In 1875, Russian mystic Madam Blavatsky founded a new movement, the Theosophical Society, in New York. Within two years, the society had moved to Chennai (Madras) in India, where it flourished under the patronage of social reformer and theosophist Annie Besant (1847–1933). It was through the Theosophical Society that many Hindu philosophical ideas became popular in the West, influencing such literary figures as Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood. The society is still active today in India and many Western countries, projecting the ancient philosophy of India along with other mystical and spiritual teachings, although in a non-religious manner. The interest of Westerners in Hindu philosophy also stemmed from their genuine hunger to seek the truth beyond the narrow limits of an organized religion.73 The propagation of neo-Vedanta philosophy in a vibrant manner, without any suggestion of conversion into Hinduism, by Swami Vivekananda opened floodgates for this inclination. There has been an unabated wave of interest in Hindu spiritual philosophy since then. It has taken many forms and directions, which is completely consistent with the diversity and freedom of Hindu thought.
Westerners have taken many of the top positions in various sects. Jean Klein and Andrew Cohen, who were disciples of Sri Ramana Maharishi, have become spiritual gurus and draw large crowds when they speak. Dr. Julian Johnson, a Protestant preacher, took Sawan Singh as his guru and later was instrumental in the development of Radhasoami Satsang in the West. After the death of Sri Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada, multiple Western disciples became heads of the Hare Krishna sect. The Self-Realization Fellowship, likewise, has a Westerner, Brother Chidananda, as its chief. So, too, is the case with the Saiva Siddhanta sect at the Hawaii Hindu monastery. Some of Westerners have adopted Hinduism formally, while others have not changed their original faith. This type of voluntary interest in faith other than one’s own is simply unprecedented in human history. Only time will reveal the final impact of this unusual phenomenon.
Baba Buta Singh Ji Mahraj (1873–1943) established the spiritual organization, Nirankari Sant Samagam in 1929, along with Baba Avtar Singh Ji Mahraj. Their teachings are based on Hindu and Sikh spiritual teachings and stress the practical application of teachings in everyday life. Satguru Mata Savinder Hardev Ji Maharaj is the current head of this rapidly growing fraternity, which now has branches all over the world.
Dada Lekhraj (1876–1969) started the Brahma Kumari organization as a socio-religious movement in Sind, now in Pakistan, in 1937. Following the independence and partition of India, the organization moved to Mount Abu, in Rajasthan, India. They believe in meditation, ethical conduct, and social service. The institute is involved in many spiritual activities and philanthropic projects. This organization has now adopted the new name, World Spiritual University. Dadi Janki Kriplani is currently the head of this Spiritual Organization.
Swami Gangeshwar Anandji Maharaj (1881–1992) became blind in his early childhood, but his inner vision opened floodgates of religious teachings. He mastered all the ancient scriptures, especially the Vedas, and propagated spiritual knowledge far and wide among his innumerable devotees.
Sant Teooram (1887–1942) was born in Sind (now in Pakistan) and rendered noble service both in spiritual and social spheres by establishing the Prem Prakash Mandli. His writings are preserved in an invaluable volume, Prem Prakash Granth. Shanti Prakash Maharaj (1907–1992) succeeded him. At present, Dev Prakashji Maharaj is the head at the Ulhasnagar branch near Mumbai, India.
Sri Swami Tapovan Mahraj (1889–1957) was a seer of rare spiritual dimensions. He spent a large part of his life in Uttarkashi and Gangotri in the Himalayas. He led a life of true renunciation and austerity. He roamed about in the Himalayas with great passion. All by himself, on foot, he set off on many pilgrimages. He wrote lucid account of these wanderings in many books, which have become extremely popular. Among his many devotees was the most celebrated Swami Chinmayananda, who carried his banner and Vedantic message to the far corners of the globe.
