The Essence of Contemporary American Religion

Part Three

By Jagannatha Prakasha

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I date this [fourth] awakening from 1965 through the present, though as I have said, any dates are only approximations. The end of this Awakening may have already occurred, but it is not yet certain. The earlier portion of the 60s I see as preparatory. I would roughly divide it into two periods. 1965-1975 reflected the gaining of knowledge and experience for their own sake. Dharma Bums roamed the earth in search of truth and experience. People dropped out in order to experience life and love. By 1975 the initial drive had faded and people began evaluating their experiences. The vast majority faded back into society, but everyone was forever altered. Through the experiences and realizations of the sixties the entire planet was forever changed in very tangible ways.

I believe, for instance, that due our collective desire for universal peace and freedom the Soviet Union ceased to exist - an amazing thing which we already take for granted. Think of it, the second most powerful nation in the world simply disbanded! Meanwhile in the United States, despite the occassional autrosities (such as the Persian Gulf War, the Waco massacre, the Ruby Ridge government executions, etc.) the desire for peace and freedom is alive and growing ever brighter.

Sydney E. Ahlstrom, in his A Religious History of the American People, described the 1960s as the end of the Puritan epoch in America (NRC 295). The result (or cause?) of this transition was the Counterculture movements of the 1960s and early 70s. This Awakening produced a generation which, in its hayday, fostered unprecedented discussion and debate over the nature of reality and the role of the individual therein. If it is not yet over, those reforms may continue. If it is, personal awakenings can still transform individuals.

During this period, as in those preceding it, groups and teachers arose to offer insight. The research of the Theosophical Society re-emerged in the late sixties. Not only did Theosophy receive new life for itself, it also fostered a general awakening which permeated the sixties and seventies. The importance of HPB is all too often minimized, it seems to me. Her influence, directly or indirectly, on Western religion and thereby society is immense. Largely because of her the West was ready to accept the Eastern teachings which typified so much of the Fourth Great Awakening.

A few Indian teachers, such as Paramahansa Yogananda and Meher Baba, had made inroads in the West prior to the sixties, yet their influence during the Fourth Great Awakening was nonetheless profound note 36. A plethora of groups were founded during this period.

For instance, in 1969 Yogi Bhajan came to the U.S. He was accomplished in many different forms of Yoga, but was primarily a member of the Sikh Khalsa (or Guru Panth) note 37. His teachings were customized for Westerners and exclude many of the cultural aspects which, in Sikhism, are often such hindrances for non-Punjabis. His organization is known as 3HO. This unusual nomenclature refers to the essential teachings and aspirations of Yogi Bhajan and his followers, 3 H's and an O: the Healthy-Happy-Holy Organization note 38. In the late 1970's I had the opportunity to work as a volunteer (perform seva) at one of Yogi Bhajan's restaurants (The Golden Lotus in Atlanta, Georgia). It was there explained to me that the original reason for the creation of 3HO was that Americans, largely Hippies and Flower Children, were expressing an interest in Sikhism, but were not qualified to join the Khalsa or Sikh community note 39. As a result, Yogi Bhajan was approved as a middle ground teacher. He could deal with the Counter-culture and train its people in Sikh tradition without requiring the strict observances of traditional Sikhism. In this way, sincere people could learn and develop spiritually without direct contact with the holy Sant Mat. What resulted from his labors was the creation of a large movement, established in America rather than the Punjab.

Its adherents, much to the surprise of the Sant Mat, were enthusiastic and, in some cases, adopted vows even stricter than those required of Singhs note 40. As time passed most members of the 3HO underwent formal initiation into Sikhism. Perhaps surprisingly, after doing so most remained within the 3HO, maintaining that Yogi Bajan is equal to, if not greater than, Guru Nanak himself note 41. 3HO has therefore become a growing movement in its own right.

