In the Indo-European language—so named because Sanskrit in India and Greek in Europe both derive from it—v were w are interchangeable. Hence in India the word Vedanta and in Europe wit (and by extension wisdom) are branches of a single linguistic tree.
This common origin, however, is only the framework; the important question is what those two vessels (Vedanta, on the one hand, and the wisdom literature of Socrates, Plato, and their lesser lights, on the other) contained.
Here I will wax personal. As a professor of philosophy and religion, I had been well acquainted with the West’s wisdom literature, but I was totally unprepared for the shock of discovering that Vedanta proposes different paths of life tailored to human temperaments—jnana for intellectuals, bhakti for those who are emotional, karma for industrious individuals who like to work, and raja for contemplative people who profi t from meditating. A verse in the Bible admonishes us to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart [bhakti], with all thy soul [raja], with all thy strength [karma], and with all thy mind [jnana].” But in the Bible the four paths are compressed into a single verse; Vedantins wrote books on how to walk each of those four paths. Swami Nikhilananda’s four volumes are beside me in my bookcase.
In American Veda Philip Goldberg discusses how the British Empire occupied India for two hundred years and how India in return gave the West its San¯atana Dharma (Eternal Religion). It has come to be known as Hinduism, and its scriptures, the Vedas, culminate in the Vedanta, the covering term for the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. Vedanta’s philosophical treatises do not concern themselves with Hindu religious practices, such as chanting and ritual bathing.
Early translations of Vedic texts found their way to America in the opening decades of the country’s existence and infl uenced Jefferson, Adams, Emerson, and Thoreau. Goldberg chronicles how these beginnings mushroomed to the point where there are now Vedantic organizations in every major city in the world. He argues that the Vedas hold that religion is rooted in Ultimate Truth, that all authentic religions recognize this, and that that explains Vedanta’s appeal to Americans. This is the perspective of perennialism. As Goldberg writes, “Perennialism arose from the frequent observation that the esoteric or mystical components of religious traditions—as opposed to exoteric ritual, doctrine, ethics, and the like— call forth strikingly similar descriptions of reality across cultures and regardless of the era.”
American Veda also relates how the Vedantic infl uences found their way back to India through the lens of the American perspective. In a personal story about a visit to India, Goldberg tells of an encounter with an orangerobed monk:
I watched him methodically plant seeds in the soil as he chanted Sanskrit verses.
When he noticed me, he placed his palms together in greeting.
After responding to his queries about what had brought me to Rishikesh,
I asked about his younger days: Had he been a sannyasi since his youth?
He laughed robustly. As a young man, he had viewed the religion of his ancestors
as backward, he said, and went to university to study science.
I asked what prompted his spiritual turnaround.
“I took a class in American literature,” he said, “and I read Emerson.”
Vedanta quietly surfaces in the daily lives of Americans. Yoga, karma, meditation, enlightenment are now household words. How that came about needed to be documented, and Philip Goldberg has done just that. I hope that I have said enough to whet the reader’s appetite to plunge into this signifi cant book.