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The American immersion into Hinduism (book review)

My friend of nearly three decades, a disciple of Swami Rama, and a guru in his own right, told me about going to the American embassy in New Delhi for a visa to travel to the United States. Having heard about the idiosyncrasies of visa officers, and not knowing how another man claiming to be a teacher of yoga and meditation would be handed his “visa karma”, my friend stood in line waiting for fate to play its game.

Called by an officer and asked why he wanted to travel to the US, my friend told me that he must have spoken for about 15 minutes, and that it seemed his guru, Swami Rama, was the one who was doing the talking through him. With tears in his eyes, the officer told my good friend that the US needed the help of teachers like him and, surprising my friend, who expected nothing more than a six-week, one time visa, the officer later handed him a 10-year, multiple-entry visa.

My friend and I taught in a Krishnamurti school in India about 30 years ago, and over the past three years he has graced my home with his presence as he travels through the US and Canada talking to and walking his students and small groups of Americans and Canadians through the simple as well as the esoteric aspects of Hindu meditation techniques, about the nature of the cosmos, the need to relate well to friends and family, and about reducing the daily stress and burdens of modern living. In his still rather quaint Indian English, and with his soft, engaging smile, he manages to soothe those who come seeking answers that are as old as life and as new as now: Why are we here? Where do we go from here? What is life all about?

My friend was very much on my mind as I recently read Philip Goldberg’s new book, American Veda [available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk], in which, with a grand sweep, Goldberg traces the two-century long American fascination with Hindu spirituality, yoga, philosophy, music and meditation. From the bard of Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was smitten by the Bhagavad Gita and wrote in his journal in 1831, “It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spake to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us”, to the LSD-experimenting Harvard iconoclast, Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass), who was led by an American friend to Neem Karoli Baba in the hills of north India and rid of his doubt and his LSD, Americans have discovered spirituality, karma, reincarnation and cremation through Hinduism – so much so that Lisa Miller wrote an essay in Newsweek with the title: “We are all Hindus now”.

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Living just 40 miles away from Lynchburg, Virginia, the headquarters of Jerry Falwell’s Baptist ministry, and the home of Liberty University, where all things non-Christian are the work of the devil, and Glenn Beck is invited to speak to graduating seniors, I know that for the die-hard Christians India is simply the place for soul-harvesting. Hinduism, as another Virginia resident, Pat Robertson, claimed, is nothing but devil-worship to many Bible-thumpers. And while this virulent form of Christianity has spread its wings post-9/11, more Americans are now practising yoga, putting their hands together in namaste, and meditating on “Om”.

Despite the aggressive Christian attacks against visiting Hindu gurus, teachers and godmen – from events where things were thrown at Swami Vivekananda, the handsome monk who addressed the first World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893 in Chicago, to the picketing of the Los Angeles studios where the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was being filmed by Merv Griffin – Goldberg says that millions of Americans found the insights that Hinduism provided to be what Walt Whitman called “far-darting beams of the spirit”, “unloos’d dreams”, and “deep diving Bibles and legends”.

And just as Emerson recognised that religion, of the Hindu variety, was compatible with science, many Americans, both lay and experts (including religion scholars, psychologists, medical doctors and physicists) continue to discover the efficacy of mantra, tantra, yoga and meditation. Neuroscientists studying consciousness and physicists studying the birth of the cosmos have sung in praise of the Hindu sages. Thus, unlike Christian proselytism that preys on the poor and the ignorant around the world, Hindu spirituality and Hindu gurus have attracted the well-educated, the urban, the spiritually inclined and the affluent in the west.

More important, Hindus and Hindu gurus have rarely, if ever, sought to convert others to their religion. When a student of mine, a few years ago told me that his father had spent three decades in India, and had written a book about his spiritual experiences there, I discovered the book Ocean in a Teacup. Ray Hauserman Jr, who went to India as a nurse assistant during the second world war, writes about his guru Sri Thakur Anukulchandra, and how one day two Muslim men came to the Thakur and asked for initiation. They told the Thakur: “We have watched what you are doing and we believe that your prophet is greater than Mohammed.” But Hauserman’s guru shook his head and told the Muslim men: “Don’t come to me if you wish to change your faith. Your prophet is dear to me as every other.” It is this Hindu world view that has captured the spirit and faith of Americans, and Goldberg’s impressive research, including more than 300 interviews, lays out in captivating detail the American immersion into Hindu spirituality, music, art and philosophy.

There continues to be opposition, no doubt, not just from Christian fundamentalists but from some academics wearing secular, Marxist, or Freudian garb, as well as from Indian critics too well-trained in continental philosophies and too deracinated by lifestyle choices. It also comes from critics in India who want their gurus and swamis to stay at home and live the life of ascetics. They read about the peccadilloes and the palaces of some of the jet-setting gurus and are scandalised about these men (mostly) who they believe are selling Hinduism-lite, ridding it completely of any Hindu affiliations.

Goldberg has written all about this in a manner that is truly reflective of the mind and heart of the wise guru who looks at life and its vicissitudes with an understanding smile. But why “American Veda”, and not “American Hinduism”? Given the fact that Hinduism is used as a religious label, and that Hinduism comes with its own rituals, beliefs and theologies, even Swami Vivekananda realised that it would be more practical and intelligent to focus on vedanta and yoga than distract Americans about Hindu theology and the historical growth of Hindu beliefs and practices over millennia. Not much has changed in this regard since 1893, making American Veda a book worth reading not just for Americans and Indians, but for those around the world in quest of the spiritual.

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