Hindu Contributions to the New Age
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
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.