Another Indian teacher who had a profound impact on the West was A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (1896-1977). In 1922 his spiritual preceptor, Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura (founder of the Gaudiya Math), ordered him to go to the West and spread the bhakti marga (Path of Devotion) of the Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya Vaishnava sampradeya note 42. After a lifetime of preparation, a thirty-five day ocean journey from Calcutta (on the Jaladuta steam ship), during which he apparently suffered a mild heart attack, Prabhupada, as his followers called him, arrived in Boston September 17, 1965. He was 69 years old and possessed only forty rupees cash, which even he considered only a few hours spending in New York. What made this Indian teacher unique among those who had come before, was that Prabhupada was a strict Personalist who held to the teachings of acintya bheda-bheda vedanta (the Vedantic doctrine of Inconceivable Oneness and Difference). His Hindu predecessors in the West had all espoused variations of Advaita-vedanta (the monistic doctrine championed by Shrila Shankara {788-822} and popularized by Swami Vivekananda {1863-1902}, Swami Shivananda {1887-1963}, Swami Muktananda {1908-1983} and others. Prabhupada introduced deity worship note 43. and traditional Hindu puja or worship methodologies. Prabhupada also translated more than sixty Hindu Scriptures and teachings, such as the Bhagavad-Gita, the first ten cantos (books, 28 volumes) of the Shrimad Bhagavatam, a seventeen volume Shri Caitanya-caritamrita, the Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, the Shri Upadeshamrita, the Shri Brahma-samhita, the Raja-Vidya and many others. Well over one hundred million copies of his works have been distributed in more than thirty languages worldwide. He has also established over a hundred Temples, ashrams, farms and schools around the world (LC 2,3).

No continent is without a Krishna Temple, there's even one in Moscow (NR 210). His International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), into which I was initiated in 1973, introduced the West to mantra-yoga, particularly the chanting the of the Vaishnava Maha Mantra note 44. This mantra was incorporated into George Harrison's top ten single My Sweet Lord which contrasts Christianity (Hallelujah) with Vaishnavism (Hare Krishna). During the early stages of the Fourth Great Awakening the Hare Krishna Movement had far more impact than is normally conceded. Through it millions of Westerners were introduced to Eastern ideas, several thousand became Vaishnava monks and nuns. Today only a few hundred people remain within ISKCON as full time monks. A few thousand more remain as householder devotees (grahastha) who live outside the ISKCON ashrams but regularly visit and support the Temple (mandir) while others, in the end the vast majority, went on to join other groups or simply had their lived improved due to his teachings and then, for various reasons, left the Movement.

November 14, 1977, at 7:30 P.M. Shrila Prabhupada attained Maha-samadhi (died). Since that time ISKCON has abandoned many of his teachings and altered many more. Without his hands-on leadership the movement has been plagued with countless scandals, including grand theft, child abuse, arms smuggling, and murder. It has become a small organization with little influence outside its own religious society (MoS). This is very sad.

Guru Maharaji's Divine Light Mission also was influential for a while. I attended many of its darshans or meetings in the mid to late seventies. This group, like the Hare Krishna Movement, espoused a bhakti (devotion) based philosophy. Unlike ISKCON, devotion was directed exclusively to the Guru rather than to him as a representative of God, Maharaji was God, not just His representative. The DLM stressed the importance of personal realization over ritual. Through its somewhat bazaar techniques I saw the Divine Light and tasted the Celestial Nectar. Space forbids a discussion of the techniques employed to this end, but the movement, while it lasted, was exhilarating note 45.

There were also many quasi-religious political movements which exorcized the people during this period. These must be mentioned here as they had a profound influence. They include the Freedom of Speech Movement, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Weathermen Underground, the Students for a Democratic Society, the Berkeley Free Church (and all the related free movements such as free clinics, free food pantries, etc.), the Black Panther Party, the Venceremos, the Zen Center, the Christian World Liberation Movement, the Women's Movement (NOW), the Wiccan resurgence note 46. the Church of Satan, the Human Potential movements note 47. Synanon, Esalen, Jesus People USA (who to my surprize -- and disappointment -- evolved into a traditional Christian ministry) note 48. Jews For Jesus, Catholic Charismatic Renewal (as well as the still growing Charismatic Protestant Churches), The Children of God note 49. Campus Crusade For Christ, Scientology, Stephen Gaskin's The Farm, the Family of Perpetual Love (not to mention the Sisters of perpetual Indulgence!) etc. Through groups such as these, not to mention the direct experiences gathered through drug use, especially LSD, people expanded their consciousness and tasted the diversity and potentiality of religious and personal realization.

