Monday, December 23, 2013

Digestion of Hinduism: Inside the American Veda

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]

Cover Page
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 those civilizations.""

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 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."
—Huston Smith

.... 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, 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: 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"

Supplementary ideas?!

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.


  1. Very incisive piece. But there is another side to the issue. Even though there is a process of digestion at work no doubt, and there will always be u-turners, there are also those who take up yogic spiritual practices in all sincerity, like George Maehle. Giving up ones own religious trappings does not necessarily mean embracing the ones found in popular Hinduism. The goal is to help non-dharmics relieve themselves of their natal religious baggage. Unfortunately Hindus themselves need to shoulder a significant amount of the blame here since, in trying to play nice and upping the likability index, they end up pandering to non-Dharmic religions with fatuous claims like we want to make Christians better Christians and Muslims better Muslims. I was told these exact words by a leading member of an RSS-affiliated Vivekananda Yoga Center in Bangalore, at an RSS organized camp in USA.

    1. thanks for your feedback and comments. agree :(

  2. Thanks for a short & incisive review.

  3. Honestly the problem with Hindus is there is no proper Guru to guide them. Before reading RM's book BD I too thought all religions are same.

    1. The land which says "Entharo Mahanubavulu Anthariki Vanthanamu" aka "Enlightened souls (in this land) are countless and my salutations to all. Guru need not be a person. Ramana Maharishi says The hillock Thiruvannamalai is his guru. Tamil Poet Vairamuthu's Lyrics "Vaanam enakkoru bodhi maram Naalum enakkoru sethi tharum" aka "Sky is my bodhi tree I get a new wisdom everyday" .

    2. very interesting comment by supersubra.

      my personal pov re this point.
      In Hinduism, I regard the guru as a coach, who is completely different from a prophet of desert religions. Most require human gurus, while some great atmas like Ramana find truth anywhere in the cosmos. The onus is still on the practitioner/devotee/bhakta to constantly meditate and strive (adhyatma-vidya) to reach higher levels of consciousness that allow him/her to infer deep truths from cosmic guidance. Merely sitting under the tree or sky and praying using senses even for 100 years is futile. Regardless of whether the Guru is human or not, dharmic systems follow a bottom-up approach, and not top-down like Abrahamic religions, where you just download some text, blindly believe, & memorize.

    3. Even though I understand what Supersubra says I agree with Integral Unity. Guru shows the path of moksha/enlightment based on the disciple's level of sadhana. It is also famously said "When the student is ready the master appears" to mean that to a true sadhaka a guru shall always shows the path based on where he currently is on the path of enlightenment. Buddha once held a stalk of grass and among thousands of his disciples gathered only few understand what that meant. The same Buddha remained silent when a cowherd asked him profound questions on life.

      Ramana Maharishi was an atma-gyani. He realized all that needs to be realized, he sat in samAdhi motionless in a corner of a temple when scorpions and other insects were biting him, to him he could see a guru or paramatma in anything and everything. One cannot compare to such great teachers and think that same path of realization and same type of teachers are applicable to oneself. A guru cuts the gyana clothe according to the level of his disciple. So it is not possible for oneself to have a guru that which Ramana Maharishi has considered as guru. In fact for an atma-gyani, he is the guru, he is the disciple and he that. The thus gone one.

  4. You have hit upon an important point. Gurus, in general, do not concern themselves with comparing and evaluating religions. Their work usually consists in showing a path to liberation for all who are genuinely seeking it. That implicitly makes a demand on such aspirants to transcend their previous religious conditioning. The job of differentiating between religions and evaluating them based on their unique characteristics and their respective merits should rightly have fallen to a class of intellectuals. Unfortunately, post-independence, due to Nehru's ideological conditioning from England, the influence of external "friends" like USSR etc., and the general global environment, Leftism invaded India and basically conquered it intellectually. Its primary target was Hinduism. As a result a Hindu intellectual class, which should have emerged from the Independence movement, essentially a Hindu struggle for emancipation, not only did not emerge, but what actually did come up was an anti-Hindu, anti-nationalistic enemy class that even today dominates India's intellectual world. Ram Swarup along with Sita Ram Goel were the stray lights in this field, who struggled tremendously against great odds in a steeply uphill battle. Rajiv Malhotra has initiated a new wave of this Hindu intellectual freedom struggle. Arun Shourie too fits in between the two somewhere. But what has to arise is a whole CLASS of HINDU INTELLECTUALS. Secondly their voice has to percolate down to the masses in order to reawaken them, organize them and mobilize them into a Hindu force. Until that happens Hindus will remain mental slaves to the general falsehood. Perhaps the emergence of the "Internet Hindu", whom anti-nationalists in the Indian media view with such disdain and trepidation, is the sign of the emergence of such a class and its ability to free Hindus from mental slavery. In fact, this very blog can be seen as a front-line standard-bearer in this war.

    1. Rajiv Malhotra has advice for Indian gurus as well. It is called "Purva Paksha"

  5. very well written sir! As Rajivji mentioned, it should be every one's, who are passionate to save dharma from "digestion", responsibility to do this 'purva paksha'. We need more people like you sir!

  6. thanks for your kind words. It is not that every westerner is against Hinduism. However, it also not true that every Westerner who superficially praises Hinduism is serving dharma.

    1. That is very true. I hope someday we will be in a position not flipping over for every 'kind word from a westerner'.
      At this time any good word from an ordinary westerner gains Headlines whereas even the best statements from our best
      leaders get ignored by the western media or the population in general. But it appears the damage is done and the next generation of Indians do not even understand what Hinduism is as they are growing up in an environment where everything western is right.
      And missionary schools are playing a huge role in brainwashing the kids that everything Hindu is wrong. The very fact that parents send their kids to such school and not even complain a bit about religious enforcement in these missionary schools is very annoying. These missionary schools intentionally eliminate teaching native languages and no one complains. Parents feel proud that their kids are learning French, German etc. I guess at this rate it is a matter of two generations that Hinduism will be reduced to a small group of people in India and Abroad.

  7. I am surprised that someone as learned as you did not know who Huston Smith is. His book Religions of the World (formerly Religions of Man) is a popular introduction to world religions and is often prescribed in course syllabi.

    Huston Smith has taught at many universities. When he taught at Washington University in St. Louis in the 1950s, he purchased a house so that the Vedanta Society could have a dedicated building.

    1. Easy. Bcos my background and day job is in mathematical sciences and engineering. :)

  8. Digestion is not of the most dangerous, insidious attacks on any unsuspecting civilization. The Russians were taken in by this when Christianity arrived there. Korea converted from pre-dominant Buddhism to Christianity in the space of 40 years. All Hindus must be made acutely aware of digestion and the unique features of Hinduism.

    Here is a link that shows what happened there.

  9. Well Written, docsubra! Meticulous work.

  10. Digestion is dangerous. It is unethical and plain insidious. We have to be wary of it and not celebrate or aid it. I will provide two references from our Dharma, which characterizes correctly digesters and how to deal with them:

    Lord Sri Krishna has said in Srimad Bhagavad Gita, those who appropriate the benefits (phala) of Yagna (work/research/project) without properly acknowledging (propitiating) the respective devatas will be considered a thief; whatever he partakes entails sin (papa) from such efforts.

    I understand why Drona Archarya demanded the right hand thumb from Ekalavya. I wonder what censure modern digesters will have to face so they cannot benefit from what they steal without rightful attribution? IMHO, punishment meted out by Drona Archarya is exemplary and just.