The Encyclopedia of American Religious History
Edward L. Queen II, Stephen R. Prothero and Gardiner H. Shattuck Jr

Hinduism 289

Alhough scholars in the nascent field of academic Orientalism used their newfound knowledge of Sanskrit to produce translations of Hindu scriptures throughout the 19th century, no group of intellectuals did more to popularize Hinduism in America during those hundred years than New England's transcendentalists. Ralph Waldo EMERSON was introduced to Asian religious traditions at a young age by his aunt Mary Moody Emerson, a Unitarian who saw in the Hindu monotheism of Rammohan Roy, the Indian reformer and founder of the Brahmo Samaj, a faith that mirrored her own. Emerson's work did not begin to reflect his Oriental interests however, until the appearance beginning of the 1840s of poems such as "Hamantreya" and "Brahma" and essays like "Oversoul," "Illusions," and "Compensation."

While Emerson was moved most deeply by the Bhagavad Gita, an epic narrative, Henry David THOREAU, another transcendentalist, was more influenced by the Laws of Manu, a work of Hindu ethics. Thoreau scoffed at the thought or joining any organized religion, but he came close to referring to himself as a Hindu when after his experiment at Walden Pond he affirmed. "To some extent, and at rare intervals, even I am a yogi."

Perhaps more than Emerson and Thoreau, so-called lesser transcendentalists like James Freeman CLARKE and Samuel Johnson helped to transform Hinduism into a legitimate religious

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alternative in America. Both Clarke's Ten Great Religions: An Essay in Comparative Theology (1871) and Samuel Johnson's Oriental Religions and their Relation to Universal Religion (1872) attempted to portray Hinduism in a favorable light, though both ultimately opted for a form of Christian liberalism.

Theosophists like Helena Petrovna BLAVATSKY and Henry Steel OLCOTT built upon the transcendentalists' interest in the Orient. Unlike Emerson and Thoreau, however, Blavatsky and Olcott actually moved to India and immersed themselves in Hindu culture. The theosophists were initially attracted more to Buddhism than to Hinduism, but Annie Wood Besant changed that when she succeeded Olcott as the president of the Theosophical Society in 1907. A British socialist turned theosophist, Besant championed Hinduism as the religion par excellence for the modern West. Indian nationalists recognized her in 1917 for her efforts on behalf of their country and its traditions by electing her the only western president of the Indian National Congress. Her books and lectures educated a generation of American theosophists and theosophical sympathizers about Hinduism.

Another theosophically inclined Hindu, the Indian-born Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869- 1948), had an even more profound effect on American religious life than Besant. Attracted to theosophy in his youth, Gandhi is most famous for his theory of nonviolent civil disobedience. Gandhi adapted this theory in part from Jainism, an ascetic South Indian tradition whose ethics center around the practice of Ahimsa or nonviolence toward all living beings. Gandhi's influence on Martin Luther KING, JR. and, through him, on the American CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT is well known. But Gandhi's work was also closely followed by black newspapers and black intellectuals as early as the 1920s.

Hinduism's place in America changed dramatically when it began to arrive in persons rather than in books. A few Asian Indians came to the United States as early as 1820, but this immigrant flow was nothing more than a trickle until the last decade of the 19th century, when railroad work began to draw Indian laborers to western Canada and the United States. Still, by the time this first wave was cut off with the passage of the Asian Exclusion Act in 1917, only a few thousand Indians had entered the United States, and the majority of those were Sikhs rather than Hindus. Not until the repeal of the Asian Exclusion Act in 1965 did large numbers of Hindus emigrate to America.

The first Hindu missionaries to the United States came in 1893 as delegates to the WORLD PARLIAMENT OF RELIGIONS, a gathering of liberal religionists from around the world held in conjunction with the Chicago World's Fair. Like the Asian Indian immigrants who preceded them, these Hindu missionaries worked to transplant many of the diverse beliefs and practices that constitute Hinduism. They tended, how ever, to emphasize modernistic aspects of Hinduis - monotheism, caste reform, and the tradition's compatibility with science and with other religions - emphasized during the 19th century reform movement that historians called the Hindu Renaissance.

A delegate to the parliament and the first great Hindu missionary to the United States was Swami VIVEKANANDA. A disciple of Ramakrishna, a Hindu mystic and devotee of the Hindu Goddess Kali, Vivekananda had come to the United States in an effort to spread in the West the truths and practices of Vedanta, a nondualistic form of Hinduism that postulates the unity of the impersonal God or Brahman and the individual soul or Atman. A smashing success at the parliament, Vivekananda stayed in America long enough to found the VEDANTA SOCIETY as a branch of his Ramakrishna Mission in India. The Vedanta Society, which now has centers in numerous American cities, aims to spread the doctrines and disciplines of VEDANTA and to promote religious tolerance by preaching the fundamental unity of all religions.

