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The White Hindu has moved! This blog is no longer updated, but Ambaa is still writing The White Hindu every weekday at

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Religion vs Culture

A woman on a religious message board I am on asked me about something she has observed, which is that there seem to be two different types of Hindus--the Indian and Indian Americans who grew up with it and then the others who are very into the philosophy. She points out that those raised in the faith tend to do the rituals and the holidays, while the others are into theology and philosophy, but don't seem to participate in any group worship, taking it as a solitary practice. The two groups do not seem to integrate at all.

She asked me my take on this phenomenon and I think it is exactly the bridge that I have been trying to cross.

My response to her was that I thought the young adults who discovered Indian philosophy forty years ago were not interested in finding another dogma and another old tradition. They wanted something fresh and new and to get away from traditional religion. They took the philosophy, but left behind the traditions.

I want both. I don't like the feeling of practicing a religion in a vacuum. Part of me is stunned that my parents did not see this coming. They taught me to believe in so many Indian concepts, but they never thought I would want to adopt the entire culture. Which makes me wonder if I could just take the philosophy and leave the rest.

After all, I do not know of anyone else who grew up in my community who has gone the direction I have gone. Even my own brother leans more Christian than Hindu. The people I grew up with are either Christian or Jewish. Many of them never saw our organization as a religion. I always did. Because I didn't have anything else.

I think part of that is just the personality that I was born with. Ritual and devotion has always appealed to me along with knowledge and study. I was a deeply religious child, but I didn't know how to channel that.

I did join an evangelical Christian group in college and I tried to make myself fit in there (particularly since I fell deeply in love with one of the boys there). But there were certain fundamental aspects of being a Christian that I just kept banging my head against. I could not accept them. Things such as God being a separate being from us, the idea of heaven and hell with no reincarnation, devotion being the only way to be close to God, and others. Again and again I just kept coming back to the foundation of my beliefs being Hindu.

All of my life I have longed for a community, a feeling of belonging. I envied my best friend who is Jewish because the Jewish community is so strong and dedicated. I never fit in, even within the organization I grew up in. I took things more seriously than other people. Through no one's fault, my memories of my childhood are filled with an overwhelming sense of loneliness and the desire to belong.

And yet I was never to make myself into the kind of person who would belong with the people around me. Maybe a latent stubbornness in me, I don't know.

So the point is that I want it all. I do not want to extract the philosophy from a religion that is quite possibly the oldest in the world. I want to be accepted as I am. Maybe too much to hope for.

I want to clarify here that I love being American. I do not wish to be otherwise. Being American leaves me unfettered by social expectations. Our belief in the freedom of each individual to follow her own path is what makes this country what it is. Being American is what allows me to pursue this path I am on.

I have never been to India. I don't know how to explain that I feel deeply that I know India. I understand its pulse. I believe that I lived there in another life, as loopy and stupid as that sounds. I am not one of these people who thinks that India is this magical land of religion. I know sometimes people have the tendency to think that everyone in China knows kung-fu and quotes Lau-tzu all day and that people in India are free from material desires and meditate under trees all the time (or else sing and dance in the streets!). I have no such illusion.

I understand that it is a place like any other, and that people are people no matter where you go. By that I mean that there is a percentage of people in India who are deeply religious, just as in America and anywhere else in the world. There is also a percentage who are motivated by social standards and competing with neighbors, and a percentage who use the idea of religion for personal gain, etc., etc. These things happen everywhere.

When the movie Slumdog Millionaire came out, some people I knew told me that when I saw it it would change my opinion of India, that I wouldn't like it so much anymore. That's plain crazy. I am not unaware of social problems in India. I am not unaware of its weaknesses and its strength or its variety. I love it because everything I see of it and everything I hear of it makes me feel at home deep in my heart.

Someday soon I hope to visit and see the battle field of Kurukshetra from the Mahabharata, and the city of Ayodhya from the Ramayana. And just experience the plain, every day magic of it.


  1. For as long as I can remember, I've felt drawn to the Greek gods. But with no Greek heritage, I had no idea why... until I arrived in Greece, and I felt connected. There are many similarities to Australia, but it's more than that...
    What I'm trying to say here is, I understand. As much as anyone can, I get it.

