The Assimilation of Yogic Religions Through Pop Culture

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Paul G. Hackett
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , October
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Edited volumes often include different topics that are challenging to review. This can be that the collected essays might be of varying levels of interest. Initially this volume, The Assimilation of Yogic Religions Through Pop Culture, edited by Paul G. Hackett, seemed very interesting and relevant. However, when the hard copy arrived, and I paid closer attention to the table of contents, I realized that most of the chapters were about television shows and comic book superheroes that I personally have very little interest in. I never watched David Lynch’s Twin Peaks; I know next to nothing about Spiderman and Batman; and the worlds of science-fiction related to Doctor Who and Star Trek are denuded -scapes within my imagination. Therefore, with a certain amount of anxiety I embarked on this review, which I expected to be dull and unfulfilling. However, it was specifically this reason that urged me to review this book, and ultimately, I am very glad that I did. 

Over the nine chapters that are equally distributed within three thematically oriented parts (1: Theatre and Film, 2: Television and Serials, and 3: Comic Books and Graphic Novels), the richness of these genres is discussed in such a way so as to entice exploration; either for the very first time, or to revisit them so as to see these pop cultural icons through a new lens. This is what stands out as the strength of these essays. Now, other pop cultural icons seem less complicated and, instead, the seemingly banal production of pop culture appears embedded within larger, transcultural currents than were previously considered.

It is difficult to choose a favorite or stand out chapter given that all of them, in some way, presented new material that caused deep reflection. Possibly, however, it was Adam Krug’s chapter dedicated to the 25th anniversary of Twin Peaks and its relation to Tibetan Buddhism that stands out the most. This is not to say that the other chapters were less engaging or theoretically bare. Rather, it is that this chapter allowed me to penetrate into the confusing world of Lynch’s art that was not accessible in my adolescent self while trying to watch it in the early 1990s. In similar ways to the other chapters and how they deal with their topics, Krug opens up the complicated world of the Twin Peaks reality to demonstrate how deeply enmeshed and complicated the psychology of Buddhism is within the logic of the show; how the zenith of Tibetan Buddhism’s global popularity during the 1990’s zeitgeist was a historical moment that was as much a consequence as it was a catalyst to the ways in which Buddhism was constructed within Twin Peaks; and, also, how it was globally imagined and consumed.

Each chapter reveals various characters and historical contexts involved in their creation that are utterly fascinating. This rhetorical process generally involved complicating the character beyond the two dimensions of a television screen or comic book frame, and contextualizing them within deeper transcultural discussions. This is evident in chapter 8 where Rex Barnes discusses  the translocation of Spiderman into an Indian context, as Peter Parker becomes Pravitr Prabhakar (206). These nominal adaptations aside, a deeper critical analysis related to the significant misrepresentation that Indian comics use “magic” to justify superheroes’s powers, while American comics use “science,” explores the idea beyond cultural essentialism and cultural exploitation to present a compelling invitation to rethink cultural categories underlying transcriptions (214).

The review took longer to complete than expected given there were several moments in each chapter that compelled me to put the book down and search online for certain characters, series, and scenes. While the descriptions in the book around these characters and structures are more than sufficient, it is  the way in which they are discussed that compelled me to explore these characters in more depth by watching, perhaps, not only the trailers of particular films mentioned, but also, on some occasions, the film in its entirety.

Inspired by the richness of discussion and insight in each chapter, even non-experts of comparative religions or non-fans of these pop-cultural icons will find interesting the insights provided into various streams of traditional religious practices and identities from exotically-othered parts of Asia which have historically played a role in shaping popular representations of Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, various strands of Hinduism—particularly Tantra—and how these continue to be borrowed, appropriated, misrepresented, filtered, or woven into the practices and imaginary fabric of global popular culture.

It is with Hackett’s closing remarks (247-48) that we find a way to appreciate the transcultural flows of knowledge embedded within popular culture. While there are many ways in which the cultural borrowing and white-washing of “yogic” religions occurs, within the commodified global consumption-scape and its increasing blending of multi-ethnic and multi-religious cultures, Hackett reminds us that acceptance of syncretic (yogic) religious sentiments relies upon traditional symbols and vocabulary being de-anchored and reset within familiar terms to the new audience. While this can be a form of epistemic violence and cultural imperialism–and can result in traditional symbols and terms being grossly divorced from their initial contexts–the less pathologically exploitative side of transcultural flows potentially leads to deeper levels of cross-cultural religious appreciation. Therefore, the strength of this book is that it demonstrates ways in which popular culture enables new audiences to engage with challenging foreign concepts in familiar and palatable ways. This, ultimately, can lead to exploring these concepts within their original settings, beyond the pop cultural context. In doing so, we learn that comics have an important role to play in the world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick McCartney is a JSPS postdoctoral fellow in the Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies at Kyoto University, Japan.

Date of Review: 
January 5, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul G. Hackett has taught at Columbia University.



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