Of gurus, maharajas, swamis and the other practitioners who have come to American shores bringing “India’s leading export”—Hinduism, that is.
Practitioner Goldberg (Roadsigns: On the Spiritual Path—Living at the Heart of Paradox, 2006, etc.), one of many prominent “Hinjus” (Jewish Hindus) who espouse the traditions of South Asia, opens by observing that his book is “about Hinduism,” which, narrowly defined, is “a specific set of precepts and practices derived from India’s primary religion.” Given that Hinduism is the source of Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism, the other major indigenous faiths of the subcontinent, the concentration on Hinduism as a shortcut for Indian religion seems defensible, though still apt to provoke argument. The author blends scholarly interest with firsthand experience, but his insistence that America is thoroughly Veda-ized—since we all use words like guru, karma, yoga, mantra and maybe even namaste—already seems arguable as well, given the resurgence of fundamentalist Christianity. Still, Goldberg has a point, and he does a capable job of showing the influence Hinduism has had for at least the last century and a half, beginning with the Transcendentalists and winding through the sounds of just about any band that has ever used a sitar. The author also sets his sight on loftier exponents, such as T.S. Eliot, a close student of Sanskrit, and J.D. Salinger, whose texts he reads as Vedanta parables. And then there are the Beats, of course. The organization is a little haphazard and the puns (“Maharishi’s little helpers,” “the cart before the source,” “living the vida veda”) may be a little too frequent for some tastes, but Goldberg does yeoman service in chronicling the many ways India has influenced American—and, by extension, Western—culture, often very subtly.
For budding mahatmas, a worthy and vigorous introduction, though less well-written than its closest Buddhist counterpart, Rick Fields’s How the Swans Came to the Lake (1981).