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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 This blog is no longer updated, but Ambaa is still writing The White Hindu every weekday at Patheos.com.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Religion of One's Birth

This is a phrase that I hear a lot. It is said that one should stay within the religion of one's birth.

Why is that?

Firstly, because of reincarnation, there are no mistakes with birth. You are exactly where you are supposed to be and facing what you should be facing. Presumably, you would be born into the proper religion and ethnicity for your soul at this time (the same reason given for the caste system).

Secondly, one of the reasons that Hinduism is not a converting religion is that there is the belief in One Mountain, Many Paths. This is another phrase you'll hear a lot! It means that almost everyone believes that there is One Truth (in fact, probably everyone does because really there is a way that the universe is functioning, it isn't functioning multiple different ways at the same time). So, everyone believes that there is One Truth of what is going on in this world, but Hindus believe that there are many different paths one can take to arrive at the same Truth.

Many, many Hindus believe that all the world's religions are valid ways of approaching the same Truth and the same God. (Of course, some do not, and it can be hard when one has a chip on one's shoulder about Christianity and Islam, as some of us definitely do.)

So if you do believe that all the religions are equally valid ways to approach God, what would be the benefit in switching?

Well, I'll tell you!

I personally do believe that all religions and even atheism lead to the same Truth. We all have very different ways of thinking about divinity and the universe and that's why there are so many different options. We, as people, are all different.

Our differences don't really line up along ethnic lines, though. Not all Indians think about the universe and the purpose of life the same way and not all Americans think of it the same way either.

I believe that each of us, as an individual, has a path that speaks to us most clearly and will be the most beneficial way to achieve the purpose of life (whatever that is). Sometimes that is not the path into which we are born.

As my very kind boyfriend has pointed out a few times, if God wanted to experience all varieties of life and created the universe for that purpose, wouldn't He also want to experience the struggle of leaving the religion of birth to find a new path?

I understand that sometimes this can cause great conflict within a family, so that is something to consider if you are converting to another religion. Think about whether the strife or pain it causes is worth it to you. Perhaps try to find the Truth you are seeking within the religion of your parents. But that is not always going to work.

Also, for some of us that is not really a conflict. I've spoken before about my own personal history. It is very hard to pin down what religion I was born to. I know many other people my age in this country who were raised without religion. Not necessarily with atheism, but rather with a neutral base so that the child can decide for him or herself what religion to follow. This, it seems to me, leads to a lot of confusion and difficulty for the child who has no religion, which is why I intend to give my kids a good strong base before they go off and explore their own beliefs, but nonetheless, it means that there are a number of young adults now who have no religion of their birth.

We each make our choices in life, weighing how individual we are going to be versus what considerations our family needs. We rarely make perfect choices. Sometimes there are no perfect answers and sometimes we just make mistakes. But if we were already perfect, there would be no need for a manifest world at all. (Although, at the same time, we are already perfect and everything that happens is perfectly as it should be...there I go being ambivalent again.)

The thing I believe most firmly of all is that we cannot make choices for others. Each of us is responsible to make the choices in life and if we see someone else on a path we think is wrong, we can talk to that person and try to understand, but their choice is ultimately their own. All this is to say that we cannot know if another person's life is going to lead him to leave the religion of his birth and pursue another. He needs to be free to do that in order to try and experience and see if that brings him the peace he needs.

Hinduism being my chosen path, it is easy to get somewhat jealous of born Hindus because any time they want to become religious, the religion I adore is there waiting for them as the legitimate religion of their birth. However, then I remember that I don't believe that our ethnicity lines up with our religious path and there are some born Hindus who might do better in another religion and they are free to choose that as well.

It might be the American in me that focuses so much on choice, but I am not willing to sit this life out while I wait to be born into an ethnically Hindu home.

18 comments:

  1. Refreshing to read. Humbling to realise. I can bet that more than half of young Indians today never get serious about religion ever.And that's a gazillion number of people.
    This is what the Bhagvad Gita says (searched off the net) - "We do not control our birth. From the point of view of present life, we can say that we were not consulted about our nationality, race, parentage or social status. But subject to those limitations, we have freedom of choice. Life is like a game of bridge. We did not invent the game or design the cards. Our life is a mixture of necessity and freedom, chance and choice. By exercising our choice properly, we can control steadily all the elements and eliminate altogether the determinism of nature".
    Being a Hindu (not that i understand what that means to me) in the mind is far better than being a Hindu on one's birth certificate.

