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 This blog is no longer updated, but Ambaa is still writing The White Hindu every weekday at

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Veg and Non-Veg

I haven't heard these terms much in America, but it is the way that Indians refer to being vegetarian or not vegetarian. I thought I'd talk a bit about the history of vegetarianism in India and Hinduism today.

Personally I been feeling very drawn to being Veg, my body seems to want it. For the last week or so I have stopped eating meat except for fish. For the time being I am still eating fish and animal products like eggs and milk. So I can't really call myself Veg yet, but I'm closer anyway.

According to Wikipedia, India is 31% vegetarian (this being something called lacto-vegetarian, which includes eating diary products except for eggs). Another 9% eat eggs. That number seemed low to me. I was surprised. Although Wikipedia seems to say that only 4% of Americans identify as vegetarian, so that puts the number in perspective. Then again, the article says some estimates put the number of Indian vegetarians at 20-42%. I wonder if the variation has to do with the definitions being used for vegetarian. In America, I know, there is a lot of variety of which things can be eaten.

I think in America we are often less cautious about animal products that wander into unexpected places. Gelatin in a variety of foods, chicken broth used for vegetable soups, or MacDonald's fries that have been fried in animal lard. It depends on the individual how strict she is going to be. According to the article, Indians are much, much more cautious about what is in food and packages of food and medicine are marked according to whether they have any animal product in them.

Two main reasons given for vegetarianism in India are 1) Ahimsa and 2) the belief that what we eat effects our personalities, minds, souls ("You are what you eat").

Ahimsa is a Sanskirt word meaning non-violence. It is listed by Krishna as one of the qualities of a great man. I've heard several people say that ahmisa is much more stressed in Buddhism than in Hinduism, but Hinduism has started to be affected by it through Buddhism. A history of ahimsa can be found here.

The wikipedia article on vegetarianism in India says: "Also, Hindus believe that one's personality is affected by the kind of food one consumes and eating flesh is considered bad for once's spiritual/mental well-being. It takes many more vegetables or plants to produce an equal amount of meat [10] many more lives are destroyed and more suffering is caused when meat is used as food [11]."

The analysis of the statistics say that the percentages of vegetarianism are much higher for Jains and Brahmans (55%).

Jainism is an off-shoot of Hinduism. Sometimes it is considered a separate religion and sometimes it is considered a branch. The standards of ahimsa are extremely strict. Ideally only fruits and vegetables that have naturally fallen to the ground can be eaten so as not to harm the plants by pulling things off.

Some commenters have mentioned before that different degrees of Veg or non-Veg are expected for different castes. This seems to relate to the idea that what we eat is related to who we are and what we do.

Hinduism is a religion that is beautifully grounded in consequences. A good reason for Veg diet and ahimsa is the law of karma (law of action). It is better for our sanskara to limit the amount of killing or suffering we are causing.

Also, getting a bit off topic, the belief in reincarnation makes the consequences of everything more important. The long-term sustainability of a meat-less diet and the help to the environment is really important because Hindus cannot just shrug and figure that the long-term consequences won't effect them. Because we live over and over again, the damages that happen to the environment now are things we will have to deal with ourselves when we are reborn, not just something our children or grandchildren will have to deal with.

Now, in Vedic times animal sacrifices were part of the larger worships. The way that animals were killed is called jhaṭkā . The article doesn't say, but presumably this is a method of killing an animal which is more humane. One of the concerns with eating meat is that the fear that the animal felt in its last moments of life would be transferred into those who ate it. Meat that is sometimes eaten is often lamb meat. Never beef for any Hindus, as far as I know.

I'm sure that you've heard that the cow is sacred. Well, all animals and all people and all everything is sacred! The cow is special because the cow is so generous and provides us with the gift of milk, ghee, cheese, yoghurt, etc.

The transition from the culture of animal sacrifices to valuing ahimsa seems to give support to the idea that Hinduism was influenced by its off-shoot, Buddhism. Now, none of these articles has said what is common for those of the Kshatriya(warrior) caste to eat and I would suspect they were the ones doing most of the animal sacrifices in ancient times. And certainly there is plenty of hunting going on by this caste in the great epics.

Some Vaishnavas (one of the major branches of Hinduism) also stay away from garlic, onions, and other overly-stimulating foods. Someone mentioned here earlier that ISKON avoids those things and they are a Vaishnava organization. This has to do with the guna of food. I'll have to do a post on the gunas soon!

So, there is my overview of Veg and non-Veg. Please, feel free to comment and correct or clarify what I have found.

Monday, June 28, 2010

In the Future and in my Imagination

Inspired by going to see SM and having such a grand time, I wish it were more possible for us all to meet up!

Perhaps some day I can take a trip to England and visit you, Tandava.

I would so love to sit down and chat with CS and Art.

I think Basu would be so bright and friendly face to face.

Mouse would be awesome to go shopping with!

Sita, and Dhurga, and Kat and so many others who have commented here.

I can imagine us all together having amazing discussions and enjoying a dinner together.

Ah, the Internet can be such a beautiful thing. I am so glad to have virtually met you all!

I am coming near to having 100 posts already. I never knew I had that much to say. I know I will continue to be inspired as I push boundaries in my life. I think there will be some very interesting posts in the future about marriage and children and I'm sure there will be posts inspired by my class on Civil Rights and Liberties this summer!

I'm thinking also that I will post the first few pages of the novel that I talked about a while back. I'm a very slow writer so it will be ages before the book is finished, but I would like to share the little bit that I have.

Native-American or Indian?

This weekend the boyfriend and I had dinner with commenter SM and her family. We had a wonderful time. She mentioned that she might want to start a blog and I hope that she does. If you do, SM, come and share the link with us!

Also, another of our commenters has just started a blog. Art is writing about creating a Hindu American Identity:

I know a lot of people seem to be interested in forming a new identity as non-Indian Hindus. I am cautious because it is hard for me to separate out what is the religion and what is the culture and what will you lose when you let go of some of the things. But there should be a way to separate them. I was not satisfied with how it was done by the community I grew up in, but that does not mean that it's not possible.

As I was reading up on this other Churchill fellow from the last post, it brought to mind an issue that came up for me in college. I haven't faced it that much since only because I am not involved in Native American things. Although when I tell someone that I'm involved in Indian things, sometimes they think I mean turquoise jewelry and totem poles and someone once told me that she had heard that the swastika was actually an ancient symbol of Native-Americans. Sigh. No, it's an ancient symbol of India.

In America there are many different terms for different ethnic groups. In our society we put a premium on what has been labeled "Political Correctness." This means being polite when referring to ethnicities or cultures (or sexualities, religions, abilities/disabilities) different from our own. Some people say it goes too far, as many of us are very afraid to accidently offend someone by calling him the wrong thing. The "correct" term for a group can go in and out of fashion. I recently saw a debate on a message board between saying "black" people or "African-American" people. I think most people default to African-American these days. The possible trouble with that is that it qualifies someone's "Americanness" and makes it sound like they are less American than I am because no one ever calls me Irish-American.

But that example is not the point. The point is that there is a huge amount of confusion with the word "Indian."

When I was a kid I was taught that the people native to America, the ones Columbus mistakenly thought must be Indians because he thought when he got to America that he had reached India, were properly called Native-Americans. That was the PC term then.

In college I had a professor who was involved in these things and he told us that now the people preferred to be called "Indian." They were "taking back" the term. We read a wonderful book called The Lone Rancher and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, about Native-Americans living on reservations. You can see, I stubbornly continue to say "Native-American."

I asked this professor, what then would we call actual Indians? People in India? He said "East Indians." I thought that was ridiculous. I'm sorry to Native-Americans, but you can't have the term. It's been taken. The people from India or who live in India get to call themselves Indian before you do.

Not that the word "India" is native at all, but it's been around for a lot longer than America has been.

Native words for India include Bharat and Hindustan. I welcome commenters in India to add to that list.

But still, to me the word "Indian" is always going to refer to people in India and the Native-Americans are going to have to find another term if they don't like that one.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Other White Americans Looking for Culture

I happened to stumble upon some blogs about other ways in which people of European ancestry find culture in their lives. I know we have a few Pagan readers here and I think this is the same or similar. It seems that some people are going back to Nordic traditions of their ancestors as well. This suggests to me that my sense of lack of culture is a common problem here in America.

One person put it really interestingly:
""I know the feeling of having been exiled from your ancestors’ traditions. I know what it feels like to see other cultures reveling in traditions, and medicines, and lifestyles passed down to them for thousands of years, while I am given only Advil with which to soothe my pains."

The post is about how sometimes people trying to reclaim their European heritage fall into problems with racism (wanting to have White pride, since Black pride is okay).

It seems that a lot of people feel very connected to their own family and ancestry. I don't really feel that. I don't have a sense of my lineage reaching back through time in one particular family. Believing in reincarnation, this body is little indication of what other lives I've had and those lives are equally valid as this one. It's not like a previous life is less real because it is over. I may have been Indian in my last life. I may have been something else.

