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Hinduism without religion: Amma's movement in America.

As Hindu new religious movements globalize and disseminate their theological messages outside of India, they have a substantive tendency to wrestle with the category of the "Hindu" in their rhetoric and practices. While diasporic temple communities of ethnically Indian immigrants frequently embrace a Hindu identity as a means to take their place "at the multicultural table," (1) transnational gurus and modern practitioners of yoga both have a unique legacy of tension with the category of the "Hindu." Some disavow the category entirely claiming the terms "spiritual" and "spirituality" as more effective markers and distance themselves from the perceived orthodoxies of Hindu religiosity by using a decontextualized theolinguistic register to signify more egalitarian, democratic, inclusive, ecumenical, and universalistic impulses. Very few of these types of modern global movements that derive their roots, practices, and theologies from Hindu religiosity proudly proclaim themselves to be Hindu. But why?

For many, the active distancing from the Hindu religiosity of their roots develops in tandem with their rise to global fame. As Tulasi Srinivas tells us, "No longer rooted in traditional Hinduism, the new sacred person of Sai Baba is disembedded from the religiocultural milieu and is free to travel across the global network." (2) But do global guru movements perceive this distancing from "traditional Hinduism" as a necessary correlation to becoming globally marketable? Does this signify that Western audiences (and even modern Indian ones) are unprepared to accept Hinduism with its plurality of particular and localized formations and even suggest a continued prejudice against Hindus and Hinduism as many staunch Hindu advocates would have us believe? Or has the historical legacy of the extraction of a generalized ecumenical universalism, often based in derivative forms of Advaita Vedantic philosophy, become so ingrained that it constitutes an independent religious category, nearly complete in its dissociation from its broader religious context of Hinduism?

Turning our gaze toward the pragmatic, one might argue that this ambivalence toward the category of the "Hindu" stems from discomfort with the fact that the term "Hindu" can readily be defined as a religioethnic category and one bound to a particular sacred geography: India. Thus, when attempting to reach geographically exogenous non-Indian Hindu audiences, [Hindu] gurus must at least deal with the potential for, if not the prior existence of, categorical dissonance among their followers. They must preempt the possibility that potential non-Indian Hindu recruits will question, "How can I follow this [Hindu] guru, if Hindu religiosity is a religio-cultural birthright available only to ethnically Indian Hindus?"

Or to speak in the stark terms of materialism, it might simply be the fact that the language of spirituality sells more effectively to global audiences, among both practitioners who identify with non-Hindu religious denominations and by the increasing populations of those who have become disillusioned by mainline Christian traditions.

The active distancing of largely Hindu ideologies, practices, discourses, and so on from the category of Hindu religion engenders the often virulent contemporary debates in which Indian Hindu activists attempt to reclaim contemporary modalities (such as yoga) as Hindu, while many of their practitioners staunchly defend their spiritual (non-Hindu) foundations (Vitello 2010). Recently, the head of the Hindu American Foundation touched on the commonplace marketing of Hinduism as spirituality, when he explained, "our issue is that yoga has thrived, but Hinduism has lost control of the brand." (3) Like yoga, Advaita Vedantic theology has been branded globally as "spirituality" by religious leaders who locate their roots in India and draw heavily from Hindu religiosity. But also like yoga, this particular strain of Hindu theology, often termed neo-Vedanta, has been adapted and transformed, sometimes to the point of non-recognition in order to make it palatable to diverse (both intra-Hindu and inter-religious) audiences. The rhetorical history of transnational gurus in the West shows us that the majority of them have chosen to implement generalized universalistic principles usually derived from Advaita Vedanta and couched in the language of spirituality, but dissociated from the greater context of Hinduism in order to garner popular acceptance of their "foreign" religiosity.

Regardless of the multiplicity of motivations behind this disassociation from the category of the Hindu, there are serious and perhaps unexpected consequences. When modern proponents of Hindu-derived practices and theologies argue that their innovations are spiritual rather than religious, or more specifically, Hindu, they effectively relegate the category of the Hindu to that which is traditional, stagnant, ritualistic, and so on and in the process they siphon off its potential for innovation and renewal in modernity. This categorical distancing echoes that of many of the participants in new [Hindu] religious movements, who also seek to detach themselves from "traditional" Hindu religiosity, believing it to be a signifier of backwards, ritualistic, hierarchical, and anti-modern sensibilities. In so doing, both parties stymie the process of Hindu religiosity's adaptations to "multiple modernities" (Appadurai 1996, Eisenstadt 2000, Tambiah 2000), which ultimately results in the antiquation and fixity of our understanding of what it means to be Hindu. This active process of siphoning results in the fact that youth searching for a Hindu identity are more often than not restricted to conservative and orthodox options because the innovative and liberalistic options have been recoded as spirituality. Thus, we might imagine that the language of spirituality may unwittingly contribute to the active rise in Hindutva ideologies, which are of particular concern in diaspora contexts where the desire to represent an authentically Hindu identity is palpable.

Scholars, for their part, have largely reflected this distinction rather than challenging it. In attempting to describe and define the products of this disassociation from "traditional" Hinduism, they somewhat uncomfortably innovate new terminologies to evocate the Hindu-like activities of many avenues of global Hindu religiosity, e.g., Hindu-derived or Hindu spirituality (Huffer 2010, Sharma 2006). In his recent work, American Veda, Philip Goldberg differentiates the modernist form of "Vedanta-Yoga" as "India's leading export," while George D. Chryssides analyzes "Hindu NRMs [New Religious Movements]" and rightly notes the absence of "distinctively Indian village practices ... that are less palatable to westerners."4 Lola Williamson recently went so far as to champion an entirely new category of [Hindu] religiosity, developing the term Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements (HIMM) to denote the dual influences of ethnic-Hindus and theologically kaleidoscopic non-Indian Hindu spiritual seekers who comprise devotee populations. She argues that HIMMs are a new religion consisting of the hybridized influences of Hindu religiosity and "Western traditions of individualism and rationalism."5 Noting the dissimilarity to what we might precariously term "traditional" Hindu religiosity, some scholars have opted for the disavowal of the term "Hindu" entirely, instead locating contemporary [Hindu] hybridity within the realm of "Indic" religiosity (Srinivas 2010) or "modernist" approaches as opposed to Hindu "traditionalism" (Warrier 2006).

