Yoga, India's Soft Power: Balancing the Sacred and the Secular
Living Dharma

Yoga, India’s Soft Power: Balancing the Sacred and the Secular

By December 18, 2018 September 21st, 2020 No Comments

The following remarks were presented at the inaugural Conference on Soft Power held in Delhi, India, December 17-19, 2018.

India’s cuisines, tourism, handicrafts, and even Bollywood have long colored the world’s imagination of what India offers the senses. But it’s India’s civilizational contributions in the realm of the sacred — yoga, ayurveda, Vedanta, religious pluralism, classical arts, and vegetarianism — that have the power to feed the world’s soul.

And while the supply chain of the former has traveled around the world largely intact, the latter, the exportation of that which is sacred and very often Hindu has often entailed deliberate delinking of the spirit from these ancient systems in order to make them more palatable, daresay more marketable.

Yoga in the West has largely been delinked from its Hindu roots for this reason. And now, as the Indian government promotes International Yoga Day, and many Hindu gurus and spiritual teachers continue to spread their teachings, they too are replicating, perhaps unintentionally,, a similar delinking.

The Hindu American Foundation (HAF), the preeminent advocacy organization serving the needs of Hindu Americans, sought to tackle the multi-billion dollar yoga industry’s delinking of HIndu and yoga with our Take Back Yoga: Bringing to Light Yoga’s Hindu Roots (TBY) campaign. The largely successful campaign landed on the front page of the New York Times and received wide coverage by major media including the Washington Post, CNN, Al Jazeera, the Guardian, Open Magazine, and scores of others, sparking international dialogue and awareness.

In the decade since the TBY’s launch, HAF has arrived at nuanced approaches from many lessons learned that today the Indian government and others could possibly benefit from in their messaging around yoga.

This evening I will share HAF’s experiences in striving to balance the sacred and secular, and explore ways in which we can collectively align the narratives around yoga to ensure that both the integrity of yoga is preserved and protected, and the benefits of it — it is a soft power after all — are widely shared.

Making Yoga Marketable: The Western Yoga Industry’s Delinking of ‘Hindu’ from Yoga

Yoga Journal, self-described as the “#1 authority on yoga and the yoga lifestyle” since 1975, is the primary source of information for yoga teachers and teachers to be.  

It has a readership of over 1.8 million, 99,000 tablet/smartphone readers, and 14 million page views annually.  Basically, it’s an influencer.

In 2008, we wrote a letter  to the editor of this popular American magazine to note our disappointment at finding countless descriptions of the Veda, Upanishad and Bhagavad Gita, foundational Hindu sacred texts, as “ancient Indian” or “Eastern”, but rarely “Hindu.” Articles on bhakti yoga offered lyrics to well known dhun invoking Ma Durga and Sri Krishna with scant mention of the place singing of kirtan holds in daily Hindu life. In contrast, the same magazine featured articles on Christian Yoga, Kabbalah Yoga, and Zen and Buddhist Yoga.

One of Yoga Journal’s staff members confirmed our suspicions.  “Yes,” she said, the magazine did indeed avoid the word “Hindu”  because, “you know, it carries a lot of baggage.”

In response, HAF released the first edition of our paper, Yoga Beyond Asana: Hindu Thought in Practice, and launched Take Back Yoga in order to shed light on yoga’s Hindu roots.

A debate ensued on the pages of the Washington Post On Faith section between cofounder Aseem Shukla and Deepak Chopra — Chopra misrepresenting TBY as a claim of ownership as well as saying yoga was not Hindu.  

Over the years, we’ve finessed our messaging based on lessons learned from the more strident opposition and critique of our work, and more clearly restated our basic premise which is threefold:

    1. Yoga is much more than just asana
    2. Yoga, in its entirety, is rooted in Hindu thought.
    3. Though it is rooted in Hindu thought, Hinduism does not own yoga, nor does one have to be Hindu to practice yoga.

Indeed Western academia has also jumped on the bandwagon of denying yoga’s Hindu roots. Theories range from the suggestion that Patanjali was likely Buddhist — which is not to say that there are not Buddhist, Jain, and Sikh forms of yoga based on their own respective interpretations — to most recent suggestion that modern postural yoga stems from Indian exposure to and copying of Scandinavian gymnastics.

