America’s romance with Indian spirituality is a continuation of Europe’s ancient connections with India, both in the trade of physical goods (such as incense and myrrh mentioned in the Bible) as well as the philosophical dialogues between the Greeks and the Indian ‘gymnosophists1. Not many know that the sculpting of the world’s largest Buddhas, demolished by the Taliban in Afghanistan, along with much of the other Buddhist religious art in that region, was the work of the Greeks in the Indo-Greek culture, called Gandhara, based in the city of that name that is now Kandahar. Cicero complained in the Roman Senate about a trade deficit of 20 million gold coins a year which went to India for the purchase of silks and textiles, ostensibly for the fairer sex. The presence of a Buddhist icon on the bosom of a dead woman in the 6th century A.D. Norway is another example as well as the use of Hindu mathematics in the form of algebra and algorithms which were presented to the West through Latin translations of Arabic translations of Sanskrit texts. These introduced the revolutionary idea of ‘zero’, which went though many fortunes and misfortunes in European history2 .
Trade, of course, was the principal medium of exchange between civilizations and cultures. The blockage of Western Europe’s lucrative trade route to India by the Ottomans, and the concomitant prosperity of Venice with whom they had a special treaty, was a significant impetus to the discovery of alternate routes. At that time it was estimated that India accounted for 24.5 percent of the entire world’s production of goods. Europe could not manage without its trade with India. Columbus, hoping to find an even better route arrived in the West Indies and the indigenous people of the Americas were renamed as American “Indians”. Eventually Vasco de Gama, traveling around the Cape of Good Hope and guided by Indian and Arab guides arrived in India.
European trade with India revived and led to covetous colonialism, but that is another story. America fought for and won independence. Cornwallis3 got promoted to being the Governor General of India! Indian shipbuilding was banned. The right thumbs of the weavers of Dhaka (British spelling Dacca) muslin, 40 yards of which folded would pass through a finger ring, were cut off. However, we are not here to record all that was done to undo Indian prosperity.
In some form the Indian trader found his way to America, and the European trader brought Indian goods to the Americas. An important port like Salem, MA, bears testimony to that history. One can still visit the East India Mall in Salem and walk down to the Ghentoo (Antwerp spelling of ‘Hindu’) Wharf. The East India Marine Society Museum was established in 1799. Of many museums established around that time, this one still remains active as the Peabody Museum on East India Square.4 The Peabody Museum sometimes displays the seated figures of the Hindu trader wearing the traditional national garb of the time.
Trade and the empire also helped the exchange of ideas. Europe’s reconnecting with India led to the “discovery” of Sanskrit as the “mother all European languages”, as it was then thought5. This in turn resulted in the “discovery” of linguistics (then known as philology). The translation of the Upanishads by Dara Shikoh from Sanskrit into Persian became available to Europe in a Latin re-translation, and eventually in other European languages. The study of Samkhya by almost all eminent German philosophers of the 19th century is another widely acknowledged example of the influence of India on European culture. So the 19th century oriental romanticism in America followed the European trends and the first University departments for Sanskrit studies were established. “The religion of the future humanity will be more like what Mr. Schopenahuer is teaching” – said Einstein (here paraphrased) in the first quarter of the 20th century.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the western world’s concept of historical time did not extend beyond 5000 years, since it was calculated from Biblical genealogy. Then came the discoveries in astronomy and geology that almost overnight stretched the ribbon of time to millions and billions of years. The western mind was simply not prepared to handle this astounding vastness. Just as the concept of zero at one time gave the West a new way of thinking about mathematical quanta, so also the Hindu view of the expansiveness of time and the universe (“uncountable billion suns”, “uncountable cycles of creations and dissolutions of universes” in a single eye-wink of God – an idea basic and common to all denominations of Hinduism and Buddhism) made its way into scientific thinking. Emerson and Thoreau, the transcendentalist patriarchs of American spirituality and avid readers of the Bhagavad-gita, not only re-invented the ideal of a vana-prastha, a forest dwelling hermit, but Thoreau in his writings sang in prose about these ‘eye-winks” of Divinity. Whitman wrote his Song of India, hearkening to the Vedas. These transcendentalist writings have inspired many in the United States who aspire for authentic spirituality. A well read copy of the Upanishads can still be seen in the house of Thomas Jefferson.6
Where in the U.S. within a zone of a few hundred square miles are to be found natural mountainous mounds that are given names like: Manu Cloisters, Buddha Monastery, Vishnu Temple, Shiva Temple, etc? Go for a visit to the Grand Canyon and obtain the detailed hiking map. All these names are there.7 The different geological layers are marked with signs boards inscribed “Brahma Layer” and “Vishnu Layer” etc., because in the Hindu cosmology these cosmic forces operate in the time frames of billions of years and, again, billions of cycles thereof – a concept that was not yet popularised when the layers were named. The names in the Grand Canyon were given by Major Clarence E. Dutton, an explorer, geologist and mystic orientalist8.