With that in mind it is also hard for me to understand how people get held accountable for the actions of their race in the past. It seems like such a strange idea to me because I didn't personally do any of those things that white people did to subjugate other races. But is that just a "white" way to think?

The same person above quotes Churchill [Edited to correct: not The Churchill, apparently, just A Churchill] as saying: “[People who appropriate the affects [sic] of other spiritual cultures] are attempting to avoid responsibility, to sidestep the heritage they’re a part of. Rather than rectify it, putting it right, putting it back in balance, they want to step out of it and appropriate something else from somebody else so they can pretend to be other than who and what they are.” (From what I read of the link Tandava shared, this Churchill guy is out of his mind. With alleged claims of a little bit of Native American blood, he criticizes all other white people for being imperialists and apparently published an essay basically saying that victims of 9/11 had it coming).

I don't understand this perspective at all. For wrongs of the past, I think we should all be working to rectify those. I think we should do our best to avoid those wrongs in the present. It seems to me that the responsibility belongs to everyone, not just those whose ancestors two hundred years ago did something wrong.

So here we are, back at the subject of cultural appropriation. I went looking for a definition and I was pleased with what I found. A detailed article on Pagans using Hindu deities gave this definition:
" Cultural appropriation happens when someone from one culture borrows symbols, rituals, and practices from another culture without fully understanding the context, meaning, and complexity of those things, and then passes them off as one’s own, or uses their own interpretations and then passes them off as 'authentic.' "

By this definition, one would need to be using items from another culture without understanding their full meaning and claiming one's own interpretation as more valid. I don't believe that I am doing either of these things. I come to Hindu practices with much respect. I have a great deal of study, knowledge, and practical experience participating in Hindu ritual. I value my own understanding of my worship, but I'm always open to deepening that understanding with the many, many people who know more than I.

This person goes on to say, "I’ve seen plenty of neo-Pagans doing a great job at respectfully approaching Hindu deities and incorporating Hindu worship into their own with some amount of care and respect. At the same time, I’ve also seen a few neo-Pagans worship Hindu deities with some bravado, and have seen and heard about some rituals that are at best ignorant and at worst blatantly disrespectful of Hindu traditions and culture."

Another blog post defining cultural appropriation says this: "Cultural Appropriation: The unhealthy aspect of multiculti, where a more powerful culture raids a less powerful neighboring culture ... and appropriates aspects of that culture without proper acknowledgment of the 'home culture' or understanding the cultural context from which these aspects spring. Examples: yoga, Buddhism, hip hop and ebonics-derived slang, graffiti art, etc."

Pretty similar, the key idea being that the source of the cultural tradition is not acknowledged and the understanding is incomplete.

The first article is more positive in tone than the second, but both give me the impression that there are ways to do what we do well and there are ways to do it badly and we need to be aware of that. It doesn't mean that neo-Pagans can't worship Hindu deities or that non-Indians can't worship Hindu deities, it just means that we have to do it with care and respect.

The same blog above has more to say on this subject and also references someone else's thoughts as well:
And We Shall March
A post referencing the above post and adding some things

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A new book to read

Someone on Ravelry just mentioned this book that I had never heard of.

It's called How to Be a Perfect Stranger and it is a guide book to most of the religious services one might encounter in the U.S.

Absolutely brilliant idea for this very diverse country. It looks like they cover a lot and answer questions about how to dress, how services work, how to address the clergy, etc.

I ordered it from Amazon, and I look forward to seeing what it has to say about Hinduism.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I'm sorry, Christians

Okay, I know that of late I've been letting my animosity toward Christianity show. I have a lot of anger about it and I am working to let go of that, but it's tough.

I used to have a lot more patience, but over the years I got closer and closer to the end of the proverbial rope so that now, everything sends me over the edge! I have no opportunity to grow this patience back because Christianity is rammed down my throat every day.

It's not just evangelicals. Of every 50 people you meet in America, probably 49 of them will be wearing a cross. Something like 30 of them will have a Bible quote at their desk at work. Christianity is everywhere you look here. It's in my face all day, every day. T-shirts, bumper stickers, tattoos, jewelry. Bibles in hotel rooms, prayers at events where they should not be legally doing them at all, etc. Bad enough that one can't walk ten feet in America without hitting a church. And I get told I'm just being sensitive and a spoil sport. If my religion were forced on them as much as theirs is on me, they would be saying something very different.

All I ask of Christianity is that it leave me in peace. That's it.

I can't even get away from it in my own home. I get email forwards with Bible verses or talk about angels, I see Bible quotes on Facebook, there are ten television stations dedicated to sermons, and advertisements for Wow Worship music on mainstream channels.

And then there are the people knocking on my door wanting to talk about Jesus Christ, who has been DEAD for more than two thousand years, people. (And before anyone says anything about resurrection, don't forget who you're talking to. I don't believe death exists for anyone. "He who thinks he can kill, he who thinks he can be killed; both are mistaken." Gita).

One of the reasons I make myself very visible as a Hindu is because I am forced to see Christians' religion. If they're going to put their religion in my face, I'm going to put mine in theirs. And I'll tell you, I was very glad I was wearing a bindi when we went to a friend's house to play games and a new person there was wearing a "Jesus Saves" shirt. I can play that game too.

You know what else gets on my nerves? The expression "You only live once." I don't know how it is in other parts of the world, but this expression is everywhere in America. It is usually used to justify stupid behavior. The thing that gets to me is that this phrase is thrown around like it's absolute truth that everyone acknowledges and believes. Well, I don't. I don't think we live once at all.

As the article yesterday said, the ethos of Christianity is all around us in America. People have a baseline assumption that everyone around them is Christian, shown when someone complains in a room full of people about having to have a holiday party at school instead of a Christmas party as though everyone around is going to agree with them (shut up and stop whining is what I want to tell them. Not having a Christmas party is not equivalent to being persecuted. Talk to the people who were burned alive for being Christian).

The idea of a National day of prayer is ridiculous. Leaving aside that it favors religion over non-religion and I completely respect my boyfriend's right to not believe in any God or higher power, Christians in favor of it like to say that it is "non-denominational," so it's okay.

It's non-denominational Christian. Don't kid yourself. I don't know of any other religion that prays the way Christians do. If you want to pray one day of the year, go ahead. If you want to pray every day of the year, go ahead. Do it in your home. Do it in private, like the Bible says to!

I once told a Christian about how Hinduism has a trinity and the similarities between Jesus and Krishna. Know what he said? That Hinduism had TAKEN it from Christianity. Sorry, dude, Hinduism had those ideas way before Christianity ever existed.

I know that this apology is not one at all, it's just a rant.

It really is a shame because I do know some great people who are Christians. They have loved and respected me enough not to try to convert me and I appreciate that. I have at least a couple of friends who have been very much helped by becoming Christian. That's great for them. I'm sorry that I don't have more patience. I know there are people out there praying for me to get some!

In the mean time, I am going to try to keep the anger out of my posts. I really do want to focus on Hinduism and what it means to be a Hindu in America and to be a non-Indian Hindu. I don't care about Christianity's issues or how they see the world. I've heard it all before. This blog is not for Christianity. In fact, it should be a place where I can get away from it. So, from here on out, no more jabs at Christianity. If I should worry about offending anyone, it is my Christian friends.

A Hindu-American Identity

There's not too much new in my world to talk about. I continue to go to work, school, dance class and try to keep up with all my hobbies.

I'm taking a new class on Civil Right and Civil Liberties and it should be very interesting and give me some things to talk about once we get into Freedom of Religion issues! That stuff is near and dear to my heart. The thing I love most about America is that the government and religion are separate. Being allowed to practice my religion in the way that I see fit is my most precious freedom.

Since I don't have too much to say, I thought I would send you around to some other places for some interesting reading.

This article, The Hyphenated Hindus, was published in 2006, but it is really interesting and well done, and definitely still applicable. It is about creating the Hindu identity in America. I got it from Hindu Mommy's blog, but I don't know if it was originally published elsewhere.

Ms. Bannerjee writes "There is a subtle but powerful Christian ethos that pervades America, and to this day, it draws rather than alienates me." For me, it is alienating. It didn't used to be, but as I said in the comments recently, I have run completely out of patience with Christianity.

And she speaks to how children learn Hinduism in school: "In school, when there was a conscious effort of being multicultural, we spent perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes discussing world religions, wherein Hinduism was quickly depicted as a religion of hundreds of gods, many of whom had animal features, as an ancient faith ridden with social ills like caste and sati." Notice that it is fifteen to twenty minutes for all the world religions together, not for each one! That's how it was in my school too. One paragraph in the textbook on Hinduism, one on Buddhism, one on Zen, and that's it.