My endeavor here examines closely one influential contemporary transnational guru, Amritanandamayi Ma (also known as Amma, the Malayalam [and more generally South Indian] term for "Mother"), who, like many of her contemporaries, actively disavows the category of religion in favor of spirituality. In addressing the category of Hinduism, Amma exhibits an ambivalence, in which she simultaneously exalts Hinduism as the most tolerant and ecumenical of the world's religions but also attempts to transcend the categories of Hinduism and religion to promote a non-denominational spirituality. Amma creates her vision of spirituality by drawing on the universalistic monism of Advaita Vedantic [Hindu] discourses and offering an expansive interpretation of Hinduism. With regard to her systematized orthopraxy, she performs and subsidizes rituals, practices, and administrative hierarchies that are undeniably Hindu. I juxtapose Amma's discourses with ethnographic data from her devotees in order to question precisely what is at stake in her somewhat commonplace move to promote discourses of spirituality instead of Hindu religion in her global transnational guru movement.

On universalism

But how do we get from the language of Hindu "religion" to that of "spirituality"? Ironically, one of the most effective theological resources that many of these [Hindu] new religious movements employ to obfuscate the category of the Hindu stems from within Hindu religiosity itself, in the form of neo-Vedantic universalism. Contemporary gurus have popularized hallmark Vedic maxims of universalism and ecumenicalism, such as "ekam sat vipraha bahudha vadanti" or "Truth is one, the wise call it by many names" (Rg Veda, 1.164.46) and famous Upanisadic maxims, such as "tat tvam asi: Thou art That," or "ayam atma brahma: This Self is Brahman." These textual citations are used to evidence several fundamental claims: first, the essential unity of all living creatures and God (conceived as both immanent and transcendent), which one must realize by pulling aside the curtain of maya (illusion); second, the realization of this ultimate reality is moksa (liberation) attained through personal development by means of spiritual practice and discipline, and third, the viability of a variety of means and methods to accessing that essential Truth. (6) Historically, the systematized philosophical school of Advaita Vedanta can be traced to Shankara's eighth-century commentary on the Brahma Sutras (Vedanta Sutras), but contemporary gurus often anachronistically attribute its roots to the Upanisads and the Bhagavad Gita, both of which exhibit proto-Advaita Vedantic sensibilities. Many modern proponents, like Aiya, the temple priest/guru in Corinne Dempsey's eth-nographic account of a goddess temple in upstate New York, explain neo-Vedantic sensibilities with the metaphor that like there are many-rivers flowing into oceans with a variety of names, still all of these ultimately converge in the same body of water; so too is the nature of the world's religions eventually leading to one Ultimate Truth. (7) This modernist interpretation of Advaita Vedanta provides the foundation for a universalistic idiom that subsumes the multiplicity of difference into a singular conception of cosmic unity. It also resonates among Americans, many of whom easily elide it with Unitarianism, pantheism, and the traces of New Thought and Theosophy that continue to exert their influence in what Catherine Albanese terms American "metaphysical religion." (8)

Universalizing discourses present general normative claims that aim to speak to and represent all of humanity while camouflaging the fact that they are extracted from particular and particularizing ideologies. Characterized by the obfuscation of difference and particularity, universalizing discourses exert systemic violence upon differences between a multiplicity of religious expressions, which is often overlooked in favor of their unifying tendencies. The European universal-isms of Enlightenment reason and rationality fueled the colonial endeavors of empire building directed at asserting Western hegemony across the globe. Proponents of Islamic universalism attempt to construct a pan-Islamic ummdh that claims to represent and fulfill the social and religious needs of all of humanity. Hindu universalisms, in turn, also derive from the obfuscation of real differences between religious sects, people, and cultures. In their claims to universality, proponents not only minimize the importance of the particularities of subjects' self-identities, but they claim to represent those particularities by supplanting them with generalizing principles. In each of these cultural traditions, universality becomes a criterion and a site of conflict of who (and which universalist ideology) is best equipped to represent humanity. Thus, as Etienne Balibar suggests, in speaking of universalism, we instead must speak of multiple universalisms and recognize these claims as contested spaces constructed by political motivations.

By focusing their attentions on universalisms, such as "One God/ many paths," it might appear that contemporary gurus aim to parallel explicitly the universalisms of the Christian tradition, perhaps supposing that these maxims will ring familiar for Western audiences outside of India, many of whom have relations to Christian traditions. In these pithy maxims, they may find echoes of the Pauline demonstration of "the subsumption of the Other by the Same ... how a universal thought, proceeding on the basis of the worldly proliferation of alterities (the Jew, the Greek, women, men, slaves, free men, and so on) produces a Sameness and an Equality (there is no longer either Jew, or Greek, and so on)." (10) In Paul's preaching, differences and particularities exist in the world, but they are not granted the subjectivity of truth; they must be transcended through faith, hope, and love to reach God. In Alain Badiou's summation, "[T]hese fictitious beings, these opinions, customs, differences, are that to which universality is addressed; that toward which love is directed; finally, that which must be traversed in order for universality itself to be constructed, or for the genericity (genericite) of the true to be imminently deployed." (11) Similarly, in Advaita Vedantic universalism worldly alterities are imagined as fictitious; they are illusions (Gaya) that must be recognized as such, dissolved into monism in order to recognize the ultimate sameness and equality of all phenomena. In the universalism of the Advaita Vedantic lens, there is only monism (sarvo brahman: everything is Brahman); the existence of actual difference (and hence multiplicity) itself is denied. To use categories often deployed to translate Indie philosophical concepts, ultimate difference is revealed to be only conventional difference. The non-dual monism of neo-Vedanta cannot accept a plurality of opinions, tastes, creeds, prophets, or Gods without undermining its own philosophical foundations.

