Yoga: India’s Gift to the West
Ancient India’s Philosophy has Fundamentally Influenced Modern America’s Psychology
-Yvette RamRani Rosser
The West, for several centuries, and the US in particular, have been integrally influenced by ideas from India, beginning with the Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, in the early nineteenth century. It is said that Emerson and Thoreau, nicknamed the Boston Brahmins, used to wait on the docks in the Boston harbor, for the ships of the East Indian Company to arrive bringing newly translated books from the corpus of Hindu literature along with shipments of Darjeeling tea. These American intellectuals imbibed the Vedas, Upanishads, the epics and other works that were being translated by English and German Indologists.
Thoreau remained an ascetic throughout his life. He was inspired by his encounter with the Yogic paths of Hinduism, writing: “The yogi, absorbed in contemplation, contributes to creation … even I am a yogi.” He wrote, “What extracts from the Vedas I have read, fall on me like light of a higher and purer luminary, that describes a loftier course through a purer stratum, free from particulars, simple, universal.” Thoreau immersed himself in the Dharma, “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita…in comparison … our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.” Half a century later, Mahatma Gandhi, another nonconformist, was deeply inspired by Thoreau’s book “Civil Disobedience” that had left a profound impression upon him. One American of that era that was deeply influenced by Dharmic thought, was Walt Whitman whose work was applauded by great Eastern minds. Sri Aurobindo had respect for Whitman and lauded him in his essay, Future Poetry. Rabindranath Tagore also admired Whitman and even translated one of his poems. Swami Vivekananda referred to Whitman as a “spiritual genius.” In 1870 Walt Whitman wrote Passage to India a poem that took his readers beyond America, even beyond human kind, into an enlightened concept of life and death and “the hereafter.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson was a mystic and philosopher, known as one of America’s greatest philosophers. His way of thinking was profoundly shaped and influenced by the Dharma. Emerson believed that a “Golden Age” will rise again and that cycles of time would bring about transformative change in human kind. He theorized that humans were evolving towards a higher expression of human potential. He supported the “Philosophy of Idealism” which included the eventual spiritual evolution or enlightenment of humanity. He speculated that the world and all that we think and do are naught but an illusion— Maya. Emerson also believed in the transmigration of souls, that humans are born with certain innate knowledge, which they gained from previous incarnations. He reasoned that these subconscious impressions, or Samskaras are embedded in the mind of each individual before birth, which leads the person to his or her destinies and talents. After Emerson’s death, a leader of the Brahmo Samaj summed it up: “Brahmanism is an acquirement, a state of being rather than a creed…in whom the eternal Brahma breathed his unquenchable fire, he was a Brahman. And in that sense Emerson was the best of Brahmans. He shines upon India serene as the evening star. He seems to some of us to have been a geographical mistake.” This geographical interaction, or the globalization of the Dharma has continued through the centuries. Interestingly, over a century after Emerson, Vamadeva Shastri the Padma Bhushan recipient, David Frawley, wrote “Arise Arjuna!” in 1992, sensing that the Golden Age will rise again and that the movement to reawaken humankind must restart in India the ancient land of the origins of spirituality.
In the late nineteenth century, the Transcendentalists were followed by the dynamic teacher Shri Swami Vivekananda, who whipped up a spiritual storm in America in 1893. He charmed the whole country with his erudition and articulate descriptions of Hindu themes. At that time most Americans in places such as Illinois, had never seen a Catholic or Jew, much less a Hindu! At the end of the 19th century, the establishment of the Theosophical Society embraced Dharmic ideals and concepts, recontextualizing them for an occidental mindset. Theosophy influenced thousands of Westerners… and from whose hallowed halls Annie Besant emerged – a freedom fighter for India’s independence.
In the USA, ‘spiritualism’ was a prevailing theme at the turn of the 20th century along with the consumption of copious amounts of Laudanum. The mindset of the population was open for innovative influences. After World War I Americans were more aware of international issues. In the 1920’s, the handsome, articulate, realized monk Paramahansa Yogananda came to the USA, whose books about the schools of yoga and especially his autobiography made Hinduism accessible and logical. The Self-Realization Fellowship he founded is still a vibrant force in the American spiritual landscape. In the thirties, Americans were fascinated by India. Mahatma Gandhi appeared on the cover of Time magazine four times in that decade, even as Man of the Year. After WWII American support for Indian independence made it to the big screen and clips of Gandhi’s activities were shown at the cinema theaters before the feature films. By the last half of the twentieth century, societal changes in the West had catalyzed the search for answers to vexing ontological and epistemological questions, which led millions of Americans who were looking for the meaning of existence to turn to the ancient traditions of India. Some may have referred to these seekers as Hippies or New Age, but people of all walks of life were turning to India for personal growth and wisdom. Many came and studied Vipassana Meditation with Shri S.N. Goenka, who offered ten-day meditation intensives free of charge and deeply influenced the lives of ten of thousands of Westerners who have set up many meditation centers across the USA, that continue to offer this dynamic meditation technique free of charge.
