Strange Bedfellows, Episode 2: Yogis, Swamis—and Rabbis

[Be sure to read Episode 1 of this series before moving on to this sequel.]

American Evangelical Christians these days get all worked up about what they perceive as spiritual deception in our time that is tending toward an ecumenical movement of all world religions. Which would mean, of course, eventually a “one world religion” headed by an Antichrist figure.

What most seem to not realize is that this is not something “new” at all.

In 1893, the city of Chicago hosted the World Columbian Exposition, an early world’s fair. So many people were coming to Chicago from all over the world that many smaller conferences, called Congresses and Parliaments, were scheduled to take advantage of this unprecedented gathering. … One of these was the World’s Parliament of Religions. The Parliament of Religions was by far the largest of the congresses held in conjunction with the Exposition.

The 1893 Parliament, which ran from September 11 to September 27, had marked the first formal gathering of representatives of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. Today it is recognized as the occasion of the birth of formal interreligious dialogue worldwide. …

The conference did include new religious movements of the time, such as Spiritualism and Christian Science. The latter was represented by its founder Mary Baker Eddy.

The Parliament of Religions opened on 11 September 1893 at the World’s Congress Auxiliary Building which is now The Art Institute of Chicago. On this day Swami Vivekananda gave his first brief address. He represented Hinduism. Though initially nervous, he bowed to Saraswati, the goddess of learning and began his speech with, “Sisters and brothers of America!”. To these words he got a standing ovation from a crowd of seven thousand, which lasted for two minutes.

When silence was restored he began his address. He greeted the youngest of the nations in the name of “the most ancient order of monks in the world, the Vedic order of sannyasins, a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance.” And he quoted two illustrative passages in this relation, from the Bhagavad Gita—”As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take, through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee!” and “Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths that in the end lead to Me.” Despite being a short speech, it voiced the spirit of the Parliament and its sense of universality. [Wikipedia: Parliament of the World’s Religions]

Although some “eastern mystics” had come to American shores earlier in the 1800s, it was this particular “Swami,” Vivekananda, who whipped up a literal “fad” for such “holy men” among a segment of American society.

Swami Vivekananda  (1863-1902)
[From the Wiki article on Vivekananda]

He is considered a key figure in the introduction of Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the “Western” World, mainly in America and Europe and is also credited with raising interfaith awareness, bringing Hinduism to the status of a major world religion during the end of the 19th century CE. …

He is perhaps best known for his inspiring speech which began: “Sisters and Brothers of America,” through which he introduced Hinduism at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893. …

He conducted hundreds of public and private lectures and classes, disseminating Vedanta and Yoga in America, England and Europe. He also established the Vedanta societies in America and England. …

Dr. Barrows, the president of the Parliament said, “India, the Mother of religions was represented by Swami Vivekananda, the Orange-monk who exercised the most wonderful influence over his auditors.” He attracted widespread attention in the press, which dubbed him as the “Cyclonic monk from India”. The New York Critique wrote, “He is an orator by divine right, and his strong, intelligent face in its picturesque setting of yellow and orange was hardly less interesting than those earnest words, and the rich, rhythmical utterance he gave them.” The New York Herald wrote, “Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation.” The American newspapers reported Swami Vivekananda as “the greatest figure in the parliament of religions” and “the most popular and influential man in the parliament”.

Swami V started a veritable invasion of Hindu Swamis, Yogis, and gurus in the coming decades. In fact, a professor of the College of the City of New York published a book titled Hinduism Invades America in 1930. Dr. Wendell Thomas wrote about Swami V, but in particular about a young man who had been born the same year that Swami V had wowed ‘em at the Parliament of Religions, 1893.

