Review: American Veda

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

Reviewed by Michael J. Altman:

A Methodist church near my house advertises for “Gentle Yoga Classes” on one of those church signs usually reserved for witty and redemptive one-liners like “Jesus: Your Get Out of Hell Free Card.” Meanwhile, a local pizza place lists a “Kosmic Karma” pie on its menu. Indian spiritual language has crept into American vernacular culture. But where did it come from? Is there some connection between karmic pizza and yoga in church?

In American Veda, Philip Goldberg tells the story of a new American tradition, derived from both the practices of yoga, and the philosophy of Vedanta. He names this “Vedanta-Yoga,” as distinguished from other aspects of Hindu religious culture (such as the worship of multi-limbed deities) that might be less meaningful for Americans.

For Goldberg, it all adds up to the slow “Vedicization” of American spirituality. By this he means that Americans have become more comfortable with a view of the world ultimately found in the ancient literature of India—the Vedas, the Upanisads, and the Bhagavad-gita. First, there is the idea that the self and the ground of Being (or the Divine, God, Brahman, Consciousness, etc.) are one. The full realization of this truth leads to liberation and the cessation of suffering. Second, there are a number of paths toward this realization and no single path works for everyone. Third, it follows then that, at bottom, all religious and spiritual traditions, while looking different, share the same goal of divine realization. Vedanta-Yoga is thus a monist, pluralist, and perennialist tradition of American spirituality built from Indian religious sources.

Two Hundred Years of American Vedanta

In the nineteenth century the first wave of Vedic thought broke on American shores. Transcendentalists, including Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, read the Bhagavad Gita and found in it a spiritual solution to the materialism of early American industrialism. Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott turned to Vedic sources and combined them with Western esoteric and occult traditions to produce Theosophy. Goldberg also finds Vedic influences in the 19th-century births of Christian Science and New Thought movements.

The nineteenth century was capped off with the 1893 arrival of Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu monk and disciple of the Bengali guru Ramakrishna, to the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago where he spoke to a crowd of liberal Protestants about the basics of Vedanta philosophy. Vivekananda stuck around and established the Vedanta Societies that are still with us today. Vivekananda offered a flesh and blood example of the Vedic philosophy Americans had found in ancient Indian texts throughout the century.

The second wave of Vedic influence reached its apex in the counterculture of the 1960s but has its roots in much earlier in the twentieth century. Decades before the Beatles met the Maharishi, a set of public intellectuals that included the likes of Joseph Campbell and Aldous Huxley propagated Vedic ideas they learned from Vivekananda’s Vedanta Society. The popularity of Swami Yogananda and his Autobiography of a Yogi gave Vedanta-Yoga further steam in the middle of the century. In the 1950s, the writings of Indian gurus like Sri Aurobindo found their way into America and the American Academy of Asian Studies was founded in 1951. Then came the Maharishi. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi founded Transcendental Meditation and taught the Beatles to meditate. The Hare Krishnas came too. By the 1970s, following changes in American immigration laws, a whole generation of Indian gurus and yogis brought Vedanta-Yoga to America. Goldberg calls these the “Baby Boomer’s Babas.” This was the period of building institutions for Americans to practice yoga, meditate, pursue the study of Vedanta, and gather around a guru.

In the wake of institution-building the final wave pushed Vedanta-Yoga out into the broader cultural streams. Homegrown American advocates such as Ram Dass and Deepak Chopra emerged. Academic “pandit practitioners” taught in religion and theology departments, deepening Americans’ understanding of Vedic thought. Artists like John Coltrane were drawn to Vedic philosophy and Indian music. In the field of science, physicists saw a parallel to their discoveries in quantum physics in Vedanta philosophy.

Vedanta-Yoga became such a part of of American culture that other religions could apparently not resist it—thus came Christian yoga, Jewish yoga, and the sign at my local Methodist church. The Vedicization of America continues, argues Goldberg, as the millennial generation absorbs Vedic ideas and yogic practices. For Goldberg, the “spiritual but not religious crowd” is just the latest version of American Vedanta-Yoga.

