Cover Art: American Veda
From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation -
How Indian Spirituality Changed the West
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Emphasis on personalized pathways to the divine – or, for secularists, to personal growth – resonates with the American ethos of individual autonomy and freedom of choice.
It also appeals to two seemingly contradictory strains in the national character: romantic idealism and pragmatism.
Americans are dreamers, but they’re also hard-headed realists; they think big and reach for the sky, but for the most part they invest in what works.
Author Philip Goldberg is the first to point out “I’m not an academically trained scholar.” The good result of this is American Veda, an uncomplicated summer afternoon of a book – a little like sitting on the back step with one of your favorite older cousins and a chunk of watermelon and having him tell you earnest, intriguing and sometimes gossipy stories about everyone you are related to.
How we got here
The effect is to make you deeply happy to be one of the family, reassured you belong and that you are all good people. Familiar names will mingle with each other in not terribly surprising, but consistently charming ways, and sometimes a new clarification to things you’ve long heard about will emerge.
For example, if you’ve ever been priggishly bopped over the head in yoga class by “there is no such thing, really, as a Hindu,” and then had your patience tried by the explanation, you will be pleased to receive the low down, accompanied by a perfect tables-turned metaphor that throws a handy light:
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).
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.
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.
American Veda is a pocket primer of all things “counter culture” and “spiritual but not religious,” (which comes with its own acronym: SBNR).
There are neat and warmly given organizational principles, offered in an abundance of lists: the seven characteristics of Vedantic principles, the five basic functions of religion, and the six trends of evolving American belief systems. “The way Americans understand and practice religion has become decidedly Vedantic,” asserts Goldberg, “ – less in form, although there is plenty of that, than in spirit.”
Ensuing chapters bear similarly constructed narratives based on beloved American saints like Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, anecdotal framing of key figures like Blavatsky, Vivekananda, and Paramahansa Yogananda, stories that arrive at the present day through accounts of pop stars and “Ram Dass, Deepak, and other American acharyas.”
One of his most thought provoking – and, I do not doubt, correct – assertions is that it matters less how many Americans actually do a yoga practice than that American culture has been pervasively influenced by the ideas of those who do.
Millions of Americans have been influenced by Vedanta-Yoga without necessarily being aware of it, just as they devour pasta without knowing its origins in China or watch television without having heard of its inventor, Philo T. Farnsworth.
Though American Veda frequently quotes Harvard’s Diana Eck, in some ways Goldberg has written an emic insider’s companion to Catherine Albanese’s etic outsider’s study of American religion. A Republic of Mind and Spirit makes a better intellectual pairing, giving a stronger contrast, and a far broader, conceptually reliable context for Goldberg’s personal account.
Today’s scene – symbolized perhaps by the shift in advertising images from the seated meditator with eyes closed to the lithe yogini stretched in dynamic repose – is marked by spiritualized bodies, spiritualized relationships, and spiritualized service.
Younger practitioners are, by and large, more socially engaged and vigorously embodied than the boomers were when they first turned eastward. By embodied I mean more physically grounded, more real, more here-and-now; less cerebral, less ethereal, less repressed, and less obsessed with the long term goal of spiritual liberation.
This is perhaps why the religious scholar Jeffrey Kripal and others contend that the dominant strain of contemporary spirituality is Tantric.
(This is an encouraging take on “today’s scene” compared with Rodney Yee’s concern that current yoga culture or “the industry” is glorifying youth.)
Aside from its well crafted story telling, what sets Goldberg’s work apart is the emphasis on the American ism of American Veda, the unabashed affection for the kind of seekers we are, and the confidence that our knocking about of ancient wisdom, exploring a fit for our own modern lives, cannot tarnish it.
It’s a relief and a boon to hear at least one yogi who has more confidence in practice than in scholars or fundamentalists:
When asked if anything is lost when traditional chants are mixed with Western melodies and rhythms, Wah!, who was musically trained at Oberlin College, said, “The mantras are incorruptible,” comparing them to medicine that can be sweetened with different flavors of syrup.
And if historians and academics stand tch-ing as contemporary practitioners innovate styles and traditions with a canniness that seems irreverent to the priests, it’s a nice coda to all the criticism to realize, after all, no one is asking for approval – or permission.
“We are witnessing nothing less than the reinvention of spirituality,” wrote the pollster Daniel Yankelovich in 1997. “It is an extraordinary event that will endure far beyond our lifetimes.”
Love is the answer
As a “participant-observer” Goldberg attempts “objectivity and vigilance about my own possible biases.”
Thankfully, the pull of objectivity is frequently checked by excellent narratives, interjections of other writers and participant-observers in the culture Goldberg documents and situates in a American picaresque tale of spiritual adventure that is the equal of Tom Jones or Barry Lyndon.
Writing a “chronicle” rather than a history, Philip Goldberg is openly persuaded,
America’s absorption of Indian spiritual teachings is a positive historical development 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.
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.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.