In the Hot Unconscious by Charles Foster


Westerners in India, in search of the meaning of life, ashram hopping, jostling with the crowds, taking notes and most of the times still lost is something that is not uncommon. There is something about the East that the West finds mystical. A lot of them come trying to figure it out. The difference lies in the basic ethos. In the belief that simultaneous realities co-exist in our minds versus the singular reality, they are conditioned to. Our multitude often gets expressed metaphorically in our sea of myths and Gods. In the Hot Unconscious, Charles Foster shares his India travel observations.

In the Hot Unconscious by Charles Foster

In the Hot Unconscious by Charles Foster

The author traveled to India to do research on Leeches. But after getting lost in the red tape, roams around the country. From the Himalayas in Uttaranchal to all the way down in Kanyakumari. He visits ashrams that are flocked by the foreigners. And how I wish I could tell him that these ashrams have now become an economy run by the seekers like him. He meets people in the villages, on the road, and on a train who set him thinking on various spiritual thoughts. He goes to a Shantivanam, in search of a convergence between the eastern and western thought.

The problem is he tries to understand Hinduism from the reference point of Christianity. I am not sure if that works.

Understand Philosophies

To understand philosophies, you have to empty yourself completely. Absorb what is there on the platter. Then maybe at some later point in time analyse two different philosophies that you have studied.

Gems of Thoughts

However, across his travels, he comes across some gems of thoughts. Here are some of which I found interesting:

  • Troops deployed in the east to assassinate the ego are the fathers and the children of the ego itself – True
  • India is a vast, wild temple where unconsciousness is consciously worshipped.
  • India loves paradox. Paradox is elegant but it has an ugly child called Contradiction.
  • The lonely cross-legged men in a za-zen trance aren’t doing the ego to death, but rather worshipping it in a new language. Ego is clever, multilingual, and catholic in its tastes. It is happy to receive compliments in all tongues.
  • What could anything on paper ever tell you that the tree, which was destroyed to make it, could not? Nothing. Nothing at all. – I loved this one.
  • Finding, in fact, is the business of being found. And to do that it helps to be utterly lost.
  • He just knows, better than most, the vocabulary of enlightenment.
  • Something’s true if it creates or transforms, and untrue if it shifts with time or circumstance.
  • Self – must have two qualities – Unity & it must be timeless

Confused and unconvinced

To me throughout the book the author comes across as confused and unconvinced. At no point was he satisfied or relaxed. I am not sure if he traveled to write the book, or traveled and the book just happened. But I see a purposelessness in his travel. An attitude of where my feet take me. But still, his itinerary indicates a planned route that he has spoken about. After the first couple of chapters, he forgot all about his research. Or he chooses not to mention his tryst with the Indian bureaucracy in detail.

But the reader does keep wondering about his original objective to be in India. Again he travels to all the Ashrams that are not really known to Indians. Most of the time, run by the foreigners settled here. Indicating that someone somewhere was pointing him to these places. A detail that he lets pass.

In his conversations with Indians, who can be and who are contradicting for a rational mind, he has a tinge of doubt always. But when he speaks to Western travelers we suddenly find him on the Indian side. Explaining the thought sometimes in his own mind like explaining a Shiva Linga. Is it a paradox or a contradiction?

Read In the Hot Unconscious if you want to understand a Western quest for the elusive East.

You may buy this book – In the Hot Unconscious: An Indian Journey by Charles Foster at Amazon.

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  1. The review sounds interesting. I would definitely flip through the book at least, if not read it fully. If he wrote about Indian bureaucracy, would people read it? I try to avoid even thinking about it, makes me tense – all those papers to be collected and handed in wherever we decide to go. Want a permission to stay, a visa, want to visit the islands, permissions are there to be obtained and papers collected. Many more trees wasted in the process.

    • True, we probably read to be away from things lie bureaucracy.More than trees, my precious time and energy is wasting in chasing what is rightfully mine.

  2. Anu: Very many thanks for your comments on my book.
    I’m very well aware that many ashrams are run for (and often by) foreigners. The central ashram chapter in the book makes that point explicitly. It’s a vehicle for explaining what happens to eastern mysticism in the hands of the west. No, I wasn’t directed to such places: I sought them out, specifically for that purpose. I’ve been to many, many ashrams – many of them as Indian as they come, with never a Californian in sight or mind.
    Was I confused? Absolutely. That’s what I say in the preface: ‘This is a tale of my own confusion. The plot is simple enough. I went to India, was confused, and then came back. It is also an attempt to see whether or not confusion matters.’
    Ewa: thank you too for your interest. Yes, there’s a fair amount about Indian bureaucracy in the book, but it’s not a central theme. I describe it, and speculate about its roots.

  3. There are many Indias. There are many ‘wests’ too. According to my late father in law, a desi Indian, the west was a place where life was shallow and superficial whereas India was a deeply spiritual place where one could learn the true value of life.I had many an argument with him about it.

    Many westerners find India fascinating. Some haven’t the slightest interest in it. Many of the westerners who express fascination with India would never be able to live here under normal circumstances, such as living life in an Indian family and being bound by social compulsions. For them, being here is freely chosen and they live in India, but not as part of Indian society.

    Nineteen years ago I left my home in Ireland and got married to an Indian. I shall probably write my own book about it one day.

    Good review, Anu. This book sounds interesting. My TBR pile is huge, but I hope I get the opportunity to read this book.


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