Most of the people who experienced the various religio/political alternatives eventually left them. By the mid to late seventies this portion of the Fourth Great Awakening was over. What followed, and continues today, was, it seems to me, a direct response to these experiences.

The Fourth Great Awakening Today

This response has taken two basic forms: the rise of Christian Fundamentalism and New Age Spirituality. As in the days of D.L. Moody, modern Christian Fundamentalists sincerely believe that the U.S. has turned its back on God, that this once one nation under God has lost it way. The way to reclaim our lost Christian heritage, they say, is to return to the fundamentals of the faith. In order achieve their objectives, Christian fundamentalist leaders are actively working to curb the rights of gay and lesbian peoples, other religionists, and all things New Age (they seem to consider the ancient religions of the East to belong in this category!). Their critics suggest that their goal is nothing less than the establishment of Christian theocracy. I tend to agree and am somewhat concerned that society at large is not taking this threat more seriously. Every time a commercial sponsor submits to threat of boycot, every city counsel which is stacked with right wing extremists, every politician who is coercesed into restricting WWW freedom of speech, every victory they accomplish, pushes the U.S. closer to religious fascism.

One of the major enemies of Christian (or any other) Fundamentalism is modern literary criticism. It is considered the enemy, and I use the term advisedly, because through it the religion and its sacred writings are defined by unbelievers, that is to say, by persons who reject the basic premises of the text they seek to evaluate. For instance, according to a literalist interpretation of the Bible, sinners are destined for Hell: And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee, for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell (Matt. 5:29). Christian Fundamentalists, based on this and similar scriptures, believe in the literal existence of a place called Hell: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched (Mark 9:44).

A non-Fundamentalistic scholar might well point out that the word hell in such verses does not refer to a place of eternal torment. Hell [1067]: geena, gheh'-en-nah: of Heb...; valley of (the son of) Hinnom; gehenna (or Ge-Hinnom), a valley of Jerus., used (fig.) as a name for the place (or state) of everlasting punishment; hell (GD).

The use of this word is incredibly informative. The word geena (gheh-en-nah) only appears twelve times in the Christian New Testament, yet the most fearsome of all Christian doctrines is based upon it note 50. According to II Kings 23:10 the Valley of the Son of Hinnom is also known as (or contains) To'phet. From this we know that the man Hinnom, whom the infamous valley was named after, was a Jebusite worshipper of the astral God Mo'lech (or Malcham/Milcom), chief Deity of the Ammonites (HD 4432, 4445; Egg 110). This is clear from the statement that the valley was 'defiled' ... that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Mo'lech. This Mo'lech was none other than Chemosh, the God of Moab, which is to say, the Great and Mighty Ba'al, chief rival, along with the Goddess Asherah, of Yahveh Elohym, the Hebrew God (HG). The word Jebusite refers generally to Hennom as an inhabitant of Jebus (which was the aboriginal name of Jerus), but as the root of Jebus (Yebuwc) is buuwc, meaning to trample, loath or be polluted, the use of the name, in context, implies the polluted act of Hennom causing (or more likely allowing) his sons and daughters to pass through the fires to Mo'lech (HD 2982, 2983, 947).

Passing through the Fire, or Firewalking note 51. as it is currently known, is of uncertain origin, however around 1450 B.C.E. Moses condemned his followers for imitating the detestable practices of the natives. There must never be anyone found among you who makes his son or daughter pass through fire (Deut. 18:9,10 J.B.). The practice was commonly associated with Mo'lech (a.k.a. Moloch) and was referred to by Virgil, Strabo and Pliny as being practiced in Cappadocia over two thousand years ago (I 292).

