My lecture tour took me to 18 cities in 12 states, in the north, south, east and west. In 30 days, I gave 28 presentations: public lectures to a general audience, private talks with adult audiences, and lectures to young people at schools, universities, and yoga academies. I was on 11 domestic flights, plus trains and automobiles. I was never in one city more than four days, and in some locations I could stay only one day. When I tell people my schedule, they say, “It must have been exhausting.” I tell them, yes, sometimes it was physically demanding, but it was always exhilarating, mentally and emotionally, and on the whole it was extremely gratifying. I would do it again tomorrow without hesitation—happily and enthusiastically.
On a personal level, I was delighted to be in India again. India had been in the forefront of my mind for several years, as I researched and wrote American Veda. Having to express succinctly to Western readers the eternal wisdom of the rishis, and to describe the lives and remarkable contributions of all swamis, gurus, and yoga masters who came to America, from Vivekananda onward (as well as several masters who never set foot on American soil but had a great impact nonetheless, like Ramana Maharshi and Sri Aurobindo), my desire to once again be in the land of the Vedas grew stronger all the time. I decided to wait until the book was published in India before returning, and it was well worth the wait.
Because of the timing, the period I spent in India included two of the days I most enjoy being home: the Thanksgiving holiday and my birthday. I was in Mumbai for the holiday and in Varanasi on my birthday, half a world away from my family. But, as I told the audiences at my talks on those days, if I could not be home I could not think of anywhere I would rather be than in India, my spiritual home. (Thanks to the magic of modern technology, I was able to speak to my wife and other family members by Skype.)
I was very pleased—and, to be honest, surprised—that almost all the logistics of my whirlwind tour went smoothly. The disruptions and disturbances that invariably arise in an undertaking this complex were minimal, despite all the details involving travel, accommodations, meals, lecture schedules, transportation, and other variables. In part, this is a testament to the improvements in India’s infrastructure since my last visit six years earlier; not one flight was delayed or late to arrive, and every airport was clean, modern and comfortable. It was exciting to see India in the midst of its explosive modernization, from road improvements to the Metro in Delhi to the office buildings that have sprouted like fast-growing trees, to the exuberance and energy of the young people carving out a new future for their country.
But most of the credit for my smooth and pleasant travels goes to the organizers of the tour, especially Ram Madhav and others in the India Foundation office in Delhi, Guru Prakash, who took care of all my practical needs, all the local coordinators, facilitators and hosts, who are too numerous to mention. I am grateful to all of them for their efficiency and care. In addition to making sure I got to where I had to go, and that I had food when I was hungry and a place to rest when I needed that, they also made my free time (what little there was of it) highly enjoyable and informative. I got to see places that most tourists do not even know exist. I got to visit people’s homes and eat what Indians eat. Most precious of all, I got to have meaningful conversations with intelligent people from all walks of life. As a result, I returned to the U.S. knowing much more about life in contemporary India than I was able to learn on previous visits, and more than the average tourist could possibly discover. For all of this, I am deeply grateful.
But the purpose of the tour, of course, was to speak to Indians about the content of American Veda, and judging from the response of the audiences, I believe my message was enthusiastically received.
If I were to summarize the content of my talks it would go like this: Over the course of about 200 years, Americans have been absorbing the essence of Sanatana Dharma—primarily the philosophical concepts of Vedanta and the methods and principles of Yoga. The absorption and adaptation of those great teachings accelerated gradually, then exploded in the 1960s, spreading into different areas of American life. That transmission is directly responsible for a huge shift in the way Americans understand the mind, consciousness, the nature of human identity, their place in the universe, and the way they view religion and practice their spirituality. It has also impacted disciplines like healthcare, psychology, and neuroscience.
In my talks, I explained how Dharmic teachings have filtered into the soil of America through a variety of rivers, streams and tributaries: translations of—and commentaries about—the sacred texts (mainly the Gita, Upanishads and Yoga Sutras); swamis, gurus, acharyas, and yoga masters, from Swami Vivekananda in 1893 to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Mata Amritanandamayi in the present; Western scholars, psychologists, scientists, writers, artists, musicians; and the many Americans trained as teachers by Indian masters. And I always emphasized my belief that history will view the diffusion of spiritual wisdom from India to the West as one of the most important developments of the modern era. It has certainly transformed millions of lives for the better.
