Hinduism: It’s Appeal to Westerners

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 RobertsGeorge Harrison of the Beatles, and German model Claudia Ciesla.

Selena Gomez perfomring Indian-style dance routine at MTV Awards.
Selena Gomez wearing bindi dot during her MTV Awards performance.

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.

Integral Being

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.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.

14 Replies to “Hinduism: It’s Appeal to Westerners”

  1. Angel, a great article, thank you so much, we all appreciate it!

    1. Thank you, Vincent. We appreciate your support, and the support of all of our readers.

  2. Robert Rönngren says: Reply

    With “ritual slaughter”, are you referring to things like halal and kosher slaughter? And something that i’ve wondered about: aren’t there lots of references to animal sacrifice in the Vedas? How does for example a vegetarian vaishnava deal with that?

    1. Mrinal Banerjee says: Reply

      Your doubt is justified. And believe me you, questions like these have us Hindus in a fix every once in a while.

      But the answer to your question is implicit in Angel’s writeup. In the same paragraph. Read this:
      “Hinduism does not frighten people away from evil so much as it lays out paths that are inherently good…”

      Hinduism is not a single ‘ism’ as much as a way of distinguishing from other ‘ism’s. Worshippers of Kali believe in slaughter. Vaishnavas abhor killing of any kind.
      Likewise you will find extremes (and all shades betwixt) in perspective on every subject you may fathom. It is more of what path one chooses to believe in. The ultimate goal is to achieve oneness with The ONE.

      I hope I was able to quench your doubt. Interesting read: http://satnami.com/Riddles.pdf

    2. Mriganka Dadwal says: Reply

      A very good question, indeed. So, ‘tantric sidhdhi’ is one of the many paths of Hinduism, which comprises of animal sacrifice during religious rituals. For majority of Hindus however, it is a strict no-no. We offer the humble coconut as an offering to Gods during the ‘havan’ (ritual involving offerings to the fire God).
      How do we deal with such polar opposites? Hinduism is an amalgam of merging contrasts. We are quite tolerant of differing viewpoints. Just imagine we have 52 crore gods and goddesses (including an elephant god and a monkey god. Basically to each his/her own) … Interestingly, one is simply born Hindu. As one grows, depending on family influence and sometimes despite it, one is free to choose their path of worship. This freedom to choose (within a wide variety of religious parameters) gives us the tolerance to our own inherent differences. Hope I’ve been able to clarify some of your doubts.

  3. One important thing to consider is that unlike the Abrahamic religions, Hinduism has no single book or a set of rules that every follower must abide by. Indeed, one of the main tenets of Hinduism is that no matter what path you choose, the ultimate goal is the same. You see, the concept of an all-pervading, singular Brahman is not easy for everyone to feel reverance towards. That is precisely the reason that in the later Puranas, many devatas(deities) and mythology surrounding them were introduced so as to give the average follower a concrete idea in the form of a story and an idol to worship. So, each follower may choose which deity to worship or which sect of Hinduism to adhere to but ultimately, it is the same Brahman being worshiped. Similarly, there are many varied schools of Vedantic philosophy like the Advaitic, or Dvaitic. But all schools lead to the same Brahman. Similarly, the tantric practice of animal sacrifice is one of the paths (and probably a debatable one) to God that the Vedas mention, but it is in no way the only one. The Upanishads clearly mention that for anyone who has given up all traces of prejudices, and desires from this materialistic world, he need not perform any sacrifice or even go to a temple. He finds God inside and all around him. Sacrifices are likewise an inferior practice to self-realization and in no way necessary or even worth considering or respecting for one who has chosen a different path for his Dharma.

  4. KR Dasharathi says: Reply

    I think the idea of conversion to Hinduism by a westerner is only impulsive,fleeting and therefore cannot last for whole of a life time. Why any person born in a particular religion should not covert to another religion lies hidden in the fact that it amounts to breaking the laws of swadharma (one’s own path destined by virtue of his being born in a particular religion). It can be deduced by due introspection that any person on earth is born into a particular belief called religion based on his mental make up and genetical (as called by modern science) attitudes as dictated by God. Therefore, embracing another religion would amount to going against a persons innate nature hidden in the subconscious level. It is not likely that such a person will succeed to a great extent because of the change and can be subjected to disturbances which can de-harmonise his physical and mental structure. One should have a thorough analysis and keep an eye for the distant future before embracing another religion. More so while embracing Hinduism as it has some religeous codes which are regarded as unacceptable by scientific minded westerners.

    1. Thank you, KR. A few points to consider.

      (1) Many Westerners adopting Hinduism were not born into a religion. Secularism, agnosticism, atheism, and an antagonism to religion (especially Christianity) prevail in many European countries, as well as in segments of the US.

