Most of us think Indian influences arrived in America during the countercultural movements of the sixties. In reality, that was only the most recent wave in the rising tide of Indiological interest stretching back centuries. I will review the history of the transference of knowledge from India to America. Each of the following cultural phenomena in America occurred in roughly the following order: cross-cultural traffic between India, Europe, and America; Transcendentalism; the Theosophical Society and Eastern gurus; Nazi Germany; the Civil Rights Movement; the Beat Generation; the widespread use of LSD; Indian influenced music; and the Hippies.
Indian culture was first introduced to America by the Europeans, who had been fascinated with the sub-continent since trade between the two began.
Famous depth psychologist, Carl Jung, reasoned that during the [atheistic] French Revolution, the violent and bloody rejection of the Christian religion and subsequent enthronement of the “Goddess of Reason” in Notre Dame was culturally compensated, by the first major translation of Indian philosophy in a European language (Jung, 1971, p.469). According to Jung, while the revolution raged in France, Anquetil du Perron, a Frenchman, was living in India and translating the Oupnek’hat – a collection of fifty Upanishads (Jung, 1971, p.469), which are philosophical commentaries on the Vedas, the core reglious texts of India, which will hereafter be referred to as Vedic. Acccording to Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious mind, the onslaught of atheism in France was compensated, by a fresh influx of an ancient religion. A similar compensation occurred in America in the 1960s, as we shall see.
Thanks to the constitutional separation of church and state inaugurated by the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, Indian philosophy was openly and ernestly imported in the following century by the founders of the first American philosophical movement, Transcendentalism (Stillson Judah, 1967, p.23-24).
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are two of the most prominent figures in forming the Transcendentalist movement in America, which enthusiastically adopted much of India’s wisdom. Dr. J. Stillson Judah, professor emeritus of religion at the Graduate Theological Union at the University of California in Berkeley, writes in his book, The History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America: “Transcendentalists believed that intuition, rather than the senses, revealed a spiritual reality and spiritual science, transcending the natural science of the physical world. This created a dichotomy between the natural and spiritual worlds – the natural world being but a shadow of the spiritual one” (Stillson Judah, 1967, p.26-27). These ideas began emerging in America roughly around 1840, when Emerson, Thoreau, and other transcendentalists, like Amos Bronson Alcott and Walt Whitman, began studying translations of the Bhagavad-Gita, the Upanishads, the Vishnu Purana, and other Oriental texts (Stillson Judah, 1967, p.31-32). Among all the Eastern texts, the Bhagavad-Gita was most influential. Emerson proclaimed it as a required reading for all those intersted in Transcendentalism (Versluis, 1993, p.197). [See Appendix A for quotes by Emerson and Thoreau on the Bhagavad-Gita.] Influenced by the Bhagavad-Gita and other Vedic texts, Emerson wrote essays such as “The Oversoul,” which were highly regarded by both academics and metaphysical societies such as The Theosophical Society (Blavatsky, 2003, p.31).
The Theosophical Society was founded in America in 1875 by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott, William Quan Judge and fourteen others. It soon spread worldwide and still functions today. Blavatsky, the Society’s main authority and a Buddhist, had been a world traveler and was able to impress others with her claims of psychic ability (Henderson, 2000, p.72). Henry Olcott previously held a number of prestigious posts in New York and had caused a stir by becoming the first well-known person of European origin to formerly convert to Buddhism along with Blavatsky (Seager, 1999, p.35). Mystical masters, or mahatmas, supposedly guided the Society telepathically by miraculously writing letters on paper placed in a special box (Williams, 2004, p.8). Whether or not the mahatmas existed, the idea of guiding gurus was very prevalent in the Society.
The Theosophical Society’s objectives were threefold:
(i) To form the nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity without distinction of race, color, or creed.
(ii) To promote the study of Aryan and other Scriptures, of the World's religion and sciences, and to vindicate the importance of old Asiatic literature, namely, of the Brahmanical [Vedic], Buddhist, and Zoroastrian philosophies.
