The White Hindu has moved

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 This blog is no longer updated, but Ambaa is still writing The White Hindu every weekday at

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Issue of First Impression

This is a phrase that gets used in my paralegal studies. It means that if there is an issue before a court, you can look to previous decisions in that State to see what the outcome should be, but if this issue has never happened in your State, you have to look to other States for similar cases (ones that are "on point" with the facts of your case) and try to persuade a judge to make that ruling.

Conversion in Hinduism is, I think, an issue of first impression. We do not have guidelines of how it would work. So, we need to look at other, similar cases for guidance.

The question here is whether one should join the culture when joining the religion? This was brought up to me by a friend who reads this blog. There is some question of why I can't just practice Hinduism without "acting Indian." I personally believe that the two are so closely linked that it is not possible to separate them without losing vital parts of the religion.

Let's look for some on point cases to help us with this question.

Christianity is not a similar case. Conversion in Christianity is strongly encouraged, which is unlike the facts of our case. Also, there is no "Christian culture." It is practiced by a wide variety of people in places all over the world. The way Christianity does interact with culture is that when one converts to Christianity, one must give up any actions, cultural or otherwise, that go against the principles of the religion. This can be very strict. What ties Christians together is social many times. Worship services are always on Sundays (as far as I know). Worship always includes supplicant prayers and readings or stories from the Bible and often music. All the churches I know of include a social hour afterwards where people enjoy cookies together. If there is a Christian culture, I guess those things are it. We will not be able to take much advice of how to treat Hindu converts or how Hindu converts should behave from this.

I think Judaism is a perfect on point example. Judaism, like Hinduism, is an ethnicity as well as a religion. Conversion is not encouraged in Judaism. Traditionally people are turned away from studying toward conversion at least three times. No effort is made by Jews to bring in others. However, they do have a system in place for those times when others insist on joining.

The wikihow on converting to Judaism says "Judaism is a major commitment which will affect every part of your life, will last as long as you live, and may even transfer to your children." (emphasis added).

In order to become a Jew, you have to study the religion, history, and culture for at least a year. You have to start "living a Jewish life" according to the authority above.

At the end of the studies you will be tested and, if passing, go through a ritual bath.

Also from the wikihow page: "When one becomes a Jew, they[sic] will acquire a Jewish name."

Clearly, in converting to Judaism, it is expected that you will also integrate into the culture and be as fully integrated into it as you can.

This makes a lot of sense to me for Hinduism as well. (Not that I think intensive study and ritual will be required by everyone. There is at least one group that has this in place already, others who don't believe in conversion at all, and others who say that as long as you behave like a Hindu then you are. I don't think uniformity is going to happen there.) We wouldn't expect someone to convert to Judaism, but avoid going to a temple, or keeping kosher, or covering the hair (if Orthodox). Converts to any branch of Judaism would certainly be welcome to celebrate the holidays, have Shabbat dinners, etc. Why are we surprised by converts to Hinduism doing similar things?

I also came across this article by an Orthodox Jew about why ethnicity and race should not matter at all in the practice of Judaism: I think this could also be applicable.

I do think that it makes sense to integrate into the culture of one's new religion. If all you do is join a hippie American group whose leader is thirty-five and likes the Gita, then you've lost the connection to the ancient heritage. As I said to my friend, why join what is arguably the world's oldest religion and not try to connect to its tradition?

Here is a list I came across of famous converts to Hinduism. I'm sure some of these people would not have considered themselves Hindu, but simply followed Vedic philosophy, as my parents do, but others clearly labeled themselves as Hindu and some took on Indian names:


  1. Conversion to Hinduism for westerners must be regarded as returning to their original pre-christian religion

    December 25 was originally the birthday of Mitra, and Mitra is a vedic god occuring in the Rig Veda, 5000 years ago

    The Hindu goddess of rivers, Danu, has a temple in Hindu Bali. And several European rivers are named after Danu - Don, Donetsk, Dnieper, Dniester, Danube and Rhone ( Rho-Danu )

    Here is a sentence from Lithuanian, and it is virtually identical to Sanskrit, even though the R1A Y-DNA split is about 11000 years ago

    Lithuanian-Dievas dave dantis,Dievas duos ir duonas.

    Sanskrit-Devas adat datas,Devas dasyati dhanas.