Mark Twain, the sarcastic cynical challenger of Christianity, felt himself challenged by India. In his Following the Equator he narrates of the wonders he felt in India. In chapter 12 he describes a dream in which he saw the universe as the body of God, which a Christian missionary explained to him to be a vision akin to the world view of the Hindus. In Chapter 53 of the book he writes of his visit to the then famous yogi Swami Bhaskarananda Saraswati whom he describes as a being of godlike stature. Mark Twain’s work must have fired the imagination of many Americans about the grandeur of India--the grandest of the good and the grandest of the bad that can ever be imagined9.
The First Swami Comes West
The second half of the 19th century10 saw an organised effort at disseminating quasi-Indian ideas in the form of the Theosophical Society established by Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Alcott. They travelled far and wide in India and the Himalayas, and reported their meetings with the sages and yogis. For several decades, the theosophists remained the spokespersons of Indian spirituality in the West. An academically honed scholar would seriously question their interpretation and presentation of Indian and Tibetan spirituality, but they certainly served as the forerunners of the Swamis and Masters to come. The Theosophical Society not only served as the spiritual resource for thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, all the way into the 1950’s. It also gave birth to those sympathetic to the idea of Indian independence. Annie Besant, a British theosophist, became one of the foremost leaders advocating the freedom of India.
She also established colleges and schools in India. Krishnamurti, intended by the Theosophical Society to be presented as the future Messiah11, chose his own path of “no Messiahs” and inspired hundreds of thousands of Americans to look to their own intellect for spiritual guidance.
While the Theosophical Society cleared the way for much liberal thinking in American spirituality, it also indirectly helped in generating an interest in the idea of a World Parliament of Religions. In 1893 the first World Parliament of Religions was held in Chicago. It was in fact Romain Rolland of France who wrote one of the first biographies of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. Ramakrishna’s disciple Swami Vivekananda was the first known swami to visit the Untied States. No one knew him here and he lost the address of the organisers. As he roamed the streets of Chicago homeless and suffering from hunger, Providence and divine Grace sent help in time, but that is another story.
At this time Buddhism was also waking up in Sri Lanka. A Buddhist monk, by name Anagarika Dharmapala, was busy establishing the Mahabodhi Society – to serve as an umbrella for all world Buddhists – at the holy spot where the Buddha had preached his first sermon 26 centuries ago. It was from here, Saranath, near the holy city of Varanasi, that he sent his first batch of monks with the injunction:
charatha bhikkhavo charikam,
Wander ye monks, wander,
for the benefit of the many,
for the comfort of the many.
In spite of all the oriental romanticism, transcendentalism and theosophy, no one in America knew anything about the swamis, the saffron-robed monks of the Hindu tradition. Swami Vivekananda found himself to be an outsider. There was no time available for him to address the World Parliament of Religions. The Buddhist monk, Anagarika Dharmapala, could not accept the situation that the profound Hindu religion would not be represented. He offered half of his own allotted time for Swamiji – and the rest is history.
This was when both the Buddhist missions as well as the Vedanta societies and Ramakrishna Missions began to be established throughout the United State and Canada. The Ramakrishna missions as well as the Theosophical Society branches offered a ready hospitality to any future visiting teachers from India; they established local monasteries; trained American and Canadian brahmacharis (novice monks); published books; taught Sanskrit and the texts; and offered spiritual guidance to help solve people’s problems, many of which were specific to western culture. They created a lecture circuit and were sometimes even welcomed at the universities. (The universities offered academically objective studies but sometimes people of spiritual aspiration registered in these institutions to learn the language of the texts thoroughly.)
Even though the Theosophical Society, Swami Vivekananda and Buddhist teachings are the most prominently known eastern influences of the time, there were many other teachers who worked at the grassroots without becoming highly popularised. One of these comes to mind : even now the series of books attributed to Yogi Ramacharaka, reprinted, are read by many with great interest and grant deep insights into the spirituality of the yoga philosophy. Ramacharaka was not the name of the author. The back title page on these works explains that
In the late 1860’s Baba Barata [Bharata?] was born to a high Brahmin family in India. His education was undertaken by a Guru whose name was later to become widely known.
In 1893 Baba Barata, now a teacher in his own right travelled to Chicago for the World Columbian Exhibition. Here he lectured on the philosophy of the East and soon he found he had attracted a following… …
…in the early years of this [20th] century he met and became good friends with an English author, William Walker Atkinson…..Neither of the co-authors penned their name to the books, instead they were attributed to the wise Guru Yogi Ramacharaka…”
How many other teachers, whose names did not become popular, were teaching at that time cannot be ascertained. Also, since we are talking of the American romance, we have not taken into account the teachers who visited other western countries. Those from Imperial India came to Britain; those from the French enclaves came to France. There is also no record of the Portuguese route that might have been taken by some from Goa – although the attitudes of the Portuguese regimes were much more restrictive. The influences of teachers who taught in these countries definitely percolated into the United States.
Swamis in the early 20th century
In 1903, a phenomenal swami came to the United States--Swami Rama Tirtha. He was only the second swami to visit. He taught mainly in California from 1903-1906. His collection of writings, his biographical details, all constitute a fascinating and most inspiring study12. Even though there are numerous Rama Tirtha Missions in India, it is not known whether such a mission was ever established in USA. It is reported that :
When he arrived in San Francisco by sea, the immigration officer questioned him about his background. What will be your address here? The Swami had no address to give. He might have been sent back. The officer asks : do you have no friends here ? He gets the reply, “oh yes, I do have one”. “Well, why didn’t you say so before? Who is the friend?” “Yourself, Sir”, replied the Swami. And the immigration officer took him home and offered him shelter.
