Many people will tell me that they practice yoga, sing kirtan, study the Bhagavad Gita and Vedic philosophy, meditate, and believe in an all pervasive consciousness that is manifest as the Universe itself. They will say that different people have called it by many names and it has been represented by various forms. They study herbal medicine, wish to protect the environment, chant mantras each morning and do surya namaskar. They believe that people should be compassionate towards each other, animals, and nature. Some even have a Ganesha statue in their home that they like to wave incense and a candle in front of before meditations.
“Great! So you are Hindu?” I ask.
“No, I am not religious. I accept all paths,” they will generally say.
So the question that stands out in my mind is; since when does saying ‘I am Hindu,’ mean you don’t accept other paths? A Hindu is accepting of other paths, and doesn’t believe only Hindus can attain the supreme goal. Fortunately by saying you are Hindu, it doesn’t negate someone else’s beliefs like it does in some other paths. Hinduism belongs to a group of traditions known as Dharmas, which are a bit different from the Western notion of religion. Dharmas are traditions that utilize logic, personal experience, and the guidance of those who have gone before through teachers and sacred texts, but do not claim exclusive rights to the Truth by saying there is only one way, one God, and one teacher.
The emphasis is on personal spiritual growth and unfoldment, and personal realization of the truths contained within that tradition. The term ‘Hinduism’ is a later term applied to what is called the Sanatana Dharma, or loosely translated, the Eternal Natural Principles. It is the oldest of the other Dharmas that include Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, et cetera, and is the source from which they came as well. The historical Buddha was the son of a Hindu nobleman, and his teachings were never anti-Vedic or anti-Hindu, nor did he intend to replace them with a new ‘ism.’ Rather, he taught the essence of Vedic teachings in a simplified format. Many Hindus consider him to be an avatar or incarnation of Vishnu, and highly revere his teachings as a vital part of their tradition.
‘If I call myself Hindu does it mean I have to believe everything that other Hindus do?’
No, not at all. There are general views that are accepted like karma, dharma, reincarnation, and belief in an all pervasive Truth that you can see as personal or impersonal depending on your perspective. The Vedic tradition asks a person to directly experience the Truth for themselves. Blind faith without reason and experience is not encouraged or even truly accepted on the Hindu path. Concepts are open for discussion, exploration, and argument. Questioning is encouraged.
So why are so many in the West reluctant to use the ‘H’ word when defining their beliefs? Well, there are a number of reasons. A lot of the views and notions we have about Hindus and Hinduism come from sources that are not very friendly to Hindus. The narrative of superstitious cow and idol worshipping savages was ingrained on the Western psyche by European imperialists and missionary groups.
In India today there are many forces that are extremely hostile to Hindus and work to perpetuate that image so as to accrue political power and advance their agendas. So the common notions among non-Hindus about what Hinduism is has been heavily influenced by these narratives that obscure the truth of what Sanatana Dharma really is. Because of all the preconceived notion baggage associated with the term ‘Hindu’, many Hindu gurus who introduced Hinduism to the West chose not to call it ‘Hinduism’, and opted instead for terms like Vedanta and Yoga.
Identifying as Hindu has the advantage of connecting one to the vast ocean of wisdom and experience that is Hindu Dharma, and serves the dual benefit of helping to lift misconceptions about Hinduism. Sanatana Dharma is a tree, and the various insights and some practices like meditation and hatha yoga, Ayurveda, and so on are the fruits.
Many may pick an individual fruit off of the tree and enjoy it which is fine, fruit should be enjoyed. But some should look after the tree and take care of its roots, otherwise the tree will no longer be around for others to enjoy the fruits as well. Secondly, the more that Hindu practices are separated from their roots the more diluted they tend to become, and in my experience, they lose some of their original benefits that were cultivated through thousands of years of fine tuning via tradition and wise insight. The kind of wise insight that is not always present in a trendy New Age workshop or hip yoga studio.
So am I trying to ‘convert’ anyone or insist every person who benefits from Hindu practices say ‘I am Hindu?’ No, but I am inviting people to not be afraid of the ‘H’ word when defining their spiritual values, and hope to see Westerners one day able to confidently declare ‘I am Hindu’ as confidently as many have been able to declare ‘I am Buddhist’ in the recent decades. All in all they are not that different.
~ Brandon Fulbrook, Tejas Surya