I had known Philip Goldberg as a prolific writer of self-help books and a regular blogger on spiritual issues. When I met him a few months ago he mentioned that he had been interested in Hindu spirituality for many years and had practiced and taught Transcendental Meditation (TM) for some of them. He added that he was presently in the process of putting finishing touches to his latest book, American Veda, which would deal with the transmission of spiritual knowledge from India to the West. As an Indian American the subject intrigued me, and I sought out a copy soon after it came out in print. It turned out to be a highly readable, lucidly written, comprehensive account of the history and impact of Hindu spiritual and philosophical traditions on American thinkers, writers, artists, scientists, and philosophers over the past two centuries. It spans the entire life of this young nation, from the time of its founding fathers such as Adams and Jefferson, through the lives of its great thinkers such as Emerson and Thoreau, to modern writers, artists, academics and philosophers, such as Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), and Joseph Campbell, among others and, of course, the Beatles, most notably, George Harrison. It traverses the path taken by many Indian spiritualists such as Swami Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda, and other gurus and teachers from India who came to this country and established centers to propagate their Vedantic view of the world and its solution to the problems of life through the practice of yoga and meditation. While the book gives a comprehensive account of the spiritual and cultural assimilation of Hindu practices and beliefs in this Western setting, it also raises some questions.
What got you interested in Hindu spirituality, notably Vedanta and yoga? Was it some specific incident or life experience?
I was at loose ends as a student in the 1960s, and felt a void in myself. So I began reading a number of books on Indian philosophy and Vedanta, including the Upanishads and the Gita. I found in them answers to questions of what life was all about. That began a journey that included the training and teaching of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s TM. Youth in the 1960s were looking to the East, and to other alternatives, to fulfill what they felt was a vacuum in Western religion.
Why the name American Veda? Vedas are the name of the earliest spiritual composition of Hindu seers and do not seem to have any connection with your subject.
Since I did not want to use the term Hindu or Yoga which I think would have been misleading, I thought this was the best alternative. Since “Veda” means knowledge, the implication is that the core knowledge of India’s great spiritual tradition is what came to America and was adapted to life in this country. The descriptive subtitle, “From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West” describes its contents.
Why distance yourself from the terms Hindu or Hinduism? Aren’t both Vedanta and yoga part of the core beliefs of the Hindu philosophical tradition? Also, is it not a practice in Western literary tradition to always acknow-ledge the source?
I deliberately refrained from using Hindu or Hinduism because the book focuses on Vedanta and yoga, the two aspects of the tradition that were embraced by Americans, and it does not cover all the other expressions of the Hindu experience, such as rituals, temple worship and the like. Further, the teachers and gurus who came to America were specific in not attempting to convert anyone to Hinduism. On the contrary, they encouraged their followers to stick to their own religious traditions while adding the Vedantic or yogic principles to their practices. So, if I used Hinduism in the title, potential readers would be confused about the contents. I do mention that what came to be called Hinduism is the source of all these ideas.
Are Western absorption of things Indian limited to Vedanta and yoga? What about the lure of the mystics and Tantrists that Western media never tires to project as the “exotic?”
They have not had the wide appeal that Vedanta and yoga have had, so I did not deal with them. Also, I restricted the book to America and kept away from India’s effect on Europe and other parts of the world, which might be somewhat different. The more that spiritually oriented Americans turned to sources outside of conventional religion, the more did doctors and psychotherapists recommend such practices as means of stress reduction. Even Christians and Jews have started adding meditation and yoga to their own religious practices.
You mention that Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, with his TM, brought meditation practices into the mainstream from its earlier esoteric heights. Why is TM and its influence waning in America?
No, TM has not disappeared from the scene. It is still being taught to many in the mainstream. It’s no longer exotic enough to interest the media, but it still attracts attention because people like filmmaker David Lynch and other celebrities endorse it and have raised funds to bring meditation to at-risk students and war veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It has long been recognized as a method to reduce stress, and the research on it continues apace.
You devote a chapter to charges of sexual and other misconduct by many of the gurus and teachers, which led to a lot of disillusionment among their followers. Could some of it be a cultural perception since, in India, display of affection to children and younger people is part of the social norm and not considered perverse or leading to sexual gratification?
Well, the cases I discussed did not deal with children, but with adolescents or adults, and the allegations had to do with exploitation for the purpose of sexual gratification. Now, I cannot know for sure which allegations are true, and whether some were tantric initiations, as many contend they were, but the complaints were many and some of them were widely reported at the time. To a large extent, a pattern of abuse was documented. But two things should be emphasized: these incidents occurred back in the 1970s, and it’s not fair to paint all the gurus of that period with the same brush. In the end, it’s the teachings that matter, not the personalities or behavior of some of the teachers.
Isn’t this influence of Indian spirituality limited to a few intellectuals and college graduates, and not really affecting the lives of common Americans? I have never heard of their influence spreading to, say, the blue collar workforce or minorities.
Phenomena like this always start with the well-educated and open-minded portions of the population. But it filters into the rest of society, often in very subtle ways. People from all backgrounds are increasingly attracted to a spiritual path shorn of religious dogma and ritual. Yoga as a fitness program and healthcare regimen is already practiced widely among all classes of people. Slowly and almost imperceptibly this leads to interest in the philosophical and meditative aspects of its practice.
Do you think all these visits by Hindu gurus and teachers is a soft form of proselytizing without openly claiming that they are trying to convert people from other religions?
No. All of them consistently asked their followers to stick to their own cultural and religious traditions. While they propagated their version of the universal features of Vedanta they did not ask anyone to convert to Hinduism. This has been the common feature of all their teachings. So you have many who consider themselves Jews or Christians and still practice Vedanta or yoga as part of their practice. I have never come across anyone who was asked to leave their existing religious affiliation. If anything, the opposite is true.
Philip Goldberg’s book shows that the influence of Indian thought and practices, whether labeled as Hindu, Buddhist, Vedantic, Yogic or any other, have become far more widespread than most of us realize and they have now taken on an “American” life of their own. However, the reluctance by many Americans to use the word “Hindu” might, in my opinion, have more to do with two reasons. The first is that Hinduism, except for the sole exception of the people of Bali, is still essentially the practice of peoples from the Indian subcontinent and therefore identified with their particular social and cultural traits. The other reason might be that liberal Americans, who are trying to distance themselves from the fundamentalist religious groups here, though willing to delve into the less doctrinaire Hindu and Buddhist practices, are not looking to associate themselves with any other denomination which might also have a radical fringe. As Goldberg points out they would prefer just “spirituality” to the label of a religion.
Philip Goldberg is reachable at http://americanveda.com.
Srinivas Chari is a retired Management specialist with a background of both Engineering and Liberal Arts. He writes about politics, history, philosophy, and related issues.