He often lectured at the Golden Gate Park and inspired many families including the well known Hearst family. Some feel that the beginnings of a change in California towards spiritual values may be attributed to the seeds dropped by Swami Ramatirtha. Swami Ramatirtha left his body at an early age of 30 in Tihri in the Himalayas.
Here we must not forget the highly spiritual influence of the poet Rabindranath Tagore whose inspired mystic poetry was popularised not only because he received the Nobel prize in 1913 but also because of his close friendship with the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats. The same also sponsored other great teachers like Purohit Swami, a highly charismatic, learned and spiritually advanced Swami, whose translations of the Yoga-sutras and the Upanishads are still available in the United States. It is simply not possible to present even a small bibliography of such works that were read widely by the American people seeking spiritual guidance.
In 1930’s came the phenomenon known as Paramahansa Yogananda. He established his Ashram in California. Again, the work he did is legend. His Autobiography of a Yogi is a well known classic. At this time, many teachers, like Yesudian in Switzerland, and Theos Bernard, were teaching yoga in Europe, and it began to trickle into the United States and Canada. People were ready for the work of Paramahansa Yogananda. It was a time of uncertainty and the looming second world war broke out soon after. Paramahansa Yogananda left behind him the Yogoda Satsang Society (Self Realization Fellowship) to carry on his work after him, but not only the society. Many of his direct disciples such as Goswami Kriyananda and Roy Eugene Davis continue to teach within the tradition he passed down.
After Paramahamsa Yogananda, for some time the seekers were dependent on writings about great ones like Ramana Maharshi and Anandamoyee Ma. A few traveled to India, returned, and wrote books about their teachers and masters. Spiritual travelogues, like those of Paul Brunton, became popular. Many inspiring anthologies of ‘eastern’ thought were published, for example, Perennial Philosophy13, by Aldous Huxley who had been influenced by Ramakrishna Mission for a time.
Cultural Changes and Later Teachers
As the United States had won its independence from Britain, the US much favored the independence of India. The news of Mahatma Gandhi’s movement were favourably reported in the American media. As a part of the consequence of such reporting, and the writings of the authors like Louise Fisher, some in America looked to the Gandhian example for guidance in solving the American problems. Martin Luther King discovered Gandhi, deeply studied his methods of non-violence or “civil disobedience” (a phrase Gandhi14 himself took from the American, Thoreau, and refined it in mass application). He forced American society to face its own truths, apply them to its own ideals of equality, and be honest about them.
Many masters never visited the West. They influenced the western in general and the American civilization in particular in two ways. One, some had western disciples who knew how to operate in the western society, how to write and publish, how to organize groups – and so forth. Without diluting or minimizing the message these disciples honestly served their masters and spread their message. Shri Aurobindo was in this category. Then there are/were those who did not speak English or French, did not gain a large western readership or discipleship but whose spiritual grandeur was such that those few who visited them spread the word. These masters guided in silence, through silence. For example, even though Paul Brunton wrote in detail about Raman Maharshi, the latter would have become a guide to seekers of the interior silence even without such writing. The true seekers have been quite content with reading badly printed books, often in hilarious English, arriving from India in the first half of the 20th century, and have derived much inspiration and guidance. No need here of high level promotion by public relations firms.
The extent to which the lives of some Americans, those who were truly disciplined and committed seekers of the interior silence, were guided can be illustrated with the example of a professor at one of the prestigious colleges in Minnesota. WE have not taken permission to publish his name. Both Prof. and Mrs….. were meditation teachers. While she taught Zen, he practiscd silence under the distant guidance of Shri Raman Maharshi’s message. Mrs… left her body in her late seventies. Prof… carried on with his work for many years more into his old age. Here is what was reported :
One morning an ex-student of his phoned him saying : I have been away for these many year. I now here in Minneosta. I have not seen you for such a long time. May I pay you a visit today ?
Prof… : So glad to hear from you after such a long time. I would have been happy to see you but today I am traveling.
Student : Oh, where would you be going ?
Prof… : Oh, today I am dying.
The professor takes his bath, does his prayers, enters silence, and quietly leaves his body.
No need here for counseling to the dying according to the principles of modern thanatology.
The end of the second world war exposed a large number of Americans to the Japanese traditions; Zen became a powerful influence on the minds of many American seekers. Its misinterpretation in the language of jazz, in itself a product of the encounter of western music with Indian improvised rhythm and melody, produced the Beat generation. The writings like Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums15 became the source of inspiration for countless Americans. For some of its followers it was no romance but more the freedom to lust. Yet it brought about a sense of freedom of thought that included alternative civilizations as a valid experience for an American to aspire for.