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  2. Hi Aamba,

    I have been following/reading your blog for a while. I like it as it is.

    But especially this post of yours has caught my attention more. Its reason is that though I was not born into the religion of Hinduism, still I have been following the Vaishnava path for two years. But people around me try to turn me away from that, saying one cannot take up Hinduism. Why should I pretend to be a born Hindu, etc.?

    But this post of yours has just strenghtened my commitment to my faith. Of course I listen to others' opinions and respect them but it doesn't mean I have to take them.

    Thank you for this post.

    Is there a way we could communicate (e-mail or such) as I have some questions considering Sanatana Dharma and it would be great to 'talk' with someone with similar attitude as mine.

    Thanks again for your post.

    Namaste

    Erzsebet (from Hungary)

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  3. @Erzsebet, thats wonderful, to communicate and share with a fellow white hindu. Also there are some more on this very chain blog like Art, Tandava etc. Not to forget the famous himallayanacademy.com of Hawaii, David Frawley of New Mexico, Frank Morales of Nebraska and many others. So Erzsebet you are one among us hindus, brown, white, black yellow hardly matters. The supreme court of India, long ago, defined a hindu as one who believes in Vedas and the details of deities, rituals, temples are unworthy details as for as legality is concerned, the judiciary clarified....also no question is dumb or small, we all talk about it, its better that way, we all learn together..my teenage kids know very little about hinduism..

    @Amba, it is painful to read that some hindus were less than forthcoming in embracing you as a fellow hindu. But remember when hindus stare at you, as some other white hindu rightly had clarified on an earlier post, it is more often than not plain innocent curiosity thats all. The perceived contempt is imaginary, why even I may stare at you, Elzabeth, Tandava or Art when attending a hindu talk in USA. Please smile at them and you will receive a broad grin back, and never a snarl. Another reason a few skeptics dont readily embrace the white hindus is the wrong perception they harbor about the seriousness of it all. 'Do these converts stay back?' It is very insensitive of them to suspect the commitment, hey, even couples after a period of strong love and commitment separate dont they? So,why question newcomers about future, instead accept them on their face value. Lastly, the white evangelists have dealt with a serious blow on hindus by successfully poaching the poor and gullible, and hence some browns may be nervous about the intentions, again thats wrong profiling and unacceptable....
    Accra is the capital of Ghana, there is a black hindu monk who is leading a congregation of 10,000 hindus there, mostly blacks. Bali, Indonesia is mainly hindu, they are natives and are oriental by race. Current Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago is a hindu woman. Half of Fiji islands are inhabited by hindus running their own temples. Almost one billion hindus live on the planet and browns cannot demand sole authority (whatever it means), on hinduism.

    I agree, white hindus like you must share your own specific concerns and feel good about it, but donot go on nurturing/ imagining 'they' dont like 'us' kind of thing. Do not ever stop going to temple or hindu talks, and please always wear a bindi to announce you are a hindu (not a curious onlooker). The results will be more favorable.
    Some of the above learned white hindus were made Acharyas (of hinduism) by the famous hindu peetams/ leaders from India, which means they can give their own interpretation of the sacred scriptures.That is probably the best position any hindu can accomplish, IMHO. Surya.

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  4. I recently discovered your blog, and I love it. This post tempted me to respond. I don't claim myself to be Hindu, however I will say I'm a student of Vedanta and have felt a pull towards Hinduism for many years. With beliefs and religion, there is only so much that can be analyzed, because in the end, it's about what speaks to our souls. Hinduism wasn't a loud booming voice for me. It was a soft whisper that awakened something in me that is difficult to articulate. Simply, it felt like coming home. When I finally feel comfortable enough to attend our local Vedanta Society, I can only hope that although I wasn't born into Hinduism, my intent will be recognized as valid. Thank you for this blog. =)

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  5. I agree with anonymous, that a lot of what we see or perceive as "looks" is mere curiosity and no ill feeling are to be had. Just this last sunday I went to the yearly Shiva Parthiv Pujan that is held within walking distance to my home. This was my first time to such an event and was quite nervous to start.

    I had a good time, but I must say I did get different reactions. The attendees between say 30 and 45 smiled when we made eye contact. The older ones looked at me with suspicion and the younger ones looked at me with contempt. Perhaps contempt is too strong a word. I say out of the 500 or so there, I counted 3 westerners there(including myself)that came to take part in the Puja/Abhishekim.