And speaking of the image of Hinduism:
"Though I saw myself as a Hindu, for a long time, I did not call myself one. Frankly, it just didn’t sound good. Being Christian conjured connotations of compassion and charity. Being Muslim meant in my mind being of strong faith, the fastest growing faith, a religion that though one of the world’s youngest, had in its history been one of power, empire, and global dominance. Being Buddhist evoked images of meditation and the esoteric realms of philosophy and enlightenment. But being Hindu – being Hindu suggested idolatry, a chaotic collection of myths; it stood for caste and sati, for the subordination of Sita and all the women who followed her, for Brahmanic oppression and backwardness. These were not trivial concerns. Public perceptions, grossly generalized or misconstrued though they may be, matter...

Moreover, I did not want to call myself Hindu because there were no others around me proclaiming themselves as Hindu either. There were no chaplains representing the Hindu faith in the universities I attended. Though there were student associations for most other religions, hardly any existed for Hindus. When I tried to start one up, I faced suspicion that it was a façade for Sangh politics. There has been an emphasized divorce between religion and cultural identity when it comes to South Asian student groups. This is acceptable when people of other faiths have Muslim or Christian student associations to nurture their religious needs, but Hindus often have no such outlets."

Creation of a Hindu identity in America, the real crux of the article:
"Not only is there a paucity of classes dealing with Hinduism at the college level, but the attitudes of South Asian professors are sometimes problematic. It seems that a number of these professors are so embedded in Indian or South Asian politics that they do not distinguish, as they should, between the pursuit of a Hindu identity in India and the creation of one in America...As the generations pass, the links with India will prove more and more tenuous, while the links with Hinduism will hopefully remain as strong if not stronger. Furthermore, there are many Hindus of non-Indian descent who also seek a Hindu community to which they can belong, in which they have a voice...These are some of the frustrations that I and others like me have faced and continue to face as Hindus in America. The Hindu-American community needs to take responsibility for the fate of our religion in our country. It is only through our efforts that the opportunities and resources can be provided for interested individuals to engage with Hinduism in its spiritual, philosophical, intellectual, and cultural dimensions. The first step in paving this path, I believe, is the conscious formation of a Hindu-American community and identity."

(Emphasis added)
The atmosphere around us affects our religious practices:
"One of the difficulties of engaging with Hinduism in America is that we live in a predominantly non-Hindu setting. It is easier to practice Hinduism in India, where the culture and the religion have become so intertwined, where Dussehra merits a holiday, where interpretations of the epics have been shown on wildly popular TV serials, where grandparents share the stories of the Puranas with children, where the resources for learning about the religion are more readily available than they are here. There is a subtle yet powerful Hindu ethos in India that is absent in America. Immersion in the ethos of Hinduism, of course, does not a Hindu make, but it does facilitate engagement with the religious aspects of the tradition if one so chooses...The result is that very few Hindus in America think of themselves as being Hindu. One may very well ask, so what? Why does this matter? Why is it something we should, as a community, expend energy and resources in trying to change?

Some fear that adopting a Hindu-American identity would threaten an Indian-American identity or a South-Asian-American one. That fear reflects a misunderstanding of the interplay between identities. Identities do not have to compete with each other. Wouldn’t it actually be better to separate being Indian from being Hindu rather than conflating the two as some try to do? Cannot an Indian-American Muslim have two identities, one as an Indian-American and one as a Muslim-American? Indeed, I know of many Indian-American Muslims who are equally active in South Asian groups as they are in Muslim organizations. One identity does not have to supercede or substitute for another."
(Emphasis added)

Thanks so much to Ms. Bannerjee for expressing these ideas so well.

Someone on Ravelry also posted an article about a Black Jewish community that explores issues of ethnicity and religion and conversion.

I've discovered some more interesting posts on other people's blogs about the issues we look at here, so I'll be gathering those to share with you soon.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Raavan-movie review

I actually got to see the Raavan movie yesterday! This is the movie that Sita and Dhurga were talking about in the comments a few posts ago. A re-imagining of the Ramayana, with more sympathy toward the Ravana character.

It sounded so interesting, but I didn't know how to find out when or where it would be playing, then a girl from my Hindi meet-up group posted on Facebook that she was going to see it this week. I quickly asked if I could come along, so we went together last night.

The movie was amazing. Visually it was stunning all the way through. Great music and gorgeous scenery and well set up scenes.

The story was really interesting. The Rama character, Dev, was certainly not pure good guy. As we learn more about the Ravana character, Beera, it seems like he is actually the more honest one. He's crazy, but he's also a sort-of Robin Hood protector to the villagers. It sets up that really Beera has been forced into the position of being a monster because he is poor and low-caste. A lot has to do with perspective and even all the villagers the police interview about him have different things to say. Some say he is evil, others say that he protects them, others say he is talented in poetry. The man playing Beera did it super creepy.

The ending did leave me wondering what happened next, but even so I loved the movie through and through.

My friend who I went with mentioned that the movie got much better reviews in America than in India and we speculated why that was. I thought that perhaps this re-imagining of Sita is too dangerous to a culture built on telling women to be like Sita and follow your husband no matter what, be quiet and loyal. Strong female characters are threatening. Ragini, this Sita character, was strong-willed. However, she was still faithful to her husband, even as she came to understand why Beera behaved as he did. Maybe in her heart she wasn't entirely faithful...

Here is a preview:

And for the long hair lovers like me, Ragini has gorgeous tail-bone length hair!

After you see it, tell me: why and how would anyone build a bridge so high up in the air?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Lonliness and also Caste

Basu asked a few posts ago whether I have any Indian friends and I realized that I don't have very many friends of any kind. Not here, anyway. That is the trouble with moving a lot. I kept trying to fit in somewhere and I moved to five different states when I left home to go to college.

I now live very close to my best friend from home, she is the main reason that I moved to Maryland.

But now I know that I need more. I need other girl friends. My partner in my dance class is probably moving over seas soon and she doesn't seem too interested in hanging out outside of the events we go to.

I do hope to make friends at Chinmaya, but I know it is going to take a while. Many people there have known each other for years, I would guess. I see people come in and greet their friends and smile and talk and sit together and it makes me feel extremely alone.

Recently I've been doing too many things alone. I learned to do that from my traveling around. I show up at these things and people are welcoming, but it takes time to develop real friendship. (I started out going to Hindi meet-up group alone, but once my boyfriend and I started dating, he decided to learn Hindi also, so we go together now and he always comes with me to dance events, etc.)

Today in the BJ's parking lot I saw three African women finishing up their shopping together. They were dressed in African dresses and turbans. It made me think how much easier it must be to wear ethnic clothes and maintain one's culture when you have friends (or sisters as the case might be) to do things with.

Again, I felt terribly lonely. I suddenly understood why it would be so nice to have other people of your own culture around you. I wish there were more like me. Now, thanks to this blog, I know I'm not totally alone. But still, sometimes I feel a bit like The Doctor, the only one of my kind and there is a profound loneliness.

I do plan to stay in this area for the long term, so I hope I can make some good strong friendships here. (And starting that process, one of the commentors on this blog invited the boyfriend and me to dinner with her family. Little did we realize, we live in the same town! I'm really looking forward to that).

On a completely different note, new discoveries about the caste issue.

I've mentioned before that I feel like one of the real difficulties of Hinduism coming to accept converts is that converts don't have a caste. Even though socially, many have been trying to do away with the caste system for years, it seems to be still very commonly used in terms of what you know about someone. The sort-of social mobility that is built into the American character is not as common in India, from what I understand.

On my last post on this subject, a couple of commenters said the following:

Sriram said...
Actually caste is much maligned subject that has been misused for personal benefit.

The 4th Chapter, 13th verse of the Bhagvad Gita explains it in simple terms. Krishna says that he created the 4 castes. This was used widely by many to spread a half truth. The full line is where he says that he created the 4 castes but the caste of a person is decided by actions and qualities.

If one goes backwards and reads about who the authors of many of the books in Hinduism were, they were not born into the high caste families or blood lines. There are other controversial books but one has to see them contextually than in a generic all encompassing manner.

June 3, 2010 3:03 PM
Anil said...
Yes, I agree.

"Chaturvarnam Maya Shristam Guna Karma Vibhagasah" means according to nature and action people are divided into four classes. Ignorant people have made it by birth.

Also, I happened to read in the FAQs section of the ISKON website:
"In Bhagavad Gita (18.42-44), Sri Krishna clearly states that the Varna (caste) of a person is decided by his activities, not by birth"

Now, of course, this doesn't mean that the issue of caste suddenly vanishes. Even if it was meant to be a measure of our behavior more than our birth, it is still heavily used to judge and categorize people.

Still, it is good to know that this is a social construct and it can be separated from the religion without damaging the religion.

I can understand the idea that we are born into circumstances based on our sanskara, but as I've said before, I cannot accept that this is an excuse to treat people badly or deny them education (or going the other way, to expect more from people who were born Brahmin). It is not our job to judge someone else, it is our job to have compassion. There is no place to say, this person was born untouchable, therefore they must have done something horrible in a past life, therefore they deserve to be treated badly. We do not know what happened in their past life and we don't know for what purpose that person was born into the life they were. The only thing that matters is the present moment, and in this moment we must show kindness to all because they are all our siblings and our parents.

