(Part of the “Contributions of Hindu Thought to the World” series)
Dr. Jai G. Bansal, VP of Education -Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA)
Kalyan Viswanathan, President – Hindu University of America (HUA)
“In Sanatan Dharma…I discovered the basic truths of all religions in a way that the oneness of God and religion is comprehensively understood” – Radhanath Swami (formerly, Richard Slavin), ISKCON Teacher Editor’s Note: This article is based on “Hinduism and America,” a coffee table book that chroniclesthe 250-year journey of Hindu thought in America.
Although the Western world has been informally interacting with Hinduism for many centuries, the most recent tryst of America with the Hindu thought system began some 125 years ago with the establishment of Vedanta societies by Swami Vivekananda in New York City, Los Angeles, Boston and other major cities. To a society accustomed to strict conformity in matters of faith, the liberated thinking of the Vedantic ideology would have felt like a breath of fresh air in that it encouraged freedom to choose from multiple paths, beliefs, and practices – all promising to lead to the same “Ultimate Truth”.
During the second half of the 20th century, some of the more easily accessible elements of Hinduism such as Yoga and meditation gained currency and captured the imagination of the American society. However, by this time a great many Americans had already internalized the spiritual teachings of Vedanta, integrated them into their lives, applied them to their areas of expertise, and brought forth something new and different but nevertheless imbued with Hindu ideas. Many of these adapters became transmitters, influencing others who in turn influenced still others, and each step of the process added tributaries and streams to the accelerating flow of Hindu ideas into America’s collective psyche.
In the words of the American historian Will Durant, “Perhaps in return for conquest, arrogance and spoliation, India will teach us the tolerance and gentleness of the mature mind, the quiet content of the unacquisitive soul, the calm of the understanding spirit, and a unifying, pacifying love for all living things ” – a perfect summation of what the ageless Hindu philosophy had to offer to the West.
Introduction of Hindu philosophy to the West can be traced back to early 15th century when Christian missionaries accompanying the early European colonizers returned home with large collections of Sanskrit texts – Vedas, Upanishads, and Puranas – the very essence of the Hindu scriptures. These texts were studied, translated, researched, and taught as part of the broader curriculum in world religions – with little or no involvement of Hindu scholars.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), often referred to as the ‘Sage of Concord’, was introduced to Hindu thought system in early 1800s when he was an undergraduate student at Harvard University, and was one of the first American thinkers to be deeply influenced by it. From transmigration to the divine purpose of human life, he imbibed as much as his voracious reading habits allowed him to, formulating his own theories along the way. Amongst the various texts he read was the Bhagavad Gita which, according to him, was ‘the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us’.
What he learnt from these ancient scriptures made a deep impression on Emerson and his life’s work. For instance, in ‘The Over-Soul’, he reiterates the concept of everything around us being an embodiment of the Brahman. In ‘Illusions’, he refers to the concept of maya with a quote from the Vishnu Purana. In his 1836 essay ‘Nature’, he declared that the individual soul and the universal spirit were one – in other words, ‘Atman is Brahman’, a uniquely Vedantic concept. In 1836, he began the Transcendental Club, exchanging ideas with other philosophers and delivering lectures that would influence many future generations in the West.
Emerson’s student and admirer Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) inherited not only his mentor’s immense library but also his passion for Hindu thought. “Whenever I have read any part of the Vedas, I have felt that some unearthly and unknown light illuminated me. 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,” was his response after reading extracts from the Vedas.
Another of Emerson’s followers was a poet, thinker, philosopher and carpenter, until he discovered the spiritual path. Emerson’s essays led Walt Whitman (1819-1892) to Hindu philosophy, which in turn introduced him to the Bhagavad Gita. Be it his self-published poems under the title Leaves of Grass, or his poem Passage to India, Whitman was full of praise for India, a land that, to him, represented meditation and spiritual philosophy. It is believed that he took the path of Bhakti yoga, the path of devotion to the eternal spirit of Brahman, which is reflected in his poem, Song of Myself, part of his Leaves of Grass collection.
