Yvette C. Rosser, PhD
During the sixties and seventies, numerous Hindu and Buddhist spiritual groups came to the West and established outposts of their religious teachings. These groups were called cults by the western media… the “Hare Krishna Cult”, the “Tibetan Buddhist Cult”… when in fact they are centuries’ old religious traditions practiced by millions of people in their countries of origin.
A generation of American youths, the demographic bulge of the baby boomers, sought spiritual guidance from these wise men and women of the East.
Why did several million Americans turn to the East for wisdom and inspiration? Who were these seekers who were drawn to Asian spiritual movements? What were their religious and social backgrounds? Were they children of secular humanists or atheists who lacked religious training, seeking to fill that void? Were they children of fundamentalists, fed up with the exclusivist, dogmatic approach? Were they disenfranchised, disillusioned malcontents, were they dissatisfied with the options offered by their own culture? Were they thoughtful, contributing, creative members of our society?
In the Sixties, the majority of the participants in Asian spiritual groups tended to be between their late teens and twenties or early thirties. In class or race, it is easy to see that the “neo-Oriental movements” were made up mostly of white, educated, middle- and upper-middle-class people below the age of forty, though a significant number of older citizens were drawn to participate in these religious groups. The percentage of African-Americans who were involved in these Eastern spiritual movements was fewer than the proportion of blacks in the population at large, as also Hispanics. Women and men seemed to participate equally, more seemed to come from urban than rural areas, which is understandable given the availability of access to the teachings of these non-Western religious movements. 70% of the participants had been active members in a church or synagogue prior to their participation in Oriental religious practices. Most came from mainstream Christian churches: approximately 20% were Roman Catholic, 15% Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians made up about 6 or 7% each, there is even about 3 or 4% from groups such at the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, these statistics are essentially parallel to the demographic distribution of the American population in general.
The most amazing statistic that emerges from a demographic survey of these religious movements is the fact that people of Jewish heritage comprise at least 20% of the populations of most of these groups, when Jews comprise only 3 or 4% of the general American population. In some of these religious organizations, the number of Jews is even higher, approximating 30 – 50%! Why is this?
In his book titled, “Turning East”, Harvey Cox, a noted Christian theologian, enumerates several reasons why the youth of this period stepped outside the boundaries of their traditional Judeo-Christian religious backgrounds and studied Hindu and Buddhist meditation techniques and philosophies. First of all, according to Cox, he found that these people were looking for friendship, and were “in search of a supportive community” in which they found a sense of belonging.
Secondly, he found that many of the “East Turners”, as he called them, were “looking for a way to experience life directly”, to experience a direct relationship with God that they did not get from their traditional Western religious organizations.
Some were “refugees from uncertainty and doubt” and were looking for an authority figure in a teacher or guru. Others were looking for something more “natural” and were rejecting what they believed was the “effete, corrupt or outworn religious traditions of the West.” This group of seekers generally shared a concern for health, ecology, and the conservation of the earth’s dwindling resources.”
But why would the demographics of these Eastern spiritual groups obtain fifty to a hundred times greater percentages of their members drawn from the Jewish faith than are represented in the population at large? In asking this question, I telephoned several of my Jewish friends who have been closely involved with Indian Gurus and asked them what they thought. Here is a narrative summary of their answers:
There seems to be a need for devotionalism. Several of my friends agreed that in their Jewish tradition, the learning was by rote, with a lack of experiential emphasis. They felt alienated from a direct relationship with God; there was too great a gap between God and humans, too great a duality. They felt that Hinduism, and specifically Bhakti Yoga, which is the path of devotion, gave them a greater access to the divine, a closer relationship with God, an immediacy of the spiritual moment. “The Jewish faith”, a male informant from Chicago said, “doesn’t have a devotional aspect of the supreme deity that can be easily accessed”. The Hindu tradition gives him an opportunity to open up and develop a personal relationship with God. “In the Jewish faith”, I was told, “there is little opportunity to experience God as living in your heart”. We discussed the concept of subject-object dichotomy, which is greater in Judaism than Hinduism. Increasing the intensity of belief in dichotomy increases the amount of fear of the “divine other”, a tangible part of the Judao-Christian belief of being damned or unfulfilled. Either way, “you are not living in the moment, you are living in fear of some future reprisal”. Whereas, “in the Hindu devotional sects, especially the Bhakti aspect, there is an immediacy of the moment”, experienced as “spiritual gratification” or blessings, transcendence, Grace.
We also discussed ancient Jewish traditions in comparison with Hinduism. My friends noted that “It’s laid out very clearly in the Zohar and the Kaballa, which is the mystical aspect of Judaism: the tree of life and the many different planes of consciousness connected with that Tree. The corresponding chakras in Hinduism are the analogous format through which the different expressions of energies can manifest.” Both of these faiths have multiple myths and tales and books written reflecting their parallel ideas that “Godhead was not dual, not two, but one”. However, “in Judaism you usually have to read between the lines to get that idea, whereas in Hinduism, it IS the idea”. The mystical aspect of Judaism is much closer to Hinduism, but most Jews in America have lost touch with this mystical element of their religion. “This mystical element has been lost and Jews can fill this mystical need in Hinduism”. There is also an emphasis on learning in the Jewish tradition has correlations in the Hindu religion’s approach to contemplation and speculation.
From the comments of another Jewish informant, a female in California:
“Ultimately, is doesn’t matter if you use the format of Hinduism, Judaism, Islam or Christianity, it’s the act of talking to God, of becoming ecstatic with love for God and communication with Him or Her. The act of talking to God, of opening your heart to God, the act of humility towards God, are the components through which you can become absorbed in God, drunk with God as they say in the Bhakti tradition. The more the intensity and the thirst for God, the more that God will reach out to you. And the main block for most of us Jews and Christians is that we are caught up in externals, we worship the externals, including our minds. When we get out of our heads and into our hearts, where we really feel the love of God, then the journey is really beginning.”
There are also several similarities and correlations between the rituals found in Hinduism and Judaism: food is offered to God and consecrated by God that is accomplished by praying over the food and then sharing it. The lighting of candles and the Hindu arti, or waving of the lights, is also analogous. Shabbat is also similar to the Hindu idea of taking time out for reflection and meditation. Additionally, they are both nonproselytizing traditions, more than a set of religious tenets, a way of life, with historically situated cultural associations beyond the mandir and the synagog.
Another reason that Jewish people often join these groups is that they want to become conscious of the Goddess. They want to experience the mother as Kali, as Durga, as Sarasvati. “In Judaism,” one of my friends commented, “we live in denial, but in Hinduism we face the negative and try to understand it. In Judaism the teachings are in austere tones, more measured, but Hinduism doesn’t do this at all, it brings everything to the forefront. There is a lot of shame and blame in Christianity and Judaism, Hinduism doesn’t get into that. Hinduism says, ‘stop blaming everyone else and then stop blaming and shaming yourself’. Hinduism brings you closer to the moment. Stop trying to produce-produce all the time and change everything, Hinduism is like a full time Shabbat.”
Another important thing that happens is that Jews who get involved in Asian religions do not reject their Jewishness. Judaism is a culture as well as a religion. Even Jews who actively and sincerely follow a Hindu guru, or the Dalai Lama, still have barmitzvahs, still often send their children to synagogue schools, they celebrate Passover, Hanukah, yet they feel comfortable in their embrace of Hinduism as well, after all Hinduism is, one informant mentioned, “the ultimate inclusive religion”.