Where Does a White Hindu Start?

The big question for a lot of native Hindus is, how does anyone not born to Hinduism learn about it enough to become a Hindu?

I’m not the very best example of this since I’m a bit of a hybrid. I grew up listening to Sanskrit prayers, having Mahabharata bed time stories, and seeing my parents meditate. On the other hand, I didn’t know when I was a child that any of these things were associated with Hinduism.

There are plenty of other non-Indian Hindus today who didn’t grow up with it at all. Something drew them to Hinduism and they discovered it on their own.

But how?

I think, as with anything new, it’s a process. You start with one step and then the next and the next. Before long, you’re very knowledgeable about whatever it is.

For me it went something like this…

  • I started exploring and questioning my beliefs as a teenager. It was really then that I came to understand that the belief system I had been raised with was mostly taken from Hinduism
  • In college I really started to see how much I didn’t fit in with Christian peers.
  • I took some classes on world religions and I explored the origins of the beliefs I had, such as reincarnation and enlightenment
  • I realized that I was a Hindu based on the beliefs, values, and priorities that I have but I still had absolutely none of the culture. I didn’t know any Indian people (my one Indian friend had been back in elementary school).
  • I joined a Hindu Student’s Association in graduate school. It was sometimes uncomfortable and strange. I didn’t know the rituals, though I vaguely knew some of the Gods from classes or things at home. I went to a temple with them and felt very self-conscious and unsure. But still, the more I did, the more right it felt. I was rediscovering something my psyche already knew.
  • I started taking Bharatnatyam dance lessons and from the teacher and other students I became very exposed to Indian culture and practice. I felt very comfortable with it even though it was very different from how my home as a child had been.

Over the last ten years I have built slowly on that base, discovering and incorporating new bits every so often. I learned more about my religion by reading commentaries, going to temple, discussing religion with other Hindus and non-Hindus, but also by watching Indian movies, eating Indian food, and making Indian friends.

Sure there are people who come to Hinduism because the clothes are beautiful. Is that a great reason? Maybe not. But it’s a starting point. We all start somewhere. Even for a native Hindu, there has to be a point where he or she becomes aware of the rituals and starts to wonder about what he is doing and what it means.

Some people discover Hinduism because of a class at school. Some discover it because they see a temple in their neighborhood and they wonder what it is. Some discover it through finding Bollywood movies.

And from there they begin to learn and to absorb information from a wide variety of sources. When we are interested in something, our brains soak up enormous amounts of information about it!

Over time the practices of these new Hindus becomes more refined and more sophisticated. 

That’s why I talk about it as a journey. We don’t come to a static place where we have learned all we ever will. A religious identity is something that is always evolving and growing. No matter where a new Hindu starts from, he will learn more and more until he is startling native Hindus with his unexpected ability to write in Sanskrit!

I don’t think that it’s bad if people get sidetracked into false promises from questionable gurus or misunderstand the philosophy. I think that is all a temporary state. Their souls are learning and growing and will eventually settle into the groove of the perfect path for them. Yes, sometimes we non-Indian Hindus look like nut jobs following something we think is pretty or cool or better than what we were born with. Every religion has flaws. Enough time spent in one and you will find those flaws, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t the right religion for you. You just have to learn enough that you can integrate disparate ideas within the religion and follow what makes sense to you.

What was your first exposure to Hinduism? Was it from birth or were you introduced to it later?

About Ambaa

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • Ryan

    First of all, welcome to patheos, Ambaa! I have been a regular reader of several blogs and columns on this site, and actually read yours before your hiatus from regular blogging when you published your book. I’d like to thank you as another Hindu of European ancestry in America who was feeling very alone in my experiences when I came across your blog.
    Introductions aside, I’d say that the first few steps of my initial exposure to Hinduism were quite similar to the ones you described in your first four bullet points, with the exception that my upbringing was Christian through and through- I just didn’t agree with it. I went through the questioning my beliefs as a teenager and realizing that my beliefs matched up with Hinduism while taking classes.
    The thing is, I really resisted the idea that I might be a Hindu, and I still might just be a self-described “spiritual agnostic(but really pantheist) who happens to share many important beliefs with Hinduism but is most certainly, absolutely, and definitively not a Hindu”.
    Then I went to a temple, and everything changed. Can’t really describe the experience, and it wasn’t even my first temple visit, but it was my first real experience with what being a Hindu would eventually mean to me.
    Thank you for being brave and putting yourself out there like this. It saved me a lot of trouble when I was uncertain if I could even be a Hindu, even though I most certainly wasn’t anything else.

