Chronicle of spectacular impact of Hinduism on Western religion and spirituality

Written by Pradeep Krishnan

Philip Goldberg, author of the famous book ‘American Veda’ was born and raised in Brooklyn and now lives in Los Angeles, USA. As a college student in the 1960s, he started expanding his mind in various ways, searching for higher truths and trying to save the world from racism and war. What seemed like confusion was an idealistic young man scratching his way to the two passions that would mark his adult life: spirituality and writing.

After giving up his studies Phillip pursued answers to the Big Questions for which political theory and the social sciences had come up short. Despite having been raised by atheists who disdained religion, he was drawn to the pragmatic mysticism of the East, through Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley and the classic texts of Taoism, Buddhism and Vedanta. This led him to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation and he spent a good portion of the 1970s teaching meditation and otherwise working for the TM organization.

His spiritual pursuits and writing career proceeded on separate tracks. In his books, he was able to indulge his interests in psychology, human potential and holistic health. Meanwhile, he continued earnestly pursuing his lifelong quest for higher awareness and intimacy with the Divine. He taught meditation, started spiritual support groups, and counselled people on spiritual matters. Along the way, he helped to create the Forge Institute, a non-profit devoted to the promotion of trans-traditional spirituality and global spiritual citizenship. He was also the founding director of the Forge Guild of Spiritual Leaders. He is still a member of the Forge board of directors and serves as Director of Communication.

In 2002, he became an ordained Interfaith Minister through the Interfaith Seminaries. He began offering spiritual counselling professionally and occasionally performing weddings. Recently, with his wife, acupuncturist Lori Deutsch, he started Spiritual Wellness and Healing Associates (SWAHA). He published Making Peace with God and Roadsigns on the Spiritual Path: Living at the Heart of Paradox. His column, “Spiritual Wellness” appears regularly on Healthworld Online and also blogs on www.Intent.com.

His magnum opus, American Veda, published in 2010 covers the history and influence of India’s spiritual teachings in America. The book reveals how the ancient wisdom of Vedanta took the U.S. by storm in the 19th and 20th centuries and continues to do so today. In American Veda, Phillip chronicles the complex, interwoven and inevitable plays between India and America with a voice that is not only very knowledgeable, but also that is likeable, sensitive, trustworthy, and kind. About the book, Pandit Vamadeva Sastri (David Frawley), Vedic scholar says, “Through his stimulating and thoughtful book, Indian readers can share in the great adventure in global consciousness that he documents in detail. They can learn how spiritually aware Americans have long been looking to India for guidance, not just Indians looking to the West.”

American Veda tells a story that needs to be told. An illuminating, gracefully written, and remarkably thorough account of India’s spectacular impact on Western religion and spirituality. The book chronicles how the ancient philosophy of Vedanta and the mind-body methods of Yoga have profoundly affected the world view of millions of Americans and radically altered the religious landscape.

Excerpts from an exclusive interview with Pradeep Krishnan:

1. How did you come in contact with Hinduism in general and Vedanta in particular?

I was raised by atheists, with no religion in my home but a strong sense of morality and ethics. I was a political activist in college in the 1960s. I was, however, personally unhappy and unable to find adequate answers to the important questions of life. During that period of personal and social upheaval, the essential teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism became more and more accessible to young people in America. Some of the thinkers we respected most were speaking and writing about Vedanta and Yoga and other Indian treasures. It resonated strongly within me. The teachings made sense, and were not in conflict with science or the known facts of history, unlike the religions I was familiar with. They seemed practical and nondogmatic. I wanted to know more and more. I read everything I could get my hands on, and eventually took up Transcendental Meditation and was trained by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi as a teacher. My ongoing learning and my spiritual path as a yogic practitioner has broadened and deepened ever since.

2. In the book ‘American Veda’ you say that Indian spirituality has taken the United States of America by storm and continues to do so even today. But many in India are of the view that Indians, by and large, are embracing Western culture and tradition in a very big way. Your comments?

I think both are true. All the great swamis and gurus who came to the West, from the time of Vivekananda onward, have said that America has much to offer India by way of material progress and that India, in turn, has spiritual treasures to offer America. That seems to be true, only what America received from India is not as visible as the technologies India imported from America. They are, however, far more beneficial and powerful, so Americans got the better deal.

