I read an interesting article on another blog, entitled “I am a western Hindu, But I don’t feel welcome in Hindu temples“. It is an interesting post, though I don’t agree with all of it. Personally, I have never felt unwelcome visiting Hindu temples in England – I have not yet visited any in other countries. In my Mandir the fellow worshipers are so used to me that they forget that I am not Indian, I have had people try to speak to me in Hindi a number of times. The post says:
It is possible that a new convert to Hinduism will find himself/herself an object of curious onlookers in Hindu temples. But take heart, no Hindu will bar another Hindu from performing any religious rituals.
Sometimes when I am visiting a Mandir I have been looked at, but once they see that I a visiting for worship then they are quite happy. Sometimes they are looking to see whether they can help; many westerners visit because they want to learn about Hinduism and Indian culture rather than because they want to take part. Young children (under fives) will continue to stare, but this is just their natural curiosity. In fact the time I have been stared at most was when I was in our Mandir for the mid-day Aarti. A primary-school group was visiting and one white girl kept staring at me. When the woman talking to the group asked if there where any questions, the girl asked: “can a white person be a Hindu, are they allowed to come here?”. I don’t know whether she couldn’t believe her eyes seeing me there or whether she thought that I might not be allowed and that everyone else had failed to notice me!
The article goes on to talk about some Mandirs in India that do not permit non Indians to attend, but that this is slowly changing. I cannot really comment on that except that I have read the same thing elsewhere. I think that once people realise that there are Hindus from other nations this kind of barrier will be removed. The post goes on to say:
Similarly, Telugu people of India build temples that have distinct Telugu cultural underpinnings. Same goes to Gujarati Hindu temples. A Tamil would feel an outsider in a Gujarati temple. A Gujarati may feel an outsider in a Tamil Hindu temple. But neither a Gujarati nor a Tamil would be barred from any temples.
Though there is some truth in that, from what I have seen it is an over-simplification. Many temples in the UK do cater for a wider range of people. Some, like the Swaminarayan temples because their philosophy is to accept anyone, and others because they want to serve Hindus from different traditions and areas. Our mandir has both Shaivite and Vaishnavite shrines, and though most people attending are Punjabi there are Hindus from all over India. The article continues:
… the Western Hindu should also celebrate the western arts, poems, culture and language. Western Hindus’ Hindu temples would be a repository and conservatory of western arts, language and culture just like the Sri Lankan Hindu temples or Bali Hindu temples celebrate and conserve their own culture, language and arts.
I agree totally that the Western arts and music should be celebrated, and English is of course the right language for teaching and explaining to English-speaking followers. As for Western culture, I would agree to a certain extent. There are many elements of Hinduism that are expressed in all Hindu cultures, truthfulness, respect for family, honesty and putting God first. Also a tolerance of other beliefs, and seeing that many people have their own dharma. These elements have to be central to the life and culture of any Hindu. Also of course the regular puja, japa, and sanskrit mantras which are part of Hindu life are a necessary departure from Western culture.
I believe that the path to becoming a Hindu involves deciding which parts of Western culture are worth following (as I have said previously, not all Western Culture is worth following), and which parts of Indian culture should be taken up. There are certainly many Hindu organisations which strike a different balances on this. At one extreme are organisations which are inherently Western, but have adopted some Hindu philosophy, such as the Theosophical Society. There are also groups like the Self Realisation Fellowship , who were fonded by Indian gurus but concentrate on philosophy before culture.
At the other end of the spectrum are organisations who maintain that adoption of a certain amount of culture. The Himalayan Academy founder, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami sees culture as very important:
In many ways, religion also transcends the commonalities of lower orders of tribe and community — nationality, language and ethnic difference. Hindus have many different languages, are born in many different countries. The main common factor of this global tribe is religious belief. From the religious beliefs stem the traditions, culture and basic behavior patterns of the community. Members love and honor the tribe, its traditions, its culture. They mold their lives accordingly to great benefit for their own sake and for the sake of all other members of the tribe, for the sake of all Hindus. Entrance into Hinduism means becoming a part of all this. It may mean changing one’s associations, commitments and community loyalties. Real entrance into Hinduism means spending one’s time with Hindus, making friends with Indian, Sri Lankan, Nepalese, Balinese, African or Caribbean Hindus, enjoying an inspired Hindu culture.
— How to Become a Hindu, Chapter 2.
As I am following the Himalayan Academy Master Course I am beginning to feel that truly adopting a new religion does require great changes to yourself, and that this type of cultural change is an important facilitator in this change. Also the fellowship of others who are also following the course, and their experiences, are extremely valuable.Of course all groups appreciate Western arts and crafts as a way of showing devotion to God, and the parts of western culture that are valuable and worth preserving are readily accepted. After all there is probably as much excitement among the Hindus as anywhere else in Britain during a Cricket test match!
Aum Namah Shivaya