Even the Take Back Yoga campaign has become the topic of academic study — some 65 academic articles cite it, including the Harvard Business School which covers it rather positively in a unit on the branding of yoga. Others are critical of the campaign’s relinking of yoga to Hinduism with a range of hypotheses that often misrepresent the intent and arguments made by TBY or misinterpret them.  Most of the scholars who are critical of TBY have never bothered to actually interview or ask directly about our intentions or interpretations, which to me reflect either intellectual incuriosity or academic laziness to obtain direct facts or evidence before arriving at a conclusion.

Making Yoga Palatable: The Indian Delinking of Yoga of ‘Hindu’ from Yoga

International Yoga Day is explained as a moment to celebrate India’s contribution to world civilizations with the introduction of yoga, as a physical, mental, and spiritual practice. Following the adoption and widespread celebrations of Yoga Day, however, controversy quickly ensued when a number of bodies representing religious minorities in India expressed concerns about the celebrations imposing and making mandatory an essentially Hindu practice. In response, government officials quickly offered backtracking statements with tweets such as,

“Yoga should not be connected with any particular religion.”

or statements such as:

“We are not forcing people to do yoga….There is no religion to it.”

and

“Health is wealth and Yoga is the key to that.  It should not [be] linked with any religion…”

In fact, all of the government’s statements thus far have studiously avoided, even denied, the term “Hindu,” including in the official descriptors of yoga’s origins.  Several officials even appear to equate yoga with just asana and other physical aspects..

A perusal of the International Day of Yoga website and its Common Yoga Protocol are also telling — not one mention of Hinduism as a living religious tradition, even as Hindu Gods and Goddesses and sacred texts are invoked, and Buddhism and Jainism specifically mentioned.  

You can see that here under the section covering the history and development of yoga, the protocol reads:

“Yoga is widely considered as an ‘immortal cultural outcome’ of the Indus Saraswati Valley Civilisation […] The presence of Yoga is also available in folk traditions, Vedic and Upanishadic heritage, Buddhist and Jain traditions, Darshanas, epics of Mahabharata including Bhagawadgita and Ramayana, theistic traditions of Shaivas, Vaishnavas and Tantric traditions. Though Yoga was being practiced in the pre-Vedic period, the great sage Maharishi Patanjali systematised and codified the then existing Yogic practices, its meaning and its related knowledge through Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

Indeed this history here is not disputable. Everything stated here is true. But the absence of a specific mention of Hindu contributions, while it may be understandable because of the optics of a “Hindu political party” promoting a “Hindu practice” in a secular democracy, is still deeply problematic and has consequences not only to being able to extract the fullest potential of yoga’s soft power, but also to the global understanding of Hinduism, the international standing of Hindus, and the integrity of the yoga tradition itself.  

I would be remiss to not mention that even prior to the advent of International Yoga Day, many Indian gurus and spiritual teachers have also fallen prey to the same avoidance.  While the reasons vary and are not untrue, such as insisting Hindu is a foreign term or stating that the ultimate aim of yoga is the transcend the man made labels and identities that more often divide us, the consequences of not equating Hindu with Vedic, Sanatana Dharma, or Yogic are still the same.

Are We Just Getting Bent Out of Shape or Are There Real Consequences to Delinking Yoga and Hinduism?

Having been immersed in the Western yoga community for more than two decades now, we’ve seen first hand how many yoga magazines and yoga products try to distance themselves  from ever using the word ‘Hindu’, preferring to use ‘yogic’, ‘Vedic’, or ‘Indic’. We’ve even seen them try to feebly claim that the various traditions of yoga are beyond time and space, predate Hinduism, or don’t belong to any specific tradition. The omissions by the Indian government and others are similar.

While this may seem of little consequence to Indian readers, most of whom will no doubt identify all the traditions, darshana, and sacred texts mentioned in the government’s common yoga protocol or in Western yoga magazines and academic papers as being part of Hinduism, readers from the rest of the globe may not realize that ‘Vedic and Upanishadic heritage’ refers to the heart of Hindu Dharma. They may not understand that ‘theistic traditions of Shaivas, Vaishnavas, and Tantric traditions’ refer to differ strands of Hinduism, all of which are very much thriving today.