During the Kennedy era, two other events shaped the thought of the young people of America. (1) The Peace Corps brought thousands of young Americans into contact with ordinary people in different cultures of the world and that made them re-think some of the values of their elders who by now appeared to them to have been lost in a maze of materialism. (2) Aldous Huxley had written his book, Doors of Perception16, in the early 1950’s, describing his ‘mystical experiences’ achieved through participation in the Peyote rituals of the American Indians. That gave an impetus to two Harvard professors, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, to experiment with the new chemical LSD which was purported to produce altered states of consciousness which they thought to be akin to the spiritual experiences of the “mystics”. It was, however, “barking up the wrong tree”. No chemical can grant instant nirvana. It can only misfire the brain cells. The similarity of the experience to higher states of consciousness was mistaken17. However the search for the higher states was certainly genuine.
The exposure to the economically less developed cultures changed the value patterns. The young people of America realised that happiness was not measurable by the quantity of money alone. They also took to the pseudo-mysticism of LSD, and the Hippie movement was born. It was a false form of renunciation but the search was an honest one. Richard Alpert soon realised that LSD was no way to the Bodhi tree. He found a great master in Neem Karoli Baba, became Ram Dass, and brought the teachings of the true ‘mysticism’ of yoga to the American youth18.
Many of the hippies found their way to the countries of genuine mystical traditions, such as Japan, Thailand, and India. Here they met some authentic teachers as well, and invited them to the USA. The Beetles introduced the music of Ravi Shankar (well, that was earlier) and Maharshi Mahesh Yogi and transcendental meditation (the new brand name for the millennia old practice of a-japa japa) became household words. The word “mantra” became part of the English language much as the words Brahmin had at one time become associated with the learned East Coast intellectuals, the Boston Brahmins, and the word Pundit had referred to an expert in any field. Well, once you have put together Brahmins, Pundits and mantras, the civilisation is not going to remain the same! Many Brahmins and the Pundits, in the new sense of these words, took to the way of the mantra and very gently changed the direction of thinking even in the scientific as well as the political fields and in the information media.
For some, the way of the mantra meditation was most satisfying. Others sought spiritual refuge in the vast Bhakti movement that had been revived in a new form by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in 16th century Bengal. One of the devotees of Chaitanyas’s path, Prabhupada, generated a bhakti movement in the US and entire families took to chanting the divine name and listening to the stories of the Krishna Incarnation of God. Among the contemporary teachers of bhakti the name of the late Sant Keshavadas comes to mind.
Many other teachers who had been teaching quietly, some in universities, some outside, people like Ekanatha Eashwaran, Dr. Rammurti S. Mishra (later, Swami Brahmananda), and Usharbudh Arya, found themselves to be centres of attention for a larger group of students. The impact of these teachers assured a large number of ‘hippies’ that the way of chemicals was not the way of the sages. The influence of these teachers then worked on two levels; (1) those who had not joined the overt ‘hippie’ denunciation of materialistic values found that one could remain fully effective in society and yet find moments of true spiritual solitude. (2) Many of the ‘hippies’, having found this experience of meditation to be inwardly fulfilling, abandoned the exterior form and re-entered the society with new values.
Both these groups became one in bringing about changes in the fields of education (against the Eurocentric teaching of history, for example). Fusion music developed. ( The seeds of what was to become fusion music had been planted in the earlier events such as when Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin played the sitar together with the violin at the United Nations). Thousands attended the concerts of Indian classical music and dance performances given by the maestros of the highest calibre who travelled from India. But the greatest change was in the (i) scientific circles and (ii) in the corporate structures. Both began to experiment with alternative models of thought and organisation.
Many of the Indian ideas have been incorporated into the general scientific thinking. For example, along with the ‘discovery’ of Sanskrit in the West came the science of phonetics. A large number of terms used in the teaching of linguistics in all colleges are derived from the ancient grammar of Panini (7th-4th centuries B.C.). Several NASA scientists have expressed the opinion that Sanskrit is the best computer language.
Many of these ideas seeped into the consciousness of millions without them realizing that they came from India. For example the movie and the theatre production titled My Fair Lady, is based on George Bernard Shaw’s drama Pygmalion. It is doubtful whether many American viewers realise that Prof. Higgins was a Sanskrit grammarian and that the methods he was using are those taught by the ancient Sanskrit phoneticians like Panini and Yajnavalkya.
Many ‘eastern’ cultural influences on America have not come directly from ‘eastern’ countries. Often they have been incorporated into the thought and perception of some Europeans who then made their way to America. For example, the concept of a Christian yogi was introduced through the writings of Shri Krishna Prem. Bede Griffiths and Swami Abhishiktananda introduced the idea of a Christian swami to Catholics seeking a dialogue with Indian spirituality.
Here we are not including the indirect Indian influences. Tibet, China, Korea and Japan had absorbed a great deal of the wisdom of India between the 1st and the 10th centuries A.D. In fact Korea took it through China and japana then from Korea and China. The Indian spiritual message was re-shaped in these countries to enrich the existing vast spiritual resource. H.H. Dalai Lama often refers to India as the Guru of Tibet. The Chinese referred to India as the Western Paradise. The streams of Indian and Chinese civilisations flowed together for the better part of two thousand years.The two civilizations together created the rich civilizations of SE Asia. In each of these countries the Indian teaching took its own unique form and heavily contributed to the new forms of civilisation. These forms were then brought to the West in general and to the Americas in particular through the forces of history in the 19th and the 20th centuries. So, it is best at this point to ignore these indirect Indian influences on the western civilization of the Americas.
