Quiz: Religious or Cultural?

Today we’re going to play a little game. For each thing I mention, you decide if it is something that is relevant to Hinduism as a religion or is part of Indian culture and not tied to Hinduism.

I’ve mentioned before that I find it very difficult to separate out what is cultural from what is religious for a lot of Hindu things. Hinduism having grown and developed closely with Indian cultures, teasing those things apart can be impossible in some cases.

So I want to hear your thoughts about each of these potentially tricky customs. My answers will be below and I hope you’ll give me your thoughts before you read mine! :)

What say you? Cultural or Religious?


Learning Indian Languages


Bindi and Other Tilak Marks


Taking Off Shoes in the Home


1) I think learning Sanskrit would definitely be an enhancement to a Hindu’s religious life. Being able to read the scriptures in their original form could only be a good thing.

I have been learning Hindi over these last few years. That’s a little more shaky. I do it to make it easier to immerse in community. I’ve also found it to be a great benefit in bhajan singing because the vast majority of bhajans we sing at my group are in Hindi. Also, a lot of instructional information for Hindus is in Hindi. There are several YouTube channels with advice about certain pujas or holidays that are all in Hindi. I have a book on how to perform a Lakshmi Puja that is entirely written in Hindi too.

I feel that until I can fluently speak a modern Indian language, I will always seem like I’m doing things in a surface-level way. My experience has been that learning Hindi shows my commitment to the lifestyle of a Hindu. I think I need to add a South Indian language, though, since I spend most of my time with South Indians and in South Indian activities!

2) Is a sari a Hindu piece of clothing? No. Certainly Indian women of other religions wear saris and there’s no requirement written in any Hindu scripture that women must wear sari. However, wearing a sari to a temple is a way of fitting in. It is the clothing that is most appropriate to wear to mandir as a Hindu (or other Indian clothes, as a woman. Sawlar Suits are good too). If you wear western clothes, even modest and appropriate western clothes, you will stand out as a tourist and a non-Hindu. Men do not have theses options and issues so much. In many mandirs Indian men wear khakis and a button-down shirt. However, when my family visited India, it was expected that my father would wear a dhoti at the maath.

I wear Indian clothes frequently and the reason is (beyond the fact that I find Indian clothes comfortable and beautiful) that many of my clothes were gifts. The very first salwar suit I got was given with the instruction, “I expect you to wear this. I won’t give it to you if you’re not going to actually wear it.” And so I did. My first sari was a gift from an Indian friend at the library where I worked in college. He was going home to India over winter break and he brought me back a sari. I was given new salwar suits by family friends for my wedding. I was given another sari by a friend at my dance class a few years ago. Probably half of my Indian clothing were gifts and the other half bought on the Internet (with the exception of the couple of suits I got myself in Bangalore and Sringeri).

3)  To me a tilak (including bindi) is a religious mark. It marks one as a Hindu and it also has potential to center and focus the mind based on the location of the “third eye” and it can also be a good way to remind one’s self of God each day. That said, if you choose to wear any form of tilak, you will definitely stand out and will be opening yourself up to a lot of questions, stares, and assumptions. I find that wearing a very simple small bindi with a modest outfit does a good job marking me as a Hindu rather than as someone who plays around with bindis because they’re a fad or just because they’re pretty.

4) There are a few different reasons why Hindus might be vegetarian, though not all are. If you are a vegetarian because you interpret ahimsa (non-harm) as meaning not eating meat, then that’s a religious reason. If you’re a vegetarian because you believe that the emotions of the animal when it is killed transfer through the food, then that could be a religious or cultural reason. Though vegetarianism is less common in America, there are certainly many good reasons why Americans might be vegetarian or vegan, so India certainly doesn’t have the monopoly on this one.

5) The reason for taking shoes off when entering a home (or a temple) is a show of respect to the divine. Hindu homes have puja rooms, altars, and/or small temples in them, so one should remove one’s shoes in the same way you would at a full size mandir. However, the reason why removing shoes is a showing of respect is cultural. The west has no tradition of removing shoes for any reason. In fact, in the past doing so would have been seen as quite “uncouth.” Nonetheless, I remove my shoes when I go to temple and so I also remove my shoes in my home.


What other Indian things do you find to be a gray area between Indian Culture and Hindu Religion?

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.

  • 5w_haul

    first of all i think you should stop using the word religion because sanatan dharma is not a religion(religions follow a book,dogma and fixed pattern) and its crudely translated so by malechas,it can be confusing to outsiders because they think its a religion just like other beliefs.

    so what is a follower of sanatan dharma (traditions of hindu,buddhist,sikh,jain) believe

    1. follow dharma – natural order of things in universe can roughly translated as laws, way, righteousness, ethics, morals.

