Why some people just can’t bring themselves to say they’re Hindus

By Fred Stella

 In the west, it is entirely possible to run into someone who is not ethnically South Asian yet studies the Bhagavad Gita, meditates with a Sanskrit mantra, is a disciple of a guru, chants bhajans and may even have replaced his or her birth name with Ram or Radhika. However, if you were to assume they were Hindu, you just might not be correct. Yes, everything I just mentioned has all the markings of a Hindu; but there is a chance that this person might deny the label of Hindu or any other religious category. They might be comfortable with identifying as “Spiritual But Not Religious” or something quasi-Hindu such as Yogi or Vedantist.

I’ll say from the start that I have no desire to criticize anyone for how they identify religiously. My goal here is to analyze the reasons for distancing oneself from Hinduism while embracing some of the most important elements of the tradition. And for our purposes, I will focus specifically on those who are ethnically non-Indian and typically of European or African ancestry. It is true that there are South Asians who also distance themselves from “The H Word,” but that is a matter for a different time.

While reasons for this are manifold, I suspect the main one is that the word Hindu is so heavily tied to an ethnicity and culture quite foreign to most Westerners. Wikipedia estimates 99% of all Hindus are of South Asian extraction. 

The other major religions are much more diverse in their ethnicity. But the reasons for Hinduism’s rather limited diversity are quite noble. While some military expansion into Southeast Asia centuries ago did happen, Indian culture did not engage in colonization as we have come to know it. They did not usurp cultures or establish states servile to an emperor. Sure, there were wars between Indian kingdoms, but they more or less kept things “all in the family.” The other reason is that there is no “Great Commission” that compels devotees to convert others of a religion outside of their own to avoid perdition. 

The first major Hindu thought leader to transmit the Dharma to Americans was Swami Vivekananda. I suspect that if he had described his work as being Hindu it might have established a precedent; but that was not to be. Vivekananda disliked the word for some of the reasons I mentioned above. At the time it was just too broad a brush. He stated: “There may not be any harm in using the word [Hindu] but it lost its significance, for you may mark that all the people who live on this side of the Indus in modern times do not follow the same religion as they did in ancient times. The word, therefore, covers not only Hindus proper, but [Muslims], Christians, Jains, and others who live in India. I, therefore, would not use the word Hindu. What word should we use then? Vedantists—followers of the Vedanta.”

And then there are some people who embrace Hindu practice that eschew any religious stamp because they just don’t like religion. Many were brought up in homes that practiced a rather severe expression of Christianity. Some will even refrain from using “God” in conversation, as visions of Chief-Punisher-In-The-Sky might retard spiritual and emotional growth. So, for this group, having an affiliation with a society that teaches from an Eastern-oriented position is all they need. Of course, we cannot minimize the strong anti-Hindu bias that seems to be pervasive today. Many people might want to keep a distance due to fear that they will be labeled fascist or extremist. This meme is certainly making the rounds currently on many college campuses.

And the interfaith movement, as positive as I believe it is, has spawned those who think that since the world’s religions are one, why not embrace them all? This is a form of what is called “radical universalism.” I’ve actually heard people say that they are Christian-Hindu-Buddhist-Jewish-Muslim+. It is true that those who practice the more mystical expressions of the Abrahamic religions see an underlying unity among all traditions, but even they tend to focus on the rituals and practices of their own heritage. 

Another reason for people to be hesitant about identifying as Hindu is that they have a very narrow understanding of what that means. Often, it is assumed that to be Hindu one must engage in temple Deity worship. While many are attracted to kirtan, the Gita, and gurus, only a relative few feel drawn to become temple members. But this assumption is incorrect. Down through the ages there have been plenty of deeply devout cradle-to-cremains Hindus who have found Ishwar/Bhagavan/Brahman beyond temple walls. 

Years ago, I was at a stage where I couldn’t quite figure out my spiritual identity. I held onto the label of Catholic for cultural reasons way longer than I should have. Later, I settled on referring to myself as “an adherent of the Hindu/Yoga tradition.” I was getting close. 

There were a few things that led to my being able to comfortably call myself Hindu outright. The Hindu tradition and community have given me untold joy over these many years. How can I be the recipient of such treasures without giving in return? It was then and there that I decided that I could no longer keep an arm’s length away.

 I occasionally get asked if Indian Hindus see me as a “legitimate” Hindu. And the answer is a resounding yes. Here in North America, the Caribbean and in India I have been embraced wholly. And I’ve never heard anything different of my ethnically similar peers. I believe only once I was chided for not changing my name. But my well-meaning antagonist wasn’t denying my Hindutva, merely suggesting that I commit in a deeper, more public way.

As I said in the beginning, I do not seek to lay a guilt trip on anyone who chooses to engage with the great wisdom and practices of the Dharma without fully embracing our community. Hinduism is very generous in sharing with the world without requiring any sort of formal membership. But those of us who are practicing Hindus should encourage those whom I’ve described to know how welcome they are in our fold. And really, we can always use the help.

Fred Stella sits on the National Leadership Council of the Hindu American Foundation and the advisory board of the Global Bhutanese Hindu Organization. He is also the Resident Outreach Minister of the West Michigan Hindu Temple since 2009. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his Dharmi wife Teresa.