- United States
- The dissemination of Hindu thought and practice in the United States began before any Hindu teacher entered America. Ironically, the assimilation of immigrants from India has not been a primary vehicle for the introduction or popularization of Hindu teachings. The development of appreciation for Hindu traditions followed a standard American pattern—dependence on European scholarship and interpretation in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries and independent experimentation and selectivity in the 20th and 21st. During the 17th century, colonists and missionaries set up relation-ships with India that led to translation into English of some Hindu sacred texts. The BHAGAVAD GITA, translated in 1785, became important to Emerson, Thoreau, and other leaders of the transcendentalist movement early in the 19th century.Hindu temple in Malibu, California, a popular site for American Hindus (Institute for the Study of American Religion, Santa Barbara, California) and Andrew COHEN (b. 1955).Before the transcendentalists, Americans showed little understanding of or sympathy for India and Hinduism. Cotton Mather, spokesman for militant Christianity, maintained a keen inter-est in the East, but only as a field in which Chris-tian missionaries might preach, teach, and convert the “heathen.” In 1721, Mather’s India Christiana outlined the methods he felt were best suited to drawing Hindus into the flock of Christ.Later in the 18th century, tangible evidence of contact with India reached American eyes. In 1784, the ship United States sailed to Pondi-cherry and returned to stock Boston, Salem, and Providence with cloth, teas, spices, and crafts. By 1799, William Bentley, minister of the Second Congregational Church of Salem, Massachusetts, set up the East India Marine Society and became the first notable collector in America of Oriental art and artifacts.The first attempts to understand Hinduism and the East were those of American thinkers who were inheritors of the spirit of the Enlightenment, a time in which redefinition of religion was cen-tral. In Europe, Voltaire hailed Confucius as one of history’s great men, and English deists found Oriental religions of equal merit with Christianity. Old Vedanta temple in San Francisco, California, dedicated in 1905 (Constance A. Jones)Attuned to this new thought, Benjamin Franklin maintained a friendship with Sir William Jones, the English Orientalist, who introduced the study of SANSKRIT to Western scholars. In the 1780s, while occupying a judgeship in Bengal, Sir Wil-liam established the Asiatic Society and translated the Laws of Manu and Kalidasa’s Sakuntala.Joseph Priestley, scientist, scholar, and founder of English Unitarianism, traveled to America in 1794 and spent the last decade of his life there. His works of philosophy, science, and theology reveal a new understanding and respect for the Hindus, a people of “superior wisdom and civilization.” Praising the culture, control, and traditions of the Hindus, Priestley stopped short of extolling their religion, which he dismissed as “absurd notions” and “complicated polytheism.” As a reader of the translations of Sir William Jones, Priestley looked back toward European thinking and scholar-ship. As a resident in America, he exerted direct influence on John Adams, who heard the elderly Priestley lecture in Philadelphia in 1796. Adams, in turn, referred Thomas Jefferson to Priestley’s writings.At the turn of the century, Hannah Adams’s A View of Religion (1801) encouraged greater acceptance of non-Christian faiths. In her study, Adams devotes considerable attention to Hindu-ism, describing the voluntary suffering to which the Indian submits in order to fulfill religious obligations and labeling Indian religion “the most tolerant of all.” The open-mindedness of A View of Religion reflects a new liberality willing to dis-pute the supremacy of Christianity and to make religious questions and religious toleration a stan-dard, at least among the informed.Spreading this new liberality of interpretation was Unitarianism, with its emphasis on tolerance and the centrality of monotheism. In India, Hin-dus were responding to the impact of Christianity. Among the reformist movements in India was the BRAHMO SAMAJ, a movement based upon the assumed monotheism of the UPANISHADS and the abandonment of all image worship. The founder, Hindu Rammohun ROY, found spiritual affinity with Unitarianism and sought to apply Unitarian standards to Hinduism and to focus the atten-tion of Unitarians on India. By 1820, Roy had published several Hindu texts in English and had developed his ideas on Hindu reform in articles and speeches, which