Yogi Yogananda had spent his youth seeking “enlightenment,” which he claimed to have found at age 17 at the feet of a famous guru in India:

Yogananda’s seeking after various saints mostly ended when he met his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri, in 1910, at the age of 17. He describes his first meeting with Sri Yukteswar as a rekindling of a relationship that had lasted for many lifetimes:

“We entered a oneness of silence; words seemed the rankest superfluities. Eloquence flowed in soundless chant from heart of master to disciple. With an antenna of irrefragable insight I sensed that my guru knew God, and would lead me to Him. The obscuration of this life disappeared in a fragile dawn of prenatal memories. Dramatic time! Past, present, and future are its cycling scenes. This was not the first sun to find me at these holy feet!” [Wikipedia article, Yogananda]

“Antenna of irrefragable insight” … for some reason, a certain segment of Americans in the Roaring Twenties just ate up this kind of gobbledygook. Here’s what Thomas had to say in his book about his encounter with Yogananda;

I came to Paramahansa Yogananda many years ago, not as a seeker, but as a writer with a sympathetic yet analytic and critical approach. I found in him a rare combination. While steadfast in the ancient principles of his profound faith, he had the gift of generous adaptability, so that he became Christian and American without ceasing to be Hindu and Indian. With his quick wit and great spirit, he was well fitted to promote reconciliation and truth among the religious seekers of the world. He brought peace and joy to multitudes.

Wow … becoming a Christian without ceasing to be a Hindu! That’s quite a trick. He seems to have tricked lots of folks into believing in such possibilities:

In 1920, Yogananda went to the United States aboard the ship City of Sparta, as India’s delegate to an International Congress of Religious Liberals convening in Boston. That same year he founded the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) to disseminate worldwide his teachings on India’s ancient practices and philosophy of Yoga and its tradition of meditation. For the next several years, he lectured and taught on the East coast and in 1924 embarked on a cross-continental speaking tour. Thousands came to his lectures. During this time he attracted a number of celebrity followers, including soprano Amelita Galli-Curci, tenor Vladimir Rosing and Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch, the daughter of Mark Twain. The following year, he established an international center for Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles, California, which became the spiritual and administrative heart of his growing work. Yogananda was the first Hindu teacher of yoga to spend a major portion of his life in America. He lived there from 1920—1952, interrupted by an extended trip abroad in 1935–1936 which was mainly to visit his guru in India though he undertook visits to other living western saints like Therese Neumann the stigmatist of Konnesreuth and places of spiritual significance enroute. [ibid]

“Celebrity followers”—that puts one in mind of another famous Hindu Holy Man from a later generation:

Yogi Maharishi Mahesh invented the process of Transendental Meditation in 1955, and by 1967 had gotten a worldwide audience, including Ringo Starr’s wife. Through her, the Beatles ended up under his influence for a while.

This fascination with gurus with Hindu Roots remains strong among some circles in the US to this day. Here’s how one author put it in a 2002 article, “God-Men” or “Con-Men”: Are some gurus, swamis and yogis “tricksters”?

The burgeoning growth industry of self-improvement within the United States continues to include exotic spiritual mentors. And India has been a fount for a litany of purported “gurus,” “swamis,” “yogis” and other would-be “god-men” that have enthralled Americans.

But in India such supposedly “spiritual” types are increasingly seen as simply tricksters or confidence men. And the police in Bombay are busting them, reports Reuters.

One Indian official who has exposed more than a few explained, “[Our] campaign is meant to be an eye-opener. We want to put a complete stop to those posing as god-men.”

But in the United States the First Amendment precludes putting a “complete stop” to any “religious” endeavor. So many of the “god-men” of India have immigrated to a more open market. After all, why work Bombay when you can come to America and make the big bucks?

Since the sixties a virtual wave of Indian gurus has washed upon the shores of North America. And seemingly gullible Americans have proven over and over again that they are willing to buy the wares of these “god-men” and a few “god-women” too.

The list of such spiritual entrepreneurs keeps growing.

There was Swami Satchidananda (now deceased), Guru Sri Chinmoy (still carrying on in Queens New York), Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (perhaps the richest guru on earth), Guru Maharaji (a boy wonder), Swami Prabhupada (deceased founder of “Krishna Consciousness”), Sai Baba, Swami Muktananda (deceased founder of Siddha), Yogi Bhajan of 3HO, Swami Rama and let’s not forget the notorious Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh who was deported before he died.

A new female “guru” is breaking into the American market named “Chalanda Sai Ma.” She is apparently a former pupil of Sai Baba and others, but is now touring solo.