The last forty years
All this time, the teaching of yoga continued to flourish mostly in its physical form. Introduced nearly a century back, this movement led by m/patriarchs like Indira Devi, had quietly enriched the lives of thousands. Various Ashrams in India had trained the teachers not only in physical practices of yoga but in the entire philosophy of life. This was a ready built resource from which many of the later modes of societal change emerged. The Shivananda Ashram in Rishikesh, and its offshoots, established by the legendary Swami Shivananda disciples carried on their solid ground work. Bihar School of Yoga, established by Swami Satyananda, a disciple of Swami Shivananda, trained many teachers deeply and thoroughly. Swami Vishnudevananda taught thousands. The great contemporary patriarch of yoga in America, Swami Satchidanandaji Maharaj was a towering figure of our time.
Krishnamacharya – a master of yoga in the most ancient tradition of the Tamil Siddhas, with the patronage of the Mysore Palace, prepared three disciples of a very high order, each specialising in a different aspect of the power and purity of yoga. B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Joice, and Desikachar. Each has trained perhaps thousands of teachers who teach according to their capacity and have helped make yoga a household word.
Starting from Indira Devi and continuing to these contemporary teachers a standard was set in yoga teaching. Yoga became a close ally of the therapist, physical as well as psychological, and began to play a role in the field of chemical dependency with great success. Today every popular newspaper and magazine recommends yoga and such relaxation practices to prevent, and sometimes cure, many physical discomforts and dis-eases. The major airlines have adopted some of the yoga methods to help the passenger reduce his tension and tiredness through gentle exercises that the traveller can do by following the videotapes played during the flight. The Yoga Journal and Yoga International (now Yoga + Joyful Living Magazine) are the two most popularly read yoga magazines disseminating the authentic teaching of yoga.
While the Theosophical Society lost much of its base, the Ramakrishna mission neither grew nor dwindled; it kept a steady pace. This is due to the thousand monks of the Ramakrishna Mission who serve in different fields of both selfless service and philosophical knowledge throughout India and in all the continents. They do so without seeking to come into the glamourous limelight and are no w not widely known. This is the mark of their purity.
The torch of further popularising Vedanta was taken up in the 1960’s by Swami Chinmayananda whose disciples have spread the knowledge far and wide. The aging Swami Dayananda’s Ashram has imparted a thorough and systematic knowledge of Vedanta, its language and texts.
The next wave seems to have risen in the 1960’s, and the ‘70s, and still continues. Osho (Rajneesh), whose message is often misunderstood and misinterpreted, is well known and was a very genuine teacher from the lineage of yogis. Swami Muktananda has left an impressive legacy of spirituality behind. A great many other traveling swamis and teachers visited the Americas. Many, like Baba Haridas, and Shri Ekanath Easvaran have established extensive Ashrams; others have smaller establishments. Their American disciples have established various institutions with varying degrees of influence. The followers of Sai Baba have created a chain of the faithful. Some have moved away from their teachers, like Deepak Chopra who started with Maharshi Mahesh Yogi and has found the ‘language’ in which to make himself popularly known.
Here one must also pay homage to Mother teachers. Women of high spiritual eminence have graced the Americas with their presence. Neither Sharda Devi, the divine mother consort of Ramakrishna Paramahansa, not Anandamoyee Maa ever visited the United States but thousands have been inspired by their spiritual presence in their lives. Everyone in the whole world is the beloved infant of such divine mothers. Ammachi Amritanandamayi is a towering figure whose embrace alone is an initiation. There are others of equal grandeur whose ascetic power of grace and blessings, and the purity of their presence, is experienced by a fewer fortunate ones. Those who have had the darshana , experience of being in the holy presence of Shri Ma19 of California, are truly blessed with grace.
It is not intended here to give a comprehensive list of all great teachers, popular or less known, who have made a tremendous contribution to the spread of these traditions. That would require a veritable encyclopaedia. The work of the American teachers and guides in various fields cannot be understated. Scholarly sadhakas like Georg Feuerstein have combined their academic skill with their personal spiritual dedication and published large volumes that serve as sources of authentic information. David Frawly, and many other names can be mentioned. Rama Jyoti Vernon has quietly and effectively brought the teachings of yoga to the fore in various attempts at international peace. There is also a movement among the American yoga teachers that they no longer need any swamis and yogis from India to guide them. They would soon find that there is a lot more knowledge in the very sources, the swamis and the yogis, from which their own understanding has come this far. How many yoga teachers can show how one may learn a language in a few nights through the practice of yoga-nidra? For that they would still have to go to a Rishikesh Ashram. Our apologies to those hundreds, American and Indian teachers, whose names do not appear here. Our deep gratitude to them also.
No single part of a tradition can be introduced anywhere without some reference to other related values. Elsewhere we have written about the history of vegetarianism in the West. The practice of yoga and meditation (we use the two synonyms only because of prevailing fashion and the common lack of understanding that yoga IS meditation) and the study of Vedanta and other such philosophies brought about a revival of the spirit of compassion towards other living beings. But this reason for accepting vegetarianism is limited to a few practitioners. Many have taken to it as part of a new holistic health movement.