Paramahansa Yogananda (1893–1952) was a Hindu spiritual leader of exceptional attributes who came to America in 1920. He founded the Self-Realization Centers at various places in the United States and other countries. His teachings, which were based mainly on the special meditation techniques of Kriya yoga, attracted a large following. He adopted many Western practices in places of worship and brought about a good synthesis of teachings of the East and West. His own life story, Autobiography of a Yogi, has remained a masterpiece of spiritual literature and has been read by millions of non-Hindus all over the world. Brother Chidananda (1953-) is the current president of the Self-Realization Fellowship, with headquarters in Los Angeles, California. This organization, as well as its counterpart in India, Yogoda Satsanga Society of India, is a not a Hindu establishment, but most of the teachings are based on the Bhagavad Gita and other ancient Hindu scriptures.
Sant Kirpal Singh (1894–1974) was originally a disciple of Sant Jaimal Singh and Sant Sawan Singh of Radha Soami Satsang. He later started a spiritual organization, Ruhani Satsang, which became popular. He taught the unity of all religions and incorporated teachings from different masters. Sant Rajinder Singh Ji Mahaaj is, at present, the head of the organization, which has branches all over the world.
Swami Prabhupada (1896–1977) was a monk of rare quality, who first came to America at the age of seventy. He adopted the technique of chanting and worshiping, as did Chaitanaya Mahaprabhu in the sixteenth century. He soon created a movement of Krishna consciousness, which spread all over the world and established number of imposing Hare Krishna temples.
Ananda Moyi Ma (1896–1982) was a holy woman from Bengal who entranced her large following with her spiritual personality. She taught a devotional path with simplicity and sincerity.
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897–1981), was spiritual teacher and philosopher, who taught the complex subject of Advaita in most simple language in vernacular language Martahi in Mumbai. In 1973, the publication of his most famous and widely translated book–I am That and the English translation of his talks brought him worldwide recognition and followers.
Baba Muktananda (1908–1982), Siddha master and disciple of Bhagawan Nityananda, established his world-renowned ashrams, first in Bombay, India; and later in many cities in America and other countries. He taught the ancient Hindu tradition of Kundalini, based on Kashmir Shaivism, an awakening meditation technique, which has drawn many followers all over the globe. Gurumayi Cidvilasananda (1956–) is the current head of this religious organization, with headquarters at South Falls burg, New York.
Swami Satchidananda (1914–2002) gained fame as master of Integral Yoga–harmonising karma, jnana, and bhakti yoga. He was the author of many philosophical and spiritual books.
Swami Chinmayananda (1916–1993) established his main ashram at Powai, Bombay. He conducted Gita yagnas, where he gave very inspiring discourses on the teachings of the Gita He was a master orator who gave instruction in his own inimitable style. Later, his devotees formed Chinmaya Mission. He visited America and many other foreign countries regularly and established Chinmaya Centers and temples all over the world. Bal Vihars, children’s classes at these centers, have become extremely popular, both in India and abroad.. Swami Swaroopananda is the current head of the Chinmaya Mission worldwide.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1917–2008) become world famous for introducing his own version of meditation called Transcendental Meditation, or TM. After doing austerities in the Himalayas for many years, he settled in the United States and started a full-fledged university in Iowa that is dedicated to the study of Hindu scriptures, Ayurveda, yoga, and meditation.
Pandurang Shastri Athavale (1920–2004), popularly known as Dadaji by millions of followers all over the world, has created a niche for himself by adopting more than eighty thousand villages for his now-famous Swadhya movement. Multitudes of poor communities of farmers and fishermen have benefited enormously from these socio-religious awakening centers, especially in western India. Dadaji called it “Gita in action.” He was awarded the prestigious Magsaysay Award in 1997 for excellence in community leadership.
Baba Hari Dass (1923–) may be best known as a mauni sadhu, a monk who practices continual silence. Born in Almora, India, he moved to the United States in 1971. He has established a vast ashram at Mt. Madonna near Santa Cruz, California, where thousands of devotees come to learn Ashtanga yoga and obtain answers to many everyday problems. He writes his answers on a chalkboard and enlightens his followers with spiritual wisdom. Baba writes, “There is an inner silence. It cannot be heard by the ears, only by the heart.”