So then what are Hindus and Hinduism left with in the eyes of global public? It’s the tired, old colonial story of snake charmers and idol worshippers, caste and cows caricatures, and primitive and poor people.  

It is against this background  then that the omission of the word ‘Hindu’ by both the West and Indian government officials not only undermines the tradition, but also years’ of efforts by Hindu scholars,  thought leaders, and organizations to explain that yoga is far more than just a physical practice, and that it is rooted in Hindu concepts such as the

    1. eternal, blissful nature of the soul (atman),
    2. dharma, karma and samsara, and
    3. moksha as the ultimate aim of human life
    4. Hindu articulations on Consciousness (the Divine or Brahman) from time immemorial

It is also a missed opportunity to better educate the global public about the greatest strength of Hinduism and yet another example of Indic soft power: religious pluralism resulting from the religious freedom accorded to every individual to seek Truth and tread our own path to reach our fullest potential, and the respect that must be accorded by others’ for the right to do so. This type of messaging would only further emphasize the fact that you can be of any background and still practice and benefit from yoga.

Indeed, “Hindu” is a foreign term, and not one the ancient rishis used to define or label themselves.  But in modern times, it is the word that is generally associated with those 1 billion of us who happen to have been born from their legacy or been inspired to live our lives according to their teachings of ahimsa, brahmacharya, bhakti, satsang and seva; Ekam sat vipraha bahuda vadanti (Truth is one the wise call It by many names) and Vasudaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family).

Many have also argued that Hinduism, and by extension its practices, including yoga, is not a religion, but a spiritual science or a way of life. While there is truth to these descriptions as well, the argument falls short when the general understanding of religion in the framework of civil and human rights law is that a religion is a collection of sincerely held beliefs, worldviews, or cultural systems relating to existential questions such as the relationship between material existence and the supernatural or the purpose of life.

In this context, Hinduism absolutely is a religion, although unique among the world’s religions, as it has no identifiable beginning in history, no single founder or prophet, no central religious establishment or sole authoritative scripture, and generally does not proselytize or seek conversion.

It is also crucial to understand that where adherents of other “world religions” come together at various influential international platforms to define religious freedom or defend religious minorities, we must take ownership of the terms Hindu and Hinduism, and define on our own terms who we are, what we do, and what we believe, lest we remain voiceless on a global scale.

In delinking yoga from its religious foundation, yoga has grown to be equated with asana and over-commercialized.  Most of what is billed as yoga around the world is not the yoga described in the Yoga Sutra or any of yoga’s seminal texts. Rather it has morphed into a form of asana without devotion, understanding, or reflection, and therefore, more akin to mere exercise.

Case in point: one can register for a myriad of “yoga”: naked yoga, beer yoga, dog, cat, or goat yoga, even Christian yoga, the list is endless. In today’s mass commercialization, the term “yoga” is loosely applied to the latest fitness creation that bears little to no resemblance to yoga as a quest for selfless service, loving devotion of God, the pursuit of Truth and knowledge, or citta-vritti-nirodhah.

The result — a decline of yoga as an inward, spiritual quest.

Lastly all this bending over backwards and twisting around religion begs the question as to who we are doing it for.

In the American context, here is some food for thought.  A 2008 Pew Forum survey, found that 65% of Americans believe that ‘many religions can lead to eternal life’— including 37% of white evangelicals, the group most likely to believe there is only one truth.  Sounds a little like understanding or believing Ekam sat vipraha bahudha vadanti is on the rise.

30% of Americans call themselves ‘spiritual, not religious,’ according to a 2009 NEWSWEEK Poll, up from 24% in 2005, which generally means more openness towards learning about or adopting practices from other or different spiritual traditions.

And 24% of Americans say they believe in reincarnation, according to a 2008 Harris poll.  Whether the figure of more than ⅓ of Americans choosing cremation, up from 6%, according to the Cremation Association of North America.  Whether a belief in reincarnation translates to cremation is uncertain, but it’s certainly plausible for some.