    • Ambaa

      It’s so wonderful to hear from you!

      Thank you so much for commenting, it’s made my day :)

      I think my parents are in a similar place where they are philosophically Hindu, but they aren’t prepared to label themselves as that. In some ways I guess it doesn’t matter what we call ourselves, but I’ve always valued having a label and a community to belong to.

      If all my behaviors are Hindu and all my beliefs are Hindu, then of course I’m going to call myself a Hindu! lol

  • Drekfletch

    I think my first exposure to Hinduism was the Milk miracle. That’s the first memory I can pinpoint. In the early ’00s, I was gathering the animal figures I had accidentally collected, (I’m a bit of a magpie) into a totem shrine. It was made clear to me that my elephant was Ganesha and not just an elephant. At that time, I was also aware of the names of Rama, Kali, Vishnu, Shiva; but I didn’t really know anything about them other than they were Hindu. Maybe a vague sense of Brahma.

    Because of Ganesha I’ve done some reading about Hinduism, but I’m not one.

    • Ambaa

      Very interesting!

      I’m always happy for people to learn a little about Hinduism even if they don’t decide to practice it. It helps when the world becomes a bit more educated. Too often people have very strange ideas about what Hinduism is (in the West I think most people associate it with the bad guys in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom)

      • Drekfletch

        It one of the things I think about every now and then: where Ganesha fits in my polytheistic pantheon. In addition to Him, my daily ritual includes Ma’at (Egyptian personification of… ideal workings of the universe), and the Theoi (Gods who are not localized divinities, more or less; plus the localized divinities local to me.) So every now and then, I struggle to figure out Ganesha without the Hindu framework. Luckily for me, He seems to be content with only acknowledgment that the elephant is Him. (He’ll accept more, but doesn’t demand it.)

  • HARRY

    @ Ambba

    From what you are saying above, you are more hindu then I am at this stage and I’m born hindu. LOL :)

    Ambba, Hinduism is like Lego, It has variety of different sizes and types of pieces, one can choose what ever it wants and build from it. There is no right and wrong formula when it comes to hinduism. Like I said, you do more Hinduism related things then what you called born Hindu does. One is not born graduate but he/she has to make that journey and it takes time like rest of the things. This is where hinduism is same, it’s a kind of journey of self discovery in ones spirituality. Sanatan Dharma is self prescibed medicine one takes to relieve ones previous past and proceeds towards Moksa. I hope and pray that you get yours when time comes.

    I look forward to your articles. It is a kind of ritual for me to read your write up and point of view from a different perspective. It make me happy. I have more respect for a person who has earned his/her wealth from working then those who have inherited. This is why I have more respect for you then those who are born Hindus who takes this for granted.
    Have a good weekend. :)

    HARRY

    • Ambaa

      You have a way with metaphor!

      I love the description of Hinduism being like Legos. That is very apt.

      I’m happy also that you feel like I am “earning wealth” when I study and research and try to better understand my religion!

      You have a good weekend too :)

  • seeker

    I was raised Catholic but my mother’s family never believed in the infallibility of the church. My favorite story that was handed down is that my great-great-great grandfather was told by the village priest that if he kept reading a liberal newspaper he wouldn’t be buried in consecrated ground. He didn’t,t and the priest followed through on his threat. When it was my great-great-great grandmother’s time to go, she refused to be buried on the church cemetery, insisting that she be beside her husband.

    Since I had spiritual longings but had given up on Christianity by the time I was in my late teens, I spent the next 40 years investigating different belief systems including ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman, Wiccan, American Indian and Voodoo. From each one I received something valuable but it just didn’t fit. I tried magic and tarot but even though they both worked, I really couldn’t see the point–they were dead ends.

