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 This blog is no longer updated, but Ambaa is still writing The White Hindu every weekday at

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


This can be a very hot topic in religious circles and people have very strong opinions. Known also as "cafeteria-style religion," this post is about picking and choosing the parts of religions that you like and leaving the rest.

Sometimes people will choose ceremonies, rituals, and practices from many different world religions and blend them together into their own thing. Sometimes people will consider themselves a particular religion, like Christian, but only practice the parts of the religion that they agree with and ignore other aspects that are part of the Church (or other religious entities). These approaches are both considered cherry-picking.

When I was a kid and a teenager I was extremely rules-driven and everything was black and white to me. I think that's true for a lot of kids, it takes maturity to develop the sense of gray area and that sometimes people do the best they can and it isn't ideal. I was taught that religion is about hard work, discipline, sacrifice, and not always getting what you want. Rigorous discipline was valued over every other quality.

So, at that time in my life, the idea of cafeteria-style religion was abhorrent to me. You can't just take the parts you like, I thought. If we did the easy way and just did the parts of religion that were enjoyable, we would not get far on the difficult path to enlightenment. Maybe we don't know the reasons for things, but we have to do them anyway, because that's the path. Who am I to decide what is right in a religion and what is misguided?

But, later in my life I began to think that I am the authority on what religion does for me. Why continue to punish myself and hang on to harsh disciplines if I was not finding any benefit from it in my life?

And then, strangest of all, my home organization relaxed its rules. Ankle-length skirts no longer required, eating Breakfast allowed, cooked food at meals allowed, a more relaxed pace, sometimes waking up as late as 5:30, even. These changes were really hard for me to swallow. What about the hard work, discipline, and personal sacrifice that I had been told were the most important things in life? The people in authority in my life were changing their minds.

I began to realize that they are human too. They don't really know more than I do about God and truth and the right path. We are all just feeling our way through this life and using whatever tests we have available to find what's right for us. Tests like Am I more serene? Do I feel more joyful doing this?

In Elizabeth Gilbert's new book Commitment, about the history of marriage, she has a passage very relevant to the change in my mindset and clearly illustrating why I have such a confusion in my spirit about things:

"It has long been understood by philosophers that the entire bedrock of Western culture is based on two rival worldviews--the Greek and the Hebrew-- and whichever side you embrace more strongly determines to a large extent how you see life.

From the Greeks--specifically from the glory days of ancient Athens--we have inherited our ideas about secular humanism and the sanctity of the individual. The Greeks gave us all our notions about democracy and equality and personal liberty and scientific reason and intellectual freedom and open-mindedness and what we might call today "multiculturalism."...

On the other hand, there is the Hebrew way of seeing the world. When I say "Hebrew" here, I'm not specifically referring to the tenets of Judaism. (In fact, most of the contemporary American Jews I know are very Greek in their thinking, while it's the American fundamentalist Christians these days who are profoundly Hebrew.) "Hebrew," in the sense that philosophers use it here, is shorthand for an ancient worldview that is all abut tribalism, faith, obedience, and respect...Hebrew thinkers see the world as a clear play between good and evil, with God always firmly on "our" side. Human actions are either right or wrong. There is no gray area. The collective is more imporant than the individual, morality is more important than happiness...

The problem is that modern Western culture has somehow inherited both these ancient worldviews--though we have never entirely reconciled them because they aren't reconcilable."

Even though here she is talking about ideas of marriage vows, this passage really caught my attention because this is the very struggle I have been going through. There are parts of my personality that are Greek and parts that are Hebrew and I'm struggling to figure out which one will dominate my thinking. Actually, as a child and teenager I was almost entirely Hebrew and now I am almost entirely Greek, but I still feel pangs of guilt and nostalgia for the Hebrew way of thinking.

What Elizabeth Gilbert has to say on the actual subject of cherry-picking religion is as follows:

"My friend was a Catholic by upbringing, but couldn't stomach returning to the church as an adult. ("I can't buy it anymore," he said, "knwoing what I know.") Of course he'd be embarassed to become a Hindu or a Buddhist or something wacky like that. So what could he do? As he told me, "You don't want to go cherry-picking a religion." Which is a sentiment I completely respect except for the fact that I totally disagree.

I think you have every right to cherry-pick when it comes to moving your spirit and finding peace in God. I think you are free to search for any metaphor whatsoever which will take you across the worldly divide whenever you need to be transported or comforted. It's nothing to be embarrased about. It's the hisotry of mankind's search for holiness...

Even in the most unlikely...of places, you can find sometimes this glimeering idea that God might be bigger than our limited religious doctrines have taught us... Doesn't that make sense? That the infinite would be, indeed infinite? That even the most holy amonst us would only be able to see scattered pieces of the eternal picture at any given time? And that maybe if we could collect those pieces and compare them, a story about God would begin to emerge that resembles and includes everyone?...

Don't we each have the right to not stop seeking until we get as close to the source of wonder as possible?"
Eat Pray Love, page 207.

I really like this woman! My thoughts on cherry-picking religion have changed immensely in the last couple of years. It now seems like a very reasonable thing to do. We have to find what works for us and only we ourselves can know that. No one else is privy to our inner heart.


  1. I think that the cafeteria analogy of cherry-picking holds true. If you go into a cafeteria and just chose what takes your fancy you probably won't get a balanced meal. You might fancy three helpings of chocolate ice-cream and a doughnut!

    Similarly if you have absolutely no idea of what constitutes a healthy meal you will be unlikely to get something balanced, eve if you try. A few people who are really aware of their bodies might eventually hit on the right balance, but many would not.

