercise improves cognition. Dr. Oz and Oprah have both endorsed meditation, and some physicians recommend it as a method of combating hypertension.

Less discussed are the disorienting and damaging side effects of meditation. Neophytes have reported seeing walls move or rooms change color. The introspective state that is one of the goals of meditation can induce feelings of paranoia and terror. According to Willoughby Britton, a neuroscientist at Brown University who studies the effects of meditation on the brain, practitioners can perceive small sounds as cacophonies and lose the sense that they are in control of their own actions. Britton has claimed that this experience, which some refer to as the "dark night," has caused numerous people to wind up on psych wards under suicide watch. Guided visualizations like the one Emily underwent can produce even more profound reactions. These meditation techniques are "designed to completely psychologically rearrange you," says Paul Hackett, a lecturer in classical Tibetan at Columbia University. In a foreign setting, that kind of experience can be even more traumatizing, especially when you take into account the way some Westerners in India tend to snack at the country's spiritual smorgasbord—a little Ashtanga yoga here, some Vipassana meditation there. "People are mixing and matching religious systems like Legos," Hackett says. "It is no surprise that people go insane."

India syndrome might not even exist if not for the concerted marketing of Eastern religion to the West, and for that we can thank a 19th-century Russian-born mystic named Madame Blavatsky. In 1875, she founded the Theosophical Society in New York City (it later moved to colonial India), using a quasi-scientific methodology to construct a new school of religious thought by packaging ideas and texts from disparate faiths, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Zoroastrianism, for enthusiasts in Europe and the United States, making a fortune in the process. A quick inventory of American approaches to Eastern religion—from Emerson and the Transcendentalists to the Beats and the Beatles to David Lynch's Transcendental Meditation foundation—shows the same tendency to bowdlerize enlightenment philosophies to suit Western tastes.

To be sure, many contemporary practitioners of meditation really are seeking inner peace. But some of them may also be looking to unlock something akin to the Jedi powers of Luke Skywalker (many Star Wars aficionados believe Yoda to be based on the Dalai Lama). The Yoga Sutras, a more-than-2,000-year-old text that can be found in almost every yoga studio in the world, devotes an entire chapter to cultivating supernatural abilities. Other books tell not only of yogis' physical feats but also of mental tricks like conversing with the dead and seeing into their students' past lives. Transcendental Meditation promises that, with enough concentration, earnest practitioners can levitate. At Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, followers have spent nearly 40 years practicing "yogic flying," which involves hopping into the air while cross-legged in an effort to become permanently airborne; the maharishi once claimed that thousands were successful.

So it's easy to understand how a novice might take the experience of walls moving as a sign. Perhaps he's been endowed with the powers described in books—or even become a divine being. That could certainly explain Emily's "I am a Bodhisattva" declaration. As cultural observers going back to Shakespeare have noted, there's a fine balance between spiritual growth and madness; those who lack a solid spiritual foundation could tip more easily toward the latter. The pressure on gurus in India and elsewhere to deliver profound experiences to eager Western pupils can lead them to offer techniques their students may not be mentally prepared for. Silent-meditation retreats like the one Emily attended have become popular around the world. So have even more demanding monthlong Vipassana seclusion programs consisting of daily 10-hour silent-meditation sessions, which are open to practitioners of all levels of experience.

Jonathan Spollen's father returned home after several weeks in Rishikesh, but he and his wife haven't given up the search, maintaining a website and a Twitter feed (@FindSpollen) dedicated to locating their son. The frequency of posts on the IndiaMike thread has slowed, but in June one commenter expressed his conviction that Spollen remained "holed up somewhere in the Himalayas with some sadhus and saints in search of spiritual salvation" and would return to his family once he'd found what he was looking for. For now, though, all that's left of Spollen are stories he's written online and the missing-person posters tacked up around Rishikesh, which can still be downloaded at They show two images of the young Irishman. One, labeled 1 YEAR AGO, is of him smiling, fresh-faced and goateed, dressed in a shirt and jacket. The other, labeled 3 MONTHS AGO, shows the same man looking weary and gaunt, his features set, his expressionless eyes locked on the path ahead.

The Mad Lands: Places That Can Make You Crazy

India isn't the only destination that's been known to affect visitors' mental stability. Here are four more location-based psychological disorders.

  1. Florence Syndrome
  2. Also known as Stendhal syndrome, this illness afflicts visitors to cities with rich concentrations of art, like Florence. Sufferers become so overwhelmed by the beauty around them that they hallucinate, experience accelerated heart rates, become dizzy, and faint. Some require hospitalization and even antidepressants.

  3. Paris Syndrome
  4. The Japanese are most vulnerable to this condition, which arises when tourists discover that the City of Light isn't all it's cracked up to be and that Parisians can be utterly indifferent to outsiders. The physical symptoms resemble those of Florence syndrome but also include acute feelings of persecution.

  5. Jerusalem Syndrome
  6. In a 2010 episode of The Simpsons, a visit to the Holy City convinces Homer that he is the Messiah, who will unite Christians, Muslims, and Jews (whom he collectively calls ChrisMuJews). Real-life tourists can actually become similarly delusional, certain that God is talking to them or that they are the chosen one.

  7. Stockholm Syndrome
  8. This condition, named for but not specific to the Swedish capital, describes any situation in which someone who has been abducted (most famously, Patty Hearst) becomes sympathetic to his or her captors. There's also an inverse, Lima syndrome, in which kidnappers develop warm feelings toward their hostages.

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