The Carlos Castenada books

I read my first Carlos Castenada book, A Separate Reality, when I was in the second year of college. I bought it secondhand in Bangalore; the original buyer had signed the first page. When my father saw the book several years later, he was shocked – the signature was that of one of his professors. So I have my own personal mysticism incident associated with the book!

A Separate Reality is the middle book in a trilogy, of which the first and third books are called “The Teachings of Don Juan” and “Journey to Ixtalan” respectively.

The first thing to understand is that Carlos Castenada is, by all accounts, a fraud. The books are ostensibly about Castenada’s encounters with an old Yaqui Indian shaman called Don Juan during his studies at UCLA. Don Juan chooses Carlos as his disciple, and teaches him the “Yaqui way of Life”. Based on his notes about the encounters, Carlos wrote his theses, and received a Masters and a PhD from the Department of Anthropology at UCLA. (This much is true.) He also wrote these three books, and later many others, which went on to become best-sellers in the 70’s. In the late 70’s, though, Robert De Mille (nephew of Cecil) thoroughly fact-checked the books, noticed several inconsistencies, and dug deeper. He published his own books, debunking Carlos Castenada’s claims of visiting Don Juan, and casting doubt on his very existence. The prevailing view today is that Castenada did very little field travel, and made up most of Don Juan’s teachings from philosophy books in the UCLA library. Castenada never owned up his fraud, though – he died claiming everything in all the books was absolutely true.

As a reading plan, therefore, I decided to read ‘The Teachings…’ and ‘Journey…’, and also De Mille’s book about Castenada. So far, I’ve finished ‘The Teachings…’ and a  significant part of ‘Journey…’.

I like Castenada’s books. He is a very talented writer, and, even read purely as fiction, his books are worth reading. Here are a few things I liked about what I have read so far:

1. The characters of Castenada and Don Juan are very well-created and engaging, Don Juan as the patient teacher and Castenada as the sincere but bumbling student who makes slow progress and asks a lot of foolish doubts. There is real chemistry in the interaction between these two characters. Also interesting are the supporting cast of characters – other sorcerers, Don Juan’s family, other Yaqui Indians. Castenada fleshes out his own character in an often humorous way, and reveals just enough biographical detail, at the right level of intermittence, to make the books interesting even aside from their purported philosophical truths.

2. That said, the philosophical truths are interesting in themselves because of the overarching theme of Don Juan that the world we live in has a ‘separate reality  independent of our senses. This provides a rich vein of literary exploration, describing different pedagogical techniques that Don Juan employs, and different aspects of the separate reality that he gets Castenada to occasionally experience.

3. Castenada had the knack of being able to make pithy philosophical statements that make you think. For instance, one of my favorite passages in the book is when Don Juan tells Carlos that we create the world everyday by our internal dialogue, and to shut it off, we need to start practicing closing our eyes and concentrating on input from our ears. This is a provocatively simple theory, besides being an easy exercise to perform; the resultant experience is very interesting.

4. It seems fairly evident that a lot of Don Juan’s mysticism has its roots in Indian philosophy. The way of the warrior and the transcendental experience of ‘seeing’, for instance. De Mille seems to feel the same way. Perhaps the reader who considers Castenada’s work as an allegorical fictional work introducing Indian philosophy in a non-structured way, will be the one who gets the most out of it.

The parts of the books that concentrate on drugs – and in the case of the first book, this is more than 50% of it – are particularly boring. De Mille discovers that on the day that Castenada claims to have been with Don Juan smoking peyote for the first time, UCLA library records indicate he was sitting in there reading a book about peyote. It shows in the writing. There is clearly much less that I took away from the drug passages than from the conversation passages in the books.

Pablo Neruda said about Castenada that his readers should concentrate on the words, and not worry about whether they are factually true or not. I think it’s a good attitude to have while reading these books.

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