Soon I saw the same thing happen to others, then others, and others still. Indian spiritual teachings were clearly affecting a lot of people, not just me and my friends. Then scholars, scientists, psychologists, and others began adapting those ideas and practices to their areas of expertise. By the mids the imported teachings had seeped into the culture in a profoundly meaningful, although not always obvious, way. Indian imports were changing not only individual lives but also health care, psychology, and religion.
The story seemed intriguing and important, spanning two hundred years and populated by fascinating characters, some of them renowned, others unknown but surprisingly influential. In I wrote a proposal for a book on the subject but could not interest a publisher. Trace Murphy at Doubleday saw it too and thought there might be a book in it. He mentioned the idea to my agent, Lynn Franklin, who put the two of us together.
After three years, hundreds of eye-straining hours of reading, more than three hundred formal interviews, and countless informal conversations, I conpleted the first draft. Many complex forces have given rise to this development, chief among them the two hundred years of access to Indian philosophy chronicled in these pages. A second reason her piece intrigued me was its provocative title. Certainly Americans are not becoming Hindus, in the sense of attending rituals in Hindu temples, performing pujas ceremonies at home altars, celebrating holidays such as Duvali and Shivaratri, and praying to Ganesh or Lakshmi.
But that is not what Miller was referring to. Which brings us to the name itself Why Not Hinduism? But, defined as the everyday religion of India, Hinduism is not the subject, and if the title or jacket copy suggested it was, many potential readers would misconstrue the nature of the book. For that reason, I decided to use the terms Hindu and Hinduism sparingly. Such linguistic dilemmas have plagued writers, scholars, and practitioners of Hindu-derived teachings for centuries.
The origin of the word Hindu is more geographic than religious. It initially denoted the land on the other side of the Indus River originally the Sindhu. Successive invaders— Persians, Muslims, Britons—called the inhabitants of the region Hindus and eventually named its dominant religious strain Hinduism. The other three religions born in India—Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism—share the same ancient source. Our understanding of it has been shaped mainly by Western scholars to fit their own system of religious classification.
It is often described as polytheistic, for exanple, when in fact it recognizes a transcendent oneness, which some call God, that manifests in a multiplicity of forms. Because of such misconceptions, and because the popular mind associates Hinduism with its colorful rituals and iconography, very few Americans of non- Indian descent call themselves Hindus, even if their worldviews and spiritual practices derive from that tradition. Moreover, the most influential gurus and Yoga masters who came to the West made a big point of saying they were not preaching Hinduism.
They were Hindus themselves, of course, but they asserted that all could utilize their teachings without deserting their own religions. Indeed, the ideas and practices they proffered did not have to be viewed religiously at all; they could be seen as a philosophy, a psychology, a science, or even a health-care modality. This was not a marketing gambit; it was an honest, pragmatic adaptation to the West. As we will see in chapter 1. Therefore I favor those two terms and use the compound Vedanta-Yoga to indicate that combination of imported ideas and practices. In some instances, I use Vedic ov Indian.
Should Hindu American advocacy groups achieve their laudable goal of correeting the image of their religion, future books will use the term Hinduism freely, without fear of misleading the publie. Buddhism and Vedanta-Yoga have interacted and overlapped intimately in the lives of American practitioners, many of whom have drawn liberally from both. Each has helped to legitimize the other, smoothing the way to mutual acceptance in the West. Their compatibility makes sense, given that Buddhism is part of the Vedic legacy.
Siddhartha Gautama, the man we call Buddha, was brought up in northern India and became a classic renunciate—a yogi, if you will. He was a reformer, much as Jesus was a reformer of the Hebraic tradition, and the religion that developed in his name stands in relation to Hinduism as Christianity does to Judaism.
Also like Christianity, Buddhism became entrenched in foreign lands even as it faded in its place of origin. Like Hinduism, normative Buddhism in Asia is rather different from its American adaptation. Difficult Choices American Veda could easily have been a thousand pages long.
Given the spaee limitations, the amount of eoverage devoted to any given subjeet was primarily based on its impaet on Ameriean soeiety. Page length should not be taken as a statement about the merit of any teaeher, teaehing, or institution. Interested readers will find additional details and referenees to other sourees in the notes. And the website www. I am not an academically trained scholar, hence this is not an academic treatise. I approached the book as a journalist and a participant-observer, and I tried throughout to maintain rigorous standards of objectivity and vigilance about my own possible biases.
That said, the book is not without a point of view. As a result, the book is not just a chronicle of the gurus, swamis, and Yoga masters who have come to our shores, but an account of a much larger phenomenon: One might compare it to the Great Awakenings of the eighteenth eentury—vastly different in theology, to be sure, but similar in its egalitarianism and individualism. For reasons made elear in the book, I am eonvineed that this development ean help make us a healthier, saner nation and provide a mueh- needed antidote to religious extremism and intoleranee.