Spiritual but not religious

Many contemporary gurus use the unifying language of spirituality because it enables them to speak in a language that resonates with disparate and diverse audiences. Their contemporary eclectic and disunified audiences demand a transidiomatic theolinguistic register that Srinivas Aravamudan terms "Guru English," a cosmopolitan method of communication that aims to appeal to populations (and audiences) stemming from a variety of religio-cultural backgrounds.12 The transidiomatic theolinguistic register of Advaita Vedantic philosophy enables culturally embedded spokespeople to transgress the particularities of Hindu religiosity in order to speak to global audiences in terms of generalized ethics, morality, and humanism. It is a product of the cultural encounter between India and the "West," which aims to translate and evangelize Hindu ideology by cloaking its particularities in universalistic rhetoric. It is perhaps no surprise then that the upswell of this new brand of neo-Vedantic universalism marks its beginnings at the fomenting moments of the Hindu Renaissance of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and similarly emerges from the cultural apologetics of the elite (largely Bengali) literati within the dialectical legacies of colonialism and orientalism.

This type of register is also vital for devotees, many of whom find the generalist and unifying language of spirituality to be an effective tonic of similitude as globalization has rapidly increased the abutment of radical differences through cultural diffusion, intercultural encounters, and a cosmopolitan panoply in the marketplace of religious ideas. Additionally, it also appeals to those who have disassociated from the particularities of a sectarian religious tradition and seek eclectic and alternative religiosities based in the unmediated pursuit of personal experiences of the supernatural. In fact, while spirituality is a notoriously nebulous term to define, there is something definitive within its focus on unmediated and internal experience of transcendence dissociated from any particular form of divinity, which distinguishes it from the category of religion. Robert Wuthnow defines spirituality as "a state of being related to a divine, supernatural, or transcendent order of reality or, alternatively, as a sense or awareness of a suprareality that goes beyond life as ordinarily experienced." (13) Martin Riesebrodt rightly notes that "the now widespread notion of 'spirituality' continues the individualistic orientation of Romantic discourse." (14) In fact, the modern definition of spirituality closely resembles the romanticism inherent in the highly interior and ecumenical terms with which William James famously defined religion as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine." (15) Thus, the modern discourses of spirituality direct us toward the internal rather than the external and the experiential rather than the institutional; the term spirituality signifies the individual's personalized quest for an unmediated experience of the transcendent.

In the United States, the accelerating trend toward supplanting Christian church membership with self-defined alternative and eclectic spiritualities has supplemented the entree of the new religious category "spiritual but not religious" (SBNR), which, as Philip Goldberg argues, has developed an entire discursive register, a "lingua spiritus" among those who hybridize and adapt Asian religions for Western audiences and their followers. (16) In fact, in surveys conducted between 1999 and 2002 in the United States, persons claiming this categorical status ranged from 16 to 39 percent of the American population. (17) Many who replace the term religion with spirituality aim to avoid the negative valences of that which is often associated with religion. As Robert C. Fuller tells us, "The word spiritual gradually became associated with the private realm of thought and experience while the word religious came to be connected with the public realm of membership in religious institutions, participation in formal rituals, and adherence to official denominational doctrines." (18) This increased emphasis on the privatization of religion reconfigured as spirituality (and the corresponding promotion of personal spiritual experience) might be read productively as a pragmatic sociocultural remedy to the potential for conflict and divisiveness. Many see this move as the inevitable consequence of the direct proximity and immediate accessibility of multiple religions interacting in the public sphere augmented by the increased mobility inherent to globalization (Luckmann 1967, Bellah 1985, Wuthnow 2003).

Similarly, contemporary Hindu religious spokespersons relate the term religion to a bounded set of doctrines substantiated by authorities and institutions who assert their exclusivist worldviews. In their views, the term religion emphasizes obligatory ritual actions to appease a transcendent God, whereas the term spirituality notions toward the inner transformation of the individual in order to foment the recognition of the imminent God within. Many of these spokespersons' ideological lineages can be traced to the neo-Vedantic universalisms of the eighteenth-century religious reformer Rammohan Roy and his Hindu-Unitarian society of the Brahmo Samaj. In 1893, at the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Pratap Chandra Mazumdar, representing the Brahmo Samaj, similarly attached importance to "faith," "intuition," and "spiritual" experiences as opposed to doctrinal "religion." Speaking of the mission of the Brahmo Samaj, he explained, "It [Dogmatism] is the lifeless mass of complex theology, inherited by tradition, enforced by external authority, unrealized by spiritual experience, contradicted repeatedly by the spirit of the times and the ascertained laws of things, that the Brahma Samaj repudiates ... The great and really profound doctrines of religion are ... deposited within the mind in imperceptible accretions by the deep flow of spiritual impulses." (19) He envisioned a spiritual life as one comprised of intimate experiences of transcendence cultivated with the aid of devotions to and guidance from prophets. Mazumdar's dichotomy between dogma and spiritual experience created a Hindu-derived prototype for the contemporary distinction between religion and spirituality.