    Probably about four years ago I went to our local temple; to tell the truth, I can’t even remember why. It was a powerful experience and I knew from that day I was a Hindu.

    • Ambaa

      Wow! Good for you, sticking with that journey until you found what fit for you!

      • Seeker

        Actually, I’m just happy I found my true path and feel very blessed.

    • Ashish Pandey

      Hi Seeker,

      Its an amazing story and your great great great Grandfather was a courageous man.
      My Pranams to him.

  • seeker

    Thank you, Ashish. When I wrote that, it struck me that now my great great great grandparents’ bravery would not be forgotten.

  • Ray

    “…I went to a temple with them and felt very self-conscious and unsure. But still, the more I did, the more right it felt. I was rediscovering something my psyche already knew…..”

    Not to be forward in any way, but it seems the more I read about your experience, the more it seems to parallel my own, for the most part. However, my issue is the Temple.

    I wish I could write to you in private, as I don’t like airing laundry, but I have just quit my Temple after years of service, due mainly to politcs, which I am told, is present in every Temple. However, even though I know that no organized religion is perfect, I hardly expect liars and thieves to permeate a Temple. Maybe because of my western Catholic upbringing, I expect the best in a House of God.

    In a Hindu Temple, where people pass their hands over a flame to dispell darkness of ignorance, it seems for some this is only for show. People who should stand for truth, and I am speaking predominately of Hindu Temple leadership, who often look the other way and ignor truth and honesty, to favour cash donations and their donors.

    I am one of those ” White Hindu’s”. Having spent many glorious times in the Temple with people from all parts of the earth, it was a joy to be able to share many aspects of this life with fellow devotees, whether we agreed or not with all aspects of this way of life. However, some aspects of racism and old Indian habits like the male superior attitude still prevail and has not died out yet. So long as those observations are held close to the breast, there is no problem. Speak out against them, however, and swift resistance is met with what the Amish call ‘shunning’. And, no matter how many people will whisper in your ear, ” you are right”, few are willing to stand up in defense of what “is right”.

    In December I left my Temple. It was hard to do, but there is more to Temple life than mere praying to porcelain statues, there has to be education and transformation and growth, via honesty and equality, not simply civil war between north and south Indian practices that seek to cancel each other out instead of building together.

    • HARRY

      I exactly know what you are saying Ray. I go to a temple in UK and it has the same issues you said as well. This is the only reason why I only go to temple once in blue moon. The problem is, the temples are run by men and they are not all perfect like rest of us. Most people are afraid of the politics because it doesn’t only relates to temple but also their relatives are some how connected to it as well outside. They are trapped in between which put them in difficult position to say anything to those who runs the temple. If you see my point. I don’t like this either. Therefore I have decided walk in and walk out and never to associate with any one if I can help it, and that’s my rule. Do what you have to do and walk out. Simple. You know why there are wars in the world, it’s because of differences people have with each other and it has nothing to do with religion most of the time. When ever I go to the temple it’s because of the Lord and no ones else. If you make this rule and stick to it you will never have problems. Good luck mate and I hope you can sort your external disturbance and inner conflicts.

      HARRY

      • Ray

        Hari OM! and thank you for your kind words of insight, Harry.

        Since leaving, I have consulted several guruji’s who agree with you and me. In fact, one guru says on you tube, that Temples were not originally meant for worship or prayer, but simply a place to..recharge your batteries. That was Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev. So, I am busy researching that.

        I must say, also, since leaving, I have absorbed myself in reading, reading and reading everything I can get my hands on. I can’t tell you the many changes that have come over me, and the glee one gets when seeking the self and leaving the Temple Tension behind. You may not change anyone, but you surely can change yourself, and that’s all that matters.

        New perspectives, that’s for sure!

    • Ambaa

      Oh gosh, I missed your comment! Sorry about that. You can certainly speak to me in private if you’d like. My email is moir.carolyn@gmail.com or you can send a facebook message at facebook/whitehindu.