The Path Forward

It was the intentional and overt omission of the word “Hindu” from the Yoga Journal that prompted HAF’s efforts to combat the delinking of Hinduism from yoga.  Today, the Indian government and others have an opportunity to both promote the benefits of yoga, but also preserve its spiritual heritage and yoga’s aim.

As a secular government India will need to balance the sacred and the secular, or in other words, the “soft power” and benefits of yoga with sensitivities of other religious communities who may feel celebrations are an imposition of Hindu practices.  And it will need to remain truthful in its claims about yoga and its benefits so as to not politicize that which is truly beneficial for all people of all backgrounds.

While past statements may have fallen short, there is a path forward where honest messaging, or as they say, truth in advertising, can allay many of the consequences outlined here.

Prior to launching and throughout TBY’s evolution, we have wrestled over important questions such as why it’s important for the public to understand yoga beyond its physical aspects? Would equating yoga with a “religion” reduce its popularity in largely Christian or secular contexts? Would funding of research on the physical and psychological benefits be impacted if yoga is equated to a religious practice? How might seeking acknowledgment be misconstrued as seeking ownership, thereby contradicting the universal nature of yoga?

We’ve faced similar tensions as the Indian government when faced with the question of whether government funded public schools in America should offer yoga as part of their curriculum.  In the American context, public schools are proscribed from mixing religion and the state. After much reflection and consultation with others, we came upon the following:

Yoga is a spiritual discipline  rooted in Hindu philosophy and is universally available to anyone without any coercion, pressure, or requirement to change one’s religion. Asana is a component of Yoga, albeit the most physically-centered part, and means pose, posture, or manner of sitting. Asana, or postural practice, has been shown to tremendously benefit muscle tone, flexibility, blood pressure, back pain and arthritis, and the immune system. Studies have also shown that for children, the practice of asana may work to reduce Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD), improve general behavior and grades.

Under the First Amendment [of the US Constitution], public schools may offer yoga-based programs, such as asana-only programs, as part of their curriculum because asana alone is not yoga. Public schools should not offer programs that go beyond the instruction of asana and other physical components of yoga. As such, community groups are free to offer more comprehensive yoga programs during non-school hours using school facilities on the same basis as other community groups sponsoring religious and secular programs for youth.

Similarly, the GoI could promote yoga-asana, pranayama, dharana, even dhyana as part of its public programming, and be more deliberate in its messaging about the secular nature and scientific benefits of of these aspects of yoga. Public programs may also need to avoid religious symbols and mantra as well.  Of course, private individuals and entities must remain free to offer the whole of yogic teachings and practices, and not be afraid of the term Hindu.

And lastly, the government should avoid saying yoga as a whole is not connected to any particular religion.  It is — and not only to Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, but at its root, Hinduism.

Hinduism is a religion, and yoga is at its heart through karma, bhakti, raja, and gnana. But as a non-proselytizing religion, Hinduism never compels practitioners of yoga to profess allegiance to the tradition or convert.

Thus balancing the sacred and secular is possible by being honest about yoga as a spiritual science and religious discipline to ensure that Hindus as a people can take pride in our civilizational contribution and have agency in defining who we are as a people and protecting our most vulnerable, and that the integrity of yoga is preserved and the benefits of it widely shared.

10/30/22Sanatana Dharma in the Movies

Hinduism is often referred to as Sanatana Dharma (the ‘eternal way’), indicating the religion’s emphasis on eternal truths that are applicable to all of humanity. Thus, it makes sense that a medley of mainstream movies could convey Hindu ideals that resonate strongly with audiences, while not actually talking directly about anything understood by the public as Hindu.

In Groundhog Day, for example, when cynical TV weatherman Phil Collins discovers he is trapped in a time loop, living the same day over and over, only to be released after transforming his character from an egocentric narcissist to a thoughtful and kindhearted philanthropist, it’s hard not to be reminded of the Hindu notion of samsara, a cycle of reincarnation from which a soul attains liberation by realizing its divine nature after lifetimes of spiritual practice. 