were featured prominently in Unitarian periodicals published in the United States. Roy’s writings and talks explaining Asia and Hinduism were the first expressions by a Hindu in Unitarian terms to which Americans had access. In the 1850s the Unitarian Charles Dall and the Brahmo Samaj’s Keshub Chunder SEN developed a friendship that initiated a relationship between the two organizations that is still bearing fruit.Later in the 19th century, leaders of the tran-scendentalist movement read newly translated Hindu scriptures and incorporated their ideas in an American philosophy. Emerson stressed eclec-tic theology; Thoreau, the immersion in nature; and Bronson Alcott, an interest in universal scrip-tures. Influenced by Emerson, Walt Whitman wrote poetry that expressed a remarkable similar-ity to Asian thought. In his writing he admits he had read “the ancient Hindoo poems,” and he mentions BRAHMA and Hinduism in his “Song of Myself.” While these figures created an intellec-tual climate receptive to the ideas of Hinduism, transcendentalism did not attempt to represent all of Hindu teachings, but rather selected elements consistent with their worldview.Another American group, the Free Religious Association, made up largely of Quakers, Uni-tarians, and transcendentalists, turned to world religions to support their rejection of a faith based solely on the Bible. Their publications and meet-ings featured the works of the Oriental scholar Max Muller and championed the idea of a world Bible. Through this organization, active from 1865 through the late 1880s, the American conscious-ness was exposed to comparisons and contrasts of Christianity and Hinduism. In its 17 years of pub-lication, The Index, journal of the Free Religious United States 465 JAssociation, issued more than 500 separate works explaining and describing the East.Beginning in 1875, the THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY took to the United States an appreciation of Hindu-ism and Buddhism, interpreted through the lenses of its Western leaders, HELENA PETROVNA BLAVATSKY, Charles Leadbeater, and ANNIE WOOD BESANT, who traveled to India and took home firsthand impressions. Theosophists directly proclaimed an adherence to Asian thought but included elements of occultism and psychism as well. As a result of this synthesis, the contribution of Theosophy to the developing American consciousness was an amalgam of Hinduism, Buddhism, spiritualism, and rationalism. Helena Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled claimed direct revelation from Eastern adepts, called Mahatmas, and celebrated the traditional Hindu concepts of REINCARNATION and KARMA. In spite of its original association with spiritualism, Theosophy exerted a major influence in both India and the United States. By 1884, in addition to its success in the United States, over 100 branches of Theosophy flourished in India. Continuing until the present, various Theosophical publish-ing houses have been important disseminators in the United States of Hindu texts, commentaries, and histories. Much of what Americans grasp of Hinduism has been a result of the popularity of Theosophical publications.Uniquely American religions, including New Thought and Christian Science, took up Hindu concepts. The New Thought churches, which include Religious Science, Divine Science, Unity School of Christianity, Mind Cure, and Applied Metaphysics, concentrated on VEDANTA philoso-phy and the concepts of REINCARNATION and KARMA. Indebted to the research of the Theosophists, exponents of New Thought gained for Hinduism a new kind of acceptance, however narrow, in the United States. No longer were the doctrines of the East damned as pagan nonsense; they were now incorporated into American religion. Christian Science, with its radical monism, its doctrine of eternal mind, its disavowal of the ultimate reality of the world, and its unorthodox interpretation of Christ, demonstrated a mixture of Eastern and Western views of reality. The sources of the Chris-tian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy’s ideas remain in debate, but the result is clear: the incor-poration in an organized American church of at least some of the ideas and values of Hinduism.While religious movements and philosophi-cal schools offered their interpretations of Hin-duism, scholars were examining the East from their own perspective. The American Oriental Society, founded in 1842, provided a forum for scholarly exchange. It established a library and published the Journal of the American Oriental Society, which ran bibliographic essays reporting on Vedic research occurring in Germany, transla-tions of religious