What is it about swamis and yogis and gurus that seems to appeal to folks who likely went to Baptist or Methodist or Roman Catholic Sunday Schools in their youth?  The author of the comments above may have pinpointed one aspect—

Of course the United States appears to have plenty of homegrown flim flam, which includes an assortment of psychics, faith healers, mediums and even snake handlers. And American authorities are often far less vigilant than their Indian counterparts, when it comes to protecting the public.

Still, despite easily accessible homegrown holy men, there seems to be something about flowing saffron robes, mantras and exotic India that excites the imagination of many within the US spiritual marketplace. Many “god-men” seem to know how to tap into that market, or that is, turn on the tap to cash in.

The bottom line may be that some folks get so jaded about “the familiar” over their lifetime, so disappointed that there seems to be nothing “magical” about their own faith background, that they are primed to be attracted to the unusual and the exotic. This notion is practically a cliché in our society … witness all the cartoons about people arduously climbing to the top of a mountain in Tibet or some other far-flung place so they can ask the robed/and/or/turbaned turbaned Holy Man there the Meaning of Life.

In fact, many such dabblers seem to not even notice when the Hindu Holy Men (and women) they end up fawning over and promoting to their friends and family are Faux Versions, who have donned the robes and learned the mantras and “put on” the aura of the exotic. When, in fact, they are really plain white-bread Americans playing a part.

Frank Jones from Brooklyn is now “god-man Adi Da,” Fred Lenz was called “Zen Master Rama,” a former New York housewife Joyce Green calls herself “Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati,” Mike Shoemaker became “Swami Chetananada” and Donald Waters became “Swami Kriyananda,” just to name a few. [ibid]

And then of course, there was Swami Carnac.

Yes, for over 100 years now, Americans from all walks of life have been promoting real or fake Hindu Swamis and Yogis to lend a sense of spirituality to things.

But most of those doing the promoting have been religious “liberals” enthusiastic about all things “ecumenical,” or bored California socialites of the 1920s wanting their own personal Yogi to or Swami to impress their friends, or more recently people fascinated by New Age-y do-it-yourself “spirituality.” One thing you haven’t seen in all that time is ministers in Christian conservative and evangelical circles inviting Swamis or Yogis into their pulpits to regale their congregations.

That’s the source of the title of this series … Strange Bedfellows. No, it’s not about Christian ministers inviting Yogis and Swamis to share their pulpits. It’s about such ministers inviting Rabbis to share their pulpits. Which in the greater historical and theological sense is seen by many as just as strange.

What is going on here? As the author above put it about Hindus …

…there seems to be something about flowing saffron robes, mantras and exotic India that excites the imagination of many within the US spiritual marketplace.

One might paraphrase this to address an increasingly common phenomenon in evangelical … and particularly charismatic… churches across the land in our time.

There seems to be something about shofars, prayer shawls, yarmulkes, and torah scrolls—and the hint of the exotic Holy Land—that excites the imagination of many within the US Christian spiritual marketplace.

The next episode of this series will take a closer look at this development.  It has a number of strange parallels with the invasion of Hinduism … and will eventually lead us back to that Black Bapticostal Bishop mentioned in the first installment of this series.

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7 Responses to Strange Bedfellows, Episode 2: Yogis, Swamis—and Rabbis

  1. Pingback: Strange Bedfellows, Episode 2: Yogis, Swamis… and Rabbis | Currently StaRRing …

  2. Ron Krumpos says:

    One of my personal mentors (in 1960) was Swami Nikhilananda, who founded the Ramakrishna- Vivekananda Center in New York. He wrote: “The nearer we are to God, the closer we shall feel toward other religions. In God we all meet. In order to promote religious harmony, let us deepen our religious consciousness. Let us come nearer to God by following our respective faiths and not by jumping from one faith to another. Let the Hindu, the Moslem, the Christian, the Jew emphasize the spirit and not the letter of their scriptures, and all religious quarrels will stop. All religions are challenged today by a common enemy: the rising tide of skepticism and secularism.”