Or in The Matrix when Neo chooses the red pill of knowledge over the blue pill of ignorance, and is subsequently unplugged from an illusory world and cast into the truth of reality, the film seems to be conveying a foundational Vedic teaching: that we must transcend our own ignorance — a product of maya, literally meaning “illusion” in Sanskrit — to uncover our true nature. Hindu concepts appear to be further exhibited in Neo’s relationship with Morpheus, which starkly reflects that of a disciple and guru, as the latter reveals to the former the knowledge he needs in order to understand this “true nature.” As Neo’s faith in Morpheus’ words develops, so does his capacity to see past the illusion of the matrix, garnering him the ability to manipulate the laws of this false reality, similar to the Jedi and yogis described earlier.

What do the Matrix, Avatar, Groundhog Day, and Star Wars have to do with Hinduism?

10/29/22Hinduism and American Thought

Hindu Americans and the Vedanta philosophy have significantly influenced notable intellectuals such as Henry  David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, J.D. Salinger, Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, Huston Smith, and Joseph Campbell just to name a few. Some feel that it started back In 1812, when Thomas Jefferson recommended to John Adams the writings of Joseph Priestley, a Unitarian minister who had published works that compared Christianity to other religions — Hinduism in particular — Adam’s interest was piqued.

Going through Priestley’s writings, Adams became riveted by Hindu thought, as he launched into a five-year exploration of Eastern philosophy. As his knowledge of Hinduism and ancient Indian civilization grew, so did his respect for it. This legacy took shape in the 1830s as Transcendentalism, a philosophical, social, and literary movement that emphasized the spiritual goodness inherent in all people despite the corruption imposed on an individual by society and its institutions. Espousing that divinity pervades all of nature and humanity, Transcendentalists believed divine experience existed in the everyday, and held progressive views on women’s rights, abolition, and education. At the heart of this movement were three of America’s most influential authors: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau.

How Hinduism Influenced Some of Americans Greatest Thinkers

10/27/22The Hindu Diaspora in Afghanistan

Before becoming an Islamic state, Afghanistan was once home to a medley of religious practices, the oldest being Hinduism. A long time ago, much of Afghanistan was part of an ancient kingdom known as Gandhara, which also covered parts of northern Pakistan.Today, many of Afghanistan’s province names, though slightly altered, are clearly Sanskrit in origin, hinting at the region’s ancient past. To cite a few examples, Balkh comes from the Sanskrit Bhalika, Nangarhar from Nagarahara, and Kabul from Kubha. Though Gandhara’s earliest mention can be found in the Vedas, it is better known for its connections to the Hindu epics the Mahabharata and Ramayana. There is also the historic Asamai temple in Kabul located on a hill named after the Hindu Goddess of hope, Asha. The temple has survived numerous conflicts and attacks but it still stands. The temple is a remnant from Hindu Shahi Kings, who ruled from the Kabul Valley as far back as 850 CE. However, Hindus are indigenous but endangered minorities in Afghanistan, numbering approximately 700 out of a community that recently included over 8,000 members. Many have left for new homes, include in New York which is home to a large Afghani Hindu population.

5 Things to Know about Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan 

Hinduism Beyond India: Afghanistan

10/26/22Dogs and Diwali

According to the 2021-2022 National Pet Owners Survey, 70% of U.S. households (90.5 million homes) owned a pet as of 2022, with 69 million U.S. households having a pet dog. Recognized for their loyalty, service, companionship, and the special relationship they have with humans, Hinduism’s reverence for dogs is expansive, as they are worshiped in festivals and appreciated in connection to a number of Hindu gods and stories. Observed in Nepal, Bhutan, and the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal, Kukar Tihar (the 2nd day of Tihar) honors dogs as messengers that help guide spirits of the deceased across the River of Death. In the Mahabharata, Yudhisthira, his brothers, and the queen Draupadi renounced their kingdom to ascend to the heavens. However, Yudhisthira was the only one that survived along with a dog that had joined them. Yudhisthira refused to go to heaven without the dog, who turned out to be Yamaraj, the God of Death. Sarama, the “female dog of the gods,” was famously asked by Indra to retrieve a herd of cows that were stolen. When the thieves were caught, they tried to bribe Sarama but she refused and now represents those who do not wish to possess but instead find what has been lost. The symbolic import of dogs is further driven in connection with Dattatreya, as he is commonly depicted with four of them to represent the Vedas, the Yugas, the stages of sound, and the inner forces of a human being (will, faculty, hope, and desire).