Now, having explained all this, we can better understand the Biblical references to Hell. The Valley of the Sons of Hinnom is located just outside of Jerusalem (Jos. 15:8). Part of the curse of this valley is recorded in Isaiah. It was filled with wood and brimstone (sulfur) and became the great garbage dump for the city. This is confirmed in Smith's Dictionary of the Bible, volume one: It [the valley] became the common lay-stall [garbage dump] of the city, where the dead bodies of criminals, and the carcasses of animals, and every other kind of filth was cast (quoted in T 43).

What, then, did Jesus mean when he said the unrepentant would be thrown into gehenna? Clearly he, the master of parables, the non-Fundamentalist scholar might reply, was using the utter destruction of the city garbage dump as an analogy for the helplessness of the spiritually bankrupt. Moreover, he was drawing a parallel between rejecting his teachings and the ancient history of the dump, You see what became of the valley, how about your soul? In support of this thesis, such scholars continue, is the fact that he only used this analogy when he was around the city. When at sea, for instance, Jesus referred to the state of the lost as being comparable to one having a mill stone tied about the neck and being cast into the sea (ex. Matt. 18:6). Here his warning would be as clear to a fisherman as his allusion to the fiery dump would be to those of Jerusalem.

As for the other usages of the word, English translations render three words as hell: sheol, hades, and geena (gehenna). We have already discussed gehenna. As for the other two, sheol is Hebrew and simply means the grave. This word is found 65 times in the Hebrew Bible. In the Authorized King James Version it is translated 31 times as grave, 31 times as hell and 3 times as pit. The other word, hades appears ten times and is always, in the King James (and Douay), translated as hell. That sheol and hades refer to the same thing, the grave, is witnessed by the fact that at Acts 2:31 the Apostle Peter quotes Psalms 16:10 (15:10 in the Douay): He [God], seeing this [Jesus' death] before [by His Omniscience], spoke of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in [hades], neither did his flesh see corruption. Here the Greek word hades is used as the translation of the Hebrew sheol'. This is the same sheol desired by Job as an escape from his many sufferings (Job 14:13). Certainly Job would not want to die and go to Hell, which was even worse than what had befallen him, but to the grave.

I have spent a great deal of time on this example, however it is indicative of a few good points and therefore worthwhile. In order to understand the Bible (or any other Scripture) serious study is required. Fundamentalists do study the Bible of course, but generally not with the critical mind required to understand it objectively. Non-Fundamentalist scholars generally care little about religion, especially the traditional fundamentals of religion. Scholars such as Mark Smith therefore find little difficulty in discrediting traditional beliefs. Such people lose nothing if it is proven that Yahveh is an amalgamation of ancient and diverse Caananite deities rather than the one, eternal Divinity. For the Fundamentalist however, such would be devastating (EHG). Furthermore, when these scholars credit different dates and authorships to the Bible or deny the legitimacy of the Biblical miracles, especially those performed by Jesus, they seem unconcerned about the mental and spiritual anguish their words can cause. Is it any wonder therefore that Fundamentalist Christians unite in condemnation of such researchers and their findings? What people would willing turn over their doctrines and beliefs to people who do not share their faith and convictions? This is explained succinctly by the Fundamentalist Christian professor Richard Belcher note 52.

...When one's confidence in Scripture begins to blur, then so does the historical Jesus, as proved by the critical scholar's views. In turn, when the historical Jesus blurs, so does the only plan of salvation. There is only one way the real person and work of Christ can emerge, rise, and stand, and that is through a divinely-inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word of God. One might just as well sing about Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds or Pink Marmalade ... as to search for the historical Jesus and Christ with scholars who reject the inerrancy of Scripture. That is why the present discussion among evangelicals concerning the nature of Scripture must continue. The nature of Scripture is linked vitally to one's view of the person and work of Christ. Only as evangelicals hold to inerrancy and infallibility can they know that they are preaching the real, historical, and saving Jesus Christ (ID 79).

