How Hinduism Seeped into American Soil

Dana Sawyer

American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation—How Indian Spirituality Changed the West
Philip Goldberg
Harmony Books, 2010
416 pp.; $26.00 cloth

It’s often said that Buddhism is the fastest growing religion in America. There are dharma centers in every major American city, and more are springing up every year. But long before Buddhism became so popular among convert practitioners, Hinduism had its turn in the spotlight. Back in the late 1960s and the 1970s, mostly through the efforts of hippie gurus like Allen Ginsberg and Ram Dass, and the Beatles, the religion of Shiva and Krishna outperformed buddhadharma by a wide margin. In the 70s, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles’ diminutive guru, managed to convince more than two million Americans to try Transcendental Meditation, and when he appeared on the Merv Griffin Show in 1975, he reached an audience of some 30 to 40 million viewers. Today, even the Dalai Lama doesn’t post those kinds of numbers. But given that Hinduism was so popular, why did it fade? And what made it so attractive in the first place? In his latest book, American Veda, the author, interfaith minister, and meditation teacher Philip Goldberg offers some answers.

With the exception of the Hare Krishnas, he points out, most Americans haven’t been attracted to India’s ornate temples, complex mythologies, colorful rituals, and pantheon of gods and goddesses. American Veda focuses on that aspect of Hinduism that Americans have gravitated toward: Vedanta philosophy and the meditation and yoga practices it advocates, a combination Goldberg refers to as “Vedanta-Yoga.” Derived from the ancient sacred texts collectively known as the Vedas, Vedanta is founded, he explains, on the belief that underlying the phenomenal world that both Hindus and Buddhists call samsara there is an unmanifest, eternal, limitless “Ground of Being.” This formless absolute, known as Brahman, is both the root of our individual existence and the root of all existence, and experiencing it directly culminates in moksha, or enlightenment—spiritual liberation through perception of the “world soul” at the core of everything. Like Buddhists, Vedantists make clear that merely studying philosophy isn’t enough to wake you up; some practice is necessary, and for most Americans that has meant some form of meditation or yoga. According to Goldberg, when yoga teachers in the U.S. are asked what philosophy underlies their practice, most point to Vedanta.

Goldberg argues convincingly that what draws Americans to Vedanta-Yoga is its emphasis on spiritual experience over religious belief: here again we find a point of resonance with Buddhism. Beginning with Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists—including Henry David Thoreau, who “may have been the first American to call himself a yogi,” Goldberg says—Americans have liked the idea of testing the theory of enlightenment through their own experience, not to mention testing it in this world rather than waiting for the next. And from the beginning, they’ve gravitated to Vedanta’s claim that there is a Sanatana Dharma, or “Eternal Religion,” at the core of all religions. As the Rig Veda puts it: “The truth is one, the wise call it by many names.” From Emerson to Aldous Huxley, Huston Smith to Joseph Campbell, eminent spiritual thinkers have subscribed to the notion of a perennial philosophy based on experience of the Oneness at the core of all being. This is “religion from the inside out,” Goldberg explains, and it was an important influence not only on the Transcendentalists but also on many other groups, including “New Thought” and Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science, Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical Society, and, after Swami Vivekananda’s historic visit to the U.S. to speak at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, on such guru-centered groups as Vivekananda’s Vedanta Society and Swami Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship.

Goldberg presents the history of America’s fascination with Hinduism in very readable prose packed with anecdotes and biographical details that immediately draw us in. The narrative really heats up as he describes the guru invasions of the 1960s and 1970s, when Americans were swept up in droves. Teachers such as Swami Satchidananda, Swami Muktananda, Sri Chinmoy, Yogi Amrit Desai, Swami Bhaktivedanta, and the Maharishi appealed to the romantic sensibilities of counterculture Baby Boomers. At a time when immigration bans on Indians were being lifted, allowing the gurus to obtain visas, America’s flower children were embracing the premise that world peace depended upon inner peace. When the Beatles began broadcasting this message in such songs as “Within You, Without You,” enthusiasm for Vedanta-Yoga teachings skyrocketed. LSD and other psychedelics might have offered a glimpse of the fully awakened mind, but Vedanta and yoga seemed to promise permanent transformation, so hippies and college-age idealists flocked to the ashrams that were springing up— and into the arms of the gurus who ran them. That, of course, is where the story turns a bit sour and American Hinduism faltered, at least in terms of its broad appeal.

Though Goldberg refers to the 60s gurus as the “baby boomers’ babas,” he is dead serious when describing their downfall, which was mostly the result of scandals involving sex or money, or both. Goldberg is clear from the outset that he sees “America’s absorption of Indian spiritual teachings [as] a positive historical development”—it made us more openminded about religion and encouraged us to explore inner space—but he pulls no punches when describing the shenanigans of various gurus. To his credit, he doesn’t let the book degenerate into titillation, but at the same time he doesn’t avoid judgment where it’s due, including an indictment of the way many young people, naive and star-struck, colluded with their gurus to create relationships that were dysfunctional for both.