      (2) Christianity, the “traditional religion” of the West, only entered Britain in a small way in around 900 A.D. In some countries, such as Iceland, it arrived later. Conversion to Christianity was often a political matter, e.g., of kings wanting to align with other monarchies. Many of the pre-Christian religions of Europe (especially the Greek, which derived some aspects from India) were much closer to Hinduism than monotheism. In recent decades there has been a revival of pre-Christian religions in Europe (although, of course, they are reinterpretations, since no continual lineage exists).

      (3) Hinduism has been an influence on the West for well over a century. In which case, it is possible for Westerners to be born into families that are closer to Hinduism than to Christianity, Judaism, etc. Moreover, the general trend has been toward Hindu and Hindu-like ideas in the West, e.g., contradicting the belief in a single God, Western societies now believe that all of the major religions, and some of the minor religions, are valid. Hence, Wicca, which believes in a Goddess, is accorded legal status in the US army, prisons, and so on. Hence, if one is born into a particular condition, because of Karma, Westerners are already inhabiting a Hindu-like society on many levels.

      (4) True, Hinduism conflicts with many Western (scientific) beliefs, though this could be said of any other religion as well.

  5. KR Dasharathi says: Reply

    As westerners have no belief in Karma theory and re-birth and try to practice Hinduism without these major factors they cannot be called true hindus in any case. They cannot also convert to Hinduism as it is not permitted in the shastras and anyone disregarding the core ideas in the shastras cannot get fruits of their practices in Hinduism. Therefore, the only option for them (westerners) even if they start believing in the Karma and re-birth theory, is that they have to do good karmas as per the sastras and wait to be born as a hindu. The purification of persons takes several births ordinarily & there is no escape from this arduous path prescribed in the hindu religion. If they don’t like this option it is better that in their own interests that they continue in the religion in which they are born into which I think is the golden rule. Those self styled Gurus of Indian origin who preach them of plum results within a short time on converting to Hinduism are only but misleading them.

    1. Thank you, KR. You are the first Hindu to have said this on our site, and this is the first time I have heard such claims from any Hindu. For argument’s sake let’s say that your understanding of Hinduism is the correct and only interpretation. Nevertheless, you seem to woefully misunderstand the West and Westerners. As mentioned, most Westerners, especially in Western Europe, are not born into a religion, and, as such cannot “continue in the religion in which they are born.” Western society has long passed the time when it believed in one particular religion or, since Western societies are essentially secular, in religion as such. What Westerners are born into, in contrast, is a society in which free choice is of primary importance, either because one feels that that is the highest good or because there is no other option, except to convert to a faith where the rules and restrictions matter — in that regard, perhaps most likely either Judaism or Islam.

  6. KR Dasharathi says: Reply

    I am only reflecting what is said in the hindu scriptures. If some feels the interpretation is incorrect, they can verify with some traditional hindu Acharyas. The other thing I am not able to understand is westerners \\’not being born into any religion. Almost all the countries in the world (except communists & small population of atheists in any country)are following some religion and as such children born to them will be attached to that religion and that what I meant by saying persons born into a religion

    1. Understood, KR. And, thanks. Yes, it is odd by the standards of other civilizations (past and present), but Western Europe, especially, is largely non-religious, anti-“organized religion”, and secular. A type of New Age spirituality — influenced by Buddhism, Hinduism, esotericism, etc. — has emerged over the last decade or so, filling the void, to a lesser degree, and I think that it is at least preferable to the non-/anti-religious and non-/anti-spiritual environment of the past, even if most people will remain believing only, really, in the material world.

  7. venkataramana says: Reply

    The higher the level of consciousness, the fuller the understanding of cosmic reality. We are now living in a period of time when the consciousness level at large is on a lower level. No wonder then there is so much confusion and debate and yet very little in clarity. The message of the vedas can be grasped better as our consciousness level rises. That is where we will get to when we silence our Mind and allow a bigger role for the consciousness to take-up. The best window toward the Infinite for people in this age is to first calm the Mind and then eventually silence it completely, when all truths–not the least of which appear irreconcilable at a metal plane—will beautifully pan out, when people will see life as not their’s but them itself as life. A complete inversion is needed, of which the Mind is a minnow. In the West, however, the Mind has been put on such a high pedestal that this switch to de-emphasizing the Mind is like steep deflation (not a nice experience to put it mildly). Eventually however it will happen and that will bring about an exceptional gratification because that is when the deepest alignment with cosmic reality will have ocurred.

  8. An interesting article which relates is Jonson Millers, The Gods are Still Here:
    A Response to Collin Cleary’s Summoning the Gods. But once read you’d have to read Collin Cleary response in the comments section and the conversation that follows. http://www.counter-currents.com/2012/01/the-gods-are-still-herea-response-to-collin-clearys-summoning-the-gods/

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