American Hinduism - celebrating Thoreau Day

Today at the Ashram we celebrate American Hinduism by honoring the early American philosopher, Thoreau.  He became the first to translate the teachings of the Buddha Gotama to English, and introduced the Bhagavad Gita to America.

Hinduism, because it is non-theistic, is as much a cultural practice as it is a spiritual one: wherever it has spread, the practice has varied slightly, upon the cultural traditions of that place.

What culture could be practiced here in America, where at the time of Thoreau (even more than today) our pluralist and young society had no custom, nothing which spanned beyond what could be remembered - to the immemorial? The conundrum puzzled him, for a while.  "'Immemorial custom is transcendent law,' says Manu. That is, it was the custom of the gods before men used it. The fault of our New England custom is that it is memorial. What is morality but immemorial custom? Conscience is the chief of conservatives. 'Perform the settled functions,' says Kreeshna in the Bhagvat Geeta, 'action is preferable to inaction. The journey of thy mortal frame may not succeed from inaction.'—'A man’s own calling with all its faults, ought not to be forsaken. Every undertaking is involved in its faults as the fire in its smoke.'—'The man who is acquainted with the whole, should not drive those from their works who are slow of comprehension, and less experienced than himself.'—'Wherefore, O Arjoon, resolve to fight,'—is the advice of the God to the irresolute soldier who fears to slay his best friends. It is a sublime conservatism; as wide as the world, and as unwearied as time; preserving the universe with Asiatic anxiety, in that state in which it appeared to their minds."

During his Vanaprastha at Walden Pond, he contemplated how New England ice was sold and transported to India. "Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well. In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down my book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges."

He saw here, on the far side of the world, theology was new enough that it might be utterly abandoned in Vedasamnyasa. Here, where there were yet no places sacred enough for pilgrimage, all the land was equally sacred, and even common people might easily accomplish Tirtha.  Here, where there were no ancestral gods, a person could adopt a personal god, and the gods might take new forms.

American Hinduism by subtle degrees of such absolute freedom was drawn to seek grounding, an authentic understanding, and studying Hinduism in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Japan, China, and elsewhere around the world was able to piece the veil of culture and spirituality.  American Hinduism practices a most profound Bhakti Yoga: seeking for Brahma in Brahmacharya, only to discover the shortcomings of gurus and respected authorities- surpassing these gurus and respected authorities. The ancient words here are read in our native language, presented, clearly for the first time, without any lens of culture or spirituality - thanks to Thoreau, and others like him.

Thoreau, in quoting the Buddha, could not have better expressed the hope and purpose of this American Brahmacharya, "What I have said is the supreme truth; may my auditors arrive at complete annihilation; may they follow the excellent way, which conducts to the state of Buddha; may all the auditors, who hear me, become Buddhas."

What is American Hinduism? After hundreds of years, it continues to seek, continues to evolve, and develop - without end, without developing culture or spirituality. Here, the profusion of American-style athletic yoga studios preach atheism, practicing Vedasamnyasa; with industrial ambition, the Path has been standardized and the sacred weapons and flags mass-produced for common daily use; here the devotees of Saraswati have learned the subtle Shastras of Commercialism and Capitalism, the sacrifice of the gods earned by a suitably devout profit margin. No stone or bronze or gold statues here - molds are injected with plastic by the thousands; a land of cheap plastic gods, cheap plastic gurus, flexible, unbreakable, eternal, and easily disposed of. And there are still greater wonders than these: here, some, reaching enlightenment, have even laid down even the pretense of authenticity, discarding any claim of lineage to take hold of the democratic ideals of an equally accessible Dharma.

Here, in America, the Dharma is not transmitted - but yet lays on the surface, ready for any to pick it up and claim for their own. We have become a land of hundreds of millions of personal gods, though less ancient, certainly as sacred as any other in the world.

Thoreau's Krishna has spoken to each individual American, subtly shaping our destiny, present at every moment of ethical crisis and triumph.  It was there at our ethical crisis on the White Sands of New Mexico, urging the hindu Lt. Colonel J Robert Oppenheimer to not fear his duty to destroy his nation's enemies (he eloquently expressed the philosophy of American Hinduism, that it is the personal access to the teachings and teachers which matters, when he said “access to the Vedas is the greatest privilege this century may claim over all previous centuries.”)  It was there when, in compassion for the animals and nature itself, we conserved our resources for their own sake.  In our songs, in our language, in our very being, Thoreau's seed bears fruit today as an expression of our cultureless culture itself: our desire to be free, not only politically, but free from distress; our selfless defense of the weak and friends; our urgency of living.