I think it is important for the people of India – especially the young people – to be very discerning about what they import from America and what they choose to emulate about the American way of life. It would be a disaster, for example, if Indians adopted our unhealthy eating habits, or our materialism, or the tendency to substance abuse and workaholism. The irony is, Americans have turned to hatha yoga and meditation largely to neutralize the impact of our high-stress lifestyle, at the recommendation of a growing number of physicians. I hope that as India advances materially, Indians don’t make the same mistakes Americans did, and I hope that they don’t turn their backs on the great gifts of their own rishis by mistakenly thinking that ancient teachings have no value in the modern world. On the contrary, the Vedic heritage is indispensable for living a healthy, balanced life that combines prosperity with inner peace and spiritual growth.

3. Fundamentalist and terrorized Islam is spreading its tentacles all over the globe. The rising Islamic fundamentalism is posing a major threat to our civilization. How to overcome this threat?

The threat must be taken seriously, and each nation’s security experts must protect their citizens against terrorist violence. That said, I don’t see a future for fundamentalist ideologies of any kind over the long run. Few people want to live under such regimes, and despots can rule by force and coercion for only so long. It’s up to the great majority of sensible Muslims to stand up and refuse to be dominated by extremists, just as Christians in the West have for the most part rejected the extreme voices of that religion. Those voices are loud, and they cause a lot of trouble, but they are a small minority and will never impose their will on Americans. I have confidence that the same is true of India. The country’s tradition of pluralism and democracy is a powerful antidote to fundamentalism.

4. Hinduism is getting wider acceptance all over the globe. But there is a feeling that Hindus of India are in danger from Christian missionaries, Muslim fundamentalists and Marxists. How do you view this paradox?

I love India and consider it my spiritual home. But I am not Indian, and it is hard for me to comment on events there from a distance. However, it seems to me that if Hindus remain true to the deepest teachings of the dharma, no religious fundamentalism or secular ideology can pose a serious danger for very long. The truth has a way of winning out over lies and misconceptions and obsolete theories. But it’s essential for Hindus to make the teachings relevant to the modern age and demonstrate their practical value in the lives of the people. It’s not enough to simply glorify the greatness of the past or to appeal only to pride and tradition. The rishis and yogis and philosophical geniuses of India’s past did not just give the world superstitions and myths. Americans have embraced Hindu ideas and the methods of Yoga because they make sense and offer proven benefits. Perhaps Hindus in India need to be reminded of the practical value of their own traditions. That’s the job of today’s gurus, swamis, acharyas, scholars, and scientists. And advancing the material well-being of the people would help enormously, as missionaries and secular radicals prey on the desperation of the poor, the hungry and the sick.

5. How far the Gurudom has helped the ordinary American to get in touch with the higher dimensions of Hinduism?

The gurus who came to the US, beginning with Swami Vivekananda and continuing on through Paramahansa Yogananda and then into the 1960s and 70s with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swami Muktananda, Swami Satchidananda and others, and continuing on to today with Sri Mata Amritanandamayi and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, have been a mighty force in making Americans aware of the deepest and most practical dimensions of Hindu Dharma. Their impact has been far greater than that of academic scholars. The gurus reached tens of millions of people—both disciples and members of the larger public—and their influence should not be underestimated. Most of the dharma was taught in the name Yoga and Vedanta, with the word “Hinduism” being downplayed to emphasize the universality of the Dharma. In the West, “Hinduism” is a religious term, and the gurus knew that people would not comprehend the universality of Vedic teachings if they were branded with religious language. The most successful gurus used rational, a scientific language so the core ideas could be apprehended by the Western mind without bias.

6. You are of the view that due to centuries of distortions-some intentionally perpetrated by colonists and missionaries, some the result of innocent ignorance- Hinduism is widely misunderstood. Could you please elaborate?