It is said that the book ‘The Key to Theosophy’ was an eye opener for Mahatma Gandhi as it ‘stimulated in him the desire to read books on Hinduism and helped dispel the notion that ‘Hinduism was rife with superstition’. The book interestingly was not written by an Indian but by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891), a philosopher who would go on to establish the Theosophical Society. After Blavatsky’s death, the Theosophical Society was taken over by a British socialist and theosophist, Annie Besant (1847-1933), who believed that ‘Hinduism is the soul of India. Without Hinduism there can be no India’. Besant was not only a crusader for Indian independence but was also instrumental in promoting Hindu philosophy and literature.
Another young mind, Ernest Holmes (1887-1960), began his spiritual journey reading Emerson when he was still in his teens, but soon graduated to reading Indian scriptures, which helped him understand Emerson’s thoughts and philosophies better. Holmes’ first steps in the direction of ‘Science of Mind’ began as a book in 1926, with the same title. It went on to become a best-seller and soon paved the way for Religious Science, part of the New Thought movement. While his philosophy was based on a synthesis of several influences from the East, the impression of Vedanta and the Bhagavad Gita are unmistakable. Holmes spoke of the Absolute and the unified presence of the Brahman in this universe and initiated prayers that were inspired by the Vedanta.
The Vedanta and the Upanishads have also influenced many concepts in modern science, quantum physics in particular. Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961), winner of the 1933 Nobel Prize in physics, was deeply fascinated by the similarity of certain Vedantic concepts and phenomena observed in quantum physics. One of the key philosophies of the Upanishads, tat tvam asi, roughly translated as ‘you are That’, fascinated Schrödinger to the extent that he began to refer to the atman = brahman concept as the second Schrödinger’s equation.
Thus, throughout the span of the 19th and early 20th century, Hindu thought had been slowly seeping into the Western consciousness. However, its exposure was limited to a narrow slice of the intellectual class – theologians, philosophers and writers. Not surprisingly, its interpretation was not always authentic, nor was its reception uniformly friendly.
The real account of Hinduism in America in its most authentic form begins with the pivotal events of The World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893 at the Congress Auxiliary Building in Chicago, now The Art Institute of Chicago. The name of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) would forever become associated with this momentous event for his rousing speech on the exposition of the Hindu thought. His speech mesmerized the audience and eclipsed all other speakers.
Swami Vivekananda had set sail with the objective of awakening India’s dormant spiritual power and in a short span of time, became flagbearer of Vedanta in the West. He founded the Vedanta Society in the US in 1894 which in time spawned dozens of Vedanta centers across America. As one passes by the famous venue in Chicago, one is sure to recall him – in 1995, the stretch of Michigan Avenue that passes in front of the Chicago Art Institute was conferred the honorary name ‘Swami Vivekananda Way’ in the memory of his famous address.
Until then, the West had mixed opinions about Hinduism and spirituality. He dispelled several myths and taught the West how ancient Hindu philosophy focused on realization as the primary goal, and how the path of Vedanta would take one closer to his goal. In subsequent years, Swami Vivekananda’s speeches, discourses and articles were compiled into books which shaped the minds of leading thinkers of the 20th century like Will Durant, William James, Pitirim Sorokin, Romain Rolland, Leo Tolstoy and Arnold Toynbee.
In 1920, the West was to receive the ‘first superstar guru of the 20th century’, as the Los Angeles Times would describe Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952). America became his home; his Self-Realization Fellowship became his teaching platform and his Autobiography of a Yogi became the message that would go on to influence millions since its publication in 1946.
