What does it mean to be Hindu?

by Jahnabi Barooah

It is difficult to point to a precise moment but I have noticed that my response to the oft-asked question: “How do you identify religiously?” has gradually shifted from “I am a Hindu” to “I was raised Hindu and consider myself a seeker” over the past three years. And with this, the effort to understand what it means to call myself a Hindu has taken on greater significance. As the label “Hindu” gets tied more intricately with particular cultural, national, ethnic and political identities, I find it necessary to separate the religious and spiritual aspects from the other components.

[Here I am not going to consider the more complex but certainly important and deeply-interconnected questions, “Who is a Hindu?” and “What is Hinduism?” — answers to which are not well-defined even to scholars in the field of Hindu studies.]

Case in point: A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a Humanist friend. During our conversation, after I told had hold him that I am “definitely religious, believe in God and prayer” — he pushed me to articulate what these words mean to me. For a person who thinks deeply about spiritual matters, I struggled to answer his questions. My responses were along the line of “God cannot be qualified or quantified” to “sometimes I doubt God’s presence” to “I will celebrate the major Hindu festivals anyway.” [I did tell him that over the past few years, I had read several Christian spiritual classics, and that I find meaning and consolation in these texts.] Part of this, I believe, is a result of the failure of religious instruction to Hindu youth, especially to those who do not identify with particular movements like the Chinmaya Mission, Self-Realization Fellowship, Art of Living among countless others. But religious training is only a small aspect of this. After all, the pilgrim has to walk his or her own journey, with or without a guide.

Moreover, when it comes to karma and reincarnation — concepts that are central to the Hindu spiritual path — I concluded when I was in college and active in the Hindu community, that while I can make sense of them in a certain philosophical plane, the teachings themselves are too abstract to mean anything concrete in my daily life.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on why, despite all the above, it is still important to define myself in relation to the Hindu community. It boils down to two reasons:

First, this allows me to connect myself to a community that goes backward and forward in time. On the increasingly rare occasion that I chant Hindu mantras or prayers, I am aware that these are thousands of years old. These were the prayers of my forefathers. The prayers that allowed them to make sense of the confusing world. The prayers that gave them hope. These are also the prayers that generations to come will pray. That alone makes these prayers sacred to me. When I sought spiritual advice from a mentor in college, he shared that the most important thing is to be connected to a religious community that goes backward and forward in time. Let me share a story, that in retrospect, illustrates this point. When I was much younger, likely in my mid-teens, my mother took me to a temple in my hometown dedicated to the goddess Kamakhya. The temple is a popular pilgrimage site with millions of pilgrims visiting every year. This is also a temple unlike most other Hindu temples, or at least according to my limited experience. At the heart of the temple, where normally there would be a murti or an icon of the primary deity, there is a stone structure shaped like a yoni, that is filled with water flowing from a spring. The interior is dark, lit only by earthen lamps that devotees offer to the goddess. The devotees go in to touch the water from the spring, and because of the popularity of the pilgrimage site, have only a couple of minutes to offer their prayers. When we were ushered in by the priest, my mother shared that the innermost chamber of the temple is such a powerful place for her because millions have gone there before her to offer their heart’s prayers to the goddess. Again, it’s all about being connected to other people.

Second, I believe that the Hindu spiritual path uniquely allows me to explore and experience other religious paths. Open-mindedness is not a virtue for it’s own sake, but for a spiritually curious person like myself, it’s nothing less than a blessing. Thinking back to my time in New York City, there have certainly been weekends that I would start by going to jumu’ah prayers on Friday afternoon, followed by Shabbat dinner, Mass on Sunday morning, and kirtan at the temple on Sunday night. Religious scholar Reza Aslan shared recently in many interviews that the Buddha allegedly said that if you want to drink water, you dig one six-foot well, not six one-foot wells. Even though the quote is probably fake, I agree with the message. I am not a believer in the ideology of the new spiritual-but-not-religious group, but until I know which well I want to draw water from, it’s probably better to draw from more than one, than from none.

I am continually inspired by the truth in the Bhagavad Gita and the wisdom of the Upanishads, but until *I know* I am grateful to drink deeply from the Psalms, Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, the Dhammapada and indeed almost anything else.

ad maiorem dei gloriam