Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi

Orientalism and the Mystical Marketplace

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Sophia Rose Arjana
  • New York: 
    Oneworld Publications
    , August
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi: Orientalism and the Mystical Marketplace, Sophia Rose Arjana explores the dynamics that have led to the surge in popularity of mandalas, yoga, images of the Buddha, and other tokens of what she calls “modern mystic-spirituality.” Arjana defines this term as “the search for meaning outside institutionalized religion in modernity . . . through the use of religious practices and traditions sources from numerous places, especially the Orient/East” (14), and traces how Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam have been commodified, muddled, whitewashed, and colonized by Euro-Americans in this search for meaning. The book thus aims to contribute to the legacy of Edward Said’s Orientalism (Pantheon, 1978) insofar as it traces the ways the East is fantasized as exotic, timeless, and spiritual by an economically dominant West. In the process, entrepreneurs in the spiritual marketplace profit from yoga retreats in Bali, Buddha sex toys, and Rumi-branded tote bags, and the voices of Asian practitioners of these religions are drowned out.         

As she critiques the often-bizarre excesses of the mystical marketplace, Arjana grapples with several questions. Where did this valuation of mysticism and spirituality come from? Does modern mysticism fill a genuine need for enchantment amidst the difficulties of modern capitalism? Or do the racialized and profit-driven dynamics of modern mysticism obscure what is good in the traditions that it takes from?

She addresses these questions through a series of chapters that give the reader an overview of the modern mystical marketplace, and examines how orientalism, cultural colonialism, and capitalist profit-seeking distort the traditions that they draw from. The chapters range widely, and address topics such as festivals like Burning Man, the marketing of Buddhism and Hinduism, the rebranding of Rumi as a de-Islamicized poet of love, and Orientalist tropes in Lost and Star Wars.    

The book succeeds in the important task of showing how Orientalism is alive and well, repackaged in categories like mysticism and spirituality. Arjana unpacks the way mysticism as a category is invented by Western scholars (27–37), and how it became attached to the nebulous term “spirituality.” She notes that spirituality, and implicitly mysticism, “is nothing and everything, subject to no analytical process, and therefore, able to be assumed by anyone, including the modern mystical seeker” (44). This quality of being undefinable “makes it a particularly good product to exploit for profit” (43).

However, the book also has some serious flaws. First, the book outlines a strong moral critique of modern mysticism for commodifying Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but it is not entirely clear where Arjana draws the line between “bad” commodification and “good” commodification. In the book, she admits that “the commodification of religion is not new” (127). So, what makes modern mysticism more problematic? At various points, the author suggests that relevant factors include whether credit is given to the tradition (72), whether a person identifies with the tradition (72), whether someone is profiting (85), or whether it “create[s] healthy communities” (85). However, the book lacks sustained discussion of what exactly makes certain acts of commodification problematic, and instead relies on vague declarations such as “a line is often crossed” (84) and “there is a profound difference between making money and creating good in the world” (85) without spelling out what that line or difference is. As someone who is sympathetic to Arjana’s claims and was initially attracted to this book in hopes of finding a model for thinking through these issues, I was disappointed by the lack of sustained engagement with this question.

A second problem is that the book, in its attempt to critique modern mysticism, inadvertently essentializes the religious traditions it discusses. On too many occasions to count, Arjana contrasts modern mysticism with “the real thing” (81), how these religions are “at their core” (139), or “in reality” (174). This implies that these complex and internally diverse traditions are timeless things out in the world, and that modern mysticism is to be judged on how well it rearticulates this already-existing thing. Following this model, Arjana describes modern mysticism as “muddled” (69), “misappropriations” (161), “incorrect” (160), a “grossly mutated version” of these traditions (181), a “problematic reduction” (245), as having “misunderstood” these traditions (173), or adopted them in a “sloppy” way (189). Arjana does not address the question of whether the transformations we are witnessing in modernity are categorically different from the longstanding history of change in religious traditions.

Finally, Arjana’s criticism of the modern mysticism as muddled is undermined by the many questionable characterizations she makes about the traditions she discusses. For instance, Arjana, who writes that “concepts like mysticism and spirituality are, in a sense, meaningless” (80) and describes how they are products of the western imagination (27–37), turns around and uses those same terms herself. To give one example among many, she writes about “the importance of tantric texts in Tibet, which are mystical” (186), without explanation. What is the meaning of the term mystical here, given that it had previously been declared meaningless?

Elsewhere, one finds a pattern of what Arjuna herself might characterize as sloppy mischaracterizations. For instance, one chapter describes Luke Skywalker as “a lone monk, a siddhu,” (246) an invented word that conflates the terms siddha (accomplished one) and sādhu (holy man). In another instance when writing about tantra, she contrasts “Hinduism (where tantric sex is located) and Buddhism (focused more on celibacy, at least in more traditional readings of the practice)” (198). This reflects a curious lack of understanding of the important role sexual metaphors, imagery, and sexual union (visualized or otherwise) play in Buddhism, particularly in Tibet. Lastly, in contrasting modern misappropriations of Buddhism with what “the Buddha teaches his followers” (243), she quotes someone claiming that the highest hope in Buddhism “is for the absolute repose of our being, nothingness” (243). This would come as a surprise to generations of Buddhist teachers, who have repeatedly and strenuously denied accusations of teaching “nothingness.” When I followed the footnote to see who would have made such a claim, it led me to a book by Rick Fields, a leader in the Shambala school (which comes under heavy criticism from Arjana) who does not appear to read any Asian languages. This and other similar examples make me hesitant to fully recommend it, in spite of the fact that it addresses important questions that deserve more attention from scholars of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kate Hartmann is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Wyoming.