The ecumenical and universalistic neo-Vedantic ideas of the Brahmo Samaj, which fascinated American Unitarians as early as Rammohan Roy's articles in the Christian Register, profoundly influenced the tendency of contemporary transnational gurus to supplant Hindu religiosity with Advaita Vedantic universalistic spirituality. Swami Vivekananda (and many of his contemporaries and subsequent gurus) made "a conscious decision to emphasize a universal, adaptable Vedanta-Yoga, and to keep aspects of Hinduism that might be construed as cultist or idolatrous in the background, as a family might put exotic decor in a closet when conservative guests come over." (20) Nearly thirty years later, Paramahansa Yogananda (founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship) also argued that, "If by religion we understand only practices, particular tenets, dogmas, customs, and conventions, then there may be grounds for the existence of so many religions. But if religion means primarily God-consciousness, or the realization of God both within and without, and secondarily a body of beliefs, tenets, and dogmas, then, strictly speaking, there is but one religion in the world, for there is but one God." (21)

In distancing themselves from the perceived orthodoxies and ritualism of Hindu religiosity, many contemporary proponents express their spirituality through the (also Hindu) ideal of sanatana dharma (or the eternal truth/law). They use the term sanatana dharma to dissociate from the business and potential sectarianism of the religious category of Hinduism. In this popular view, sanatana dharma is distinct because it is not an "-ism" at all. Proponents distance sanatana dharma from the business of religion by arguing that it is instead a way of being, a method, a system of values, focused on the personal experience of an immanent and transcendent God. Furthermore, one may accept sanatana dharma without altering one's prior allegiance to a particular religion or faith. This caveat proves particularly useful when appealing to both Hindu and non-Hindu global audiences. While Hindus may be linked together through sacred geography, ethnicity, ritual actions, and an inherited wealth of religious scriptures, modern followers of sanatana dharma need only ascribe to a "philosophy of life," which can coexist with a variety of religious beliefs and practices.

Amma's movement uses this categorical distinction to advocate a form of religious tolerance in which devotees are encouraged to maintain their extant religious worldviews but also fold themselves into Amma's religiosity. Amma often highlights the parallels between the various world religions, from which she concludes, "though expressed in different ways, the principle conveyed here is the same. The import of all these sayings is that: As the same Soul, or Atman, abides in all things, we must see and serve all as One. It is the people's distorted intellect that makes them interpret these principles in a limited way." (22) Amma's interpretation attempts to minimize differences and highlight similarities among world religions, but ultimately she reads each religion through the lens of Advaita Vedantic monism: "we must see and serve all as One."

Beneath this ecumenical surface, one finds that sanatana dharma is in actuality a recoding of Hinduism, for example, Amma says, "The great souls living in different countries during different epochs gave their disciples instructions on how to attain God (or the Ultimate Truth). These instructions later became different religions. But that which in India became Sanatana Dharma consists of the everlasting principles, values, and ethical teachings that were revealed to a large number of Self-realized souls as their own experience, [sic] Later it came to be known as Hinduism. It is all encompassing." (23) In this explanation, sanatana dharma is not only proto-Hinduism, but it is also the wellspring for all world religions. When intertwined with a nationalistic zeal, sanatana dharma becomes the underlying spiritual essence of all religions and India, the sacred geography of its genesis, becomes guru to the world. As Amman says, "Every place has a heart center ... In the same way, India is the heart center of the world. Sanatana Dharma, which originated here in India, is the source of all other paths. When the veiy word 'Bharatam' [India] is heard, we experience the pulse of peace, beauty and light. The reason is that Bharat is the land of the mahatmas. It is the mahatmas who transmit the life force not only to India, but to the whole world." (24) Sanatana dharma is proto-Hinduism without the baggage of religion, imagined as transcendent, eternal, value and ethics based, ecumenical, and above all based in the internal experiences of individuals. Much like the inclusivism of liberal Protestants, to which it is often a respondent, this type of rhetoric becomes a similarly inclusi-vistic theology, a topic to which I will return shortly.

The ideology of the eternal, unchanging sanatana dharma combines with neo-Vedantic monism and as such subsumes difference into a meta-category that coincides with one particular Hindu sectarian ideology. In it there is no space for or acceptance of the cultural encounter of radical difference; in fact, it is the very substance of multiculturalism--difference--that is undermined. The universalistic monism of neo-Vedantic philosophy, while often articulated in service of multiculturalism, interfaith dialogue, and ecumenism, is in actuality its antithesis. For example, like Yogananda cited previously, Amma denies the actuality of diversity among world religions when she asserts that there is only one omnipresent omnipotent God, whom various religions envision in different forms. She says.
  Gods? There are not many gods. There is only one God. The different
  forms are only to enable people to adopt and use the form which they
  like, according to their mental tendencies. In this way the goal is
  attained easily. People in different countries call Him by different
  names. God is not many because of that ... The same girl is looked
  upon as a sister by her brother and as a wife by her husband. The
  younger brother sees her as his eldest sister. There is no
  change in the person; she is the same girl. In a similar way, the
  Power is one but the names differ. (25)

Herein lies the commonly heard neo-Vedantic solution to the variety of deities in the Hindu pantheon, first implemented widely in the modern period as a response to colonial and orientalist critiques of Hindu polytheism. But instead of smoothing over differences between Hindu Shaivites, Shaktas and Vaishnavas, here the suppression of religio-cultural differences takes on a globalized scale interlocuting between "world religions."

It is this interlocutive impulse between world religions that substantiates the displacement of the category of religion in favor of a universalistic spirituality. It has at its heart the pragmatic goal of uniting diverse (and often conflicting) ideologies. In her discourses, Amma often places the blame for wars and social injustices at the feet of religion and religious divisiveness. Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in 2000, Amma said, "The very words 'nation' and 'religion' tend to connote division and diversity." (26) Whereas "true religion" is spirituality, a spirituality that recognizes that "there is one Truth that shines through all of creation" (27) In one of her most commonly employed illustrations, she explains that "religion" is the husk, while "spirituality" is the "kernel." In other words, we must shuck the external properties of religion, which prevent us from enjoying its essence, spirituality. She says, "Instead of focusing on the essence of the religious principles of love and compassion, we focus on the external rituals and traditions, which vary from religion to religion. That is how these religions, which were originally meant to foster peace and a sense of unity among us, became instrumental in spreading war and conflict. If we are willing to abide by the essential principles of religions, without being overly concerned about their external features and superficial aspects, religion will become a pathway for world peace." (28) Thus, she maintains that we must transfer emphasis from religions (plural) to spirituality (singular) in order to foster an environment that minimizes religious conflict and promotes intercultural unity. She accentuates what she believes to be the core religious values of love and compassion in order to argue for a spiritual global ethic, freed from the sectarianism and differences in orthopraxy which divide humanity into various religious allegiances. Pragmatically, Amma sees this shift in focus as a necessary component to universal peace and prosperity among the diverse populations of the world's religions.