A disciple of Swami Satchidanandaji , Dr. Dean Ornish, brought about a revolution in thinking about cardiac diseases among the heart specialists. His treatment not only encouraged the practice of yoga but taught the patients the value of a less fattening, mostly vegetarian, diet. Such other scientific trends have tremendously helped the people who suffer diseases born of obesity, hardening of arteries and such.
As students of yoga travelled to India, they discovered ayurveda the ancient Indian system for prevention and treatment of disease, maintenance of health and longevity. It has also become household word. All these trends have joined together and have become a common stream. The yoga teachers are often guides to ‘alternative’ therapies.
There had been much interest among scientists to investigate the nature of consciousness and human will and its effect on physiology. The experiments conducted on Swami Rama of the Himalayas gave an added impetus to these scientific investigations. Herbert Benson and many others conducted research on the mind-body relationship. Benson’s Relaxation Response technique is nothing but the very first beginning level mental procedure practised in shava-asana, the corpse pose; several dozen other practices done in this position have not yet been investigated. Many of the techniques used in biofeedback are entirely taken from yoga meditation methods.
In 1969, a great Master, Swami Rama of the Himalayas came to America.
Here we quote and paraphrase some paragraphs from the Portrait of a Himalayan Master, published by the Himalayan Institute Hospital Trust, Swami Ram Nagar, Dehradun (UA), India.
“A number of perennial and ancient traditions come together in the personality of a being like Swami Rama of the Himalayas. In Yoga he represents the unbroken lineage of the earliest founders of Yoga, like the sages mentioned in the Upanishads and the Puranas. As a renunciate of the sanyasin order he represents the tradition of Shankaracharya; resuscitated and reorganized 1200 years ago. In wisdom, he presented the knowledge of the Vedas, recognized as the earliest scriptures of humanity. Initiated not only by his own Master, but also by his Grandmaster in Tibet, he represents the Himalayan sages. The teachings have been passed on primarily orally, each sage transmitting knowledge directly to prepared students. According to his tradition, yoga encompasses all the philosophies and practices that have ever been followed by the great sages, not only of the Himalayas, but also of Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Zen, and Sufism as well.”
“Swamiji was raised from early childhood by his master, a great yogi and saint of Bengal, who lived in the the foothills of the Himalayas. The master was known as Bengali Maharaj or simply Babaji. Babaji was a yogi of immortal wisdom and one of the greatest masters of the Himalayas. The purpose of Babaji’s life was to enlighten those who were prepared, and to love, protect, and guide those who were still preparing. If someone remembers him when they are in trouble, he always helps. Hariakhan Baba and Swamiji’s master were disciples of the same advanced yogi who lived in Tibet. Even today in Nepal, Nainital, and Almora people tell stories about these two sages and their incredible healing powers and spiritual miracles.”
“At the young age of twenty-four years he became Shankaracharya of Karvirpitham in South India, succeeding Dr. Kurtakoti to one of the seats of the highest spiritual positions in India.”
On the command of his master, Swami Rama began his work in the West in 1969. First stopping over in Japan, where he initiated Yokada-san, the founder of Mahikari, “Swamiji came to the United States where, among his other activities, he was invited by Dr. Elmer Green of the Menninger Foundation of Topeka, Kansas, to be a consultant in a research project investigating the voluntary control of involuntary states. He intended to present his case to science.
“I am doing this not to show that I am a magician or a superhuman being, but to show that by controlling the mind one can control one’s bodily functions, including the so-called involuntary systems such as respiratory and circulatory. This is done through control of the autonomic nervous system, which is involved in the development of most psychosomatic diseases.”
He began the synthesis of eastern and western traditions with his research work at the Menninger Foundation. He participated in experiments that helped to revolutionize scientific thinking about the relationship between body and mind, and amazed scientists by his demonstration, under laboratory conditions, of precise conscious control of autonomic physical responses and mental functioning, previously thought to be impossible.
Under these scientific conditions, Swamiji demonstrated (1) the ability to stop his heart from pumping blood for seventeen seconds and (2) to produce a ten-degree difference in temperature between different parts of the palm of his hands. (3) In one demonstration, using only mental power, he caused a fourteen-inch aluminum knitting needle mounted on a shaft five feet away to spin. (4) He also voluntarily produced and maintained specific brain wave patterns on demand. He first generated brain wave patterns that were predominately characterized by beta waves; then he produced alpha waves, which are generally associated with a relaxed state. Finally, he was able to demonstrate the production of theta waves. (5) He then produced delta brain waves which are associated with very deep non-REM sleep in contrast to alpha and beta waves which are associated with conscious states.
While producing delta brain waves, Swamiji appeared to be in a state of deep sleep. However, he was able to accurately recall everything that had transpired in the room during that period. This technique is called yoga nidra, a state of conscious sleep during which you can record everything that is going on around you and recall it later. Yoga nidra is a state beyond the waking, dreaming and sleeping states, but between sleep and turiya. The capacity of the mind is greatly expanded in this state and the intuitive faculty is strengthened.
