2.3 Million Hindu Americans + 1 Hindu American Sweetheart

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.

  • arpit

    Hinduism is a philosophy. We don’t have any set doctrine as to what we can do and can’t do. The vedic texts are a base of knowledge which can be inspirational but do not need to be the end all and be all of everything. Therefore the use of the term, “convert” should not be used. One thing is certainly true and i would like to point out once more…. Any path can lead to the “truth”. A Muslim, Christian, Jew or anyone else can all still believe and practice what they chose to but at the same time can take something positive from the vedas. The reason for this is the one common denominator we all share: Humanity, and it’s finite nature. The vedas are resources for all people and relate to cosmology, astronomy, various philosophies or even basic human interaction in the most paleo light…ie intercourse, nutrition, etc etc… yes, i am happy hindu philosophy is gaining ground but this same philosophy teaches me that the ultimate goal is to just live. These bitter religious disputes are overtaking the world and the rancid hatred for one another due to our differences are a pandemic. When human kind can get past them, i will be extremely content as would the world. But that doesn’t require people to convert to anything, and that is my point.

  • Chris

    I’d guess that some of the uproar is the traditional Christian baggage that people in the US associate with Hinduism, namely that (they believe) it is the sort of polytheistic religion that their sacred texts explicitly damn. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to be exposed to the beauty of the Hindu faith through many thoughtful conversations with co-workers, many of whom are recent immigrants from India.

    I would also suggest that many in the US view Buddhism as a “philosophy” rather than a “religion,” rightly or wrongly, and therefore don’t have the same sorts of reaction to its spread and influence into US culture.

  • Satish k kapoor

    I must compliment you on your insightful write-up.It bespeaks of your true understanding of Hinduism which is often disparaged by a committed section of critics.
    I am looking for a good publisher who would print a bunch of my writings on Hinduism which include its quintessential,its history during previous millennium,Hindu views on music, art,image worship, materialism,spiritualism ecology,drugs,women,nano-technology,etc. and which covers themes like 18th century British perceptions of Hinduism, 19th century Indian renaissance,Transcendentalists and Hinduism , Chicago Parliament of Religions ,1893,Swami Vivekananda’s impact on the West,etc. The work is sure to rouse further interest in Hinduism and remove stereotypes. Would someone like to take it up in the United States or elsewhere?

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  • Sarvo

    Gigantically conspicuous by its absence is any mention of the Hare Krishnas. Four hundred million books distributed and everyone agrees to pretend not to know how much of an influence they have had?