Hinduism was introduced to the U.S. by Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), the disciple of the great Bengali saint Sri Ramakrishna (1836-86). In 1893, Vivekananda attended the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago and gave an influential address that contradicted the stereotype of Hindus as superstitious and intolerant. His picture of Hinduism was somewhat idealized and avoided reference to the strongly sectarian nature of most Hindu practice in India. For many years, his vision of Indian religion as an idealistic practice of yoga, meditation, and transcendental philosophy was embraced by Western intellectuals and spritual seekers. With the recent influx of Indian immigrants has come a greater awareness of the wide range of Hindu beliefs and practices that the immigrants have brought with them.
Vivekananda established the Vedanta Society in the U.S. in 1894, and later in India in 1897 he founded the Ramakrishna Mission, considered by some to be the most important modern organization of reformed Hinduism. It is unique in India in that it is involved in social welfare concerns such as building and running hospitals and orphanages, a result of cross-pollination by Western members. The Order’s motto reads, “For one’s own liberation and the welfare of the world.” There are currently 13 Ramakrishna and Vivekananda Vedanta Centers around the U.S. run by mostly American-born monks of the Ramakrishna Order of India.
But Vivekananda was not the only Hindu to attract followers outside of India. After the imigration laws were revised in 1965 to allow a greater influx of Asians, a number of other Indian gurus began to make their way here. And Westerners traveled more frequently to India to sit at the feet of the great teachers and mystics to be found there. They include:
- Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950). Sri Aurobindo was a member of the Indian nationalist movement fighting for independence from Great Britain. He claimed that the voice of the departed Swami Vivekananda was instructing him during meditation. Later Aurobindo became an ascetic and founded a yoga ashram in Pondicherry that is still active. His doctrine of the evolution of the soul from lower to higher levels of spiritual consciousness resembles that of the Jesuit archaeologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
- A French woman named Mira Richards (1878-1973) became Aurobindo’s spiritual companion and helped to spread his ideas. Known as The Mother, she ran the ashram after Aurobindo began a period of silence and seclusion that lasted until his death. In 1968, The Mother founded a model global village called Auroville, based on principles espoused by Aurobindo, which is still in progress.
- Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950). Famous for asking himself continuously, “Who am I?” He also asked visitors the same question until they were reduced to silence.
- Swami Sivananda Saraswati (1887-1963/4). Founder of the Divine Life Society taught the ancient Indian science of ayurvedic medicine and meditation. His disciples included Swami Satchidananda and Swami Vishnu Devananda.
- Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952). Coming to the U.S. in 1922, he became famous as the author of Autobiography of a Yogi (1946), founded a Yoga Institute in Los Angeles in 1925, and established the Self-Realization Fellowship (S.R.F.), to teach his path of Kriya Yoga.
- Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986). Although he was chosen by the leaders of the Theosophical Society as the avatar of the 20th century and had a worldwide following, Krishnamurti rejected attempts to found a church around him. He refused any formal following, speaking and writing for the general public, and settling in Ojai, California.
- Ma Anandamayi (1896-1982). A leading female saint of India who became enlightened without reading scripture or studying with a guru.
- Swami Muktananda (1908-1983). Practitioner of Siddha Yoga, the way of the Siddhas, or semidivine beings mentioned in the Puranas, and emphasized awakening the kundalini. In America, he created the SYDA Foundation, based in South Fallsburg, New York.
- Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (b. 1911) Founded (and copyrighted) Transcendental Meditation, or TM, based on ancient meditation techniques. After the Beatles went to study with him in 1967, he became instantly famous–even after they disowned him less than six months later. He became one of the leading exponents of ayurveda in the West, and his students include Deepak Chopra.
- Swami Satchidananda (1914-2002). Disciple of Swami Sivananda who gave the invocation at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 and later founded Satchidananda Ashram — Yogaville in Buckingham, Virginia, where he teaches Integral Yoga.