“These things are actually very simple.” Swamiji said in an interview for the Chicago Tribune. “What isn’t understood by us we think of as a miracle; but this is nothing like that. What I try to teach is that all of us have the capacity to do these things.
“The secret,” he said, “lies in turning inward and exploring one’s unconscious mind. The unconscious controls both the conscious mind and the body.” He held up his finger. “Imagine my finger is the conscious mind and the rest of my body is the unconscious. You see, the conscious mind is but a small part of the whole totality of the mind, and what we so far have not yet learned is how to use this totality.”
Reports of his work have been documented in the Encyclopaedia Britannica Yearbook of Science 1973, the Time-Life Nature Science Annual 1973, World Book Science Annual 1974, and numerous other publications. Journals and newspapers across the United States reported on the experiments.
Through his work with the Menninger Foundation he helped to pioneer the use of biofeedback as a therapeutic modality, to lay the foundation for stress management and holistic health programs, and to generate interest in the human capacity to experience previously unrecognized levels of consciousness.
He was the first yogi to subject himself to modern scientific methods of testing his states of consciousness while at the highest level of meditation in the highly recognized psycho-physiological research laboratories of USA. When questioned about these feats by an interviewer from The World Book Science Annual, 1974, he explained that he could control his heart and blood vessels, and consciously produce various kinds of brain waves at will, because, “All of the body is in the mind, but not all of the mind is in the body.”
“Swami Rama’s philosophy of health and medicine may be summed up in his own words as follows:
“For years I have tried to understand the entire human mechanism, and why people suffer from disease. Most of the diseases, 70 to 80 percent of them, are psychosomatic. Psychosomatic diseases are more powerful than physical diseases.”
“Holistic health refers to the entire being. People today don’t know much about preventive medicine, about diet and nutrition. They are not aware that the human being is not a body alone, but that he is a breathing being and a thinking being.”
“Our approach is to deal with the whole person – the totality – body, breath, senses, mind, and centre of consciousness from where the mind draws its power to think, and decide, and judge. We must learn to study ourselves on all levels, not seeking physical well being only, but mental and spiritual well being.”
“The basis of holistic health is understanding the purpose of life and learning how to achieve that purpose. Without this understanding, the individual will always feel a sense of emptiness and dissatisfaction within.””
“His works include:
Book of Wisdom: Ishopanishad
Life Here and Hereafter
Freedom from the Bondage of Karma
Living with the Himalayan Masters
Lectures on Yoga
Practical Guide to Holistic Health
Choosing a Path
Enlightenment without God
Inspired Thoughts of Swami Rama
Exercise without Movement
Perennial Psychology of the Bhagavad Gita
Celestial Song/Gobind Geet
Path of Fire and Light, Vol. 1
Path of Fire and Light, Vol. 2
Japji: Meditation in Sikhism
A Call to Humanity
Art of Joyful Living
The Cosmic Drama (Bichitra Natak)
Indian Music, Vol. 1
Wisdom of the Ancient Sages: Mundaka Upanishad
Love and Family Life
Meditation and Its Practice
The Valmiki Ramayana Retold in Verse, Vols. 1 and 2
Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Vol. I, translated in English Verse
Swamiji also co-authored with his disciples: Creative Use of Emotion, Yoga and Psychotherapy, Science of Breath, Meditation in Christianity, Mystical Poems of Kabir.
Video tapes and cassette recordings are also available of Swamiji’s seminars: Yoga Sutras, Mandukya Upanishad, Mundaka Upanishad, Ishopanishad, Saundarya Lahari and others.”
“In 1966 Swamiji had established Sadhana Mandir Trust Ashram on the banks of the Ganges in the foothills of the Himalayas. In 1967 he founded the first Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy in Kanpur, U.P., India. In December 1969 in Minneapolis he founded the Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and philosophy of the USA in order to create the means to teach the experiences of his ancient heritage. This was later moved to Chicago and thence to Honsedale, Pennsylvania. The Meditation Center he established in Minneapolis continues to guide many thousands.”
It is from the Himalayan Institute that Swami Rama worked methodically to publish his thoughts, trained outstanding faculty from among high professional scientists, medical doctors and philosophers who helped to spread his word throughout the West. He gave to North America the most comprehensive image of yoga and meditation. He derived this from his profound knowledge of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Sutras, and the mystical traditions of all religions and eastern and western philosophical systems, together with the deepest grasp of the modern sciences such as medicine, anatomy and surgery. He presented yoga “without mystification” and interpreted and applied it in a form and manner most helpful to the present day scientifically oriented mind.
In addition, the material resources he generated through his work in the West were utilised to help the materially less well endowed communities. He helped many to complete their studies, undertook massive earthquake relief, established the Himalayan Hospital Trust that is a most modern medical city in the foothills of the Himalayas, together with the Rural Development institute, both of which are helping and serving the entire Garhwal Himalayas. By his example he showed that spirituality was not to be seen as something apart from daily life of love and selfless service.
How many thousands have been influenced by the presence and the teaching of Swami Rama cannot be ascertained. His book “Call to Humanity” shows his vision of a model for the future society of human beings who live by wisdom alone; it is a veritable manifesto for an enlightened humanity.