(iii) To investigate the hidden mysteries of Nature under every aspect possible, and the psychic and spiritual powers latent in man especially.
(Blavatsky, 1972, p. 39)
The cultural influence of the Theosophical Society is evident in the impressive list of its members, including such influetial figures as William Butler Yeats, Jack London, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Edison, Carl Gustav Jung, Elvis Presley, Shirley MacLaine, and Mohandas K. Gandhi (www.katinkahesselink.net/his/influencetheosophy.html/11/25/2007/10:11am) [For a fuller list see Appendix B].
Based on the philosophical foundation layed by the Theosophical Society, subsequent missionaries from India such as Swami Vivekananda, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Paramahansa Yogananda, Maharishi, and A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, brought Vedic culture to America.
In 1893, Swami Vivekananda attended the Parliament of Religions, an interfaith dialog that was part of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. After that discussion Vivekananda remained in America long enough to form The Vedanta Society, as well as influence Transcendentalists (Stillson Judah, 1967, p.41). The Vedanta Society still exists.
In 1922, Jiddu Krishnamurti, a famous writer and speaker on Indian philosophy and spiritualism, was inspired to travel and preach around America and the world as a result of a “life changing experience” (Krishnamurti, 1997, p.xvii). He was intimately connected with The Theosophical Society through his father, Narianiah, who had been one of its members in India since 1882 (Williams, 2004, p.17).
In 1920, Paramahansa Yogananda arrived in Boston as India’s delegate to an International Congress of Religious Liberals. He founded the Self-Realization Fellowship, in 1925, to promote his own brand of philosophy, yoga, and meditation (Self-realization Magazine, 1971, p.61). Yogananda wrote several books, including the very popular Autobiography of a Yogi, which remains a bestseller.
Maharishi [who was later involved with The Beatles] taught his Transcendental Meditation technique in Hawai’i in 1959, traveling on to California to continue his mission.
In 1965, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami began the Hare Krishna movement in America to fulfill the wish of his guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur. Both were acclaimed and learned Vedic scholars. In the following 12 years, Bhaktivedanta Swami established over a hundred temples and farm communities throughout the world and simultaneously translated sixty volumes of Vedic texts into English.
The Theosophical Society’s interpretation of the Vedas was internationally known. Among early admirers of its ideas were members of the The Thule Society, occult architects of the German Nazi party (Levenda, 2002, p.40).
The Thule Society, which was established at the end of the World War I, founded the German Worker’s Party in 1919, whose name was changed to the National Socialist Party, or Nazi Party, by Adolf Hitler in 1920 (Ross, 1995, p.11). In A History of Nazi Involvement with the Occult, Peter Levenda states: “The rationale behind many later Nazi projects can be traced back - through the writings of von List, von Sebottendorf, and von Liebenfels - to ideas first popularized by Blavatsky…. It was, after all, Blavatsky who pointed out the supreme occult significance of the swastika.”
Hitler had also studied India independently. Trevor Ravenscroft, in The Spear of Destiny, writes, “The works of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, which are laced with eulogistic comments regarding oriental thinking, led the youthful Hitler to a keen study of Eastern Religions and Yoga … the Rig-Veda, the Upanishads, the Gita” (1982, p.26). As Hitler rose in power, he instigated a mass migration of nearly 130,000 Jews from Germany between 1933 and 1939 (Kershaw, 2000, p.858). Among them was Leo Strauss, a political philosopher, who, after moving to America, was considered one of the founding fathers of neo-conservatism.
In his book, Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, Strauss cites the philosopher Martin Heidegger (who was both greatly influenced by Nietzsche, and involved in the Nazi Party during the war): “A dialogue between the most profound thinkers of the Occident and the most profound thinkers of the Orient ... [may be] accompanied or followed by a return of the gods. That dialogue and everything that it entails, but surely not political action of any kind, is perhaps the way” (1983, p.33-34). This “return of the gods” is not arbitrary, for Nietzsche often wrote of the East – for example, he sometimes quoted a “Brahmanic [Vedic] culture” (Nietzsche, 1968, p.110).