Date of Review: 
August 9, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sophia Rose Arjana


Shabana Mir

This review speaks of a different book that could have been. Perhaps the reviewer could write it?

Todd Green

I'm always grateful for the time and energy scholars put into their reviews for Reading Religion. This review certainly reflects considerable work on the reviewer's part. That said, what would help me with this particular review is more attention to the overall aim of Dr. Arjana's book - that is, more attention to her larger argument and less focus on details that are not relevant for assessing this argument. For my part, I'm grateful for the ambitious scope of Dr. Arjana's project and the fact that the book is more of a cultural critque that does not fit neatly into narrower categories in the study of religion (Islamic studies, Buddhist studies, etc.). We need more scholars willing to take these kinds of risks and to write with such vision and resolve. 

Ali A Olomi

I am not sure this review fully grasped the major contours of Dr. Arjana's argument, nor does it sufficiently consider the ambitious scope of the book. I found Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi an incesive and brilliant examination of the intersection of orientalism, capitalism, and spirituality. Through a careful analysis of the commodification of sacred practices and beliefs into modern mystical spirituality, Dr. Arjana provides a much-needed nuanced critique. The book is impressively reserached, but remains accessible and readable. Her book is both a necessary intervention into religious studies as a field and a perfect resource for the classroom as well. 

Kristian Petersen

After reading Arjana’s book I agree with the reviewer that “The book succeeds in the important task of showing how Orientalism is alive and well, repackaged in categories like mysticism and spirituality.” I would certainly recommend it because it ties together a number of important threads across various subfields that are often not put in conversation. However, many of this reviewer's critiques do not align with my reading of this book. 

1. To this reader, Arjana laid out a descriptive terrain of various approaches to commodification in the context of what she defines as “cultural colonialism.” To me, any moral critique seemed to be presented from how practitioners of a given tradition might perceive these actions. No where does Arjana use the framing of “bad” commodification and “good” commodification, but rather  points to when something is being commodified is cultural colonialism or not. 

2. Arajana is careful to assert that the traditions she discusses are diverse and varied. In many of the reviewer's quotes, which are totally decontextualized, Arjana is not essentializing a referent but rather comparing it to the dominant ways traditions and practices have been carried out and explained by the majority of communal members (which is often varied in and of itself). There is a long body of scholarship on orientalist representations and western appropriation of Asian traditions that align with this approach and demonstrate similar findings (Jeremy Carrette and Richard King, Andrea Jain, Ann Gleig, Amanda Lucia, David McMahan, Jane Iwamura, just to name a few). 

3. One of the major through lines of Arjana’s book is to offer a genealogy of “mysticism” as an empty signifier that can be taken up and employed in various ways by its users. When she says its meaningless and a product of the western imagination she is referring to the long history of how “mysticism” has been constructed in English language discourses about the “East.” On that same page the reviewer mentions, Arjana points to “the amorphous, fluid nature” (80) of modern mystical operations. Like “religion” then, it is not that we cannot define it but rather it can be defined in a multitude of ways to suit the definer’s objectives. In the quote about tantric texts being mystical, Arjana is describing the strategies used to create a mystic Tibet for white Boulder, CO adherents, which includes engagement with tantric texts that are deemed mystical by these users. Here again, Arjana is discussing how the term is deployed in North American contexts and not asserting some essential quality of tantric texts that she has determined to be important. At least that is how this reader understood Arjana's project. 

While any project, and especially a comparative one of this nature, will surely have flaws Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi is a rich and nuanced analysis of the subject. I would recommend it to anyone interested in modern religion in North America, “Spiritual but not religious” contexts, and Asian traditions in diaspora communities. 

Blayne Harcey

After thoroughly reading Arjana's Buy Buddha, Selling Rumi I must agree with the majority of the comments listed here in stating my disagreement with the reviewer’s conclusions. Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi succeeds in outlining the contours of a largely academic discourse on the appropriation and commodification of Asia for academic and popular audiences. In her exploration of, arguably, the two most exploited religious figures in the modern West--the Buddha and Rumi--Arjana signals that Orientalism is alive and well in popular representations of Asia and that these commodifications have taken on lives of their own, shaping the categories of religion, mysticism, and spirituality. In her ambitious project, Arjana is attentive to the various ways in which Orientalism is "muddled" in the contemporary context, highlighting that contemporary "spirituality" draws as much from traditional Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic texts-albeit English translations--as it does from pop-psychology, occultism, and theosophy. Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi also succeeds in bringing together a variety of sources across disciplines--historical, visual, ethnographic, textual--to emphasize that the categories of religion, mysticism, and spirituality are constructed within relations of power and amidst a handful of cultural and historical contexts to do things in the world. Arjana's project is attentive, in more ways than one, to the ways in these power dynamics operate amidst a global economy of ideas and commodities. Drawing our attention to popular representations of Asian religions, Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi makes no moral judgements or concrete distinctions between "traditional" and "commodified" practices of those traditions. Rather, the project offers a genealogy of how the process of commodification lifts traditional doctrines and practices out of their local contexts and mobilizes them for alternative agendas. This is part-and-parcel of modernity and its inherited colonial legacies. On this point of criticism in particular, I feel the reviewer is less than gracious and perhaps reads their own biases into Arjana's argument in Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi

I would recommend Arjana's Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi to anyone interested in the intersections of Asian religions and the "spiritual marketplace," the discourse of "spirituality" in North America, and religion and globalization broadly. I intend to teach Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi in my course on Religion and Globalization in the future. 


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