texts that exposed ideas formerly unavailable to American readers, and essays on the philosophy of Hindu scriptures and on the various schools of Hinduism. These scholarly efforts lifted cultural, religious, and linguistic barriers. Leaders in the society were Edward Salisbury; William Dwight Whitney, who became America’s greatest Oriental scholar; and Charles Rockwell Lanman, who, among other contributions, edited the Har-vard Oriental Series.Attempts to understand and explain surfaced in the general press as well. Although popular magazines did not carry reliable information about Asia, serious reviews served to foster escape from American isolation by looking analytically at Hindu ideas and scholarship. The North American Review, as did the Edinburgh Review, touched on many aspects of Indian culture and the Hindu reli-gion. Book publishing reflected the new interest in the East. The popularity of Sir Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia (1879) and his free translation of the Bhagavad Gita (1885) drew the author to the United States for a lecture tour.In 1883, the first Hindu GURU visited America. Protap Chunder Mozoomdar, a representative of the BRAHMO SAMAJ, delivered his first American address at the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s widow in Concord, Massachusetts. He returned in 1893 to attend, along with many representa-tives of the religions of Asia, the WORLD PARLIA-MENT OF RELIGIONS in Chicago. The congress was the first international gathering of representa-tives of the major Eastern and Western faiths. Speakers gave formal recognition to non-Chris-tian faiths and made clear that Western thought had always drawn heavily on the East, and that Hinduism was a source of tolerance, introspec-tion, self-discipline, and the opportunity for a full religious life, not mere idol worshipping or polytheism. This 17-day conference, which drew crowds far larger than any forecast, permitted non-Christians to speak about their own faiths and created an appreciation of the offerings of Eastern traditions. The experience affirmed that an interest in comparative religions was not simply the province of a few specialized or elite groups.Swami VIVEKANANDA, another representative of Hinduism and a young disciple of the late Sri RAMAKRISHNA, was one of the parliament’s most impressive speakers. He was hailed by the Ameri-can press as the most persuasive speaker of the parliament. In several eloquent presentations, Vivekananda rejected formalism and delivered a universal gospel of unity in diversity by quot-ing from the sacred books of India. He chose to cite, “Whoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him,” and “All men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to Me.” He spoke of the gods of all faiths, not only the God of a respective religion (Rolland, 1931).His popularity established, Vivekananda fol-lowed the parliament session with a two-year tour of the United States. In 1895, he founded the first Hindu organization in the United States, the VEDANTA SOCIETY, and, upon his return to India, he organized the scattered disciplines of Sri Ramakrishna into the RAMAKRISHNA MAT H AND MISSION. Two disciples, Swami ABHEDANANDA and Swami Turiyananda, traveled from Calcutta (Kol-kata) to head the Vedanta centers in New York and San Francisco, respectively.Establishment of the Vedanta centers coin-cided with the first small wave of immigrants from India to America, in the 1890s—a phenomenon that evoked riots and vitriolic reaction against a “Hindu invasion.” But reason also existed and prompted a growing interest in Hinduism among non-Indians, the establishment of various societ-ies, and the arrival of Indian teachers, partly to serve the immigrants. Among them, in 1902, was a young monk, Swami RAMA TIRTHA, who lectured for two years throughout the United States on the reasonableness of Hinduism—and the evils of the Indian CASTE system. In 1904, a Bengali Vaish-navite, Baba Premanand BHARATI, began a five-year tour, during which he formed the Krishna Samaj; in 1909, Swami PARAMANANDA, another member of the Ramakrishna Math in India, arrived, eventu-ally to form another group of Vedantins.From the time of the parliament onward, the United States saw the establishment of Hindu organizations and an expanding interest in the teachings of the religion. In large cities such as New York and Chicago, the press chronicled the exploits of visiting teachers from India. Emulat-ing these emissaries, some Americans adopted the role of Hindu teacher and helped disseminate Hindu ideas through publications and formation of groups. In 1903, William Walker Atkinson, a New Thought teacher, assumed