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India: Walking a Razor's Edge

by Philip Goldberg October, 2015


I first became intoxicated by India as a college student in the 1960s, through the movies of Satyajit Ray, the music of Ravi Shankar, the fiction of Herman Hesse, Somerset Maugham and J.D. Salinger and, most of all, the revelations of the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads.

The Beatles put me over the top when they took up Transcendental Meditation and made their landmark pilgrimage to Rishikesh. The total effect of those cross-cultural hinges was to turn this existentialist/atheist/social activist into a dedicated spiritual seeker. I’ve been immersed in yogic practices and Hindu texts ever since.

Over the years, I saw the teachings of India’s sages transform the lives of millions of people who took up meditation, stretched and bent in yoga studios, visited ashrams and sat with gurus. I saw Hindu-based ideas and practices filter into mainstream culture through health practitioners, psychotherapists, research scientists, scholars and artists. Eventually, I wrote a book, American Veda, chronicling the East-West transmission from the days of Emerson and Thoreau to the present. The book was well-received, and I vowed that when it was published in India I would go there to tell the Indian people how much their spiritual heritage has influenced me and millions of my fellow Americans.

That dream came true in the fall of 2013, when the India Foundation, a cultural non-profit in Delhi, organized a speaking tour to launch the Indian publication.

In 30 days, I visited 18 cities in 12 states and gave 28 presentations: public lectures, private discussions with select audiences and talks at high schools, universities, and yoga academies. I was on 11 domestic flights, a few trains and countless automobiles. I visited teeming metropolises, medium-sized (by Indian standards) cities and ancient towns like Rishikesh, Haridwar and Varanasi that Hindus hold sacred.

When I describe my schedule, people say, "It must have been exhausting." I tell them, yes, it was physically demanding, but it was always exhilarating, mentally and emotionally, and on the whole extremely gratifying. I would do it again tomorrow, happily and enthusiastically, only with perhaps a bit more downtime.

Ringing Temple Bells

It was exciting to see India in the midst of its explosive modernization. Since my previous visit, six years earlier, changes were glaringly evident: infrastructure upgrades like highways, Delhi’s new Metro system and sparkling airports (all my flights were on time and the terminals were comfortable); gleaming office buildings that have taken root like banyan trees; energetic young people carving out a new future for their country. The makeover is not complete, of course. Poverty and hunger persist; income inequality is off the charts; modern amenities (toilets, paved roads, clean water, etc.) are absent in too many places.

It will take decades to overcome the socio-economic impact of hundreds of years of colonial rule and mistakes made after independence. At the same time, one hopes that certain aspects of India’s unique and timeless character will be preserved forever, and thankfully they remain: the vivid colors, the captivating scents, the welcoming faces, and of course, the palpable sense of holiness, in temples both enormous and tiny, in wayside shrines, in chants both whispered and blared through tinny speakers, in the eyes of gurus, monks and ordinary people fingering japa beads and doing pujas in their shops.

Because I was hosted by gracious, generous and impeccably courteous people, I got to see places that most tourists do not even know exist. I also visited homes and ate what Indian families eat. Most precious of all, I had meaningful conversations with people from all walks of life: politicians, professors, entrepreneurs, corporate executives, retired generals, students, engineers, swamis, gurus, yoga masters, taxi drivers, hotel clerks, mothers and fathers. As a result, I learned more about contemporary India than I could possibly discern as an ordinary traveler.

To sum up a multiplicity of impressions, India as a whole seems to be walking on a razor’s edge — a metaphor first employed in the Upanishads — with modernity and material progress beckoning on one side and its precious spiritual heritage open-armed on the other. The country’s welfare might well hinge on its collective sense of balance.

This spiritual/material, ancient/modern tension was explicit in my conversations and in the responses to my lectures. My talks summarized the message of American Veda: Over the course of 200 years, Americans have been imbibing the essence of Hinduism—primarily the philosophical revelations of Vedanta and the methods and principles of Yoga—through a variety of streams and tributaries. Evidence suggests that this East-to-West transmission is responsible in large part for a huge shift in the way Americans understand religion and engage their spirituality. I believe it could be one of the most important developments of the modern era.

Most of the people in attendance were proud to hear that their heritage has influenced Americans for the better. Some, especially the young, were surprised by my message, because they themselves considered the spiritual and philosophical aspects of the Vedic tradition irrelevant to modern life. Some even see it as an impediment to the material progress of their families and their nation. That America, the most prosperous and innovative nation on the planet, had found value in what they rejected — “Grandma’s superstitions” as one student disdainfully put it—was more than intriguing to them.