It may have been the most momentous spiritual retreat sinee Jesus spent those forty days in the wilderness. The media frenzy over the Fab Four made known to the sleek, sophistieated West that meek, mysterious India had something of value. Our understanding and practiee of spirituality would never be the same. Today in America limber men and women stride up the street carrying Yoga mats. Doctors and therapists recommend meditation to manage stress. Newscasters toss out words like mantra and guru. Pop songs and TV shows refer to karma.
Christians and Jews delve into their own mystical traditions on silent retreats. The twain had met, and the tectonic plates of Western culture shifted. The East-to-West flow of ideas actually began with the ancient Greeks. It moved quietly through the age of exploration, when Europeans were too busy extracting resources from the newly discovered lands to learn much from their sages and seers. Thereafter, gurus came, lectures were given, books were written, and the message of India proved alluring to more and more people.
Predominantly white, urban, and educated, they were seekers of truth, of God, of self-inprovement. Some became exponents of Indian teachings themselves. Others absorbed Eastern ideas, incorporated them in their own areas of expertise, and passed along the final products.
Through them, Indian philosophy, though not always discernible, has been disseminated deep and wide. The influence spread slowly and imperceptibly, like a gathering weather system, then surged mightily in the late s, when a constellation of forces came together—mass communication and ease of travel; social unrest; war and nuclear anxiety; psychedelic drugs; and alienated but idealistic youngsters with the time and money to explore new ways of being.
In a flash, more Americans learned about Indian spirituality than in all the previous centuries. Baby boomers read books about Eastern philosophy, took up meditation and Yoga, grooved on the sound of the sitar, chanted Sanskrit in the streets, flocked to gurus, and in some cases trekked to ashrams in India. Hundreds of thousands joined what religious scholar Eola Williamson calls Hindu-inspired meditation movements HIMMs , which together, she argues, constitute a new religion. In a few short years Eastern ideas and practices spread from the counterculture to the mainstream, fueling enthusiasm in medicine, psychology, academia, sports, the arts, and entertainment.
In time, Indian philosophy seeped into the culture, changing what we know about the mind, body, and spirit, and the way we relate to the sacred. The story of this powerful, pervasive, and benign current in American life has hitherto been neglected. Understanding it can help us better comprehend who we are, how we got here, and what we might become. If we get to know India as a source of profound and practical wisdom, not just of savory spices and tech support, we will be better able to adapt those treasures to our lasting benefit. Traders, colonists, soldiers, and business executives have all gone after those prizes.
As a unit they can be conpared to the theoretical and applied components of a science—biology and medicine, for instance, or psychology and psychotherapy. Like all components of what we now call Hinduism, Vedanta and Yoga derive from the Vedic era which most scholars trace to the second and first millennia B. Vedanta and Yoga are two of the six systems of Indian philosophy which some call Hindu philosophy. They are so intertwined that all Vedantists advocate Yoga, and virtually all Yoga masters teach Vedanta.
Other strains of Vedic spirituality, such as Tantrism, Samkhya, and Vaishnavism have also entered the westward-flowing stream. These are the core Vedantic principles that we in the West have adapted: Ultimate reality is both transcendent and immanent, both one and many; God can be conceived in both personal and nonpersonal terms, that is, as formless Absolute and in numerous forms and manifestations. The infinite divine, while ineffable, has been given any number of names Brahman, Allah, Lord, et cetera , descriptions, and attributes.
Aline from the Rig Veda 1. The Ground of Being is also the essential nature of the Self In the mahavakyas great utteranees of the Upanishads we read: Our innate unity with divinity is obscured by ignorance; we identify with our individual egos, when our true identity is the transeendent Self which is Atman, which is Brahman. Individuals can awaken to their divine nature through any number of pathways and practices; no single one is right for everyone.
Spirituality is a developmental proeess, moving through a progressive series of stages; tangible benefits—joy, eompassion, wisdom, peaee—aeerue in eaeh. This bare-bones summary does not pretend to do justiee to Vedanta, a highly complex tradition with many branches and tributaries. Most applications of Vedanta-Yoga do not require these supplementary ideas, and ordinary practitioners in the West do not neeessarily believe in them. As explained in the introduction, the Hinduism practiced by most Indians is outwardly different from although theologically compatible with the Vedanta-Yoga that came here.
By way of analogy, it would be as if the Christianity exported to Asia and Afriea had been a mixture of the intelleetual rigor of the Jesuits and the contemplative praetiees of mysties sueh as Meister Eekhart and Teresa of Avila, rather than normative Christianity. Vedanta as deseribed here is similar to perennialism, a perspeetive ehampioned by the philosophers Rene Guenon, Frithjof Sehuon, and Ananda Coomaraswamy and brought to publie attention by Aldous Huxley in his book The Perennial Philosophy see this page T Perennialism arose from the frequent observation that the esoterie or mystical components of religious traditions— as opposed to exoteric ritual, doetrine, ethies, and the like—eall forth strikingly similar deseriptions of reality, across cultures and regardless of era.
