A 20 year insider investigates the worldviews and practices of Hindu-inspired meditation movements.
In Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements (2010, New York University Press) Lola Williamson explores the worldviews, mystical experiences, and guru-disciple relationships of Hindu-inspired meditation movements (HIMMs) and examines three famous gurus and the organizations they founded: Self-Realization Fellowship of Paramahansa Yogananda, Transcendental Meditation of Maharishi Maheshi Yogi, and Siddha Yoga Dham Associates of Swami Muktananda.
She interviews followers of these organizations who have 20+ years of tutelage under these famous gurus. These three organizations combine Hinduism with Western values that form a hybrid, new religion that Williamson calls HIMMs.
Williamson, at the time she began writing this book, had participated for 21 years in Siddha Yoga and saw herself as a devout disciple of Gurumayi, the guru-successor of that movement. Before that Williamson was involved for 10 years in teacher trainings with Maharishi in Transcendental Meditation.
As Williamson investigated these movements to write this book she learned of disturbing accounts of abuses and organizational dysfunctions that were endemic to many of these groups.
She and many followers of HIMMs felt it was necessary to distance themselves from rumors of scandals and negativity that was reported by persons who left the ashrams and the organizations.
In 2005, Williamson abandoned this book project and quit Siddha Yoga because of the “cult-like atmosphere pervaded by many of the movements”.
In 2007, she resumed writing of this book that offers a unique perspective on HIMMs from both inside and outside.
Two perspectives, insider and outsider, reveal bits of reality in different ways, like the lame man riding on the shoulders of the blind man.
Williamson, as an insider understands the “heart” of the tradition and what makes the HIMM faith attractive to its followers. Outsiders, on the other hand, like Williamson [and myself included], may provide a different perspective and a willingness to examine and critique abuses.
“I also realized that some people use Hindu-style meditation and the philosophy accompanying it to escape from facing hard truths about themselves or about people and events around them”- Williamson [For example, see my post Abandoning Family for a Guru]
This post is the first in a series that will summarize Lola Williamson’s book, Transcendent In America: Hindu-Inspired Movements as New Religion
Beliefs and Practices of Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements
Paraphrasing from Transcendent In America here are some of the beliefs and practices common to HIMMs:
1. Strong commitment to meditation as a means to attaining inner peace, and ultimately, to attaining a state of consciousness described by practitioners variously as liberation, enlightenment, or unity consciousness;
2. Belief that the guru of the movement has attained this state of liberation and serves as their guide;
3. Initiation into a deep, personal relationship with the guru, who is the center of charismatic authority;
4. Each HIMM sees itself as a sort of “family” centered on the guru;
5. Share common beliefs such as karma (natural law of retribution) and reincarnation and the ideal of “enlightenment”;
6. Share common lifestyle; purity is necessary for attaining enlightenment and adherence to dietary restrictions, most are vegetarians and try to avoid stressful situations or “negative” thinking;
7. Seek a balanced life that combines self-effort with a sense of ease, often limiting exposure to popular “worldly” culture or entertainments often viewed as not helpful to spiritual evolution;
8. Belief that self-reflection aids spiritual growth, may include introspection, psychotherapy, or participation in human potential groups;
9. Share common rituals (eg. chanting, meditation), myths (eg. ascending chakras in an astral spine service as a ladder up to samadhi, awakening of kundalini or serpent energy), and metaphors (eg. yoking the five senses to the “chariot” of yoga meditation–an allegory from the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture);
10. Conceive of HIMM practices and beliefs as more than or greater than “religion”, that it’s a universal, spiritual approach to life available to anyone irrespective of faith tradition.
The are several problems, says Williamson, with this interwoven system of meaning used by people who participate HIMMs.
Problems with Beliefs & Practices of Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements
According to Williamson, there are several problems with the beliefs and practices of HIMMs, including:
HIMMs do not adhere to “universal” beliefs nor practices
A. First, the notion that the beliefs and practices of HIMMs are universal actually disregards the fact that many religious practitioners do not believe that “God” dwells within a human being or that union with God is possible or even desirable.
B. The notion that differences in religions can be transcended if everyone where to experience unity consciousness is a particular dogma or belief system of HIMMs, even if it arises out of personal experiences.
C. Essentially, followers and gurus of HIMMs are asserting that unity among religions would be possible if everyone accepted the HIMM worldview or practiced the HIMM forms of meditation.
HIMMs adhere to dogmatic beliefs and ritualized practices, like other religions
D. HIMMs compare the inner depth of their religious system to the outer expressions of others. To outsiders, though, that observe HIMMs, the particular rituals, practices, and dogma appear as forms like any other religion, for only the external can be observed.
E. Rituals most valued by HIMMs center on practices of meditation and initiation into its methods. Traditional Indian Hinduism, like traditional Asian Buddhism [See my post From Monastic to Domestic Mindfulness], reserved the initiations and practices of meditation exclusively for monks and renunciates, not for householders as is touted by HIMMs as a way to recruit people from all walks of life.
Transcendent In America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion questions and discusses, from both insider and outsider perspectives, the problems, beliefs and practices of Hindu-inspired meditation movements (HIMMs).
In the above article I summarized and paraphrased what Williamson noted is the system of meaning of people who participate in HIMMs, including: strong commitment to meditation as way to peace and liberation or enlightenment, initiation into a guru-disciple relationship with a charismatic authority, share common beliefs such as karma (retribution), reincarnation, dietary restrictions, and a set of Hindu-inspired but Westernized rituals and myths that are similar externally to any other religion.
Some problems with HIMM’s beliefs and practices, paraphrasing Williamson in Transcendent in America, include: adherence to a dogma that meditation is universal when actually only if other religions believe like HIMMs do that god is within all human beings and that god may be found in their forms of meditation practice. Traditional, Indian Hinduism reserved meditation practice for monastics. HIMMs promote meditation as a necessary and desirable practice for people from all walks of life.
Question for readers: Have you ever considered yourself a participant in a HIMM, as outlined above? Are there other key components (not included in the lists above) that more clearly represent the system of meaning, practices, and beliefs of participants in HIMMs?
1 In defining HIMMs, Williams says, “There is a qualitative difference between people who have been raised in a tradition in which the rituals, the foods, the prayers, and the ethics are second nature, and people who have incorporated only parts of a tradition into their religious style. This is why I use the term ‘Hindu-inspired’ rather than ‘Hindu’ to describe Transcendental Meditation and similar movements….Western traditions of individualism and rationalism also influence the style and ethos of these movements.” p 4 Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements (2010, New York University Press). On p 25 of The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009, Penguin Books) Wendy Doniger says, “The books that Euro-Americans privileged (such as the Bhagavad Gita) were not always so highly regarded by ‘all Hindus’, certainly not before the Euro-Americans began to praise them.”
2 In future posts I intend to explore some of the abuses and dysfunctions of HIMMs as described by Williamson in her book.
3 Adapted from p 34 of The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009, Penguin Books) Wendy Doniger