However, in this case as well, her framing of the essence of religion as spirituality cannot be dislocated from the context from which she derives her inspiration: Hindu religiosity. Amman says that she is promoting universalistic principles that transcend any particular religion, when in fact she is espousing a paradigmatically Hindu philosophy, championed as universal. She says, "My children, according to Hinduism, there is Divinity in everything; everything is an embodiment of God. Humans and God are not two; they are one. Divinity lies latent in every human being. Hinduism teaches that anyone can realize the Divinity within through self effort. The Creator and creation are not separate. The Creator (God) manifests as creation. In Hinduism, to realize this non-dual truth is considered to be the ultimate goal of life." (29) In this way, like her predecessors of the Hindu Renaissance and many of her contemporaries, Amma transforms the Advaita Vedantic strain of Hindu religiosity into the hallmark philosophy of Hinduism. In so doing, she propagates and reinforces the contemporary depiction of Hinduism (in its entirety) as Advaita Vedantic monism, a (mis)representation that is particularly ubiquitous in global arenas. Amma, like many other modern transnational gurus, extracts this transidiomatic theolinguistic register of universalism--exemplified through the language of spirituality--for its ease of transference and its ability to resonate with diverse audiences. She deploys Advaita Vedantic universalism alternately in the reductionistic modality as representative of the whole of Hinduism or in the disassociative modality as entirely unaffiliated with Hinduism in favor of a tenuous assertion of its roots in non-denominational spirituality.

Ecumenism and tolerance

In either case, gurus espousing the universalistic monism of Advaita Vedantic theology under the rubric of spirituality often accompany it with claims to its ecumenism and tolerance toward other religious worldviews. While modern gurus often promote ecumenism and tolerance as universalistic ideals, it does not take much probing beneath the surface to find their underlying belief that ecumenism and tolerance are, in fact, the hallmarks of a distinctively Hindu brand of spirituality. It is this ambivalence toward the category of the Hindu that reveals oscillating patterns of affiliation: non-Hindu (universalistic/spiritual) when proselytizing the particular theology of Advaita Vedanta and Hindu when appealing to often valorized humanistic ideals (ecumenism and tolerance). Are ecumenism and tolerance Hindu ideals as they are often marketed to be? Observing the religio-political advances of the Hindu right in the past thirty years, one might answer a vehement no. But careful attention to the rhetoric of modern transnational gurus who derive their global followings through the implementation of a theolinguistic register of neo-Vedantic universalism might suggest a qualified yes.

Like many debates, perhaps a closer investigation into semantics, in this case those of the Hindu use of the term "tolerance," may direct us toward a more productive and perhaps even more definitive answer. The Hindu vision of religious tolerance is more aptly termed "inclusivism," meaning that it validates and includes theologies and prophets from other religions. Peter van der Veer effectively argues that the Hindu conception of religious tolerance is a product of "a specific orientalist history of ideas." It is an Enlightenment discourse derived from "an abstraction and universalization of religion that is part of the Western discourse of 'modernity.'" As a doctrinal notion religious tolerance has "no specific place in Hindu discursive traditions," but it was readily incorporated so that "it has come to dominate Hindu discourse on Hinduism, to the point where tolerance is now viewed as one of the most important characteristics of Hinduism." (30)

Hindus not only tolerate other religiosities, but they incorporate them through its theological system of what Paul Hacker terms "hierarchical relativism." (31) This formulation depends on the theological opinion that avatars (bodily manifestations) of the One true god who is formless (Brahman) operate in different ways with different purposes on a hierarchical scale of importance. In van der Veer's language, "The general idea seems to be that the other paths do not have to be denied as heretical but that they are inferior and thus cater to inferior beings." (32) We can see this tendency in a multiplicity of textual and practical examples within the complexities of sectarian relations among various types of Hindus (from Shiva portrayed as a gopi [a female devotee of Krishna] in the region of Braj, to Rama bhakta devotional sects subordinating Krishna to Rama). This same hierarchical relativism and inclusivism that characterizes the historical relations among Hindu sects also exemplifies the manner in which contemporary Hindus often relate to other religions. Much to the chagrin of Christian missionaries in India, Hindus demonstrate a willingness to incorporate the prophets and deities of other religions into the Hindu pantheon. Additionally, Hindus have a legacy of incorporating extra-Hindu ideas into their extensive theological corpus often demonstrating parallel themes already endemic to the scriptures of the Hindu traditions. With a tradition as diverse and multifarious as Hinduism, it is relatively easy to find nearly any theological or secular ideology somewhere in its voluminous textual history.

With regard to the contemporary Hindu claims to be the theological birthplace of religious tolerance and ecumenism, many proponents again use the concept of sanatana dharma in order to promote an inclusi-vistic stance. Amma iterates a common assertion in saying, "Hinduism isn't against anyone. Nor does it require anyone to give up his or her religion or faith. In fact, it considers it an unrighteous act to destroy someone's faith. According to Sanatana Dharma, all religions are different pathways to the same goal. It doesn't negate anything. Everything is included. For a Hindu there is no such thing as a separate religion. Originally, such a concept didn't exist in India." (33) At the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions, Swami Vivekananda famously declared a similar interpretation, "I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true." (34)

