Bookmarks: 'American Veda' by Philip Goldberg

Los Angeles Times

Long before the Fab Four embraced the East, there were the Fab Three — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. Philip Goldberg's "American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation — How Indian Spirituality Changed the West" (Harmony: 386 pp., $26) is an authoritative, engaging survey of why, starting with these three venerable American thinkers, the flowers of Eastern practices have thrived in Western soil.

When he set foot in Harvard Divinity School a century and a half ago, Emerson had a shattering realization about Christianity. His discovery of Eastern texts "dispelled once for all the dream about Christianity being the sole revelation — for here in India, there in China, were the same principles, the same grandeurs, the like depths." Goldberg teases out the karmic principles in Emerson's writing, among others; chapters move like a succession of ocean swells, easily accessible, and Goldberg applies sharp strokes of the brush to capture particular viewpoints or dilemmas. "Tibetan Buddhists compare gurus to fire," he writes of the scandalous behavior of some yogis, "stay too far away, and you don't get warm; venture too close, and you can be burned."

Goldberg traces the "vedization of America" using the lives of various figures — among them Mary Baker Eddy and a founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson — as steppingstones to the present. The popularity today of all things Eastern, including retreats, mala beads, mindful eating and yoga, is a hopeful sign, he says, that we are experiencing a genuine "uptick in interreligious and interethnic harmony."

— Nick Owchar

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