Dogs and Diwali? 5 Things to Know about Hinduism and hu(man)’s Best Friend

10/25/22Black Panther

In 2018, the long-running Marvel comic series Black Panther, was brought to the big screen. A more prominent scene is when M’baku, a character vying for the throne of the fictional country of Wakanda, challenges T’Challa/Black Panther, and yells, “Glory to Hanuman.” However, despite dharma as an unsaid aspect of the characters’ interactions, Black Panther relies slightly more on Hindu symbolism than philosophy. But the significance of Hanuman as a transcendent deity cannot be overlooked, especially at a time when dialogues about global migration, the right to worship, and access to natural resources are becoming more overtly racialized. The film provides more than just an entertainment escape: it reimagines a world in which the current racial and theological paradigms are challenged forcefully. With the film expected to have at least several sequels, there will be more opportunities to reference Hinduism and Hindu iconography.

Why Black Panther’s References to Hinduism are Significant in Hollywood

10/24/22Diwali

One of the most celebrated Hindu festivals, Diwali (dee-VAH-lee) or Deepavali (dee-PAH-va-lee) commemorates the victory of good over evil during the course of five days. The word refers to rows of diyas — or clay lamps — which are put all around homes and places of worship. The light from these lamps symbolizes the illumination within all of us, which can overcome ignorance, represented by darkness. Devotees gather in local temples, homes, or community centers, to spend time with loved ones, make positive goals, and appreciate life.

Hindu Holidays & Dharmic Days Calendar 

Diwali Toolkit

10/23/22Dhanteras

On this day, because Diwali is a time for dana (charitable giving) and seva (selfless service), Hindus traditionally perform a deep cleaning of their homes and surroundings, as cleanliness is believed to invoke the presence and blessings of Goddess Lakshmi who, as mentioned earlier, is the Goddess of wealth and prosperity. Many will also make rangoli or kolum (colored patterns of flowers, powder, rice, or sand made on the floor), which are also said to invite auspiciousness. Observers thus begin Diwali by cultivating a spirit of generosity, doing things like giving money to charities, feeding the hungry, and endeavoring to help those in need.

5 Things to Know About Diwali

10/22/22The Hindu Diaspora in Bali

The spread of Hinduism to Southeast Asia established powerful Hindu kingdoms in the region, most notably the Khmer Empire that encompassed modern Cambodia and Thailand, and influential kingdoms in the Indonesia archipelago. Though Buddhism and Hinduism co-existed in the region for several centuries, Buddhism (and Islam in Indonesia) eventually replaced Hinduism as a primary religion. Today, there are approximately five million Hindus in Indonesia, primarily in Bali. As Bali is roughly 90 percent Hindu, this makes it a religious enclave in a country that contains the world’s largest Muslim population. There are also roughly 60,000 Cham Hindus in Vietnam, and smaller numbers in Thailand. Hinduism in Fiji, Malaysia, and Singapore is a much more recent phenomenon, with Hindus arriving in the 19th and early 20th centuries as indentured laborers. Today, Hindus are prominent in politics and business in all three countries, though they continue to experience discrimination as religious minorities.

Hinduism Beyond India: Bali

Hinduism Around the World

10/21/22Smithsonian/American History Exhibit - American Indian experience

In 2014, the first Smithsonian exhibition chronicling the experiences of Indian Americans, many of whom are Hindus,  in the US was unveiled at their National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. This exhibit was one of the largest ever produced by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, occupying 5,000 square feet and reaching millions of visitors. The message behind “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation,” aimed to dispel stereotypes and myths that have followed Indian immigrants since they first arrived in the U.S. in 1790. The exhibit explored the heritage, daily experiences, and the many diverse contributions that immigrants and Indian Americans have made to the United States. The exhibition at the Museum of Natural History includes historical and contemporary images and artifacts, including those that document histories of discrimination and resistance, convey daily experiences, and symbolize achievements across the professions. Music and visual artworks provide commentary on the Indian American experience and form an important component of the exhibition. In 2017, this exhibit went on the road, traveling from city to city so that all could see the impact of Indians on American culture.

