COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY DESK COMPANION ON EASTERN RELIGION, Robert Thurman, Editor
In Puri, India, each summer for thousands of years, an idol of Jagannatha (Krishna as Lord of the Universe) that purportedly bears the tooth-relic of Buddha is installed onto a wooden cart three stories tall and weighing some sixty-five tons which is then drawn through the streets for three days as millions ecstatically cheer it by. Known as the Ratha-yatra (Chariot Festival), this event is second only to the Kumbha-mela (Great Gathering of Yogis, sixteen million strong in 2001) among the largest ritual gatherings in the world.
The unpredictable stops and out-of-control lurches (created by intentionally uneven wheels) of this mammoth, rumbling cart are meant to engender delights of surprise and breathless awe, all understood as moods of worship befitting the (ever-present) moment in which the Lord Krishna manifests as the entire Universe. The incompletely-carved idol of a dramatically wide-eyed God portrays Being and Consciousness as constantly evolving and embracing of all human strivings, differences, and imperfections. Thus, mixed into their prayers, devotees hurl jibes as the cart passes by, deepening their intimacy with Jagannatha. At the conclusion, this and two other ritual carts and their passenger Deities are disassembled and the tons of wood sold as sacred relics or used to fuel cooking stoves that will feed the devotees over the next nine months.
We derive the English term juggernaut from the whole affair, meaning a wonderful, world-shaking enterprise that gets wildly beyond human conventionalities and control as, reordering everything in its wake, it heads unstoppably toward its (hopefully beneficent) goal. In the Hindu context of reincarnation and over the evolutionary course of hundreds of centuries or yugas, Jagannatha’s goal is nothing less than the moment-to-moment vibrational quickening of every being in the Universe to progressively, yet fluctuatingly, achieve the complete maturation or highest purpose of each, its sva-dharma. However, complete maturation or enlightenment, is neither linear nor terminal, but immediate and infinite. Thus, the indigenous name for the tradition is not Hinduism (a Persian coinage), but Sanatana Dharma, The Eternal Ordering Way, that mysteriously (indeterminately) has forever unfolded now and now and now, ordered by this, then that, thought, action, feeling as the juggernaut of world creation wavers, races forward, jolts and then proceeds anew.
As a nondual (advaita) vision of existence, Sanatana Dharma speaks to the awe, opportunity, quantum uncertainty, and situational ethics of every conceivable aspect of life. From its consciousness-matter integrated field cosmology and prescribed ethics governing conflict as depicted in the Bhagavad-gita and in Gandhian activism, to the plethora of Yogic pathways activating demonstrably the deepest of psychophysical potentials, this living tradition has accumulated some 9000 years of (largely yet-untranslated) research. Thus, too, we find no clear separation of secular and sacred domains in Sanatana Dharma to generate any grand antagonism between science and religion or body and soul, a matter that boggles simplistic binary contrasts. Instead, an over-arching experimentalism has prevailed over the millennia where hundreds of millions of people have explored breath, sex, technologies, linguistics, healing, vibration, the elements, ethics, politics, thousands of bodily poses, profound stillness and, foremost, consciousness itself, all with the careful reverence of a saint merged with the scrupulous objectivity of a scientist.
Euro-Hinduism refers to how elements in this cosmic historical process that are traceable to Indian Hindu or Hinduistic sources came to look as they entered Western culture. For, accounts of Indian spirituality have inspired centuries of Western Romantics, from the Ancient Greeks, Renaissance Indophiles, transcendentalist poets and 19th century Spiritualists, to the 1950s beats, 1960s civil rights activists and cultural reformers, 1970-2000s transpersonal psychologists and holistic scientists, and the 21st century x-generation, with their postmodern pastiche of Aum signs, Shiva images and globalized cyberculture. And, as these accounts became a manifest reality of translated texts and visiting Yogis, the reverberations in America have penetrated ever deeper into mainstream religious, health care, artistic, political, scientific and academic spheres, transforming each in dramatic and often controversial ways. For, as in the Ratha-yatra, moods from doubt and scorn to reverence and idolization have greeted Euro-Hinduism in America at every turn.
IN THE DISTANCE, THE CHARIOT STOOD POISED,
The allure of something more felt to exist in some other time or place–a glorious past, a deeper present, a wondrous future–outside of all that has been conventionalized or currently known is at the core of the Romantic narrative. The idea of an “exotic India” has held this romantic spell in the West for centuries.India’s material wealth of spices, silks, and gold fueled the European era of global exploration (literally, by being drained of its superior wealth to boost European living standards). Its mathematics (the invention of the zero and of “Arabic” numerals), navigational methods (by which European explorers, including Columbus, guided their ships), structural linguistics (a field nstigated by Saussure’s reading of Panini) and literature contributed to the West’s rise to odernity.
The Hindu Brahman, the Source of Consciousness-Time-Space-Energy-Matter, spoke directly to Romantic sensitivities and served as the revered Over-Soul for 19th century transcendentalists Emerson, Whittier, Thoreau, Whitman and, later, W. B. Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, diPrima, and others. As Thoreau adulated, “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny.”