The Nazi Party had unknowingly facilitated the Strauss/Heidegger/Nietzsche-inspired neo-conservatives’ gleaning of knowledge from India. The same Indian culture and philosophy also affected the sixties countercultural movements in America, from which the neo-conservatives had emerged (Aronowitz, 1996, p.187). There was, therefore, an exchange of ideas and subsequent influences in the sixties that countercultural movements inherited from Nazi Germany’s interest in the occult parts of the Vedas.
Another factor which affected countercultural movements in the sixties was the Civil Rights Movement.
Civil Rights leaders, Reverend Martin Luther King Jnr. and Mohandas K. Gandhi, were successful in applying Henry David Thoreau’s Vedic-inspired ideas on non-violent resistence.
In 1776 Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, in which he wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” This was not taken literally by the American white majority, and so Rev. King fought to bring about a racial equality, which up to then had not been embraced. Rev. King was an ardent admirer of Gandhi (Barash, Webel, 2002, p.522). Both Rev. King and Gandhi studied non-violent civil disobedience from the pages of Henry David Thoreau’s essay, Civil Disobedience, written in 1849 (Persons, 1999, p.160). Thoreau was at that time studying the Vedas, especially Bhagavad-Gita. Civil Disobedience revolved around the idea of following your conscience, which is also encouraged in Bhagavad-Gita [18:63] (Bhaktivedanta, 1982, p.832). Thus, non-violent resistance came full circle: from India to Thoreau in America, back to India and Gandhi, and back again to America, inspiring the “sit-ins” (peaceful demonstrations) of the sixties. Thoreau’s ideas also greatly influenced a fifties generation of disaffiliated young people known as the Beat Generation.
In the 1950s, a number of dissatisfied youths rejected the “social norms” of the time and expressed their concerns through poetry, borrowing heavily from transcendentalists and Indian philosophy.
Josephine Hendin, professor of contemporary American literature, in A Concise Companion to Postwar American Literature and Culture, writes: “Historically the term Beat Generation was officially launched in a New York Times magazine article on Nov 16, 1952, by John Clellon Holmes, a beat author himself. The Beat Generation characterized a movement in progress made by a post-World War II generation of disaffiliated young people coming of age in a Cold War without spiritual values they could honor. The originator of the Beat Generation was short lived and had consisted only of a group of friends; that original group, Ginsberg, Carr, Burroughs, Huncke, and Holmes, had scattered. After the Korean War, the Beat Generation ideals were forced into the foreground again, and it was resurrected. Postwar youth had picked up the gestures and soon the “beat” sensibility, as reflected in its political and social stance, was everywhere” (2004, p.75).
The influential writers of the Beat Generation, namely, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Neal Cassady, John Clellon Holmes, among others, had an avid interest in Eastern philosophy stemming from their natural gravitation to the writings of Carl Gustav Jung, and Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau (Hopkins, 2001, p.240). Allen Ginsberg was publicly convinced that chanting the Hare Krishna mantra was a major spiritual factor in his life (Dershowitz, 2004, p.391). Gary Snyder was an initiated Buddhist.
As well as an attraction to the East, psychedelic experimentation also played a large part in psychological change and spiritual epiphany for the Beat Generation (Tarnas, 2006, p.395). Among the Beat Generation’s many experiments with “mind-expanding” substances, such as peyote and “magic mushrooms”, the invention of the “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests” by a group of influential Beats popularized a new recreational drug called LSD, which in turn intensified the generation’s interest in the mystical aspect of India.
Lysergic Acid, or LSD, played a part in stimulating “spiritual” and “religious” experiences. In 1943, Albert Hoffman discovered its properties after inadvertently ingesting it in Sandoz Laboratories, Switzerland (Levine, 2003, p.275). Psychiatrists became interested in the potential therapeutic use of this substance and so began a series of experiments on advanced schizophrenic patients (Dobkin de Rios, Janiger, 2003, p.5). By 1954, research into LSD was well under way in Europe and North America (Dobkin de Rios, Janiger, 2003, p.5). Experiments showed that the drug enticed creative and spiritual impetuses (Dobkin de Rios, Janiger, 2003, p.76-151). LSD became increasingly well known until it reached Harvard PhD, Dr. Timothy Leary, whose experimentation with it became part of the famous “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” culture of the sixties.
