HINDUISM'S INFLUENCE ON AMERICAN CULTURE
Hinduism is believed to have immigrated to America around the late 1800’s. Its influence on America and American culture and its peoples has been pervasive and varied. It was first introduced to mostly Christian America at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair at The Parliament of the World’s Religions by Swami Vivekananda (Guthrie 2). Since that time his descendants have grown so as to include indigenous Americans as well as many new arrivals from all over the world. Hinduism has impacted American culture in the areas of religion, literature, music, and philosophy, and most importantly, in the minds and souls of its American converts. And, in turn, America has also had a profound impact on Hinduism. Hinduism, also known as Sanatana-Dharma is the dominant religion in India and the third largest religion in the world with a following of about a billion people. The name Hinduism is derived simply from the word India and is not found in any religious texts concerning Hinduism, not even the Bhagavad Gita, which is part of the Mahabharata and is Hinduism’s most sacred writing. It is important to note though, that the word Hinduism is sometimes translated as ‘river’ usually referring to the Indus River which is a reference to the Indus River Valley where Hinduism is believed to have begun. Sanatana-Dharma, on the other hand, has a very specific meaning. Sanatana means that which can’t be destroyed by fire, water, nor air, and is present in all living and non-living things on earth. Literally translated to English, it means Eternal. Dharma means duty or the code of life or the law.
There are four major sects within Hinduism, Saivism, Vaisnavism, Saktism and Smartism. Vaishnavism and Shaivism are primarily monotheistic sects. Each believes there is one supreme God, who is identified as Vishnu in Vaishnavism and Shiva in Shaivism. Worshippers who follow Shaktism pray to the goddess "Devi." She is worshipped most often as the consort of Shiva . And Smartas, a certain category of Brahmin caste, consider the Vedas supreme. The first Hindu temple in America was built in San Francisco in 1906 but Hinduism impacted American culture long before that. As early as 1820, the famous American poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, studied Hindu texts as an undergraduate at Harvard and soon after that he introduced his friend and fellow poet, Henry David Thoreau, to the Rig Veda, the Upanishads, the Laws of Manu, the Bhagavata Purana, and his favorite Indian text, the Bhagavad Gita. Emerson, also known as The American Plato, managed in his lifetime to share his Eastern philosophy with, not just Thoreau, but he went on to influence Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Frederick Douglas and Booker T. Washington, and Fredrich Nietzsche as well as many other prominent authors and their works. Many believe that it was Thoreau’s new-found eastern philosophy that strongly influenced the writing of his book, Walden, which urged that simple living in natural surroundings was man’s ideal state of being. Emerson, on the other hand, through his readings of eastern philosophy and Hinduism, developed a deep affinity for truth and ‘naturalism’ which became evident in his later lectures, books and essays. The Transcendentalist Club, founded by Emerson, lasted less than twenty years, but its footprints have never been erased from American society. According to Goldberg, “Its core perspective, shaped by Vedic precepts, has permeated [American] culture” (43). Because Hinduism is not just a religion but also a way of life, its’ philosophy has influenced many modern-day Americans as well. Goldberg says, Its [Hinduism’s] influence spread slowly and imperceptibly, like a gathering weather system, then surged mightily in the late 1960’s, when a constellation of forces came together-mass communication and ease of travel; social unrest; war and nuclear anxiety; psychedelic drugs; and alienated but idealistic youngsters with the time and money to...
Cited: Goldberg, Philip. American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation: How Indian Spirituality Changed the West. New York: Harmony, 2010. Print.
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Guthrie, S. and C. Woehr. “Hinduism Gains a Foothold in America.” Christianity Today 8 Feb. 1993. Academic OneFile. Wed. 19 June 2014. www.christianitytoday.com
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