By and large, the audiences were extremely receptive. Most were clearly proud that their spiritual heritage has impacted America to such a great extent, and many seemed quite surprised to learn about it. Perhaps the most surprised were the university students. Clearly, many of them did not think that Hindu dharma was relevant to life in the modern world, or to their career aspirations and their desire to improve the material well-being of their families and the nation as a whole.
This brings me to the most significant aspect of my speaking tour. Early on, I was urged by my hosts to emphasize certain points when speaking to young people. They were greatly concerned that Indian youth are turning their backs on their spiritual heritage, thinking it is an old-fashioned waste of time, or even an impediment to modernization. In their view, I was told, America offers a model of progress they wish to imitate.
At first, I was not sure how to address this issue with young audiences. I did not want to sound like I was preaching to them, because young people don’t like to be preached to. Nor did I want to be seen as an arrogant American telling them how to think and act. And I did not want to perpetuate the foolish idea that we in the West had all the answers, even if my message was the glory of India’s own heritage. It was a dilemma, and I struggled to find the right balance: as an outsider I had to be humble, but as the author of a well-researched book I had important information to impart.
One thing was easy to tell them: some things about American culture are worthy of emulating and other things are definitely not. I urged them to be discerning in that regard, pointing out that while Western technology (computers, automobiles, cinema, etc.) has proven to be of great value when adapted properly, other elements of Western culture are not so beneficial. As an example of the latter I used the fast food industry, explaining that healthy Americans eat more like traditional Indians and never go near a KFC or McDonald’s. I also expressed the hope that India will modernize without imitating unhealthy American traits such as stressful working conditions, excessively long hours and lengthy commutes, all of which have contributed to poor health and a breakdown of family cohesion.
Before long, I realized how I could comfortably remind young Indians that their Hindu dharma had a great deal to offer them. America is the laboratory of the world, I said. Americans are very good at inventing new things and experimenting with new ideas. When something proves to be useful, we find ways to apply it to specific needs and integrate it into our way or life. And if something works, we make sure the rest of the world knows about it, and before long it’s everywhere (for better and for worse). That’s what happened with everything from television to smartphones to pizza.
Then I pointed out that America has experimented with various aspects of Sanatana Dharma for many decades. Wisely, the gurus, swamis and acharyas emphasized the teachings they thought were compatible with modern Western values and lifestyles. And the teachings were found to be of immense value. The philosophical concepts have held up to reason and analysis, and practices such as meditation and hatha yoga have been validated by hundreds of scientific experiments. As a result, they have been assimilated in various ways by psychologists, physicians and spiritual leaders alike, and over time they changed Americans’ attitudes about religion to such a degree that in 2009 Newsweek magazine ran an article with the headline “We are All Hindus Now.”
In short, the teachings of the rishis are not antiques to be stored in museums and libraries. They are not artifacts of the past, useful only for knowing about ancient times. They are relevant and valuable now. America has proven that. Ironically, one of the reasons doctors and psychotherapists recommend meditation and yoga, and hospitals and major corporations have yoga classes and meditation rooms, is that Americans found those practices to be powerful antidotes to the stressful burdens of modern life.
That is a message from America that is worth paying attention to, I told the young people. If you want to emulate what is truly healthy and useful about America, emulate its pragmatic acceptance of your Vedic heritage, which has proved to be healthy and useful in the most progressive country on the planet. Like the laws of physics or chemistry, the teachings of Sanatana Dharma are timeless. They don’t become obsolete. They can be interpreted and applied in different ways for different purposes in different cultures at different periods of history. It is called Eternal for good reason.
If my speaking tour served no other purpose than to convey that message to Indian youth, I would count it as a success. It was an honor to be the messenger.
America and India have had a long and mutually beneficial history, and we are uniquely positioned to enrich one another as we move into the challenging times ahead. As Swami Vivekananda said more than a century ago – and as almost every guru who followed him to the West reiterated – India’s expertise about the inner, spiritual dimension of human life and America’s expertise about the outer, material dimension are both required if humanity is to progress in a balanced, sustainable, fulfilling way.
The last few decades have proven that to be true as each nation absorbed and adapted the best products of the other. What India imported from the West – the machines, the technologies, the industries, etc. – is visible everywhere, and it is transforming Indian life. What America imported from India is far more subtle, far less tangible, and far more profound. I think American got the better of the deal. I’m thankful that India Foundation and Random House India made it possible for me to express my gratitude on behalf of my fellow Americans.