      I think Harry is quite right that the temple is not always the pure space it should be because people are imperfect and imperfect in their understanding. There does seem to be a lot of politics and doing things for show that goes on. I enjoy going to temples to do some quiet reflection, but I’m not interested in becoming involved in committees or anything like that. I put most of my focus and energy on my home shrine, though I do have Hindu friends I discuss things with too.

      • Ray

        Not even an issue! Besides, I’ve already emailed you! Sorry, no facebook for me!

        • Ambaa

          Got your email! I will respond soon! :)

  • http://changenia.blogspot.com/ .Nia.

    Is there a way to suggest a post topic? I have a lot of questions…some may not be posted yet…

  • seeker

    Isn’t it sad that something as meaningful as visiting a temple can get ruined by internal politics. Your posts have caused me to look at my own behavior, though. Being a not-born-Hindu I read everything I could find about proper temple behavior then combined that with what I knew from being brought up Christian. The result, needless to say, made me crazy and self-conscious. I spent more time thinking about what others thought of me and trying to show them I respected them and was a “good Hindu” than I did praying. Finally I just stopped going because of the (self imposed) pressure. I’m trying to get to the place that I can separate the divine aspects of temple attendance from my self-centered stuff. As my mother always said when my sister and I complained about something that happened at a Catholic mass, “You’re not there to worship the priest!”

    • Ray

      Hi seeker…

      I think our egos step in front of our good intentions.

      But, look at it this way, the most important thing that you should come away with from this discussion, is the very fact that you are able to have looked within and address your own shortcomings. We all have shortcomings, but very few are able to take the difficult “bull by the horns” and come to grips with admitting things like you did here. My hat is off to you!

      Sanatana Dharma tries to show us that all things should be done, for each other, in a selfless way, expecting no rewards, just do the work—devoid of attachment or needs for praise. That’s hard to do, living in a nation where pride is a highly respected goal. Pride fuels the ego. But that doesn’t have to necessarily mean that you do the work and get slapped down for it, either.

  • Mariellen Ward

    Thank you for writing this Ambaa. I am a Canadian of European ancestry and I have a very strong affinity with India and Hinduism. I don’t question it, but I do try to tread carefully. For me, it is enough to practise quietly at the small mandir in my room and spend as much time in India as possible. I don’t feel the need to be accepted — I’m not into organized religions anyway. Great to find someone like-minded to talk to though!

    • Ambaa

      It’s great to meet you! I often wonder why I can’t seem to just quietly enjoy Hinduism without having to broadcast about it to everyone. I don’t know why I am that way! :)

  • Madonna Narog

    I am so glad that I found this website! I have been feeling kind of lost for a long time, and recently I stumbled across Hinduism and it was like I found the missing pieces I had been looking for.

    ed me towards what I had been looking for. Quite a few years ago I stumbled across a musician named Trevor Hall, whose songs are so spiritual, uplifting, and beautiful that I just fell in love with them. His music resonated with me so much that I became curious as to what his spiritual background was, so I started doing a little bit of research, and I found an interview with him in a yoga magazine from several years ago, where he talks about finding his spiritual path in Hinduism.

    So I started looking up information about Hinduism, and bought a few books and started reading, and everything that I was reading just clicked. I’ve always had spiritual beliefs very different from my family or my peers, always been interested in meditation and have been practicing yoga for many years, I’ve read a little Eastern philosophy and it always seemed to make more sense to me than Western. When I started learning about Hinduism it’s like I found the puzzle piece that had been missing.

    Being a white American, I had been wondering how it would be possible for me to pursue this path. Thank you for this website. I haven’t read through all of it yet, but I am very happy to have found it.

    • Ambaa

      It’s great to meet you! If you have thoughts or questions, feel free to send me a FB message on my page there too!

      I’m working on some essays on the subject of helping people take Hinduism slowly, just step by step, that may turn into a book eventually.

      I’m excited to have your input on my journey and to hear more about yours!

  • BPR

    Liked your caption..following your beliefs is truly a gifted trait.East becomes west and West melts in east.


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