Friday, June 18, 2010

You are all Wonderful

What fantastic responses to my post yesterday! Thank you for your thoughtful replies and you all brought up some really good points. I find so much encouragement from you all. :)

Here were some of my favorite things said so far:

There is a lot of truth, though, to the notion that bored rich white people seek spiritual thrills by "following" Eastern religions. They are colorful and spicy and exotic. (But I wonder why no one bats an eyelash when an Indian or other Asian or any other non-white person embraces Christianity or Islam and a "western" lifestyle... Is that appropriation?) 

I found serious Hinduism the first time I went to India and traveled with DH (darling hubby) to a well-known pilgrimage temple in the south, and spent a night there and got up at the crack of dawn to wait in hours-long lines to do the puja and then see the main deity (have a darshan). What I saw of real humanity, rich, poor, sick, young, healthy, dying, and the devotion there in the inner sanctum, was something that a rich white person probably can't access in the same way in a cushy resort on a beach in Goa or Kerala, having $1,000 ayurvedic treatments, and the like. I have to admit, as a white (dare I say it) Hindu, even I have to sneer at that.

Christianity is an Eastern religion. My European ancestors stole it 1500 years ago, but does that make it any less stolen? Jesus was not European...
No one owns Hinduism, anymore than they own any other faith. Every great religion is a gift from the Lord. Who is any man or woman to decide that another is not worthy of that gift?

In the most widely loved Hindu scripture, Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna tells us that none are more or less dear to Him, that He is the Lord of the universe, that He dwells in the hearts of all. He does not say that Indians are more dear to Him than Americans, that He is the Lord of the Indian sub-continent, or that He dwells in the heart of every Indian.

I always find it intriguing though that ONLY Americans (or "white folks")can "steal" other people's cultures... as if we ALL have absolutely no respect for anyone else and couldn't possibly be doing x for a good reason. I'm also (like you) exhausted by the notion that because I'm a "white girl" I must have this horribly romantic notion of how things are in other parts of the world (especially India) because I haven't been there to "see the other side" first hand. *sigh*

An Anonymous poster pointed out many examples of non-Indian Hindus and said, "*Serious converts are welcome but we dont want new age type dabblers."

And CS again:
In the end, brown skinned, white skinned, who CARES? We are all human, all subject to the making the same bad decisions or all capable of rising to our highest impulses. Your brown skin and my white skin doesn't say one damned thing about who's better and who's worse as a human being, and thus who's eligible to be Hindu or not.

Seeing that we are all the same has made me realize that I, as a white German-Jewish-Norwegian-Lutheran woman, am no better and no worse than an Indian Hindu, or a Japanese Buddhist or a Brazilian practioner of Candomble. So if I want to call myself a Hindu, and you don't like it, just go busy yourself with your prayers and I'll do the same. 

Can I just say, Exactly! And this is why this blog is so useful, it is a place for us to come together and show that non-Indians can be serious about Hinduism and not just dabblers. And it is also a place where open-minded Indians come to say that we are welcome. Thank you so much to everyone!
I've mentioned a couple of time being uncertain of non-Indian gurus. I thought I'd talk a little about that today as a follow up to yesterday.

I guess I sometimes come across as sounding like I think Indians are better or are better suited to Hinduism. That is not what I intend at all.

When it comes to spiritual leaders, I am suspicious. Partly from my dad's scientific mind influencing me and partly being jaded from what I've seen. I'm suspicious of both Indian and non-Indian gurus. My lack of trust in white gurus is a fear that there is a lack of continuity. Many Indian gurus have been groomed and installed in a long lineage.

I'm not interested in learning Indian philosophy from someone who gets high and chants the Gita. As CS put it, "I don't go for the ganga-smoking, Krishna is my Om Boy tee shirt wearing, barefoot groover as Hindu." Exactly. Couldn't have said it better myself. I've seen that sort of thing too often. (Although, my boyfriend really wants the bumper sticker that I found that says "Ganesh is my Om Boy"! I think it really suits him, too)

I've also seen and heard about spiritual leaders in India leading people astray, tricking them with faith healings like America's revival tents, preaching against material possessions while living in luxury, etc.

When it comes to looking for a spiritual leader, I am not willing to give up my own judgement and understanding. Even once I found someone that I trust, who feels authentic, whose teachings line up with what feels right to me and my experience, I am never going to just do everything that person says without carefully thinking about it first. Maybe that will slow down my spiritual progress, but it's how I am. This is why the path of devotion isn't right for me.

You don't have to be Indian to be enlightened. Duh.

You don't have to be Hindu to be enlightened (although there are several Hindus who will be thinking that actually you are Hindu, you just think you're something else!) Vedantic thought can be found at the base of just about every spiritual path. As I've said before, it's more buried in some than in others and Christianity is a tough one because it has been interpreted and remade so many, many times.

So we're back to the question of why do I imitate Indian culture?

I don't think I have an answer for that. It's not a self-hatred thing. I certainly think that anyone can find enlightenment on whatever path is right for him or her. I follow what feels right for me. As I've said before, I didn't have a culture for this to displace. There was a void and it is now happily filled.

I find that philosophy works better when blended into all the other parts of my life and I have no desire to reinvent the wheel, as the saying goes. I love Indian philosophy and I love Indian culture. The two go together pretty well.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

And another perspective

There are so many different perspectives on these issues and I find it fascinating to gather all the different view points together in one place. I think it is clear that there is not one right answer and people's feelings about white Hindus depend a lot on their own background and interpretations as well as the unique individual who is trying to follow Hinduism.

A new blog I found, The Big, Bad, Blonde Bahu Blog (Bahu meaning daughter-in-law) had a really interesting post on the subject of Western Hindus. I've quoted part below, but you should really go and read the whole thing.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments.

I’ve never known what to think of Westernized versions of Hinduism. One way a person could think of it is that it’s just another aspect of multi-culturalism—people being open to a variety of religious traditions. One could also think about it as profoundly disrespectful. It could be seen as appropriation, or as a friend of mine recently put it, “using other people’s religion or culture as a playground for rich white people." Most Indians I know openly mock Westerners who take on Eastern religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism).

Then she tells the story of her first taste of American Hinduism, which involves chanting to a far-off guru and giving money.

...What bothered me most was what came next. The woman took out a square of carpet from a wooden box and placed a pair of sandals on it. The square of carpet, she told us, came from the actual meditation chamber of the actual guru. Some of the audience oh-ed and ah-ed as she placed it in on the floor under the guru’s photo. The woman then invited us to meditate silently while thinking of the guru. She told us that after we had finished our meditation, we could come up and touch the square of carpet, either with our heads or our hands, and then we were free to leave money if we wanted to.

I will say, I have been to similar sorts of things and felt very uncomfortable. I understand the path of devotion, but I'm a little creeped out by devotion to a guru that one has never met.

Actually hearing the guru speak and thinking he has a great philosophy, then I wouldn't be too surprised by people performing devotions to his sandals or the carpet.

Maybe because I'm wary of that mocking that she speaks of, I'm reluctant to be part of events that are all non-Indians. I don't trust a non-Indian to lead a Hindu group. (In general. There are exceptions to this, but I'm very, very cautious of them).

At the end she hangs out with the child of one of these people who says it is more his parents thing than his. That will probably be my kid some day. I hope I'm not that far out there for my poor kids!

What do you all think about the “using other people’s religion or culture as a playground for rich white people"?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Non-attachment Fail

One of the very hardest concepts in Vedic philosophy is that of non-attachment.

The idea is that this whole world is an illusion, it's like we're in a stage play. So we play our parts, but when it's over, we go back stage to our real lives. People who have realized this and live with it are enlightened, and are therefore blissful all the time, not bothered by the little and big frustrations of life.

They are able to enjoy the physical things in life, having nice things, etc. but they are not attached to them. They are not bothered when anything goes away because they know that everything is God and things changing hands or changing shape is not really a change at all.

A very difficult ideal to live up to, but I had a nice, what should have been easy, opportunity to practice non-attachment this morning and I failed.

Here's the scenario:

It's raining a little bit today. Not heavy rain, just gray and drizzly. I had finished walking the dog, then I locked up the apartment and headed toward my car to go to dance class. There was a boy standing under the apartment awning.

He's someone we've had some trouble with in the past. This winter there was extremely heavy snowfall and this boy went around offering to shovel out cars for money. At first he was asking a ridiculously high amount and we said no. Later he came back and said he would do it for $20 and we agreed. We gave him the money. He never shoveled the car. I pestered him about it for days, hunting him down when he was playing with his friends. I finally just gave up. So, my boyfriend was out the money and had to shovel both our cars out. The history with this boy isn't great.

He asked me if I had an umbrella he could use because he had to go and stand at the bus stop.

