While Islam is generally regarded as the fastest growing religion in the West (mostly because of immigration into Europe), Hinduism, according to a 2011 census, is Australia’s fastest growing religion. And it’s also increasing in numbers in the USA. Compared to Christianity (which still dominates Western nation states), atheists and agnostics, and Muslims, Hindus, though, are a comparatively small group, accounting for only 817,000 people in Britain in 2012.
But, this is only one way to look at Hinduism in the West, and the numbers, when it comes to the Dharma (Hindu and Buddhist), are very deceptive.
Are We All Hindus Now?
Do an internet search for “are we all Hindus now?” and you’ll find Christian officials giving lectures on why the US is all but Hindu in name, as well as articles on the same theme. Writing in Newsweek, Lisa Miller remarks on the “way[s] in which Americans are becoming more Hindu.” Among these, she notes, “24 percent of Americans say they believe in reincarnation, according to a 2008 Harris poll. So agnostic are we about the ultimate fates of our bodies that we’re burning them—like Hindus—after death. More than a third of Americans now choose cremation…” While the article might be simplistic — very — the premise is essentially correct. The West is embracing more and more of the Dharma, even if most do not think of it as such.
Meditation — very often derived from Hinduism and Buddhism (the latter of which was, until recently, considered a branch of Hinduism) — is practiced by millions of people, especially younger people, and more affluent people — people, in other words, who are shaping, and will shape, the future.
Similarly, Yoga, as you surely know, is now mainstream. Live in any city in the West, and you’ll see young women, in particular, carrying Yoga mats on public transport, or walking along the street. If many practitioners are doing it purely for fitness, statues of Hindu deities (as well as the Buddha), nevertheless adorn upscale boutiques and department stores, just as they do fashion collections high and low.
As I write this, the Buddhist monk and author Tich Nhat Hanh is being promoted by ABC Carpet & Home. Perhaps more striking, Tantra (an esoteric form of Hinduism and Buddhism), though often misrepresented in the West is now well-known.
Hinduism as Beauty and Glamour
Converts to Hinduism range from Christopher Isherwood (author of numerous books, including Goodbye to Berlin (1938), a semi-autobiographical work about Berlin during the rise of the Nazi Party, at its affect on the city’s more colorful characters, such as Peter and Otto, a gay couple) to Hollywood actress Julia Roberts, George Harrison of the Beatles, and German model Claudia Ciesla.
High profile encounters with Hinduism, in one way or another, are not unusual, even with those who do not practice Sanatana Dharma. In 2012, Paris Hilton visited Siddhivinayak Temple for a blessing. She later said that it was “Amazing to be in such a spiritual and special place.”
Selena Gomez has borrowed from Indian music and dance for her song “Come & Get It,” even wearing a glittering bindi dot on her forehead during the MTV Awards ceremony in 2013 (video).
Likewise, Russian pop band 5sta Family created an entirely Hindu theme for the video of their song “Tuk Tuk,” with bindi dots, and Indian dancing and clothing.
Hinduism has met glamour, as the spiritual has become as much a part of the life that Westerners aspire to as fast cars and expensive material things. Indeed, spirituality seems to be more important than wealth for many people under 40 or so, perhaps partly because the latter seems impossible to attain, at least without engaging in corrupt, soul-destroying practices.
Coming from India, Hinduism has a natural glamour about it. Aesthetically, it takes us to a different place, time, mindset and way of life. It is more colorful, more joyful, and more full of life, than probably any other religion. Put flippantly in season 1, episode 22 of the American sitcom The Mindy Project, the main character, Mindy, tells a group of children in Bible class that Hinduism is really “cool” with lots of “elephants and magic.”
Tantra? Religion and Sex Without Tears
Along with “karma,” another Hindu term that has slipped into the English language is “Tantra.” Likewise distorted in Western pop culture, Tantra is generally seen as risque spiritual sex, probably linked to the Karma Sutra (an enormous book that deals with etiquette, bathing, and so on, but from which the sexual material has been extracted, in the West, and presented as the whole).
A kind of McTantra has emerged through books such as Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-First Century, which teaches “consciousness quickes,” “twenty-minute Tantra,” and how to mix it up with BDSM (“sado-masochism”). The author apparently learned about sexuality from going to “Times Square peep show palaces” and orgies (p. xiii). That’s is up to her, of course. But it’s not Tantra, and shouldn’t be sold as such.
In contrast to the Mc version, authentic Tantra is a complex system of initiations, meditations, rituals, and so on. Some traditional (“Right-Hand”) practitioners of Tantra are celibate.
Attempts to push the limits of sexuality within the realms of spirituality is not new in the West. Occultist Aleister Crowley did it in the early 20th century, probably much better than those authors, in our own time, who had to visit peep shows for their inspiration. If the popularization of at least the word “Tantra” tells us anything besides the appeal of Hinduism and Buddhism, it is that Westerners are looking for meaning; to answer the question “why?” beyond immediate gratification. We want every part of our lives to be a connection to the transcendent.
More than anything, though, Hinduism — which is the oldest of the world’s religions — offers an integral way of being. Everything from sexuality to ethics, and from diet to devotion, can be understood and practiced through Sanatana Dharma.
Hinduism offers continuity. Unlike some interpretations of the monotheistic religions, Hinduism does not frighten people away from evil so much as it lays out paths that are inherently good, and philosophically and spiritually deeper: contemplating suffering (e.g., through the goddess Kali) instead of fearing Hell, male-female balance (through devotion to gods and goddesses) rather than the subordination of the female to the male, vegetarianism and love for animals and nature instead of the ritual slaughter, and so on.
While the number of converts to Hinduism (and Buddhism) may be relatively small, Dharma is big, and is becoming an ever more powerful force in the West.