In researching the 200-year transmission of India's spiritual teachings to the West, I found that three gurus stood out for their immense impact on public awareness, and as it happens they all have birthdays around now: Paramahansa Yogananda on Jan. 5, and both Swami Vivekananda and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on Jan. 12. People who are into astrology say it's significant that all three were Capricorns. For me, an astrological agnostic, it's enough that their proximate birthdays are an opportunity to pay homage.
They came to America at intervals of about 30 years, in eras that were vastly different, culturally and technologically. They were, of course, Hindu monks. At the same time, they were well-educated, fluent in English and knowledgeable about science. They were ambitious (though not in the conventional sense), earnest, determined, well-organized, single-minded and pragmatically businesslike -- all Capricorn traits, I'm told, but let's not go there -- and they combined a steadfast reverence for tradition with skillful adaptation to the modern world.
Vivekananda, born in 1863, arrived in Chicago at age 30 as a delegate to the World's Parliament of Religions. It was the first parliament, and it might have been the last if the "handsome monk in the orange robe," as one writer described him, had not made it memorable. He stole the show with an eloquent refutation of misconceptions about Hinduism and a dignified demonstration of that tradition's vaunted respect for all pathways to the divine. At a time when most Americans hadn't even met a Catholic or a Jew, the enthusiastic reception was remarkable, although it was stained by predictable attacks from conservative Christians, to whom a heathen was a heathen no matter how erudite and inspiring he may seem.
Vivekananda spent about three years here before returning to India, where he passed away before his 40th birthday. His tenure was long enough to write four seminal books that introduced Westerners to the classic yogic pathways -- bhakti (devotion), karma (action), jnana (intellect) and raja (meditative practice) -- and to establish Vedanta Societies in major cities. The swamis who ran those centers in mid-20th century would become mentors to cultural icons like Aldous Huxley, Huston Smith, Joseph Campbell and J.D. Salinger, whose enduring works changed the way tens of millions saw themselves and the world.
Yogananda was born the year of his predecessor's triumph in Chicago and landed in Boston in 1920 to speak on "The Science of Religion." The first major guru to make the U.S. his home, he fell in love with Los Angeles, which he called "the Benares of America," establishing the world headquarters of his Self-Realization Fellowship on a rustic hilltop with a view of downtown. Early on he showed himself a thoroughly modern swami, using new inventions like radio and mail order to disseminate his brand of Kriya Yoga. His crowning creation, in addition to the durable organization that keeps his teachings alive, was the memoir, Autobiography of a Yogi. In the 300-plus interviews I conducted for my book, American Veda, that was the text most frequently mentioned when people spoke of their spiritual influences. It has sold 4 million copies and counting.
The third member of the trio is destined to be known forever as "the Beatles' guru." Born in 1918, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had been circling the globe for nearly 10 years, teaching his Transcendental Meditation, by the time the Fab Four found him in 1967. He touched down in the U.S. annually for much of that time, attracting small numbers of grown-up middle-class seekers. Then TM caught on among students, and spread to the burgeoning counterculture, and when the Beatles followed him to India, Maharishi's face became the global symbol of guruhood. It was on the cover of national magazines, the front pages of newspapers and on national TV.
Meditation was suddenly hip, and soon it would be something more substantial, as Maharishi prodded scientists to investigate what goes on in the body and brain when people meditated. As a result of those early studies, meditation -- and with it Indian philosophy -- moved quickly from the youth culture to the mainstream. That trend line peaked in 1975, when Maharishi occupied the full hour of Merv Griffin's talk show (the Oprah of its day) twice, with scientists and meditating celebs like Clint Eastwood and Mary Tyler Moore. Now, a thousand experiments later, yoga and meditation are routinely recommended by healthcare professionals.
Those three renowned teachers, and the many other swamis, gurus and yoga masters that came here from India, along with their Buddhist counterparts, changed the face of spirituality in the West. Among other things, they gave people who were alienated from, indifferent to or contemptuous of mainstream religion a way to exercise the spiritual impulse without compromising their sense of reason or the facts of history and science. They were Hindus to be sure, but they were not religious missionaries out to convert. They taught the essence of their tradition -- what Indians call sanatana dharma, or the eternal way, a science of consciousness if you will, that they said can enhance the life of anyone, whether religious or secular. In the process they lifted the ceiling on human development and opened the gates to a new understanding of who and what we are. For that, their birthday week deserves commemoration.