I almost never use an umbrella, but I do have one. I have one that I am extremely attached to. My father got it for me at a biomedical conference and it has a huge ad for an ear infection drug on it. He got two of them, one for each of us and so we've had these matching umbrellas for years and years. Of all the gifts my dad has given me over the years, that umbrella and a kid's book written in Dutch are the only ones I'm really attached to.

I love that umbrella and I did not want to lend it to an unreliable person.

However, this one should have been an easy answer. There is a person in front of me with a need and I have something to fulfill that need.

I went to the car to look for it, all the while wondering what I would do if I found it. Could I really hand it over to this child? I didn't find it and I apologized to him and got in the car. Then I saw the umbrella in the front seat, where I had not looked (maybe subconsciously I knew it was there?) I could have run after him to give it to him, but I didn't.

This probably seems like not a big deal at all, but I try to take advantage of every opportunity life gives me. I don't want to miss learning and growing chances because becoming enlightened is my main ambition in life.

I'll have to try better next time, but even now looking back on it, my stomach churns at the thought of giving anyone my beloved umbrella. Sigh.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Questions from a New Reader

Some of these are new questions and some are evolving answers. Always feel free to ask me questions by email or in the comments. I'm happy to turn these ideas into more of a discussion than just me prattling on about things. And I can always use fresh ideas for new blog posts (don't worry, though, I haven't forgotten my promise of an updated post about caste, it's waiting in the wings).

1. Do you eat meat? Why or why not? I already did not eat red meat before my enthusiasm for conversion to Hinduism, but early on I gave up all meat and have been all the better for it. Do you give feed with cow in it to your pet(s)?

I have a post about Indian and Hindu things that I don't follow here.
There I discuss that I am not a vegetarian. However, my feelings about it have started changing. In the last couple of months I have felt compelled toward vegetarianism. The thought of eating beef bothers me on some kind of emotional level now. I don't know what brought that on. Perhaps just the fact that this blog has caused me to spend a lot more time in thoughts about my religion and my religious practices.

It is still not practical for me to turn vegetarian, so I'm waiting to see how my feelings about it evolve.

My boyfriend eats meat and he cooks meat for me (we enjoy cooking for each other). I am already a very picky eater, so I don't want to take away from him such a huge number of potential things for him to cook. I tried to find some soy fake-meat to use instead, but so far I haven't been able to find anything that would correctly match the texture of beef.

2. Do you use henna? I personally love it! Makes my hair feel so much more natural, too.
I just started using henna to dye my hair. I haven't decided yet if I'll put indigo over it to make it more black or leave it red (with my hair, the length is a very dark brown, but I have a lot of grey and I dye to cover that). Right now I have red hair in the front and black for the rest because it dyed my white hairs red!

I have been using a chemical dye on my hair for the last eight years, and a couple of concerns came up with that. There's the fear that putting harsh chemicals on my head so frequently could be causing damage to my brain or my nervous system. Also, I am obsessed with super long hair and have always wanted to have hair at least to my knees. I'm finally going for that goal, so I wanted to use a dye that would be gentler and more natural for my hair.

Some people have told me to just grow it out with the grey, but I hate having grey hair. For one, it washes out my pale face and for another I'm only 28 years old. I went grey at around 20.

So far, I love the henna. It's a lot of work to apply, but I really like what it has done for my hair. It is beautiful.

So anyway, that has nothing to do with Hinduism, but hair is another one of my hobbies!

3. Does it bother you that your partner does not share the same faith, or do you embrace it? Is his mind open to the philosophy? Would you allow your children to have dual-faith rearing?
As I said in my post about why I don't just marry an Indian, I haven't had any luck finding a partner with a similar religion. In the past I've tried to date Christians and it has caused huge problems, even though we would both be very spiritual people. I've had a lot better luck with atheists. I've found them to be very respectful of my beliefs.

Especially my current boyfriend. He loves what we jokingly call "this whole Indian thing" (that's what one of my exes cited as a reason to break up with me: "You have this whole Indian thing going on"). My current boyfriend encourages me to continue with my religious practices, enjoys celebrating holidays with me, thinks Ganesha is awesome, and looks up and studies any Hindu or Indian thing that I happen to mention. Often he teaches me things!

We're very serious about getting married soon and starting a family. We've discussed how to handle being inter-religious as a family. We have a plan, but who knows how that will last once kids actually arrive?

The plan is that we will raise our children Hindu. They will go to temple and Chinmaya with me, we will celebrate Hindu holidays as a family, etc. When they get to be an age when they can reason and understand, probably around ten or eleven, then we will let them know that their father is an atheist. He can explain to them what that is and why he believes what he does.

I would insist that the children continue to practice Hinduism until they are 16. At that time they are free to no longer go to temple if they don't want to, etc. I will let them know that whatever makes them happy is fine with me and they can leave Hinduism, come back, do whatever. It is their life at that point. (Although it will break my heart if they become evangelical Christians, but even if they do, I won't criticize and I won't make a big deal of it, because the most important thing is to keep my children close to me).

I am curious to see what it will be like that my children will be in a very different religion from their Catholic cousins. Should be an interesting journey.

4. Is there a region of India you feel is the most beautiful? I've only been there two times, but I did appreciate the south a little more than the north.
I have not been able to visit India yet, which really upsets me. I'm longing to go. I would like to visit the North because of the holy sites there, however my parents have a guru in the South, so if they go again I'll tag along with them. I almost had an opportunity to go this summer, but I had to give it up because of financial constraints.

Sorry if the questions got too personal. It's interesting to find someone else on a similar journey to mine, although I think I am much older than you are (48). Good luck!

If you would like to tell your story here, I'd be happy to have another voice. Feel free to send an email to with your story and I'll see if I can guest post it!

And don't worry too much about asking personal questions. I don't know if it's me or my generation or what, but I'm an open book. I'm happy to tell people just about anything about me.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Trying too Hard: a dead give-away

I was watching a favorite TV show called Bones and something happened that made me think of my own life.

There was a character who was very into all things Chinese. (He was also illegally selling Chinese weapons, because it's a mystery show). He kept his ledger in Chinese and wore Chinese clothes, and his home was all decorated Chinese, etc. Well, the police take his ledger and one of them shows it to a Chinese anthropologist. He looks at the book and says, "The man who wrote this isn't Chinese, right?" They ask how he knew and he said that the characters were too carefully formed. The writer was trying too hard and the writing looked forced and stiff, not natural.

Trying too hard.

Now, I don't think that I have this problem with my Hindi. My handwriting isn't great in English and it's not great in Hindi either.

This is a page from my exercises in my Teach Yourself Hindi book :)

But what this TV show really made me think of is that I find myself in a large chasm in-between knowing nothing and knowing as much as someone born and raised in India.

I want to approach everything as an opportunity to learn, but I have to admit that it can be irritating when people assume I don't know anything. It's hard to be quiet and polite when someone is telling me, "Well, you know, Sanskrit is this ancient language and Hindi is closely related to it...blah blah blah." Yeah, I know. I've been exposed to Sanskrit since I was in the womb.

"It's traditional for us to do this..." "We call this thing, this..." I have trouble being talked down to and I don't like feeling like I'm being treated like an idiot. I know they are well meaning and want to help me understand.

And of course, sometimes, I really don't know! There are terms and traditions that I have not come across yet.

So I'm in that frustrating in-between place.

I wonder sometimes if I go too far in showing what I do know. For example, I went to my dance teacher's daughter's anangatrum (graduation ceremony for dance, see now I'm doing it to other people!) and I gave a gift of a murti and an auspicious amount of money.

I vaguely wonder (but I'm not stressed about it or anything) if knowing that a certain number is auspicious is seen as me "fitting in" or as me trying too hard. Does the move look natural or studied?

I find that I'm afraid that if I choose not to do something or follow some tradition, it will be seen as me not knowing about it rather than the regular choice that people make in their religions.

Therefore I follow a lot of things very traditionally just so I won't look ignorant.

(I know, I know, as usual I have to stop wondering what other people are thinking!)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

How You Spend a Saturday

The boyfriend and I were just hanging out on my couch and watching old TV episodes when there was a knock on my door.

Two young men were there to talk to me about their new hope church. They were friendly and polite and we chatted about my dog for a moment.

They had a survey to ask people about their beliefs. Maybe some days I would be in the mood to go through that, but this is a sunny, beautiful day and the boyfriend and I are enjoying our time together.

So I told the guys that I was Hindu and not interested in church.

"Oh," one said, undeterred, "That's important for us to know."

"Would you mind telling us about your beliefs?" The other asked.

Again, maybe sometimes I might have the energy for that. But really I don't feel like putting in a lot of effort to explain Hinduism to people who are strongly biased against it.

As friendly as they are, and as much as they like to tell themselves that they are open minded, they aren't. They already know the answer and the only reason they want to hear my beliefs is so they can find ways to tear holes in them.

I'm not much of a debater and these conversations always leave me feeling drained and discouraged and they go back to being the same Christians they were before the discussion and I go back to being the same Hindu I was. No convincing is going to take place here.

