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Hindu Contributions to the New Age Movement
By Frank Morales 

As a phenomena which has gained notable attention in the last two decades or so, the New Age movement has been of special interest to those who specialize in the study of religion. The history and origin of this essentially American movement is an especially interesting one. While several historical trends have contributed to the development of this world view, the main impetus for the New Age movement - both since the 1960's, and including its pre-Sixties antecedents - has been the periodic influx of Hindu spiritual and philosophical ideas.

 The modern New Age movement had its origins in the explosive interest in achieving maximal human potential and personal spiritual development witnessed in 1960's America. Today, included among many of the more famous New Age leaders are Deepak Chopra, Bernie Seagal and Marianne Williamson. As a social phenomena, this spiritual movement seeks both personal and planetary transformation. The former, most New Age theoreticians would say, leading necessarily to the latter. While this movement has gained great notoriety in recent years, however, the core basis of its ideas are nothing new. Many scholars have, in fact, described New Age ideas as a revival of esoteric and mystical religion traditions rooted in humanity's ancient past. Indeed, the greatest single contributor of philosophical concepts to the American New Age movement has been something neither new nor American, i.e., the ancient religious tradition of Hinduism.

This fact is evident both historically and in more contemporary observations. Historically, there were several 19th Century antecedents of the New Age movement. These include a) the Theosophical Society, b) the New Thought Movement, and c) the arrival of Swami Vivekananda in America. The Theosophical Society of H.P. Blavatsky derived much of its philosophical outlook from the religions of Asia, specifically Hinduism and Buddhism. The source of divine knowledge for Theosophists were the mysterious and elusive "Mahatmas" who supposedly lived in the Himalayas. The New Thought movement - which inspired such 19th century Christian movements as Christian Science and Unity - was also very receptive to religious currents emanating from Eastern sources. The New Thought movement, in turn, owed much of its theology to the ideas of the New England Transcendentalists, such as Thoreau and Emerson, who where greatly influenced by the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. About the Bhagavad Gita's influence in his life, Thoreau has written, "In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial". Finally, the famous 1893 arrival of Swami Vivekananda, and the subsequent growth of his Vedanta Society in America, helped communicate Hindu religious thought to an eager American audience in a more explicit form.

 Building upon these 19th Century foundations, the New Age movement began its modern development in the 1960's. Though other trends certainly contributed significantly to this development, including transpersonal psychology and occultism, it was the new influx of Hindu spiritual traditions which was most responsible for the movement's subsequent development and outlook. Due to changes in the immigration laws in 1965, Asian spiritual teachers (gurus) found entering the U.S. less of a challenge. During this time, many esteemed Hindu gurus began traveling about America on lecture tours, including Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Bhaktivedanta Swami, Swami Rama and Swami Satchidananda. Consequently, many Hindu religious traditions began to find new and eager adherents in America. Some of these traditions included Yoga, Vedanta, Tantra, Vaishnavism and various Advaitic Hindu teachings. The contributions of these different Hindu schools of thought to New Age thinking was immense.

These include both philosophical and practical contributions. While New Agers currently believe in such concepts as: the interdependence of all life, non-violence, concern for the Earth's environment, and tolerance for diverse viewpoints, it was the ancient Hindu philosophical heritage which first helped formulate these concepts coherently in the mind's of many nascent New Agers. Other New Age ideas which received strong philosophical support from India's religions include the belief in reincarnation and karma, the efficacy of ritual, and the need for compassion towards animals. Indeed, the latter trend within the New Age movement is quite in keeping with the vegetarian and non-violent ethic taught by most Asian spiritual traditions (specifically Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism).

Possibly the most important component which the New Age movement owes to Hindu spirituality, however, is the practice of meditation. Every tradition of Indian religion teaches one form of meditation or another. Perhaps the most important proponent of meditation in the U.S. has been the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation movement. Other forms of meditation introduced from India include mantra-meditation, visualization and karma yoga. As a result of this influx of Hindu meditational techniques, the practice of meditation has become an integral part of the New Age landscape.

While it is true that many of the beliefs and practices of the New Age movement can also be traced to other sources (for example, Platonic and Hermetic philosophy, as well as Native American beliefs), it is apparent that the movement owes a great deal of its ideas to the much older spiritual traditions of India. From the practical considerations of vegetarianism and meditation, to gaining a more philosophical justification for its belief structure, the New Age movement finds its greatest source of inspiration and ideas from the great religious tradition of Hinduism. 



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