Mata Nirmla Devi (1923–2011) became a famous Kundalini yoga guru, teaching this art at mass meetings that drew thousands of devotees at a time. Mata Nirmla had been busy conducting the meditation courses, called Sahaj yoga, both in India and abroad.
Swami Rama (1925–1996) was brought up in the Himalayas. He came to America in 1969 and immediately caught the attention of many with his deep knowledge of yogic exercises and mystic practices. He wrote many books and later established the Himalayan Institute in the United States. Pandit Rajmani Tigunait is, at present, the head of the Himalayan Institute at Honesdale, Pennsylvania.
Satya Sai Baba (1926–2011) became a legendary figure and is considered to be God incarnate by his many followers. The religious organization associated with his name has performed great service to humanity by providing excellent hospitals, schools, colleges, and drinking-water facilities, as well as undertaking many other social activities. His ashram, known as Prasanthi Nilayam (Abode of the Highest Peace) at Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh, is always buzzing with religious and philanthropic activities. He promoted a virtuous life, vegetarianism, abstinence from alcohol, and charitable deeds.
Satguru Sivaya Subramuniya Swami (1927–2001) began his teaching mission in Hawaii in 1957. He was an ardent Shiva devotee and did a great service in spreading the message of Saivism around the world. In 1979, he founded the magazine Hinduism Today to promote the cause of the Hindu religion through various activities. A large Hindu monastery has been established on 450 spacious acres at Kauai, Hawaii. Satguru Bodhinatha Velyanswami (1942–), the current head of the organization, has continued the great tradition of his master, as well as carrying on the spiritual lineage of the Kailasa Parampara of the Nandinatha Sampradaya and Guru Mahasannidhanam.
Swami Omkarananda Saraswati (1929–2000) was born in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, and was initiated into the spiritual sanyas at the tender age of 17 by the renowned guru Swami Sivananda. Later, he became seriously involved in the study of Vedas and meditation and yoga practices, and he established a spiritual training center at Switzerland in 1966. He later conducts his religious activities mainly from his Himalayan ashram in India.
Mata Amritanadamayi “Amma” (1953–) was born into a poor family in a fishing village in Kerala, India. She showed her extreme compassion even when she was a small child. Soon, she attracted people to her, and she gives a loving embrace to all those who seek her blessings. She has built number of educational institutes, orphanages, hospitals, and homes for the homeless, and has undertaken many other projects for the poor and downtrodden. Recently, after receiving the prestigious Peace Award at the UN General Assembly, Amma stressed the essential spiritual power of women. This, she emphasized, is far stronger than any masculine power.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (1956–) has become a world figure for his unique organization called the Art of Living, which has been recognized by the United Nations for its great efforts in uniting people and cutting across the barriers of religion, gender, and class. The organization has spread to more than one hundred countries, and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar always emphasizes unconditional love as his main theme.
Amma Sri Karunamayi (1958–) has been the embodiment of a spiritual mother to her innumerable devotees all over the world. She is involved with a free hospital and many other charitable projects in India, apart from offering personal guidance. She visits America and other countries regularly and conducts spiritual retreats for the benefit of her followers.
Swami Shankarananda (1942-) is the head of the Shiva Ashram, based near Melbourne, Australia. Originally from New York, he travelled to India in 1970 where he became the disciple of Swami Muktananda. Muktananda initiated him as a swami in 1977 and instructed him to write on spiritual subjects, especially the philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism, and to awaken the Kundalini energy of seekers. In 2010, Swami Shankarananda received the title of Mahamandaleshwar (‘great leader’) in recognition of his work in the service of the Sanatana Dharma.
