Saturday, February 19, 2011

What India gave America

Book review: American Veda - From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation. How Indian Spirituality Changed the West By Philip Goldberg

Publisher: Harmony (Nov 2010)

Estimated 16 million Americans today practise Yoga. Indian spirituality along with the practice of Yoga, meditation and pranayama are drawing huge following in America and the West – this much, most of us know. But very few of us understand the magnitude and the profoundness of the Indian influence on America. Philip Goldberg's decades of painstaking research brings forth this exciting story of America’s engagement with Indian thought.

When the first translations of Upanishads hit the shores of America in the early nineteenth century, it caught the imagination of the American intelligentsia, which had been finding the biblical worldview increasingly difficult to accept. They came to be introduced to spiritual ideas and practices that emphasized exploration than faith, sat completely well with modern values and did not “run counter to Scientific laws” (as French Nobel Laurette Romain Rolland would later put it). Perhaps the foremost of early American thinkers to embrace Vedantic thought was Ralph Waldo Emerson who has been hailed as the “founding thinker of America” and “the mind of America". But as Goldberg notes, this mind to a large extent was shaped by Vedantic thought. Generations of American intellectuals took to Indian thought through his intellectual initiation. This included, notably, his student, America’s “first sanyasi” and early civil rights activist, Henry David Thoreau and “the poet of democracy” Walt Whitman. The Vedantic thought that “all human beings are essentially divine” found expression in Emerson’s voice for rights of women, Native Americans and the enslaved Africans as much as it enforced Thoreau’s quest for justice. Thoreau’s book ‘Civil Disobedience’ inspired by Vedantic thought became the handbook for civil rights activists and also later inspired Mahatma Gandhi’s own Civil Disobedience movement.
Even the simplest of spiritual ideas from the Vedas such as “God is within oneself” and “God manifests in everything” which even a tribal or an illiterate Indian would vouch for seemed to capture the imagination of the American mind. For the first time, Americans had found that spiritual ideas were not dogmas and that they could be a dynamic force that enforced the values of universality, equality and justice. Even before Vedantic thought contributed to India’s freedom struggle through Swami Vivekananda, B G Tilak, Aurobindo, Mahatma Gandhi, Subhas Bose and others, revolutionaries and pacifists alike, it had already found expression, far off in the civil rights movement of America. And even when Indian mind was hard pressed for survival under the colonial rule, America had become the new-found-land of the resurgence of Indian thought.
The initial American thinkers would prepare a ground for the arrival of Indian Gurus starting with Swami Vivekananda followed by Yogananda, Marshi Mahesh Yogi and many others, each of them catering to the different times and segments of a dynamic society. Each of them drew the best of Americans and also other Westerners of their times; literary figures, artists and poets, scientists and doctors and even Nobel Laurette's and rock-stars. But Physicists and Psychologists seemed to be disproportionally too many - probably due to the affinity of their disciplines to the Vedantic quest? From scientists as eminent as Heisenberg, Einstein, Thompson, Schrodinger and Tesla and literary figures such as Aldous Huxley to psychiatrists William James (who has been called the father of American psychology) and Harvard psychologist Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass), Vedanta had made an impact on all. Through them Yoga and Vedanta reached the wider public and also to their respective fields of study. The interaction of Indian spirituality with these different fields was profound and symbiotic. When, for example, Harvard Cardiologist Herbert Benson and others, influenced by Maharshi Mahesh Yogi's Transcendental meditation, conducted scientific tests on meditation and established its unparalleled health benefits, yoga and meditation became household phenomena both as wellness as well as spiritual activities. Think of the numerous heart attacks that were prevented and the millions of pills that were not taken because of this, as Goldberg puts it, and that would itself be an indicator of the impact of this dissemination.

Yoga and meditation not just became techniques for stress busting. They swayed generations of Americans, who were turning psychedelics and experimenting with drugs to experience higher states of happiness, away from it. The most high profile of these, were the Beatles - the rock band that Maharshi Mahesh Yogi lured out of drugs, introducing them to meditation as an alternative and a better way to expand consciousness and experience happiness.

One important characteristic of the Indian Gurus was that while their ideas and diverse practices were all based on the Vedantic thought, most of them never insisted on particular religious identities of their followers. Spirituality was beyond organized religion for them and they never actively sought religious conversions, although a few Americans did take up Hindu names and explicitly called themselves Hindus. For the Gurus though, it was not necessary for the timeless ideas to be packaged as Hindu or even as Indian. And this has had its own consequences. As Goldberg points out, today psychiatrists across America tell their patients things like “God is within themselves” while prescribing Yoga and meditation, without explicitly stating that these ideas come from the Vedas or from India. But the wide dissemination and acceptance of Vedic ideas, although never created a distinguishable religious segment of its own, trickled into American subconscious, creating a huge section of people who call themselves "Spiritual But Not Religious" (SBNR). A popular article published in Newsweek in August 2009 titled “We are all Hindus Now” which Goldberg also quotes, finds that today SBNRs constitute nearly 30% of American population and are considered by some as the fastest growing segment of the religious spectrum. Apart from this, the survey says that 24% of Americans believe in some form of rebirth and whopping 65 % believe that "many religions can lead to eternal life" - a core belief of Vedantic pluralism. Goldberg writes that this validates his thesis "that America has moved even closer to a spiritual world view that resembles the core principles of the Vedic tradition"

But while talking about Indian influence on America, I believe that it would be both unfair and erroneous to consider it as a one way contribution. The engagement has indeed been enriched with interweaving threads running from both sides although the basis of this interaction has always been Vedanta itself. While spiritual wisdom travelled from the East, the American thinkers’ contribution in giving it an intellectual dimension can hardly be under-estimated. They stood shoulder to shoulder with Indian intellectual giants like Swami Vivekananda, Yogananda, Aurobindo and others as prime disseminators of Vedic heritage to the world. They preserved each thread from India, nourished them and also built on top of them. The 'American Veda' which constitutes this engagement is indeed one of the most cherished branches of the thousand branched tree that is the Vedic civilisation. This book is a tribute not just to the timeless ideas of Vedanta but also to the spirit of America.

As I write this, I read that Huffington Post has judged this book one of ten best books of 2010 in the religion category. This book is a must read for all Indians. Through the story of American Veda many of us may rediscover our own wisdom and probably our true selves too.


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