A Nation of Pragmatic Mystics

Goldberg’s narrative is expansive. He constructs a broad history for Vedanta-Yoga in America that ranges from Madonna to religion scholar Huston Smith. But more than just expansive, Goldberg’s narrative is itself ever-expanding. It is a story of cultural development that mirrors the personal development of the yogi or vedantan. As Goldberg tells it, from its earliest nineteenth century encounter forward, American culture has been on a path of enlightenment and liberation that continues toward more and more spiritual freedom. Built into this narrative of national and cultural development enlightenment are tropes of the free market. Gurus and yogis succeeded in the religious marketplace, Goldberg argues, because they provided Americans spiritual commodities that worked. Furthermore, those yogis and gurus that were best able to adapt themselves to the American market were most successful. Yoga, stripped down to poses, whipped people into shape. Transcendental Meditation (which Maharishi stressed was a practice and not religious) lowered stress. Vedanta-Yoga offered a spiritual wholeness to practitioners but also adapted to the market. But Vedic teaching and practice worked, so Americans bought it. As Goldberg puts it, we are a nation of “pragmatic mystics.”

If there is one problem at the heart of Goldberg’s analysis, though, it is his reliance on a reductive vision of the difference between East and West. As Goldberg tells it, in the past two centuries the spiritual East (read India) has brought spirituality to the materialist West. In this view, the West is materialist, outward, scientific, and ego-building while the East is spiritual, inward, mystical, and ego-transcending. Vedicization, then, is the synthesis of these two poles into a new American spirituality of practical mysticism.

Such a narrative ignores both material realities in India and spiritual realities in America. To pick just one example, Swami Vivekananda was the product of a Bengali society greatly affected by British imperialism. He was part of a nouveau riche class in and around Calcutta. He got a Western education from a Protestant missionary college and he was the product of the Bengali Renaissance triggered by the economic, colonial, and cultural encounter between Indians and Britons. Meanwhile, American culture has its own history of mystical, esoteric, and spiritual resources. While Theosophists, Christian Scientists, Transcendentalists, and New Thoughters were influenced by Vedic texts, they were also part of a long Western tradition of esotericism and metaphysics. Emmanuel Swedenborg and Franz Anton Mesmer had has much if not more influence on these groups as Vedic texts. The “spiritual East comes to the material West” narrative is powerful but it is over-simple.

This is not just Goldberg’s narrative. It was also Emerson’s, Vivekananda’s, and the Maharishi’s. In this way, Goldberg is writing from within the Vedanta-Yoga tradition he describes. I doubt he would dispute this. This position within the tradition has given him a passion and a vision for all the ways it has influenced America, and Goldberg’s book offers a wonderfully comprehensive account of the many places Vedanta-Yoga has filtered into our culture.

While his advocacy for the cause may oversimplify things at times, the accessibility of his writing and the broad scope of his material make up for it. For “the spiritual but not religious” wondering how they got there, for those wondering who those Indian dudes are on the cover of Sergeant Pepper, and for Methodists doing yoga, Goldberg offers an important story of America’s practical mysticism.

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21 Responses to Review: American Veda

  1. I disagree with Altman’s criticism of Goldberg. Emmanuel Swedenborg’s conversations with beings on other planets and Franz Anton Mesmer animal magnetism are not what I would call significant spiritual influences of the West, at least not influences that could compare the Bhagavad-gita. And Thoreau said as much himself. Altman’s own understanding of what Thoreau and Emerson found in the Gita seems lacking for him to have made such a comparison.

    The West is not characterized as much by its spirituality as it is by its material acquisition and progress, which are often mistakenly seen as signs of its spiritual correctness. The East, and India in particular on the other hand, is often mischaracterized as being world denying, when in fact it denounces worldliness and not the world itself.

    Western spirituality is more about believing and Eastern spirituality is more about being. My experience is that the more Western spirituality goes in the spiritual direction the closer it comes to the East. Yes, materialism is also present in India and the tables may turn, but to the extent that they do they will turn towards the essential spirituality one can find in the Gita.

    Religion and science meet in mysticism, and although this meeting point transcends East and West, the West is junior to the East in this regard. It offers fewer examples and a less articulate explanation of the nature of conscious so central to mysticism.

    • I agree with you Maharaja, especially if the take the modern times. However, the middle ages (no longer called dark) in the west do not seem to be extremely significant materialistic (maybe the priests were :)) with the Church having entire control of the world.
      Generally the east does rely more on experience rather than belief but that has been the influence of Buddhism. Generally for other traditional theistic schools belief is also pretty important, but belief alone does not accomplish much. Experience should follow belief and make the faith firm. Again, BVT made a good distinction between faith and belief that was kind of reflected in the video of Jung He makes the distinction between believing in God and having a subjective experience of him.

      To be fair, eastern tradition including Vaisnava traditions also have a lot of beliefs that have to accepted as Absolute, which can never be experienced by most practitioners (like two stage quadruple expansions that are eternal in time and the vaisnava traditions disagree on the details of these expansions). They have to rely on words of the past, much like Christians have to believe in things they can never experience like the trinity. Buddhism is kind of different is some ways in this matter, but then people are trying to throw out things like reincarnation (that which Buddha experienced by remembering his past lives).