    2.karma -scientific law of universe (action-reaction, cause-effect)

    3.rebirth(reincarnation)- every being is attached to the cycle of birth and rebirth by his actions,desires,ignorance of this and previous lives and continue to do so till he removes the effect of action,detach from desires and remove the ignorance and know the truth called moksha, nirvana, kaivalya.

    4.anyone can realise truth and can free himself from cycle of birth and death without any devine intervention through methods of yoga (jnan, bhakti, karma, raja, hatha).

    so what is sanatan dhrma = scientific spiritual method,way,path of realising the truth

    • Ambaa

      Subramuniyaswami of the Himalayan Academy makes the good point that religions are given certain protections when it comes to government, so in that way it might not be a good idea to insist that we are not a religion.

      I think the definition you give for religion is not the only one. I agree that our religion is one of great depth and part of all of life, but I don’t think that means we shouldn’t refer to it as a religion.

      I find it a whole lot more confusing to try to avoid that word.

      • 5w_haul

        what i mean by ‘religion’ is the way people generally perceive it.
        of course it is necessary to call ourselves hindu so that people like those who say thing like yoga doesn’t belongs to hinduism etc. will be kept in check.

        • http://amarchotoprithibi.blogspot.com/ Andrea

          A lot of people who follow a particular belief system insist it is not a religion. Christians (who you would say absolutely follow a religion) insist that theirs is not a religion but a relationship with God. They say “I’m not religious; I just love Jesus.”

          I think that the definition of religion that is being used is what is important. If you think of it as book+dogma+unquestioning belief, most people would think they don’t follow a religion either! I started out majoring in Religious Studies in college (but my family protested so I switched to Business/Commerce) and our working definition was generally a belief system with belief in some kind of deity or higher power that seeks to find answers to social and philosophical questions. In this way, Hindu beliefs are a religion in the same way that Islamic or Christian or Sikh or Animist beliefs are.

          It is important to remember that these academic studies began by and are mainly defined by Westerners of a generally Judeo-Christian cultural background and so there may be some ‘umbrellas’ there that people who follow those beliefs may not share. Neo-Pagans follow many, many different paths and yet there is this umbrella term that encompasses many different philosophies and practices. Same thing with “Hinduism.” (Although there are people who do assert a “Hindu” identity as well as a unifying factor for those who follow what we term as Hindu practices, which is a different matter altogether)

          Nearly all religions consider themselves “not a religion but a way of life.” But someone studying religion from the outside, it makes more sense to just use the term “religion” to describe belief systems that do impact and intertwine with cultural beliefs, morals, and practices.

          • ashutosh

            Everything is not science and everything can’t be Intellectually answered, and to answer to your point “way of Life” of different areas give birth to “cultures” which in turn become religion.

          • Ambaa

            I’m interested in your idea that a way of life becomes a culture which then becomes a religion. I think I need to explore that idea further! I like it!

          • 5w_haul

            could you elaborate belief point bit more

  • 5w_haul

    now coming to the cultural vs religious question as you know most of things we practice and do in our everyday life has spiritual significance.

    1.learning indian languages – is cultural except sanskrit (very necessary for understanding the things as they are, remember its very special language especially developed for the complexities of knowledge, its never been language of masses).

    2.sari/dhoti/kurta – cultural

    3.Bindi and Other Tilak Marks – spiritual.

    4.Vegetarianism – spiritual

    5.Taking Off Shoes in the Home – scientific, cultural, spiritual bit of all.

  • ashutosh

    I think Sanskrit is compulsory as i believe i am not Pure Hindu as i can’t read my scriptures as Hindu way of life is mentioned in them by means of various thoughts, stories or happenings,also the Tilak or Bindi and shoes as u pointed out

  • TruthSeeker

    I think culture and religion are two separate things we should not mix them. there is nothing called Hindu way of dressing or Hindu food. there is huge difference in culture clothing and food habits of people across different geographies of India.

  • Ayan

    Ambaa, all 5 things you have mentioned are cultural & not religious. If you travel throughout India and also Nepal & Bali , you will see how vastly different definition of hindu culture can be. Form the language they speak, clothes they wear , festivals they celebrate & food they eat all are different. The Gujaratis may consider even eating egg as blasphemy but the region i live in in eastern india eating fish is considered auspicious.. In Nepal buffalo meat is a delicacy yet the cow is considered sacred. Same in bali where vegetarianism is non existent unless you are a isckon devotee.
    But there are certain beliefs all hindus share like
    1. Theory of karma .
    2. Respecting the cow
    3. Soul can neither be created nor destroyed , it can only be transfer from one body to another.
    4. Praying to their favorite god weather Shiva , Krishna, Ganesh, Hanuman, kali or Durga.