the title Yogi RAM-ACHARAKA and published widely on various YOGAs and Hindu philosophy. His many books remain in print a century later. Around 1909, PIERRE ARNOLD BERNARD, calling himself “Oom the Omnipotent,” founded the Tantrick Order of America and dem-onstrated flamboyant stagecraft while dressed in Eastern garb. In spite of the demise of his move-ment after a few decades, his nephew, Theos Ber-nard (1908–47), wrote several texts on YOGA that remain reliable resources.After two decades of growing interest in Hin-duism from 1895 to 1915, the growth of Hindu groups waned during and after World War I. A string of American occultists created in the public mind the image of SWAMIS as fortune tellers and charlatans. After Sara Bull left the greater part of her half-million-dollar estate to the Vedanta Soci-ety, her daughter called for testimony of family servants, who reported frequent visits of swamis, a MEDITATION room, and séances. On the basis of their testimony, the court overturned Bull’s will and awarded the money to her daughter. A series of articles in the press spewed forth, complaining that Americans, particularly women, were duped by Indian “holy men” and were forsaking the true Christian faith. A recurring theme was that Hinduism appealed to bored older women who had sizable fortunes to bequeath to their teach-ers. In 1914, Elizabeth Reed’s Hinduism in Europe and America attacked alleged exploiters of naïve Westerners and blamed the tenets of Hinduism for their crimes.Anti-Asian sentiment had direct political effect as well. Following immigration exclusion acts in 1882 and 1914 directed primarily against Chinese and Japanese immigrants, the Asian Exclusion Act of 1917 specifically denied immigration to Asians from India. By denying entry into the United States from most Asian countries, including India, the act effectively cut off immigration for several generations and halted what would have been, most probably, a significant growth of Hindu-ism. Several years later, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Indians were not eligible for citizenship and that the citizenship granted to previous Indian immigrants would be revoked. By 1921, a quota system allowed immigration from countries in proportion to each nationality’s per-centage in the United States. The quota for India was approximately 100 annually. This federal act of exclusion significantly curtailed the growth of Hindu movements. Of the organizations formed before 1917, only the Vedanta Society remained.In 1927, Katherine Mayo’s best-selling MOTHER INDIA damned all things Indian and heaped oppro-brium on the worship of KALI. Mayo characterized Indians as inert, helpless, and weak: in all, slaves to superstition and oppressors of women and minorities. Perhaps no other writing damaged Indo-American understanding so severely and so prejudiced an entire generation of Americans. From the early 1920s until 1960, anti-Indian feeling was strong, although Hinduism itself was not perceived as a political threat. This period includes two world wars, American isolation-ism after World War I, intense hatred of things Eastern because of Pearl Harbor, and the Korean conflict. That attacks on India and Indian tradi-tions occurred is hardly surprising. What may be surprising are the viability and growth of interest in Hinduism throughout this period.The Hindu community grew very slowly after the passage of the exclusion act. Teachers who immigrated prior to the exclusion act continued to lead and write. A Bengali playwright, Besudeb Bhattacharya, took the name Pundit Acharya and founded the Temple of Yoga, the Yoga Research Institute, and Prana Press in New York. Paramah-ansa YOGANANDA, charismatic teacher and author of the still-popular Autobiography of a Yogi, arrived in the United States in 1920 and organized the Yogoda-Satsang in 1926. Now known as SELF-REALIZATION FELLOWSHIP, Yogananda’s organization has been extremely influential in disseminating Hindu thought through home correspondence courses and initiation into KRIYA YOGA disciplines.Other teachers from India created organizations, taught Hindu ideas and practices, and fostered interfaith cooperation, including A. K. Mozumdar (The Messianic World Message), Swami Omkar (Shanti Ashrama), Sri DEVA RAM SUKUL (Dharma Mandal), Kedarnath Das Gupta (Fellowship of Faiths), Sant Ram Mandal (Universal Brotherhood Temple and School of Eastern Philosophy), Rishi Krishnananda (Para-Vidya Center), and Swami A. P. Mukerji (Transcendent Science Society).Theosophy continued to contribute to the dissemination of Hindu ideas through its grow-ing number of lodges and its reliable editions of Hindu and Buddhist