A Hinduism without religion

Amma argues for both the universalistic monism of Advaita Vedanta (iterated as non-Hindu spirituality) and the presumed Hindu proclivity toward hierarchical relativism (iterated as ecumenism). In essence, she attempts simultaneously to both expand and transcend the category of Hinduism. She articulates a theological position which on the surface appears to be quite ecumenical and palatable to interfaith dialogues, to which she is often invited at the most prestigious levels.35 Because she presents her worldview as "spiritual" instead of "religious," she is often regarded as a particularly effective mediatrix between the often conflicting voices of various religious traditions. For example at the Interfaith Summit during Amritavarsham50 in 2003, Shri. Bawa Jain, Secretary General of the World Council of Religions addressed Amma directly and said, "It is Your mission and responsibility to unite the religious leaders of the world together in harmony and peace. You are not bound by religious institutions or traditions.36 Many of her audiences, followers, and most ardent devotees also believe that in adhering to her message, they are being "spiritual, but not religious" and that their theology exists outside the boundaries of the religion of Hinduism when in fact, the very philosophical foundations that enable them to make that self-assessment derive from within Hinduism. The Advaita Vedantic monism with which they defend their ecumenism, universalism, and religio-cultural relativism signifies Shankara's hallmark contribution to Hindu theology.

Again, even when employing the discourse of spirituality as opposed to religion, Hindu roots are not far below the surface. Amma says, "India's culture is spirituality. The origin of spirituality, though it is beginningless, to speak in empirical terms, is the Vedas. Therefore, to preserve, protect and spread the Vedic dharma is equal to preserving, protecting and spreading the moral and spiritual values of the country which will help to uplift and unify its people. This alone will protect the country from a great down-fall." (37) Herein, the thin veneer of ecumenical spirituality shows its roots to be in the Vedas, the foundational scriptures for much of contemporary Hindu religiosity (in name if not always in practice). Amma's statement, laced with somewhat uncharacteristic Hindu nationalistic overtones [India = Vedic "spirituality"], reveals that even her idea of spirituality (as opposed to religion) must be understood as culturally embedded within a specifically Hindu cultural and discursive heritage, despite its pretense toward universality.

Many devotees wholeheartedly imbibe this categorical distancing between their spiritual worldviews and the perceived entrapments of religion and more particularly of Hinduism. They envision Amma as one who has Hindu roots, but transcends Hinduism and religion in general. One senior brahmacdri (renunciate aspirant), who lives at her ashram headquarters in India explained, "She [Amma] transcends the religion, the Hindu religion as such. And personally I believe she is the best example of Hinduism--because it is an all-encompassing religion. It welcomes everybody there. It does not say that this is the right path for you or this is the only path for you. You can worship God or not worship God, worship God in any form, name, or formless. This is total freedom. This is what Amma does. You can worship Christ and be spiritual; you can worship Rama and be spiritual. Amma exemplifies the Hindu tradition to the max. She transcends Hinduism, she is not religious; but she represents Hinduism, the best of Hinduism. There is nothing religious about it, merely spiritual." (38) Notice how he defines Amma's discursive position toward Hinduism quite accurately, explaining that she simultaneously transcends and exemplifies/ represents Hinduism. There is also significance in his concluding value judgment that the "best of Hinduism" is what is spiritual, while by contrast that which is not the "best of Hinduism" must be religious. A middle-aged Euro-American Amma devotee who developed her own eclectic spirituality while living in San Francisco, the American heartland of spiritual enterprise and exploration, explained, "Religion for me is static and narrow and dogmatic ... But when we get into the spiritual life and the spiritual way of living, what we call spiritual--and it's really scientific, it's really scientific--then, when we can merge ourselves and our heart with science then that will be the final [stage]." (39) A Syrian-American self-defined "liberal Muslim" and Amma devotee iterated founda-tionally Advaita Vedantic principles to me when he explained that, "Truth is truth, God is God, and it is expressed in different forms vis-avis different traditions." (40)

In supplanting religion with spirituality, Amma creates a theology that resonates with many Hindus who ascribe to neo-Vedantic theology while simultaneously appealing to the inclusive perennialist ideologies of the variety of movements often characterized as "New Age" or "metaphysical religion" in the United States. Many of these argue that "we are all essentially one; all religions point to the same truth; the globe is a whole; unity prevails within diversity." (41) The complex cultural encounter between proponents of neo-Vedantic theology and metaphysical religions in the United States not only fuels these culturally adaptive discourses but also supports practical commonalities among populations of Indian Hindu and American spiritualist devotees who interact in many contemporary transnational guru movements.

In Amma's branding statements directed at reaching these transnational populations of potential devotees, she often translates her references to Hindu scriptures and Hindu orthopraxy into more culturally ambiguous and generalized terminology. One of the primary maxims that Amma uses, "Love and Serve" condenses her complex religious philosophy into two simple ideas, notably two ideas that make no definitive reference to her Hindu roots. Nor does her primary identity statement "Embracing The World" (branded Summer 2009) make any reference to her Hindu roots. Instead, Amma's organization increasingly endeavors to depict her as a global spiritual teacher with a dedication to healing suffering and contributing to humanitarian causes around the world.

One might conclude then that Amma and her organization have truly globalized and with so many of her discourses emphasizing the universal and spiritual aspects of religion, even to the point of "transcending" religion, that she has expanded beyond her religious roots that locate her within the Hindu traditions. However, that is not the case. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Amma's organization instantiates classically Hindu religious ideas, scriptural references, devotional music, and ritual practices as a matter of routine. Functionally speaking, it supports a commonplace Hindu administrative structure of swami-s, brahmachdrilnr-s, and seva-ites (hierarchically stratified in descending layers of religious authority) as well as multiple geographic centers in her ashrams and local satsangs (congregational gatherings). (42) It also routinely incorporates the full range of traditional Hindu rituals such as darshan, pada puja, drat', homas, and special pujas and yajlias. In addition, Amma's movement encourages devotees to progress spiritually through daily mantra recitation, in-home puja ceremonies, and by practicing Amma's patented meditation technique, Integrated Amrita Meditation (IAM). Local satsangs and ashram communities congeal the devotional community and revivify Amma's presence by sponsoring rituals on special occasions that coincide with traditional Hindu festivals and religious celebrations; many also sponsor weekend meditation and yoga retreats, public discourses, sankirtan (collective bhajan singing), and sevd (selfless service) projects.

