Countering the West’s bias about Sanatana Dharma
When Shivani Desai invited me to speak here in Chapel Hill, she explained that the objective of today’s gathering was to “Create awareness about Hindu culture and heritage…” and to “Motivate the students to preserve …[their] Hindu Dharma.”
This is a topic that, like a clear bell, rings in my heart and soul. In many ways my life is dedicated to nurturing the seeds of Dharma in the soil or the soul of the West. However, we must remember that the Dharma has been coming to the West for millennia. It shouldn’t surprise you to know that many of the basic building blocks of Western civilization originated in the Indian Subcontinent.
Certainly, there are many stereotypes that Americans have about Hinduism, misconceptions that must be dispelled… Unfortunately, there does seem to be a ubiquitous bias against Hinduism in American textbooks. You may have encountered some of these stereotyped misunderstandings while living in a culture that knows very little about Indic traditions. For several years I have been working with publishers and school districts trying to ameliorate the problems.
Today however, I would like to discuss a more intimate understanding of Hinduism. The topic suggested by Shivani, about the preservation and flowering of Dharma, is inspiring because it represents a revolution, an idea whose time has come.
The predictions of the sages have come to pass –the Dharma is spreading around the world. Importantly, modern scientific jargon is quickly catching up with India’s wisdom. Scientists are taking a serious look at ancient Indian texts and theories. This is an exciting time for the Dharma!
Shivani also sent me a link to a speech by Swami Vivekananda who, in his short life, repeatedly met with young people and encouraged them, in fact, cajoled them to help spread the Dharma across the world. Vivekananda explained that, Hinduism gave rise to
“Inquiries into the nature of man and into the internal world… [into] the doctrines of the immortality of the soul, [and] the existence of… an immanent God in nature and in man, and [to] the highest ideals of religion and philosophy…”
Visualizing the Dharma’s influence on world civilization, Vivekananda, refers to India as
“the land from whence, like tidal waves, spirituality and philosophy have again and again rushed out and deluged the world … the land, from whence, once more, such tides must proceed, in order to bring life and vigour into the … race… of mankind.”
As young Hindus living in America, you have the auspicious opportunity to be part of a spiritual revolution, whether you want to or not, it is happening. Dharmic concepts have been floating around in the West for centuries, planting themselves in the intellectual and cultural American milieu… often using different names, though the ideas are imminently transferable.
One amazing place, that you would never think of as embodying the Dharma are A.A. meetings-that’s Alcoholics Anonymous. The 12 Steps of A.A. are not the restrictive approach of the Ten Commandments, but more like the Eight-fold Noble Path or the Gita’s path of service –A.A. meetings are a lot like Satsang. If you ever have a friend with an addiction problem, A.A. meetings are based on Dharma and they have helped millions of people. Dharma is found in unexpected places… manifestations of unconditional love and service crop up all around us.
Some words, such as Karma, are recognizable by the majority of Americans. Other Sanskrit based terms, such as Dharma, which are absolutely integral to basic ideas of Indic thought, are relatively unknown to most Americans.
In a survey I conducted a few years ago, I asked numerous college-educated (non Asian) Americans to define the word “Karma”. The general meaning was commonly known. They gave definitive answers such as ‘you reap what you sow,’ or ‘the law of just returns’. Several people explained, “It’s like the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The concept of “Karma” is familiar in the West. The Beatles and other musicians have used the word Karma in Rock songs and it appears regularly in magazine and newspaper articles.
However, when asked to define the word, “Dharma” the answers were much more tentative. Americans were far less sure of the meaning of “Dharma”. Some people had heard the word, but hesitated to define it. Several asked, “Isn’t it sort of like Karma?” A few people mentioned that they were familiar with the word from the television sitcom “Dharma and Greg”. Several people thought that Dharma meant ‘religion’. However, one person got closer to the essence and defined Dharma as the ‘spiritual path’. In general there was a lot of confusion regarding the meaning of the word “Dharma”.
So, I ask again: Is the Dharma coming to the West? And why is that important?
There is a well-known Tibetan prophesy attributed to the famous Indian sage, Padmasambhava, who said, “When the iron bird flies, the Dharma will go West to the land of the red man.” Padmasambhava was part of the vibrant Indian intellectual scene in the 8th century of the Common Era. Born in the Swat Valley in the Karakoram mountain range, he became a great teacher and spread Vajrayana Buddhism to Ladakh. Before going to Tibet in the 8th century, where he is venerated as Guru Rimpoche, Padmasambhava taught at Nalanda University in Bihar. Nalanda is one of the world’s oldest international universities.