This does not mean all religions are the same. That notion has been naively promoted by peace lovers because of its harmonious connotations and because every religion has some variation of the Golden Rule. But it has also been attributed, erroneously, to perennialists sueh as Huxley and Huston Smith, most recently by religious scholar Stephen Prothero, author of God Is Not One. Vedantists and perennialists are not so naive as to postulate a sameness of theology or of truth elaims. The eoherenee they point to is in the realm of inner experience, the domain associated with mysticism. In other words, while religious customs, rituals, and dogmas vary, all traditions, if taken deep enough, can bring practitioners to essentially the same place—our silent origin, or essence, whieh transcends all notions of place, all words, all concepts, all theologies.
Imagine a savvy entrepreneur running focus groups to see what Americans wanted by way of knowledge and self-improvement. The results would tell him that Indian merchandise would go over well with educated people who wanted to better themselves, whether they were spiritual or secular.
He would lick his chops over remarks like this one from the sage Sri Aurobindo: It also appeals to two seemingly contradictory strains in the national character: Our promoter might then have dashed off to the Himalayas to cut deals with swamis. For romantics, he could advertise a sublime state of liberated being. For the religious, he could promote union with God. For pragmatists, he could market provable yogic techniques. For the secular, he could promise a healthier, happier life here and now. Absent the crass impresario, the progress of Vedanta-Yoga unfolded more or less that way.
My own story is typical. I had no use for religion, but I was disillusioned with Marx and Freud too. I wanted wisdom, infinite love, and union with the cosmos. I wanted peace and freedom—not just out there in the world, but inside. I was also rational and relatively level-headed. One day I was sitting in my funky kitchen in New York, just around the corner from the sex-drugs-and-rock mecca the Fillmore East, reading a book on Eastern mysticism.
It seemed perfectly logical and down to earth. I dashed around Manhattan looking for the Bhagavad Gita harder to find than a Red Sox fan ; I found a Yoga studio also not easy, believe it or not ; I learned Transcendental Meditation as the Beatles had done but not because of them ; I became a teacher of the practice for several years.
My discoveries changed my life for the better. Ever since, I have worked diligently to integrate my spiritual priorities with the duties and pleasures of worldly life. Details aside, my narrative arc is common. With varying degrees of dedication and sophistication, millions of sober, sensible people have taken to one form of Eastern spirituality or another and adapted it to their lives.
Their conscious motivations vary, but they all boil down to issues of ultimate concern, and therefore the quest becomes religious. Form Follows Function In its most conplete form, religion serves five basie fUnetions. When I asked people what initially drew them to Vedanta-Yoga, most referred to the promise of tangible spiritual and psychological benefits; the rewards of the first three functions, such as community and worldview, were usually considered secondary gains.
The manner in which Eastern practices have inproved the lives of adherents has been described in countless memoirs, research papers, and self-help manuals. The changes lean in the direction of improved well-being: Many people also described an aha! It was experience-oriented, not belief-oriented; it did not threaten nonbelievers with damnation; and its tent was so wide, it could accommodate people of any faith—or no faith. Above all, to anyone who followed the instruction manual, it held out reasonable hope for transformation and transcendence.
The appeal of Vedanta-Yoga extends to the secular as well as the spiritual. And the goal does not have to be union with God, or Self-realization; it can be something instrumental, like reduced stress or a clearer mind. In other words, what some saw as theology, others saw as testable hypotheses. What some viewed as spiritual practices, others viewed as therapies.
Scientists and scholars also found they could study Vedanta-Yoga with the tools of their trades. In so doing they have expanded the databases of psychology, medicine, neurobiology, and even theoretical physics. Lines of Transmission Over the decades the influence of Vedanta-Yoga has grown with every person whose life was touched by it. Moved by a yearning for something more, a person seeks out or stumbles upon a source of Vedic wisdom He or she learns something of value and communicates the discovery to others, some of whom also derive benefit and share their enthusiasm.
A zealous practitioner might go to work for a teacher or an organization, as many Americans have. But such committed devotees are just the tip of the lotus petal. The untold story, and perhaps the more significant one, involves ordinary people who assimilate Vedantic-Yogic teachings into their lives and quietly go about their business. They may do nothing more than share ideas with family, friends, and colleagues, but that in itself is a significant act of transmission.
And when a disseminator happens to be in a field such as health care, psychotherapy, scientific research, education, journalism, or the arts, the impact can be sizable. In the late s and early s, many medical patients, disturbed by the side effects and exorbitant cost of medicine, started searching for natural alternatives. Some physicians, impressed by the results, began investigating the same remedies. Over time methods that proved efficacious were adopted.
Eventually integrative medicine achieved legitimacy, amassing millions of dollars in government-funded research. Similarly, people who sought meaning and personal growth and were unsatisfied by existing options, religious and secular, went shopping for alternatives and often found them in the East. Eastern teachings were dismissed as a fad and mocked as mystical gobbledygook. In time, however, what proved to be useful seeped into the mainstream Now physicians recommend Yoga and meditation, scientists study the practices, and ordinary believers hold spiritual attitudes that were once considered foreign and threatening.
