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.
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