    On the other hand, if you understand the basics of nutrition and have seen examples of healthy meals you might do OK.

    ... Except that perhaps for some religious practices the following the menu is probably one of the essential courses. I'm not sure ... maybe they are laying down rules for those who don't know enough to select themselves.

    Perhaps a more accurate analogy would be the cafeteria that also had all the cleaning products they use set out in cups, condiment shakers, etc. You have to be really sure before you cherry-pick.

  2. That's true, it would benefit people to study and learn and know about good religious nutrition before taking this approach!

    But even if they don't, eventually I think they'll pick it up. If we eat just chocolate ice cream and doughnuts, eventually we feel ill and we start searching for something more satisfying.

    Belief in reincarnation can give us a nice relaxed view and we can rest assured that eventually people will find their way to the most nourishing religious experience for themselves!

  3. Hiya Aamba,

    I agree with T above, plus I would like to add my view as a fundamental western Hindu muahahaha ;)

    For me, Hinduism is unique, not only for the culture, mythology (using the term loosely)and foundational principals. It's a religion, philosophy and lifestyle all in one. As such it is complete.

    I find it complete because it gives you a base to not only find God, but yourself along the way. It's not bound in with dogma, it allows you to grow and expand (and retreat should you need to). I my opinion it is perfect as is and it bothers me when people pick and choose because their is no need to pick and choose if you follow Sanatana Dharma. I am not sure if I am explaining my self right and I hope what I am implying is understood properly.

    All I know is I was raised Pantheistic and as a young adult practiced Tendai Sho Shu (Buddhism)and now a Hindu. For what it's worth, this is the first time I have felt complete. I am not bound down with rules, but I am exactly where I need to be in my understanding of the Universe around me. Grrr still can't find the right words.

    None the less in plain ol American slang "if'n it ain't broken don fix it!".

  4. @ Kodanda,

    "It's a religion, philosophy and lifestyle all in one"
    I agree and also add science in the list of adjectives. I suspect various scholars over a period of tens of hundreds of years have learnt sanskrit and injected various concepts from all disciplines into vedas. Eg., how on earth could they state that "the creation is beginningless and endless in both time and space"? One ought to be a scientist and notjust a bhakta to make such an assertion. The unbelievable advaita cements my opinion of infiltration of ALL/many scholars donning the robes of religionists 2-3 millennia ago.On a side note I cannot comment on your blog as anonymous the way I do it here. Is it fixable, you think? SURYA.

  5. Hi ALL,
    Please explore the weblinks and go on unearthing a whopping 240 tourist attractions in India. They represent various mandirs, forts and palaces etc. A TV channel had recently conducted a seven wonders of India contest and had promply uploaded all the attractions on youtube. Please forward.

  6. Now, personally, I take Hinduism as a whole. I prefer to have a complete system, as you say.

    But I totally refuse to say that my way is the way that everyone should do things.

    I don't want evangelicals telling me that I have to do things their way and believe what they believe, and so I will not do it to them.

    Everyone has to find their own meaning in life and if for some that is picking different traditions from around the world and blending them, I have no problem with that.

    And if something really is the right path, the only path, then eventually people will find it, on their own, guided by their own hearts.

    I only know what is good for me. I do not inhabit anyone else's heart.

  7. I was going to reply to this post when I first read it, but I was too shy.

    I completely understand what you're saying, and I admire you for saying it, especially since you are among those who goes for the whole package.

    As for me, I'm afraid that while I have very strong spiritual beliefs, I have not found a specific religion yet that fulfills me. The religion I grew up with is certainly not it.

    So for now, I am a solitary practitioner.

    I long to be able to put a label on my spirituality.

  8. Fanny G,
    read vedas and upanishads, you can get them from Ramakrishna mission and vedanta ceteres, chinmaya mission, Dayananda mission and so forth. By and large not expensive. Peelpof the myth miracle and just try to see what the scholars are saying. There is no heaven waiting there for us, nor hell to be tossed into. Then explore addvaita philosophy if you grasp it then that changes your life irreversibly.Good luck.If you dont like then go somewhere else. Hinduism wont be right for you.

  9. Thanks for commenting, Franny, I'm so glad that you did.

    Sometimes it might take a whole lifetime to find spirituality that works for us and that's okay.

    Having a label has been something that has meant a lot to me! I'm not even sure why it is so important, but it is nice to be able to answer people succinctly when they ask about my beliefs!

    Good luck in your search and let me know if there is anything I can do to help.

  10. Namaste Ambaa..
    I like ur blog and was happy to see that some one in west is eager to lear about Hinduism (Sanatan Dharma)ie.etarnal law of nature...
    Learn Sanatan Dharma(Hinduism)

    above is the link of Orkut community
    Learn Sanatan Dharma(Hinduism)

    here u will find people similar to u who are interested to learn Sanatan dharma (Hinduism) and are from west and also many Indians who are unaware of Sanatan Dharma which is Hinduism...

    do visit above link which is in this social networking site (Orkut)..

    Congratulations!! finally you get rid of the dogmas and unnecessory man made restrictions under the name of religions...

    Best luck for the future...

    You are the sculpture of your own life !!

    Learn Sanatan Dharma(Hinduism)member

  11. continue from above ..
    by the way i also like ur hair,weaving art and ur cute little doggy and most important ur blog and You as a person

    Learn Sanatan Dharma(Hinduism) member

  12. Thank you, I'll take a look at your link, I'm always interested in more resources!