That's the question raised by Swami Shankarananda (a British born convert to Hinduism) who writes: "Thousands of non-Indians follow the practices of Hinduism and are intrigued by its philosophy. So, why don't they call themselves Hindu?" It is not an abstract question as Swami Shankarananda himself found it difficult to identify himself as a "Hindu" whenever filling in a form asking one religious identify. He notes this isn't an issue for Westerners who embrace Buddhism.
"I have friends and colleagues who are leaders of the Buddhist community here in Melbourne. They say that, in general, the Western Buddhist practitioners under their tutelage have not the slightest problem saying they are Buddhist. What's the difference between them and us? Why is it easier for Westerners to call themselves Buddhists than Hindus? It's not simply because Buddhism is more fashionable at the moment, being apparently more rational (fewer Gods), or currently enjoying the charisma and leadership of the Dalai Lama. Why should a person who practices yoga and meditation, believes in karma and reincarnation, honors Hindu tradition, chants Sanskrit and venerates Hindu deities be reluctant to call himself a Hindu?"
Here are some reasons why this hesitation is present in Westerners according to the Swami:
- Buddhism comes from a variety of countries - Korean Buddhist, Japanese Buddhist, Chinese Buddhist, etc., making is "natural" to call oneself an American Buddhist or Australian Buddhst. Hinduism, on the other hand, is over whelmingly Indian.
- "Also, many Westerners have trouble dealing with certain concepts and practices they witness in today's Hinduism of India--like the caste system, for instance. Indeed, some Hindus have trouble with that as well. It is a fact that many low-caste Hindus have adopted Buddhism and Christianity--even Islam--to escape it. Where would Western yogis fit into such a system? Certainly, the answer is obvious. Why would we Westerners voluntarily enter a world in which we have a low status?"
- Hinduism has been "demonized" by evangelical Christian missionaries who describe Hinduism as idol worship, a "heathen" religion, and one filled with superstitions. "The first Western spiritual aspirants steered away from the H-word in favor of terms like "Theosophy, " "Vedic religion " and even "Vedanta." Such practices were then considered more "transcendental " than Hindu. Even today's New Age philosophy--perhaps unconsciously--has incorporated many Hindu ideas, like reincarnation and karma."
- Hinduism has been nearly totally absorbed and identified by Indians as belonging to Indians. "While Hinduism is generally dignified by an extraordinary tolerance and universality, it is also true--and I've experienced this myself--that Westerners are sometimes barred entry into Indian temples." Some Indian leaders have openly declared Westerners cannot be Hindu though that viewpoint is not accepted by other Indian leaders.
- The lower status of women in Hinduism is a deterrent for Westerners considering defining themselves as Hindu.
So, think about his insights. If you're chanting in Sanskrit, working with your Chakras, doing yoga, meditation, visiting your local Temple, you're really not a Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Pentecostal any longer.