Remember when Julia Roberts’ character from Eat Pray Love visited India to find spirituality and became so inspired by the culture, she practiced Hinduism in real life? Along with Julia Roberts, George Harrison, a Beatles band member, also embraced India mysticism in the 1960s.
The many-splendored culture of India has had an illustrious but sporadic impact on western civilization. Occasionally, the impact is so strong on certain Western travelers to India that it leads to a psychological condition. While the condition does not appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical manual of mental disorders IV, or even in Wikipedia, many westerners who had lived in the country for months are experiencing it after returning home.
Known as India syndrome, the condition is more of a psychosis that affects people from developed European and other western countries. They seek out a land of culture that is pure, exotic, and where values are respected.
The origin of the term ‘India syndrome’
India syndrome was described by Regis Airault, a former staff psychiatrist at the French Consulate in Mumbai who visited India in 1985 and wrote about his experiences in his book Fous de l’Inde (Crazy About India). At that time, French visitors to India would visit the consulate to deposit their passports and return flight tickets. The Frenchman observed a curious condition among travellers in their 20s and 30s, especially those who had been in India for a long period of time. Behavioral and psychological changes are sometimes referred to as the ‘India Syndrome’.
Travelers with manic and psychotic symptoms who lost belongings, or who were confused or disoriented were evaluated by him. Even some of them showed signs of depression and isolation due to being in an unfamiliar place. The India syndrome led to an overwhelming detachment from familiarity when it was at its strongest. The psychiatrist called such travelers ‘lost forever’. Fous de l’Inde, a book published in 2000 that compiled all his observations over the years, asks the question of whether travelers are transformed by India or if they are determined to undergo a transformation.
How Airault’s findings differed from culture shock
Airault believes India can elicit aesthetic emotions in travelers, but it also depends on the person’s past traumas and impulses to travel buried in their subconscious and brought to the surface while visiting India. India somehow provokes it and causes them to overflow. According to Airault, the symptoms differ from culture shock, because the latter manifests soon after arriving, whereas the former appears after weeks or months. Travelers often have an exaggerated and misplaced expectation of what India can offer and are determined to find out what they have imagined.
Taking care of distressed nationals
Several embassies and consulates in India have psychiatrists on staff to assist these tourists. According to Sunil Mittal, a foreign tourist visits his office every week at the Cosmos Institute of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences in New Delhi. According to Mittal, such patients are divided into two types, those with past traumas related to their families, relationships, or jobs, and those with a strong desire for a spiritual awakening. Visitors to holy centers, yoga institutes, and even enamored gurus are seeking a break from the mundane life back home.
In most cases, Airault and Mittal are sent home for treatment. In severe cases, their experience in India leaves a permanent mark on their behavior even after returning to the West. Others believe they are possessed by spirits or are gods incarnate and are pushed to dangerous situations in search of spiritual fulfillment. Still others believe India syndrome is not a real condition and almost a ‘racist explanation’ to reduce travel to India.