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Thursday, March 30, 2023

Hindu Dharma and New Thought Movement in the US

Hindu bashing in the US has been going on for over a century. Katherine Mayo’s infamous book Mother India (1927) comes to mind.  Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus:  An Alternative History (2010) adds to the anti-Hindu tirade.  Leading newspapers in the US such as the NY Times and Washington Post generally portray a negative image of Bharat and Hindu Dharma.

Simultaneously, however, Hindu teachings and practices continue to impact a growing percentage of the American public. Tens of millions meditate and practice yoga; 25 million practice vegetarianism; about a quarter believe in reincarnation and some 40 percent choose cremation over burial.

“New Thought” or New Age is a growing spiritual movement in the US. New Thought derives many of its teachings from Hindu Dharma and Vedanta.  My article will explore this link.

American interest in Bharat’s spirituality can be traced back to the Transcendentalist Movement of the middle of the 19th century. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) were the leaders of the Movement. Others included Phineas Quimby, Margaret Fuller, Palmer Peabody, James Freeman Clark, Mary Baker Eddy, and Charles and Myrtle Fillmore. Madam Helena Blavatsky and Annie Besant founded the Theosophical Society in Madras, Bharat.  It attracted many followers in the West.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote,

“In all nations there are minds which incline to dwell in the conception of the fundamental unity. This tendency finds its highest expression in the religious writings of the East, and chiefly in the Indian Scriptures, in the Vedas, the Bhagavat Gita, and the Vishnu Purana. . . . . . .

I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavat-Gita.  It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke 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.”

The transcendentalists believed that intuition rather than reason is the higher faculty.  A mystical union with the divine is the goal. The process of seeking unity with the divine is inherently individualistic. Contemplative solitude is necessary. Henry David Thoreau lived in a small 10 x 15 foot cabin on the banks of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. He lived ‘deliberately’ in the tradition of ancient Vedic Rishis.  His observations are recorded in a short book, Walden (1854). Thoreau wrote:

“In the morning I bathe my Intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.”

Swami Vivekananda’s lecture at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 gained immense popularity and is of singular importance. He established Ramakrishna Centers in several large American cities and attracted followers.

Parmahansa Yogananda followed and established the Self Realization Fellowship in 1920. Yogananda’s popular Autobiography of a Yogi has sold over a million copies. More recent religious entrants include: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swami Muktananda, Swami Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada, Swami Rama, Vishnu Devananda, Sacchidananda, Chinmayananda, Dayananda, and Kripalvananda. Deepak Chopra is a popular new age writer and speaker.  Sri Aurobindo‘s philosophy of “integral yoga” is taught at several American yoga centers, including one in Pensacola, Fl, where I reside.

New Thought promotes the idea that “Infinite Intelligence” is ubiquitous, present everywhere. Its truth statements may be summarized here:

  • spirit is the totality of real things
  • true human selfhood is divine, rather than sinful
  • divine thought is a force for good,
  • sickness originates in the mind, and positive thinking has a healing effect

Major New Thought denominations include:  Unity Church, Religious Science, Center for Spiritual Living, and the Church of Divine Science.  Smaller denominations and study groups under a variety of names also exist. For a list of centers, check: http://findacenter.com/new-thought-usa.htm

My Participation in New Thought

Over the past 20 years, I have attended off and on Sunday services of the Unity Church of Christianity in Florida. I also served on its Board of Directors. The following truth principles describe Unity Church at Pensacola:

  • Unity emphasizes the divine potential in man, rather than the “sinfulness of man.”
  • Unity embraces non-dualism. At every Sunday service, members recite:  “There is only one power and one presence in the Universe and in my life, God.”  This statement is similar to Isha Upanishad opening line: “Isha vasyam idam sarvam” — All this is for the habitation of the Lord. 
  • Unity de-emphasizes traditional Christianity’s emphasis on dualism: God versus Satan.
  • Unity teaches that Jesus was a great Teacher, a way-shower, an example-setter, not the only begotten Son of God.
  • Belief in Karma and re-incarnation is held among many members.
  • Emphasis is placed on self-discovery rather than on being “saved.”
  • Meditation and mindfulness are incorporated in Sunday services.
  • The Pensacola Unity Minister Rev Jamie Sanders signs his monthly newsletter withNamaskar.”

The source of Unity teachings in Hindu Dharma is not acknowledged or is not well-known. Unity was founded by Charles and Myrtle Fillmore in the 19th century.

New Thought’s non-acknowledgement of Hindu sources may represent a case of digestion.  Digestion occurs when writers ignore the original source and pass the ideas as their own.  See Rajiv Malhotra’s Being Different (2011) and Indra’s Net (2014).

The lectures I have delivered at various venues on Hindu Dharma have been well received. Many New Thought members are closet Hindus. Many practice yoga and chant Sanskrit mantras; some actively participate in Kirtans, in the congregational singing of Hindu hymns or bhajans. Krishna Dass, Jai Uttal and Gaura Vani draw crowds. I found that some Americans have adopted Sanskrit email user names, such as shakti, shanti, taruni, kamala, radhe, devdasi, and so on. Women are more likely to take Hindu names than men.

Ekhart Tolle is a popular New Thought teacher. His two best-selling books are: The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment (2004), and, A New Earth:  Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (2008). Eckhart Tolle derives his message from Vedanta and Zen, although he is miserly in fully acknowledging it.  His 2008 TV conversations with Oprah Winfrey attracted some 9 to 11 million viewers worldwide. This is a remarkable number.

New Thought members have been weaned from traditional Christian teachings.  Being “saved” from original sin is not a preoccupation with them.  Jesus is held-up as a great Teacher, and not worshiped as a Savior.

The world is experiencing a flux or change in matters of religion. The Islamic world is being radicalized. Europe is largely de-Christianized.  New Thought spirituality is on the rise, as described here.

Hindu leaders decry that their religion is being misunderstood or is being hijacked. They decry that Hindu teachings are appropriated without due acknowledgement. But Hindus are absent at the table. Bharatiyas are visible in their absence.

I conclude with the words of Sri Aurobindo written a century ago in New Lamps for Old:

“Our actual enemy is not any force exterior to ourselves, but our own crying weaknesses, our cowardice, our selfishness, our hypocrisy, our purblind sentimentalism.”

Om tat sat.

-Dr. Madan Lal Goel
(Professor Emeritus of Political Science
Director of International Studies
The University of West Florida, uwf.edu/lgoel)

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  1. Excerpts from Chapter 5, “New Thought and New Age,” of C. Alan Anderson and Deborah G. Whitehouse, New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality
    Similarities Between New Age and New Thought

    New Thought and New Age both believe in a direct relationship with the Ultimate, however conceived. Neither movement favors hierarchical organizations, and both groups treat women and men as partners, with many women in leadership roles. Many people in both groups believe in reincarnation, because they feel that we can’t learn all we need to learn in one lifetime.

    New Age, like New Thought, is strongly optimistic, largely because most people in both groups believe in a good God, and that all people are part of God or have at least a spark of the divine. New Agers are full of hope for the transformation of society and the planet. New Thought accepts, as does New Age, the old Hermetic teaching, “As above, so below,” which appears in an early version of the Lord’s Prayer as “As in heaven, so on earth” (Luke 11:2).

  2. Just FYI, New Thought and New Age are two completely different things, completely different philosophies. Probably should get a better understanding of them before writing about them. Some of the information is right on in this article, but it is hard to take it seriously when there isn’t an understanding of how very different New Thought and New Age are.


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