It was precisely because Indian youth look to America as a model of progress worthy of emulating that my hosts had me speak at so many schools and colleges. They urged me to emphasize that the Vedic heritage can complement modernization rather than impede it. At first, I was not sure how to address the issue. I did not want to sound like I was preaching to them. Nor did I want to come across as an arrogant American telling them how to think. India has had quite enough of that from foreigners over the centuries, and even today. As an outsider, I felt I ought to be humble and deferential to India’s own spiritual and educational leaders. Then again, as the author of a well-researched book I had information to impart.

Ultimately, I settled on a strategy. Think of America as the laboratory of the world, I suggested. Americans are good at inventing new things and experimenting with imported ideas and products. When something proves to be useful, we adapt it to our specific needs and integrate it into our way or life. Sometimes, I added, we modify or redesign useful things and sell them to the rest of the world—for better and for worse. America experimented with Vedanta, Yoga and other components of the Hindu dharma and found them to be compatible with modern life—and helpful antidotes to the excesses of modernity

Manila to Ani-Sarahan

In short, large numbers of Americans see the ageless teachings of India’s rishis not as antiques to be stored in museums and libraries, but as practical wisdom to applied here and now.

And that, I said, is a message from America worth paying attention to, as opposed to the marketing blitz that promotes harmful junk food, diabetes-inducing soft drinks, dispensable gadgets and trendy fashions.

In the Q&A sessions, I was asked about everything from American foreign policy to “Slumdog Millionaire.” The most pertinent queries from Sutra Journal’s perspective were, “Do Americans care about the spiritual components of yoga, or only the physical benefits?” and “Has there been a backlash from fundamentalist Christians?” Those questions are more complex than they would appear to be. The short answers are: “Some do and some don’t” and “Yes, but less than you think.”

I was also asked about the campaign for India’s highest political office, which was heating up at the time. Because of my deep affection for India, people expected I might have my own perspective. In fact, I’m asked about Indian current events all the time, and I always say, as I did then, that I do not know enough to venture an opinion. Based on what I heard at the time, however, and decades of concerned observation of politics in my own country, I did risk one prediction: Narendra Modi would not be the national savior that his ardent supporters expected him to be; nor would he be the demonic force of communal intolerance that his opponents feared he would be. That’s as far as I would go, and so far I seem to have been right. India’s future will not turn on one individual, but on the actions of a billion.

To my surprise, the most frequent line of inquiry—often more of a discourse than a question—had to with the aggressive missionary campaigns funded by American Evangelicals.

The anger, frustration and resentment was palpable, and the descriptions of devious, coercive and unscrupulous tactics that missionaries sometimes use to “harvest souls” were painful to hear. (I described some of those stories in this article.) I could not adequately respond to their concerns, but I did inform them that most American Christians would be appalled by such tales. I said that with confidence, knowing that most Christians in America are far more accepting of other religions than the loud, toxic, intolerant minority.

Manila to Ani-Sarahan

It is in that context that recent news items from India, about Hindus reconverting Christians, should be understood. It is in large part a backlash against centuries of aggressive conversion, which is viewed by Hindus as religious imperialism. They can’t imagine why anyone would want to coerce another person into abandoning their own traditions and pledging allegiance to a new one. Historically and culturally, India has always been innately pluralistic.

The entire notion of conversion as we know it is alien to the Dharmic traditions, which understand that there are multiple pathways to the Divine and that individuals must determine their own ways according to their personalities, preferences and personal tendencies.

In his appearance at the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions, Swami Vivekananda deplored the missionaries who help the hungry “only on condition that the Hindus become Christians, abandoning the faith of their fathers and forefathers.” He added, “Do I wish that the Christian would become Hindu? God forbid. Do I wish that the Hindu or Buddhist would become Christian? God forbid.” For the sake of India’s future as a harmoniously diverse nation, one hopes that all its inhabitants, and all of its visitors, will honor the words of the venerated swami.

And, for all our sakes, one hopes that as India modernizes, it continues to preserve, adapt and implement its greatest gift to the world: the detailed articulation of our supreme spiritual potential and the universal methods of attaining them.

Philip Goldberg

by Philip Goldberg

October, 2015

About Philip Goldberg

Philip Goldberg has been studying India’s spiritual traditions for more than 45 years, as a practitioner, teacher and writer. An Interfaith Minister, meditation teacher and spiritual counselor, he is a skilled speaker who has lectured and taught workshops throughout the country and in India.

He is the author of numerous books, most recently American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West, which was named one of the top ten religion books of 2010 by Huffington Post and the American Library Association. He blogs regularly on the Huffington Post.

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