Ramdas LambBy Ramdas Lamb

Most outsiders to Hinduism with a limited understanding of the tradition tend to have a somewhat static and orthodox view of it, since this is often what is presented in textbooks and in mass media depictions. The typical western portrayal has often been of a priestly dominated hierarchical religion with a strict caste system, the worship of multiple deities and animals, diverse and bizarre rituals, and marginalized groups that include women and the low caste. 

In reality, Hinduism today has a widely divergent set of beliefs and practices, with a myriad of regional variants that date back centuries. It is the product of several millennia of development with ever-expanding views, understandings, beliefs, and speculations about the world, ultimate reality, and what humanity's role and purpose in all of it is. Like distinct patches on a quilt, these disparate elements are connected by key concepts that can be found throughout the broader tradition.

These unifying concepts include a belief in karma and reincarnation, the importance of non-violence, an essential respect for life in its many forms, and a belief in the acceptance and tolerance of diverse religious beliefs as different paths up the same divine mountain. The reason these concepts are finding increasing popularity in the west is that they resonate with the contemporary thinking of many who are looking for a spirituality that transcends narrow sectarian ideologies. In the process, there is a changing perception of the tradition in the eyes of many. 


Read More from: The Future of Hinduism

In a 2009 Newsweek article entitled, "We Are All Hindus Now," Lisa Miller notes that although the vast majority of Americans continue to identify with Christianity, at the same time we "are slowly becoming more like Hindus and less like traditional Christians in the ways we think about God, our selves, each other, and eternity." These are pivotal issues, and more and more westerners are coming to view the Hindu understanding of them as both rational and appealing. This does not mean there will be a large number of western converts to Hinduism anytime soon, but it does show the significant effect that Hindu thinking is having on the west.

The growing Indian Hindu community in America is also helping to bring about a more realistic view of the tradition. Its members are among the most educated and economically successful of any non-Christian religious group that has immigrated to America during the last several generations. Most members of the community are here as a result of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the National Origins Formula and removed restrictions that had limited the number of Indians who could immigrate. Since that time, hundreds of thousands of Indian Hindus have come to the U.S., become citizens, and started families, and the majority of their offspring self-identify as both American and Hindu. Thus, not only is America being influenced by Hinduism, but the reverse is true as well, and both stand to benefit from this relationship.