Just being raised in India wasn’t much help when it came to explaining Hindu beliefs and ways to non-Hindus—or to my daughter
BY DR. BIJAY NAIR
I grew up in a hindu household in kerala, India. Like many Hindus I know, I never attended weekend school to learn dharma. Most of what I learned about my religion was imbibed from the ethos of the society around me, and from my mother, who taught through her conduct rather than by didactic sessions.
She practiced her religion every day without fail: lit the small brass oil lamp and prayed in a little corner of the house in front of the images of the multitude of Gods and Goddesses, went regularly to temples, did pradakshina (circumambulation) around the temple and pushpanjali
(offering of flowers), celebrated festivals and above all respected the traditions of other religions as being equally valid. I assumed everyone somehow knew what it meant to be a Hindu; I certainly never had to explain it to anyone in my early years in India.
Emigration to the US changed my smug comfort and confidence. I realized I was not prepared to answer even the most basic questions about my religion, its belief system or how it is different from the “religions of the book.” When asked about Hinduism by people in the US, I tried to answer in various evasive ways, such as: “Hinduism is a way of life and not a religion;” “It is very complicated, and difficult to answer;” “We have many different Gods and holy books;” “It means different things to different people.”
I had tried reading more about Hinduism through works of Swami Vivekananda, Swami Chinmayananda, Eknath Easwaran and Ramana Maharshi, to name a few. All this gave me a deeper understanding of Hinduism for myself but still did not give me a good framework to explain it to someone unfamiliar with it. And I have been asked this question far more times than the average Hindu, in part because of my profession. As a doctor specializing in treatment of cancer, I have often been with patients and families towards the end of their life, having intimate conversations about life and death. Since faith plays a big role in how people deal with these events, I am often asked about my own religious faith and what decisions I would make in such situations. I have sometimes struggled to give a short and honest answer that can assure the patient they can rely on my judgment to help them.
Apart from the professional reasons, a personal reason to find these answers was my young daughter. As she was growing up in the US, she began to ask questions about Hinduism: Gods, mythology, festivals, etc. I felt a need to give her simple and straightforward answers. I searched and found avenues to teach her Hinduism. I had been taking her to a Sunday kids’ program run by Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) called Balagokulam, where I regularly volunteer and help to teach kids yoga, Hindu mythology, slokas, respect for other faiths and the multiple aspects of Hindu Dharma.
It was through HSS that I came to know of the Dharma Ambassador Program run by Hindu American Foundation. I attended the program in Sacramento in August of 2019. When I signed up, a friend mentioned that Easan ji was going to lead the class for us. Expecting to see an Indian “guru-like” bearded man in traditional clothes instructing us, I was surprised on the day of the course when we were greeted by a clean-shaven white American in kurta with a happy, radiant face. This was Easan Katir. I found it strange that 15-odd Hindus who had grown up in India, steeped in their religion, would be sitting halfway around the world in a hall in California to learn their religion from a white man who grew up in the United States. But as soon as Easan started speaking, we knew why he was the perfect one for this course.
Easan started by narrating his childhood, growing up in a Christian household, going to Sunday schools at a Christian Science Church, and how that eventually lead to his discovery of Hinduism in his teenage years. He was able to show us how our traditions are seen from a Western point of view and how to articulate Hinduism in a way that would appeal to a Western audience.
There were two broad aspects to this course. The first focused on what points to cover when asked about Hinduism. It was an excellent review of the key aspects of Hindu Dharma that are simple to understand yet give a comprehensive picture. The second demonstrated how to present this information in a lucid and positive way to a non-Hindu audience. Most of us who grew up in Hindu households have a general gestalt of the religion, but there is room for improvement when it comes to verbalizing it or explaining different aspects of it to a curious person unfamiliar with it. Easan gave us several tips about which points to highlight and how to respond to confrontational questions. He emphasized the need to keep it simple and clear, avoiding controversy and arguments. He also talked about positive body postures for public speaking, creating a positive energy in the room, using your hands to emphasize your ideas—to name just a few of the points that were covered. At the end of it, we were asked to give a mock presentation on Hinduism to high school kids. This was an excellent practical exercise; it also gave us useful insights into how different people approached the topic from varying angles.
As a result of this course, I feel more equipped to talk to a Western audience about Hinduism. In fact, in the ensuing months I have given several talks on Hinduism to non-Hindu audiences. I hope that in the future more Hindus can avail themselves of the Dharma Ambassador course. It will surely help them as individuals, and it will be valuable for the Hindu community at large.
Dr. Bijay Nair is a doctor at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Roseville, California. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org