In a sense, I started working on this book in 1967, when I first became enchanted by Indian philosophy. As I plunged deeper into my study and began practicing meditation and yoga, my life changed for the better. Soon I saw the same thing happen to others, then others and others still. Indian spiritual teachings were clearly affecting a lot of people, not just me and my friends. Then scholars, scientists, psychologists, and others began adapting those ideas and practices to their areas of expertise.
By the mid-1980s the imported teachings had seeped into the culture in a profoundly meaningful, although not always obvious, way. Indian imports were changing not only individual lives but also health care, psychology and religion.
The story seemed intriguing and important, spanning two hundred years and populated by fascinating characters, some of them renowned, others unknown but surprisingly influential. In 1985 I wrote a proposal for a book on the subject but could not interest a publisher. Sometimes “ahead of its time” is an accurate description. Twenty years later yoga classes had become as easy to fi nd as a cappuccino, and American spirituality as a whole had acquired a distinctively Eastern flavor; India’s influence had spread wider and penetrated deeper into the culture. Trace Murphy at Doubleday saw it too and thought there might be a book in it. He mentioned the idea to my agent, Lynn Franklin, who put the two of us together. When I added formal research to my almost forty years of participant-observation, I saw that the story was even more far-reaching than I thought, and far more complex. After three years, hundreds of eye-straining hours of reading, more than three hundred formal interviews, and countless informal conversations, I completed the first draft.
As I was editing the book in August 2009, Newsweek published a column by religion editor Lisa Miller titled “We Are All Hindus Now.” It was extremely gratifying to have a mainstream publication validate my main thesis: that American society has moved ever closer to a spiritual world view that resembles the core principles of the Vedic tradition. Many complex forces have given rise to this development, chief among them the two hundred years of access to Indian philosophy chronicled in these pages. Miller’s article was like a good advance review.
A second reason her piece intrigued me was its provocative title. Certainly Americans are not becoming Hindus, in the sense of attending rituals in Hindu temples, performing pujas (ceremonies) at home altars, celebrating holidays such as Duvali and Shivaratri, and praying to Ganesh or Lakshmi. But that is not what Miller was referring to. Rather, she argued, large numbers of Americans have arrived at a worldview consistent with a principle articulated in the ancient Rig Veda, which she translated as “Truth is One, but the sages speak of it by many names.”
Miller’s title alludes to only one subset of Hinduism, not to the religion as practiced by the great majority of Hindus. Which brings us to the name itself.
Why Not Hinduism?
This book is about Hinduism—if the word were to be defined narrowly, as a specific set of precepts and practices derived from India’s primary religion. But, defined as the everyday religion of India, Hinduism is not the subject, and if the title or jacket copy suggested it was, many potential readers would misconstrue the nature of the book. For that reason, I decided to use the terms Hindu and Hinduism sparingly.
Such linguistic dilemmas have plagued writers, scholars, and practitioners of Hindu-derived teachings for centuries. The origin of the word Hindu is more geographic than religious. It initially denoted the land on the other side of the Indus River (originally the Sindhu). Successive invaders—Persians, Muslims, Britons—called the inhabitants of the region Hindus and eventually named its dominant religious strain Hinduism. In fact, what we think of as one religion is a multifarious collection of sects, traditions, beliefs, and practices that evolved from the Vedas, the world’s oldest sacred texts, and took shape across the vast Indian subcontinent over the course of many centuries. The other three religions born in India—Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism—share the same ancient source. Varun Soni, dean of religious life at the University of Southern California, calls Hinduism “the oldest and youngest religious tradition”— old because of its ancient origins, and young because “it was codified as an ism by colonial Brits more for administrative and political reasons than theological.”
In many ways Hinduism is more diverse than the sum of Christianity,Judaism, and Islam, which, if history had been reversed, might have been lumped together as Jordanism, after the river valley in which those traditions were born. Hinduism has no central authority, no founding figure,no historical starting point, no single creed or canonical doctrine, and many holy books rather than one—all reasons why it has been called the world’s largest disorganized religion. Our understanding of it has been shaped mainly by Western scholars to fi t their own system of religious classification. Many adherents prefer the original term, Sanatana Dharma, which is commonly translated as “eternal path” or “eternal way.”
