Thomas A. Forsthoefel By Thomas A. Forsthoefel

The future of Hinduism will be an affirmation and extension of ‘what is', namely the set of issues and trends that have been developing since the end of the 19th century. These trends -- the interpenetration of cultures effected by globalization, the migration and competition of ideas in a multi-cultural framework, a retrenchment of conservative forces, some of which are aligned with political ideologies -- are issues that confront other religious traditions, too. While the specific nexus of circumstances are different for each tradition, many of the general dynamics are the same. So the "Future of Hinduism" in some sense is same as the "Future of Christianity" or the "Future of Islam." Scholars in these and other areas will spell out any significant differences. Here, let me address some of these trends as they pertain to Hinduism.

In the 19th century, Hindus began in a self-conscious, critical way, to reflect upon their tradition, especially in the encounter with non-Hindus, particularly the British and Christian missionaries. Rather than internalizing degrading attributions, Hindus began asserting the strength, vision, and contribution of Hinduism to the modern world. Ram Mohan Roy, Dayananda Sarasvati, Ramakrishna, and Vivekananda, among others, each in their own way asserted compelling, vibrant, and vital representations of Hinduism to Indians as well as to the broader global community.

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Concerning the latter, Vivekananda made a distinctive impression at the Parliament of Religions at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. That event and his impact on it perhaps did more for the globalization of religious ideas than any other since the initial age of exploration in the 16th century. An immediate outcome was an incipient neo-Hindu revival as well as the establishment of Vedanta Centers in the U.S. The efficacy of this initial surge of Hindu sensibilities in North America speaks to an important existential or psychological subtext, namely, that a spiritual hunger endures as a fundamental condition of human existence, and that the immediate religious and cultural contexts for some persons occasionally fail to be nourishing, or worse, may leave one feeling spiritually destitute or even oppressed.  This in turn may leave one disposed or open to hearing spiritual truths spoken in different idioms and from different contexts. This dynamic accounts in part for the success of some gurus who have come to North America and to other parts of the world. 

What is particularly interesting in the ‘migration' of Hinduism is that Hinduism has long been associated with a sacred land; its ideas, prayers, and rituals were seen as rather strictly culturally inflected, so much so that to be Hindu seems also to have meant being Indian or at least enjoying Indian ancestry. However, in an age of globalization and interpenetration -- and indeed, competition -- of ideas, some Hindus have recalibrated the ‘essence' or ‘core' of Hinduism in and through the encounter with non-Hindus, at once offering something compelling but also asserting Hindu philosophy as a ‘player' in the global exchange of ideas.