From West to East: Vedic America returns to India

7.    From West to East: Western scholarship and comparative religious studies and their influence in India: Raimon Panikkar; Mircea Eliade and the Chicago school. The controversy surrounding Jeffrey J. Kripal’s reading of Sri Ramakrishna. The work of Georg Feuerstein on Yoga and Tantra, and the spread of ‘Neo-Tantra’ in India.

Emerson and the other Transcendentalists took quite seriously the vedic wisdom they wanted to imbibe; they read the best translations then available from the primary sources. So ‘vedic America’ is not originally, and is not now, just a pop phenomenon (fads generally do not last through two centuries!). America has had, and does have, a great community of Indologists and other scholars of Asian history and thought; some are from India or born of Indian parents, while others (non-Asians) have been initiated into vedic, yogic, or Buddhist traditions out of family traditions. So there is a ‘vedic America’ that includes orthodox Hindus of Caste, as well as serious scholars whose vedic culture may not be native but is nonetheless deep and authentic.

Some there are of double heritage, for whom the ‘inter-religious’ dialogue is ‘intra-religious’: that is, a person like the late Raimon Panikkar, son of a Hindu Brahmin and a Spanish (Catalonian) Christian mother, formed in Catholic tradition and ordained to the Church’s priesthood, who from within could think and intuit the relationship between the two traditions. Others have felt themselves destined (as it were from before their birth) to live a double membership; among them was dom Henri Le Saux, a Benedictine monk who assumed (with the blessing of an Indian bishop) the name Swami Abhishiktananda and wore the orange robes of the Indian ascetics. Close to him was his successor at the Saccidananda Ashram of Shantivanam, dom Bede Griffiths, a Camaldolese Benedictine who was seen by great numbers of simple Hindus as a holy person of their own tradition, a genuine sannyasi.

These three great souls (add to them a fourth: Jules Monchanin, Swami Parama-arupyananda) lived major portions of their respective lives on Indian soil. There have been others, in America and elsewhere, who have pursued a pilgrimage route that did not take them (physically) to India but into their own spirit, into the ‘cave of the heart.’ Such a one was my brother sannyasi Wayne Teasdale, Benedictine oblate, who sojourned in India with Bede Griffiths and was initiated at his hands, spending the rest of his life teaching and writing in the Chicago area (he was one of the major facilitators of the 1993 Parliament of Religions). Still other persons — kriyabans, vedantists, meditators — have acquired a contemplative vision of their life grounded in America (or elsewhere in the West), and in another world may be recognized as true rishis and yogis and bodhisattvas by the saints and sages of India.

Another phenomenon in the relations between India and the West has been the West-to-East influence of aspects of vedic-yogic-dharmic traditions, inculturated in America or Europe, which have found their way back to their lands of origin. The major example of this return passage to India was given by Paramahansa Yogananda. As a young swami and graduate of Calcutta University, he founded a boys’ school near Ranchi, in the state now known as Jharkhand. A few years later, he was invited to address a religious assembly in Boston, and before he left organized a society (Yogoda Sat-Sanga) to continue his educational work. In California he founded the Self-Realization Fellowship, an order of monastic and lay disciples initiated into his Kriya Yoga practice. During a one-year return to India, Y placed his Indian society under the order in California, whose presidents (briefly James J. Lynn and then Faye Wright, Daya Mata, from 1955 to 2010) presided over both organizations. Other examples?

About ashramdiary

Thomas Matus, who blogs this Ashram Diary, was born 1940 in Hollywood, California. Academics: A.B. in music from Occidental College (Los Angeles); S.T.L. in ecumenical theology from Athenaeum Anselmianum (Rome, Italy); Ph.D. in comparative mysticism from Fordham University (New York). Initiated into Kriya Yoga (by direct disciples of Paramahansa Yogananda) in 1958. Became a Catholic in 1960 and entered New Camaldoli Hermitage (Big Sur, California) as a novice monk in 1962. Lived for more than 30 years at the Monastery of Camaldoli in Italy. Traveled to India some 20 times; made frequent retreats at Saccidananda Ashram (Shantivanam) in southern India. Was in Brazil, off and on, from 1999 to 2006. Now back in California, he lives at the Hermitage in Big Sur and Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley, California. See:
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