      • I think that even where Gaudiya Vaisnavism or the Gita expects belief it does so on the basis of philosophy and experience. It speaks about what we are and what we mistakenly think we are in a manner that makes sense psychologically and is not without empirical support. In other words its philosophy is more about being than believing in that it offers a method (yoga) to be all that one can be unto one’s self. But yes, it also asks us to believe that Krsna is who the text says he is. But if one embraces the Gita’s philosophy of who we are, the leap to theological belief is philosophically well grounded and therefore a short step. As one becomes self realized, God realization follows naturally.

  2. “Religion and science meet in mysticism”

    This comment is very interesting. Could you explain what you mean by this?

    • Mysticism is the heart of religion. It is where religion seeks to take us—from a realm of belief to the “unbelievable!”, if you will. Science also takes us in the same direction in as much as the more we know the more unbelievable the world becomes. Mysticism is a state of unknowing knowing–a theistic agnosticism, a comforting uncertainty within certainty. Modern science was born a Christian. As it grew it became agnostic and in its adult life it has become an atheist. In old age it will become a mystic. Debates between religion and science deal largely only with superstition and scientism. When actual science is discussed in relation to actual religion (mystic experience of consciousness) you will find more agreement than not.

  3. i like your view on the growth of science and your prediction that in old age science will become a mystic. It’s a very original perspective.

    But I can’t understand how science in its present form can ever hope to acknowledge the mystical. Isn’t mysticism by definition a subjective experience? Doesn’t that mean it is totally personal and can’t be studied by science in any meaningful way?

    When you say ‘actual science’ what do you mean by this?

    • Science must come to include the subjective if it is to endure. And it will do so on the basis of empirical evidence that lends support to the idea that consciousness is causal. Stapp’s quantum interactive dualism is an example. Science does not have to reduce consciousness to matter, and eventually it will see that the attempt to do so is irrational.

  4. Science arose as a rational and empirical alternative to a belief-based world view. It fills an important need not merely to produce useful goods, but also to provide a counterbalance to subjective and often irrational religious beliefs and superstitions. Thus the conflict between these two is natural and unavoidable.

    As people question more and more the basic tenets of Abrahamic religions dominating the Western world, they seek to supplement them with Vedic concepts, often bridging the gap between religion and science. But when the so called Vedic religions show themselves to be just as dogmatic and faith-based as the Abrahamic religions, they are largely rejected by people seeking escape from the old religious current. This is precisely what happened to the Hare Krishna movement. After the initial novelty wore off, the movement completely lost its momentum and relevance. People quickly realized that an intensely dogmatic, orthodox, and male dominated church with an eastern flavor and guru-cultism is no better than the religions they grew up with and rejected.

    • The point I have raised is that science’s counterbalance to the subjective has gone too far. It has ignored consciousness until it has had to deal with it, and once it had to it has tied to reduce it to matter.

      • Thanks for your clarification. I think the deeply ingrained religious faith will force science to rethink its analysis of the subjective like you pointed out. On the positive side, science has been instrumental in getting many religious people to go deeper into the essence of religion (mysticism) and abandon fanaticism. I think science forces thoughtful people to find the essence of religion rather than the external form.

      • Maharaja,
        Yes, there was an attempt in science to reduce consciousness to a purely material element. That attempt has not been successful and the science is still grappling with this issue. There are always unresolved boundaries in science and things always change. But the real value of science is in the scientific methodology of approaching every question and arriving at an answer. I think that spirituality can be benefited by the scientific method, even if that method has to be modified for this particular field of study.

        • I am sure Srila Jiva Goswami would have given a different presentation of Gaudiya Vaisnavism today than 500 years back because the task of the sastra guru is to convince the intellectually thoughtful people of the time to embrace the path or consider it a legitimate alternative. There is a downside to that because it is not really necessary to put effort to make such a presentation when you get more converts with the traditional presentation anyway. For example, in survey ( I don’t know the truth of it) 30% of American population were found to believe in 6000 year old earth and 7 day creation. So there is no need to reform in one sense, if you still get people to buy these claims or into conspiracy theories. Even if there are some lies are spoken, they are chanting and doing bhajan. There is no need to care about the rest of the people. This attitude also has its merits because more people benefit from this.

