One of the main lessons I have learned about Hinduism is that proselytizing is a charged word. The Hindu mindset is not to do it, even though it has and is being done to us, sometimes, even by means of chicanery and deceit. Like many other concepts though, the act itself is neither good or bad, but all in the application.
It is safe to say that the early Hindu missionaries to the West were evangelist as well as a proselytizers. At this point I should stipulate that the difference between the two is purely one of perspective. Christians describe their conversion efforts as evangelism. However in a reverse situation, Christians call the messengers proselytizers. I prefer to say that these beautiful souls and others evangelized The West.
Not too long ago I encountered some Americans in the Eastern section of the New Age book store and we began chatting. I asked if they were Hindu, and one responded with “I am not in a religion but I am spiritual.” He spoke about his meditation practice and how it made him more calm. His friend told me how she is trying to get him into yoga. I helped her a bit by saying how I enjoy it and scores of other men.
I have since encountered others who seemingly practice Hinduism but they don’t define it as such. These folks practice yoga for more than exercise, do mantras, affirmations, meditate and use prayer beads. Yet they deny the fact that they are following a religion. After speaking with one fellow who regularly does most of the above, I asked him had he ever considered Hinduism. He gave me a strange look and said he really didn’t know anything about it. I explained to him that the things he practices are aspects of Hinduism. He was clearly interested in learning more and he asked me why Hindus didn’t “advertise”.
Advertise. Interesting choice of words, since one function of advertising is to inform whereas proselytizing aims to actually convert. The major principle of Hinduism however is that there is only one truth. Yet the path to discover that truth may vary between individuals. In other words, there is no need to proselytize since we are all Hindus anyway, just at varying degrees of awareness. That acceptance and tolerance towards all is one of the main reasons that Hinduism has remained strong throughout the centuries. Such amiability, has helped it stay flexible and open to new ideas and concepts. Ironically, It is a very fertile ground to assail for more dogmatic religions. Christians for instance feel that to convert another is to do them a favor. It is giving them the gift of eternal life in Heaven as opposed to the everlasting fires of Hell.
I really didn’t know how to respond to the man other than to explain the aforementioned reasons. He really did seem interested and I showed him some books that would explain it better than I.
Actually, though some claim otherwise, it isn’t true that Hinduism has never been proselytized. Three rather well-known emissaries brought us Westerners Eastern enlightenment.
The earliest Hindu missionaries to the West were arguably the most impressive. In 1893 Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), a young disciple of the celebrated Hindu “avatar” (manifestation of God) Sri Ramakrishna (1836–1886), spoke at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago and won an enthusiastic American following with his genteel manner and erudite presentation. Over the next few years, he inaugurated the first Eastern religious movement in America: the Vedanta Societies of various cities, independent of one another but under the spiritual leadership of the Ramakrishna Order in India.
In 1920 a second Hindu missionary effort was launched in America when a comparably charismatic “neo-Vedanta” swami, Paramahansa Yogananda, was invited to speak at the International Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston, sponsored by the Unitarian Church. After the Congress, Yogananda lectured across the country, spellbinding audiences with his immense charm and powerful presence. In 1925 he established the headquarters for his Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) in Los Angeles on the site of a former hotel atop Mount Washington. He was the first Eastern guru to take up permanent residence in the United States after creating a following here.1 From <http://www.equip.org/article/swami-yogananda-and-the-self-realization-fellowship/
Another Hindu “missionary” who emerged during “recent” times may be better known to some US devotees is A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Born as Abhay Charan De. in Calcutta, India. Swami Prabhupada, brought ISKCON to The US. He was asked by Srila Bha ktisiddhanta a leader in the Gaudiya Vaishnava community, a monotheistic tradition within the broader Hindu culture to bring the teachings of Lord Krishna to the English-speaking world.
In 1965, he arrived after a harsh journey to Brooklyn, NY where with just seven dollars in Indian rupees and a crate of his translations of sacred Sanskrit texts. He began his mission by giving classes on The Bhaggvad Gita and leading kirtan (traditional devotional chants) in Tompkins Square Park. His message of peace and goodwill resonated with many young people, some of whom came forward to become serious students of the Krishna-bhakti tradition. With the help of these students, he rented a small storefront on New York’s Lower East Side to use as a temple.2 From <http://www.iskcon.org/founder-acharya/>
In July of 1966, he established the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) for the purpose he stated of “checking the imbalance of values in the world and working for real unity and peace”.
