Long before the Fab Four embraced the East, there were the Fab Three -- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman.
Philip Goldberg's "American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation -- How Indian Spirituality Changed the West" (Harmony, $26) is an engaging survey of why, starting with these three venerable American thinkers, the flowers of Eastern practices have thrived in Western soil.
At Harvard Divinity School, Emerson had a shattering realization about Christianity. His discovery of Eastern texts "dispelled once for all the dream about Christianity being the sole revelation -- for here in India, there in China, were the same principles, the same grandeurs, the like depths." Goldberg shows us other people who came to the same conclusion. His chapters move gently like ocean swells, easily accessible, and he applies sharp brushstrokes to capture particular viewpoints or dilemmas. "Tibetan Buddhists compare gurus to fire," he writes of some yogis, "stay too far away, and you don't get warm; venture too close, and you can be burned."
Goldberg traces the "vedization of America" using various figures -- among them Mary Baker Eddy and a founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson -- as steppingstones to the present. The popularity today of all things Eastern is a hopeful sign, he says, of a genuine "uptick in interreligious and interethnic harmony."