Suppose you had a new acquaintance, and you asked her to join you for some weekend activity. And say that she responded enthusiastically, as long as in met with schedule. She tells you that she’ll be in church on Friday evening for a Novena, then back again on Saturday afternoon for Confession. And of course, Sunday morning she’ll attend Mass. You might at that moment say you didn’t realize she was Catholic. Naturally, she will confirm her spiritual identity. Of course, she is Catholic. It is true that I’ve met a few folks in her camp who have taken on the term “Jesus Follower” in recent times. Due to the abhorrent activity of many on the extreme right, they choose to distance themselves from “Christians.” But this is a rather small percentage.
Now, you have another new friend whom you invite to lunch. But he politely declines, informing you that since it is Ramadan he must forego any midday meal. However, he is thrilled to invite you to join him for Iftar, the ceremonial fast-breaking meal after sundown. This might lead you to ask the question, “Oh, You’re Muslim? I didn’t know.” As with our Catholic friend, I can predict that he’ll happily assent to that appellation. But soon after this, you run into someone who studies the Bhagavad Gita, meditates with a Sanskrit mantra, is a disciple of a guru, chants bhajans and may even have replaced his or her birth name with Ram or Radhika. However, if you were to assume they were Hindu, you just might not be correct. Yes, everything I just mentioned has all the markings of a Hindu; but there is a very good chance that this person might deny the label of “Hindu” or any other religious category. They might be comfortable with identifying as “spiritual,” “none,” or something quasi-Hindu such as “yogi” or “Vedantist.”
MANY REASONS WHY
I’ll say from the start that I have no desire to criticize anyone for how they identify religiously. My goal here is to understand the reasons for distancing oneself from Hinduism while embracing some of the most important elements of the tradition. And for our purposes here, I will focus specifically on those who are ethnically non-Indian (or non-Nepali, non-Balinese, etc.). The population in question is typically of European or African ancestry. It is true that there are South Asians who also distance themselves from “The H Word,” but that is a matter for a different time.
While reasons for this are manifold, I suspect the main one is that the word “Hindu” is so heavily tied to an ethnicity and culture quite foreign to most Westerners. Think about it. While I have no numbers to support me on this, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that perhaps upwards of 98 or 99% of all Hindus are of South Asian extraction. And up until relatively recently, “Hindu” was used interchangeably with “Indian,” since another name for India was Hindustan.
Christianity and Islam are much more universal in this sense. If you were to attend a lecture on either faith by a practitioner, you wouldn’t be surprised if they were White, Black, Asian or just about anything else. There are a couple of very good reasons for this, and both are quite noble. Indian culture did not engage in colonization as we have come to know it. They did not send armies to other parts of Asia or Europe to usurp cultures, dethrone rulers and establish states servile to an emperor. Sure, there were wars between Indian kingdoms, but they more or less kept things “in the family.”
NO RELIGIOUS IMPERIALISM
The other reason is that there is no Great Commission (Gospel of Mark Ch. XVI v.15-18) in Hinduism that compels devotees to convert others to the “right” religion. Hinduism spread to other parts of the world, for sure. But that happened mostly through traders stationed in faraway outposts or because of indentured servitude for the British. And even then, very few natives in those countries embraced the religion of their new neighbors.
EARLY SEEDS PLANTED
I think we all know that the 1st major Hindu thought leader to transmit the Dharma to Americans was Swami Vivekananda. I suspect that if he had described his work as being Hindu it might have established a precedent; but that was not to be. Vivekananda disliked the word for some of the reasons I mentioned above. At the time it was just too broad a brush. He stated:
“There may not be any harm in using the word [Hindu]…but…it lost its significance, for you may mark that all the people who live on this side of the Indus in modern times do not follow the same religion as they did in ancient times. The word, therefore, covers not only Hindus proper, but [Muslims], Christians, Jains, and others who live in India. I, therefore, would not use the word Hindu. What word should we use then? The only other words which we can use are either the Vaidiks—followers of the Vedas—or better still, the Vedantists—followers of the Vedanta.”
And then there are some people who embrace Hindu practice that eschew any religious stamp because they just don’t like religion. Many were brought up in homes that practiced a rather severe expression of Christianity. To them, hearing or saying “religion” can trigger a mild form of PTSD. Some will even refrain from using “God” in conversation, as visions of Chief-Punisher-In-The-Sky might retard spiritual and emotional growth. So, for this group, “Spiritual But Not Religious” (SBNR) works well. Some may still have an affiliation with a society that teaches from an eastern oriented position. And as long as it does not claim to be affiliated with a major religion, members feel safe.
And we cannot minimize the strong anti-Hindu bias that seems to be pervasive today. Many people might want to keep a distance due to fear that they will be labeled “fascist” or “extremist.” This meme is certainly making the rounds currently.
I’ve also heard a reason that is hard for me to make sense of. That is, since the world’s religions are one, I embrace them all. This is a form of what is called radical universalism. I’ve actually heard people say that they are Christian-Hindu- Buddhist-Jewish- Muslim+.