Here we are at the University of North Carolina, the oldest public university in United States of America. UNC was chartered in 1789 the same year that the American constitution was ratified. That’s 219 years ago. Nalanda University is 1400 years older than University of North Carolina. Nalanda maybe the oldest university in the world, founded in the year 425 (AD).
Nalanda was one of the world’s first residential universities, with dormitories that accommodated 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers. The university was an architectural masterpiece. There were eight large compounds and ten temples, along with numerous meditation halls and classrooms. On the grounds were lakes and parks. The library was in a nine-storied building where ‘meticulous copies of texts were produced’ for centuries.
The subjects taught at Nalanda University covered every field of learning, and it attracted pupils and scholars from Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia, and Turkey. A Chinese pilgrim wrote a book that left detailed accounts of the university in the 7th century. In 1193, Nalanda University was destroyed by Bakhtiyar Khilji. Before his vast army arrived, the monks at Nalanda loaded up thousands of ox carts with books and manuscripts and sent them to the Himalayas for safe keeping. It is said that the wagon train of sacred literature stretched for miles as it headed to safety in the mountains.
Long before Oxford/Cambridge, Harvard/Yale, or UNC, Nalanda was acclaimed as the greatest university in the world. It trained students in fine arts, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, politics, and languages. The curriculum included the entire range of world knowledge then available.
“Courses were drawn from every field of learning, Buddhist and Hindu, sacred and secular, foreign and native. Students studied science, astronomy, medicine, and logic as diligently as they applied themselves to metaphysics, philosophy, Samkhya, Yoga-shastra, the Vedas, and the scriptures of Buddhism. They also studied foreign philosophies.”
So what exactly is Dharma? And why do we want it to be established in the West?
Definitions of Dharma defy simplistic translations. It is commonly referred to as “Natural Law”, “right way of living”, “Divine Law”, “fundamental teachings”, or the “Path of Righteousness”. Importantly, while living responsibly in the material world, Dharma is usually internalized as “duty”. Dharma is a personal practice based on experience, rational examination, reason, and responsibility. Simply speaking, the word Dharma can be translated as the “Fundamental Principles of Justice and Righteousness”.
Additionally, besides the concepts of duty and responsibility or natural law, Dharma also gives the rationale for the relationship between the body and mind, between the individual and the Universal, between microcosm and macrocosm.
The Sanskrit term Dharma signifies the underlying order of the universe. It is based on the root ‘Dhr’, which means “to hold firm” or “that which upholds or supports”. On a personal level, Dharma is moral conscience combined with spiritual consciousness that guides one’s life. The same applies to societies. Literally, it is the organizational principle that makes possible the cosmos and the harmonious complexities of the natural world.
Wow! Now that is a powerful understanding of Dharma! I would certainly work and pray for Dharma to guide my family and my culture.
Thousands of years ago, Dharmic knowledge arose in the Indian Subcontinent and for centuries Indic ideas have influenced the world’s civilizations. Globalization has happened many times before, in both directions-ideas moving repeatedly from the East on down to the West.
Numerous lasting contributions to western civilization have come from India, notably, the decimal system. Albert Einstein said, “The Indians… taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made.”
Many of the things that we consider to be distinctly American, actually originated in India. When the British first came to India in the sixteenth century, they were not accustomed to the daily rituals of personal hygiene. Europeans during that period rarely took baths, hence their need for perfumes from India. European belief held that bathing weakened the body, inviting bad “humors”. However, in India a morning bath is an integral part of a Hindu’s day.
During the period of “the Raj” British colonists brought this cleanliness habit to the West, which was initially called a craze. They also brought the word ‘shampoo’, meaning something you rub or press into your hair. The word shampoo is borrowed directly from Hindi into English, taken from chhaapnaa, to press, or massage. . . “Chhaapuu?” “Shall I press?” The idea that “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” which inspired a Christian revivalist movement in early nineteenth century USA, grew out of the revolution in bathing rituals that the Europeans learned from their contact with Hindus.
One of India’s lasting contributions to Western life was the export of a thick cotton cloth known as “Dungaree” which, in the sixteenth century was sold near the Dongarii Fort in Bombay. Portuguese and Genoan sailors used this durable blue broad cloth, dyed with indigo, for their bellbottom sailing pants. Though perhaps not as profound an impact as the concept of zero, blue jeans, originating in India, were widely adopted by farmers, cowboys, working-class men, teen-agers, suburban moms; almost everyone in the West has at least one pair of blue jeans. They are the hallmark of American fashion … in vogue across the globe…. and Dungaree, the blue cloth from which jeans are made, originated in India!