texts. Theosophy also gained increasing popularity through its promotion of Jiddu KRISHNAMURTI as the vehicle for the coming world teacher, prophesied by spiritual adepts in the East. Krishnamurti, a poor BRAHMIN boy from South India, had been selected by the Theoso-phists to be groomed for acceptance of a higher consciousness that the world would need in the current era. He lectured throughout the 1920s as the anointed messiah but became disillusioned with the Theosophical enterprise and, in 1929, renounced the organization founded in his name. Upon leaving the Theosophical fold, he began his own career as an independent teacher, founding educational institutions in England, the United States, and India and lecturing until his death in 1986. Although Krishnamurti rejected any claim to represent Hinduism (or any organized religion), he nevertheless taught a form of self-analysis and self-observation that was congruent with Hindu and Buddhist disciplines. And, in his later years, after having shunned the study of sacred texts throughout his life, he became enamored of the VEDAS and the UPANISHADS. Americans who became familiar with Krishnamurti’s teaching were drawn closer to Hindu thought and practice, although they did not identify themselves as “Hindu.”Later, in 1951, a Bengali philosopher, Haridas CHAUDHURI, founded the Cultural Integration Fel-lowship in San Francisco, which represented the first American influence of the famous philoso-pher and mystic Sri AUROBINDO. Chaudhuri was a charismatic proponent of Aurobindo’s approach to integralism in philosophy and yoga, adding his own insights to his teacher’s message through col-laboration with other scholars of the East. In the 1960s Chaudhuri founded the California Institute of Asian Studies, an educational organization that exists today under the name California Institute of Integral Studies.In the fall of 1965, the Asian Exclusion Act was repealed and immigration quotas for Asia became comparable to the quotas for Europe. The number of Indian immigrants rose dramatically. Between 1871 and 1965, only 16,013 Indians had been admitted to the United States. Between 1965 and 1975, over 96,000 were admitted, and the 1980 Census reported 387,223 Indians in the United States (Melton, 1985). By 1965, most large American cities had at least one Hindu center where lectures could be heard, texts purchased or read, and courses taught in Hindu philosophy. Although relatively small, these groups were sig-nificant in their stability and in their attempts to make Hindu literature available. Popular figures such as Edgar Cayce (1877–1945) made tradi-tional Hindu concepts, such as reincarnation and karma, almost standard fare for spiritual seek-ers not bound to traditional denominations. But popularization has been accompanied by charges of violence, fraud, drug misuse, and emotional abuse leveled against some Indian and American promoters and leaders of Hindu and related New Age groups. Hinduism, in its various guises in the United States, has provided inspiration to spiritual seekers, an entry into countercultural pursuits, and groups who have experienced backlash from conservative quarters.Most immigrants from India have not been teachers of Hinduism, but rather Hindu lay people seeking traditional venues and methods of prac-ticing their religion. Unable to fund conventional structures, such as temples and shrines appropri-ate to their respective sects, they have joined other Hindus to create temples that serve several modes of Hindu worship—SHAIVITE, Vaishnavite, and SHAKTA—within one structure. Groups of Hindus have cooperated to recruit traditionally trained priests to the United States to preside over ritual activities at these temples.Since the 1960s, elements of Hinduism have entered popular culture as components of various forms of spirituality, health practices, cosmetics, bumper stickers, and medical and psychological therapies. Somewhat independent of its source in Hinduism is the popular practice of HATHA YOGA, almost pervasive throughout the country in a variety of forms. Romain Rolland, French student of Vedanta, spoke in 1931 of the “strange moral and religious mentality of the modern United States” that was both cause and effect of the appropriation of Hindu thought in the 19th century. Simultaneous with stringent efforts to preserve traditional Hindu teachings intact and in toto is the more dominant American practice of eclecticism, which combines elements of any (or all) religions into idiosyncratic fusions designed to serve the individual.Further reading: Hannah Adams, A View of Religion (Boston: Manning & Loring, 1801); S. E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972); Mrs. Gross