For decades, advocates have communicated Vedantic ideas, sometimes to persuade, sometimes to explain, and sometimes with no agenda or reference to anything Indian. As a result, millions of Americans have been influenced by Vedanta-Yoga without necessarily being aware of it, just as they devour pasta without knowing its origins in China or watch television without having heard of its inventor, Philo T.
The influencer might not have used religious language at all but rather that of scholarship, science, or therapy; perhaps they used the generic, religiously neutral argot that has evolved in response to pluralism—a spiritual Esperanto, so to speak. With few exceptions, however, one can trace the line of influence to something Eastern.
Ginny Wright was raised Baptist and married into the Episcopal church. Along the way she earned a doctorate in psychology. Now in private practice in North Carolina, Dr. Wright draws from the Vedic repertoire but rarely refers to it explicitly. Long is the chair of the religious studies department at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and an advocate of Vedantic pluralism. His students say that he has helped them find their own spiritual paths, some of which led back to Christianity after a period of disillusionment.
Ginny the baby boomer and Jeffery the Gen-Xer represent two ways that seekers become disseminators. Millions of others have done the same, and the people they touch often find their understanding of who they are and how they relate to the cosmos profoundly altered.
Each time that happens, the Western Zeitgeist shifts a little bit more. Sometimes the connection is only a mouse-click away. In Oprah Winfrey conducted a series of Internet-based seminars with Eckhart Tolle, the spiritual superstar whose The Power of Now had ofi-the-charts sales. Their cozy salon was downloaded thirty million times.
His hostess, by the way, has learned well from her guests. Karmic Relief Cultural trends are refleeted in voeabulary, and Indian spiritual terms have infiltrated the language. When the Beatles learned to meditate in , only a handful of people outside India had ever heard the word mantra. Suddenly everyone knew that a mantra is a sound used in meditation. Fast-forward to the presidential eampaign, and you eould barely go twenty minutes without hearing the word on CNN. Every eandidate was said to have a mantra. In back-to-back issues of Newsweek, for instance, cultural icons of different eras used it: And while the word reincarnation is not particularly novel, this startling piece of data is: Never mind that these terms are commonly adulterated, trivialized, and misused.
Cultures adopt foreign words only when they serve a useful purpose and the native tongue has no equivalent. Some are merely menu items, articles of clothing, or art forms, like chai, or sari, or raga. The Vedization of America The way Americans understand and practice religion has become decidedly Vedantic—less in form, although there is plenty of that, than in spirit. The body of research over recent decades points to the following trends: Exclusivism is in decline; pluralism is in the ascendancy. But increasingly they see God as an abstract, nonpersonal force or intelligence, as opposed to an anthropomorphic deity.
Fuller, a religious studies scholar and author of a book on SBNRs, describes them this way: They typically view spirituality as a journey intimately linked with the pursuit of personal growth or development. Called by some the fastest-growing segment of the religious spectrum, SBNRs make up 16 to 39 percent of the population. Because it was spearheaded by the trendsetting baby boomers whom sociologist Paul H. The data on cultural creatives jibes with a landmark study of boomer spirituality conducted by Wade Clark Roof, a religious scholar at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
The world is the abode of God. All is one, and one is all. In the tradition of the ancient Upanishads, we find the oneness of our Atman with the all. Tellingly, Roof found that boomers who became independent seekers had a higher degree of exposure to the s counterculture than those who stayed faithful to their religious heritage. Which means they were more likely to read about Indian philosophy, check out gurus, and take off for a Himalayan ashram While their absolute numbers may have been small, they were trendsetters whose enthusiasms were trumpeted by a voracious media.
Today large numbers of people who never heard the word Vedanta are, in outlook and practice, Vedantists. What could be more American? Louis in the mid-twentieth century. The ideas and practices that shape the human soul are not like a spicy dish that can be altered in the kitchen with impunity.
If we are careless in our adaptation, the nuanced principles of Vedanta can easily get contaminated, and the practices of Yoga can lose their efficacy. One of the purposes of this book is to make more visible the Vedic footprint on Western spirituality. Data on the generations after the baby boomers indicate that they are even more spiritually exploratory, more likely to fall in the SBNR category, and more curious about religions other than their own.
This is not a threat to Western religions; Americans are not about to abandon their churches, synagogues, and mosques for Hindu temples. Figures of Shiva and Krishna will not replace crosses in American homes. Give up your heathen God and you will be saved. The Easterners have said: Here is what our sages discovered, and here are some practices that can make you a better, deeper, more fulfilled Christian, Jew, Muslim, secular humanist. There is, to be sure, a cautionary side to the story. Organizations led by Indian gurus have been rocked by sex scandals and cultish abuses.
That dark side must be confronted squarely as we absorb the best of Vedanta-Yoga without compromising either its integrity or bedrock Western values. In the eminent historian Arnold Toynbee predicted as much. But that mind was shaped in large part by Asia. He was the first public thinker to openly embrace Eastern religious and philosophical precepts, which he blended with a range of other sources and his own fecund musings to produce an unrivaled body of work whose influence pervades the culture to this day.