Goods were being traded from the Indian Subcontinent to Mesopotamia and Sumeria, and Bahrain 5000 years ago. These included luxury items such as teak and sandalwood, cotton, sesame oil, etched carnelian beads, lapis lazuli, precious and semi-precious stones, and bronze ware. Interestingly DNA testing has shown that cotton used for wrapping a mummy in an Egyptian pyramid, that was dated 2400 BCE, was grown in the Indus Valley. There are cuneiform records indicating that even peacocks were exported to the Fertile Crescent thousands of years ago.
As you well know, the New World was found because of the European desire for Indian products. Most of the silver mined in Mexico during the 17th and 18th centuries, ended up in India. More than two thousand years ago, the Roman Senate passed a law, forbidding senators from wearing togas made from Indian cloth—an official Roman ordinance attempting to halt the flow of gold coins pouring into India from the treasury of Rome.
India has interacted with the West for millennia. There is evidence of Buddhist influence in Palestine and in Greece during the two centuries prior to the birth of Christ. In India, around 270 B.C.E. the emperor Ashoka Maurya ascended the throne, and after his conversation to Buddhism, he sent missionaries around the world to preach the word of the Lord Buddha. There are records, left by Ashoka, that indicate that “his missions were favorably received” in countries to the West. There are also records from Alexandria that indicate a steady stream of Buddhist monks and philosophers resided in that area, which was at the crossroads of commerce and ideas. These Buddhist missionaries influenced the philosophical currents of the day.
There are strong similarities between Buddhist monastic teachings and the Essenes, a Jewish ascetic sect, that was part of the spiritual environment of Palestine at the time of Christ’s birth. The Essenes were a monastic order that did not marry. They lived in the desert and were very simple in their life styles. They did not believe in animal sacrifice and were vegetarians. They believed in the pre-existence of the soul, and in angels as divine intermediaries or messengers from God. They were famous for their powers of endurance, simple piety, and brotherly love. They were interested in magical arts and the occult sciences.
John the Baptist was an Essene. His time of preparation was spent in the wilderness near the Dead Sea. Jesus was greatly influenced by his stay with John the Baptist. Many of the basic tenets found in the teachings of Jesus can be traced back to the ideas flourishing among groups such as the Essenes. It is speculated that the Essenes were influenced through several centuries of dialogue with Buddhist monks who traveled through Palestine.
Before and after the era of Christ, there were Buddhist missionaries who visited Greece, Egypt, and other countries in the Mediterranean area. One such visit is documented in 20 B.C. in Athens. In this account an ambassador from India was accompanied by a Buddhist philosopher who immolated, or burned himself up…(Perhaps to prove some point of impermanence?). His tomb became a famous tourist attraction and is mentioned by several historians. It has been argued that in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he alludes to this well-known event when he writes, “though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profits me nothing.” So, you can see that even Christianity, the bedrock of Western civilization, was profoundly influenced by interactions with the Dharma.
Earlier I mentioned that scientific jargon is catching up with India’s ancient wisdom. Archeology, computerized astronomy models, and technical procedures such as DNA testing are changing the way we understand early history. The discovery of the Indus Valley site, at Mehergarh in Balochistan has reframed the origins of the agricultural revolution. Mehergarh pre-dates the civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The site was occupied in 8,000 B.C.E. It is the earliest Neolithic site where there is evidence of the domestication of animals and cultivation of cereal. Evidence of fabric designs called “ajraks” that are still produced in modern Sindh, were unearthed from far-flung ancient Indus Valley sites.
There are many modern scholars who have weighed the evidence and think that there never was an Aryan Invasion or migration from Central Asia. If this is true, the textbooks will have to be rewritten. The archeological work of Professor B.B. Lal has shown that the artifacts found in the cities of the Indus Valley are in some cases, identical to items described in the Vedas. His work, in books like “The Sarasvati Flows On…” point out the continuity of culture.
In this context, the discovery of the Saraswati River is of great significance. For centuries most Hindus thought that the Saraswati River was a mythical river. The Yamuna and Ganga meet in Prayag, but the Saraswati flowed underground. However, in the last century aerial photography and other indications such as glacial sediments prove that the Saraswati River, which once ran from the Himalayas to the ocean, dried up in 1900 B.C.E. Geological events can be dated…. and since the authors of the Rig Veda tell us that it was written on the banks of the Saraswati, this discovery will significantly impact the presumptive date at which the Rig Veda was written.
Even more significant than this current transformation in our understanding of India’s historical contributions to world culture and progress, is the potential impact of India’s philosophies—the Dharma. Though people may be attracted to certain forms and rituals, ultimately, there is no dogma in the Dharma.