“Tibetan Buddhists compare gurus to fire: stay too far away and you don’t get warm; venture too close and you can be burned,” Goldberg observes. After surrendering control of their lives to their gurus, many Americans were duly toasted. Goldberg finds it ironic that members of the “most antiauthoritarian generation in the history of the most antiauthoritarian nation in the world” would so readily cede their spiritual autonomy to authority figures. Not that this justifies the womanizing, money-grubbing, and other reprehensible activities of certain swamis and yogis (how many Rolls Royces did Shree Rajnesh finally own anyway?), but it does explain the gurus’ success. Enthusiasm for these teachers—and in some cases, blind obedience to them—was bolstered by the widespread belief that enlightenment was not only possible but easily attained if one had the right guru or did the right practice. Most “Neo-Hindus” of the time believed that their guru had the best meditation technique or yoga practice on the market, and while others might flounder in samsara indefinitely, they themselves would reach nirvana any day now. This created not only a fever pitch of hero worship but also a grizzly morningafter experience, when the gurus were caught with their robes down and the devotees hadn’t yet achieved enlightenment. Many of the devotees felt duped, because they had been, and others realized they had duped themselves, setting the bar for enlightenment—their guru’s and their own—far too low, a condition Lama Surya Das called “premature immaculation.”

By the late 70s, after the sex and money scandals were mostly over and Americans had realized that spiritual growth doesn’t come cheap, most of the ashrams emptied out, and the heyday of American Hinduism was over. But as Goldberg documents, this unraveling also led to a maturation. Many spiritual practitioners realized they had been overly romantic in their appropriation of Vedanta- Yoga and turned to new, more reasonable embraces of the religion—involving less subservience and surrender of resources— or to Buddhism, which, despite a few scandals of its own, has a reputation for being less guru-centered. Other seekers, leery of teachers in general, took a more personal view of spiritual growth, relying on their inner guru to guide them and drawing knowledge from many traditions—an approach once forwarded by Aldous Huxley and Joseph Campbell and now championed by Deepak Chopra, Andrew Harvey, and others. Regarding the gurus themselves, Goldberg offers the following assessment: “Somewhere in between the hagiography of ardent disciples and the hatchet jobs of sneering detractors is the reality of exceptional human beings with unexceptional human flaws.” An object lesson was learned and the bloom was off the rose, but American Vedanta-Yoga, it seemed, had matured.

Today science is validating the health benefits of yoga and meditation, and in some ways, the influence of Hinduism has never been stronger. Terms like karma, aura, and enlightenment are now part of mainstream vocabulary, and people increasingly speak about the oneness of religion, even if they don’t realize the extent to which Vedanta-Yoga contributed to that outlook. But even as Vedanta-Yoga has penetrated the culture, it has also been modified to suit the American consumer market, Goldberg points out. Although there are close to 16 million yoga practitioners in the U.S., and many more yoga centers than dharma centers, the $6-billion-a-year yoga industry has drifted away from its original intent, in many cases divorcing itself from both Vedanta philosophy and the desire for spiritual awakening.

The influential yoga teacher B. K. S. Iyengar once said that when people go deeply inside their bodies they find their souls, but most Americans today seem to be practicing yoga for the body itself— either to improve their own or attract somebody else’s. Increasingly, yoga is identified with hatha yoga—the asanas, or postures, originally devised to purify the body for meditation. Taught in spas and health clubs rather than ashrams, yoga has become more a beauty aid or fitness tool than a pathway up the mountain of truth. The asanas are often prescribed for particular ailments, an approach Goldberg believes is helpful and appropriate, although he has reservations: “Are yoga therapists turning the holistic system—which many see as a lifestyle, not a medical intervention—into just a variation of physical therapy?” It may be that yoga in America will entirely lose its soul, as karate did once it was unplugged from its Asian roots and grafted onto an American sports ethos. (The same concerns exist for Buddhists when meditation is taken out of context.) Goldberg gives us good reason to believe that many American yogis have swung the pendulum too far, avoiding the spiritual materialism of guru-worship only to take up the more garden-variety materialism endemic to the local mall. But even if mistakes were made in the 1970s, he warns against throwing out what was beautiful in the gurus’ message: the need to break free from our dysfunctional patterns and purify our minds of greed.

Goldberg is a boomer who once followed Maharishi and taught TM for a time, and American Veda will undoubtedly appeal to other boomers who lived through the guru era. But there is also a much broader message here, making this a fascinating read for anyone who wants to understand Hinduism’s influence on the West, including what’s going on today. Despite some concluding remarks that sound more like wishful thinking than the products of close analysis (Goldberg perhaps cheers too loudly for Vedanta- Yoga when he asks, “Why would we not encourage a worldview that rejects materialism and directs the pursuit of happiness inward?”), his history of Hinduism in America is accurate and well presented. Goldberg shows how the core teachings of Vedanta have seeped into American soil through a variety of streams and tributaries, reaching us through the arts, psychology, science, healthcare, self-improvement books, and other sources, often without our realizing there is anything Indian about it. Today virtually all the gurus of the 70s are gone, but many left behind teaching organizations that are still functioning.

There have been several books for a mainstream audience that trace Buddhism’s history in America, including Rick Field’s How the Swans Came to the Lake and Helen Tworkov’s Zen in America, but we’ve been without the equivalent for Hinduism until now. American Veda, as entertaining as it is informative, ably fills the void.

Dana Sawyer is a professor of religion and philosophy at the Maine College of Art. Author of
Aldous Huxley: A Biography, he is currently writing an authorized biography of Huston Smith.

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