Richard Gere is a Buddhist. Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher are initiated in Kabbalah. And Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are raising little Suri in the Church of Scientology. None were raised in the traditions which now inform their spirituality, along with the 44% of Americans who too have changed their religions. So why then should Julia Roberts’ revelation of her Hindu practice, that today inspires the spirituality of over two million Indian-origin Hindu Americans and an unaccounted number of non-Indian-origin Hindus — including those who may have converted or, for all intents and purposes, could be considered practicing Hindus — elicit the question of whether America is ready to embrace Hinduism?
Whether Americans know it or not, we’ve been embracing Hinduism for longer than most would guess. Remember that revolt against the “establishment” called the American transcendentalist movement? Yes, the one sparked by the American philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau? What inspired them? You guessed it: Hinduism. One of the earliest Hindu centers of worship in the U.S. — the Vedanta Society — was established in 1894 by Caucasian American disciples of Indian Hindu, Swami Vivekananda, after he took the first-ever World Parliament of Religions by storm. The Vedanta Society continues to have a strong “convert” and “born” Hindu following with centers across the 50 states. Let’s not forget Martin Luther King Junior and his non-violent civil disobedience movement, a movement which affords each and every one of us dignity and equal rights regardless of the color of our skin — a movement which I am also proud to know was strongly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, a practicing Hindu, and his interpretation of the Hindu concept of ahimsa or non-violence. And how about the example of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi? He may be better known as the Indian guru of the Beatles, but in the late 60s and early 70s, he boasted some one million meditation followers.
Fast forward to 2010. Is there a city left in the United States that does not have at least one yoga class or a spa that doesn’t have ayurvedic offerings? And one would be remiss to leave out Oprah — streaming into some 7.4 million households daily and using her monthly magazine as well social networks to promote the teachings of Eckhart Tolle — teachings he has said are influenced, in part, by Hindu saints Ramana Maharshi and Krishnamurthy. From the practical — yoga, meditation, vegetarianism and ayurveda to the more esoteric — belief in karma and reincarnation as well as an adherence to the trademark Hindu world view that multiple paths to the Truth can exist, core concepts of Hinduism are not only being embraced by Americans but are slowly being assimilated into the American collective conscience just as Judeo-Christian values were generations before.
After the lifting of the Asian Exclusion Act in the early 1960s, waves of Indian and other Hindu immigrants brought more aspects of Hinduism to American shores and began practicing their faith with the same freedom that all other religions enjoy in America. Today there are over 700 Hindu temples throughout the U.S.. From Hawaii to Minnesota down to Florida, and essentially every state in between, Hindu temples are flourishing and catering to both born Hindu and convert populations. The American embrace of Hinduism is also the result of the maintenance of traditions by these immigrants and their transmission to second and third generation Hindu Americans.
As most Europeans would attest, we Americans are a religious lot. Add to this either the melting pot or salad bowl metaphor, and the influence of any of the religions practiced in the U.S. should come at no surprise. But the question posed by Elizabeth Tenety in her Washington Post Under God piece begs another, more important question: why isn’t all this “proof” of Hinduism’s influence in America recognized? One answer: Hinduism, as a religious tradition, has for too long been mischaracterized and caricaturized in and by the media, academia and even school textbooks with age-old, colonial stereotypes portraying Hindu belief and practice as little more than “caste, cows and curry.” At the same time, some Western Hinduism-practitioners, many of whom are celebrities in Western yoga circles, as well as Indian Hindu gurus (and wannabe gurus), have either intentionally or unintentionally delinked Hindu philosophy and non-ritual practices, including Vedanta, yoga and meditation, from Hinduism.
Indeed, it may be more palatable or in some cases, profitable, because of the stereotyped “baggage” of Hinduism, to call things Ancient Indian, Vedic, yogic or even “universal” — none of which is inaccurate. But without a nod to their Hindu origins, this delinking disenfranchises admitted Hindus of recognition and appreciation for the depth and breadth of their faith. It also inhibits our ability as Hindus to promote an accurate and deeper understanding of Hinduism because if one reads or hears often enough that “yoga has nothing to do with Hinduism,” for example, it will soon enough become the “truth.”
But things are changing for the better. Many Hindus, both born and converted, are more publicly articulating their beliefs and thereby, reclaiming, in some sense, credit for what has been the wonderful contributions in teachings and practices of their faith. And yes, well known faces like Julia Roberts, who have found peace and contentment in an over 5000 year old tradition, also brings glamor and glitz to Hindu ranks. But hopefully in the near future, a mere admission of being a Hindu, albeit by America’s most famous and gorgeous sweetheart, won’t be a major media story, but a moment for us as Americans to appreciate our religious diversity and, more importantly, the freedom we enjoy to worship however we choose.
Suhag Shukla is cofounder of the Hindu American Foundation and now serves as its the Managing Director and Legal Counsel.