The Swamis of India and the Tsunami of Yoga
Article appeared in Common Ground San Francisco
In 1974, forty years ago, a huge tsunami was flooding across our planet. But this was not waves of water that drown you and wash your home away. Those waves started out in India, spreading East and West until they encompassed the whole planet. What washed ashore, first in New York and San Francisco, and then spreading everywhere, were the healing waters of ancient Yogic wisdom that had sustained and fed the Orient for over 10,000 years.
In 1600, India was the wealthiest country in the world. By 1900, bled of its wealth by British colonizing, India appeared to be a broken and subdued giant. But the giant was only sleeping. Under the cover of the social change and transformation that was the ’60s an unexpected group of immigrants from India were quietly invading North America, the citadel of material power. The soft spoken, well-mannered invaders from India had no money, did not know each other, were not here to promote a “religion” or political agenda. They were neither Marxist or Capitalist – they were Mantra-preneurs! Gurus and teachers, mystics and professors, unfunded, long haired or bald, non-denominational, universal, peace-loving, exotic, profound, loving and equal-opportunity.
With a common source of knowledge – the ancient Vedic Library – each guru carried their own unique flavor, lineage, and special mojo. They brought spiritual secrets that had been passed down for thousands of years, and best of all there was no angry God, hell or coercive proselytizing. If the British conquered the world for 300 years with gunpowder, India conquered it in 50 years with curry powder and today there are over 100 million non-Indian yogis throughout the world.
Along with yoga and enlightenment, another surprising force migrated from India. One might wonder, how the country famous for meditation and cows could go from primitive to taking over computer technology in just a few years. The answer is that India is not only the oldest mystic culture, but also the oldest scientific culture. Scientists use Latin to name new discoveries but Sanskrit is the parent language of Latin and Greek. Sanskrit is so precise that it is almost a programming language. There is a huge library of mystic and scientific knowledge in Sanskrit that is called the Vedas. For many years now, Germany has had the largest Sanskrit library in the world outside of India. Quantum physics, rocket science, medicine, surgery and many other scientific discoveries were “borrowed” from this ancient Sanskrit library by the Germans.
On our 40th anniversary, Common Ground is honoring the many Gurus and Mantra-preneurs of India who have been and are still reshaping our lives, and who were always nudging us gently toward sustainability, biodiversity and universal respect for all life. What all these modern Pundits of mystic or scientific thought have been spreading worldwide, is based upon the desire for all beings to be free while cooperating the laws of nature and each other. We are honoring a few of those thought leaders, as a way of showing our gratitude to all who have contributed their gifts and ideals, and whose teachings have often graced the pages of Common Ground.
Remarkably, this process of India sharing their wisdom with the world has occurred previously. Roman records state that during the time of Jesus, 150 ships a year left Rome to import luxury items from India. The most famous seaport of the time was Alexandria in Egypt. Those trading ships also returned carrying Indian gurus along with their Vedic books of wisdom and science, which they subsequently taught at the library of Alexandria. From that transfer of knowledge, Greek, Roman, and eventually European culture developed roots directly connected to the India of 2000 years ago.
During the last 50 years we have witnessed another historic sharing of Vedic culture at the port of San Francisco, in the midst of a psychedelic transformation, a musical renaissance, and a cultural revolution ignited at the modern “Alexandria” Berkeley, we went from “Be there then” to “Be here now”. Join in as we offer Namaste and pranams to a few of the game changing gurus who have unselfishly given us the precious wisdom jewels of their ancient culture.
The early signal that Vedic waves were about to arrive came in 1841 Boston through Emerson, Thoreau, W. H. Channing, Parker, and others, who from the Unitarian far left of Christianity, began to study translations of the Bhagavad-Gita, Upanishads, and Puranas. It was too soon to publicly call themselves yogis, so they came to be known as the “American Transcendentalists,” but behind closed doors – they were American yogis. They really were the “Boston Brahmins.”
Then, just before the turn of the century in 1893, a dashing young guru named Vivekananda took a steamship from India to speak in Chicago at the Parliament of World’s Religions. In 7 minutes, his articulate and compelling message of universal Brotherhood electrified the audience. He then toured the U.S. attracting thousands of students and publishing books on Vedic philosophy in English.
