By Philip Goldberg
Author Philip Goldberg documents the rising influence of Indian spirituality on the Western psyche over the last century
Of all the iconic images the media trotted out to remind us of the Woodstock Festival on the 45th anniversary of that seminal event (August 15–18, 1969), the one that best captured what endured from the 1960s was orange-robed Swami Satchidananda addressing the multitude. It
wasn’t displayed nearly as often as the writhing bodies, impassioned performers and muddy encampments but that tableau, captured in black-and-white before the music started and before the rains came, stands as a potent symbol of the meeting of East and West that has transformed American culture. While most of the values that Woodstock was said to embody faded away as the baby boomers grew up, the embrace of Eastern spirituality has only grown stronger, changing the way we understand and practice religion, the way we take care of our minds and bodies, and the way we contemplate our place in the cosmos. Think of it this way: It wasn’t long before even the hippest of hippies stopped living communally, sharing food with strangers, and dancing naked in the mud. But, 45 years on, more people than ever meditate, chant mantras, read the sacred books of the East, and participate in the six-billion-dollar-a-year yoga industry.
The East-to-West transmission didn’t start at Woodstock by any means. It began more than a century earlier, when translations of Hindu texts found their way to New England, and the bookshelves of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. It got a big boost in 1893, when Swami Vivekananda came to Chicago to address the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and stayed to establish the now-venerable Vedanta society. Later, in the 1920s, Paramahansa Yogananda toured the country, visited Calvin Coolidge in the White House, and settled in Los Angeles, where he penned the hugely influential Autobiography of a Yogi. Assorted yogis and swamis came and went over the years, and then, in 1968, the Beatles went on the most consequential spiritual retreat since Jesus spent those 40 days in the wilderness. Their sojourn at the ashram of Transcendental Meditation founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (with Mia Farrow, Donovan and other young celebrities), touched off a campus craze and a media frenzy.
An elder’s blessings
Swami Satchidananda’s opening invocation at Woodstock, witnessed by nearly half a million youngsters and seen in part in the Oscar-winning documentary about the mud-and-acid-soaked weekend, accellerated public awareness of India’s heritage of inner exploration. The founder of the Integral Yoga Institute and the most popular guru among counterculture New Yorkers at the time, Swami Satchidananda was helicoptered to Woodstock from Manhattan by organisers who thought that a wise elder might start things off on a serene note. With his long gray beard and flowing hair, the Swami was right out of central casting, and his message played to the generation’s sense of importance. “America is helping everybody in the material field,” he said, “but the time has come for America to help the whole world with spirituality also.” He exhorted everyone present to take responsibility for the success of the festival. Responsibility was not a very popular word in hippie circles, but coming from someone seen as an advocate of peace and freedom—the inner variety—the message was taken seriously, and any misgivings the kids might have had were dissolved in the Sanskrit chant that the Swami led before blessing the crowd and departing. To this day, many believe that his good vibes averted what could have become a catastrophe as the festival grew far bigger than initially anticipated.
The image of Swami Satchidananda at Woodstock will always be a symbol of the moment when a battery of unconventional baby boomers turned Eastward – and inward
That may or may not be so. But it is certainly true that his presence, along with Ravi Shankar’s electrifying performance, reinforced the idea that downtrodden, oppressed and misunderstood India had something of genuine value to offer the West. The essence of what we imported from the Hindu tradition is the philosophy known as Vedanta and the repertoire of practices known as yoga. Together they constitute a rich spiritual system. But the knowledge was presented in such a rational, pragmatic way over the years that it was embraced by a wide spectrum of Americans – not just seekers of the transcendent, but scientists and secularists who saw Indian philosophy as a science of consciousness, and medical practitioners who saw yogic techniques as holistic healing modalities. Over time, the imports changed medicine and psychotherapy and radically expanded the way we think about consciousness.
During the 1970s, India’s message of higher awareness and mind-body-spirit integration was increasingly mainstreamed, until now, of course, yoga studios are as easy to find (or sometimes easier to find) as Starbucks and meditation is prescribed by physicians for stress reduction. Only a year after Woodstock, the first experiment on Transcendental Meditation was published in a prestigious scientific journal. There are now thousands of studies on various meditative disciplines, and thousands more under the heading of yoga. Dr. Dean Ornish, to cite a well-known example, derived his world-famous preventive medical programme, which has been shown to reverse heart disease, from the protocols of Swami Satchidananda, whom he met when he was a medical student.
Of greatest significance, however, is the transformative impact that Indian teachings have had on American spirituality. The influence can be seen in the burgeoning popularity of contemplative Christianity and Jewish mysticism, which experts agree would not have occurred without the catalyst of yogic practices starting in the ‘60s. And anyone who relates to the term “spiritual but not religious” can thank the parade of gurus and yoga masters beginning with Vivekananda who made that designation possible. The notion that one can have a deep and fulfilling spiritual life without accepting the complete belief system of any particular religion was understood only to a few eccentrics and mystics before access to the East became widespread. Now, “spiritual but not religious” is the category of choice for 16 to 39 per cent of Americans, depending on the source of the data, and many more count themselves both spiritual and religious – a group that includes thousands, if not millions, who returned to their ancestral religions after their minds were opened by Vedantic ideas. Indeed, the fact that we distinguish between religion and spirituality at all – and that I don’t have to explain the difference – is a direct result of seekers having access to yogic practices that can be used by anyone regardless of religious orientation. The fact that there are many legitimate pathways to the sacred, an idea first expressed in the Rig Veda as Ekam Sat Vipraha Bahudha Vadanti (“Truth is one, the wise call it by many names,” or, colloquially, “One truth, many paths”) is more accepted than ever in our increasingly pluralistic society.
In the past 45 years in particular, what we have gained from our contact with India is far more significant than spicy dishes for our palates and cheap customer service operators for our corporations. In his classic eleven-volume text, The Story of Civilization, historian Will Durant expressed the hope that India would “teach us the tolerance and gentleness of the mature mind, the quiet content of the unacquisitive soul, the calm of the understanding spirit, and a unifying, pacifying love for all living things.” That turned out to be prescient. The image of Swami Satchidananda at Woodstock will always be a symbol of the moment when a battery of unconventional baby boomers turned Eastward – and inward – in such large numbers that the process became irreversible.
About the Author:
Philip Goldberg has been studying India’s spiritual traditions for more than 40 years. He is the author or co-author of nineteen books, including How Indian Spirituality Changed the West. PhilipGoldberg.com
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