    As I walked in, a girl who was greeting people, looked me up and down and you could tell she was at a loss of what to do. Slowly she lifted her hands and greeted me Hari Om of which I replied in kind at the same time. Here eyes became as big as saucers and bade me come. I entered and took my seat on the loose wooden planks above the sand covered in a blue tarp.

    I was still nervous, still not quite knowing what to expect and could feel the eyes of many there trying to figure why this very non hindu looking bloke is sitting with them. Soon the music stopped and the chanting of the brahmans ended and a gentleman sat before the congregation. Soon he was leading us in a round of meditation and slow Ramanama, which he dictated in both Dutch and english much to my delight. As he spoke about the meditation I soon realized that the meditation was upon Shri Rama, and as a devotee of Rama a warm feeling of security came through me. The meditation started with slow recitation of Rama and eventually this chanting became faster and faster and then slower and slower. Once concluded and the gentleman slowly brought us back I opened my eyes. I looked around at the people closest to me and looks of intrigue and curiosity lead to looks of surprise and calm welcoming. Yay the white guy can chant! :)I finally felt welcome and felt Rams light radiating from me and from then on there were no stares but acceptance through the rest of the event.

    The only down to the whole experience was after the puja. I was looking at the couple of vendor stalls and in one was a fund drive for the local community that is building their own mandir. I was looking at the elevations and plans and looked on with great curiosity because this will be my mandir as well. The gentleman watching the booth chatted lively with the people who approached and was very friendly to them. I was ignored, he barely even looked at me even when I tried to pose a question to him. So I reached in my pocket and donated what I could and as I started to walk away I heard a half hearted "Dank je wel".

    So as we see being westerner and hindu is still a bit of a novelty and object of curiosity more than anything. Yes there are some hardcore Brahmans that view westerners as dirty avarnic mlecchas of the first class, but they are well in the minority from my experience over my life.

    As for Religion of ones birth... I heard somewhere that we are all born Hindus, but our culture changes us. Not sure where this came from but it's a nice thought. I personally do not believe in the all paths lead to the one absolute truth, never have. Honestly Celtic Druidism had/ has more in common with Hinduism than Christianity or Islam. I do not believe these faiths as true as they were were pressed upon people by the sword, sneaky tactics and by outright ungodly acts. I simply view it as reclaiming my path at the calling of Bhagavan Shri Ram.

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  6. What a wonderful response!

    It is from all of you that I get my confidence in what I'm doing.

    It is from this ability to communicate with born-Hindus on this blog that I have learned that perhaps the attitudes I perceive as anger might be simple curiosity. So many of you have made me feel validated in my path and I am so grateful for that.

    The followers of Hinduism who are not Indian are also a great inspiration to me. It is wonderful to feel that we are not all alone on this path.

    Kodanda, I love that idea that we are all born Hindu :) There's another famous quote that the study of Hinduism makes Hindus better Hindus, Jews better Jews, Christians better Christians and everyone better human beings. Something along those lines anyway.

    Erzsebet, I would love to hear from you. Email me at AambaBlog@gmail.com

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  7. Aamba,
    I agree wholeheartedly with what you say. Some people are born into a religion that they are not destined to follow. My sampradaya says that our beliefs should be offered like sweets on a plate, people may look and then decide to partake or move on, both are fine.

    Many Hindus have only come across someone changing religion through bribes, threats, or deception so this gives some of them a negative feeling about conversion. When they understand that someone has been called to a belief then they are usually accepting.
    Aum Shivaya
    Tandava

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  8. Good post, Amba! And Kodanda's experience was great to read.
    I am a "brown" Indian Hindu currently residing in the US, but I don't believe that Western or Indian Hindus are superior or inferior to anybody. In the end, we should remember that we are all immortal souls from the same source; all differences are superficial - this is what our Dharma teaches.
    One concern some people may have regarding Western Hindus is that some of them don't pronounce the mantras/shlokas properly.I've seen this in some of the videos that I have watched on youtube. Now we know that for thousands of years,the Vedas were not written down but just passed down through the generations orally. So utmost importance was given to proper chanting and retaining of the shlokas in their original form. Note that this apprehension is true even for Indian Hindus who don't know the right way to do this and has nothing to do with nationality.