Swami Rama envisioned for the West a society that would
rise above its misinformation about spiritual realms;
educate its children from the beginning into the highest spiritual realities;
would cultivate the most positive and creative emotions and consequent family and other relationships that lead to enlightenment;
make religion nameless and a scientifically valid guide to all, without creating prejudices and without insisting on dead rituals and ceremonies;
achieve the highest standards of mental and physical health with a full understanding of the supremacy of the mind as taught I yoga and related science;
respect Nature and be non-violent towards it; and
all of this within the context of each individual knowing God as a personal experience within the highest level of Consciousness.
Above and beyond all his successes in the fields of science, service and literary creativity is the underlying truth of his true personality, that of a master of yoga science in all its facets and aspects. Leading a chosen discipline instantly into any of the well-controlled degrees of transcendental consciousness, in any path of yoga, according to one’s qualification (adhikara) was a part of his mastery. His disciples tell the episode of their amazing experiences with him; these are yet waiting to be recorded.
“A real teacher is he who is very selfless and who loves his students even more than a father can love his child…A master’s divine love is not that of human love but is something which only the heart, and never the mind, is capable of understanding. In a true spiritual tradition, the teacher gives so much to his student that the student’s life is overwhelmed and transformed.”
As no single student had a consciousness large enough to receive all of him, he granted different degrees of initiation and entrusted different areas of his work to his many disciples. The work of Swami Rama, as entrusted to these disciples, continued and will be deemed complete when it has influenced the society to adopt the ideal model summarised above.
Swami Rama’s impact on the American society has been that (a) all the different streams of applied spirituality in various areas of life became a co-ordinated stream, and that (b) in scientific terminology, yet without becoming reductionist but maintaining the purity of the spiritual values and traditions.
There are at least 2500 titles of research papers on yoga and meditation published in medical and scientific journals in the last four or so decades. This is one of the greatest contributions to scientific thought that India has made – not to speak of the professors teaching mathematics, computer science and information technology. The gentle nudge given by yoga to the investigation of the nature of the mind-body relationship has far reaching implications in the fields of neurology, psychiatry and the general prevention as well as cure for many diseases.
All of the forces introduced by India into the current development of western civilization will leave a lasting effect. The Swamis and the yogis want no acknowledgment for it; they would rather work low key, and prefer to invite no resistance. But Gandhian non-violence, meditation, the principles of ayurveda, vegetarianism, concepts of holistic health, the supremacy of mind over body, the gentle practice of yoga – all are now here to stay. They will continue to be more and more integrated into the general culture, and no one would even notice that a change took place. Several decades back, one would not have imagined the front cover of the Time Magazine carrying the theme, “Should you be a Vegetarian? : Millions of Americans are going Vegetarian” (July 15,2002). The front cover of the same on August 4, 2003 is on the theme of meditation and the article reports that more than ten million Americans now meditate, that is, one out of every twenty-five.
The scientific researcher investigates the effect of slow breathing but is hesitant to say in his paper that he is researching something he learnt from his yoga teacher.
There is one risk: the loss of the true intrinsic spiritual value--a ‘convenient’ re-interpretation. For example, yoga could be reduced to a set of strenuous exercises; vegetarianism would be practised for ‘health’ reasons only (not for compassion); ayurveda might become reductionist and be applied just like any system of diagnosis and medication and not as the personal application of a philosophy; meditation would be prescribed as part of a headache clinic, for stress reduction and not for the purpose for which the Buddha sat forty-nine days and nights absolutely still under the Bodhi tree. The application of relaxation practices would be limited to biofeedback and such; investigation of mediation would reduce it to serotonin level and the ability to alter brain waves; the Yoga-sutras would be studied as works of theory and not as guides to practices which only the oral tradition of the yogis can teach. While these re-interpretations will still benefit the host society to a great extent, the teachers who teach from within the vast ancient tradition(s) will continue to be needed to help guide those who choose themselves to rise beyond these pragmatic and mundane uses of yoga and so forth. The true swamis and yogis still have a great task ahead.
There is no count of how many spiritual teachers and guides and swamis have visited the Americas since Madame Blavatsky went to India. Some have created little Ashrams, spiritual centres and so forth. Some have left an imprint only in the hearts and in the spiritually more refined lives of individuals and families (the best one to leave).
Many ask: why is it that at this time so many swamis have chosen to visit the Americas? Is it simply for money for their Ashrams? The full and correct answer is as follows. One of the words for a monk and the synonym of ‘swami’ is parivrajaka, or peripatetic, wanderer. He follows the ancient injunction : yatra-sayam-grho munih; he has home wherever the evening catches him. The monks of India, Buddhist monks or swamis, hear of a place and they go there. They, the gymnosophists, dialogued with the Greek philosophers, taught in China, and wherever, in whichever was the dominant civilisation of the time, in whichever language was then spoken. They work silently and seek no pages for themselves in history books. If 20% of Americans today like to call themselves vegetarian, it is due to the work of these monks and yoga teachers but no one would be able to say ‘which monk’ when a history of the spiritual culture of America is written. They will fly through the skies of western civilization without leaving a featherprint; they will lead many across the oceans of difficult historical times without leaving a finprint.