What Makes Me A Hindu?

What Makes Me A Hindu? January 3, 2013

This question is the very core of this blog.

There are plenty of hippy Americans who practice “alternative spirituality” and use labels like that and others. Why do I think that I’m not just “a spiritual person” but actually a Hindu?

What makes someone a Hindu?

There is actually very little agreement on that question. I’m not even worried right now about what makes someone a good Hindu!

I asked this question on my Facebook page once and I got a wide variety of answers.

  • Someone who follows the Vedas
  • Every living being is already a Hindu (they just don’t necessarily know it)
  • If you say you are a Hindu, you are
  • If your parents are Hindus, you are

The thing is, there is no authority in Hinduism to dictate who belongs and who doesn’t. There is no pope. There is no Bible. Many people have made the argument that Hinduism isn’t a religion at all, it’s a way of life. By that they mean that Hindu is just something that you are and it exists in every aspect of your being. You don’t have to examine how or why you are, you just are.

I like Dr. Frank Morales’s answer at About.com: “The two primary factors that distinguish the individual uniqueness of the great world religious traditions are a) the scriptural authority upon which the tradition is based, and b) the fundamental religious tenet(s) that it espouses.”

 All we need to do then is figure out what are the fundamental tenets of Hinduism and then we can measure ourselves against them and see if those beliefs are our beliefs.

Dr. Morales goes on to tell us that if we strive to live dharmically*, then we are Hindus. He is the “Someone who follows the Vedas” camp. But then there are a lot of people who identify as Hindu who don’t try to live in a dharmic way. There’s greed, cruelty, selfishness, etc. in plenty of people who see themselves as Hindus, who grew up in India with Hindu parents, who give offerings to Gods at their altar and visit temples when they want to ask the Gods for something. The label “Hindu” is a very wide umbrella.

And that’s true of any religion in the world. Different people have different understandings about what they mean. Some people label themselves as that religion because they have studied it, others because it’s all they’ve ever done.

I don’t think I can create a metric to measure the Hindu-ness of every person. What I can do is look at why I see myself as a Hindu and not something else.

As I said in my introduction, I grew up in an organization whose principals were based on Hindu philosophy. I never called it Hinduism, though. My parents don’t see themselves as Hindus (even though they totally are!) What I found was that in college I explored different religions trying to figure out where I belonged and I had the amazing experience of discovering that I was already a Hindu and I always had been. All my beliefs, every single one of them, was a part of Hindu philosophy.

So what are those beliefs? As Subhamoy Das says, also at About.com, there is no “one Hinduism” and it lacks any unified system, since it is a conglomerate of diverse beliefs and traditions, but there are prominent themes:

  • Dharma (ethics and duties)
  • Samsara (rebirth)
  • Karma (right action)
  • Moksha (liberation from the cycle of Samsara)

The things that made me recognize Hinduism in my own life were:

  • a belief in reincarnation
  • a belief that everything in the world opperates in cycles and nothing is ever created or destroyed. There is no death without renewal
  • a belief in divinity within myself
  • a belief that our experience of the world is not the ultimate reality
  • a belief in a perfectly just world that keeps its own balance by a system of action and consequence
  • a belief that we can break the cycle of life and death to become one with the ultimate God

Yes, I could just say I am a hippy. A new ageist. But why divorce those beliefs from their origin in Indian thought? I could create a new word for it, but no matter what I say, those beliefs are deeply ingrained within Hinduism already.

In the end, I’m not sure how much the words themselves matter here. I’ve certainly heard plenty of times that the word “Hindu” is just something the British used to call people in the Indus river valley. I don’t really care. It’s the word that calls to people’s minds what I am and so it is the word I use. For a while I tried telling people I was an Advaita Vedantist when they asked what religion I was. That’s the word for my particular branch. But saying that just required a long explanation, the long and short of which was that I was Hindu.

In Islam and certain branches of evangelical Christianity there is a statement of belief that you say out loud and from that moment on, you are that religion. Well, for me, I am a Hindu because I say I am.

What do you think? What makes someone a Hindu?

*Dharma= justice, balance, correct action

Related Posts:

Cultural Appropriation And Me

Why Am I Called The “White” Hindu?

Where Does a White Hindu Start?

Did I Start Out Christian?

Why I Am A Hindu

Hinduism Doesn’t Need Me


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  • Tiger

    http://www.venky-says.blogspot.com/2012/05/indias-ideas-india-can-bedescribed-as.html…. My blog, thought this might interest you …… Even I recognise myself as Advaita vendatist .. Cheers 🙂

  • SorchaRei

    “My parents don’t see themselves as Hindus (even though they totally are!)”


    “I am a Hindu because I say I am.”

    You don’t actually get to believe both these things without creeping dangerously close to hypocrisy. Either people are entitled to define their own religious identity (which I think they are) or they are not. If they are, then you are Hindu because you say you are. But in that case, your parents are not Hindus because they say they are not. It’s not up to you to override their self-definition.

