Hinduism and the 1960s

The Rise of a Counter-Culture

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Paul Oliver
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , January
     2015.
     200 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781472531551.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Paul Oliver’s text takes a fairly comprehensive look at a pivotal time in the recent evolution of Western society and culture and the role that Hinduism played, and continues to play, in that process. In order to accomplish this task, he draws on a diverse collection of sources to uncover the roots and influences that were involved. His insight into what took place during that time period in Western Europe and the U.S. is quite good. Because I came of age during the time covered and experienced many of the events and changes discussed, I found much of the material an enjoyable read, even though several of the author’s understandings of the various events and situations are not necessarily my own.

In his presentation of the various Hindu teachers who played a role in bringing aspects of the Hindu tradition to the West, Oliver has done a relatively good job of explaining their thoughts and influences. However, his understanding of Hinduism itself is where I found a variety of shortcomings. A few examples include his understanding and explanation of “Brahman,” his view of Brahmins in Vedic times, and his generalizations about sadhus. He also seems to suggest that all Hindus have the same concept of the guru-disciple relationship, which is clearly not the case. Regarding sadhus, while Oliver acknowledges that there are a variety of sects, he does not understand that each one tends to focus on or emphasize its own set of practices, or that diet, dress, types of beads used, living arrangements and methods, and so on, all vary from order to order. Consequently, he makes several broad statements that, without being put into context, are fairly inaccurate. In addition, he suggests that nearly all sadhus use some form of cannabis, writing that “the daily life of the sadhu in India is intimately linked with the smoking of cannabis” (79), that it is “an important part of their practice” (71), and that it is usually smoked “in a spiritual context” (79). Again, such generalizations distort the reality. First, because the vast majority of sadhus were and still are Vaishnav, for whom even tea drinking during the time period discussed was looked down upon, most sadhus did not get intoxicated in those days, even though it was and remains prevalent among Sannyasi Nagas and Nath sadhus. Currently, however, intoxicant use has clearly increased among sadhus in general and now the majority seem to smoke cannabis at least on occasion. As for the practice being primarily for a spiritual experience, this, too, seems rather inaccurate. Although I know of no actual study of the situation, I have spent a great deal of time looking into the issue and discussing it with many sect leaders and sadhus from various orders, and most admit that simple intoxication has become the primary reason for smoking these days, irrespective of what many will publicly say. The situation has actually become a problem in some khalsas, especially among Naga Sannyasi and Nath sadhus, which has led to a great increase in addiction. Fortunately, however, some of the more affected renunciant orders are attempting to address the situation.

That said, Oliver’s research and presentation is to be appreciated. He does a good job of integrating the various social and political elements of the times to show how they affected the needs, aspirations, and fears of young people in England and America, why they sought a more inner understanding, and how this opened them up to looking East for clues and answers. While the author did overlook several important aspects of India’s influence, he could not cover everything in a book this size. Hinduism and the 1960s is an easy read and would be a good addition to an undergraduate course in American and Western European contemporary history and society. Moreover, it should be on the reading list of anyone seeking insight into the 1960s in the Western world and the way Hinduism influenced what occurred. I found the work both interesting and successful, for the most part, at capturing the mood and ethos of the time period, as well as showing how many links with Hinduism were created. Lastly, the author includes a very good set of references and a generally good glossary.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ramdas Lamb is Associate Professor of Religion at University of Hawai’i.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Oliver was formerly a lecturer at the University of Huddersfield, UK. He has published twenty books in the areas of religion, education and philosophy, seven of which have been translated into other languages.

Keywords: 

Comments

Diane Winston

I am considering this for a course on American spirituality. The review is inconclusive. Has anyone else read the book?

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