Because of Emerson and his direct heirs, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, millions of educated Americans have been touched by India since the mid-nineteenth century. Emerson was born in , at a time when America had no Sanskrit scholars, nor any classes or textbooks in comparative religion. While competing denominations of Christianity existed, by contemporary standards the country was religiously homogeneous.
It was also very small: New information was conveyed through newspapers, books, and handwritten letters that were transported by horses, wagons, and riverboats. Members of the progressive intelligentsia read Asiatik Researches, a journal published in Calcutta, and the works of British scholars such as Sir William Jones and Henry Thomas Colebrooke. Now there are said to be more than Much of the New England elite greeted these treasures with the same enthusiasm that the mercantile classes welcomed Asian spices and fabrics. Those philosophers who set the tone for Western eivilization must have eome upon ideas from India by way of the first adventurers who journeyed east from the Mediterranean—possibly even Pythagoras himself By B.
Aeeording to Durant, the great general was so intrigued by the yogis he eame aeross there that he invited one to aeeompany him baek to Greeee. Q Indica, four volumes written by the Greek explorer and diplomat Megasthenes, around B. Although it is far from certain, says Pagels, those contacts may have influenced the Gnostics.
Certainly their writings, with their enphasis on inner experience of the divine, suggests intriguing parallels. As the centuries progressed.
ST GERMAIN: Meditation Script
East-West traffic grew, motivated mainly by trade. As Europeans increasingly made their way to India, the race for bounty heated up, and another motive for going there arose: The sordid history of colonization and conversion produced the residual benefit of making the West aware of the Vedic tradition. Eearned men were commissioned to study its beliefs, practices, and sacred texts.
Even scholars in ivory towers openly served the imperial and missionary agendas. Some conjectured that the religion might even hold some value for Occidentals. That open-mindedness was on display as early as the seventeenth century in some Jesuit missionaries, notably the Italian priest Roberto de Nobili. As religious scholar Harry Oldmeadow notes m. As scholarship improved, the translation of Sanskrit texts became more accurate. Against this backdrop, the information filtering back to Europe about bidian religion was marked by fascination and esteem but also by revulsion, condescension, and belligerence.
Often the ambivalence was reflected in the minds of individual scholars, like the renowned Indologist and Sanskritist, Max Muller. The German-born Muller, who never set foot in India, moved to Oxford in the mid-nineteenth century and went on to produce a prodigious number of books, including a fifty- volume series called The Sacred Books of the East.
A good number of educated Indians shared that assessment, just as many Christians lament the distance their religion has traveled from the original spirit of Christ. What came to be called the Hindu Renaissance was under way even as the early English translators were hard at work, and some of those foreigners aided the reform movement.
To many educated Europeans, knowledge of India and its dominant religion came as a revelation. Most powerfully affected were the philosophers and poets associated with Romanticism and Idealism the two terms have been applied to key players almost interchangeably , who saw in Eastern philosophy a possible antidote to materialism and the cult of reason. Among the avid readers was former president John Adams.
I have read voyages and travels and everything I could collect.
The senior Emerson was the editor of The Monthly Anthology, which often published articles about India, and the founder of a society called the Anthology Club, which hosted discussions about Eastern philosophy. Coming of Sage The young man who would one day be called the Sage of Concord entered Harvard in He was not a distinguished student, ranking in the middle of his graduating class, but he had an insatiable thirst for knowledge that he satisfied through voracious outside reading. Scholars who have pored over his journals, letters, and school assignments report that he read both ancient Greek and modern European philosophy he was especially fond of George Berkeley and works about India provided by his theologically adventurous aunt, Mary Moody Emerson.
The nation was in the throes of expansion, the speed of communication and transportation was quickening, and new technologies and gadgets were appearing on the market at a pace that alarmed some of the intelligentsia. Emerson, caught up in the ferment, looked for wisdom wherever he could find it, seeking universal principles and discarding beliefs that did not hold up to scrutiny.
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After teaching for four years in a school for young women he enrolled at Harvard Divinity School. The institution had close links to the Unitarian Church, and Emerson, like his father, was ordained in that denomination. More than half a century after revolutionary sparks had been lit in that town and in neighboring Eexington , the spirit of independence still burned bright. One member, the journalist and prototype feminist Margaret Fuller, described her comrades this way: Emerson befriended the young man, at one point giving him advice that would prove bountifiil to later generations: Indian philosophy was central to the ongoing education of Emerson and the Transcendentalists.
This tendency finds its highest expression in the religious writings of the east, chiefly in the Indian scriptures. Some scholars have downplayed the impact of the East on Emerson or ignored it entirely. Treat men as pawns and ninepins, and you shall suffer as well as they. If you leave out their heart, you shall lose your own. Meantime, within man, is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One.
His prodigious intellect was augmented by a deep intuition that yielded insights similar to those of the Vedic rishis. He was, in short, a mystic. Essence, or God, is not a relation or a part, but the whole. I see my being imbedded in it. As a plant in the earth so I grow in God. I am only a form of him. He is the soul of me A certain wandering light comes to me which I instantly perceive to be the Cause of Causes. It transcends all proving. That is one fact then; that in certain moments I have known that I existed directly from God, and am, as it were, his organ.