Fundamentalist Christianity is alive and well in the Fourth Great Awakening. Despite the public scandals of people like Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker and the like, devout ministers abound. Men such as W.A. Criswell, Billy Graham and Josh McDowell are generally known to millions, however there are also thousands of devout ministers and church workers who persist in living and sharing the Fundamentalist Christian message.

While I have focused herein on Fundamentalist Christianity, I fully realize, acknowledge and celebrate the devoted lives of the many Progressive, Liberal, Orthodox and others who are just as devoted to the Christian faith as the Fundamentalists. This includes many people within the Roman and Orthodox Catholic Churches, as well as the vast array of Christian sects and those who practice their faith outside the confines of any organizational structures.

As for the New Age Movement, it continues to grow by leaps and bounds. One thing which makes this movement so exciting is its diversity. Within it one finds various types of Christians who do not fit into the more traditional framework of the organized Church. Many New Age Christians, for instance, embrace such doctrines as reincarnation and meditation. Other groups, which might be better known as neo-Christian, have also maintained some popularity. These include groups such as the Unification Church, the A Course in Miracles study groups etc.

The Eastern religions and their offshoots continue to be placed in the New Age category. Despite its problems, ISKCON continues, as does 3HO, the Siddha Foundation of Swami Muktananda, Self Realization Fellowship, etc. Eastern teachers continue to offer their darshan or teachings. These include Shuddhananda Brahmachari (Divine Life Fellowship), Mother Amritanandamayi, Swami Kriyananda (Ananda Fellowship), Swami Satyananda and Shree Ma (Devi Mandir- Napa CA.), Swami Prakashananda Saraswati (International Society of Divine Love), Brahmananda Saraswati (Cultural Integration Fellowship), etc. etc.

The Fourth Great Awakening is, I believe (and hope), only just beginning!

End Page Three

Om Tat Sat

Maranatha, the Christ is in our midst!

