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Transcendent in America

Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion

Lola Williamson
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Transcendent in America
    Book Description:

    Yoga, karma, meditation, guru - these terms, once obscure, are now a part of the American lexicon. Combining Hinduism with Western concepts and values, a new hybrid form of religion has developed in the United States over the past century. In Transcendent in America, Lola Williamson traces the history of various Hindu-inspired movements in America, and argues that together they constitute a discrete category of religious practice, a distinct and identifiable form of new religion.Williamson provides an overview of the emergence of these movements through examining exchanges between Indian Hindus and American intellectuals such as Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and illuminates how Protestant traditions of inner experience paved the way for Hindu-style movements' acceptance in the West.Williamson focuses on three movements - Self-Realization Fellowship, Transcendental Meditation, and Siddha Yoga - as representative of the larger of phenomenon of Hindu-inspired meditation movements. She provides a window into the beliefs and practices of followers of these movements by offering concrete examples from their words and experiences that shed light on their world view, lifestyle, and relationship with their gurus. Drawing on scholarly research, numerous interviews, and decades of personal experience with Hindu-style practices, Williamson makes a convincing case that Hindu-inspired meditation movements are distinct from both immigrant Hinduism and other forms of Asian-influenced or New Age groups.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-9548-4
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. A Note on Transliteration
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)

    • 1 What Are Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements?
      (pp. 3-25)

      On a jumbo jet filled with meditators headed for Switzerland, I awakened to the sound of a stewardess’s voice. “I have been instructed to wake you twenty minutes before breakfast so you have time to concentrate,” she softly intoned over the PA system. Some of us chuckled quietly at her choice of words. Our guru, Maharishi, told us never to use the word “concentrate” for “meditate.” But this was 1973, before the word “meditation” had seeped into the international vocabulary. It was a foreign concept to our Swiss stewardess who was only following instructions. Around me I heard people shifting...

    • 2 Laying the Foundation for American-Style Hinduism
      (pp. 26-52)

      While my classmates in eleventh-grade English class yawned their way through Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays, I could hardly contain my excitement. My inclination toward idealism blossomed upon discovering Emerson. The idea that spirit is more real than matter, and that everything is somehow bound together in one unified whole touched the recesses of my being. Emerson’s poetic words from his essay “Over-Soul” seemed to me those of a prophet:

      We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle...


    • 3 Self-Realization Fellowship
      (pp. 55-79)

      The first passenger boat sailing from India to America after the end of World War I carried a man who, like Vivekananda, was to stir the imaginations of thousands as he delivered public lectures throughout the United States. The year was 1920, and the person aboard the ship was Paramahansa Yogananda. He came to America with a mission given to him by his guru, Sri Yukteswar, to teach yoga and the harmony between Krishna and Christ.

      Both Vivekananda and Yogananda came from Bengal, the area of India in which Neo-Hinduism developed, and the vision of these two gurus was similar....

    • 4 Transcendental Meditation
      (pp. 80-105)

      On February 5, 2008, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi passed away at his home and headquarters in Vlodrop, the Netherlands, where he had lived since the late 1980s. He was believed to have been ninety-one years old. In the last years of his life he rarely met with anyone face-to-face, preferring to speak with followers by closed-circuit television. Maharishi’s body was shipped to Allahabad, about six hundred kilometers southwest of New Delhi. His relatives and disciples carried his body, propped up in a yogic posture, to a specially erected platform near the Sangam, the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers....

    • 5 Siddha Yoga
      (pp. 106-132)

      “Be with Baba!” the large bold headlines of a newspaper-style encyclical read. Below the caption, a large picture of a bearded man with sunglasses and an orange ski cap smiled at me. I read every article, most of them testimonies about the power of shaktipat. Apparently, “Baba” (an endearing term that people used for Muktananda that means “Father”) could, by simply touching people, catapult them into another realm of consciousness. One person wrote that he could literally see through other people—their veins and arteries and internal organs were all visible. Someone else was reportedly able to see through a...


    • 6 The Guru-Disciple Relationship
      (pp. 135-160)

      The guru-disciple relationship is a defining characteristic of HIMMs. Followers of HIMMs consider the guru to be an enlightened human being or even a manifestation of God. Some of those who practice TM do not enter into a guru-disciple relationship with Maharishi, but many do. With SRF and Siddha Yoga, the guru-disciple relationship is foundational. When I asked meditators about their first encounter with their guru, the responses revealed that it was a life-changing event and often took them by surprise. Bryan’s response was typical:

      I was at Encinitas, California, on a silent retreat. They have a very nice dining...

    • 7 Mystical Experiences
      (pp. 161-185)

      Diane first learned Transcendental Meditation during her freshman year of college. She was not expecting the experience she had. In her words,

      I sat down to receive instruction, and then the teacher let me sit to meditate for awhile. I was just in the middle of light. It was very powerful. My physiology was subtler than it had ever been in my life. It was very powerful. There was just lots of light. Unbelievable! I didn’t want it to end. The light was radiant, and this was with my eyes closed. It was internal, not external.

      Mark’s experience upon beginning...

    • 8 Worldview
      (pp. 186-214)

      Existential questioning at a young age and the suffering that often accompanies it was a predominant theme among those I interviewed: “I would look up at the stars and ask, ‘Why am I here?’” “I was always searching, searching, searching.” “I felt something was really missing.” “Always in the back of my mind I was thinking, there must be something more.” “Everything seemed empty.”

      When these young people discovered meditation and the Hindu philosophy that accompanies its practice, they felt they had found purpose to their lives. Their newfound path seems to have satisfied their need to know their ultimate...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 215-234)

    Let us end where we began—with three meditators who follow three different HIMMs. Since 1969 Walter has meditated twice a day under the auspices of SRF and has attended a weekly satsang at his local center for almost as many years. Aaron has been practicing Transcendental Meditation since 1970 and performs his TM-Sidhi program in the “Dome” twice a day. Jennifer began meditating using the TM technique, but later received shaktipat from Muktananda, and for almost thirty years has chanted and meditated in the early morning and attended satsang weekly.

    The differences and similarities among these three meditators are...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 235-242)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 243-250)
  11. Index
    (pp. 251-260)
  12. About the Author
    (pp. 261-261)