The only thing that telling them my beliefs would change is that it would give them knowledge about Hinduism that they could use to develop ammunition to try to convert other Hindus.

I knew a Christian girl in college who encouraged her Christian group to attend a dinner that the Muslim Student Association was holding (they were doing the dinner as a way for people to get to know more about Islam, in a spirit of peace, so we could all get along). This girl told people to go to learn about Islam so that they could learn how to better proselytize them to Christianity. She was a sweet girl, but what a disgusting thing to do!

Watch this incredibly irritating video of two ignorant Christian girls trying to convince their "friend" Saraswati that she's going to hell:

I don't know why Saraswati continued to talk with these girls, but I have no interest in subjecting myself to this kind of thing :)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Follow up on Reader Questions

More discussion from Basu's questions:

1. so in advita-vedanta there doesn't seem to be a need for the concept of heaven and hell.

No, Advaita doesn't need a concept of heaven and hell to function. Some people say that there is a heaven, but it's a temporary place to wait for one's next embodiment. Although, again, I find that far too individual and I personally don't believe that we exist with distinct boundaries when we are not in a body.

I don't know of anyone who believes there is a hell. Generally people say that hell is what we create within our lives by our negative thoughts.

2. what you say about the allegory behind radha-krishna story is absolutely true. but i was thinking about all the puranic stories. it will be hard to find the symbolism behind all of them. for example the story of the birth of ganesha and how he gets the elephant head.
none of the stories trouble me. because i think most of the puranic stories are imaginations. some might have some historical origin but turned into myths and mythology after so much of time. but this is a historical explanation.
the reason why i asked you is to know how one see it from a religious point of view. and because you follow advaita vedanta.

Yeah, you're right, the story of Ganesha's head is pretty hard to find meaning in! I really don't know about that one. Again, it doesn't bother me. I figure it has a meaning that I am not understanding yet, but I trust that it will eventually be clear to me.

Also, I think ancient stories give a great insight into the way the human mind functions.

As an Advaitist, I don't know if the stories are historically true. I rather doubt it. I tend to have a fairly scientific mind and the stories are too fantastical. But, for me, it doesn't have to have actually happened to make it true. I don't know if that makes sense to anyone but me!

3. i don't agree with your explanation of the number 33. i think normal human being always prefer round numbers like 10, 100, 1000 etc.
for example in india elders often say "sho shal jio" - may you live 100 years. they don't say may you live 111 years of 77 years.
so i personally think it is likely that the number 33 has some other explanation.
yes, wiki in this case is not reliable because they didn't provide any reference.

I did some more looking into this and here is what I found:

HubPages: This author claims that the 330 million refers to the people waiting in "heaven" to get reborn who have been particularly good (Devas, not Gods). He does not go into why that particular number is used. This website does have an explanation for the exact number,
Hindu religion is often labeled as a religion of 330 million gods. This misunderstanding arises when people fail to grasp the symbolism of the Hindu pantheon. According to the Hindu scriptures, living beings are not apart from God, since He lives in each and every one of them in the form of atman (BG 10.39). Thus each living being is a unique manifestation of God. In ancient times it was believed that there were 330 million living beings. This gave rise to the idea of 330 million deities or gods. Actually, this vast number of gods could not have been possibly worshipped, since 330 million names could not have been designed for them. The number 330 million was simply used to give a symbolic expression to the fundamental Hindu doctrine that God lives in the hearts of all living beings.

Hindu-blog: This website also goes into some explanations about symbolism in the number "3."

In Brhadaranyaka Upanishad while discussing Brahman, Yajnavalkya is asked how many gods are there. He says that there are three hundred and three and three thousand and three gods. When the question is repeated? He says, thirty three. When the question is again repeated he says, six. Finally, after several repetitions he says ONE. (Chapter I, hymn 9, verse 1)

It reminds me of the trinity of Gods, which exists in both Christianity and Hinduism. The three who are also one, Brahman, Shiva, and Vishnu.

by the way, what do you think of lokayata tradition?

do you take it as a part of hinduism or a part of indian philosophy like buddhism and jainism and distinct from hindusim?

I am ashamed to admit that I didn't know what this was, so I went and looked that up too (on Wikipedia!).


I'm not sure that I know enough about it yet to really discuss it. On the one hand, it's hard to accept that atheism and lack of belief in an eternal soul could be Hinduism. On the other hand, Hinduism does tend to encompass so much.

I have seen people that I would think of as Hindu who are very spiritual, but don't believe in a God. Seeing the whole universe as a "divine" power or seeing humanity as a "divine" power, those things are very Hindu to my mind.

But one of the fundamental things that makes Hinduism Hinduism is the belief in an eternal soul. We do not die. Krishna makes that very clear in the Gita.

The Buddhist belief in nothingness after death is the thing that most strongly separates Buddhism from Hinduism, I think. That and the idea that you can't enjoy the world while also being aware that it is an illusion in Buddhism.

So, it is certainly a very different flavor of Hinduism from mine, but I would never exclude it. I always lean toward unity, never division.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Two Encounters

Quick second post for today. Two cool things that happened to me this week:

1) I managed to use a tiny smidgen of my Hindi.

I'm always shy to try out my Hindi on Indians. I go into the Indian grocery store and I sometimes overhear the old woman behind the counter speaking Hindi to others in there. When it's my turn, she and I do a lot of smiling and nodding and no speaking at all.

This week I went in to get a few things and I psyched myself up to say "dhanyavad" as I was leaving. And she said "You're welcome."

It wasn't much, but it was a start. :)

2) I had reason to go to 7-Eleven yesterday. I could see through the window that there was an Indian guy working there. (Hello, and welcome if you are reading this blog, sorry I didn't catch your name!). I was tempted to take off my bindi, as I've been wearing it only in places where I don't think I'll encounter Indians. Weird, I know.

But I went in wearing it. He asked if I was from India. I said no and I gave him a card with this website, but he actually seemed completely satisfied with the simple answer that I'm Hindu.

I was comforted. Maybe it doesn't need to be a big deal at all. Why are you wearing a bindi? Because I'm a Hindu. End of story. I like it!

Another Voice

I was going back through comments on some of the older posts here and came across this comment that I wanted to bring to everyone's attention. I think this woman illustrates really well the frustration of feeling kept out of a religion that one is drawn to:

CS said...
I found this blog while in a particularly frustrated mood about religion and ethnicity and fitting in. I am a white woman married to an Indian Hindu man, and have grown exceedingly tired and frustrated by these on-line discssions that insist that white people MUST NOT EVEN THINK of converting to Hinduism.

All the same reasons come up: we have no caste, the colonial legacy, which we, British or not, will be expected to pay for until the end of time, supposed scriptural references, we white people are all corrupt, or pretenders or looking for a cheap exotic thrill, or we don't know enough when not to enter a temple (during a woman's period)...

I get the feeling that the Indian born Hindus who insist that we stay in our places, thank you, feel a sense of smug superiority - we want something they have, and we're just not allowed because we're not good enough. We're polluting.

But I have been to India with hubby many times. And I have seen things first hand. Many things. Materialism, greed, no respect for elders, et cetera. As well as generosity, kindness, great love, acceptance. So I agree, Aamba, we are all the same.

We are all part of the human race, like it or not, and Hinduism is out there in the marketplace of ideas, and as irritated as that must make some Indian Hindus, too late. Too bad. Don't come telling us white people how wonderful your religion is, how superior, how advanced and perfected it it, and then say, "Oh no! Not for you, no way! You keep out! Respect us but DO NOT EVEN THINK OF PARKING HERE!" [emphasis added]

Am I angry? Just a little! I hate hypocrisy. And I've seen more than my fair share of late. I've tried so hard over these many years of marriage to fit in, hubby says there's no Hindu pope who says you can't be Hindu, so chill out, stop getting so worked up. And then I'm okay for a while.

But then I read or hear something and get mad all over again.

Is Hinduism for white people worth the struggle? If what you want is communal acceptance, it's dicey. If what you want is a personal, private communion with your inner self and with your conception of the Divine, then yes, it is.

Maybe our answer, as white Hindus, is to create a community for others in our position, to take what is good and pure and sacred in Hinduism that transcends race and ethnicity and caste and create a "Western Hinduism", much like western Buddhists have done.

I don't know what the solution to this is. I'm hoping that this blog will help to spread the idea to born-Hindus that there are non-Indians out there who take being a Hindu seriously.

So far you all have given wonderful, positive responses, so I am hopeful!

CS's idea of having a group of Western Hindus doesn't seem like a good solution to me personally. I feel that is what I had in my organization growing up. We had Indian philosophy with British social traditions. It isn't that they didn't work together, they do. Not surprisingly, I do believe that Vedanta philosophy is The Truth (otherwise, I wouldn't be here doing what I'm doing) and if it is a universal Truth, then it would fit any society.