During the Roaring ’20s, more underground yoga practice blossomed. By the end of World War I, yoga and the push to modernity went into high gear. In 1920, Paramahansa Yogananda set up a permanent camp in Los Angeles and founded the Self-Realization Fellowship, whose yoga teachings included an altar with a picture of Christ and a picture of Krishna. Twenty five years later, thousands of hippies would read Autobiography of a Yogi and become yogis themselves. From then until the ’60s, yoga gradually gained momentum. Jiddu Krishnamurti, an eloquent yoga philosopher arrived California in the 1930s and touched thousands with his profound lectures on self-realization. Indra Devi, known as the “First Lady” of yoga, opened her pioneering yoga studio in 1947. Swami Vishnudevananda, disciple of Swami Sivananda, immigrated in 1958 and soon thereafter created the first yoga ashram in Val Morin, Quebec, Canada creating the Sivananda branch of the modern yoga movement.
As the 1960s counter-culture began to take hold, the Veda flood began in earnest. The Kennedy assassination, war in Vietnam, psychedelics, rock music, sexual revolution, racial integration, nuclear weapons, women’s liberation, the whole fabric of Western civilization ripped open in a historical moment that changed everything. Now, an entire generation of disenfranchised youth were looking for new alternatives and directions. With psychedelics as the amplifier and rock and roll as the carrier, the ripples of Vedic culture became a wave and then a flood. Every entrepreneur needs a historical moment, and the Mantra-peneurs from India now found that by Divine design – this moment was theirs.
A global rock concert of new thought and emotion, of universal love, inner visions, outer freedom, a breaking of sectarian boundaries and opposition to military solutions began to emerge. Leading this new vibration was a master sitar player named Ravi Shankar, whose mystic concerts and enchanting vibrations reached everyone. Along with the exotic vibration of Indian music, came gurus chanting mantras, the magic portals of mystic vibrations connected to realms beyond.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi carried the secrets of Transcendental Meditation to millions and opened the doors to Ayurvedic medicine, Vedic astrology, and many Vedic sciences. Both Deepak Chopra and Shri Shri Ravi Shankar were his students. Swami Satchidananda, creator of Integral Yoga, with his long hair and beard, became both a symbol of and the grand elder for the Woodstock generation. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami brought us Krishna. His street-wise and ecstatic presentation of the “Hare Krishna” mantra echoed through urban centers and finally over the radio from the lips of our favorite Beatle, “My Sweet Lord, I really want to know you.” In the Ashtanga Yoga world, several disciples of the great teacher Krishnamacharya (including Indra Devi) soon made yoga a household word. T.K.V. Desikachar, whose approach is called Viniyoga and emphasizes yoga therapy and individualized instruction. Pattabhi Jois, who worked very closely with his guru and passed on many profound yogic secrets, and perhaps the most well-known of his students, B.K.S. Iyengar, whose books Light on Yoga and Light on Pranayama are widely used along with his style which is associated with meticulous postural alignment and precise methods of teaching.
Another well-known yoga pioneer is Bikram Choudhury, the well-known and often self-proclaimed “Hollywood” yogi who was the disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda’s younger brother, Charan Ghosh. Bikram is famous for his “hot” yoga and his 26 posture asana sequence that is taught around the world. Yogi Bhajan, whose disciples were vivid in their white clothing and turbans, called his group 3HO, (Healthy, Happy and Holy) teaching “Kundalini Yoga”, a unique blend of mystic yoga and the Sikh tradition. The silent master of Ashtanga Yoga, Baba Hari Das, has shared his pure yogic vision in the mountains of Santa Cruz, California for many years and is also famous for producing the first full stage productions of the Ramayana to be performed outside of India. Yogi Amrit Desai founded Kripalu Yoga on the US East coast, teaching a very popular spontaneous flow of yoga postures. Swami Rama founded the Himalayan Institute promoting Raja Yoga, with its philosophical and deeply meditative approach.
Rajneesh or Osho, failed in his attempt to create a commune in Oregon but that did not diminish the profundity of his many writings and his insistence upon freedom as the ultimate goal of life. Muktananda Swami passed the ancient “siddha yoga” initiation on to thousands of students. Satya Sai Baba never left India, but his mystic powers attracted millions and had airliners full of amazed disciples flying to India from around the world. And then there is Mata Amritanandamayi, also known as Amma, whose unusual method of leading people to yoga and enlightenment has been to hug them, at last count supposedly over 30 million have been in her arms, which for many are an extension of the Divine Mother’s grace.
