The first part of my notes-to-self covered my interpretation of digestion, a term coined by Rajiv Malhotra. This lead to an active twitter debate that led to many questions, mostly centered around Phil Goldberg's 'American Veda', which was previously critiqued elsewhere as facilitating digestion, and a stand which I support. I fact, I have found that AV does a lot more than that. It also directly digests and misrepresents Hinduism, and celebrates the digestion of Hinduism, perhaps unintentionally. This second set of notes will add more substance and take some of those follow-up questions as a starting point.
Throughout these posts, the emphasis in bold/underline/quotes are mine. Often direct quotes are italicized. Let me state upfront that I admire Goldberg's candid admissions. I believe he is Jewish, and therefore does not proselytize. This is my critique of his work, as well as the other interviews and articles he has written. There are places in the book AV where he even agrees that Indian methods and dharmic ideas have been misappropriated. But his disappointing response is to kick the can down the road to the Hindu advocacy groups to deal with the Hindu image issue, and washes his hands off, i.e. 'it is not my problem'. Fair enough. He is not Hindu, and this book is not about Hinduism. AV is a book written by the west, of the west, and for the west. Hindus and Hinduism are but props in the AV stage.
[update Dec 23: typos fixed]
American Veda: How Indian Spirituality Changed the West
American Veda and Indian spirituality implies that Hindu religious concepts are tied to a geography. There is no call-out in the book of the universal truth claims of Karma and Punar Janma of Hinduism and the universality of dharma - the latter is the single-most important thing, in my opinion, a Hindu reader should look for in such books: Ask what is the status of dharma in the book? It is totally ignored in the title. The title suggests that the book starts with some fuzzy "spirituality" from India toward building a new American Veda suitable for western consumption without the stench of Hinduism's caste, cows, and curry.
Strong words? read on and make up your own mind.
Foreword by Huston Smith
Who is this Huston Smith and why did Goldberg pick him to write the foreword?
He's described a 90+ year old "rock star of religions". My ignorance. I never heard of this chap, so I looked him up. Here are some interesting snippets.
"Smith was born in 1919 in China, where his parents were Christian missionaries...."
Smith: "... "I happen to be a Christian. I was brought up and drenched in that,"
he said. "I am very orthodox in thinking that Jesus acted in his life
the way God would have acted if God had assumed human form... I think that
God imploded, like a spiritual big bang, to launch the eight
civilizations that make up recorded history and the religions in
Zero connection with dharma so far, but we see Mr. Smith clearly state where his roots are: History-centric Christianity.
Here's the Wikipedia entry on his religious practice that examines other religions (including, and in particular, Hindu Vedanta) for many years, he returning to his Christian roots to write this book:
"The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition"
Here's an Amazon.com blurb on what this restored Christianity looks like:
"... "I have tried to describe a Christianity which is fully compatible
with everything we now know, and to indicate why Christians feel
privileged to give their lives to it."
.... In his
most personal and passionate book on the spiritual life, renowned
author, scholar, and teacher of world religions Huston Smith turns to
his own life-long religion, Christianity....Smith cuts through these to describe Christianity's "Great
Tradition," the common faith of the first millennium of believers, which
is the trunk of the tree from which Christianity's many branches,
twigs, and leaves have grown. This is not the exclusivist Christianity
of strict fundamentalists, nor the liberal, watered-down Christianity
practiced by many contemporary churchgoers..."
Right in the introductory pages available for free at Amazon.com, you can clearly see Smith states that he visited India may times and learnt of "dharma" before proceeding to digest Dharma into the Christian notion. His exact words on how he redefines dharma: "It is the duty that God has imposed on me". Being a Christian, he is of course referring to a monotheist God who is a task-master. The meaning of dharma has been totally inverted. This is the abysmal level of scholarship and mis-translation of Sanskrit, which we see in other chapters of the AV book too.
In the first chapter of Smith's book, after the introduction, Smith talks of his new Christian world view, where the very first set of paragraphs attempts to mangle the dharmic idea of "Purna" made famous by the famous Shloka. Next, tackles at causation (related to Karma...), at which point I cried halt. The foreword to AV cites a single verse from the Christian bible where false equivalences for Bhakti, Jnana, and Karma is given! Rock star.