        • Yes, there is value in the scientific method, but not as much value as many place in it today, at least in terms of the hope of arriving at comprehensive knowledge through this methodology in and of itself. Otherwise Eastern spiritual discipline does employ a modified version this methodology and did so long before the term was coined. Prabhupada liked to refer to bhakti yoga as a science for this very reason. Yoga basically seeks to isolate consciousness from matter through withdrawal from sense objects, etc. and thereby demonstrate that consciousness exists independently of matter. In this regard Sam Harris referred to Eastern spirituality as a rational discipline as opposed to a religious belief.

          It is true that this rational disicpline often gets lost in a religiophilosophical tradition like Gaudiya Vaisnavism. The theistic side can easily take precedent in a manner that finds rational practice deteriorating into mere sentiment and belief. Hence those who are best suited (uttama adhikari) to tread the path are said to be those most versed in the theory itself and thus engaged in well reasoned practice.

          Thus reason has a role in mysticism.

        • Maharaja, Srila Prabhupada might have refered to bhakti yoga as a science, but in the everyday Iskcon practice he implemented that was hardly the case.
          Whatever SP said was to be accepted as unquestionable truth (dogma) and whatever methods he implemented were to be followed without hesitation (no room for alternative or independent practice). Nobody was allowed to introduce peer review to what was going on inside Iskcon (lack of verification). Whenever the promised effect of practice failed to materialize the blame was always on the practitioner and never on the theory or the method (systematic bias).

          Can bhakti yoga be approached using the modified scientific method? Certainly. I try to do that every day. Do I see the results? Certainly. But I also see the empty promises, half truths, and flat out lies that litter what we might call the ‘bhakti yoga realm’. As part of the scientific method these things must be gradually identified and rejected. It can be done but it requires courage, perseverance, objectivity, time, and a lot of hard work.

          It is much easier to be a religious sentimentalist repeating wise sounding phrases…

        • I think it distracts to shift from discussing the difference between Eastern spirituality and Western materialism to stressing the failings of a particular spiritual sect from India. It is a given that Eastern spiritual teachings landing on Western shores will result in a degree of misrepresentation and misapplication. That does not change the fact that yoga and bhakti yoga as well involve a rational approach to experiencing the nature of consciousness. But I do not doubt that the Western rational and scientific mind can take advantage of this teaching and eventually, upon embarking upon the path, explain it better than the East has, at least to the Western mind, and in doing so help to separate the wheat from the chaff.

      • Here’s an interesting thought from Huston Smith:

        [T]here is another side to the science/theology question, one that is very different and filled with possibilities that counter the pitfalls. If, instead of rummaging through science for direct, literal clues to the nature of reality, we could outgrow this fundamentalism and read science allegorically, we would find sermons in cloud chambers.

    • Kula Pavana,
      I don’t think Hare Krishna movement is lost. It is doing extremely well in India, Eastern Europe, Russia, South America and in the Indian community in UK, USA etc. Only the local population of western europe and USA are not turning to hare krsnas. It is working very well in many places.

      • Gaura-Vijaya-ji… I do not think that the HK movement is lost either. It is simply forced to change, to reject what is clearly not working, to become better and more true to it’s core principles.
        In some of the places you mentioned however, it is still in the ‘novelty’ stage and will most likely follow the path of this movement in USA and Europe. Things happen for a reason and follow a rational trail. People in USA and Europe are not more materialistic than those in Russia or South America. Of course for Indians everywhere it is a matter of heritage.

        • Perhaps that is true. However, as soon as a huge natural calamity or a war will happen, it will be easier to revert to a novel version. In times of calamity, rational trial becomes meaningless. I feel the current hare krsna movement can survive as long as materialism pushes us into trouble economic and natural suffering.

  5. Kula-pavana (and other commentators, if interested),

    The following is well-meant. I believe you should consider reading Dr. Bruce Lipton’s, “The Biology of Belief”; Dr. Candace Pert’s, “The Molecules of Emotion”; Dr. David Hawkins, “Transcending the Levels of Consciousness” and Dr. Rick Hanson’s, “Buddha’s Brain”. These books will offer you tremendous insight into the fact that the world of science is infact acknowledging the presence of spirit in the human body. All four scientists are hard at work bridging the world of brain and the mind.

    Hope it is helpful.

  6. Bhrigupada Dasa

    I only noticed this review now, while I am writing my own for another forum. I agree with the criticism at the end: Goldberg misses the very clear fact that the “Vedanta” taught by Vivekananda, Yogananda and others is not “pure Vedic thoughts”, but rather a mixed child born of very different parents, inluding Swedenborg, New Thought and so on. The emphasis on individual experience, for example, is a very modern thought, arguably foreign to especially Vedantic metaphysics.

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