All About Hindu Heritage Month

10/20/22Swami Yogananda

Paramahansa Yogananda was a Hindu monk and yogi who came to the United States in 1920 and lived here for the last 32 years of his life. He is considered to be the first major Hindu Guru to settle in the United States. When Swami Yogananda arrived in the US, he made his first speech, made to the International Congress of Religious Liberals, on “The Science of Religion,” and was enthusiastically received. It was soon after that he founded the Self-Realization Fellowship (also known as Yogoda Satsanga Society (YSS) of India) and introduced millions of Americans to the ancient science and philosophy of meditation and Kriya yoga (path of attainment). In 1927, he was invited to the White House by President Calvin Coolidge, making Swami Yogananda the first prominent Indian and Hindu to be hosted in the White House.

Hinduism: Short Answers to Real Questions

Countless Americans Have Been Influenced by Swami Viveknanda

10/19/22Avatar

For those of us who are Hindu, we have noticed that some of the biggest Hollywood films produced in the last several decades have mirrored many of Hinduism's most fundamental philosophical ideas. One example is Avatar, a film named for the Sanskrit word avatāra (‘descent’), in which the protagonist, Jake Sully, enters and explores an alien world called Pandora by inhabiting the body of an indigenous 10-foot, blue-skinned being, an idea taken from Hinduism’s depictions of the various avatars of the blue god Vishnu, who are said to descend into our world for upholding dharma. Instead of aligning with the interests of the humans, who merely want to mine Pandora for the valuable mineral unobtanium, Sully fights alongside the alien humanoids native to the world, called Na’vi, who live in harmony with nature, believe all life is sacred, and that all life is connected by a divine force — teachings synonymous with Hinduism. Thus, similar to the avatars of Vishnu, Sully defends and preserves a spiritual culture by defeating those who would destroy it for materialistic pursuit. While this film doesn’t indicate in any direct way that they have anything to do with Hinduism, it’s clear they are communicating Hindu ideas that everyone relates to and understands on a profound level.

What do the Matrix, Avatar, Groundhog Day, and Star Wars have to do with Hinduism?

10/18/22Swami Prabhupada

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), also known as the Hare Krishna movement, was founded in 1966 by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, a highly respected Vaishnava  (devotion to the god Vishnu and his incarnations avatars) scholar and monk. At the age of 70, Swami Prabhupada traveled from India to New York City to bring the Bhakti tradition, or Krishna Consciousness, to the west. In the 11 years before his passing in 1977, Srila Prabhupada translated, with elaborate commentaries, 60 volumes of Vaishnava literature; established more than 100 temples on six continents; and initiated 5,000 disciples. Today, his writings are studied in universities around the globe and are translated into nearly 100 languages. To date, ISKCON has over 400 temples,  dozens of rural communities and eco-sustainable projects, and nearly 100 vegetarian restaurants world-wide with 56 of them in the US. 

Statement Against Caste Based Discrimination: ISKCON

Who was that Hare Krishna at the start of “Get Back”?

10/17/22The Hindu Diaspora in Africa

Hinduism came in waves to Africa, with Southern Africa getting Hindu workers during the early years of British colonization, while East and West Africa experienced Hindu migration during the 20th century. Hinduism’s roughly 0.2% presence in Africa is seen as so inconsequential, most data organizations don’t even bother explicitly mentioning it in their census reports. But Hinduism is Ghana's fastest growing religion and one in which there are steady populations in both Northern and Southern African states. Durban is now home to most of South Africa’s 1.3 million Indians, making it, according to some sources, the largest Indian city outside of India, and thus a most powerful hub of Hindu practice. In the US, there are both communities of African Hindus who have migrated, as well as Black Hindus, who according to the 2019 Pew Survey, make up 2% of the Hindu population in the US.