There is vast number of living saints in India, who propagate the spiritual teachings of Hinduism through their talks and TV media all across the globe. Individual description is not given for want of space; most are also covered on web sites. Inadvertently some important names may have been left out:
Pujay Morari Bapu, Pujay Sudhenshu Mahraj, Pujay Satyanarayan Goenkaji, Jagat Guru Kirpal Ji Mahraj, Sringeri Shankaracharya Sri Bharati Tirtha Swami, Shankaracharya of Jyotir Math Swami Swaroopananda, Swami Avadeshanand Giri, Mata Amritanadamayi “Amma”, Swami Chidananda Saraswati (Muniji), Swami Baba Ramdevji Mahraj, Goswami Mridul Shastri, Pujay Rameshbhai Oza, Pujay Satpal Mahraj, Sadhvi Didi Ritambharaji, Ananadmurti Guru Maa, Pujya Sri Ganapathy Sachchidananda Swamiji, Satchidananda Swami (Gujarat), Paramahamsa Nithyananada, Narayan Sai Baba, Swami Agnesh, Swami Parmananda, Pujay Deepakbhai Desai, Bhagwan Lakshmi Narayan, Swami Mukundananda, Pujay Devkinandan Thakur Ji, Acharya Ishan Shivanandan, Shri Pulak sagar Ji, Shri Kirtibhai Ji, Swami Sukhbodhananda, Pujay Shrirya Bharti, Pujay Gopal Mani Ji Mahraj, Sadhu Kailash Manu, Shri Giri Bapu, Sri valingendra Swamiji, Sri Chidananda Swamiji of Mysore, Sri Rudramuni Swamiji, of Tiptur, Dr. Sri Balagangadharanatha Mahaswamiji, Sri Shivarathri Mahaswmi of Suttur Math, Vrunda Sakhi and many others.
Hindu philosophy has continued to attract and influence many in the Western world in different ways. Some have formally adopted and converted into Hinduism while others have taken Hindu teachings as a way of life, but remained in their original faith. In fact, Hindu Gurus have never insisted on conversion as a precondition for teaching anyone. Some leading spiritual organizations now have Westerners as their heads. Some of these organizations identify themselves as completely Hindu whereas others offer philosophical teachings based on Hinduism combined with the traditions of other faiths, without any official affiliation to Hindu religion. These religious establishments which are not aligned solely to Hinduism or any other faith appear to be getting quite popular, enlisting followers of diverse religions. They concentrate and focus on spiritual teachings, freely quoting various Hindu gods and saints along with those of other creeds. These organizations do not regard themselves as non-religious either; they uphold religion as most important, but opt to remain free from any strict allegiance. This is a new development in religious development across the world, and more so in countries like US with varied population. Only time will reveal the full impact of this arrangement in the future. It may probably have a significant effect on Hinduism in different ways. These organizations have their own codes of administration and management; their worship modalities may also be quite different from the conventional Hindu temples. Many Hindus who regularly attend these new religious centers suggest and request for changes in the conventional Hindu places of worship accordingly. This process of evolution involves acceptance and adoption of what is useful and beneficial, and dropping what may be undesirable and harmful.
The present age has brought many challenges too. Many are moving liberally toward the Western style, and yet others are keen to stay conservative and orthodox. Although physical violence remains absent, there is undoubtedly a significant inter-play of words, arguments, and discussions going on, with each side advocating and glorifying their own system and practice. By and large, the situation is peaceful and calm. In Hindu society, an individual may choose very freely his or her method of worship, and pray at any place of one’s choice; to a large extent this arrangement is working quite amicably.
In recent times, there has been an influx of Hindu Gurus, both in India, and in many foreign countries. These Gurus usually draw huge crowds, and are seriously involved both in their spiritual pursuits as well as often in social and charitable undertakings. Their influence and inspiration play a big part in shaping the lifestyles of many. Undoubtedly, most Swamis and Gurus are rendering yeomen service by their selfless dedication to the noble cause. But like in any other sphere of public service, there are few, who get swayed into wrong direction. By their very nature of “spiritual status”, they become even more infamous and ill-reputed.