Foreword writers are deliberately and carefully chosen, and usually for deep reasons. AV's foreword writer is a famous and devout Christian, the son of two devoted missionaries who studied Vedanta for long, and visited India several times, and ultimately used this information, not to become Hindu or dharmic, but to repair and re-invent an improved Christianity for the west using digested versions of Hindu concepts.
This is how American Veda begins and ends. This is the template.
Theme of American Veda
Goldberg is sincere westerner who is looking to improving the condition of his country and repairing their society and religion. To achieve this task, he, like Huston Smith, uses Hinduism as a tool-box containing an useful assortment of nuts and bolts, from which the west can freely select compatible parts to plug the gaping holes in their systems. Chapter after chapter in this book is not about how Hinduism and India benefits from the interaction with the west, but the total opposite. Which begs the question:
If AV is about utilizing bits and pieces of Hindu ideas deleted from their Indian context, and suitably modified to enhance Christianity, Judaism, and western health care, etc., why the heck are the useful Hindu idiots cheering, showcasing, and funding such works? What has India and dharmic systems got in return from the US for this? ZILCH.
Much of American Veda is a biographical celebration of who's who of U-turners and digesters:
Maslow, Bensen, Ken Wilber, Carl Jung, Father Keating, ....
and a bunch of opportunists like Deepak Chopra who have made a lot of money selling faux-Vedantic snake oil to a gullible western audience. This blogpost links to a video lecture of Rajiv Malhotra that walks through an entire list of U-turners and digesters. We won't go into these biographies, even though they make for fascinating and bewildering reading. In this remainder of this part of the self-study, I cover the introduction and the first chapter of AV, focusing on Goldberg's own words and annotations. I highlight just a few of the many gaping holes in this book that makes a mockery of dharmic concepts and try to point out how these mangled ideas facilitate digestion.
For more background and context on American Veda and Phil Goldberg, readers can read this blog: digestingveda.blogspot.in. We owe the writer a thanks.
Chapter - Introduction
1. Here, PG starts off providing a list of excuses about why he has not used Hinduism in the title. Clearly, he is aware this would become an issue. Some reasons include:
a. "people will misconstrue the nature of this book". (Exactly how?)
b. [Opportunistic] gurus who came to the west said they were not preaching Hinduism (so?)
c. Yoga and Vedanta do not have to be viewed religiously at all ...
2. As far as Buddhism, he equates the Buddha to Jesus as a reformer. I would seriously contest this as another false equivalence, but some other day. This book does not credit Buddhism in the cover either. Of Jainism or Sikhism, I could find no mention.
3. He calls Yoga and Vedanta, India's major export. Despite that, India has not seen one dollar in returns yet!
4. He finds India's epic 'tales' of Ramayana and Mahabharata to be rich in 'magic and mystery', and makes the Iliad and Odyssey look like short stories.
5. Page 10:
Goldberg offers us this gem: infinite divine can be called Allah, Lord, or Brahman, which is justified citing 'Ekam sat Vipraha bahudha vadanti'.
Shockingly poor scholarship fills the American Veda. Goldberg is honest enough to concede that he is not confident about the completeness of the translation of the Vedantic principles he cites by adding caveats such as "does not pretend to do justice to Vedanta...". What can we be sure of in AV then?
The above reasoning is a distortion of Hinduism, designed to propagate the myth of sameness. Doing so allows him to move on to his next, and by far, most serious error, which opens the door to wholesale digestion.
6. On Page 11, Goldberg claims:
"Vedantic principles are accompanied by Vedic concepts of Karma.... and reincarnation. Most applications of Vedanta-Yoga do not require these supplementary ideas, and ordinary practitioners in the west do not necessarily believe in them"
Karma (cause and effect) and Punar Janma (Reincarnation) are central and fundamental truth-claims of dharmic thought system. Hinduism (and its pluralism of manifestations), Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists subscribe to this. These dharmic fundamentals are precisely the ones that the Judeo-Christian system is incompatible with, and this is also exactly why Goldberg has deliberately brushed them aside as unimportant waste material that can be rejected! Once we get rid of these crucial dharmic elements, the mutilated remainder of the Hindu concepts can be digested into JC systems, without hurting their history-centric dogma. This is exactly what was stated in part-1. In Philip Goldberg's own words, we have clear evidence of digestion being facilitated.