A couple of years later, a 27-year-old ‘Jiddu’ Krishnamurti (1895-1986) arrived in California and, before the end of the decade, had become a spiritual star for the leading lights of that era. The list of his followers included celebrities like David Bohm, Joseph Campbell, Charlie Chaplin, Deepak Chopra, Greta Garbo, Aldous Huxley, Robinson Jeffers, Charles Laughton, George Bernard Shaw, biologist Rupert Sheldrake, Alan Watts and Ken Wilber.
The core of Vedanta is clearly evident in Jiddu Krishnamurti’s writings and talks. His teachings have constantly undergone Western revisions and have found their way into several seemingly unrelated fields, from quantum physics to the corporate world, where they aid team-building sessions.
In the decades that followed, many more dharmic teachers from India came to America and created new lineages and institutions. Among these, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1918-2008) stood out
with his Transcendental Meditation technique, his celebrity followers and the media glare on all his activities. Couched initially as a spiritual exercise, under Maharishi’s guidance TM evolved into
evidence-based scientific methodology, thus enhancing its appeal to much larger audience in the western world but in the process distancing it from its spiritual roots. In 1972, he founded the TM Organization to formalize the dissemination of Transcendental Meditation Techniques globally.
Over his life-time, Maharishi is credited with teaching his techniques to more than five million people around the world and founding thousands of teaching centers.
Another dharmic teacher who attracted hundreds of thousands of Westerners to Hindu philosophy was a man of many names. He was born Abhay Charan De, and after taking monastic vows in 1959, took on the name A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. But America knows him better as Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977), the founder of the popular Hare Krishna movement, formally known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in 1966, merely a year after he had arrived in the US carrying little besides a precious mahamantra that would resound across the country.
Thanks to his charming personality and the simplicity of his message, Hare Rama Hare Krishna became a chant, a kirtan, that would fill a million hearts with joy and bliss across the streets of America. He not just infused spirituality into a simple musical chant, but also brought in the Hindu way of life – living in harmony with one another and with animals, practising ahimsa, being a strict vegetarian and total abstinence from intoxicating substances. Swami Prabhupada is credited with attracting thousands of followers, not only in America but also in Europe and Asia – including India.
Several gurus subsequently visited the US, some of them establishing Vedantic societies and institutions that would facilitate transmission of their philosophy, and in some cases, propagated their own interpretations of the Vedantic ideas. A partial list would include names like Anandamayi Ma, Swami Vishnudevananda (founder of Sivananda Ashram), Swami Satchidananda (Integral Yoga Institute), Swami Rama (Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy in Chicago), Swami Nikhilananda, Swami Muktananda (Siddha Yoga), Swami Chinmayananda (Chinmaya Mission) and Swami Dayananda Saraswati (Arsha Vidya Gurukulam). Several modern gurus like Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma), Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (Art of Living), and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev (Isha) have continued the movement that Swami Vivekananda started more than 125 years ago and have attracted millions of followers seeking enlightenment in the ancient philosophy of India.
In addition to those who travelled with their spiritual messages to the West, there were many like Sri Aurobindo, Satya Sai Baba, Ramana Maharishi and Neem Karoli Baba, who had the power to influence a continent without setting foot in it. Their teachings were carried across the seas through books, students as well as through Western thinkers who were influenced by their teachings.
Assimilation and Transformation
What was initially regarded as an ‘outsider’ religion, many in the Western world found, appeared to hold answers to the many questions they had been struggling with for a long time. Attaining a state of enlightenment where one realises one’s true nature and transcends desire and materialistic pursuits became aspirational, especially when acquisition and consumption became top priorities of the Western society.
Numbers suggest that the American society has been moving ever closer to a spiritual worldview that resembles the core principles of the Vedic tradition. According to a 2008 Harris poll, 24% of Americans said they believed in reincarnation, and more than a third of Americans are choosing cremation over burial today, up from a mere 6% in 1975. In a 2009 Pew survey, almost half of the respondents stated that they have had a religious or mystical experience, defined as a ‘moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.’ In a Gallup survey, when asked if they thought of spirituality in a personal and individual sense or in terms of organization religion, almost 75% picked the former. When asked about their religious and spiritual attitudes, a great many Americans
sound vaguely Vedantic, and when asked where they got those ideas from, they didn’t know, or they mentioned a book, a teacher, a friend or family member, a shrink, a health practitioner, a celebrity, or a self-help author.