Due to centuries of distortions—some intentionally perpetrated by colonists and missionaries, some the result of innocent ignorance—Hinduism is widely misunderstood. It is often described as polytheistic, for example, when in fact it recognizes a transcendent Oneness, which some call God, that manifests in a multiplicity of forms. Because of such misconceptions, and because the popular mind associates Hinduism with its colorful rituals and iconography, very few Americans of non-Indian descent call themselves Hindus, even if their worldviews and spiritual practices derive from that tradition.
Moreover; the most influential gurus and yoga masters who came to the West made a big point of saying they were not preaching Hinduism. They were Hindus themselves, of course, but they asserted that anyone could utilize their teachings without deserting their own religions. Indeed, the ideas and practices they proffered did not have to be viewed religiously at all; they could be seen as a philosophy, a psychology, a science, or even a health-care modality. This was not a marketing gambit; it was an honest, pragmatic adaptation to the West.
As we will see in chapter 1, the components of India’s spiritual tradition that most affected Western culture have been the philosophy of Vedanta and the practices of yoga. Therefore I favor those two terms and use the compound Vedanta-Yoga to indicate that combination of imported ideas and practices. (In some instances, I use Vedic or Indian.) Should Hindu American advocacy groups achieve their laudable goal of correcting the image of their religion, future books will use the term Hinduism freely, without fear of misleading the public.
Where Is Buddhism?
Buddhism and Vedanta-Yoga have interacted and overlapped intimately in the lives of American practitioners, many of whom have drawn liberally from both. Each has helped to legitimize the other, smoothing the way to mutual acceptance in the West. Their compatibility makes sense, given that Buddhism is part of the Vedic legacy. Siddhartha Gautama, the man we call Buddha, was brought up in northern India and became a classic renunciate—a yogi, if you will. He was a reformer, much as Jesus was a reformer of the Hebraic tradition, and the religion that developed in his name stands in relation to Hinduism as Christianity does to Judaism. Also like Christianity, Buddhism became entrenched in foreign lands even as it faded in its country of origin. (Like Hinduism, normative Buddhism in Asia is rather different from its American adaptation.) To keep the book to a reasonable length, however, references to Buddhism were kept to a minimum, despite the tradition’s enormous impact. That decision was made easier by the presence of Rick Fields’s masterful How the Swans Came to the Lake and other informative books on the history of Buddhism in the West.
American Veda could easily have been a thousand pages long. Given the space limitations, the amount of coverage devoted to any given subject was primarily based on its impact on American society. Page length should not be taken as a statement about the merit of any teacher, teaching, or institution. Interested readers will find additional details and references to other sources in the notes. And the website www.AmericanVeda.com contains archives, links, photographs, audios, and other supplementary features, including a blog where visitors can contribute information, ideas, and opinions.
I am not an academically trained scholar, hence this is not an academic treatise. I approached the book as a journalist and a participant observer, and I tried throughout to maintain rigorous standards of objectivity and vigilance about my own possible biases. That said, the book is not without a point of view. It became increasingly evident during my research that America’s absorption of Indian spiritual teachings is a positive historical development. As a result, the book is not just a chronicle of the gurus, swamis, and yoga masters who have come to our shores, but an account of a much larger phenomenon: a religious revolution whose impact is likely to endure. One might compare it to the Great Awakenings of the eighteenth century—vastly different in theology, to be sure, but similar in its egalitarianism and individualism. The story can also be seen in nonreligious terms, as describing a major shift in consciousness; the ideas and practices we’ve imported from India are changing the way we understand ourselves and our place in the universe. For reasons made clear in the book, I am convinced that this development can help make us a healthier, saner nation and provide a much-needed antidote to religious extremism and intolerance.