In the eleven years that followed, Srila Prabhupada circled the globe 14 times on lecture tours spreading the teachings of Lord Krishna. Men and women from all backgrounds and walks of life accepted his message. With their help, Srila Prabhupada established temples, farm communities, a publishing house, and educational institutions around the world. And, he began what has now become the world’s largest vegetarian food relief program, Hare Krishna Food for Life.
Unfortunately, ISKCON was mismanaged after Srila Prabhupada’s death but after a few turbulent years they have gotten back on track and have attracted many US born devotees.
Between the ISKCON, SRF and Vedanta Societies there are many people in the US whose worship includes varying degrees of Hinduism. From all indications however, at no time did they ever use force, bribery or other deceitful maneuvers to grow their following. They simply disseminated to a worldwide audience the teachings on India’s ancient science and philosophy of Yoga and its time-honored tradition of meditation. People wanted to learn more, they gravitated to this knowledge and because the message had substance, it resonated with them and they willingly embraced it.
Unlike what and Vivekananda presented to Americans, ISKCON is unique in that it has never attempted to dilute Hindu beliefs and practices in order to fit into local American customs. In fact, ISKCON encourages its disciples to learn Sanskrit, chant mantras, wear Indian clothing, eat vegetarian food, and devote themselves to Lord Krishna who they exalt as a monotheistic supreme deity, and has augmented its theology to draw parallels with Christ. The SRF church includes Jesus Christ among its honored avatars. 3
ISKCON was also unique in that they used a more aggressive approach to disseminate their message. Many of us from the 60s and 70s may remember them in airports and other public places where they chanted and passed out The Bhagavad Gita. Initially, the main followers were Hippies and so called “dis enfranchised” white youth. 4
Christians in India are oft times aggressive and relentless in their conversion practices and have been known to resort to chicanery and deceit in order to “save the misguided”. Why then don’t Hindus convert more aggressively? I don’t suggest that they employ the same underhanded tactics used by their Christian counterparts, but claiming what is theirs would seemingly be only fair. The US landscape is ripe for instruction and many, like the young man I met in the store actually practice aspects of Hinduism and don’t even realize it.
Most non-Indian Americans who are interested in Hinduism find their entrée into the religion through guru led organizations and postural yoga. While the aforementioned gurus as well as lesser known others developed vibrant communities of American devotees, ISKCON, has been one of the most visible, influential, and proselytizing voices of Hinduism in the United States. 5 http://www.utahkrishnas.org/iskcon-took-hinduism-us-heartland/
I found my way to Sanata Dharma through wanting to know more about the roots of yoga and I have since met others, one fellow who attends the same temple as I. I don’t think it is a big stretch to evangelize to Americans, especially since many of us already meditate, do yoga postures, believe in reincarnation, karma, and see God as an impersonal being who is immanent and transcendent.
One reason may be that there is a seeming hesitance for Hindus to embrace non ethnic Hindus for reasons of perceived cultural appropriation, and that immigrants should represent their own religions in the public square. While those are certainly valid considerations, non-ethnics are certainly at liberty to claim Sanata Dharma. If I am challenged as to rather or not I am Hindu no one can deny my right to embrace Sanata Dharma, the eternal path. I walk the walk (well try to) with Lord Shiva and believe that truth is eternal, Brahman is Truth and Reality,
The Vedas are the ultimate authority, Everyone should strive to achieve dharma, Individual souls are immortal and the goal of each individual soul is Moksha. On a more personal level doing daily puja, mantras, temple worship, cultivating good karma and the paths and limbs of yoga.
For millennia the teachings and the richness of Hinduism were confined within the borders of India. Today, many in the West gravitate to its peace and serenity. Some without even knowing. Such a rich spiritual heritage should be shared as much as possible. The interest is there, the spiritual infrastructure having been laid. All that is needed is for Hindus to claim their own. Claim and explain. Some of the practices have been diluted to the point of bare recognition. Yoga for instance. Many think it actually originated from Buddhism!
Hinduism proves that one does not have to force their beliefs onto others. Just let them see the effects, and they will willingly embrace it. Let’s just make sure they know from whence it came.