They emphasize making philosophy practical and applicable to everyday life. There is little to no ritual. It is focused on questions of how to be blissfully happy and discovering our purpose for being here.

It just didn't quite work for me. It seemed like a lobotomy to strip off the Indian-ness from the Vedanta. However, that might just be me feeling very connected Indian culture. It may have to do with my own personal past lives.

I don't know where you live, CS, but you might enjoy Philosophy School's take. Here are some links for you to check out. The first link is the one I grew up belonging to and my parents are still very active there.

Advaita Meditation Center
Philosophy School New York (Also with branches in various other U.S. cities)
School of Economic Science London

Or try a group historically welcoming to the non-Indians like Chinmaya, Himalayan Academy, or ISKON.

And no matter what, hold your head up high and don't let people badger you into believing that you aren't a Hindu. Your husband is right, you already are. It's exhausting sometimes, but we are the ones who have to be visible and show over time that white people can be good and devoted Hindus. Eventually enough people will see us that it will no longer be such a strange thing.

(By the way, on the caste issue I discovered some interesting things that I'll be posting about soon.)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Culture and Language

One of the things that makes me so excited to learn a new language is that I know that languages are not just codes of one another. It's not that you memorize the word for this and the word for that in another language, then put it together and you're done.

Languages are connected to thought and to culture. The way a language expresses something is indicative of its way of seeing the world. A new language means a new way to see the world. You Are What You Speak

Some people who are multilingual talk about being comfortable with different things in different languages. For example, emotions they prefer to speak about in their native language. Last night I was watching an Indian movie and a couple of fathers were trying to discuss a marriage in English, but one says, "You want to talk business? Talk business in Gujrati."

I've been reading lately the idea that one of the challenges to becoming billingual is a deep-seated fear that as we use the new language and leave our native one behind, that we feel we are losing a part of our culture. As The White Indian Housewife said in her blog entry after reading Dreaming in Hindi:

I just don’t want to learn Hindi anymore, or even speak it much. My mother in law accuses me of having forgotten my Hindi. I haven’t though. It’s just reluctant to come out!
This has disturbed me and left me wondering why. However, much to my relief the book offers some explanation. As the author says, when we learn a language, we learn an entire culture. There comes a point where that culture starts taking over. And in order for that to happen, you must give up some of your own culture. Learning a new language also changes the way your brain thinks and operates.
I think my problem stems from the fact that I’ve been in India for quite a long time now (it will be five years in December!), and I’ve adapted so much to Indian culture that I’m fighting to retain my own culture. In the beginning, I almost tried to become Indian to fit in. I took it very seriously. Now that fitting in (as much as possible!) comes quite naturally to me, I’m starting to feel like I’ve lost a part of myself.

I guess I'm not far along in Hindi yet to notice anything like that. So far, I love Hindi and I love speaking it. Of course, I don't live in India either, so there isn't much danger of me losing touch with my Americaness.

Two concerns I do have are that 1) I keep being told that text book Hindi is not what people really speak which makes me worry that I'm wasting my time and makes keeping my motivation up very difficult and 2) some of the blogs of moms raising bilingual children in a non-native language talk about the fear of not fully connecting to their children because they are not sharing their native tongue with them and are only relating to them through a second language. I reassure myself that 1) once I have text book Hindi down, it will be easy to modify into colloquial and 2) I can stop this bilingual idea with my kids any time if it is not feeling right. Also, I will be speaking English with them outside of our home.

But the fear of losing my own sense of culture? Not there at all. Then again, one of my problems has been that I don't feel like I have a culture.

I have seen some people arguing for and against the idea that there is an American culture. I suppose that there is. Maybe I'm too close to it to see that it exists. I don't feel any connection to it, in any case.

Here are two perspectives on white American culture. The first is from MissTam4 at, the knitting website. This is something she said in response to talking about children who are half white and half black relating to the culture of their white parent:

I’m white. I couldn’t possibly care less about being white or if my kids are white. I have no “culture” to speak of other than the normal “American” type culture that we all have (whatever race we are, as Americans)...As white people, we really do not have a “culture” or any kind of “solidarity”. The only solidarity white people have as a group is, frankly, the desire to exclude all others. Unless your husband has a specific national culture that he wants to pass on, (e.g. his family is recently immigrated from somewhere and the culture of that country is still strong in his family) there really isn’t anything TO pass on to his children regarding their whiteness. On the other hand, if your family is like most black families I know, YOU have a rich and wonderful American sub-culture to pass on to your children. It gives them a sense of belonging and solidarity and history that white folk simply DO NOT HAVE. .. I’m American. I’m white. So what? The only culture or history I have or care about is the same stuff every kid will learn in school- Columbus, Pilgrims, Revolutionary War, Abe Lincoln, McDonald’s, blue jeans, apple pie.

Gori Girl has a wonderful essay about cultural identity and whether Indian culture is any richer than American culture. I highly recommend reading the whole thing, but here is one relevant bit:

Let’s get one thing straight: cultures – all cultures – are constantly changing. And by culture here, I mean “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes a society” – i.e. culture is the sum of all learned human behaviors in a particular society. What one generation learns from the previous will change as a society adapts to different conditions. The rate of the change that a culture goes through will generally vary based on the internal and external conditions or pressures a society faces, such as technological innovation, changing resources, and contact with other cultures.
For example, most Americans today would not be able to survive for very long in the wild, but the pioneers in the early days of our nation certainly could and did. As “frontier America” transformed into towns and cities knowing how to live off the land became a less important skill than those that allowed you to work in an office or factory in town...It’s not that culture continuity requires that a culture stays the same – that’s impossible – just that certain central aspects of a culture, such as particular beliefs or traditions, remain. To return to the example of “living off the land” in the US, while most Americans can’t survive out in the wild, there remains an ethos of individuality in American culture: a belief that a person should be able to stand on his own two feet without help from others or the government, just as pioneers were required to do.

I wonder, if I did manage to integrate myself into an Indian way of life within America if I would start missing something or feel like I had given up part of myself.

Personally I am of the school of thought that American culture is not very rich. Not yet, anyway. We are still a very young country and our culture is still developing.

Many ethnic groups in America do keep their own wonderful traditions and I know that I strongly felt the lack of that growing up. I was jealous of my best friend's Jewish traditions.

Part of the problem may also have been that I don't relate to a lot of the things that might be considered American culture. As I've said before, participating in Indian culture has felt like coming home to me, has felt so natural and so right.

EDITED TO ADD: Another perspective on this that I just found at a blog called Big, Bad, Blonde Bahu Blog She talks about her Catholic culture and her distaste for people saying that India is better because it has more culture.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Options for Official Conversion

I've been getting some lovely emails from other white Hindus. It's pretty amazing how the Internet connects people and no matter how odd a path you are on, there will be others like you.

Here are some quotes from emails I've received:

There are very, very few people who talk frankly about practicing Hinduism from the non-Indian perspective, and so it's great that you're helping to fill that void...This is one of the first times I've had the opportunity to talk to someone who's gone through something vaguely similar to my own (unfinished) story,

However, as I turned 20, I started to feel more acutely the fact that I was different [from the Indians at temple]. When I was younger, I felt it too, but I could ignore it. That wasn't the case anymore. I felt like I didn't belong, and to be honest I felt a bit foolish. I felt alien, and then confused and disheartened, wondering if I would ever want to go back.

It's not as if I dislike Christianity especially, but I prefer seeing God in all things, not just in a book here or a crucifix there.

So really, Hinduism is simply the Indian version of what Christianity displaced in Europe and North Africa. In other words, it's not just for Indians, or at least it shouldn't be.

I won't lie, I would feel a lot more comfortable if there were a few other non-Indian Hindus around my way (not counting the Hare Krishnas), but it's encouraging just to know that I'm not the only one out there.

I'm also a white Hindu, having come to Sanatana Dharma after a number of years of tumultuous spiritual searching. I've identified as Hindu for only about eight months now.

It can definitely be a lonely path to travel. Sometimes I'm alright with that. Lately, not so much.

Keep writing. It's good to hear from others.

Religious conversion shouldn't be like this. Hopefully people like you and me can gradually help change some attitudes so that those who come after us have an easier time of it.

Also, there is a practical side to being an official and recognized member of a religion. What if my boss requires me to do something in opposition to my beliefs, or expects me to work on a holiday where I should spend the day in prayer and fasting? He will expect some legitimate references, not just scriptural quotations that anyone could produce. What if I want to be part of some group or gathering of Hindus? It will be predominantly, if not entirely, Indian, and I may be expected to site sampradaya, or my teacher, or at least a priest with whom I'm familiar.

I am what I describe to people as “vaguely Hindu.” I wear Western clothing, but have an Ayervedic nose ring. I am a devout yogi but I eat beef (I can’t help it, it just tastes so good, and I don’t eat pork oddly enough). And, of course, I recite the 108 Ganapati Salutations and the Ganapati Mantra.
But your blog is wonderfully written, informed, and conscious of the issues that arise on both cultural sides about conversion.