The second important Hindu missionary to the United States also came as an invitee to an interreligious conference. Swami Paramahansa

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Yogananda arrived in Boston in 1920 as a delegate to the International Congress of Religious Liberals. Unlike Vivekananda, who eventually returned to India, however, Yogananda took up residence in the United States. His SELF-REALIZATION FELLOWSHIP (S.R.F.), which is now based in Los Angeles, aims to teach the principles of Hinduism's Yoga Sutras and the techniques of kriya yoga, a tantric discipline in which gurus instruct students how to achieve God-realization by directing their spiritual power or kundalini. Like the Vedanta Society, the S.R.F. emphasizes commonalities rather than differences between Hinduism and Christianity. But its approach is more practical and less philosophical, emphasizing the therapeutic and material benefits of Hindu practice.

Although Vivekananda and Yogananda did more to arouse interest in Hinduism than to earn converts to it, a few Americans did formally convert to Hinduism early in the 20th century.

Some of these occidental Hindus became teachers themselves. The Chicago attorney and NEW THOUGHT advocate William Walker Atkinson, for example, published numerous books on Hinduism, including Fourteen Lessons in Yoga Philosophy and Oriental Occultism (1903), under the name of Swami Ramacharacka. A more notorious convert was Pierre Bernard, the founder of the scandalous Tantrik Order in America who referred to himself as "Oom the Omnipotent."

Thanks to the likes of Vivekananda, Yogananda, Atkinson, and Bernard, some Americans became Hindus in the early 20th century, but Hinduism did not become a popular religious alternative in America until the 1960s. Three factors conspired to create a favorable climate for American Hinduism. The first was the achievement of Indian independence in 1947. Independence fostered a proliferation of new religious movements in India, and many of these movements eventually found their way to the United States. A second factor that spurred the Hindu turn of the 1960s was the COUNTERCULTURE, which gave a boost to "alternative" religions of all stripes. The final factor was the lifting in 1965 of the Asian Exclusion Act, which had restricted the flow of Chinese, Japanese, and Asian Indian immigrants to the United States since 1917.

Following this change in the law, a panoply of Asian Indian gurus moved to America and established followings here. Yogi Bhajan arrived in the United States in 1969 and gathered devotees into a collection of Sikh-influenced communes called the "Happy/Healthy/Holy Organization." The "boy guru" Maharaj-ji came to America in 1970 and brought his "lovers of God" into the Divine Light Mission (later Elan Vital). Swami Muktananda Paramahansa toured the United States on three occasions between 1970 and 1981 and his followers founded the Siddha Yoga Dham of America (S.Y.D.) in 1974. Perhaps the most controversial of these new gurus was Bhagwan Rajneesh, who arrived in 1981 and established a short-lived commune in eastern Oregon called Rajneeshpuram. Criticized by anti-cult groups and investigated by the United States government, Rajneesh was arrested in 1985 for violating immigration laws and deported.

Other Asian Indian gurus who did not actually visit also earned substantial American followings. The Spiritual Advancement of the Individual Foundation, Inc. promotes the teachings of the faith healer/prophet Satya Sai Baba, while centers associated with the Indian-based Sri Aurobindo Society spread the yogic techniques of the poet/philosopher Sri Aurobindo Ghose. Even a 19th-century Hindu guru has merited an American following. Brought to Flushing, New York from the Indian state of Gujarat in 1972, the Swaminarayan Mission and Fellowship promotes the worship of the Indian saint Sri Swaminarayan not only as an exemplary devotee of Vishnu but also as an incarnation of God on earth.

Finally, a third class of gurus, American-born converts to Hinduism, also achieved notoriety in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Bubba Free John (Franklin Jones) split off from Swami Muktananda Paramahansa's S.Y.D. to

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organize the Dawn Horse Fellowship (subsequently renamed the Primitive Church of Divine Communion). Richard Alpert, a Harvard professor of psychology and friend of the LSD-investigator Timothy Leary, took the name of Baba Ram Dass after embracing Hinduism and has earned an American following. Not surprisingly, these non-Indian gurus tend as a rule to "Americanize" Hinduism more freely than their Asian Indian counterparts. Many of them borrow generously not only from Hinduism but also from other Asian religious traditions. Among the most highly "Americanized" Hindu societies in America is the Hanuman Foundation of Baba Ram Dass. Be Here Now (1971), a heavily cartooned text that functions as an unofficial scripture for the organization, draws on ideas derived from psychoanalysis, Tibetan Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Christianity.