Alex-ander, “American Women Going after Heathen Gods,” Methodist Quarterly Review 62 no. 3 (July 1912): 495–512; Leona B. Bagai, The East Indians and the Pakistanis in America (Minneapolis: Lerner, 1967); J. H. Barrows, The World’s Parliament of Religions: An Illustrated and Popular Story of the World’s First Parliament of Religions Held in Chicago in Connection with the Columbian Exposi-tion of 1893, 2 vols. (Chicago: Parliament, 1893); Theos Bernard, Hatha Yoga: The Report of a Personal Experience (New York: Columbia University Press, 1944); S. C. Bose, The Life of Protap Chunder Mozoomdar. Vol. 2 (Cal-cutta: Nababidhan Trust, 1927); Charles S. Braden, ed., These Also Believe: A Study of Modern American Cults and Minority Religious Movements (New York: Macmillan, 1951); Charles S. Braden, ed., Varieties of American Reli-gion (Chicago: Willett, Clark, 1936); A. F. Buchanan, “The West and the Hindu Invasion,” Overland Monthly 51, 4 (April 1908): 308–312; B. F. Campbell, Ancient Wisdom Revived: A History of the Theosophical Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980); Arthur Christy, The Asian Legacy and American Life (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968); ———, The Orient in Ameri-can Transcendentalism: A Study of Emerson, Thoreau, and Alcott (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932); R. K. Das, Hindustani Workers on the Pacific Coast (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1923); Robert S. Ellwood Jr., Alter-native Altars: Unconventional and Eastern Spirituality in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979); W. Estep, An American Answers Mother India (Excelsior Springs, Mo.: Super Mind Science Pubs., 1929); S. Gott-schalk, The Emergence of Christian Science in American Religious Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973); J. W. Hanson, ed., The World’s Congress of Reli-gions (Chicago: The Monarch Book, 1894); Hinduism Comes to America: A Brief Account of the Purpose, Ori-gin, and Spiritual Significance of the Vedanta Movement in America (Chicago: Vedanta Society, 1933); Carl T. Jackson, The Oriental Religions and American Thought: Nineteenth Century Explorations (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981); Spencer Lavan, Unitarians and India (Boston: Skinner House, 1977); T. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transforma-tion of American Culture 1880–1920 (New York: Pan-theon Books, 1981); Gurinder Singh Mann, Paul David Numrich, and Raymond Williams, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Katherine Mayo, Mother India (New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1927); J. Gordon Melton, A Bibliography of Hinduism in America Prior to 1940 (Evanston, Ill.: Institute for the Study of American Religion, 1985); P. C. Mozoomdar, The Faith and Progress of the Brahmo Samaj (Calcutta: Calcutta Central Press, 1882); F. Max Muller, India: What Can It Teach Us? (London: Long-mans, Green, 1883, 1919); Jacob Needleman, The New Religions (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970); Joseph Priestly, Disquisitions Relating to Matter and Spirit, 1777 (New York: Garland Pub., 1976); ———, Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever, 2d ed. (Birmingham, England: J. Johnson, London, 1787); ———, A Comparison of the Institutions of Moses with Those of the Hindoos and Other Ancient Nations (Northumberland, Penn.: Printed for the author by A. Kennedy, 1799); H. G. Rawlinson, Intercourse between India and the Western World (Cambridge: University Press, 1916); H. G. Raw-linson, Intercourse between India and the Western World (Cambridge: University Press, 1916); J. P. R. Rayapati, Early American Interest in Vedanta (New York: Asia Pub-lishing House, 1973); E. A. Reed, Hinduism in Europe and America (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1914); ———, Hinduism Invades America (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1914); Dale Riepe, The Philosophy of India and Its Impact on American Thought (Springfield, Ill.: Charles C Thomas, 1970); Romain Rolland, The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel (Almora: advaita Ashrama, 1931); Cybelle Shattuck, Dharma in the Golden State: South Asian Traditions in California (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Fithian Press, 1996); Wendell Thomas, Hinduism Invades America (New York: Bea-con Press, 1930); W. S. Urquhart, Vedanta and Modern Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1928); Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi (Bom-bay: Jaico Publishing House, 1946).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.