Monday, March 14, 2016

American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation--How Indian Spirituality Changed the West / Philip Goldberg -- N.Y.: Harmony Books, 2010

In 1981, Rick Fields published a book entitled, How the Swans Came to the Lake which was a history of how Buddhism made its way to the United States.  In American Veda, Philip Goldberg presents a similar history for Hinduism or what he calls "vedanta-yoga."  While the subtitle suggests that the story of Hinduism transmission would cover Europe and North America, Goldberg mostly describes its transmission to the U.S.  Early on, he makes the rather bold claim that vedism, the idea that we, as individuals, participate in a larger consciousness that constitutes the universe, is a "perfect fit" for the American ethos, at least insofar as vedism permits "personalized pathways to the divine."  He goes on, then, to describe to growing impact of Vedic philosophies and yogic practices on Americans.  Beginning with Emerson's acceptance of an "over-soul," passing through Thoreau's paeans to nature, Goldberg describes the foundation of vedism in American literature.

The real launch of American vedism begins, however, with the World's Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893.  From this point on, Americans began hosting a number of gurus from India who introduced the intelligentsia to vedism.  Goldberg recounts the impression these gurus had on such figures as Huston Smith, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, and Gerald Heard.  This period is perhaps the first phase of serious examination of the vedic philosophy in America.

It is followed, however, by a much larger influx of gurus following the elimination of immigration restriction from Asia in 1965 and the journey to India by the Beatles, Mick Jagger, and Marianne Faithful in 1968.  The list of celebrities who were influenced by various gurus during the 1960s and 1970s is impressive; however, the scandals associated with many high profile gurus casts doubt on the legitimacy of this paroxysm of interest.  To his credit, Goldberg does not shy away from a fair-minded account of this period.  What he finally concludes, though, is that despite the appearnce of charlatans, the Western seekers gained a genuine appreciation for vedanta-yoga.  In the final chapters he discusses ways in which vedanta-yoga has influence the arts, psychology, and physics.

American Veda is a fine account of the coming of vedanta-yoga to the U.S.  It provides a sympathetic, but honest assessment of that history.  It does, however, overstate the extent to which vedanta-yoga has permeated American culture.  While the trappings of vedanta-yoga might well be increasingly common and more Americans than ever before may be signing up of Hatha yoga classes, an accurate awareness of the vedic world view is still hardly known in America.  Goldberg's points out that a significant number of Americans describe themselves as "spiritual, but not religious," and he suggests that this is a product of the transmission of vedanta-yoga to the America.  It might, however, be more likely a consequence of the success of science made consistent with a reluctance on the part of people to completely abandon their ancestral beliefs.  Goldberg also suggests that the increased interest in vedic (and Buddhist) spirituality represents a kind of Great Awakening of the 21st century.  Only time will tell about that.