that was a hit before your mother was born
and though she was born a long, long time ago
your mother should know...
your mother should know...
Settle back, strap in. Roll up for the mystery tour...
This quote is from an article on vedanta.org titled Vedanta in America: Where We've Been and Where We Are. The author is Pravrajika Vrajaprana, a nun of the Sarada Convent at the Vedanta Society of Southern California in Santa Barbara. The article originally appeared in the February, 2000 issue of Prabuddha Bharata.
"A distinguished literary work" is how Time magazine characterized the Prabhavananda-Isherwood Bhagavad-Gita which has sold over one million copies since its 1944 publication. It is the only Prabhavananda-Isherwood title still available in the mass-market edition; today the book is still widely used as a college text and -- unlike most other Vedanta books -- remains available in general-audience bookstores.The full article contains more background on the adoption of Vedanta in the United States via the mediation of Henry Miller (in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare) as well as through various works by Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood and Gerald Heard. The Wikipedia page on Heard, who has been largely forgotten today, informs us that...
Heard is also responsible for introducing the then unknown Huston Smith to Huxley. Smith became one of the preeminent religious studies scholars in the United States. His book The World's Religions is a classic in the field, sold over two million copies and is considered a particularly useful introduction to comparative religion. The meeting with Huxley led eventually to Smith's connection to Timothy Leary.Huston Smith's Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World's Religions (1976) updates the same sort of ideas Aldous Huxley presented in The Perennial Philosophy (1945). These ideas about sophia perennis -- the purported perennial wisdom -- overlap considerably with those that emerged under the rubric of capital-T Traditionalism, as presented by Réne Guénon, Frithjof Schuon, and Ananda Coomaraswamy. The best book on the subject to date is Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century by Mark Sedgwick. Here's a wonderfully contextualizing clip, which -- though its density may confound more than enlighten -- is definitely well worth its weight in Transcendentalists.
[Ralph Waldo] Emerson also subscribed to a form of perennialism, writing in his diary in 1839 that for him "Bible" meant "the Ethical Revelations considered generally, including, that is, the Vedas, the Sacred Writings of every nation, and not of the Hebrews alone." In this, and in his emphasis on the East as a source of wisdom ("Europe has always owed to oriental genius it's divine impulses," as he said in 1838 in his celebrated address to the Harvard Divinity School). Emerson prefigures Olcott [Madame Blavatsky's sidekick], and so also Encausse and Guénon. Perennialism as understood by Emerson and Cousin continued independently during the twentieth century, perhaps most famously in Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy.Not incidentally or inconsequentially, Traditionalism also included among its major professors and promoters the "esotericist" and outrageous capital-F Fascist, Julius Evola.
But back to Huston "World Religions" Smith, who recounts his acid trip with Tim Leary in his considerably less-bestselling Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals. The nod to Huxley's Doors of Perception is of course no accident. Heard, Huxley, Isherwood, Huston Smith and Leary were all doing psychedelics together in various combinations at one time or another in the '50s and early '60s.
And further back yet to Christopher Isherwood, who, among other things, was a voluminous diarist. In the published versions, he writes quite a bit about his devotion to Vedanta. But it's not those bits I quote below. The two clips immediately following are from Lost Years: A Memoir 1945-1951, the first on page 220:
...and they started what was to be an on-and-off but longish affair. Michael was then about eighteen; a Jewboy with thinning hair, a high forehead, spectacles (his sight was very poor), a cute cheerful face (resembling Anne Francis...And so on. To understand the next part (p. 262), you need to know that Isherwood often wrote about himself in the third person (who knows why), so this is in fact him making the following observations...
That first evening in bed together, Barry said, "How extraordinary this is! Here am I, a Russian Jew, making love with Christopher Isherwood!" His remark jarred on Christopher; it seemed indecent, masochistic, sexually off-putting. But, as Christopher got to know Barry better, he found a different significance in it. When Barry thus called attention to his Jewishness, he wasn't really demeaning himself. He wasn't at all a humble person. Indeed, he had that Jewish tactlessness, argumentativeness and aggressiveness which always aroused Christopher's anti-Semitic feelings. Only, in Barry's case, Christopher's anti-Semitism quickly became erotic. It made him hot to mate Barry's aggressiveness with his own, in wrestling duels which were both sexual and racial, Briton against Jew. Barry's aggressiveness became beautiful and lovable when it was expressed physically by his strong lithe body grappling naked with Christopher's. As they struggled, Christopher loved him because he was a pushy arrogant Jewboy. But he never talked to Barry about his feelings. They were too private.*Note that Isherwood's first take is that Barry Taxman's identifying himself as a Jew would necessarily be self-demeaning. That asterisk at the end has a corresponding note at the bottom of the page stating:
Taxman finds this passage to be apocryphal and extremely offensive and distasteful to him.Isherwood clearly had these reactions in hand before the book went to press, but didn't see fit to modify or remove the passage.
The following is from isherwood's Diaries: Volume 1, 1939-1960, June 2, 1958 (p. 756):
Waiting to get the Sunbeam-Talbot fixed the other day, I was accosted by a round-faced little Jewboy of about twenty. "Gee, Mr. Isherwood," he said. "I hope when I'm your age I'll be as famous as you..."Three days and as many paragraphs later, Isherwood notes on the same page:
I feel a great urge to pull myself together, stop being fat and sedentary, and get on with the Ramakrishna book...