And in my ultimate consciousness Am He. As a yearning, ceaselessly God-seeking mystic, Emerson was a prototype of the individual who has intimations of the infinite and finds in Vedanta a way to understand his or her inchoate spiritual experiences and inspiration and direction for further exploration. Absent Yoga studios and meditation classes his primary sadhana spiritual practice was solitary cornmunion with nature.
Emerson the mystic resonated with the numinous perceptions of the Vedic seers; Emerson the learned philosopher packaged his insights in the soaring language of nineteenth-century America. Emerson may have been the first leading American to articulate a viable spirituality apart from traditional Christianity, and also among the first to recognize that religion is compatible with science. Emerson managed to transcend both; he saw evolution as an expression of spirit, and the evolution of consciousness as part of the narrative: Transcendental Superstar At midcentury the nation was hurtling into modernity with the museular speed of the loeomotives ehugging along the eountryside.
Between and the start of the Civil War, more than thirty thousand miles of railroad traek were laid; better roads allowed horse-drawn earriages to ride more swiftly; a network of eanals brought boats with people and goods to new ports. With information zipping around faster than ever before, a unique and powerful voiee eould shake things up through ink and speeeh the way bloggers and talk-show hosts do today. I beeome a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the eurrents of the Universal Being eireulate through me; I am part or partiele of God.
Two years later, on July 15, , Emerson elaborated on those themes in a bold address to the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. Banned from speaking at his alma mater, the rebel would return twenty-eight years later as a eelebrated publie figure to reeeive an honorary doetorate— not unlike Bob Dylan being honored at the Kennedy Center.
Barnum was entertaining the suckers he said were born every minute, Emerson lectured to highbrows on the lyceum circuit, a network of venues for orators and entertainers and the closest thing to Oprah at the time. Wherever he went, he packed the house and drew prominent coverage in newspapers, which often printed his speeches verbatim.
He gave his audiences and readers more than abstract philosophy; his was a leading voice for the rights of women. Native Americans, and the enslaved Africans in the South. But his views on those hot-button issues were not ordinary; they were built on a Vedic foundation that flipped the prevailing religious assumption about human nature on its head—from original sin to original bliss, one might say.
In a much-quoted passage in Walden, he wrote: In his notebooks and essays, the Buddha of Walden commended those books and praised their universal vision. What extracts from the Vedas I have read fall on me like the light of a higher and purer luminary, which describes a loftier course through a purer stratum Whenever I have read any part of the Vedas, I have felt that some unearthly and unknown light illuminated me.
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In the great teaching of the Vedas, there is no touch of the sectarianism. It is of all ages, climes, and nationalities, and is the royal road for the attainment of the Great Knowledge. When my imagination travels eastward and backward to those remote years of the gods, I seem to draw near to the habitation of the morning, and the dawn at length has a place. Eike Emerson, Thoreau had mystical experiences that Vedanta helped him to understand. Thoreau was a karma yogi, one who follows the path of selfless action rooted in transcendent awareness.
His hermetic phase lasted slightly more than two years, however, during which he would walk into town to dine with friends and bring his laundry home to his mother. And while in many ways he did live the spirit of renunciation, living alone, eschewing meat, alcohol, and tobacco, he was by nature a warrior who felt duty bound to confront injustice.
The most influential jail term in American history lasted only one night, although the prisoner tried his best to extend the sentence, the better to publicize his cause. Thoreau died of tuberculosis at age forty-four, in , one month after the battle of Shiloh, one of the bloodiest of the Civil War; reports of it must have pained him. Had he lived another four months, he would have rejoiced at the Emancipation Proclamation. The Bhakti Bard Walt Whitman, the progenitor of modern American poetry, was not a member of the Transcendentalist cadre, but had he been born a little sooner and lived in Massachusetts, he no doubt would have been.
They helped him find his poetic voice. Twelve of the poems that bubbled up were collected and self-published as Leaves of Grass. Almost every critic who bothered to read the volume ridiculed it, and some denounced it. Undaunted, the poet, in a wily act of self-promotion, sent a copy to Emerson, who was already a virtual God of American letters. Poems were his bhajans devotional songs , and earth was his tenple.
He sang the praises of creator and creation in an exuberant, muscular idiom that captured the emerging American personality. Song of Myself might suggest the ultimate in narcissism, but the poem is a hymn to the Self of all selves, the eternal spirit the Vedas call Brahman: L see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then, Ln the faces of men and women L see God, and in my own face in the glass, L find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign'd by Gods name, and L leave them where they are, for L know that wheresoe 'er L go, others will punctually come for ever and ever.
By sacralizing both nature and human flesh. Whitman set the poetic template for what some consider a homegrown Tantra, the stream of Vedic spirituality that sees the divine in the mundane and directs sensory experience toward spiritual realization. Transcendental Footprints In the century after his passing, Emerson acquired nicknames of the highest order: He has prophesied everything He is the mind of America. Its core perspective, shaped by Vedic precepts, has permeated the culture.