  2. I stumbled today onto your fine blog and enjoyed reading it very much. Your personal stories are very touching.

    I can appreciate this post a bit, because I grew up in an atheistic family in India. I had a liberal dose of Indian culture - we celebrate all Hindu festivals in our family. But we were not religious at all. In fact, my dad has tried his best to inculcate skepticism in us children. And I am thankful for him for that.

    As I grew older, I discovered Indian philosophy from a very academic perspective, and I liked it very much. From this my unique viewpoint, I think Indian philosophy is extremely universal and can be followed without many trappings of the Indian culture. For example, you can consider the Mississippi to be sacred, not just the Ganges. Each region on this planet has a unique local heritage that is reflected in the dress and food habits of people. From a Hindu viewpoint, all of them are sacred because they have evolved to be respectful of the environment and society (otherwise, such customs wouldn't have survived till today).

    But the same cannot be said about modern industrial lifestyles where we waste everything, and are disrespectful of the universe.

    Also, I would like you to welcome to India some day. I hope you'd like it when you visit. But please be prepared for the negative bits - there is a lot of misery, dirt and despair in the people here.

  3. Glad to have you, Ray! Welcome!

  4. So i've gone around and read a few more of your blog posts.

    I don't think you're a tourist. Nor is this a passing phase in your life. Though you are confused about yourself and its primarily because you haven't argued with yourself enough.

    You are hindu. No doubt about that. But what you hope for is to be accepted in an indian community. Particularity, one that is centered about hinduism.

    That wish is difficult. I don't want to elaborate on it but i'll try to finish it in a few sentences. Historically, caucasians have waged mass genocide on hindus. The most recent period in india's history was the rule of the british. Indians are hard wired in the belief that the west is christian and cannot be a hindu. Much of the non-acceptance is plain colonial hangover and here to stay for a long time. You will find varying responses from the indian community for white hindus - some accepting and some not.

    A major flaw you make is attribute indic practices to hinduism. Hinduism in india is "indian hinduism". I would like to point you to a group of hindus called the Balinese people. They have their own way of life. They don't wear saris. They don't make trips to india to feel accepted. In fact, the balinese people and the indian people have no alliances or organisations aimed to create any kind of linkages. They are what you would call "balinese hindus". Hence, you are not "indian hindu" or "balinese hindu". You are not "american hindu".

    BTW im not asking you to stop wearing saris or stop practising any other indic stuff. Just that they are not the criteria to be "indian hindu". Indic practices do not carry IP laws(yet) so feel free to practice them if it takes you at peace.

    Marrying an indian boy is a ridiculous idea. The problem isn't with the non-hindu refusing a hindu's belief. The problem is that the hindu doesn't agree to the non-hindus beliefs.

    One of the practices of hinduism is pantheism - the belief that all gods exist. It's basically aimed at "co-existence". You make the peace. You take the initiative. No one can force you to change at heart.

  5. Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

    I can see your point that Indic practices and Hinduism are separate things. I practiced Hinduism in a cultural void for a long time, so for me I found that it was important to bring the culture and the religion back together.

    I would say that I have very little confusion about my religion and my beliefs, but a lot of confusion about my culture and my place in society! :)

  6. I just went and googled Balinese Hinduism. I knew it was a major religion there, but didn't know anything about it. I'm so glad I did, because it was the antidote to a book I picked up that is driving me crazy with the author's 'orthodoxy'. Hinduism looks like so many things! It's really wonderful.

  7. We dön't have anythng against west. Atleast in literate kerala. Ya. Western are christians is a popular belief, bt we never hav anythng against them visiting India. A dance master who married a white grl s living n our locality and what indian women generally whisper or joke is "how that cute white married this ridiculous luking guy"lol.
    But when it comes to marrying a indian guy may be his family or relatives will object not because of british raj or anythng .
    But a popular perception, due to high rate of divorces, that western women won't stay long n relation, they will leave etc. Where in India it is a permenant relation till death..
    But there is no anti caucasian feeling or Racism here.
    Second thng s religion, as they thnk westerns are christians and may be a trick for converting to christianity.
    But many families accept once they are married
    If there was anythng anti-caucasian, would Sonia Gandhi remain as Top leader , even after such immense corruptn and anti hindu acts?!

  8. But there s some anger , over wikileaks exposing of USA govt. Spying and u still supporting and aiding pak etc but thats all political ,nothng against citizens.

  9. I'm not sure it's that simple. It is not possible to say that you know the heart of a population of billions. Some are racists, others are not. Same as anywhere else in the world :)