Contemporary transnational guru movements of the present, thanks to a long legacy of predecessors who broke down cultural barriers, are largely free to express their particular religiosities without consternation from the general public. While there are certainly scandals (some more warranted than others), contemporary gurus in the United States "have fewer doors to break down, and they no longer attract overheated media coverage and trigger extremes of rapture and hostility." (43) While guru communities are still occasionally viewed askance among the general American populace, the ideas of karma yoga, hatha yoga, bhakti devotionalism, and ashram retreats have become integrated into the kaleidoscopic lens of popular American alternative religiosities. But although multiculturalism and the appreciation of diversity have largely triumphed over the assimilationist paradigms which have been predominant throughout the majority of American history, still [Hindu] gurus from India have hardly changed their theologies to reflect these developments. They continue to implement the "spiritual" universalistic ecumenism of Advaita Vedanta and tuck the particularities of its Hindu religious context in the closet (especially when speaking to diverse public audiences), much like their historical predecessors.

In essence, Swami Vivekananda spoke with as of yet unchallenged authority when he created the hierarchy between the "high spiritual flights of the Vedanta philosophy" and "the low ideas of idolatry with its multifarious mythology," which he presented to excited audiences at the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions and later to packed lecture halls across the United States. As Aravamudan notes, "The orientalists' broad delineation and separation of philosophical doctrine from popular religion--highbrow texts from lowbrow culture--is an early version of modern Hinduism already at work." (44) Here, Aravamudan points us to a key component of this puzzle: the distinction between "progressive" spirituality and "backwards" Hindu religion reifies orientalist conceptions of cultural and religious hierarchies.

That said, the orthopraxies, if not the rhetoric of contemporary gurus is changing. While still espousing the transidiomatic theolinguistic register of Advaita Vedanta, many contemporary transnational gurus have created cottage industries by offering services in particular devotional rituals, life-cycle ritual ceremonies, Vedic sacrifices (yapias and homas), and so on. Amma's movement, in particular, demonstrates the discordant juxtaposition between universalistic "SBNR" rhetoric derived from Advaita Vedantic sources (often espoused to audiences who are unaware of its extraction from a Hindu context) and classically Hindu ritual practices. The popular ritualism of the movement signifies the shift in the multiculturalist American public's validation of difference, while its generalized rhetoric provides a blanket of security for those still uncomfortable with the influx of "foreign" religions.

In the cultural encounter between East and West, historically gurus adapted both their religious products and their rhetoric to non-Hindu audiences. Today, the product remains to some degree intact, while the rhetoric continues to adapt in order to allay fears and assuage the cultural translation. The contemporary attachment to the language of spirituality, an example of the transidiomatic theolinguistic register of neo-Vedantic universalism, signifies not the ecumenical interfaith dialogue that it often attempts to endeavor, but rather the lingering effects of the discomfort with cultural difference. Its nearly ubiquitous proliferation among transnational [Hindu] gurus is ample evidence that our multicultural aspirations have not yet reached fruition as to the acceptance of others, not as essentially the same, but as fundamentally different.


At the outset, I asked not only how, but why contemporary transnational gurus distance themselves from the category of religion and, in particular, that of Hinduism. In addressing the why, thus far I have argued primarily that gurus use the language spirituality in order to reach diverse populations and to resonate with Christocentric populations in particular (many of whom have become disillusioned with mainline Christianity). I have also suggested that gurus employ the non-denominational language of spirituality in order to stymie the potential for religio-cultural conflict in our rapidly globalizing world. Additionally, I would offer two hypotheses that may warrant further consideration: first, that these maxims reflect tendencies inherent to multiculturalism in the United States, and second, that gurus continue to perceive these cultural translations to be necessary in order to garner favor with American audiences.

Multiculturalism in the United States suggests that cultural communities be allowed and even encouraged to promote their particular ethnic heritage, so long as it does not overtly clash with the overarching commitment to proclaimed American values, such as liberty, democracy, and freedom. But often this "heritage, or 'culture' is not treated as a living set of social relations but as a timeless trait," evidencing an orientalist understanding of the static Other in contrast to the imagined dynamism of European cultures. (45) Vijay Prashad rightly argues that this understanding of the cultures of ethnic groups in the United States as static undergirds a fundamental discomfort with the ambiguities of difference and similarity. "Either people are all the same, or they are fundamentally different. There is little patience with the strategy that though people share much they are also dissimilar." (46) Recognizing this uncomfortable ambiguity, contemporary gurus venture toward the theolinguistics of the similarity (or even sameness) in the essence of all religions, perhaps in fear that their overt recognition of sometimes oppositional differences would eliminate their capacities to unite and appeal to diverse populations (which would also diminish their audiences and subsequent revenues). In this sense, their contributions signify an expansion of the tendency to construct avenues of similitude in the complex territories of diversity, which is evident in practical applications of multiculturalism.