    • Ambaa

      You make a really good point. I didn’t notice that before and I appreciate that you called my attention to it.

      I recently had some insight about this so I’m going to be writing a post about how I think I finally understand how the circumstances I was in brought me to become Hindu but didn’t bring others in the same circumstances to it.

  • Emily.E.N

    Hey Ambaa, I’m glad you made that “Best of” post that led me back to some of these great older posts. Several of the topics you addressed are things I’ve been thinking about a great deal lately, since I’ve recently moved to a very liberal town with considerable Hindu and ISKCON presence, and I’ve been trying to figure out if I want to get involved with any of them. I’ve been bothered lately, wondering if I can in fact call myself a Hindu because I’ve found that I don’t believe a lot of the things that many Hindus usually do. I’m uncertain about reincarnation (I tend to care more about the way I live life than what happens afterwards) and don’t see the gods as literal supernatural figures, but important examples. But at the same time, I was having a rough day at work yesterday and chatting with the leader of the local ISKCON temple made me feel so, so much better, and I find myself saying modified versions of prayers from time to time. It’s confusing a lot of the time, but in the end, Hinduism is where I find comfort and the philosophy makes life and the world make sense to me.

    • Ambaa

      “the philosophy makes life and the world make sense to me” This hits the nail on the head for me! 🙂

      Some people say that the label is not important and you can just believe what you believe and practice what makes you happy. But I’ve found a lot of comfort in having a label. Still, as I say, there are as many forms of Hinduism as there are Hindus.

      It’s totally fine not to believe the Gods are literal beings but more metaphorical. As far as reincarnation, though I definitely believe in it, I completely agree that one’s focus needs to be on the here and now (living in the moment is a Hindu principle!) I feel like reincarnation helps frame my understanding but the life I’m in right now is what really matters. It is what will shape everything to come, too.

      Anyway, I hope that you’ll continue to explore and learn and not feel pressure to apply any labels to yourself until/if you are ready!

  • Nishant Patar

    I am not professional but I got my meaning like this way.
    Dharma: In universe they are three power. 1 Bharma [Birth] 2 Vishnu [ Energy or Fulfile ] 3 Shiva [ Destruction ]. Forth one will be center [ Aatma – Purest Divine Sole ].
    Aatma divide it self in zillion of form in universe [ Form of Jiv-Aatma – Living Sole ].

    This Jiv-Aatma live in our planet or world based on 5 pillar of Artha [ Meaning ].
    1. Jiv-Aatma [ Inside of Meat and Bone. True self.]
    2. Sansar [ We live in this world of Materialism. In Shiva world. ]
    3. Dharma [ Honor, Justice and way of life. ]
    4. Karma. [ Our Action create every opposition reaction. ]
    5. Moksha [ Journey to find path of freedom of birth and death. ]

    Last we are riding through all this pillar in Chakra of time [Which never stop or reverse back. Infinite time and space. ].

    While Ohm is also Called Divine aatma or is callling true form. This why all three superim god chanting ohm so they remain spiritual or be the one.
    I think I did not mistake. Reply.

    • Nishant Patar

      Sorry I mistake written Jiv-Aatma is 1 pillar. While First Pillar is Jati [ Which mean birth in world with your character and talent. Not mean cast. More like value of varna. ]
      Jiv-Aatma is center of Chakra as dot like in middle of center in living world. Which form of Wheel of Chakra like you can see in Indian flag. But with five pillar only.

  • kartashok

    For the last time, you are not a Hindu. You are a white attention-whoring arrogant cunt. Your white race has all the power and glory you need now, why not follow European paganism?
    Why do you feel the need to invade the spiritualities created by Asians? Get out.

  • Jeff Messer

    I was a southern baptist by birth. Around 10 I decided that was not for me … I am not all about doing things or believing things “because we said so”. I flittered along for years doing my thing and just living life until the wheels completely fell off. I lost my marriage, my kids, my parents, my career … my life essentially, and no comfort from my beliefs was to be found. I started to rebuild my life and beliefs around science and fact vice “because we said so”. Through the Upanishads that drew me to Buddhism which I followed for years until I just could not get over the self issue. I argued and argued with Buddhists from all over the world that the Buddha DID NOT say there was no self (he didn’t). He just refused to say there is one because it is an illusion (jagat mitthra). I believed that there was a self so I took the leap to Hinduism … despite being raised to view Hinduism as some sort of pagan, god-worshiping archaic belief system. As I dove into it I quickly learned how wrong all of the naysayers were and how organic and in-accord-with-modern-theoretical-physics advaita vedanta actually was. I had believed for many years that all of the major religions of the world came from a single, similar set of beliefs that were changed by misinterpretation and cultural differences over the centuries. Turns out my views were near identical to that of Swami Ramakrishna. After so many years I feel like I finally found my spiritual home. Jagat Mitthra. Ayam brahmasmi. namaste