These seismic shifts in the spiritual and cultural landscape of the American society did not occur overnight, nor did they happen only due to the efforts of the visiting swamis and gurus from India. Indeed, during the second half of the 20th century, many a Westerner journeyed to India, spent many long years in ashrams with spiritual gurus there, learning and imbibing, in a true guru-shishya tradition, the intricacies of the Hindu thought system, and returned home to disseminate the teachings here. Further, a number of the disciples of the visiting swamis went on to spread the knowledge they had acquired during their years of apprenticeship, sometimes adapting and transforming them into their own formulations and brands.
Joel Solomon Goldsmith (1892-1964) founded The Infinity Way Movement, which began as a book titled The Infinity Way (1948). According to him, God is one, he is infinite, eternal and man as one with God, in terms of his qualities and characteristics. This is very much in keeping with the Hindu philosophy of the Brahman, the universal consciousness, but promulgated under a different label.
Richard Alprechts (1931-2019) turned spiritual after visiting Neem Karoli Baba in India, took on a Hindu name, Ram Dass, and went on to become an influential figure in the New Age Spiritual movement that spawned the Western Bhajan culture. One of his students and a musician by profession, Krishna Das (born Jeffery Kagel), garnered a massive Bhajan following. The Bhajan culture has led to the Bhakti Fest, an annual gathering of several thousand at Joshua Tree national forest in California. It also eventually gave rise to ShaktiFest – a women’s gathering within the new age spiritual movement.
Ken Wilber (b.1943) came up with the integral approach to reality, based on two fundamental dimensions of existence, the interaction of which results in the four quadrants of reality – a concept originally suggested by Sri Aurobindo. In 1977, Wilber published The Spectrum of Consciousness, where he reflects on the various levels of the mind which, in Vedanta, is referred to as koshas.
Eckhart Tolle (b.1948) is another modern thinker and spiritual guru who has focused on the non-duality of life and of the individual and the universe, liberally borrowing from the Advaita Vedanta, which is the original source material for the concept of oneness and non-separation. In 1997, he came up with The Power of Now, described as a guide to spiritual enlightenment. While it has been a best-seller, it has also been criticized of usurping ideas and thoughts from Hindu texts and spiritual leaders like Ramana Maharishi and Sri Aurobindo without giving them due credit.
Vamadeva Shastri is a Vedacharya (teacher of the Veda), vaidya (Ayurvedic doctor), jyotishi (Vedic astrologer), and a puranic (Vedic historian) who teaches at several Indian institutions in the West. Born David Frawley (b.1950), his fascination for Vedic scriptures led him to contribute to several journals at the Aurobindo Ashram. His books on health like Yoga and Ayurveda: Self Realization and Self-Healing and Shiva, the Lord of Yoga have been widely appreciated by the likes of Deepak Chopra, who considers Frawley as one of the yoga gurus whose influenced on him was profound.
Another interesting perspective on the Vedantic thought system came from John Hagelin (b.1954), a renowned quantum physicist from Harvard. Following in the footsteps of another famous quantum physicist from an earlier era, Erwin Shrodinger, Hagelin turned his focus towards the relationship between the unified field theory of physics and the unified field of consciousness,
two seemingly unconnected fields, once again establishing a strong parallel between quantum physics and Vedanta.
Andrew Cohen (b.1955), a spiritual teacher and the founder of Evolutionary Enlightenment, designed to help each individual change his world ‘from the inside out’, was influenced by a variation of the Advaita teachings that were closer to those of Ramana Maharishi.