No doubt many readers of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman have been inspired to take a Yoga class, or buy a Bhagavad Gita Jack Kerouac did, after reading Thoreau , or book passage to India. But countless more, yearning for an authentic taste of the natural and the sacred, have been nudged by the Transcendentalist song of freedom toward a Vedantic spirituality of individual choice and unmediated connection to the holy, even if nothing explicitly Indian registered in their conscious minds. It has been said that Whitman lives in virtually every line of poetry and song lyric penned in America since the publication of Leaves of Grass.
In addition, the Thoreau of Civil Disobedience has inspired generations of peace activists to adopt the tactics of nonviolent protest. Every American who checks the spiritual-but-not-religious box or shuffles off to a meditation retreat is squarely in the Transeendentalist lineage. A surprising number of the people I interviewed, when reealling the origins of their interest in Eastern philosophy, named Emerson or Thoreau as a eatalyst.
This was espeeially true of those who came of age during that unruly period between John F. Both were marked by turmoil and change; by a baby boom following an armed conflict in the earlier instance, the War of ; by political dissent focused largely on domestic injustice and military adventures; by technological advances and commercial booms that triggered both euphoria and revulsion; and by a progressive minority that challenged prevailing values and beliefs.
When I moved to Boston in , one of the first things I did was to make a pilgrimage to Walden Pond. The following year, when the Transcendental Meditation center opened in Cambridge, many of those who gathered there were warmed by the thought that they stood on the road Emerson probably traveled to address the Harvard Divinity School years earlier.
No wonder the mysterious East figured prominently in both eras. Hindu reformers quoted him. In his work one finds much that is of India. In truth he made the teachings of our spiritual leaders and philosophers a part of his life. So it was that Emerson used India to formulate his philosophy, and India used Emerson to legitimize its ancient wisdom to the modern mind. The effects of that East-West oscillation are more penetrating than we can readily appreciate.
In I was strolling on a path that followed the River Ganges outside the holy city of Rishikesh. It was a sunny day, as the Himalayan foothills warmed up after a chilly spell. The only sounds were my footsteps and the chirping of birds. Then I heard a melodic human voice. I peered over a stone retaining wall and saw a man digging in a garden. He appeared to be in his fifties, and his loose-fitting orange garments indicated that he was a sannyasi, or renunciate.
I watched him methodically plant seeds in the soil as he chanted Sanskrit verses. As a young man, he had viewed the religion of his ancestors as backward, he said, and went to university to study science. Agape, which boasts about ten thousand members, is perhaps the best-known congregation in America associated with New Thought.
There are close to two thousand such venues, most of them in either the Religious Science or Unity Church fold, and they vary in size from living rooms to arenas. Together they draw hundreds of thousands of people each week to services and reach perhaps ten times as many through their publications and websites. Whether they realize it or not, those congregants and readers are receiving messages from ancient India.
Ever since its origins in the late nineteenth century. Whether we call it God, Brahman, Allah, Spirit, or some other name. It is the Great All in which all things exist and of which all things have been made. The spiritual universe operates according to spiritual laws, which allows us to co-create our life experience consciously. Through right alignment with spiritual law and conscious contact with the Creative Intelligence within, we can achieve happiness and fulfillment. The ultimate destiny of every individual soul is to awaken to the true source of its being—God Itself.
Because this principle was at first applied to physical healing, early New Thought was also called Mind Cure. New Thought began humbly in New England around the time of the Civil War, when its founders, dissatisfied with official Christianity, turned to alternative wisdom sources. Their single biggest influence was Emerson, but they also drew from the German Romantics and British Idealists; metaphysical interpretations of the Gospels; the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg; spiritualism, which was huge at the time; the Viennese physician Franz Anton Mesmer, whose work gave rise to hypnotism; New Hampshire clockmaker-turned-healer Phineas P.
Significantly, the New Thoughters also drank directly from Vedic wellsprings. By the beginning of the twentieth century. Harvard and Yale had established professorships in Sanskrit, and Indologists were producing textbooks and translations, adding fresh Indian spices to the simmering New Thought stew. In time the seekers who found their way to New Thought became the prime constituency for the first genuine gurus to come here from India.
She attributed the origins of her Chureh of Christ, Seientist, better known as Christian Seienee, to that experienee. For her, the primary applieation of that unlimited energy souree was healing. The references were later expunged, says Thomas. Hopkins broke with Eddy and struck out on her own. She quoted frequently from the Gita and the Upanishads in her public talks and in articles in the Christian Science Journal. The Madame and the Mahatmas One of the most intriguing characters in the spiritual history of both East and West, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky left Russia in , at age seventeen, escaping marriage to a forty-year-old husband.
According to her own account, she took off on a stolen horse and spent ten years abroad before returning to Russia. When her second husband died, she left her homeland for good. Settling in New York in , she impressed people with her alleged psychic powers and her claim to having been initiated by Buddhist masters in Asia. In addition to translating Sanskrit texts, the organization worked on behalf of the Hindu reform movement.
