Intro: The famous book American Veda tells a story that needs to be told. It chronicles how the ancient philosophy of Vedanta and the mind body methods of Yoga have profoundly affected the world view of millions of Americans and radically altered the religious landscape.
Philip Goldberg, author of the famous book ‘American Veda’ was born and raised in Brooklyn and now lives in Los Angeles, USA. As a college student in the 1960s, he started searching for higher truths in his quest to save the world from racism and war.
Despite having been raised by atheists who disdained religion, he was drawn to the pragmatic mysticism of the East, through Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley and the classic texts of Taoism, Buddhism and Vedanta. This led him to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation and he spent a good portion of the 1970s teaching meditation and otherwise working for the TM organisation.
He was also the founding director of the Forge Guild of Spiritual Leaders. He is still a member of the Forge board of directors and serves as Director of Communication.
His magnum opus, American Veda, published in 2010 covers the history and influence of India’s spiritual teachings in America. The book reveals how the ancient wisdom of Vedanta took the US by storm in the 19th and 20th centuries and continues to do so today.
Kerala based senior journalist Pradeep Krishnan spoke to Philip Goldberg on various civilisational issues. Here are the excerpts:
- How did you come in contact with Hinduism in general and Vedanta in particular?
I was raised by atheists, with no religion in my home but a strong sense of morality and ethics. I was a political activist in college in the 1960s. I was, however, personally unhappy and unable to find adequate answers to the important questions of life. During that period of personal and social upheaval, the essential teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism became more and more accessible to young people in America. Some of the thinkers we respected most were speaking and writing about Vedanta and Yoga and other Indian treasures. It resonated strongly within me. The teachings made sense, and were not in conflict with science or the known facts of history, unlike the religions I was familiar with. They seemed practical and nondogmatic. I wanted to know more and more. I read everything I could get my hands on, and eventually took up Transcendental Meditation and was trained by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi as a teacher. My ongoing learning and my spiritual path as a yogic practitioner has broadened and deepened ever since.
- In the book ‘American Veda’ you say that Indian spirituality has taken the US by storm and continues to do so even today. But many in India are of the view that Indians, by and large, are embracing Western culture and tradition in a very big way. Your comments?
I think both are true. All the great swamis and gurus who came to the West, from Vivekananda onwards, have said that America has much to offer India by way of material progress, and that India in turn has spiritual treasures to offer America. That seems to be true; only what America received from India is not as visible as the technologies India imported from America. They are, however, far more beneficial and powerful, so Americans got the better deal.
I think it is important for the people of India—especially the young people—to be very discerning about what they import from America and what they choose to emulate about the American way of life. It would be a disaster, for example, if Indians adopted our unhealthy eating habits, or our materialism, or the tendency to substance abuse and workaholism. The irony is Americans have turned to hatha yoga and meditation largely to neutralise the impact of our high-stress lifestyle, at the recommendation of a growing number of physicians. I hope that as India advances materially, Indians don’t make the same mistakes.
- The rising Islamic fundamentalism is posing a major threat to our civilisation. How to overcome this threat?
The threat must be taken seriously, and each nation’s security experts must protect their citizens against terrorist violence. That said I don’t see a future for fundamentalist ideologies of any kind over the long run.
Few people want to live under such regimes, and despots can rule by force and coercion for only so long. It’s up to the great majority of sensible Muslims to stand up and refuse to be dominated by extremists, just as Christians in the West have for the most part rejected the extreme voices of that religion. I have confidence that the same is true of India. The country’s tradition of pluralism and democracy is a powerful antidote to fundamentalism.
- Hinduism is getting wider acceptance all over the globe. But there is a feeling that Hindus of India are in danger from Christian missionaries, Muslim fundamentalists and Marxists. How do you view this paradox?
I love India and consider it my spiritual home. But I am not Indian, and it is hard for me to comment on events there from a distance. However, it seems to me that if Hindus remain true to the deepest teachings of the dharma, no religious fundamentalism or secular ideology can pose a serious danger for very long. The truth has a way of winning out over lies and misconceptions and obsolete theories. Americans have embraced Hindu ideas and the methods of Yoga because they make sense and offer proven benefits. Perhaps Hindus in India need to be reminded of the practical value of their own traditions. That’s the job of today’s gurus, swamis, acharyas, scholars, and scientists.
- How far the Gurudom has helped the ordinary American to get in touch with the higher dimensions of Hinduism?
The gurus who came to the US, beginning with Swami Vivekananda and Paramahansa Yogananda and then in 1960s and 70s with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swami Muktananda, Swami Satchidananda and others, to Sri Mata Amritanandamayi and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar today, have been a mighty force in making Americans aware of the deepest and most practical dimensions of Hindu Dharma. Their impact has been far greater than that of academic scholars. Most of the dharma was taught in the name of Yoga and Vedanta, with the word “Hinduism” being downplayed to emphasise the universality of the Dharma. In the West, “Hinduism” is a religious term, and the gurus knew that people would not comprehend the universality of Vedic teachings if they were branded with religious language. The most successful gurus used rational, scientific language so the core ideas could be apprehended by the Western mind without bias.
- You are of the view that due to centuries of distortions- Hinduism is widely misunderstood. Could you please elaborate?
As most people in India are painfully aware, the colonists’ agenda was to dominate, rule and exploit, and the missionaries’ agenda was to convert. Therefore, the scholars who served the colonists and the missionaries had an interest in portraying Hinduism as primitive, backward, superstitious and irrational. Their descriptions colored the views of others, including many who were not part of the imperial and missionary enterprise. In addition, social scientists, journalists and ordinary travelers saw the external, colorful aspects of Hinduism—the temples, rituals, murtis, etc. and described it without penetrating the profound insights that underlie everyday Hindu practices. So it appeared even to sympathetic Westerners as exotic idol worship.
- Any difference between Indian Yogis spreading their wisdom in other countries and Missionaries and Islam reaching out to other countries?
As I often tell my audiences when I speak, there is a vast difference between gurus, swamis and yoga masters taking their teachings outside of India and the missionaries who bring their religions to India. While many missionaries undoubtedly do selfless service to the poor and the sick, many of those who seek to convert the native population do not play fair. The record of coercion, manipulation, bribery and deceit is deplorable, and the truth is that most American Christians would be appalled if they knew about some of the tactics used in the name of their religion. The gurus, on the other hand, never asked anyone to convert, nor did they demand that anyone—even their closest disciples—renounce the religion of their own heritage. And the truth is gurus helped a great many of their followers become better Christians and Jews.