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Monday, September 13, 2010

Reclaiming "Hindu"

The other day my mom was pointing out to me that if Truth is universal and One, then it doesn't matter what you call it. You can give any name you want to the divine. I think that's true. Look at Mother Theresa who saw God in every person she cared for. I read a book collected from speeches she gave and over and over again she said that she cared for the poor because when she looked at them, she saw Jesus. That's a pretty Hindu concept, seeing the divine within people. But she found it in Catholicism. Does that truth of unity belong exclusively to Hinduism? Does believing that make you a Hindu? Of course not.

However, knowing that I have a choice what I call the divine, I choose to call it Brahma and to call myself a Hindu.

That word can be a bit charged. I was reading an article in the new Hinduism Today that was about a debate between Deepak Chopra and Aseem Shukla about yoga and whether it is a Hindu practice or one that belongs to everyone. Regardless of that debate, what I found interesting in it was that Dr. Shukla called on Mr. Chopra to acknowledge his own Hindu roots and Chopra refused to. He associates the word “Hindu” with the close-minded Orthodox and calls himself an Advaita Vedantan (that is, by the way, what I used to call myself). Shukla argues for reclaiming the title Hindu and I agree with him.

Shukla writes, “Not willing to identify himself as a Hindu, Chopra is content to accept the term Sanatana Dharma as the source of the yoga and the Vedantic wisdom he propagates. Chopra is hardly the first to find it hard to openly identify himself as a Hindu, just as Eckhart Tolle eschews the term Hindu while he admittedly parlays the copious works of the towering contemporary Advaita Vedanta Hindu master, Sri Ramana Maharshi. Today, Sanatana Dharma and Hinduism are synonymous. Chopra incomprehensibly condemns Hinduism as ‘tribal’…”

In another place Shukla does acknowledge that the ancient rishis did not call themselves “Hindu,” that the term is rather recent, but it is still a useful way to describe the practices and the beliefs.

It is, after all, a word recognized by the entire world, even if grossly misunderstood. I think rather than abandon the word because it is misunderstood, it is up to us to give it its true meaning.

Instead of being afraid of the baggage of the word “Hindu”, why not remake Hinduism to be what it should be? It does not belong to the close minded, hateful, or bigoted. I won’t give the word to those who espouse violence.

Let’s live by example, embodying the good parts of Hinduism and showing the world those best parts.

I wear Indian clothes and a bindi in part to help make it normal in the west, to send the message that you don’t have to whitewash your culture to be American or British, etc. Rather than saying, I can't be religious (or I have to hide being religious) because I am young, modern, and liberal, we can go into the world and show that you can be both. I can be religious and show my religion and at the same time be sassy, modern, and liberal!

I have pride in the title of “Hindu” and I know that I am creating the definition of what that is every day when I interact with people who are not Hindus or who are put off by their memories of unyielding Hindus in their family, etc.

With pride we can say, this is what Hinduism looks like. It is not stuck in the past, it does not have to be "tribal," it is vibrant and alive and modern.


  1. I personally do not believe in a "Universal Truth" so to say, at least not in the terms of "All Paths lead to the same". It really irks me when I see Christian symbols/ statues of christ on Hindu shrines &tc. I'm even more irked by the amalgamation of Islam into Hinduism. These faiths are not Sattvic and as such, have no place within Sanatana Dharma no matter how watered down.

    Views and practice has become blurred thanks to a thousand years of occupation and appeasement to these minority religions because they held the power. I'm not going to go into detail of why I believe such, this is just my feeling.

  2. Very True.
    Cultural Poisoning is a serious problem.
    Look at india now, the once richest empire has now after 800 years of attacks and slavery ( 400 by various Islamic invaders & 400 British) has been reduced to a land where even finding a meal seems a herculean task.
    They not only messed up the economics, they infused disgusting values like honor killings and the shame-pride culture. That is honor resides in the male & shame is bought about by the actions of the female. This is totally opposite to the indian way(khujarao temples & ajanta alora caves & kamasutra reflect the true culture of indian freedom). Just google Somnath temple & nalanda University.

  3. Hi Aamba =)

    Just realised I haven't made my presence felt in your blog in awhile! I started a new job and well as they say got carried away. Hope everything is well at your side.

