Obama Should Have Thanked India

Speaking of the American-Indian relationship, President Obama predicted it would be "one of the defining partnerships of the twenty-first century." No doubt it will be. But in fact, our two nations have been trading partners of sorts for more than two centuries, and Americans have derived far more from the arrangement than they realize.

As the land of material discovery and innovation, the U.S. has given India advantages from electric lighting to computer technology, not to mention the inventions that made Bollywood a larger producer of movies than Hollywood. What we've imported in return is far more subtle, but perhaps even more profound. Ages ago, the vast subcontinent birthed explorers and innovators who focused on the inner realm. Those geniuses -- spiritual sages or scientists of consciousness, depending on your perspective -- gave us, through a series of modern translators and adapters, insights that have profoundly influenced religion, healthcare, psychology, the arts and other areas of life. The way we understand ourselves and the universe has been shaped by India more than we can readily appreciate.

It began when early translations of Hindu and Buddhist texts, along with scholarly commentaries, arrived from Europe and found their way to Ralph Waldo Emerson. The philosopher who has been called our "founding thinker" absorbed Indian philosophy with the gusto of a gourmand sampling savory curries for the first time. It helped to shape the Emersonian world-view, which gave rise to process philosophy and American pragmatism, as well as to a literary tradition so pervasive that Yale's Harold Bloom called the Sage of Concord "the mind of America." Anyone who reads Emerson, whether a high school student for an assignment or an adult for illumination, gets a dose of Indian philosophy, whether or not he or she realizes it.

The same can be said of anyone who reads Henry David Thoreau or Walt Whitman. The Bhagavad Gita that Thoreau borrowed from his mentor, Emerson, was his constant companion on Walden Pond. When Obama noted the debt that America owes to Mahatma Gandhi for his immense influence on Martin Luther King, he left out the initial phase of that great U.S.-India volley: Thoreau, who called the Vedas "the royal road for the attainment of Great Knowledge," was one of Gandhi's inspirations. Whitman too was touched by India's "deep diving bibles and legends" and "far-darting beams of the spirit," and poets from Emily Dickinson to Bob Dylan were all touched by our national bard.

That was just the beginning. The pioneers of the so-called New Thought movement drank deeply of Eastern ideas, giving rise to Theosophy, Unity Church, Science of Mind and other institutions that became spiritual homes to an army of seekers. Later, the swamis of the Vedanta Society tutored men whose collective impact on the culture has been incalculable: the British expatriates Gerald Heard, Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley; the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell; Huston Smith, the most influential religious scholar of the past fifty years; and J.D. Salinger, whose later works taught Eastern Philosophy 101 in fictional form.

Come 1968, the Indian tsunami triggered by the Beatles' now-legendary visit to the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi gave us far more than The White Album (as if that weren't enough). Over a million people learned Transcendental Meditation, while scientists began the enterprise that has since produced over a thousand experiments on meditative practices. Seminal books like Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda and Be Here Now by Ram Dass (nee Richard Alpert) were devoured. Youngsters who studied with gurus went on to become scholars who taught religion in a new way, enlarged the study of psychology to encompass the spiritual dimension, introduced new methods to psychotherapy and began to rethink the nature of consciousness. Self-help authors like John Gray of Men Are from Mars fame adapted Eastern ideas to books and seminars. Popular thinkers like Deepak Chopra and Ken Wilber integrated them into books that appeal as much to secular types as to spiritual seekers. Medical experts like Dean Ornish incorporated yogic teachings into mainstream health practices. And the trickle of Americans going to yoga classes became a mighty river that's now fifteen to twenty million strong.

If you think these are minor phenomena compared to the economic and geopolitical issues discussed by Obama and Indian leaders, consider how many healthcare dollars are saved when people practice meditation and yoga instead of buying drugs and undergoing surgery. More important, India's philosophy of Vedanta and the methodologies of Yoga gave the land of the free a rational, pragmatic, individuated way to conceive of spirituality. And more important still, consider what India's ancient pluralism -- embodied in the Vedic maxim, "Truth is one, the wise call it by different names" -- offers a modern world torn by religious and ethnic tension. Half a century ago, the great historian Arnold Toynbee wrote that India's spiritual legacy offers us "the attitude and the spirit that can make it possible for the human race to grow together into a single family -- and, in the Atomic Age, this is the only alternative to destroying ourselves." For all these gifts, both manifest and yet to be realized, Obama should have offered his partner a sincere "Namaste."