At the same time “The Merry Pranksters”, a group of beats led by “cult hero,” Ken Kesey, set out from California in a modified school-bus to travel the US, sharing LSD with whoever they met who was willing. This road trip and their “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests,” as they came to be known, was a catalyst in the subsequent spread of LSD use in America.
Marlene Dobkin de Rios and Oscar Janiger write of the effects of LSD in their book, LSD, Spirituality, and the Creative Process, “It encourages one to try to explore more in the higher regions of consciousness and to experience more inner power or even experience self-awareness for temporary periods” (2003, p.144). The use of the words consciousness and self-awareness are tacitly taken from Indian philosophy, and, so, through the use of LSD, Indic influence grew.
Indian culture reached a new level of popularity when famous musicians became influenced by the drug-induced metaphysical undercurrents of the Beat Generation, who amplified its messages with their music.
Music, as one of the most powerful ways of communication, was the voice of the counterculture: imbibing and echoing its trials, tribulations, goals, and influences. Before encountering Maharishi, George Harrison, of The Beatles, had tried meeting many gurus, and he had even gone so far as climbing walls in Cornwall, Southwest England, with a local guru who was going to reveal all to him – to no avail (Davies, 1996, p.230). The Beatles met Maharishi in the London Hilton, and their positive experience with him later led them to become active with the Hare Krishnas. George Harrison recorded the Hare Krishna maha-mantra (“maha”– great, “man”– mind, “tra”– deliver) with Krishna devotees in the summer of 1969, greatly popularizing the mantra: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare (Nye, 2001, p.11).
The interest members of The Beatles had in psychedelics, and subsequently Indian gurus, came from the counterculture, of which Bob Dylan was one of the band’s main influences (Taylor, 2004, p.289). It is most likely that Dylan had introduced The Beatles to hashish in a New York hotel room during an American tour in 1965 (Sounes, 2001, p.161). Dylan had been prominent in the Civil Rights movement of Martin Luther King (Trager, 2004, p.474) and was using elements of Beat poetry in his music. In Dylan’s own words, "It was Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac who inspired me first” (Farrell, 1997, p.75). He was therefore familiar with countercultural ethics and ideals, as well as the idea of non-violent resistance.
From the combination of famous musicians’ interest the counterculture, the “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests,” and Gandhi and Rev. King’s non-violent resistance, the Hippies were born.
Eric Donald Hirsch writes in his book, The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, “Westernized social norms in the 1950s, segregation in the Deep South of the U.S., and the war in Vietnam, have all been accredited with inspiring the couterculture revolution during the sixties” (1993, p 419). As mentioned, the rebellion against “social norms” and non-violent resistance subsequently brought about a mass appeal of all things Indian. The Hippies evolved as a synthesis between the previous Beat Generation and experimental drug use. This new generation cradled an eastern inspired philosophical and metaphysical worldview which was plain for all to see.
Picture yourself walking around Height-Ashbury during the “Summer of Love,” 1967, and observe the Indian influence in the hippie generation. You see that tie-dies and paisleys are in fashion. Multi-colored folk of all races with rudraksha [Shiva] beads hanging from their necks, wearing “Legalize Marihuana” [sic] buttons on their yarn ball and tiny-bell festooned waistcoats, blouses, skirts, overalls and (even) chasubles, meander in and out, or socialize outside, stores with names like The Cosmic Yogi, filled with exotic bric-a-brac including hash pipes and statuettes of Shiva and Ganesh. The whiff of marijuana is all pervasive, except when it is in competition with the aromatheraputic smoke curls of strong incense. Jerry Garcia’s recorded voice crackles and wafts out of an open second-storey window and is accompanied by the jangling of a sitar from behind an ajar door below. A boy with long unkept hair and furry clothes sits on the sidewalk reading a scraggy copy of The Dharma Bums. His apparent blonde girlfriend, dressed in a bright sari, sits erect in meditation. On the opposite side of the steet a sombrely dressed young man in dark shades and pointed shoes stands and weaves his politically surcharged poetry of non-violence to the beat of his guitar. A girl wearing a psychedelic dress and flowers in her hair greets you with “Namaste.”
