By Philip Goldberg
Foreword by Huston Smith
Harmony Books, New York, 2010; hardback, 398 pp., with photos, notes, and index. $26
Review by William Page
This is a very readable history of Hinduism’s influence on the United States. Beginning with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s discovery of the Bhagavad Gita in the early 1800s, Philip Goldberg traces what might be called “the Hindu Connection” to American life and thought right down to the present time.
On the way, he gives extensive treatment to some of the famous and not-so-famous Hindu teachers who have graced American shores. Swami Vivekananda gets an entire chapter (“The Handsome Monk in the Orange Robe”). So do Paramahansa Yogananda (“The Yogi of the Autobiography”) and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (“Maha Mass Media”). The circus that surrounded the Beatles’ 1968 visit to the Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh is described in colorful detail. For better or for worse, that iconic event represented the peak of American interest in Hinduism to date.
Other gurus mentioned at varying length are Krishnamurti, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (a.k.a. Osho), Swami Muktananda, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, and some I had never heard of before. Deepak Chopra, Mata Amritanandamayi, and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar come in near the end.
Home-grown gurus and zippy one-liners
The book is comprehensive, detailed, and well researched. It includes portrayals of Hindu sages who never came to America, but who influenced it from abroad—Sri Ramana Maharshi and Sri Aurobindo, for instance; and home-grown gurus and would-be gurus like Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, Ram Dass, and Adi Da (earlier known by a host of other names). Almost a full chapter is devoted to the triumvirate of transplanted English intellectuals who did so much to popularize Vedanta in America during the mid-20th century under the guidance of Swami Prabhavananda—Gerald Heard, Aldous Huxley, and Christopher Isherwood. There are later chapters on Hinduism’s often-rocky relationship with the academic world; its influence on the arts, culture, and science (especially the science of consciousness); and the yoga fad.
The book’s tone is generally upbeat, even ebullient, with an easy prose style enlivened by many zippy one-liners: “In a neat cross-cultural volley, India inspired Thoreau; Thoreau inspired Mohandas K. Gandhi; and Gandhi tossed the ball back to Martin Luther King, Jr.” (44) At first the one-liners seem delightfully refreshing, but after the first hundred pages or so, they begin to wear a bit thin. Sometimes they cross the line into flippancy: Sri Aurobindo “went to jail as a Che Guevara and emerged as a Swami Vivekananda” (135); the Maharishi was “the Henry Ford of American Veda, and TM [Transcendental Meditation] was the Model T” (176); Rajneesh was “a blend of George Carlin and Hugh Hefner” (190). Worst of all, Swami Satprakashananda, the highly revered founder of the Vedanta Society of St. Louis, is described as looking like “a well-tanned sibling of Harry S. Truman.” (104) Readers who favor a more reverent approach may take offense, but at least the book is never boring.
Is the U.S. about to “go hindu”?
There’s a flood of bubbly statistics that may lead readers to think that the entire United States is about to “go Hindu.” Paramahansa Yogananda’s autobiography has sold over four million copies! (109) The day after Deepak Chopra appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, his most recent book sold 137,000 copies! (234) Six million people have studied Transcendental Meditation worldwide! (364, endnote 33)
But let’s not kid ourselves. Hindu movements in the United States are basically subcultures, and they’ve experienced problems. Goldberg may be fond of zippy one-liners and bubbly statistics, but he balances them by analyzing the problems with incisive insight. Serious practitioners of meditation and yoga often complain that Americans water down both disciplines, treating meditation as nothing more than a stress-reduction technique and yoga as a physical fitness routine. One yoga teacher notes wryly that “It’s an American talent to take something deep and make it as superficial as possible.” But Goldberg adds that, in the process, some Americans discover the higher benefits of both disciplines, and go on to explore them.
There’s an unpleasant chapter on the dark side of America’s encounter with Hinduism (“Sex, Lies, and Idiosyncrasies”). Some gurus have been tainted by sex scandals. Goldberg faces them squarely, and reports them in somewhat more detail than some readers might like. He concludes that “a generation of seekers was forced to learn sobering lessons about the pitfalls of spiritual dependency and the danger of elevating gurus to godlike status.” (215)
But aren’t gurus supposed to be infallible? Haven’t years of spiritual disciplines are not a cure-all: “There is not necessarily a one-to-one correlation between elevated states of consciousness and moral and ethical behavior.” (216) He quotes the transpersonal psychologist Ken Wilber: “You can make significant gains in awareness, including enlightenment—but enlightenment, per se, does not fix everything in the psyche or the body.” (253)
Goldberg acknowledges that “virtually every guru and institution from India has had to struggle with culture shock, disappointed followers, and organizational dysfunction.” (126) Paramahansa Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship gets a scolding for “yawn-inducing services” and for being “prissy, puritanical, and guilt-inducing, because renunciation is considered a spiritually superior way of life.” (125)
Goldberg doesn’t deal with this issue, but my own feeling is that it would be very difficult for Hinduism in its present form to become a mainstream religion in the United States. Its close identification with Indian ethnicity will make some Americans uncomfortable; its colorful pantheon and rituals will strike some as alien, garish, and bizarre. Americans raised in the Abrahamic religions will have an ingrained horror of image worship. The insistence of classical Vedanta that the world is unreal will raise eyebrows on every side, and its emphasis on renunciation and continence will send most Americans running for the door. Others will object to the guru system as an infringement on their freedom.
Whether such deterring factors represent shortcomings in Hinduism, or in the American psyche, or maybe a little of both, I leave for the reader to decide. But it’s not necessary, and may not even be desirable, for Hinduism to become a mainstream American faith. Vedanta always points to a goal that goes beyond names and forms. Other writers have predicted that some Vedantic ideas which are compatible with the American character will seep into the national consciousness and take root so subtly that Americans won’t even realize where they came from. The idea of religious pluralism, for instance, seems to be gaining popularity; and I recall reading somewhere that an impressive number of Americans who don’t believe in a personal God do believe in a universal spirit. These are Vedantic ideas expressed in different terminology. Deepak Chopra is very good at presenting Vedantic ideas in de-Sanskritized language; and in the magazine ads he used to run, the Maharishi, with a bow to Einstein, always referred to the Atman as the Unified Field.
In brief, American Veda presents a wealth of information in a lively and engaging way and will stimulate your thoughts. I highly recommend it to all Vedantists, especially American ones, and most especially to those who are interested in knowing how the Vedanta movement fits into a broader pattern of Hindu influences on the United States.
WILLIAM PAGE is a retired teacher of English who has been associated with the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Massachusetts since 1960 and is currently a member of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Thailand.