The Greatest Beatle of them all. From Dark Horse: The Life And Art Of George Harrison by Geoffrey Giuliano.
I think I first realized it when reading Dark Horse, the biography of my favorite Beatle. The quiet one, the spiritual one.
And on an internet message board some time ago, during the time I was reading the book, someone announced (yes, you know the drill) Christianity Uber Alles and as proof, offered the pop-culture "facts" that the Beatles and Elvis were Christian, at least until John met that awful woman.  I wasted no time in jumping on it: Excuse me, but George was no Christian! HANDS OFF GEORGE.
The response: Show me where George officially converted!
And of course, I could have Googled my little heart out and not found a thing... Hinduism is not like Christianity. They do not dip you in water and then announce you are one of them. They just don't do it like that. George spent considerable time in India; learned to play their holy instruments; did whatever various gurus told him to do; financed English translations of the Bhagavad Gita and named his son Dhani. Isn't that enough for you?
No, not for this guy. And I suddenly realized that our world has been MARKED by the presence of the two major religions, Islam and Christianity, the religions that commanded their followers to make believers of all nations.
The Majors, in competition with each other, have very precise rituals for conversion. It starts with an altar call, the announcement: I am a Christian, I am a Muslim. It's on the record. And then, more rituals, classes, education. In Christianity, baptism, and in Catholicism, Lutheranism, Orthodoxy, there is also Confirmation, known as Receiving the Holy Spirit. All of these rituals leave a mark on the convert, as they do on those raised in the faith: you have crossed over. You have been accepted into a tribe; you are one of us.
On Easter, lots of new folks come into the Catholic Church; it's one of the main draws of the long Easter Vigil Mass, in fact... we can watch the faces of the people as they are baptized: some are so pensive and introspective and some are in tears of ecstasy. Some are looking at wives, husbands, moms and dads: I hope this pleases you, because this is embarrassing. The variety of faces reflect all manner of religious experience. I always pick the faces that look happiest, and afterwards, I welcome them personally into the Church. Thus, I am also part of the ritual, if I choose to be.
Other religions do not do this. Therefore, being the Majors, we can judge the conversion not to have really happened. We apply our standards, our measuring sticks, and then find them lacking. Where is the baptism? Did you ANNOUNCE yourself somewhere? Where are the official records?
They don't do it that way. WE do it that way.
Unfortunately, the lack of officialdom, like a lack of borders, can lead to trouble and weirdness. It can lead to appropriation.
And yes, I realize that Islam and Christianity, as The Majors, are appropriated all the time. Rather than see Christmas as Christianity encroaching on secularism, for instance, I tend to see it as the secular world stealing our cool shit. (Hey, Santa Claus was St Nicholas of Myra, goddammit, leave him alone.) When you have all classes of rock bands singing SILENT NIGHT, all you can do is shake your head in amazement. But when you are one of The Majors, you can endure that. In fact, it is just more proof of how BIG you really are. They have Santa Claus in Japanese store windows, now, take that! (Are we #1 or what?)
In the end, Christmas trees and bad carols notwithstanding, the question, the BORDERS, stay constant: ARE YOU A CHRISTIAN? There is only one answer to that. You can modify it any number of ways (and Lord knows, I love my modifiers), but in the end, there is only one answer. There is a BORDER, and there it is: Yes or no?
Again, other religions may not have the brightly-drawn borders; the yesses and nos are not in stark relief.
That means, the stealing is not as well-understood. How can it be stealing if they are giving it away? They do not do it like we do, after all... they don't have a ritual demarcating one's entrance. You can enter and exit at will, any time you want.
And so, people do.
Daniel Pinchbeck, photo from Sounds True.
All of this came to mind as I read Reality Sandwich, new to my blogroll. I've heard Daniel Pinchbeck's CDs regarding 2012, much of which is also in his book, 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl. My first thought, after so much discussion and teeth-gnashing throughout Feminist/Lefty Blogdonia: Should he be doing that? Does the shamanic tradition properly belong to him? Is he stealing?
Much of Pinchbeck's work is about psychedelics and spirituality, which we could rightly claim is the recorded tradition of another tribe altogether, a tribe with a recognized pedigree, in which he does belong: hippies. (Pinchbeck's mother was Joyce Johnson, paramour of Jack Kerouac.) But there is a particular way that hippies approached enlightenment, and that is not necessarily the way Native Americans did, even if the mescalito is the same.
From the blurb on Pinchbeck's recent CD, titled Emergence 2012: The Soundtrack for Global Evolution:
And now we come full circle, to that place where hippies encroached on Native American religion, as well as Eastern religions.
Take a musical journey into the lush soundscapes of the 2012 phenomenon with Emergence 2012. Inspired by Baktuns—or cycles of the classical Mayan calendar—this mind-bending music infuses psychoacoustic rhythms with the chants of ayahuasca shamans and natural harmonics found deep within the forests of South America. Created by sound healing visionary Alex Theory and Daniel Pinchbeck, bestselling author of 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl.
Or did they?
What if they feel they were directly asked by [fill in words for God here]? What if, in fact, this is The Truth? Does the religious activity still qualify as "encroachment"--or is this the end result of an exhaustive spiritual journey? Is it cultural appropriation and imperialism if one BELIEVES THEY HAVE FOUND THE TRUTH?
I don't think it is.
This is not appropriation, any more than learning another language is. I think it is endorsing another spiritual truth. It is LEAVING The Majors, for something one finds more suitable and real.
But I'll be honest: I get unaccountably nervous when I hear hippies employing ancient chants that were never theirs.
And then AGAIN: If white hippies with education and privilege announce that something is genuine and true, isn't that something of a revolutionary endorsement? This is the real thing, not what I was taught by my own culture--is a pretty powerful statement. (Maybe THE most powerful statement.)
Where does appropriation start, when we talk about religions? Because they are not simply cultural, they are accounts of life, creation, consciousness, truth and morality. They are VERSIONS of how we approach the divine.
Can we rightly say this is stolen, when it is being endorsed as the Truth, above and beyond The Majors?
What do you think?
 If you haven't read Cara's fabulous several-part series on racism, sexism and Yoko Ono, go over there RIGHT NOW and read the WHOLE THING. Great analysis.
 The title of this post is from the first lines of my favorite George Harrison song, What is Life? (And yes, I realize it was produced by Phil Spector, subject of much fulminating here at DEAD AIR.) Embedding has been disabled, she sighed once again...
The song was also employed to excellent advantage in the DEAD AIR favorite GOODFELLAS, which I also intend to blog about one of these days.