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  • Note 36: Yoganandaji founded Self-Realization Fellowship 1920 (AoY xiii). He attained mahasamadhi (died) on March7, 1952. Meher Baba claimed to be the incarnation of every Divine Being one could imagine. In 1925 he took the vow of silence and never spoke again. In 1956 he gave up his chalk board (which he had used for communication), and on January 31, 1969 he dropped the body (NR 83,84). return
  • Note 37: Yoga, as used here, refers to any method of Self-realization employed within the Indian religio/spiritual systems. Sikhism (or Sant Mat) is the Indian (Punjabi) religion which developed around the teachings of Guru Nanak and his nine successors. The khalsa is the recognized body of Sikhs, coming through the lineage of the ten Gurus which ended with Guru Gobind Singh. Guru Panth has the same implications and means, literally, community of the pure ones (GiS 68; SR 263,264). return
  • Note 38: Take this with the proverbial grain of salt, but I was told that another reason for this name is that the Sacred monosyllable Om looks like 3HO when written in devanagari (Sanskrit) chartacters. return
  • Note 39: It was also admitted that the Punjabi Sikhs did not want to associate with the American counter-culture although they sensed great sincerity among its numbers. return
  • Note 40: Since, in India, last names are indicative of one's caste, it was not enough to personally renounce one's place in the system because one was still judged on that basis. Therefore Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, renamed his followers in a way which would acknowledge no caste distinctions. All Sikhs adopted the surname Singh (Lion). This name disavowed any reference to caste and implied that one was a lion for God, or fierce in determination to attain liberation (P). As with any people, not all Sikhs are fully observant of their religion. Everyone who is born in a Sikh family is named Singh, but since the time of Guru Gobind Singh, only those who are devout, those who are indeed lions for God, employ this name. To qualify as a Singh one must be sincere in religion, above social reproach, and observe five cultural practices known as the five Ks:
    * kesh: uncut hair. From birth onward devout Sikhs never cut their hair, including their beards. This is indicative of their desire to transcend material nature and attain spiritual realization. The body is not important beyond its role as a vehicle for enlightenment.
    * kangha: comb used to keep the hair clean. This comb is kept under one's turban. The practice of kesh should not be taken as neglect for the body, it is cared for as one might care for an automobile, hence the kangha.
    * kara: metal bracelet or bangle worn on the right wrist. Since the Sikhs reject all forms of asceticism, they are actively engaged in life. Indeed, unless a man works and supports his family he can't be considered a Singh. When one reaches out his (right) hand to work, the bracelet reminds him of God. By this he is always careful to deal honestly with all men.
    * kaccha: knee-length underwear.
    * kirpan: dagger. Sikhs reject the doctrine of ahiÁža (non-violence). They see it as a moral weakness and betrayal of religious requirements. If a Sikh sees a wrong being committed he is duty bound to stop it. Sometimes such righteous intervention requires force. The dagger is not therefore merely a religious symbol, it is a tool, even a weapon, for righteous intervention or self-defense. There is also of course the spiritual symbolism.
  • Note 41: Some say he is Guru Nanak returned. return
  • Note 42: Bhakti-marga means the Path of Devotion. The Brahma-Madhva-Sampradaya refers to the school (sampradaya) of Vaishavism (worshippers of the Sustainer God Vishnu) which, according to tradition, passed from Shree Vishnu through Brahma, the Creator God, via the religious philosopher Madhva (1199-1278) and was then restored by Shree Krishna-Caitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1533). It was then disseminated throughout Bengal (hence Gaudiya from Gauda-desh) and now throughout the world through Srila Prabhupada and his disciples (LC 3). return
  • Note 43: The worship of murtis or physical Deity Forms. return
  • Note 44:Mantra-yoga refers to the use of sacred chants for enlightenment. The Maha Mantra (Supreme Chant) for Vaishnavas is Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. return
  • Note 45: After their publicized experiences with Guru Maharishi Mehesh Yogi, George Harrison and John Lennon studied with Prabhupada and Harrison became a devotee (CBH). He remains such today. In 1969 he produced the Hare Krishna Mantra as a favor to Shrila Prabhupada. This recording of the mantra became a best seller throughout Europe and Asia. Harrison also donated a seventeen acre estate outside London to ISKCON. Today it is a Temple and ashrama known as Bhaktivedanta Manor (Back to Godhead magazine, January 1983). return
  • Note 45: According to rumor, Guru Maharaji impregnated one of his disciples and his mother ordered him to discontinue his movement and return to India. return
  • Note 46: Wicca, in this case, is used to indicate the various Witchcraft groups, as well as the larger Neo-Pagan communities popular at the time. return
  • Note 47: From 1970 to 1974 twenty thousand people have been involved in Arica, thirty thousand with EST, nearly a thousand with Psycho-synthesis. Transcendental Meditation [Maharishi Mahesh Yogi] and Silva Mind Control together have involved over a million persons (NRC 100). return
  • Note 48: In Chicago, Jesus People U.S.A. operated a dozen houses with nearly a thousand members. In the mid-seventies I spent a month in Jepusalem and found them very sincere Christian people who sought to incorporate the fundamentals of the counter culture into a liberal Christian context. Today they have discarded any semblence of their hippy past. They have become a mildly fundamentalist group of dedicated Christian workers. return
  • Note 49: The COG threw great parties! They took the command to love thy neighbor literally. One-on-one sex, as well as orgies, was an important component of their spiritual practice. COG's founder, Moses David, fled the U.S. to escape sex charges involving minors. I have heard that the COG is presently re-emerging as the Family. At this time I have no other information on their activities (any information is requested). return
  • Note 50: The word hell is found in most translations much more than twelve times of course. I will discuss the other occurances shortly. return
  • Note 51: I have Firewalked and find the practice spiritually uplifting. This ancient technique continues to be practiced around the world (Body 67; I 292; Mind 90). The coals average 806 degrees F. (while the body of the fire is around 2552 degrees). For more info on Firewalking, see Dying; Egg; or F.I.R.E. These resources are referenced below. return
  • Note 52: Dr. Belcher (Th.D., Concordia Theological Seminary) teaches theology, Bible, and Greek at Columbia Bible College.