    Coming back to the post, I'll have to agree with Kodanda and Akshay 100%. It's really sad to see Chopra give in to westernised new age hype. This may sound very harsh and crude, but I don't really care for mother theresa. I used to think she was the best thing for India, but after being in close proximation* for the lack of a better word, I've come to think she's nothing special, just like the numerous missionaries that come into India to change the masses minds, except she really didn't do that. While billions of dollars of donations poured into her organisation, I feel she didn't make use of the money for what she supposedly stood for. Her hospice was in crap conditions and so forth. But when she was ill, she'd go to England and get top quality treatment while her patients lay dying. And when you really think about it, she was living in India for so many years but did the situation actually change? It didn't. Day by day it got worse. White people coming in from overseas think of poverty in India as something exotic, something she didn't make an effort to change. That's how I feel about her. Of course I don't expect anyone to agree with me but it's just how I feel.

    P.s Belated Ganesha Charthurti wishes to you and your family =)

  4. Edit* what I meant about close proximation is with catholic and christian missionaries

  5. Chopra is a New Age McReligionist. He's made a ton of money simply repackaging and applying Hinduism to the American culture context (with some quantum physics thrown in for good measure). As someone from an academic background, this irks me doubly because not citing the contributions of others is a cardinal sin when presenting work as your own. Why is he considered to be of any relevance to Hindus or an authority on Hinduism anyway? Dr. Chopra's simply a creation of Oprah Winfrey like Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz.

    Hinduism does assert there are multiple paths to the truth. But extrapolating this to imply that Jesus, Allah, Krishna are different names for the same God is an invention of secular monotheists and insecure Hindus. They have irreconcilable world views!

  6. I agree with the views presented above.I don't like identifying myself as a Hindu because
    1]it was used by the oppressors to distinguish us from them.
    It was not used by us amongst ourselves.
    For want of a better word it may suffice.But it carries no dignity.To tell the truth it is similar to the word "Negro",in my opinion. In Saudi Arabia,any one from India, muslim and non-muslim alike are called "Al-Hindi" meaning of India [even today,and at times used pejoratively],even though by itself the word is one of which we must be proud of.
    About Mother Theresa, I feel,she has made it into a fashion thingy ,and even though initially what she did and had started was in good intent,I doubt the intentions now.And as Durga says ,made poverty into a fetish,with many people acting holier -than-thou-,and only making others feel guilty,for innocent fun and enjoyment of life.[I had been inside a Sishu -Bhavan,run by the sisters for children as a girl guide],and did not see much being given to the children even though so many people contribute to their congregation/charity.].Also her acceptance of Mafia[or whatever] money is questionable.

  7. Yes Sita has struck on a point I believe. I know for myself I do not call my self Hindu. As a westerner the term Hindu, whether academic or racial refers generally to those from Bharat. I simply refer to myself as a Ramanandi (although I have yet to receive diksha) or a Sanatani. The way I look at it I was born of the Dharma and have become a Ramanandi you can not become Hindu. I know it all boils down to semantics but at the base root of all these terms there is a proper definition. although I must admit in the west the above terms are not recognised and in the end I have to say "I'm Hindu"where they respond... "ohhh ok".

  8. For good or bad, people tend to associate India with Hinduism and vice-versa even though the number of non-Indian Hindus is on the rise. So, it is very easy blame Hinduism for India's faults. The best way to have people follow: "Gharv se kaho ki tum hindu ho" (Say with pride that you are Hindu) is to have India rolling on the path of economic ascendancy. I think this is slowly but surely happening.

  9. I'm glad to see so much response!

    Personally, I don't look at Mother Theresa as saintly or perfect, as most here do. But I thought it was a good example.

    Clearly a lot of people don't agree with me and that's fine! I believe that all religions lead to the same truth and that it is more deeply buried in some than in others. To me it seems clearest in Hinduism. But obviously, there's many who don't believe that.

    We need a word that embodies all that is good in the Vedic way of life. I think that word is "Hindu" simply because of my perspective. There is no other word that people in the West are familiar with. Perhaps there is a better term, though. Sita, do you have a suggestion? For a while I said I was an Advaita Vedantist, but explaining what that was to people who couldn't even pronounce it was very tiring!

    India has its problems, but I don't think there is any one religion or philosophy or thing that can take all the blame. Regardless of where problems came from, the work of recovering is going forward.

    I am saddened by Chopra's "McReligion" as Satish said. On the other hand, how do we find the balance between acknowledging what has come from India's great minds and allowing everyone to experience it?

    Not an easy question.