The Secret Doctrine She died in , a controversial figure considered by some to be a spiritual genius and even a saint, and by others to be a charlatan or a self-deluded poseur. The hundreds of books written about her have not settled the argument, but there is no doubting her impact. A British journalist known in Eondon as a birth control advocate and freethinker, Besant became a Theosophist in Her former consort, George Bernard Shaw, called her conversion a calamity.
The tireless Besant spent the rest of her days promoting Theosophy, crusading for Indian independence, translating sacred texts, establishing schools, and even serving as president of the Indian National Congress. By the s, Theosophy had about 45, members worldwide, 7, in the United States. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz. Over the decades Theosophy receded from the public eye; some would say it was co-opted by the New Age movement. One was a young barrister from the Indian state of Gujarat.
While living in London in , he met two Theosophists who asked if he, as an Indian, could guide them in reading the Sanskrit of the Bhagavad Gita. Nonreligious and British-educated, the barrister was embarrassed to say he had never read the classic in any language. He suggested that they read it together. Thus was Mohandas K. Pathfinder in a Pathless Land The impossible-to-categorize Krishnamurti was a slim, handsome thirteen-year-old with haunting eyes when Theosophists discovered him on a South Indian beach and declared him an avatar.
The organization schooled him in England and prepped him to lead their Order of the Star of the East. After the First World War, when he was in his early twenties, he was sent forth as the World Teacher. In , seeking a hot, dry climate for his tubercular younger brother, he took up residence in Ojai, California. During his first stay in Ojai he had a spontaneous spiritual awakening. He did not want followers, he said. But for sustained periods of each year he remained at his headquarters in India and Ojai, churning out highly popular books such as The First and Last Freedom dind Think on These Things His mind was restless, rigorous, and consistent in its denunciation of dogma, authority, rituals, and techniques.
Only through painstaking self-observation, he claimed, could individuals set themselves free. Though he refused to be linked to any tradition, his writings and talks are permeated by the Vedanta that he absorbed early in his life. These excerpts would not be out of place in the Upani shads: When man becomes aware of the movement of his own thoughts, he will see the division between the thinker and thought, the observer and the observed, the experiencer and the experience. He will discover that this division is an illusion. That which is eternal cannot be sought after; the mind cannot acquire it.
It comes into being when the mind is quiet, and the mind can be quiet only when it is simple. The emptying of the mind brings unity. In the last twenty years of his life, he drew thousands to Ojai for his annual talks in the verdant setting called Oak Grove. Ironically, many of his fans, unable to access the inner silence he described, sought help from the gurus and methods that Krishnamurti deplored.
Teaching school in a small town near Kansas City, Missouri, she suffered from tuberculosis that was said to be untreatable. She sought a cure in the warmer climate of Denison, Texas, where she met Charles Fillmore, a railway clerk nine years her junior. As a ten-year-old in northern Minnesota, Charles had broken his hip ice skating and, after a series of dubious treatments, ended up with one leg three and a half inches shorter than the other. The two seekers married and eventually landed in Kansas City, where Charles made it big in real estate speculation.
She plunged headlong into the study of spiritual healing. He had grownup with no formal religious training but had read the Idealist and Romantic philosophers, various metaphysicians, and the Sage of Concord. His reading of Indian texts increased over time. The name changed several times, but it is now best known as the Unity Church.
On its official website. Unity Church defines its beliefs about God this way: God is the one power, all good, everywhere present, all wisdom God is divine energy, continually creating, expressing and sustaining all creation. In God, we live and move and have our being. Eiving from that awareness transforms our lives and the world. It later became Unity Magazine.
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That would make the Fillmores forerunners of the many teachers who borrowed Vedic ideas only to downplay their role. Insisting that metaphysical propositions ought to be verifiable empirically, Charles at one point began sitting in silent meditation every night. As for healing, something must have worked: This was, I sensed, my soul, and I felt it swelling until I almost burst.
Raised on a small farm in Maine, Ernest was by all accounts fond of confronting preachers with his doubts about church doctrine. In his mid-twenties he moved to southern California, where Fenwicke had established a small church in Venice.
Requests to speak led to his first paid gig, in , at E. In , two years after retiring and returning to Great Britain, he delivered a series of lectures in Edinburgh that were strongly influenced by Vedantic ideas. The book conpiled from the talks was widely read on both sides of the Atlantic. It helped shape the ideas of New Thought leaders, most notably Emmet Fox, who addressed more than five thousand New Yorkers a week in the s and s and reached many more through books and pamphlets.
His interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount has sold over half a million copies. Fox, it should be noted, was well acquainted with Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson, and his sermons were quite the rage in early AA circles. Thus, it is conceivable that Indian philosophy, through Fox and Troward, had some effect on the big bang phase of the twelve-step universe. Perhaps more to the point. Returning to Ernest Holmes: It too proved too small. Eventually Holmes settled in the Wiltern Theater, an art deco landmark that accommodated nearly three thousand.
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