Within Hinduism, there is a spirit of fearless inquiry. Hinduism is the only religion I know of that asks you to question its authority. This can be seen in the Hymn of Creation found in the Rig-Veda, the seminal, original work of Hinduism. In this hymn the omnipotence of God is questioned.
Much like the version of creation described in the Biblical book, Genesis, the Hindu Hymn if Creation describes the origins of the universe with the separating the light and the dark and the ferments, etc. But then the Hindu version asks, “Who really knows whence the universe has arisen?” The poet speculates that “perhaps the universe formed itself, or perhaps it did not.” He then presumes that “only God in the highest heaven knows how the universe came into being”. Then he concludes the hymn with the ultimate exercise in doubt, when he contemplates, “perhaps even God does not know”. The Rig-Veda presents this query and encourages humans to experience truth for themselves and to question reality.
The record of human accomplishment arising from India is profound. Aryabhatta was born in Kerala in the 5th century A.D. When he was a youth, he went to the University of Nalanda to study astronomy. Aryabhatta explained the Heliocentric theory of gravitation- predating Copernicus by almost a thousand years.
You may know that the number 108 is considered auspicious in India. Most people have no idea why 108 is such an important number… gurus and teachers may tell you that an ancient Rishi must have passed that number down to us. But, it is not a coincidence that the distance between the earth and the sun is approximately 108 times the sun’s diameter. And the diameter of the sun is about 108 times the earth’s diameter. And the distance between the earth and the moon is 108 times the moon’s diameter. India’s thinkers loved to quantify and speculate. They had even figured out pi.
Vivekananda’s arrival in the USA is seen as stimulating western interest in Hinduism not as merely an exotic eastern oddity, but as a vital religious and philosophical tradition that actually has something important to teach the West. Vivekananda introduced yoga and Vedanta to the West. He started Vedantic centers in New York City and London. He lectured at major universities and generally kindled western interest in Hinduism.
The great electrical scientist, Nikola Tesla, after listening to Vivekananda’s speech on Sankhya Philosophy, became interested in its cosmogony. He acknowledged that vedanta led him to think that mass can be reduced to potential energy mathematically, that matter is a manifestation of energy. After attending a lecture by Vivekananda, Tesla concluded that, modern science can look for the solution of cosmological problems in Vedic philosophy.
Unlike some of our modern traditions, Hinduism is very open-minded. The cornerstone of Indian philosophy is a tradition of respect for multiple views. Indian philosophy has a broad range or outlooks testifying to its ‘unflinching devotion to the search for truth’. A scholar wrote that “Though there were many different schools and their views differed sometimes vary widely, yet each school took care to learn the views of all the others and did not come to any conclusions before considering thoroughly what others had to say and how their points could be met….” He added that “If the openness of mind — the willingness to listen to what others have to say — has been one of the chief causes of the wealth and greatness of Indian philosophy in the past, it has a definite moral for the future.”
So… considering all that, I ask again: Has the Dharma come to the West? If it has, then, how do I recognize the Dharma flowering around me? How can I facilitate the growth of the seeds of Dharma in America?
When I look around this nation, I see a great need for Dharmic principles. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. The United States has only 5% of the world’s population but we have 25% of the world’s incarcerated prisoners. In 2008, more than 1 out of every 100 American adults are in jail. The People’s Republic of China has the second largest number of citizens incarcerated, with 1.5 million, less than the USA, even though China has over four times the population… and no Bill of Rights.
I look around and I see that 25% of the American people are taking some kind of anti-depressant medication—that’s prescription drugs. They’re legal. Not to mention problems with illegal drugs in the city streets and suburbs. In this country, there is a huge chunk of the population that has their minds and hearts shut… steeped in ignorance. In fact, recently a questionnaire was administered to test Americans’ knowledge of history and current events. There is a huge gap between reality and what many citizens believe in this country. Alarmingly in 2007, 41% of Americans still think Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq was directly involved in the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. Hopefully, a little Dharma can help shed some light on the path.
Before Vivekananda arrived in America, the Dharma had come to the West in the form of the New England Transcendentalists, such as Thoreau and Emerson, who where directly influenced by the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.
Thoreau wrote about the Bhagavad Gita’s immense influence in his life,
“In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous … philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, in comparison with which, our modern world and its literature, seem puny and trivial”.
Emerson said of the Bhagavad-Gita that,
“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.”