  3. invar says:

    I would love to speak to this topic more in-depth Pam, as I am IN India right now in the slums of Andrha Pradesh. I can tell you that the presentation of Hinduism to the West as a good and spiritual religion is as much a fraud as declaring Islam a tolerant religion of peace in the face of it’s history. Hinduism IN INDIA, at my witness is one of the most heinous, insidious and crushing religions I have ever seen perpetrated on a people who literally are enslaved mind, body and spirit to it’s dictates. And these dictates are made up by the whims of any Brahmin or Caste leader. Hinduism’s system of caste and oppression on the most vulnerable of people in this country is one of the most gut wrenching atrocities I have ever seen in my life.

    For all the outward appearances of the gurus and swamis here, they all have one thing in common – for them it’s all about money and power. It’s about keeping the low castes down in their place and dishing out what little they have to another made-up god and temple constructed for it that will supposedly solve their problems and give them blessings.

    Despite the claims by the willingly deceived in the West and the USA about the wonderful tolerance of Hinduism, I can verify the fact that IN INDIA, Hinduism is COMPLETELY INTOLERANT of Christianity and Judaism. In many ways, it is far more intolerant here than even Islam is. Mobs will riot quickly and hack apart, beat, burn and kill any Christians they target for any perceived offense – even that they refuse to pay money to the Hindu gods is enough to warrant a beating. Google what happened here in Orissa in 2008. I have video that will turn your stomach of Hindu mobs beating and killing Christians at random, for nothing more than the fact they are not Hindu.

    The entire concept of abandoning the scriptures to go by the dictates of men is what governs the slum populations of India by the Brahmin leaders. The wise would see it as nothing but chaos, anarchy and tyranny upon a people willingly enslaved to it.

    • Thank you for reporting reality from the front lines, Michael. Since I have seen your testimony on this first hand, I thought of those things as I was writing this entry. It grieves me that the naive and gullible in America and elsewhere have been sucked into an illusion about what Hinduism actually represents in the lives of the people enslaved to it in the country of India… as opposed to the phony gobbledygook invented by Swami Chet and his ilk.

  4. Ron Krumpos says:

    I attended Lucknow University on a Carnegie grant and returned to India twice more on business. My perception of Hinduism, and its effects on those people who I met, did reflect tolerance, love and spirituality. All religions have their downside with selfish leaders and extremists among their followers. The population of India is almost one billion, so anything that happens there often involves large numbers of people, e.g. earthquakes, floods, and perceived insults. Sweeping generalities, whether too positive or too negative, do not reflect all of the people of one country or one religion. The history of the USA has shown that Americans are not always tolerant either.

  5. invar says:

    I am not living in an Ivory tower here, at a University or in a major business center where Westerners are afforded a very shielded view of India. I know a few folks who on visiting India have a similar view you espouse.

    I’m actually LIVING in India with those of Low Caste (of whom make up the MAJORITY of the Indian population) such as the Adhi Andrha and the Dalit. If you were here as I am, your perception will drastically change because you will see and experience things no human being should be subject to. And all of it perpetrated in the name of Hinduism and the caste structure that Hinduism dictates here.

    If all religions have a downside, then Hinduism as practiced here in India is one of the most successfully concealed forms of slavery, destitution, graft and confusion ever perpetrated upon a people who are willingly enslaved to misery of both mind, body and soul. And it’s everywhere you look if you are not wearing rose colored glasses.

    India may appear great and tolerant and wonderful if you are in the upper castes, with whom you probably spent time with at the university and on business. Brahmin, Kshatriyas and Vaishya are the only castes allowed to prosper here and be educated and own businesses. These upper castes make up only 15% of the population – but they run, control and prosper in India. 85% of the country is Sudrha or Dalit/untouchables, and they are the ones whom the upper castes walk upon. NO ONE from a low caste is allowed to succeed in areas where upper castes are permitted in India. They are largely kept illiterate and serve as manual laborers in the rice fields, brick factories and cleaners, handlers of the dead etc.

    Then there are the Christians below them all, and I can verify from first hand accounts, that in these slum villages where the majority of the people in India live, Christians are abused, cheated, defrauded and suffer institutionalized persecution that is absolutely insidious.

    Some Americans may not be tolerant. I am witness to an entire society and culture that is NOT tolerant.

  6. Pingback: Strange Bedfellows, Episode 5: Have Torah, Will Travel | Wild World of Religion: Under the Big Top

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