America the Spiritual Evolves
The West’s assimilation of India’s spiritual philosophies and its vast repertoire of yogic practices will inevitably continue, probably at an ever-accelerating pace. The realization of diversity in the context of unity is a prime characteristic of physical evolution, so why wouldn’t the evolution of consciousness move in the same direction? Exactly what forms the Vedization will take is anyone’s guess. Ten years ago, who could have predicted the explosion of hatha yoga studios and superstar kirtan wallahs? This last chapter describes recent trends and makes some basic predictions.
From the book: “Gurus still come to America, but they have fewer doors to break down, and they no longer attract overheated media coverage and trigger extremes of rapture and hostility. The recent crop differ from their predecessors in other ways too. More of them are women, for one thing, including the most popular one of all.” That refers to Mata Amritanandamayi, aka Amma, “the Hugging Saint.” In her annual tour of major North American cities, tens of thousands come for her darshan and the universally beloved Amma hugs one and all, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning.
Enormously popular in India, and the founder of one of the largest NGOs in the world, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is now celebrating the 30th anniversary of his Art of Living Foundation. A spiritual prodigy as a child, he worked for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s organization as a young man and then went out on his own, taking his Sudarshan Kriya (a series of breathing practices) and other methods and programs to an eager public. His organization has more than 20 centers in the U.S., the grandest of which is a huge, domed, former Christian Science church in Los Angeles. He is pictured here discovering a new book, and smiling at the photo of himself and the author. Art of Living website.
Other gurus of recent vintage are also growing in recognition, including:
Sri Karunamayi, who is also known as Amma (mother) and tours the U.S. annually.
Yogiraj Siddhanath of the Hamsa Yoga tradition.
Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, founder of the Isha Foundation.
Swami Dayananda, founder of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam.
Gurus will always be with us, but the contemporary transmission of Vedanta-Yoga is centered around yoga studios. Diverse and seemingly omnipresent, the studios are evolving into communal centers for practitioners whose motivations range from stress reduction to enlightenment. The chapter examines this trend and raises questions about whether something vital could be lost if yoga continues to be presented as a purely physical discipline.
There are countervailing trends, however. Veteran yoga teachers – too numerous to name some without offending others – take steps to inform students about the deeper elements of the tradition and to train new teachers accordingly.
Among the new trends worth contemplating are: increased engagement by practitioners in the duties of citizenship, through various forms of service and social action; increased feminization, in the form of women in leadership positions, devotional practices and various aspects of the divine feminine as an object of devotion.
One highly visible – and audible – phenomenon related to these trends is the explosion of kirtanas an art form, a spiritual practice (bhakti) and a focus of communal gathering. Kirtan artists like Krishna Das, Jai Uttal and Wah! now sell out venues that twenty years ago would have been near-empty. And the Bhakti Fest extravaganzas in the high desert near L.A. attract thousands for three days of celebratory chanting.
Finally, the chapter contemplates the future of Western religion and spirituality and sees it trending ever faster in the direction of experience-driven pluralism, as Vedanta and Yoga seep further into the public awareness. This, we can only conclude, is a good thing – an antidote to exclusivism, tribalism and fanaticism. As the prescient historian Arnold Toynbee wrote in 1969, “a chapter which had a Western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in the self-destruction of the human race.”