Jeffrey Long, a scholar of religion and a convert to Hinduism describes his journey thus: “My father had died two years previously – after a long, painful ordeal – and I had consequently undertaken a search for answers to the deep questions of life: Why is there so much suffering? What is the purpose of this life? And what happens after we die? In the intervening months, I had also seen the ﬁlm Gandhi and begun reading anything I could ﬁnd by or about the non-violent Indian freedom ﬁghter”.
“I had simultaneously developed a great fondness for the music of the Beatles – especially George Harrison, whose fascination with India in turn became a source of fascination for me. I’d been seeing references to Lord Krishna and the Bhagavad Gita in the writings of Gandhi and in the lyrics, interviews and album cover art of George Harrison, even in Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, which I was reading. So I was quite keen to read this ancient text and go right to the source of the wisdom that had inspired my heroes. I was fourteen years old”
While backpacking around Asia in my Twenties, I befriended a motley group of itinerants and quasi-hippies from Europe and the United States of America who had voiced similar reasons for being drawn to Eastern traditions. Many of them were estranged from the middle-class milieu of their birth and rebelling against a conservative Christian upbringing. The angst and alienation invariably led to India, “the mother lode of spirituality” as one of my companions put it – a journey of self-discovery portrayed in films such as Eat, Pray, Love, whose lead actress Julia Roberts converted to Hinduism a few years back.
“The man who lives in his religious center of energy, and is actuated by spiritual enthusiasms, differs from his previous carnal self in perfectly definite ways”, wrote William James in his landmark work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. “Magnanimities once impossible are now easy” for the spiritually transformed, he explains.
Of course it is these very “spiritual enthusiasms” that impel the “fanatic madman to deliver himself over, blindly and without reserve, to the supposed illapses of the spirit and to inspiration from above”, says David Hume. James agrees: “Spiritual excitement takes pathological forms whenever other interests are too few and the intellect too narrow”.
Religious faith gives us the strength to find meaning and a higher purpose in a life often rendered meaningless and absurd in the face of personal tragedy, tectonic shifts in world politics, technology and rapidly changing social, economic and cultural markers. Conversion to another faith marks a profound personal transformation with long-term psychological and often political ramifications.
Unlike aggressively proselytising religions like Christianity and Islam, the concept of “conversion” was unknown in Hinduism until the birth of nationalism and the Independence movement. As Ashis Nandy points out, Ramakrishna’s heterogeneous and eclectic brand of mysticism was transformed by Vivekananda into a monotheistic missionary movement, in order to better compete with its Abrahamic rivals, inadvertently leading to the evangelising of Hinduism. The “ghar wapsi” drives to reconvert Indian Muslims and Christians who had strayed away from Hinduism may have taken their inspiration from early movements such as the Ramakrishna Mission.
Carolyn ‘Ambaa’ Choate writes about her experiences as a Hindu convert on the White Hindu Blog: “One of the questions I get asked a lot as someone not native to Hinduism is what caste I am in. The truth is that I do not have a caste and I have never needed one. But then again, I don’t live in India. I have had priests perform rituals for me and that has not required a caste as far as I know. I think that my white privilege comes into play here as I think I am granted a default of high caste when it is required”. She also acknowledges that America has its own version of the caste system in the form of institutionalised racism.
Ambaa has a pragmatic approach to her adopted faith, “I very much believe that there are different “paths up the mountain” as the saying goes. Different paths, different religions, work for different people depending on their history, personality, experiences etc.
“Hinduism is so clearly the perfect path for me”, she says, “but I am never going to think that it is the best path for everyone.”
Caucasians converting to ethno-religions like Hinduism, normally associated with brown skinned people from the Indian subcontinent raise some contentious issues. As the scholar, Deepak Sarma notes, “the select group of white Americans who claim to have ‘converted’ to Hinduism and concurrently mimic their imaginary (and often Orientalist) archetypal ‘Hindu’ in order to reverse-assimilate, to deny their colonial histories, to (futilely) colour their lives, and, paradoxically, to be marginalized”. He goes further to say, “reverse mimicry, ironically, merely reinforces existing hierarchies and paradigms. In fact, some claim to be more ‘authentic’ than Diaspora Hindus and, in so doing, deny the voice of those they mimic/ mock”.
Case in point, David Frawley ak.a. Pandit Vamadeva Shastri, an American spiritualist and author, known for his work in Jyotish (Vedic astrology) and Ayurveda, has over the years carved out a space in the new age scene as a teacher and writer of Indian spiritual traditions.
I had in the past admired the insights that Frawley brought to these subjects, and was therefore dismayed to find out that he is an enthusiastic promoter of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, who like many rightwing populists the world over, champions cultural purity and longs for a return to “traditional values” ostensibly under siege by liberals, leftists, Muslims and Christians – with the implicit understanding that these “anti-nationals” be given no quarter unless they submitted to the majoritarian Hindu consensus.
Instead of working towards healing festering wounds and fostering communal harmony, Frawley further vitiates the discourse by fingering sensitive faultlines and fueling tensions between communities.
A strange twist of post-colonial irony: A white man, goading his mostly Indian followers to turn against their fellow Indians who are not “patriotic” enough for his taste.
Hindu supremacist rhetoric is virtually indistinguishable from the white nationalism espoused by the Alt-Right or radical Islamism in Pakistan and the middle east. Working class white Americans are led to believe that “traditional American values” are under threat by growing numbers of coloured people, alien immigrants and conspiratorial Muslims and Jews. A similar message is being delivered in India: the country belongs to the Hindu majority, but it is being stolen – aided by compromised “secularists” – by Muslims and Christians whose loyalty lies in foreign lands.