These teachers and many more like them have acted as carriers of the vast Vedic library and its streams of ancient wisdom. At least 10,000 years of wisdom has flowed down the Himalayas to become the wisdom waves of this most recent cultural exchange between “Mother India” and the greater world. Our planet is poised at an unprecedented tipping point. Our ability to alter matter through technology is both amazing and a threat to all life. We are redefining life on Earth with scientific powers but their use is currently distorted by greed and abuse of power. If we are to use the powers we have unleashed for the good of all, we will need all the wisdom we can get – ancient or modern.
While the Yogic knowledge, preventive medicine, vegetarian diet, techniques of healthy embodiment, and a global vision of a cooperative society have emerged from India, some very interesting trends are also appearing. One of these is that 70% of yoga practitioners are female. The trend includes many subjects that our technological culture has overlooked or ignored. A few of these are: right exercise, preventive medicine, wholesome diet, organic farming, healing use of herbs and massage, natural childbirth, education in universal knowledge, correct breathing, meditative life skills, male and female intimacy skills for relationship, peaceful methods of overcoming differences, knowledge of keeping water pure, regrowth of wilderness animal populations, protection of all creatures that share the planet, just to mention a few. Our consumption of meat, alcohol, and GMO foods are increasingly excessive and toxic. Our addiction to non-renewable energies must be replaced quickly.
In addition, Yogic philosophy teaches meditation upon a male and female Divine, something missing in modern culture. The result has been a distortion of our social relationship with the feminine and an exploitive attitude toward both Mother Earth and all female beings. What may not be immediately obvious is that all of these are related subjects and values that are necessary for perfection in yoga. Proper living, eating, socializing, intimacy, prevention of disease, a caring relationship with all creatures, use of healing herbs and healthy foods, all of these are the foundations of yoga, including a divine view of both male and female. Could it be that the female yogis of our world are actually the immune cells in the body of Mother Earth? Are they the heart and thought-leaders asking us, through yoga, to learn to live sustainably? It may appear that the majority of gurus and “Mantra-preneurs” were men, but what if all of them were consciously believed in and were serving the vision of a male and female divine and were espousing the same views that our many female yogis around the world are now embracing?
Could it be that India and Yoga are not a religion but rather a set of universal cooperative values and ways of living that allow us to live in harmonious yoga, that is: “connection” or “union” with the Divine, Nature, and all beings? What if the tsunami of ancient wisdom flowing from India is, like water, something that belongs to everyone? What if what appears to be many contradictory philosophical views, is actually ideological biodiversity? What if we are Divine beings growing and learning over thousands of lives in a grand curriculum where the universe is a “University” and our planet is a campus? We are not only honoring the “Mantra-preneurs” and gurus of India, but truth tellers, seekers and wisdom carriers of all types and from all cultures who also rode on the waves of this flood of culture. That is the universal spirit of yoga, the healing waters of the Ganges of universal truth flowing to water our arid hearts, so that a beautiful garden may grow there? Too idealistic, you reply – in a dangerous world is there such a thing as too much love, forgiveness or hope? From Common Ground to everyone, we hope the waters of Divine joy and enlightenment are always flowing in your hearts. And, as the yogis teach; go within and find your blissful connection to the Divine, look without in order to live in harmony and peace with the laws of nature and look around to become friends with all entities living on this sacred Earth. Namaste, we bow to the Divine within your heart.
BIO: Jeffrey Armstrong Founder VASA – Vedic Academy of Sciences & Arts
Jeffrey is a Yoga philosopher and inspirational speaker whose keen insights, delivered with humor and compassion, offer solutions to challenges facing our world. He is a Rumi-like poet and best-selling author who went from monk, to Apple executive, to motivational speaker. For the last 20 years he has opened hearts and minds with visionary presentations that blend modern science with timeless Vedic wisdom. Award-winning poet and best-selling author of numerous books including: Spiritual Teachings of the Avatar, Ancient Wisdom for a New World. Featured in the CBC documentary Planet Yoga and 2014 Leo Award documentary “Take Back Your Power.” Jeffrey is a relationship expert, philosopher, practitioner, Vedic Astrologer and teacher of the Vedas for over 40 years.