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Review: American Veda by Philip Goldberg

Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

On the last page of American Veda (2010), Philip Goldberg invokes world historian Arnold Toynbee, writing in 1969:

It is already becoming clear that 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. At this supremely dangerous moment in human history, the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way… Here we have the attitude and the spirit that can make it possible for the human race to grow together into a single family – and, in the Atomic Age, this is the only alternative to destroying ourselves.

One might want to read American Veda’s 347 pages preceding this quotation before joining the ranks of Toynbee’s critics. Certain historians were particularly upset that his ten-volume A Study of History (1934-54) paid so much attention to the role religion plays in civilizations. Half a century later, score one for Toynbee.

The quotation comes from an introduction he wrote for Sri Ramakrishna and His Unique Message by Swami Ghanananda. As you consider Toynbee’s claim, compare the violence generated by ‘Abrahamic’ traditions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) this past 100 years with the violence generated by ‘Dharmic’ traditions (Jainism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism).

No one is pure – recent examples of religiously fueled violence in Hindu and Buddhist communities are tragic, a stain on their traditions. But it hardly compares to the violence Christian and Muslim communities have generated for centuries. It remains that India’s heritage is rooted in the notion of ‘many paths lead us to God,’ while Abrahamic traditions have been perennially preoccupied with identifying the ‘one and only path to God’ and the conflict that quest inspires.

This terrible dividing line could have a happy ending. Goldberg’s main thesis “is that American society has moved ever closer to a spiritual world-view that resembles the core principles of the Vedic tradition.” He makes a strong case. American Veda is replete with ‘Aha!’ moments as you hear how the Hindu tradition that evolved from the Vedas, four of humankind’s oldest religious texts, found its way into American philosophy and poetry, indeed, into American spiritual practices, popular culture, and the interfaith movement itself. In Sanskrit, Veda means knowledge. What came to the West was mainly the philosophy of Vedanta and the principles and methods of Yoga (Goldberg labels the combination Vedanta-Yoga).

(Before an argument breaks out, let’s acknowledge that important mystics in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, voices like Buber, Eckhart, and Rumi, are immune to the ‘one and only’ quest and have no problem absorbing multiple paths to the Divine.  Let's acknowledge, too, that religious exclusivists with a my-way-or-you’re-toast attitude can infect any community, any tradition, East or West.)

The book’s subtitle is: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation – How Indian Spirituality Changed the West. Goldberg writes as “a journalist and participant-observer,” noting that his interest in the subject was sparked in 1967 “when I first became enchanted by Indian philosophy” and began practicing meditation and Yoga. His interest is not in deities, festivals, or temples but in how foundational Vedantic assumptions, texts, and practices have influenced the West, including secular humanists.

The writing is immaculate, with an academic’s attention to detail and source documents and a story-teller’s gift of propelling us from page to page. Plus, Goldberg has a wry sense of humor that leavens the whole book. The vista he paints is huge, and wonderful anecdotes animate the discussion. The 20-page chapter on Swami Vivekananda’s triumph at the 1893 World Parliament of Religion and the subsequent history of the Vedanta Society is illuminating.

Goldberg surveys the many Indian gurus who arrived on Western shores starting in 1893, noting their relationships and particular contributions. If you have been confounded by the names – Sri Aurobindo, Rajneesh, Iyengar, Krishnamurti, Muktananda, Nikhilananda, Prabhavananda, Ramakrishna, Ram Dass, Ramana Maharshi, Sai Baba, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Satchidananda, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Yoganada, and many more – you’ve come to the right harbor. Only a few get more than a paragraph or two, but the text sets each one in context. Some of the giants, of course, mainly Swami Vivekananda, Paramahamsa Yogananda, and the Maharishi, who was known as “the Beatles’ guru,” get much more ink because of their immense impact on the West.

Slowly you start to see the flow, the major figures, the underlying assumptions, the yogic practices, such as meditation. You return to people you thought you knew – Henry David Thoreau, George Harrison, the most spiritual of the Beatles, Joseph Campbell, Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk – and discover how they embraced Vedic assumptions in order to encourage pluralism, to call for respect in the midst of our differences, and to treat all living entities with the deepest respect, including the Earth. The ‘Ahas!’ keep coming.

There is nothing fuzzy-wuzzy about American Veda. The sexual and financial indiscretions of many a guru have been painful for their spiritual communities, as in Christian congregations or any other religious community. Goldberg reports the stories with care and discretion, suggesting that “Somewhere in between the hagiography of ardent disciples and the hatchet jobs of sneering detractors is the reality of exceptional human beings with unexceptional human flaws.” He tells the truth without excuses. Rather than being judgmental, he charts how such behavior destroys trust. And then carries on with stories of the West’s enriching, transforming encounters with India’s Vedic tradition. The gurus have largely left these shores, but their followers and a number of the institutions, libraries, and schools they created continue to thrive today.

This pioneering book, largely unnoticed in Christian or Jewish publications, takes us one step closer to the Indic wisdom that Arnold Toynbee felt the world needs for our survival. Too little, too late? Who is to say? As this review is posted, Philip Goldberg can be found leading a workshop on American Veda in Dubai.

The embedded video on the left is a quarter-hour interview of Goldberg by Renee Lobo, a good introduction to American Veda. An equally helpful resource is a 45-minute video where Goldberg uses numerous photos to tell the story of American Veda in brief. The lecture opens up the text both before and after you’ve read it.