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New Religious Movements: The Current Landscape (September 2013): Asian Traditions

By Stephen Bales

Asian Traditions

Many Asian-born religions have long histories and have reached high levels of theological and philosophical sophistication.  Most of these religions, however, have not seen wide exposure in the West until recently.  Because of their novelty to Westerners, these ancient religions, as well as their recent offshoots, are typically treated as NRMs by academics, the press, and Western political and religious organizations.  Among the best-known and most visible imports from South Asia to the West is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, commonly known as the Hare Krishna.  E. Burke Rochford Jr.’s Hare Krishna Transformed follows up on his earlier case study, Hare Krishna in America.  The earlier book offers insight into the Krishnas’ organization, beliefs, and practices from someone who joined the group in the United States; the later study also focuses largely on the religion’s development in the United States, particularly on how the lifestyles of adherents have shifted over the past forty years, showing how an Eastern-born NRM has adapted to remain viable in the West.

Indian “guru” traditions became increasingly popular in the West during the 1970s.  Several good histories of these imports highlight their ongoing dialogue with their adopted cultures.  The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America, by Robert Love, is a history of Hatha Yoga’s introduction to and early development in the United States, showcasing how a particularly influential import became uniquely American.  Gurus in America, edited by Thomas Forsthoefel and Cynthia Ann Humes, assesses the influence of important Hindu spiritual leaders who brought their teachings to the West beginning in the late nineteenth century.  Among the nine gurus discussed are major figures such as Osho (Rajneeshpuram), Gurani Anjali (Raja Yoga), and Sathya Sai Baba (International Sai Organization).  Lastly, Lola Williamson’s Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion gives a broad overview and analysis of Hindu-inspired meditation movements in the West, and how they have been Americanized.  Williamson uses three major Asian-born NRMs, the Self-Realization Fellowship, Transcendental Meditation, and Siddha Yoga, to abstract the shared elements of these Americanized Hinduisms.

Likely because of their visibility, Transcendental Meditation and Siddha Yoga are the subject of recent in-depth ethnographic research.  For an insider’s account of Transcendental Meditation, a popular and widespread Indian export to the West made visible by such high-profile adherents as the Beatles, Mia Farrow, and Donovan Leitch, see Geoff Gilpin’s The Maharishi Effect: A Personal Journey through the Movement That Transformed American Spirituality.  The book paints a portrait of the religion as seen through the narrative lens of the author, himself a former practitioner.  Gilpin draws on his own participatory experiences and includes many valuable interviews with other adherents.  John Paul Healy provides another insider account of an NRM, this time the Siddha Yoga of Swami Muktananda, in Yearning to Belong: Discovering a New Religious MovementYearning is a case study of the membership life cycle of this particular NRM.  As such, the book provides an ethnographic and autoethnographic account of involvement with a new religion that goes far beyond the simple brainwashing-based accounts perpetuated by popular culture.

Not all adherents of Asian religious transplants in the West, of course, are Westerners.  Religious Reconstruction in the South Asian Diasporas: From One Generation to Another, edited by John Hinnells, collects essays focusing on how immigrant South Asian religions and religious communities adapt to Western society.  Hinnells gives voice to those who are not encountering novel experiences “in the known,” but maintaining tradition “in the novel.”  East Asian religions are also seeing increased exposure in Western countries.  Mahayana Buddhists represent a small but growing community in Canada, for instance.  Buddhism in Canada, edited by Bruce Matthews, is a good source for understanding how Buddhist groups have spread and how they have influenced Western culture over the last century.  Matthews’s book discusses how Buddhism in Canada has become “uniquely Canadian” through cultural fusion.  It is organized geographically, with chapters devoted to the spread and influence of the religion in major Canadian cities or geographic areas.  Another book about religious change through transmission, Shoji Yamada’s Shots in the Dark: Japan, Zen, and the West, shows how American and European authors have distorted Japanese religious ideas.  Using the examples of Japanese archery and Zen rock gardens, Yamada illustrates how Westerners have sometimes misrepresented or even fabricated elements of Japanese culture and religion.

Most of the literature discussed in this section deals with the introduction of Asian NRMs in the West.  Asia, however, has also put its own unique stamp on formerly alien faiths (e.g., Christianity brought by Western missionaries).  Japan, for instance, is a hotbed for NRMs.  Introducing Japanese Religion, by Robert Ellwood, covers Japanese religion from its early roots in Shintoism to the present.  The book is useful in understanding how Japanese indigenous religions coexisted with and influenced (and were influenced by) foreign religions.  The later chapters are devoted to Japanese NRMs, and include movements such as Tenrikyo, Konkokyo, and Nichiren.