Take a Hindu to Lunch

Take a Hindu to Lunch

In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 3,217 Americans were asked to rate religious groups on a 0-100 “feeling thermometer,” with 0 representing the coldest and 100 the warmest. Hindus received a lukewarm rating of 50.

There are several reasons for this, I believe. The first is obvious, and not terribly surprising: in a related Pew poll, only 22 percent of Americans said they know a Hindu. This makes sense, since almost all self-identified Hindus are of Indian descent, and while theirs is a hugely successful immigrant story, they’ve been trickling in only since immigration laws were changed in 1965 and they constitute less than 1 percent of the population.

Your doctor may be Hindu. Your kid’s engineering professor may be Hindu. The owner of the hotel down the street may be Hindu. Mindy Kaling, Sanjay Gupta and the last six winners of the national spelling bee may be Hindus. But still, not many people actually know a Hindu personally. And it’s only when we really get to know members of a different religious, ethnic or racial group that we drop our preconceptions and stereotypes and let that nice warm feeling in.

If any proof of that is needed, look at the religious groups that ranked warmest on the feeling thermometer: Jews (63) and Catholics (62) (Evangelical Christians scored 61). A century ago –even half a century ago — scores like that would have been unimaginable; Jews and Catholics were reviled and discriminated against. But over time the rest of America got to know them, and now they make up the entire Supreme Court.

A second reason much of the country lacks warmth for Hindus is that many Americans harbor misconceptions about their religion. This is partly because the story of Hinduism was written mainly by British colonists and Western scholars, and various errors have yet to be corrected in textbooks, despite the efforts of advocacy groups like the Hindu American Foundation and the Dharma Civilization Foundation. Among other things, aspects of Indian culture have been conflated with the nation’s dominant religion, so that the caste system and other antiquated customs have come to be seen, erroneously, as central features of Hindu doctrine.

Eventually, that will change, of course, and Hindu children won’t be taunted as monkey worshippers. When was the last time you heard someone accuse Jews of drinking the blood of Christian children at Passover?

But here’s the weird thing about the Pew surveys. While only 22% of Americans know people who call themselves Hindus, almost everybody knows someone whose life and belief system has been impacted by the multifaceted knowledge base that came to be called Hinduism. As I documented in my book, American Veda, for about 200 years now we have been absorbing, assimilating and adapting insights articulated ages ago in the Himalayas. Some of our most influential thinkers, writers, musicians and scientists were, in varying degrees, shaped by those ideas before transmitting them to the rest of us. In addition, the practices propagated by Indian gurus have taken root in the culture, with millions meditating, chanting and stretching into yoga postures. The fast-growing category of Spiritual but not Religious (SBNR) would not have arisen if practices we think of as Hindu and Buddhist were not made accessible to spiritual seekers and secular self-improvers alike.

But here’s the rub: very few of the non-Indian Americans whose values, beliefs and spiritual pursuits are Hindu-esque, or Hindu-like, or quasi-Hindu, call themselves Hindus. They may say they’re students of Indian philosophy. They may call themselves yogis, or devotees of this guru or that lineage. They may say they follow the philosophy of Vedanta. They may say that their core beliefs were shaped by the Bhagavad Gita or the Upanishads. Some–including a number of Indians–may say they follow Sanatana Dharma, the term used for centuries before colonial intruders coined the term Hinduism.

Why the reluctance to self-identify as Hindu? Some see it as a form of Hinduphobia. I think it’s an aversion to all religion. The yogis, meditators, devotees and SBNRs don’t like religious labels or religious lingo, and “Hinduism” is, in common usage, a religious term. They prefer generic, nonsectarian spiritual jargon. Plus, no guru ever asked followers to abandon their own religions — or lack of religion — and no Hindu ever tried to persuade anyone to convert. The Hindu-based teachings that came to us from India were presented as universal principles, more akin to scientific laws than religious doctrine, that could be viewed in religious or secular terms according to the individual’s orientation.