The cross-cultururism observed in the hippie generation had been brought about by centuries of American interest in Indian culture and philosophy.
In America, India’s wisdom has been called upon time and again: from Europeans, who had found in America an open-armed acceptance and willingness to adapt and learn what they had gleaned from the East; to the Transcendentalists, who used that newfound freedom from the shackles of tradition to eloquently write about the East; to the Theosophical Society who facilitated and gave credence to the idea of guru; to the Indian gurus who brought India’s spirituality to an eager audience; to the Nazi’s interest in the Vedas, which was delivered to America via refugees; to civil-rights leaders learning from the Bhagavad-Gita; to a Beat Generation out of which, like a phoenix from the ashes of degradation and drug abuse, was born a yearning to understand eastern wisdom; to experimentation with LSD as an attempt to reach a higher consciousness; to screaming girls and groupies being replaced by the spiritual vibration of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord;” to the emergence of the hippies and their natural affinity to India. America’s embracing of Indian culture and philosophy has become as American as apple pie.
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In a letter to Max Müller on August 4, 1873, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavat Geeta. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spake [sic] to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us." (Emerson, 1909-1914, VII: p.241-42, 511).
In his essay, “Plato, or the Philosopher”, Emerson wrote, "In all nations there are minds which incline to dwell in the conception of the fundamental Unity. The raptures of prayer and ecstasy of devotion lose all being in one Being. This tendency finds its highest expression in the religious writings of the East, and chiefly in the Indian Scriptures, in the Vedas, the Bhagavat Geeta and the Vishnu Purana. These writings contain little else than this idea, and they rise to pure and sublime strains in celebrating it."(Emerson, 1894, p.120)
Henry David Thoreau, a fellow transcendentalist and companion of Emerson, wrote in Chapter 16 of his famous book, Walden, “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial” (Thoreau, 1966, p.197).
Partial List of Theosophical Society members
Lyman Frank Baum – American author of The Wizard of Oz
William Butler Yeats – Anglo-Irish poet and playwright
George W. Russell – Irish poet, painter, and agricultural expert
Lewis Carroll – author of the Alice books, Sylvie and Bruno, etc.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle –English author of Sherlock Holmes stories
Jack London – American novelist
James Joyce – Irish novelist
D. H. Lawrence – English novelist
T. S. Eliot – Anglo-American poet and critic
Henry Miller – Bohemian autobiographical novelist
John Boyton Priestley – English novelist and playwright
Thomas Edison – American inventor of the electric light, phonograph, etc.
Sir Alfred Russel Wallace – Naturalist
William James – philosopher and psychologist
Carl Gustav Jung – founder of analytical psychology
Rukmini Devi Arundale – Revitalized Indian arts
Beatrice Wood – artist, ceramicist
Paul Gauguin – French post impressionist painter
Gustav Mahler – symphonic composer
Alexander Nikolaievitch Scriabin – Russian composer
Elvis Presley – American rock and roll musician
Ruth Crawford-Seeg – composer
Shirley MacLaine – American film actress
Hernández Martínez – former President of El Salvador
Henry Wallace – former Vice President of the United States
Jawaharlal Nehru – first Prime Minister of India
George Lansbury – former leader of British Labour party
Mohandas K. Gandhi – Indian patriot
Matilda Joslyn Gage – American feminist
Anagarika Dharmapala – a leading figure in the Buddhist revival
D.T. Suzuki – brought Zen-Buddhism to the West