  2. Hmm, that is a really interesting take on it. Thank you for commenting.

  3. Among the ancient Celts, Danu was regarded as the "Mother Goddess." The Irish Gods and Goddesses were the Tuatha De Danaan ("Children of Danu").
    The very name Druid is composed of two Celtic word roots which have parallels in Sanskrit. Indeed, the root vid for knowledge, which also emerges in the Sanskrit word Veda, demonstrates the similarity. The Celtic root dru which means "immersion" also appears in Sanskrit. So a Druid was one "immersed in knowledge."

    Danu was the "divine waters" falling from heaven and nurturing Bíle, the sacred oak from whose acorns their children sprang. Moreover, the waters of Danu went on to create the great Celtic sacred river--Danuvius, today called the Danube. Many European rivers bear the name of Danu--the Rhône (ro- Dhanu, "Great Danu") and several rivers called Don. Rivers were sacred in the Celtic world, and places where votive offerings were deposited and burials often conducted. The Thames, which flows through London, still bears its Celtic name, from Tamesis, the dark river, which is the same name as Tamesa, a tributary of the Ganges.

    One fascinating parallel is that the ancient Irish and Hindus used the name Budh for the planet Mercury. The stem budh appears in all the Celtic languages, as it does in Sanskrit, as meaning "all victorious," "gift of teaching," "accomplished," "enlightened," "exalted" and so on. The names of the famous Celtic queen Boudicca, of ancient Britain (1st century ce), and of Jim Bowie (1796-1836), of the Texas Alamo fame, contain the same root. Buddha is the past participle of the same Sanskrit word--"one who is enlightened

  4. I'm going to disagree heavily here, on several points. First, there is indeed Christian culture, it varies from country and denomination but it can be fiercely strong in many cases. At it's root, one can practice Christianity and not actually change much culturally, but that rarely happens.

    Secondly, you do not need to become culturally Jewish. Like all major religions there are a lot of different ways to be Jewish, as there are Jews from all parts of the world. The traditions of Ashkenazi Jewry look different from Sephardic Jews look different from Reform Jews from Southern California. Usually the people insisting on cultural homogeneity are from more o/Orthodox sects.

    For Hinduism, I can see that many elements of the religion lead to certain tastes and maybe some cultural shifts but why Indian? Why not Balinese? Tamil? Nepalese? Trinidadian? If it is truly a universal religion than there is much about one's native culture that will be compatible.

  5. That is a really good point. There is variety in communities. My own observation has been of non-denominational Christians. And with Jews it is hard to separate the language, the food, the culture, and the religion, but it is possible. And you're right, it is universal and can be adapted to any culture. I agree there. Guess it's just me then that craves culture and feels bereft of it.

  6. No one can convert to hinduism. Just realise ur hindu and be hindu. Thats enough. Conversion is not in the dictionary of hinduism. I enjoy reading ur bio and posts , thank u sis.
    Be proud being hindu , not because of hate to any religion, but for what is containd in Hinduism.
    For yoga, veda, Mahabharat being part of it.
    Mahabharat , im a mad fan lol.

  7. You can seperate to some extent.
    I am an orthodox hindu born in a hindu nationalist family. But i wear jeans, shirts mostly western brands from local mall etc. You can see this when u visit cities or Kerala state. But most aren't really practising. But i and my sister who also wear both indian and west find no difficulty in practising hinduism.
    But in some cases like marriage most families, which are like mine won't accept non - hindu bahus. And if a hindu gets convertd , he also fails to remain part of family unless his family also converts . This is in case of all religions here. We are very religious.
    I can have a non hindu friend or room mate or anythng. But not a non hindu son or daughter.

  8. Religion is the funniest thing on earth now. I am a Hindu too.

  9. This is a very interesting conversation.

    I am an Anglo American, and I have been engaged with Sanatana Dharma for much of the last 30 years. It must be a karmic thing, because I am only 42. I came across AC Bhaktivedanta Swami's "Krsna Book" in the public library and that made me fall in love with Krishna and Vedic religion and culture.

    My interest has been primarily from the Bhakti tradition, although I was involved with Saivism and Saktism and Advaita over the years. I first was introduced to Saivism by visiting the Palani Swami temple of the Himalayan Academy when it was in San Francisco in the 80's, when I was a teenager.

    I keep returning to Krishna devotion (even though I have also practiced various other name it, I've probably spent time with it, except Sikhism for some strange reason)

    I ended up finding a Guru, Sri Sri Muralidhara Swami. I was initiated into the Mahamantra by Muralidhara Swami a couple of years ago.