In her influential work, Transcendent in America: Hindu Inspired Meditation Movements As A New Religion’, Lola Williamson explores three hugely popular spiritual organisations centered around charismatic Indian gurus which took root in America – Self Realization Fellowship (Yogananda), Siddha Yoga (Muktananda) and Transcendental Meditation (Mahesh Yogi). Williamson’s work provides penetrating insights into the way Hinduism has been assimilated into the American mainstream with a religious culture greatly influenced by Protestant Christian values, especially the privileging of direct religious experience.
Transcendent in America also looks at the interplay between Hinduism and Christianity in these movements – for example in the teachings of gurus like Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of SRF, who came to the United States of America in 1920 “to teach yoga and harmony between Krishna and Christ” – an inclusive and universal conception of spirituality, in stark contrast to the rabid nativism of Hindutva ideologues.
A persistent theme running through the book is an effort to reconcile an appreciation for the tremendous benefits Williamson and many others experienced through their Sadhana (spiritual practice) and gratitude for their teacher-guides, with evidence of widespread abuse and exploitation by leaders within these movements, including the supposedly enlightened founder of Siddha Yoga, Swami Muktananda.
Western practitioners of Hindu-inspired wisdom traditions of course constitute a much larger demographic than official converts to the religion.
A Bengali immigrant to the United States, Srila Prabhupada, single-handedly created the International Society For Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in the Sixties – which turned Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a monotheistic sect of Hinduism, into a global phenomenon. Every major city and many small towns in Europe, North America, Australia and South America now feature Krishna temples, farm communities, schools, restaurants and shaven-headed, saffron-robe-wearing, dancing and chanting bhaktas, better known as Hare Krishnas.
In 1998, ISKCON published a candid exposé on widespread abuse of children within its schools, leading to the creation of a Task Force and subsequently the establishment of the ISKCON Central Office of Child Protection. In 2008, its Dallas chapter had to settle a child abuse case for $15 million.
Scandal-ridden spiritual organisations are certainly not limited to Hinduism or to India for that matter. Every religion and culture possesses vast closets full of skeletons. Then what makes so many educated middle-and upper-class people abandon their critical faculties and surrender en masse to the dictates of a Guru? The answer may have to do with something that psychologists call spiritual bypassing.
In the early 1980s, psychologist John Welwood coined the term “spiritual bypassing” to refer to the use of spiritual practices and concepts like “non-duality” or Advaita as a denial mechanism – to avoid dealing with uncomfortable feelings, unresolved wounds, repressed traumas and fundamental emotional and psychological needs.
Teacher and author Jac O’Keefe makes a perceptive observation: “The pointers of non-duality are of little use to the immature mind and, in most cases, have an adverse effect and actually delay spiritual maturation. It is essential to work from the level of consciousness at which one has stabilised. The hallmarks of an immature seeker include wanting to bypass the proper development of ego, in order to avoid confronting the shadow aspects of the psyche and lacking the capacity to perceive one’s own whereabouts on the progressive path. For example, on being told that ‘you are God’, or that ‘there is nothing to do’, or that ‘you do not exist’, etc., they grasp at these concepts and overlay them on unexamined, personal beliefs in separation”.
India’s spiritual traditions have made an impact on generations of Americans influenced by pop culture icons such as the Beatles and their romance with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Transcendental Meditation. JD Salinger, Joseph Campbell, Aldous Huxley, Emerson and Thoreau were among those deeply influenced by teachings of Vedanta and in turn incorporated those teachings in many of the famous works they authored.
Despite its shadow aspects and distortions, for many the heart of Indian spirituality remains a clarion call to personal freedom and the purposeful life – universal, pure, blissful and inviolate.
In his book, A Vision For Hinduism: Beyond Hindu Nationalism, Jeffery Long warns about the destructive and corrosive nature of Hindutva ideology and argues for an idea of Hinduism which is universal, inclusive and pluralistic. “I was drawn to the practice of a Hindu spiritual path largely because I became persuaded of the truth of a Hindu worldview. There are many Hindu worldviews; but the one I hold, teaches the reality of karma and rebirth, is theistic (or more specifically, panentheistic), and includes a practice which, when cultivated, leads to profoundly transformative experiences for the practitioner”. Responding to a reader, he writes, “the universalism of this tradition has allowed me to keep those parts of the Roman Catholic Christian practice of my upbringing that have remained beneficial for my spiritual life, while incorporating elements of Buddhism and Jainism as well (and of course the wider Hindu tradition)”.
A growing number of people, turned off by religious and cultural chauvinism, are defining themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. Increasingly, people are wary of allowing their worldview to be influenced by competing political meta-narratives or by sectarian turf wars. In reaction to the growing populism worldwide, they do not feel the need to wear religion as a badge or marker of identity and are not willing to cede the freedom to partake freely from all the world’s traditions.
In these volatile times, it is important to remind ourselves of the inherent sanctity of life and the glue that binds us all together.
In the words of the 20th century Sufi mystic, Maulana Shah Maghsoud:
“We searched a while for the Divine
Within the depth of our illusions
Looking there to find His signs
In the Beings of “you” and “I”.
When love appeared
“You” and “I” were dissolved,
And found no more need to follow signs”
The author can be contacted on Twitter @Getafix2012