  10. Oh, and Dhurga, it's good to see you again! I did wonder what happened to you. Congrats on the job.

  11. "Dharma" simple and plain. Either one follows it or one doesn't.This was what SriKrishna referred to in the Bhagavad Gita.Sanatana meaning eternal is only an adjective,not really needed.,but can be used along with Dharma.
    Amongst ourselves we don't really need to ask if one is a smartha,or Srivaishnava,or Gaudiya Vaishnava or Dwaitha etc. ,only if we follow Dharma or not.This is enough to the outsiders also[I mean Christians,Muslims etc],but it will usually be derisive as it does not match the term they gave us.

  12. Hiya Sita,

    I use Sanatani in lieu of just Dharma as one could also say a Buddhist and Jains follow dharma, the main different one follows the Vedas and the others have deviated from them. Even with this seperation I still view Buddhist and Jains as Sattvic. I could be mislead in my beliefs but this is how I feel at the moment. Never the less you have a point as all "dharma" faiths are Sattvic, perhaps we could all be viewed as one expanded family (including the aboriginal faiths of Europe which share many similarities with Dharma and also believed in reincarnation and transmigration of the soul.

    @Aamba I appreciate and respect your views, but know what I know (as a historian and archaeologist) I can not, in all good consciencness include Christianity and Islam as a sattvic and complete religion. But then again us Ramanandi's are know as the militant ones :D

  13. Chopra, Iam no fan of him, at least said he is a ‘vedantin’ instead of calling himself a chopran. He needs to be commended on that. He kept away from starting another cult or sect of his own.

    I agree with Amba on this one. Hinduism is the appropriate descriptive term that befits the faith under the existing body of knowledge. Any other terminology is bound to vanish that much more quickly.
    Epic Ramayan was written in postvedic period (just as Mahabharata was), so exclusivist RAMANADI faith is going to get only a sect/denomination status at best (within the fold of hinduism). A Rama bhakta ought to enter a Krishna mandir without any hesitation whatsoever to qualify to be an hindu, for they both are avatars of Vishnu who appeared in two different yugas (treta and dwapara respectively).
    DHARMIC faith sounds right, however other dharmic faiths like budhism, Jainism and Sikhism will call us bullies, for they have a right to share the same name. SANATANA DHARMA is perfect, but sadly world at large doesn’t care whether it is hinduism or sanatana dharma really. Up until recently americans could not spell hinduism correctly, they used to think its some kind of budhism….. Only since 30 yrs or so they realized these two are somewhat different faiths. It will take some more time to convince them that hindus were the founding fathers of buddhism.
    Mother Theresa was a very CONDITIONAL and selfish charity worker. Catholic faith is painted all over her ‘kindness’. The poor and gullible were converted in a very clever manner and this conversion has remained the underlying motive there all along. If you impose a law against conversion, her charity agency would fold up in days.

  14. Kodanda, I guess when I say that all religions lead to the same truth, I'm not looking at it from a historic perspective. It's just from meeting an occasional person here and there who call themselves Christian, but interpret it differently from any church I've ever been to. There are Christians who look closely at "The kingdom of heaven is within you" and the idea that you should treat your neighbor as yourself because he is yourself. It is rare, though.

    Sita, thank you for your response. I like the idea of using "dharma" as a label. I'll have to play around with that a little bit and see how it works.

    And yes, Anonymous, America has a long way to go in having even a basic understanding of religions other than Christianity. I get a lot of surprise from people when I tell them that the Buddha was a Hindu. :)

  15. @ Anon

    I know this is a little late, but I thought I might say something here. I'm not sure if you are trying to belittle my views or not so I will assume you are not.

    However, I never said anything about being "xclusivist RAMANADI" and I am not sure where you got this from. I am a devotee of Bhagavan Shri Rama that happens to follow the teachings of Sant Ramanand's Sri Vaisnava Sect. I only use these terms as they are the terms taught to me. I don't use it as a badge, nor think I should get a cookie for using these words. In fact a few of my views do not quite sync up with my sect and I (and they) are fine with it. Yes I am a Rama Bhakt and I have no qualms in attending a Krisna mandir, in fact I actually attend a Shiv mandir as it is within walking distance.

    Other than the above I have said the exact things you stated and agree wholly. I don't feel comfortable calling myself Hindu, but I do anyway as that is the most recognised term, whether rightly or wrongly used.

    Aamba new post on being too American is an interesting look into some of this. I was not raised Christian so I can not comment on my faith being influenced by it or not as I am honestly sure Indians know more about Christianity than I do.

    In the end, I do not look at my faith as a fad, I am not a new ageist, I don't run about smelling of patchouli and give in to Maya. I see the world as it is and I try to live my faith to the best of my abilities with no pretence or illusion to my goal and devotion to my Lord.