Friday, January 07, 2011

American Veda

I've been reading a lot of books lately about the history of yoga, and alternative spirituality in general, but I thought *American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles, to Yoga and Mediation -- How Indian Spirituality Changed the West" was worth a review. I don't usually review books here, but this one really grabbed me.

Goldberg’s main thesis is that what he calls “Vedanta-Yoga” has had a profound impact on American religious thinking. The book starts, as all books on alternative religion in America seem to, with Emerson, and traces the Vedic thread through New Thought, Theosophy, Vivekenanda and the Vedanta Society -- as well as a full chapter on the prominent intellectuals influenced by them, then on to Yogananda and his Autobiography, and the Baby Boomers and Beatles visit to India in the Sixties. There is also a chapter about the dark side -- the scandals associated with some of the prominent gurus in the ‘80s, as well as the deep disillusionment of their followers. Then, the impact of “practitioner/pundit” -- just as the best and the brightest of young Baha’is did in the same era, some of the kids that turned to Vedanta-Yoga became professional academics in order to study their new religion.

One thing is made clear from the beginning: We aren’t talking about normative Hinduism as it is practiced in India. Goldberg asked us to picture the situation if someone had introduced a Christianity into the East that was “ a mixture of the intellectual rigor of the Jesuits and the contemplative practices of mystics.” That is, it would be barely recognizable to its original adherents, and much adapted to the soil in which it was planted.

In fact, the teachers that brought Vedanta and Yoga to our shores made a point of telling us we did not have to abandon our Judeo-Christian heritage in order to benefit from them. One of my favorite stories in the book involves a Westerner who went to India to consult with a guru, who asked him if he prayed to Jesus. When he said “No”, that he’d left the Catholicism of his childhood behind, the guru slapped him in the face and told him that he’d just swapped one narrow viewpoint for another, and to start praying to Jesus again! Others who abandoned their churches (or synagogues) returned enriched by their detour through Hindu spirituality, with a renewed interest in Western mysticism. Along with putting Sanskrit words like “karma” and “guru” into the dictionary, Vedanta has influenced virtually every form of “alternative religion” in America, including the “spiritual, but not religious” trend. Every time you hear someone refer vaguely to “the Universe” or “Higher Power” instead of God, you’re hearing Vedanta. The idea that there are many ways to God is another popular Vedantic idea -- the one which led me to abandon the Eastern path for the more Abrahamic Baha’i Faith, which puts a very different spin on it. (Some of the ideas that Goldberg describes as coming from Vedanta are also found in Sufism -- which with Baha‘i has a lot of affinity, but there’s no doubt that it’s the Indian influence that has popularized them in the U.S.)

One of the most interesting points the book makes is that many times people aren’t even aware of the source, and may not have arrived at the door of Vedanta-Yoga through spiritual seeking at all -- a person could be just looking for relief from an ailment, addiction, or stress. Hatha yoga, certainly, is generally presented as a purely physical practice, almost completely separated from its roots as an aid to meditation, but nevertheless exposing practitioners to Vedantic ideas, however vaguely. And, it sometimes acts as a springboard into a deeper investigation of Hindu spirituality. Goldberg even talks about the appeal that Vedanta has in the scientific community -- a group which is usually thought of as being indifferent, or even hostile, to religion. Indeed, one of the major advantages that Vedanta-Yoga has is that it does not require one to take scriptures literally even where they conflict with science. It’s very pragmatic -- you try it yourself and experience the results, much like a scientific experiment.

One thing that Goldberg mentions is changing is that younger generations, while still interested in Vedic religion, are far less na├»ve and less inclined to give themselves over completely to a guru. In fact, my guess is that some of the scandals emerged as the Baby Boomers themselves matured enough to say “Hey, that behavior’s not o.k.” and were willing to blow the whistle. One thing I’m seeing, that Goldberg doesn’t mention is that more overt adherence to Hinduism is becoming acceptable, especially with women seeking feminine forms of the divine. On the Internet, I’ve found comments like “Lakshmi is my home girl” and “I’m so glad Durga came into my life.”

I found the whole book fascinating, and found myself clicking my Kindle highlighter every few pages in some chapters. And, I couldn’t help but think about the impact that the phenomenon had on my own spiritual development. I was introduced to it at the age of 14, by my uncle -- he’s at the older end of the Baby Boom generation, and I’m at the youngest cohort (depending on how you define it). I read, and still have a copy of the Isherwood translation of the Bhagavad-Gita. The idea that God allows souls to come to Him through many paths was an exciting revelation, and a principle I continue to hold to after all these years. But I eventually abandoned Eastern religion as a dead-end , attributing the nightmares I had to my meditation practice. Even more significant, the way Vedanta was presented to me back then was very intellectual, and in my heart I missed the devotional and emotional side of spirituality -- a history that made me an almost perfect candidate for conversion to the Baha’i Faith.

But the more I read about alternative religion in America, the more I have to confront the depressing truth that Baha’is are barely a blip on the radar. (That probably doesn’t come as a surprise to non-Baha’is, but when you’re in the Faith, it seems like the whole world.) Not only has Vedanta-Yoga permeated American culture to an extent that even the non-religious are influenced by it, the Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements (HIMMs) started by individual gurus had more initial success, more long-lasting and stable communities (in spite of some rocky moments), and more American followers than the Baha’i Faith has ever been able to achieve, in spite of nearly constant effort for the last 120 years. I don’t suppose the Baha’i administration will ever ask itself why.