And therein lies the irony: that universality is one of the great virtues of what we call Hinduism, and it’s also the reason the term is not used by so many of the people it has impacted. In time, as Indian-born Hindus assimilate further and accurate information about Hinduism disseminates, the linguistic issues will sort themselves out. Meanwhile, the temperature on the feeling thermometer will surely rise.

~ by Philip Goldberg, interfaith Minister, author of ‘American Veda: How Indian Spirituality Changed the West’



Click here to post a comment

  • Wht message you want to pass form this article? And why only 3217 Americans were surveyed? Why not other country ppl? and wht is the base of ur survey?

    • Amit,
      Pew research is an American research org, so only Americans were surveyed. All surveys limit to a sample of participants from cross section of society and geographical area. So only 3217 Americans responded. They might have tried to collect data from 5000 to 10000 people. Only 3217 responded. Since the purpose of the research is to find out which religious groups are positively perceived, they included Hindu group as well. Now since the author of original article is an interfaith minister who values, Hindus, and interested in ensuring American knows about Hindus, suggested ‘Take a Hindu to Lunch’. The message of article is to inform Hindus/Indians, that many Americans do not know about Hindus; perhaps the message to Hindu Americans to mix/communicate with locals so that they get to know Hinduism more.
      (many Hindus do not know some of the basics of Hinduism and also not feel proud of their religion and much society just knows superficial aspects like ‘Idol worship’ and caste system think that is Hinduism and not like to be called Hindus. Many many educated ‘secular’ Indians also think in the same way.

      • I am glad that your perceptions on Hindus are very correct.In India and outside ,many Hindus does not know the basics of Hinduism or the sanathana dharma excepting that they are idol worshippers,they have thousand and one gods and their gods have families and have more than one wife etc …Many think that this is Hinduism …This feelings can be changed through concentrated efforts only and if treated like Bethovans melody ,none will understand Hinduism and its values

  • Although am a Christian my Grand Parents were Hindus – and more than any other community, religion etc. I owe my existence to my Hindu brother and sisters – saying that – I have many Hindu friends as well as people in my family are Hindus – but am not able to connect with them in certain practices and feel disconnected – and most of the people do not offer proper guidance to overcome such disconnect – we need to feel encouraged to bridge this widening gap !!!

    • Hi Paul, I have known few families who have converted to Christian from Hindu in Grenada and other West Indies Islands.
      As they were farmers and had no socials gatherings of Hindus, but had churches, Hindus views any form of gods is god and they pray, and that is how those people got converted.
      But looking at Hinduism, many people do not absorb the real scientific side of Sanatan Dharma and just observing Spiritual side, therefore, they get confused saying why so many gods and so on… but truly looking and understanding of Hinduism is self learning, is way of life.

  • As an Non Indian and American, I was once confused how to call upon my spiritual path. I was raised as a catholic and was never spiritually satisfied and lost my connection to God. When I learn about “Hinduism” and Indian philosophies, i learned to accept this is who i am and not to label my connect to the Holy Universe. I don’t have to call myself anything as long I keep the divine connection with God, his children and bring harmony.

    Sometimes I would like to go to a temple and pay homage and learn more when it come to pujas and offerings but always felt ostracize and felt unwelcome unless I go to a Krisha temple. Community is an important key factor for spiritual growth and warmth.

    Thank You for the article

  • A great article, indeed! However, I feel Hiduism is not a religion. In fact, Concept of Religion has come from Mid-east & I firmly believe that we don’t need any religion! There is no Synonym of Religion in our History and language. Word “Dharam” used has itself a different meaning as per texts of Ramayana or Mahabharata.

    Hinduism is far above the “religion”. It is very wide. It has a place for every type of “Bhakti”. It is a way of life. In fact, I believe many of the respondents who keep them away from Hinduism are “Hindus” actually.