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 Upanishads, 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.
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