Nitin Shah analyses the psychology behind the widespread tendency of many Hindu-inspired spiritual or yoga groups to vehemently deny any connections with Hinduism.
When I was asked to write this article for Hindu Voice, I struggled to think of how I could start it off. So I’ll start with a conversation I had a couple of years ago while on holiday in California. While there, I went to a charity cultural show type thing organised by the local Hindu community and after the main event there was a dinner and a collection of stalls for various organisations to showcase their work, raise funds and get new members. There was one which caught my attention because it had a group of three people dressed up in white gowns and tilaks on their heads which gave them the look of holy people who might have just walked out of a mandir on the banks of the Ganga. More surprising to me was that two of the people were actually white Americans and so to me looked even more out of place at this gathering. The third was an American born Indian guy and it was with him that I started talking. He explained to me that his organisation was a worldwide organisation, which had worked for many years to teach yoga and mediation to help people lead a stress-free and peaceful life. What’s more, they teach for free and to anyone who wants to learn. The conversation moved on and I asked what other parts of Hinduism interested him and were taught by his group but even before I had finished he looked at me as if I had insulted his mother. “We do not teach Hinduism, we are universal,” he said to me, “we do not restrict ourselves to Hinduism.” Now I’m not an argumentative person but I couldn’t resist pointing out that he was at an event organised by the Hindu community, that virtually everyone approaching his stall was either a Hindu or interested in Hinduism, that he was dressed in traditional Hindu dress, with traditional Hindu sacred markings on his skin, that his group had a Hindu sounding name and that what he was offering to teach was an ancient Hindu practice and art whose ultimate aim is help the individual on the path to union with everything (or “God” some people might prefer). But this just made him angrier (so much for the anger control that his universal spiritual practice should have given him) and he insisted that all I was doing was restricting yoga by “labelling” it Hindu. Since then I have met other members of the “Brahma Kumari” group here in the UK and heard similar things as soon as you ask if they are teaching parts of Hinduism.
But it turns out that this way of thinking is more widespread than just one group. Most “gurus” who come here to the West also tell their students that they are not teaching them anything which is “Hinduism”. Try asking your local Yoga teacher and see what the response is. It goes for gurus teaching more than Yoga – even more “spiritual” teachers will say that they are not teaching “Hinduism” but something else. Another famous example of this is Swami Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON or the Hare Krishnas, who said many times that he was not teaching “Hinduism”. This has led to a lot of confusion for many people who become Hare Krishnas because they are not always quite sure if they are Hindus or not. Don’t take my word for it – ask yourself next time you meet a Brahma Kumari or ISKCON member try asking yourself about the “Hindu”-ness of their teachings.
Another place where the “H”-word is avoided is in the commercial publishing world. Again most Yoga books won’t mention any Hindu connection. A famous example of this is the writer Dipak Chopra who has made millions of dollars selling Hindu spirituality in America without mentioning the roots of where his teachings come from. He is also an adviser to Virgin Comics who have recently marketed a series of Hindu based comics without actually mentioning the “H”-word. What these people do sometimes (but not always) concede is that they are inspired by “traditional Indian” or “ancient Indian” stories, teachings and history.
Actually, I have met lots of ordinary Hindus who always tell their non-Hindu friends that they are “Indians” when asked about their background or when asked more specifically about religion will say something like “my parents are Hindus” or “I am spiritual, not really ‘religious'”. Now I’m not saying any of this is lying or false but it does contrast with my Muslim and Sikh friends who always answer with their religion when asked about their identity.
So the question really is: why is the “H”-word so bad? Most people who fall into the groups I have described so far sometimes tend to argue as follows: “Hindu” is a foreign word so doesn’t really describe us. That’s true – the actual word “Hindu” is non-Hindu in origin, but then so is the word “Indian” and is derived from the word “Hindu” anyway, so is that really any better?
Digging deeper, you find that another reason that a lot of Hindus or Hindu-influenced people do not acknowledge Hinduism is because the word “Hindu” itself has become a dirty word. “Hindu” has become associated with anything which (other) people see as negative – for example: polytheism, idol worship, caste, poverty, extremism, weakness, conservatism – but that anything positive – for example: art, yoga, conservation, tolerance, pluralism, music, dance, spirituality – is seen as separate from “Hinduism”. This article isn’t about the various negative things associated with Hinduism which need discussion elsewhere but obviously it is unfair to only look at one side of the story.
Communist historians, politicians and intellectuals in India are also quite prominent in claiming that they are not Hindus and that Hinduism hasn’t really contributed much to India . In fact, they go a step further and have championed the notion that Hinduism doesn’t even originate in India but from somewhere else. However, this is one group that we shouldn’t be too surprised about as they have also at the forefront of telling the one-sided negative story of “Hinduism”. Sometimes non-Indians just love India too much to be taken in by all this negativity fed to them by these Indian born people with Hindu-sounding names but that’s usually the best time to tell them that everything they love is not “Hindu” but “Indian”.
One group which has at least recognised the Hindu origin of Yoga has been the Catholic Church has long discouraged all of it’s followers from taking up what they perceive as an evil and Pagan practice. Many extremist Christians in America have also condemned Yoga because they see it as Hindu. Other Christian groups have recognised that yoga is too popular and the yoga-banners too mad for that argument to work. So instead they have come up with “Christian-Yoga” which believers can now practice without having to incur the sin of taking up Paganism.
So everywhere you look, you’ll see that the people who teach and make a living from Hindu teachings are ashamed of the Hindu roots. Even individuals seem to be ashamed of their Hindu roots. And ironically, the only people who are willing to accept the Hindu origin of teachings and practices such as Yoga are the ones who do not like those practices anyway. So the formula is simple – pick something you hate and call it “Hindu”, pick something you like and call it “better than Hinduism”. And eventually you get the ridiculous situation where you can have “Christian Yoga” but you can’t find “Hindu Yoga” anywhere or even just “Yoga” where the Hindu origin is acknowledged.
Ultimately I guess every Hindu reading this needs to ask how they themselves see “Hinduism” and the word “Hindu”. To me it represents not just the heritage of my parents and all my ancestors but represents the oldest living tradition in the world today. It represents an unequalled richness in literature, art, architecture and history. It represents a culture of scholars and ascetics who would not even put their own names to their teachings, a culture of warriors who fought bravely in the face of all sorts of enemies and brutalities to ensure the survival of Hinduism when her sister civilisations died one after another. It represents a constantly evolving society which has always moved and renewed itself and has always been an open, tolerant and pluralist society. It represents a wisdom which belongs to everyone, which has benefited the world in the past, benefits the world today and will continue to benefit the world in future long after we are all dead. It represents this and a whole lot more and to me all of these are positive things and therefore to be called “Hindu” should be a matter of pride and honour for anyone, not the swearword that people see it as.