    The idea of adopting "Indian" or "Vedic" culture is a big contention with me. On one hand, I do have a shrine where I keep my deities and guru pictures, and a lamp; but on the other hand, my Guru does say that all is needed is to chant the Holy Names and one doesn't need ritual. But again, he observes all the festivals and ancient rituals at his ashram near Sriperembudur in Tamil Nadu. I used to want to do elaborate pujas, but now, I just do my japam, light the lamp and pray. Sometimes I'll do a simple aarthi, but not always.

  10. I sometimes will go to the local ISKCON Temple for satsang, but honestly, I get very turned off by what seems to be a requirement to adopt "Vedic" culture. I put it in quotes, because there is more than one "Vedic" culture, isn't there? I always just wear my regular clothes, but I sometime feel a desire to assert my differences from the way things are done in the ISKCON temple. My Guru says that Chaitaya Mahaprabhu is the "most apt Avatar for the age," but also accepts all other lineages. For instance, I have a great devotion to Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, but in ISKCON that is considered a no-no, but my guru says it is fine and Ramakrishna is a great avatar.

    And my guru's tradition is Tamil and his ways of doing Sankirtan, and puja is quite different from the ISKCON way, which is more Bengali. Even the way of wearing a dhoti is different.

    But on the other hand, I am not Indian. I would like to go to India to immerse myself in the spirituality and culture, but I don't know if I will, so why do I want to try to adopt a culture that I really don't even belong to? Because I am of European ancestry, ie "white" even if I TOTALLY adopted the culture, I would never be permitted to enter many important temples in India, such as the Jagannath Temple in Puri, Orissa; or the Sri Guruvayoor Temple in Kerala. So in many respects I will always be an outsider, a mlecca who has not caste and who is lower than an outcaste.

  11. But again, what does it matter? If I really believe that the Holy Names are enough to cultivate prema-bhakti in the age of Kali, then why would it matter if I can't go into certain temples? But again, the need for satsang can't be denied.

    I guess the struggle between adopting culture, and which culture to adopt, and how far to go, or not, is the perennial issue with folks who want to "be Hindu" in places outside of Bharata.

    At this point, I don't really feel a need to wear a dhoti and kurta if I go to the temple. I don't think one's dress really matters, what matters is one's sincerity. But that is just me. My guru's satsang is rather small in the US and is spread out over the country. There is a center in Houston, and I live in Los Angeles. If I go to Houston, I might ask someone to show me how to wear a dhoti in the Tamil way.

    Even the name issue is a big thing. In ISKCON, it always felt to me that there was an "in group" of those who have been initiated and have devotional names and those who haven't and don't. In that tradition, one can't even receive initiation unless one is able to commit to chanting 16 rounds of the mahamantra on one's japa mala a day. I just found over the years that I was unable to do that. So I thought that I was never going to be able to recieve intitiation. But, because of Krishna's blessing, I was lead to Sri Muralidhara Swami, and he was willing to initiate me, by saying the mantra 3 times in my ear over the phone (which is a valid initiation, the sound vibration is what is important) and doesn't require that one chant more than one round a day.

    So anyway, I am just struggling with the culture issue. I am (mostly) vegetarian, and I do cook mostly "Indian" food (my version of it) because I enjoy the flavor and think it is healthy. But as to clothes, tilak, and other practices, I don't know how much I want to adopt. I guess I want to be an "American Hindu" and be proud of my "American" culture (whatever that means)

    Radhe Radhe! Siva Siva Shankara

  12. You've made some really excellent points, Mr. Neil.

    I'm finding that as I become more and more comfortable with myself and my own relationship with God, I've felt less need to be visibly Hindu.

    The bindi and clothes have mattered less to me in the last few months than they did before. I think that is a sign of my growth. I'm comfortable with myself as I am and I feel a lot less drive to prove myself to others.

  13. Ambaa,
    I know I'm responding to an old post.
    Hindus themselves are often confused about terminology. Actually there is no religion called "Hinduism". "Hinduism" should be considered more like a "discipline on the faiths of the Hindus" as undertaken by Europeans of that time, naturally with all the prejudices and biases which were prevalent in the 18-19th century.
    You should consider yourself having "adopted" a Sanatan Dharma worldview.