Building upon these 19th Century foundations, an influx of Hindu-inspired spiritual traditions transformed the thinking of many Americans. Since 1965, when immigration laws changed, numerous esteemed Hindu gurus began traveling in America on lecture tours, including Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Bhaktivedanta Swami, Swami Rama, Swami Muktananda, Swami Satchidananda, and now continuing that tradition, teachers such as Ammachi are very popular. They have set up ashrams in the West. Many Hindu religious traditions have found eager adherents in America, including schools of Vedanta, Tantra, and Bhakti.
These Dharmic ideas bring with them a belief in the “interdependence of all life, non-violence, concern for the Earth’s environment, and tolerance for diverse viewpoints.” Many Americans personally believe in reincarnation and karma. Millions of Americans practice yoga and meditation.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation movement, was one of the most important proponents of meditation in the U.S. Other forms of meditation introduced from India include mantra-meditation, breathing meditation-pranayama, visualization, Vipasssana meditation and mindfulness, kriya yoga, hatha yoga, and karma yoga. As a result of this influx of yogic techniques, the practice of meditation has become an integral part of the American landscape. Corporate executive take classes in meditation, athletes learn to meditate in the gym.
The wisdom of the Dharmic traditions from ancient Indic sources, brought to human civilization the foundational underpinnings of science and the scientific method through the recognition of the value of zero and the concept of interminably infinite measurements of time and space- “crores of kalpas”.
In his book ‘Cosmos’, Carl Sagan wrote,
“The Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond, to those of the modern scientific cosmology. Its cycles run from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma, 8.64 billion years long. Longer than the age of the earth or the Sun and about half the time since the Big Bang. And there are much larger time scales still.”
Equally as important as laying out the basic mathematical understanding of the universe, Vedic research into the mind, into human psychology, has provided humankind with the tools of meditation, which are based on ancient research of the mind. Through the use of these tools, devised in ancient India, ordinary people can transform themselves psychologically, letting go of personal desire, and transcending problems such as fear, or attachment, or sorrow. Meditation not only allows for spiritual and moral development, but it has been shown to reduce stress and enhance health.
The effects of meditation on the brain have been amply demonstrated through the use of brain-scanning technology. Meditation has been shown to directly affect both the function and structure of the brain. Regular meditation can change the brain in ways that appear to increase attention span, sharpen focus, and improve memory. One recent study found evidence that the daily practice of meditation can thicken the parts of the brain’s cerebral cortex responsible for decision-making, attention and memory. This is the part of the brain that thins out if you get Alzheimer’s.
People have studied the connections between meditation and brain physiology for years. Only recently has research been rigorously performed, especially since the discovery that new cells can, in fact, grow in the adult hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with learning, memory and emotion. It had long been thought that cell growth stopped in the adult brain.
Swami Vivekananda gave a talk about mantra: “OM: WORD AND WISDOM”…. where he discussed the meaning of mantras and methods of meditation. He stated that “knowledge of the microcosm must lead to the knowledge of the macrocosm.” In this talk Vivekananda mentions the “Antahkarana,” which is as a part of the individual’s spiritual anatomy. It is the connection between the physical brain and the Higher Self.
It is this connection that must develop if we are to grow spiritually. The antahkarana is a ‘bridge’ or ‘line of communication’ that is gradually constructed within a spiritual being. The bridge enables us to influence our ‘physical’ manifestation (and environment) in a spiritually, consciously, and intelligently purposeful way. Meditation constructs that psychic bridge.
Many of the skills learned in meditation can be applied during our daily lives. Meditate when:
* waiting in line
* doing the dishes
* feeling the wind
* waiting at a red light
Take a two-minute breathing break several times during the day.
I would like to end this talk with a few famous quotes of inspiration:
Arnold Toynbee, the British Historian said: “It is already becoming clear that a chapter which had a Western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in the self-destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in history, the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way.
Mark Twain, the famous American author said: “India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grandmother of tradition. Our most valuable and most astrictive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only!”
I’ll end here with three short quotes from Will Durant, an American historian said: “It is true that even across the Himalayan barrier India has sent to the west, such gifts as grammar and logic, philosophy and fables, hypnotism and chess, and above all numerals and the decimal system.”
“India will teach us the tolerance and gentleness of mature mind, understanding spirit and a unifying, pacifying love for all human beings.”
In his book, “The Story of Civilization'” Will Durant wrote,
“India is the motherland of our race and Sanskrit is the mother of Indo-European languages. She is the mother of our philosophy, of our mathematics, mother of ideals embodied in Christianity and mother of our democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all.”
You may wonder how I became a Hindu. I was one of those travelers who went to India in my youth and it changed my life. Now, let us work together to let the Dharma ring out across this land.
(Full text of a speech delivered to the Hindu Students Council – UNC, Chapel Hill (April 2008) )