One person asked about what kind of options there are for an official conversion, so I've done some research on different movements.

First, though, here are two perspectives on Westerners from the message boards at
Arjun says:
February 25, 2010 at 22:27
Well in essence everyone is born a Hindu so its not about converting but it's about awakening to that realization that decides if you are a Hindu or not. Many Indian Hindus are just Hindu in name and that’s it. So Hindu Dharma is not confined to the borders of any country, region or race or even physical form…yes even the animal kingdom are Hindus on some level because they follow the Dharmic laws in accordance to their consciousness. So if you follow and feel you are a Hindu then you are and you should say it openly. These days some Hindu temples do perform ‘Shuddi’ initiation into Hinduism. so the doors are now opening for anyone who wants to become a Hindu..

#58705 - 06/10/04 06:48 PM Re: Cultural Appropriation
Unfortunately, I live in a part of the U.S. where I don't know if that would even work with all people. I remember seeing a post on another thread from someone saying "I am interested in Hinduism, New Age, etc." This is typical of a lot of people in my town -- they think Hinduism, Chinese medicine, Buddhism, and all kinds of "Easternisms" are just a cool, groovy thing -- just like New Ageism. I actually heard someone at a party say once, "Buddhism isn't really a religion, it's more like a way of life." They see only the outer trappings of our religions and beliefs, like the funky South Indian temples, and the nice-smelling incense, and they think they've got it. It's like learning the postures of yoga but never grasping anything about devotion. These people think I should be flattered that Ganesh was on a lunchbox, because it just proves how cool and popular he is! And many of them are equally superficial about other things, like their country or the religion they were raised in, so they wouldn't necessarily care if someone put the flag on a pair of panties, or Jesus on a pair of shoes. In fact, I see things like that all the time around here. I would be very offended if I were extremely patriotic, or a Christian. But I feel like a person raised Christian, for example, can desecrate their own religion if they want to. I just want them to leave mine alone!

Himalayan Academy
This is the branch that our friend at Western-Hindu belongs to. They have an entire book available in hard copy or online called How to Become a Hindu.

These are the steps:
1. Begin practicing Hinduism, performing daily pujas and participating in a community with other Hindu events and rituals.
2. Write a comparison of one's former beliefs or religion to Hinduism. Discuss each promise made in another religion and when and why it was dropped. Present this document to a Hindu elder to show a true understanding of one's undertaking.
3. Sever ties with former religions. You must try to get a letter from any former pastor or rabbi, etc. saying that you have been released from your duty to their path by meeting with them in person and explaining why you are leaving and going to Hinduism. However, first you attend several of the services to see if you really want to leave this religion.
4. A legal name change to a Hindu name and that name should be used in all areas of life.
5. The namakarana samskara is performed. This is a naming ceremony. This must be done by a priest in the sect that you are joining. Also, you must inform your friends and family and have at least three witnesses to the ceremony. (Lots of details about this ceremony in the link above). A certificate will be provided which will help the individual with any times he needs proof of being a Hindu (such as for admittance to certain temples in India).
6. A three-day announcement is placed in a local newspaper telling the name and religion change of the person.

This is something the guru called "Ethical Conversion" and it seems like a great idea for any religion one is going to or from. It makes sure that a person is willingly choosing the new religion and has not been badgered into it and it requires a high level of commitment to the new religion. I think it's a great idea. The only reason I haven't done something like this is because I feel it is disrespectful to my parents to change my name. I might change my mind about that at some point, though.

I haven't been able to find any details about how one joins ISKON (Hare Krishna). If any readers here practice it, I would love to hear from you in the comments. Please tell us how one joins, what kind of conversion process there is, etc.

ISKON does have a bit of a bad reputation. My only experiences with them have made me feel like the Western members are just Christians who basically call Jesus "Krishna." I've only had a couple of interactions, however, so I wouldn't want to judge all of them based on that alone.

Amma is a holy woman who has been touring the world and spreading a teaching of love. She seems to have many Western followers. In fact, I was a bit disappointed when I realized that the only members of the Santana-Dharma group at were Amma followers. There don't seem to be any other Hindus there!

I don't know if they have any particular conversion, but I know several people spoke of meeting Amma and her giving them a Hindu name. Again, if anyone follows her teachings, I would love to have comments from you about what exactly is involved in joining.

She is called the "Hugging Saint" because she is known for hugging everyone at her talks.

This is something that is part of a movement called Arya Samaj, which is about returning to the Vedic roots of Hinduism and letting go of social class problems and other issues that have come up over time in society but are not part of the Vedas.

One website to learn more about them is Arya Samaj 101.

Their Shuddi is more of a reconversion, for those whose families were originally Hindu and were converted away to Islam or Christianity. It isn't clear whether a white person could undergo this ritual, but they seem to believe that Hinduism is the true religion, so that suggests to me that they would be open to more people joining.

They are working against the practice of untouchability and many Hindus converted away to other religions because they could have full status as people in the other religions. Of course, in Hinduism they should have had that, untouchability being a social construct and not part of the religion, but it is a very ingrained social construct.

I haven't been able to find anything online about what this ritual actual involves or how to do it, but I think I will write to one of the centers and ask them about it as an option for white Hindus.

There is also a really nice essay about why non-Indians should be fully allowed into the Hindu fold here: Becoming a Hindu is Easy

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Love and Respect

I think maybe I'm too negative on this blog.

I have a fear of being thought naive and so I make sure to let people know that I'm not all stary-eyed about things.

But really, what's so bad about being naive?

I can think of people I have known who have seemed very naive and devoted to this flowery, unrealistic idea of hugs and love and just frustratingly cheery. As much as I might think they were strange or misguided, I couldn't help having respect for their conviction and their general happiness. Maybe they have been right all along.

In Hinduism there are four ages, called Yugas, of the world. They get progressively worse. Right now the world is in the last age, the Kali Yuga. This means that it is very hard to sort out the truth and that people in general have become more self-centered and greedy. It is a dark world.

But I remember a talk once at my organization growing up where someone said that we can choose to live in the Golden Age. A lot of the negativity is perception only. We can see a better world and live there.

It's like one of my favorite TV shows. My idol and hero is a character named Delenn from Babylon 5. I would like to be just like her. She is calm and full of faith and strength. Once someone said of her, "Delenn does not walk in the same world that you and I walk in. She does not see the same world that you and I see. In her world, we are better than we are. We care more than we care. We act towards each other with compassion. I much prefer her world to that of my own, and I will not allow anything to threaten that."

As part of letting go of what other people think, I need to be okay with people thinking I'm stupid. If I live with conviction toward what I love, people will have to grudgingly respect that on some level!

Sometimes going out into the world feels combative and that is a terrible attitude to have in my mind. I need to remember that I am doing what I do out of respect.

I love Hinduism with all my heart and I love Indian culture and I'm not going to let a fear of looking naive, misguided, or stupid dampen that.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Why don't I just date/marry an Indian?

The only other time in life that I have encountered Indianized white women is those who have married Desis.

The stories I have heard have all involved Indian parents in India who were delighted that the new American daughter-in-law was open to Indian culture, having an Indian wedding, etc.

In these cases a white woman being a Hindu would be encouraged for family unity and continuing culture.

If I had planned my life more carefully, maybe I would have been more on the lookout for an Indian husband.

Then I'd have an Indian last name, and people would totally understand why I was "acting Indian," right? Well, I'm sure it's more complicated than that, as I'm learning from an awesome blog called Gori Girl (means "white girl," so I'm not the only one who labels herself based on her race).

I remember when I was living in Arkansas with a fiancee. I had moved there to be close to him and he was not all that interested in Indian culture. That was the period in my life when I was separated from Indians and I learned how much I missed being surrounded in that culture!

However, he did agree to go with me to a Holi celebration taking place an hour's drive away. I went up to the park while he parked the car and the people were surprised, but happy to see me. When I mentioned that my fiancee was coming, I know they were expected an Indian man. They were expecting that he had brought me here to experience culture. I could see the startle on their faces when a white guy who knew nothing at all about Indian culture arrived. I'm the one who brought him.

Not surprisingly, it was hard to be in a relationship where my culture was not appreciated. It has always been hard for my white American boyfriends to accept that we are actually in an intercultural relationship. My current boyfriend is great with that. He is endlessly supportive and kind and interested in Hindu things. When I tell him about something, he goes and researches it.

Life has not really presented me with a chance to marry an Indian man. The only one I came close to dating was a Sikh that I went to the movies with a couple of times but felt no attraction to. That would not have solved my problem, anyway, since I'm not a Sikh!

And the thing is, I don't want to date or marry someone just to give me the legitimacy to be myself.

How well would a relationship work if I had gone out looking for an Indian husband, no matter who he was, just so that people wouldn't find my religion as weird?

If I had fallen in love with an Indian man, that would have been great. But I didn't.

So even though we are the same race and have very similar ethnic backgrounds, my sweetheart and I are in an intercultural relationship.