Beginning in the 1960’s many spiritual teachers came from India to the USA, including Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who taught millions of American how to meditate with his technique of Transcendental Meditation. TM encouraged research in neuroscience and in the mid 1970’s it was scientifically verified that the central nervous system could affect the immune system, and from this research a new science was born, psycho-neuro-immunology. The Johns-Hopkins institute did scientific studies of monks’ brains when they meditated…. the impact of Dharmic practices were validated by scientific research. Today in the USA there are thousands of a Hatha Yoga studios, and the Yoga teachers usually end their classes with their hands in the prayer position as they say, “Namaste… See you next week.” In the 21st century the arrival of great saints from India continues. There are ten of thousands of devotees of the beloved saint Shri Ammachi who shares her love and grace by hugging crores of people. Huge auditoriums can barely hold her devotees. A detailed description of the arrival of Hinduism and the Dharma in the West can be found in the fascinating book written by Phillip Goldberg, American Veda; From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation How Indian Spirituality Changed the West.
Today if you ask people why they turned to India to find spiritual meaning in their lives, a majority of the seekers will note that they had read Paramahansa Yogananda’s book, The Autobiography of a Yogi and/or the popular book, published in 1969, Be Here Now, about the great north Indian Saint/Siddha Yogi, Shri Neem Karoli Baba-ji. The Dharma has gone to the West and is now coming back to Mother India in the form of people like me, and prolific authors such as David Frawley and Robert Svaboda, as well as the Grammy award winning kirtan walahs and musicians Jai Uttal and Krishnadas, both devotees of Shri Neem Karoli Baba Maharaj-ji. According to Dr. Robert Svaboda, “Sanatana Dharma is eternal because it sprouts vigorous new growth whenever one of the saints or seers who are its inspired leaders receives new information from the One Absolute Reality. The Eternal Faith has grown over millennia into a broad spectrum of religious attitudes, philosophies, sects, deities, rituals, and Concepts of Supreme Beingness, many of which have only one thing in common: their acknowledgement of Reality’s Ultimate Oneness.”
In a recent article in the Huffington Post, The Future of Hinduism, Manav A. Lalwani wrote, “Hinduism is much like water. It takes the shape of whatever vessel it fills, customized but not compromised. It caters to the unique individual, yet views each as an equal part of the universal whole – a drop in the cosmic ocean. Over the last several thousand years, individual and collective practices described as Hindu have evolved organically to suit their circumstances, finding new relevance among new generations in new environments. Thus when imagining a future for Hinduism, I believe that, true to form, it will continue to flow forth – negotiating new terrain as needed, at once distinct and the same, sustaining life as it goes.”
When I discovered the Dharma in 1970, I gained an understanding of ideas and theories that helped make sense of the world around me– answering epistemological questions that had troubled me since adolescence. It is the spiritually and intellectually alive and personally experiential and ultimately experimental nature of Hinduism that sustains me. It is an open-ended, multi-perspectival, logical, universal orientation from within which my spirit hums. Hinduism is constantly evolving, absorbing and transmuting. Dharmic traditions don’t reject the old, but incorporate an understanding, a grounding of ancientness into everyday socially and morally acceptable, spiritually informed conduct, totally tuned into the present moment. I personally became a Hindu at the age of 18 when I arrived in India as a traveler. Indians often ask me, “Why did you come to India?” I reply: Pichali Janam ki chiiz hai! When Americans ask me, ”Do you REALLY believe in Karma and all that stuff?” I reply: “Do you really believe in GRAVITY?”
Today, 45 years later, there is now a Yoga studio on every other corner in the USA; corporate executives are talking meditation classes; gym teachers are teaching Hatha Yoga classes to their American students. The Dharma is influencing Americans’ ways of looking at the world. The Dharma’s intrinsic nature is simultaneously evolving and transitional as well as steady and firm. It is interconnected, undifferentiated, complete, both complex and simple, unending and always changing. Within this broad concept, the paradox is not mutually exclusive. I have long had a theory that: WE ARE ALL BORN HINDU/ Sanatana Dharmis, then after birth, we are indoctrinated and converted to other religions and then when we die we become Hindu again. So in this context, with Yoga and Dharmic ideas becoming more firmly implanted in the West, there is less time between births that seekers have to wait before they find the Dharma again.