From What Is to What Will Be: Hinduism's Dynamic Future

Thomas A. Forsthoefel By Thomas A. Forsthoefel

The future of Hinduism will be an affirmation and extension of ‘what is', namely the set of issues and trends that have been developing since the end of the 19th century. These trends -- the interpenetration of cultures effected by globalization, the migration and competition of ideas in a multi-cultural framework, a retrenchment of conservative forces, some of which are aligned with political ideologies -- are issues that confront other religious traditions, too. While the specific nexus of circumstances are different for each tradition, many of the general dynamics are the same. So the "Future of Hinduism" in some sense is same as the "Future of Christianity" or the "Future of Islam." Scholars in these and other areas will spell out any significant differences. Here, let me address some of these trends as they pertain to Hinduism.

In the 19th century, Hindus began in a self-conscious, critical way, to reflect upon their tradition, especially in the encounter with non-Hindus, particularly the British and Christian missionaries. Rather than internalizing degrading attributions, Hindus began asserting the strength, vision, and contribution of Hinduism to the modern world. Ram Mohan Roy, Dayananda Sarasvati, Ramakrishna, and Vivekananda, among others, each in their own way asserted compelling, vibrant, and vital representations of Hinduism to Indians as well as to the broader global community.

Read More from: The Future of Hinduism

Concerning the latter, Vivekananda made a distinctive impression at the Parliament of Religions at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. That event and his impact on it perhaps did more for the globalization of religious ideas than any other since the initial age of exploration in the 16th century. An immediate outcome was an incipient neo-Hindu revival as well as the establishment of Vedanta Centers in the U.S. The efficacy of this initial surge of Hindu sensibilities in North America speaks to an important existential or psychological subtext, namely, that a spiritual hunger endures as a fundamental condition of human existence, and that the immediate religious and cultural contexts for some persons occasionally fail to be nourishing, or worse, may leave one feeling spiritually destitute or even oppressed.  This in turn may leave one disposed or open to hearing spiritual truths spoken in different idioms and from different contexts. This dynamic accounts in part for the success of some gurus who have come to North America and to other parts of the world. 

What is particularly interesting in the ‘migration' of Hinduism is that Hinduism has long been associated with a sacred land; its ideas, prayers, and rituals were seen as rather strictly culturally inflected, so much so that to be Hindu seems also to have meant being Indian or at least enjoying Indian ancestry. However, in an age of globalization and interpenetration -- and indeed, competition -- of ideas, some Hindus have recalibrated the ‘essence' or ‘core' of Hinduism in and through the encounter with non-Hindus, at once offering something compelling but also asserting Hindu philosophy as a ‘player' in the global exchange of ideas.  

Particularly successful in this pattern are the versions of classical yoga philosophy and Hindu non-dualism (Advaita). Why this is so makes good sense, for the migration of ideas follows from the metaphysical premises of these schools: one's ‘true' identity is the Self that is unconditioned by time and space and, indeed, by any finite designation at all. One's true Self transcends any specific limiting condition, and, by extension, also cultural contexts. 

To adapt from the non-dual premise, one is neither -- in any decisive or final sense -- tall, short, male, female, heterosexual, homosexual, American, Asian, or even Catholic or Hindu. This transcendent sensibility suggests that Hinduism has something constructive and compelling to offer non-Hindus in the global marketplace of ideas. And, it merits noting, some Hindus have profited economically in these exchanges, as well, by creating workshops, retreats, bookstores, websites that imply some financial transaction. 

Globalization also means that traditional versions of Hinduism will continue to develop and flourish as minority religions in broader non-Hindu cultures. Classical Hindu temples have been constructed and continue to develop in North America, including important installations in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Atlanta, and even smaller shrines in Delaware and New Jersey and elsewhere. The Hindu Diaspora has and will continue to be a source of scholarly investigation, not just for its phenomenal characteristics (e.g., rites and rituals) but also to examine how ‘transplanted' religious sensibilities impact or flow back into Hindu self-definitions. Agehananda Bharati once spoke of the ‘pizza effect', considering how pizza, created in Italy, ‘migrated' to America, but then ‘returned' to Italy in turn changing the ‘concept' and production of pizza there. Similarly, we might ask, how does Hinduism, being changed in its encounter with other cultures, return to India, subtly impacting mainstream Hinduism?