Of all the Hindu movements that emerged in America in the 1960s, two stand out most prominently: the TRANSCENDENTAL MEDITATION movement of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY FOR KRISHNA CONSCIOUSNESS (ISKCON) of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami PRABHUPADA.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi came to America in 1959 to lecture on an ostensibly scientific technique for spiritual liberation called Transcendental Meditation. Soon he had gathered hundreds of younger Americans into his Spiritual Regeneration Movement (S.R.M.). Based in Rishikesh, Uttar Pradesh, India, the S.R.M. provides classes in a simplified version of the teachings of nondualistic Hinduism or Advaita Vedanta and the practices of yoga. T.M. practice consists primarily of chanting and meditating on a mantra personally selected for the student by his or her guru. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his movement benefited greatly from the Beatles' well-publicized but short-lived flirtation with T.M. in the 1960s.

A second important form of Hinduism transplanted to the United States in the 1960s was the devotional Hinduism of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Like the T.M. movement, the "Hare Krishna" movement organized itself around a charismatic guru, in this case A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Prabhupada was a devotee of Lord Krishna, who is seen by most Hindus as one divine descent of Vishnu among many but by "Hare Krishna" followers as the one Supreme Lord. Prabhupada arrived in the United States in 1965 and settled in Los Angeles.

Unlike most other Hindu missionaries to America who stressed Hindu philosophy, he stressed the practice of a simple ritual: chanting a mantra to Krishna. ISKCON initially attracted an almost exclusively western membership, but more recently it has appealed to Indian immigrants as well. Members of ISKCON distinguish themselves from other Americans by adopting Indian names, wearing saffron robes, and shaving their heads after the manner of Hindu holy people.

Although both T.M. and the Hare Krishnas movement can be seen as decidedly modern American inventions, they can also be viewed as continuations of more long-standing reform movements within Hinduism. ISKCON members trace their tradition back to the 16th-century Indian saint/reformer Caitanya, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi acknowledges his primary debt to the eighth-century Hindu philosopher Shankara.

An interesting sidelight to all of these Hindu imports is the ANTI-CULT MOVEMENT. Hindus have been persecuted in America as early as the anti-Hindu riots in California and the Pacific Northwest of 1907. And Hinduism has come under attack in books such as Catherine Mayo's Mother India (1927). But opposition to American Hinduism did not become organized until the 1970s, when relatives of some converts began the controversial practice of de-programming in an attempt to de-convert loved ones from "heathen" faiths.

The widely publicized attempts by parents to "save" their children from the Indian gurus in the 1960s and 1970s points to the fact these Hindu-based movements, like the earler


Zen movement within American Buddhism, tended to attract non-Asian individuals rather than families. Hindu families who came to America after the repeal of the Asian Exclusion Act built up less notorious but more enduring groups centered around a venerable Indian institution: the Hindu temple.

Hindu temples arose in San Francisco and Los Angeles before World War II, but it was not until the 1970s that Hindu temples began to spring up in many major American cities. Since that time, temples have been established in, among other places, New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Denver, Cincinnati, Houston, San Antonio, New Orleans, Nashville, Memphis, and Atlanta. One of the earliest and most spectacular Hindu temples in America is the Sri Venkateswara Temple of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (established 1976).

The construction of Hindu sacred spaces in America testifies to the fact that Hinduism has gone beyond influencing sympathetic American intellectuals to establishing itself on American soil. In the process of being transplanted here, Hinduism is also taking on new and decidedly American forms. Although this process is more rapid among occidental students of Indian gurus, it is also evident among Indian-American devotees at Hindu temples.

One of the most obvious and important "Americanizations" of temple-based Hinduism is the tendency toward ecumenism. Two facts of Hindu life in America support this tendency: the small size of the Indian-American population in any given United States city and its astonishing diversity. In India there are typically numerous temples in a city. Each is usually dedicated to either Vishnu or Shiva, two deities who along with the impersonal (and therefore almost entirely unworshipped) Brahma comprise what some have described as the Hindu "Trinity." In American cities, however, there is usually no more than one Hindu temple. Hindu temples in the United States attempt to appeal to all Hindus in their area by making room for a variety of gods and a wide array of devotional practices. Many American temples, including those in Flushing, New York and Calabasas, California, have shrines dedicated to both Shiva and Vishnu.

Thus even as Hinduism is serving to make American religion more pluralistic, America is furthering the already-considerable pluralism within Hinduism. ISKCON members, for example, have taken their movement back to India, and some American-born Hindu gurus are beginning to attract followers in India. In this way, the most multifarious of the world's religions is becoming even more diverse.


John Y. Fenton, Transplanting Religious Traditions: Asian Indians in America (New York: Praeger, 1988);
Carl T. Jackson, The Oriental Religions and American Thought: Nineteenth-Century Explorations (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981);
Wendell Thomas, Hinduism Invades America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1930).