Jeffrey Long (b.1969) is another Westerner who converted to Hinduism after he read the Bhagavad Gita. He is the author of A Vision for Hinduism: Beyond Hindu Nationalism, in which he has shared a vision of Hinduism as the ‘eternal’ or ‘universal’ religion that is pluralistic and all-inclusive, with a tradition that is visionary enough to lead the world into a future in which all the religions reflect ‘complementary visions of a larger reality’.
The influx of Hindu spiritualism also triggered a number of breakaway religions and communities in the West, like New Thought, which accommodated spiritual aspects of Hinduism like meditation, Agape, a movement that is part of New Thought, founded by Michael Bernard Beckwith, and The California Institute of Asian Studies, which was renamed California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in 1980 and was begun by Haridas Chaudhuri with the objective of capturing the essence of Karma, Bhakti, and Jnana Yogas in its programs.
One of the major developments in the West in the last 60 years has been the emergence of a new school of thought that rejected religion but embraced the spirituality that came along with it. This is the SBNR category, the Spiritual but Not Religious mindset that began to attract a lot of followers, especially those who were unclear or ambivalent about their religious beliefs, particularly about the existence of God. As of 2017, over a fourth of the overall American adult population considered itself SBNR, registering an 8% rise from 19% in 2012. It comes as no surprise that SBNR has been declared the fastest-growing category in American religion. While Vedanta did not precipitate or encourage this movement, it did provide the SBNRs a natural home because here they could have a spiritual life without having to follow the tenets of any religion, be it prayers, rituals, traditions or beliefs.
The SBNR and the New Thought movements have given rise to books like the Religion of no religion, by Frederic Spiegelberg, a specialist in Indic studies who also wrote Spiritual Practices of India. The influence of Vedanta-Yoga is evident in the various interpretations of and approaches to spirituality, ranging from ‘inter-spirituality’ to ‘integral spirituality’. Vedantic ideas such as Atman, a manifestation of the Divine, are present in all individuals, have now become increasingly popular in the realms of New Age Spirituality.
“We are all Hindus Now”1 was the title of an article that appeared in August 2009 issue of Newsweek magazine. Following excerpts from this article should give us a good read on the spiritual heartbeat of today’s America:
“America is not a Christian nation. We are, it is true, a nation founded by Christians, and according to a 2008 survey, 76 percent of us continue to identify as Christian…But recent poll data show that conceptually, at least, we are slowly becoming more like Hindus and less like traditional Christians in the ways we think about God, our selves, each other, and eternity.
“The Rig Veda, the most ancient Hindu scripture, says this: ‘Truth is One, but the sages speak of it by many names.’ A Hindu believes there are many paths to God…all are equal. The most traditional, conservative Christians have not been taught to think like this. They learn in Sunday school that their religion is true, and others are false… Americans are no longer buying it. According to a 2008 Pew Forum survey, 65 percent of us believe that ‘many religions can lead to eternal life’—including 37 percent of white evangelicals, the group most likely to believe that salvation is theirs alone…
“Then there’s the question of what happens when you die. Christians traditionally believe that bodies and souls are sacred, that together they comprise the ‘self,’ and that at the end of time they will be reunited in the Resurrection… Hindus believe no such thing. At death, the body burns on a pyre, while the spirit—where identity resides—escapes… So here is another way in which Americans are becoming more Hindu: 24 percent of Americans say they believe in reincarnation, according to a 2008 Harris poll. So agnostic are we about the ultimate fates of our bodies that we’re burning them—like Hindus—after death. More than a third of Americans now choose cremation, according to the Cremation Association of North America, up from 6 percent in 1975”.
What could be a better testimonial to the lasting impact of the Hindu thought system on the American society? There is no denying the fact that more than a century long exposure to Vedantic thought has generated a gradual transformation of the American value system. What emerges at the other end may not look anything like traditional Hinduism, but Hindu threads will undoubtedly be shining bright in its cultural tapestry.