7. On the same page, PG favorably compares Vedanta to perennialism. Rajiv Malhotra has previously stated that "The whole Perennial Philosophy is merely stage-2 of the uturn." AV systematically glorifies (as Rajiv Malhotra put it) these so-called western pioneers, who in reality, just reassembled and repackaged many of the original ideas from dharmic systems.
8. In Page 12, he says "whether it's a falafel or philosophy, Americans embrace foreign products when the circumstances are right, and conditions in the United States were right for Vedanta-Yoga from the start"
Falafel. Vedanta-Yoga. foreign product (!)
Wow, such reverence and seriousness.
This is the author that Ms. Nirmala Seetharaman's foundation found worthy enough to invite for a talk, and for RSS to promote? that certain Sanathana Dharma institutions showered money on?
These are just the first few pages. Toward the end of the book, there are sections where it appears like Goldberg is practically showing Padres/Rabbis how such digested Vedanta-Yoga' can improve the situation in their church and synagogue without impacting their central dogma. He also does this in a Huffington Post article. Indeed as early as page 23-24, Goldberg very honestly states his intentions. Indeed, AV is a very honest book. I'm sure PG believes in his mind that he's doing a lot of good.
9. In his own words, we can find the real reason for deleting Hinduism/Buddhism/Sikhism/Jainism from this book:
"This [book] is not a threat to Western religions; Americans are not about to abandon their churches, synagogues, and mosques, for Hindu temples. Figures of Shiva and Krishna will not replace crosses in American homes."
It is very, very clear. Hinduism has NO role in this book, and he sees no role for Hinduism in American homes. He is seeking not to replace dogmatic Judeo-christian ideology with dharmic ideas as many gullible Hindus believe. Instead, he is seeking to complement and solidify the existing dogma with a digested Hindu layer. This is precisely what was mentioned in part 1. In his own words, we have the evidence of the outcome of digestion. Once this happens, this enhanced Christianity can be re-exported to India. Conversion in India will be a piece of cake. This is what India gains from digestion.
Still not convinced? then read further ...
"Exposure to eastern spirituality is more likely to strengthen a person's relationship to his or her native religion than to destroy it".
Goldberg has gone out of his way to calm his western audience and his publishers. This book is not about bringing dharma to replace dogma. This is about making Judeo-Christianity stronger to stem the flow of disenchanted members out of their system.
I could go on. There are nearly 400 pages in this book, and I have covered less than 25 in this post since I do not have a digital copy to expedite this work. There are more fallacies and errors to point out, but that will take up a lot of space and is left as an exercise to the reader. I will however add one final point on the comments that Goldberg makes in page 292, to illustrate the kind of lame arguments used to justify digestion.
"One physician told me "But replacing the the orange robe with a white lab coat opens it up to a lot more people". So does calling meditation a stress-reduction technique, not a sadhana for achieving moksha. We will never know how many heart attacks were prevented, or how many millions of pills were not taken, because of that decision.
There is another place in the book where a false argument of "Indian philosophy versus Western science" argument is given. Digestion of Yoga into all these medical buzzwords is justified since it gives these methods the requisite "scientific legitimacy". Mr. Goldberg: Indians, Tibetans, Sri Lankans, Indonesians, and many millions in Asia (not
just India) for centuries benefited scientifically from Yoga, without having to mutilate Yoga and delete moksha, and did not require white lab coats to "make it look" scientific. It always was scientific, and dharmic religions have never been in conflict with science. This silly justification insults intelligence.
Conclusion and Summary
Based on my study, I personally find American Veda to be a mediocre and error-ridden piece of work that directly enables, and also (perhaps inadvertently) celebrates digestion while moving toward a goal of ensuring that western society derives maximum benefits from the Hindu toolbox, taking what it deems to be compatible and useful (dharma-nirpeksha stuff), and discarding the rest.
Digestion is not an end-goal. It is not easy to spot unless you examine the end-state of the Hindu concept being appropriated. It is merely a means to an end. Usually, that end-goal is to preserve and enhance Western religion. The primary goal is neither to harm or help the cause of dharma. Rather they are indifferent to it. Impact on Hinduism and dharma is collateral damage, which authors may express regret about, but is not really their concern.
It's time we stop celebrating
every new and shiny piece of work that comes of the west just because
it is superficially favorable to Hinduism. That's a symptom of mental colonization. Let's first fund and support those among our own who are busting their backs coming up with high-quality work. Being brown should not be a disqualification.