The Nirvana Express

How the Search for Enlightenment Went West

September 2023 9781805260196 400pp, 20pp colour illus
Available as an eBook
EU Customers


In 1897, an Indian yogi exhibited himself at London’s Westminster Aquarium, demonstrating yoga positions to a bemused audience. Four years earlier, Hindu philosopher Swami Vivekananda spoke at the first World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, where Annie Besant extolled the ‘exquisite beauty’ of his spiritual message.

The Victorians were fascinated by, yet suspicious of, Indian religious beliefs and practices. But within two generations, legions of young Westerners were following the ‘hippie trail’ to the subcontinent, the Beatles meditating at the feet of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Journalist Mick Brown’s vivid account charts this eccentric history of Western obsessions with Indian faith, through a curious cast of scholars, seekers, charlatans and saints.

From bestselling epic poems on the Buddha to murder plots, magic and the occult, The Nirvana Express is an exhilarating, sometimes troubling journey through the West’s search for enlightenment.


The Nirvana Express… is a work of compelling, stylish social anthropology. … Brown has managed to compose a sober and wryly intelligent account of westerners in the east and easterners in the west.’ — The Times

‘Brown has a light touch, like that of a beguiling baba himself … effortlessly encompassing anecdotal and intellectual history. He is a wicked portraitist, which is to say he is playing to his strengths in this pornographic prosopography of snake-oil spiritualists.’ — TLS

‘[An] entertaining history of the West’s fascination with Indian spirituality.’ — The Telegraph

‘Excellent … The Nirvana Express is a drily amusing book on a subject that would make many writers nervous. It describes some startling stupidity as well as some very sharp behaviour without forcing the point, and includes fierce assertions by followers on both sides.’ — The Spectator

‘In a lively narrative, delivered with wit and warmth, Brown shows how Eastern mysticism went from being suspect to venerable, and back again to a subject of scepticism. Along the way, he delivers an outrageous cast of characters — film stars, novelists, heiresses and heretics — and shows how soothing swamis and dodgy charlatans left their mark on Western ways.’ ­— The Daily Mail

‘[A] fascinating tale of the West’s love affair with spiritualism. Mick Brown [is one of] the very elite tier of modern journalists. He brings all his skills for research, judicious analysis and eloquent writing to a thoroughly engrossing subject. … Brown balances reports of the prejudices and racism of the British view of the Indian holy man (gurus were described as “pantomime” figures) with an account that offers rich insights into the appeal of hunting “a spiritual Eldorado”. … The Nirvana Express [is] such a masterful, compelling piece of history.’ — The Independent, ‘September Books of the Month’

‘An enlightening new book … Fantastic stories—packed with unlikely figures, strange twists of fate and even the occasional act of mind-reading—bring readers of The Nirvana Express on an enjoyable journey.’ — The Economist

‘Brown… has synthesised a small Himalaya of material into a clear and well-told narrative. His subject is not so much India as the uses and abuses of subcontinental religions in the West in the 20th century.’ — Literary Review

‘An engrossing account.’  — The Wire

‘Eminently readable.’ — The Federal News

‘An absolutely fascinating and absorbing study of an under-explored subject. Written with great verve, insight and clear-eyed authority—a definitive and enduring book.’ — William Boyd

‘What a wonderful cast of characters: dreamers, poets, charlatans and love-struck British ladies. Why has no one told this story before? Mick Brown does so with just the right mix of cool objectivity and forgiving warmth. An enthralling read.’ — Edward Stourton, BBC Radio 4

‘Spectacular. Mick Brown’s masterful storytelling brilliantly charts the West’s encounter with Eastern spiritualism. Drawing on a rich seam of characters ranging from charlatans to spiritual masters and their disparate devotees, he never misses a beat in this globe-spanning magical mystery tour.’ — John Zubrzycki, author of Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic and Dethroned: The Downfall of India’s Princely States

‘A well-written, fascinating and entertaining romp through the gurus who brought Indian philosophy to the Western world.’ — Susan Shumsky, author of Maharishi & Me and The Inner Light: How India Influenced the Beatles

‘Mick Brown has produced a deeply researched account of the encounters of Indian spiritualists with the West over the past century and a half. Wonderfully written and hugely informative.’ — Jairam Ramesh, author and Indian MP

‘Brown takes us along a familiar path—the century-long story of the modern West’s fascination with India’s holy men, from Arnold’s The Light of Asia to the sunset of Rajneesh—and renders its sights anew: colourful, compelling and a bit psychedelic.’ — Anya Foxen, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, California Polytechnic State University, and author of Inhaling Spirit: Harmonialism, Orientalism, and the Western Roots of Modern Yoga

‘With a keen and humorous eye for detail, Mick Brown traces the golden age of gurus through interconnected stories of the individuals whose followers changed the way we think about religion, faith and otherness in their quests to attain enlightenment.’ — Patricia Sauthoff, Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Hong Kong Baptist University, and author of Illness and Immortality: Mantra, Mandala, and Meditation in the Netra Tantra


Mick Brown is a journalist for The Daily Telegraph. His books include The Spiritual Tourist: A Personal Odyssey Through the Outer Reaches of Belief; The Dance of 17 Lives: The Incredible True Story of Tibet’s 17th Karmapa; and Tearing Down The Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector.

Request an academic inspection copy Request a press review copy
Inspection Copy Request
Review Copy Request
Join our mailing list

Subscribers receive exclusive discounts and early access to new books from Hurst.