In 1875, as Creationists reeled from the ramifications of Darwinian evolutionism, H.P. Blavatsky’s froth of Theosophical writings depicted Indo-Tibetan Masters as the spiritually evolved exemplars of the “new mankind.” In 1909, they declared the 14 year-old J. Krishnamurti to be the current “World Teacher.” Later rejecting this grandiose role, his Vedantic message encouraging self reliance and that consciousness precedes matter, time, and all else influenced Rudolf Steiner, Alan Watts, David Bohm’s “implicate order” physics and thereby the work of Fritjof Capra, Gary Zukav, Rupert Sheldrake and the focus-group psychology of organizational consultants.
Via complementary efforts of the turn-of-the century New Thought Movement, Mesmerism, and Christian Science, a new concept of a scientifically verifiable religiosity was brewing. Soteriological hope was becoming a Darwinesque matter of an “evolving mind” or consciousness of each person, more than a righteously attained afterlife or belief in a singular Savior, a perspective that would be highly compatible with Hindu spiritual science (adhyatma-vidya), meditation practices and contemporary grace-bestowing gurus. Nietzsche’s pronouncement that the Judeo-Christian God had died from centuries of dispirited piety pleaded as well for some new type of post-religion spirituality. The anxiety-laden leap of faith that Kierkegaard required of modern man would be ripe for the clearly described Yogic paths across the great abyss. Indeed, meditation would reveal an overlooked profundity within the void itself.
LEANING EAST, THEN WEST, THE ON-LOOKERS PONDER WHERE IT WILL GO
Concurrently, physician theorists were pioneering their own soul science, Psychology, to traverse the abyss of spiritual uncertainty. Not the silence of meditation but the psychoanalytic “talking cure” was the result. These scientific hopefuls led by Freud met the available information on Hinduism and Yoga with dismissive pathologization. Yoga was “a killing of the instincts” and meditation, a “regression to the womb.” Even the sympathetic Jung would conclude that these Eastern paths, though profound, were inappropriate for Westerners. Yet, over the course of the 20th century, their sober successors would verify scientifically some of Yoga’s powers. To be repeated by Swami Rama at the Menninger Foundation in 1970 and thereby catalyzing biofeedback therapies and mind-body medicine, the first such test in 1926 thoroughly astounded physicians, “. . . with the chest-pieces of our stethoscopes . . . we listed to the stopping [willfully sustained fibrillation] of his [Yogi Deshbandhu’s] heart.” Not a killing, but a profound fathoming of the instincts emerged at the core of Yoga and meditation.
At the collective level, a Marxian intelligentia was redirecting the severely shaken other-worldly hopes of Judeo-Christian soteriology into a socio-economic dream of communal sharing. This dream would struggle to blossom in the anti-capitalistic counter-culture of the 1960-70s as Euro-Hinduism burst forth in a scattering of Aum chanting communes and Yoga ashrams. Hindu nature mysticism blended with a new eco-spirituality while feminism found obvious inspiration in Hinduism’s rich tradition of Goddess worship. In the politics of Mohandas Gandhi the West saw Hinduism’s universality where our highest spiritual ideals and shared vulnerability merge perfectly in the “truth-power” (satyagraha) of principled harmlessness (ahimsa). The Mahatma’s bold, yet nonviolent, activism centrally informed Martin Luther King’s civil rights politics and Cesar Chavez, the “Gandhi of the field” of oppressed farm workers.
He also gave Euro-Hinduism its first statesman-saint, as made vivid in Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film, Gandhi, in a single, scripted quote by Albert Einstein: “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever, in flesh and blood, walked upon this earth.”
In contrast with such Indophilic appreciation, many Western theologians viewed Hindu polytheism (which, ironically, includes strong monotheistic currents) as theologically inferior to the “more advanced” monotheistic Abrahamic religions. Confusions with “new age” superficialities clouded the source traditions, as well. The social sciences pejorative, going native further melded Eurocentric racism and religious prejudice with a concern for objectivity in the study of “other” religions. Even so, such third-person approaches remain particularly limiting in the study of human consciousness,” the central focus of all Hindu worship/ investigation,” for “subjectivity” is inherently internal, a matter that continues to vex the cognitive and neuro-sciences.
Despite such conflicting pressures, a few Christian missionaries adopted Eastern spiritual practices, beginning with R. de Nobili (1577- 1656) who did so to further his missionaryism and, in the 20th century, J. Monchanin, H. le Saux, C. F. Andrews, and B. Griffith, who directed a Bangalore Ashram for some 37 years while seeking an interfaith monasticism. Indeed, as Hindu and Buddhist meditation practices began to attract many Christians, including the Trappist monks, T. Keating and T. Merton, a Christian Centering Prayer Movement emerged, quietly blending concepts and techniques appropriated from the Indic traditions with their own. Similarly, cognitive scientists Varela, Thompson and Rosch ventured into first-person consciousness research (via Buddhist meditation) as published in The Embodied Mind (1991).
Struggles with Eurocentric views of Hinduism also strongly affected the Indian Motherland.Via so-called Macaulayism (British colonialist proscriptions against the native study of Indic traditions) and other modernizing and missionary pressures, many educated native Indians sought the “sophistication” of their colonizer’s science, politics, and religion. Thus, the missionary-educated Swami Vivekananda’s famed presentations at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago (by invitation of William James) would contribute to the revival of Hinduism in India, as well as give Americans their first look at a “real Yogi.”