    Finally, about Hindu opinion on caste-system I would like to say a few words. The current form of birth-based rigid caste-system is a recent evolution in the long history of India.The Vedas and Geeta speak of 'varna' as a result of an individual's inherent nature and ability. There are numerous examples of Shudras turning into Rishis or Kings and many such inter-Varna migration. So the thinking that Hindus believe that one is born into the religion/ethnicity/ caste that one deserves is not entirely true. Sanatan Dharma says that the soul is on a journey of spiritual evolution. So based on our spiritual evolution, we will be attracted to the beliefs/religion that resonates with our state of development.And it is okay to make that choice even if one is not born with those beliefs.

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  9. Good points, SM.

    A few people have spoken about caste being different from how we think it is and that has certainly opened my mind to new things I didn't know.

    I will be prepared now if anyone tells me that the circumstances of your birth confine you!

    Sanskrit is a language that needs careful study, particularly in pronunciation. I was amazed to realize how very different Sanskrit and Hindi pronunciation is, for example, even though they are very closely related languages.

    There are so many sounds in Sanskrit that do not exist in English, or that we do not distinguish in English. It takes years to train the ear to hear those if one is a native English speaker. This is one reason I am wary of non-Indian yoga teachers who chant! There is a tremendous precision that is needed in pronouncing mantras and shlokas.

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  10. There are so many sounds in Sanskrit that do not exist in English, or that we do not distinguish in English. It takes years to train the ear to hear those if one is a native English speaker.
    Yes, I remember once when I was at school there was an boy in my class called Roger Barrett. We had an Indian teacher, Mr Bharat and I remember how mystified he was when some of the kids said "Sir, someone in your class has the same surname as you"!

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  11. well, you are not alone.

    http://edition.cnn.com/2010/SHOWBIZ/celebrity.news.gossip/08/04/julia.roberts.elle.ppl/?hpt=Sbin#fbid=Od2xdX6JqcR&wom=false

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  12. white hindus (and brown others ofcourse) will be proud to read what a fellow white hindu guru had accomplished

    http://www.hinduismtoday.com/modules/xpress/hindu-press-international/2010/08/01/featured-article-miracle-in-mauritius/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+HinduPressInternational+%28Hindu+Press+International%29&utm_content=Yahoo%21+Mail

    i didnt know Julia roberts claims to be a hindu, thats cool..

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  13. @Tandava. Wow, Barrett and Bharat? Even to my recently-started-training ears those don't sound anything alike!

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  14. Hi,
    What nonsense that if you are not born a Hindu you cant be one! I was born a Hindu and I can clearly state you are free to adopt Hinduism if you wish to. Clearly you are far more commitment and sincere about it than millions of Hindus I know, to whom the only understanding of Hinduism is chanting Sanskrit mantras of which they have no understanding whatsoever, following diets to torture themselves with no thought in their heads as to the philosophy behind it all.
    you go Girl!!!

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  15. I'm glad I found this blog. And, Ambaa, I am reading your book via Kindle now (as in, right now! I have insomnia and haven't slept since I uploaded it).

    I am a black woman -- a brown-skinned non-Indian Hindu, who has lived in various countries and cultures -- and, while I have considered myself a follower of Sanatana Dharma for years, am lucky enough to study with revered swami (herself a white-skinned convert) from a long and respected tradition, I have had many of the struggles you have had not being a born-Hindu and facing the confusions, prejudices and presumptions of the world-at-large.

    That said, I cannot lie to being a bit disheartened to read so many blogs and articles (not just your own) that establish the discussion around conversion as an ongoing interaction of white European & brown Indian.

    Please keep in mind that so many converts are not white European and while we struggle with the same issues you do 'being Hindu' as a convert, we sometimes have to struggle to be seen and heard even when talking among fellow converts.

    Again, this is not meant as a hars criticism of a great blog and book -- just as a reminder not to forget that there is great variety in the 'convert community', if I may use that phrase.

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  16. Thank you so much for your comment! It is true that after I started writing this blog, my eyes were opened to the fact that it is many others besides "white people" who convert or who follow Hinduism.

    I started using the term non-Indian Hindu more frequently.

    I wish that I had more insight to offer on that side of things, I feel all the lacking in my blog because it speaks to being white and leaves out the other converts.

    I hope that we will see more literature and more blogging about the many other races and colors represented in Hinduism! I do think that being non-Indian gives us a lot of common ground in this journey.

    In the future I will do what I can to not assume that other converts are pale and pasty like me!

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