As most people in India are painfully aware, the colonists’ agenda was to dominate, rule and exploit, and the missionaries’ agenda was to convert. Therefore, the scholars who served the colonists and the missionaries had an interest in portraying Hinduism as primitive, backward, superstitious and irrational. Their descriptions coloured the views of others, including many who were not part of the imperial and missionary enterprise. In addition, social scientists, journalists and ordinary travellers saw the external, colourful aspects of Hinduism—the temples, rituals, murtis, etc.—and described it without penetrating the profound insights that underlie everyday Hindu practices. So it appeared even to sympathetic Westerners as exotic idol worship. All that has changed, of course, as a result of greater contact between Americans and India, as well as the stream of gurus who came to the West, improved scholarship and all Western seekers who delve deeply into the Dharma. That last group includes a growing number of academics, authors and others who have influence with the public.

7. Any difference between Indian Yogis spreading their wisdom in other countries and Missionaries and Islam reaching out to other countries?

As I often tell my audiences when I speak, there is a vast difference between gurus, swamis and yoga masters taking their teachings outside of India and the missionaries who bring their religions to India. While many missionaries undoubtedly do selfless service to the poor and the sick, many of those who seek to convert the native population do not play fair. The record of coercion, manipulation, bribery and deceit is deplorable, and the truth is that most American Christians would be appalled if they knew about some of the tactics used in the name of their religion. The gurus, on the other hand, never asked anyone to convert, nor did they demand that anyone—even their closest disciples—renounce the religion of their own heritage. They presented the teachings for people to use in accordance with their own needs, desires and spiritual/religious beliefs. All religions were treated with respect. And the truth is gurus helped a great many of their followers become better Christians and Jews.

8. What could be the reasons for Indian gurus getting spontaneous acceptance from all over the globe?

People tend to accept what works and improve their lives. Hindu Dharma, when presented skillfully, makes sense and yields practical, tangible rewards that transform peoples’ lives for the better. The precepts hold up to reason, science and logic, and the practices hold up to experience and experimentation.

9. How do you view the works of Freudian, Marxist and other academicians, like Jeffrey Kripal and Wendy Doniger bitter critics of Hinduism?

I fully understand how disturbing this issue is to Hindus. But it is a more complex issue than many people realize. For one thing, I’m not sure that “bitter critics” is an accurate term. I know scholars of religions who disagree vehemently with the methods, interpretations and conclusions of Doniger and others. They consider their means of analysis to be very flawed. In fact, many leading academics misunderstand and misinterpret Hinduism and Indian history. But it is also true that many leading academics incorrectly interpret other religions. Hinduism has a shortage of scholars and theologians with formal academic training and university positions. To be sure, there are many sympathetic and accurate voices, but more are needed. In the meantime, Hindu laypeople and others who cherish Hindu Dharma need to be vigilant and publicly expose errors and flaws when they arise. But we should do so carefully, and with dignity. Otherwise, the media will continue to label any critic of Doniger and others an extremist, and ironically, the publicity will drive sales of objectionable books higher.

10. Do you think that the spread of Hindu (vedantic) thoughts worldwide is able to make a real impact on Christianity? To what extent?

Vedanta and Yoga have already had an impact on Christianity in America and parts of Europe. I predict that this tendency will grow, and it will spread to other parts of the world. Especially since the 1960s, the various streams through which Hindu teachings have filtered into people’s lives has created a new phenomenon: people who are sincere about their spiritual lives but reach beyond the borders of their own religious heritage to pursue spiritual experience and wisdom wherever they can. The main sources have been Hindu and Buddhist in origin. I give lectures titled “A Nation of Yogis,” in which I argue that growing numbers of Americans are more like yogis than traditional Christians, Jews or secularists. More and more Christians have become pluralistic, in that they recognize the validity of other traditions and, in many cases, incorporate ideas and practices from Dharmic religions into their lives. They acknowledge the yogic ideal that everyone has to determine his or her own spiritual path and that no single path is right for everyone. They have also come to prioritize inner spiritual experience over belief systems, dogmas and religious institutions. Moreover, due to the influence of gurus and yoga masters from India, large numbers of Christians have come to see Jesus in a new light: not as the one and only saviour of humanity but as one of many divine incarnations, or as a great sadguru.

About the author

Pradeep Krishnan

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