Contemporary transnational gurus may also fear that espousing particular and foreign theologies to American audiences might place their movements within the more dangerous category of religious zealots proclaiming radical differences--in contemporary parlance often subsumed under the reductionistic category of "cult," or worse yet, "terrorist." (47) In fact, we might view the contemporary trend to recon-ceptualize Hindu orthodoxies into the universalistic theolinguistic register of Advaita Vedanta (voiced as spirituality) as a method for Hindus in the American diaspora to distance themselves from the generalized anti-Islamic sentiment directed at Muslims. If Hindus alter their orthodoxies to present themselves as the epitome of tolerance and ecumenicalism, they may escape the fate of their Muslim brethren, who are often condemned in the American public eye for their "fundamentalist" and "orthodox" religiosities. While this explanation supposes that contemporary gurus engage in calculated market research and modify their messages to suit particular audiences, the astute marketing teams in many of these transnational corporations make it a plausible possibility. And if so, then it might suggest that Americans of today are perceived to be quite similar to our compatriot audiences at the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions, who were largely delighted to discover in Swami Viveka-nanda's discourses a universalistic, ecumenical, and tolerant version of neo-Vedantic "spirituality," but rigidly opposed to the "heathen religion" of Hinduism. If underlying orientalism and the intolerance of true cultural difference continue to demand the translation of much of Hindu religiosity into the language of spirituality, then I fear that we may unwittingly create the foundations for a fearsome form of religion that will call itself Hindu, a form that feels it must distinguish itself from the discourses of "spirituality" by claiming its authenticity through the defining characteristics of its presumed antitheses: fundamentalism, orthodoxy, and intolerance. And as so many young South Asian immigrants search for tools with which to represent an "authentic" Hindu identity, this may be a dire consequence indeed.

Works cited

Albanese, Catherine L., 2008, A Republic of Mind and Spirit, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Amritanandamayi Ma, 2004, "Living in Harmony," An address at the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, The United Nations General Assembly, August 29, 2000, Amritapuri, Kerala: Mata Amritanandamayi Mission Trust.

Amritanandamayi Ma, 2006a, "Understanding and Collaboration Between Religions," Delivered upon Amma's acceptance of the Fourth Annual James Park Morton Interfaith Award, May 2, 2006, Amritapuri, Kerala: Mata Amritanandamayi Mission Trust.

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Anonymous, 1926, Leaders of the Brahmo Samaj, Madras: G. A. Natesan & Co. Publishers.

Appadurai, Arjun, 1996, Modernity at Large, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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(1.) See Kurien, A Place at the Multicultural Table.

(2.) Srinivas, 91.

(3.) See Vitello, "Hindu Group Stirs Debate in Fight for the Soul of Yoga."

(4.) Chryssides, 203.

(5.) Williamson, 4.

(6.) Philip Goldberg supplies a similar list of seven "core Vedantic principles that we in the West have adapted." Goldberg, 10-11.

(7.) Dempsey, 186.

(8.) See Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit.

(9.) Balibar, 146-74.

(10.) Badiou, 109.

(11.) Ibid., 98.

(12.) See Aravamudan, Guru English.

(13.) Robert Wuthnow, "Spirituality and Spiritual Practice," The Blackwell Companion to Sociology of Religion, 307.

(14.) Riesebrodt, 3.

(15.) James, 31.

(16.) Goldberg, 344.

(17.) Ibid., 22.

(18.) Fuller, 5.

(19.) Leaders of the Brahmo Samaj, 160.

(20.) Goldberg, 80.

(21.) Yogananda's speech at the International Conference of Religious Liberals, Boston, MA (1920), cited in Goldberg, 113.

(22.) Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, Understanding and Collaboration Between Religions," 22.

(23.) Amritanandamayi Ma, The Eternal Truth, 10.

(24.) Amma, Chief Executive of Dharma, Immortal Bliss, 1st Quarter 2004, San Ramon: Mata Amritanandamayi Ma Center, 27.

(25.) Swami Amritaswarupananda, Awaken Children! Vol. II, 184.

(26.) Amritanandamayi Ma, "Living in Harmony," 20.

(27.) Ibid., 23.

(28.) Ibid., 28.

(29.) Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, The Eternal Truth, 5.

(30.) van der Veer, 66-7.

(31.) Cited in van der Veer, Religious Nationalism, 68, see also Halbfass, India and Europe, 403-18.

(32.) van der Veer, 68.

(33.) Here, Amman rightly alludes to the fact that the term "religion" is a superimposed Western construct that has no direct correlate in Indic thought or languages. This point has been raised and debated among many scholars (Asad 1993, Balagangadhara 1994, Dubuisson 2003). I would also like to express gratitude to Pankaj Jain for reminding me that this entire discourse oscillating between the terms "religion," "spirituality," and "Hinduism" suggests a struggle with the modern dilemma of mapping western categories onto Indic ones. For example, if it were to adhere to indigenous Indic paradigms, the discourse might focus on Sanskritic terms such as "dharma, "samskrti" and "adhyatmika." The fact that the terms of debate are instead "religion," "spirituality," and "Hinduism" suggests that neo-Hinduism draws its tools of identity construction from both Western and Indic sources and cannot be extricated from the development of modern Indian understandings of subjectivity which emerged in dialogue with colonial power structures. Amritanandamayi Ma, The Eternal Truth, 21.

(34.) Swami Vivekananda, "Response to Welcome," World's Parliament of Religions, September 11, 1893.

(35.) Amma has presented on collaboration between the world religions at the Parliament of World Religions (1993), at the Interfaith Celebration of the United Nations (1995), to the UN General Assembly at the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders (2000), at the Interfaith Center of New York (2006) upon her acceptance of the Fourth Annual James Parks Morton Interfaith Award, and many others.

(36.) Far-Reaching, Immortal Bliss, 1st Quarter 2004, San Ramon: Mata Amritanandamayi Ma Center, 25.

(37.) Swami Amritaswarupananda, Awaken Children! Vol. III, 297.

(38.) Interview with Surya, San Ramon programs, June 6, 2008.

(39.) Ibid.

(40.) Interview with Iqbal, San Ramon programs, June 9, 2008.

(41.) Heelas, 219.

(42.) I use the notation "sevd-ites" to reflect the Sanskrit root of the term, however, within the movement these volunteers are referred to with the Sanskrit/English hybrid term "sevites."

(43.) Goldberg, 328.

(44.) Aravamudan, 32.

(45.) Prashad, 112.

(46.) Ibid.

(47.) Here we might understand ISKCON's troubled history of legal accusations and scandals in the United States to be a potential warning to Hindu new religious movements to the consequences of espousing particularistic theologies that demand a high level of commitment from American followers.
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Author:Huffer, Amanda J.
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Date:Sep 1, 2011
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