I really am trying to respect all viewpoints here, guys. And I’m so nonconfrontational in these discussions that I just leave it alone. But I want to ask them, “Do you fast during Lent, Ramadan, Yom Kippur and Ekadasi? And do you remove all leavened products from your home for Passover? Do you have to observe Sabbath from Friday night until Sunday night? Are you planning a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Mecca and Varanasi?”
Yes, I know what they will answer. They will claim that they mean that they acknowledge the inner truth of all the different religions. That is, the search for transcendence beyond the material world. It is true that those who are members of esoteric schools such as Sufis, Kabbalists, Gnostics, etc. do often find more in common with fellow mystics than their own coreligionists. Great. I get that. But to identify yourself with all these different paths in any manner other than poetic is a great insult to those who have committed themselves to the letter and spirit of the scriptures of these great world faiths. The Sufi still had to publicly acknowledge that there is no deity but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet. The Kabbalist (if male) still had to get circumcised. And, of course, there are in these modern times Kabbalists and Sufis who claim that one needn’t be Jewish or Muslim to join their ranks. But that’s their fight.
I recall a lecture given by a swami who headed a sangha that avoided The H Word when describing his path. He had ashrams in both the USA and Italy. His Italian devotees connected with a group of Catholics, and together they meditated, chanted and enjoyed fellowship. The local bishop called the swami in to express his displeasure at this situation. While engaging in interfaith hospitality was fine enough, this seemed to be growing into something more. At one point he expressed frustration and said that the bishop “got me to admit we were Hindu.”
I chortled a bit. Of course you are, I wanted to say. Give that man in the miter a high-5 for me. Needless to say, the association between the sangha and the church group was short-lived.
UNKNOWN WIDE PARAMETERS
Another reason for people to be hesitant about identifying as Hindu is that they have a very narrow understanding of what that means. Often, it is assumed that to be Hindu one must engage in temple deity worship. While many are attracted to kirtan, the Gita, gurus, etc., only a relative few as also temple members. But this is incorrect. Down through the ages there have been plenty of deeply devout cradle-to-cremains Hindus who have found Ishwara/Bhagavan/Brahman beyond temple walls. In my almost 40 years of membership in the Hindu community I have never had to “prove” my Hindutva (Hinduness) by checking the boxes on an application. While some Hindu movements do require a more tangible effort to join their ranks, I’ve heard very few say anything other than if you think you’re Hindu, you’re Hindu. Clearly, one can be silly about it. Of course, there has to be a deep level of sincerity. In my role as Temple Pracharak I am often giving tours to schools, churches, etc. Sometimes I get the question, “If I wanted to become Hindu, what would I need to do?” I always answer, “Just start tithing to the temple and you’re in.” I then give a more serious answer, but I am clearly making a point.
Now it’s time for ‘fessin’ up. Years ago, I was at a stage where I couldn’t quite figure out my spiritual identity. I held onto the label of Catholic for cultural reasons way longer than I should have. Later, I settled on referring to myself as “an adherent of the Hindu/Yoga tradition.”
My, doesn’t that sound like I consulted a lawyer?
There were a few things that led to my being able to comfortably call myself Hindu outright. You might recall a book entitled “3 Cups of Tea.” There was a great deal of controversy surrounding it, but I just want to stick with the title. According to the author, in Afghanistan, if you are invited to take tea with someone, the 1st time you are a guest. The 2nd time you take tea with them you are a friend. And the 3rd time you are family. While it might be a sweet sentiment, I rolled my eyes at the idea. No, there has to be at least a 4th time. And if there is, it’s your turn to wash the dishes. To be family you’ve got to have skin in the game. The Hindu tradition and community have given me untold joy over these many years. How can I be the recipient of such treasures without giving in return? It was then and there that I decided that I could no longer keep an arm’s length between this tradition that had sustained me all these years.
I occasionally get asked if Indian Hindus see me as a “legitimate” Hindu. And the answer is a resounding yes. Both here in North America, the Caribbean and in India I have been embraced wholly. And I’ve never heard from anything different of my ethnically similar peers. I believe only once I was chided for not changing my name. But my well-meaning antagonist wasn’t denying my Hindutva, merely suggesting that I commit in a deeper, more public way.
HOW ABOUT SANATANA DHARMA?
One thing I have appreciated over recent years is that those who self-identify as Hindus and those who “almost do” share one thing in common when it comes to naming cosa nostra (this thing of ours). That is, traditional Hindus are now encouraging the term “Sanatana Dharma” to describe what we do and believe. This, as Hindu theologians say, is really the original name for Hinduism. Meaning eternal way, path, etc., it seems to capture a certain essence of the faith that resonates with many adherents. I haven’t seen any movement to fully replace “Hindu” with Sanatana Dharma, but many believe that we should use it to some degree. And because even though it is Sanskrit, and from India, it may seem less ethnically attached than “Hindu.” Several gurus who have come to the West preferred using Sanatana Dharma to describe their teachings. And so, many westerners have acknowledged themselves as Dharmis.
As I said in the beginning, I do not seek lay a guilt trip on anyone who chooses to engage with the great wisdom and practices of the Dharma without fully embracing the tradition. Hinduism is very generous in sharing with the world without requiring any sort of formal membership. But know that you are always welcome. And really, we can always use the help.