Hinduism Beyond Africa

Hinduism Around the World

10/16/22Star Wars

George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, drew much of the inspiration for this major cultural phenomenon from the teachings of his mentor who was a lifelong student of Vedanta. In these films, many aspects of Hinduism are interwoven with the story. Some include Hanuman (Chewbaca and Ewoks), Shakti (force,energy), Yodha (Yoda), Brahman (infinite being). Besides the many philosophical parallels that can be highlighted between Star Wars and Hinduism, Star Wars also exhibits similarities in story structure and character roles to one of India’s famous epics, the Ramayana. Never seen the movie? Now might be the time to see how universally relatable Hindu thought can truly be.

What do the Matrix, Avatar, Groundhog Day, and Star Wars have to do with Hinduism?

10/15/22Ayurveda

The term Ayurveda is derived from the Sanskrit words ayur (life) and veda (science or knowledge), translation to the knowledge of life. Ayurveda is considered to be the oldest healing science, originating in 1000 BCE. Based on the five elements that comprise the universe (space, air, fire, water, and earth), they combine and permutate to create three health principles  that govern the functioning and interplay of a person’s body, mind, and consciousness. These energies are referred to as doshas in Sanskrit. Ayurveda can be used in conjunction with Western medicine and Ayurvedic schools have gained approval as educational institutions in several states.

5 Things to Know About Ayurveda

In Hinduism, What is the Relationship Between Spirituality and Health?

10/14/22OM

While it’s synonymous to meditation, and seen simply as a doorway to tranquility for yogic practitioners, the true meaning of Om is deeply embedded in Hindu philosophy.

The word Om is defined by Hindu scripture as being the original vibration of the universe, which all other vibrations are able to manifest. Within Hinduism, the meaning and connotations of Om is perceived in a variety of ways. Though heard and often written as “om,” due to the way it sounds when it is repeatedly chanted, the sacred syllable is originally and more accurately spelled as “aum.” Broken down, the three letters of A – U – M represent a number of sacred trinities such as different conditions of consciousness (waking state, dreaming state, and deep sleep state), the deities in charge of the creation, preservation, and destruction of the universe ( Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva), aspects of time (past, present, and future), among many others. 

5 Things to Know About Om

Religious Symbols

10/28/22Dr. Anandibai Joshi

Dr. Anandi Gopal Joshi is credited with being the first woman from India to study medicine in the United States. Born in Bombay in 1865, she was married at the age of ten to an older man who had been her teacher. Dr. Joshi had a child at the age of 13, but the child died when only 10 days old. She believed that with better medical care, the child would have lived, and she frequently cited this as motivation for her desire to attend medical school. Her husband encouraged her in her academic pursuits and in 1883, Joshee joined the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, now known as the Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. She graduated in 1886 with her degree in medicine; her M.D. thesis focused on Hindu obstetrics. Unfortunately,  Dr. Joshi was only able to practice medicine for a few months before passing away from tuberculosis.

Science in Hinduism

10/13/22The Hindu Diaspora in Guyana

Hinduism is the religion of almost 25% of Guyana’s population, making it the country with the highest percentage of Hindus in the Western Hemisphere. But from British professional recruiting agents targeting rural and uneducated Indians, to the aggressiveness of Christian proselytization of Hindus with a promise of a better life, Hinduism has been in a steady decline for many decades with many escaping to the United States for better opportunities and to practice their religion freely. Today, over 80% of Guyanese Americans live in the Northeastern United States with heavy concentrations in New Jersey and in New York, where a “Little Guyana”  helps these immigrants stay connected to their Guyanese roots.

Hinduism beyond India: Guyana

Hinduism Around the World

10/12/22Karwa Chauth

Karwa Chauth or Karva Chauth (kuhr-vah-CHOATH) is a North Indian holiday in which wives fast for the longevity and health of their husbands, however, many unmarried women celebrate in hopes of meeting their ideal life partner. Typically, wives spend the day preparing gifts to exchange, and fasting until the moon is visible. It is believed that its light symbolizes love and blessings of a happy life. While there are varying legends behind this holiday’s traditions and meaning, the message of honoring the relationships women form with their family and community prevails.

Karwa Chauth

Hindu Holidays & Dharmic Days Calendar

10/11/22Hinduism and Music

As sound vibration can affect the most subtle element of creation, it is interpreted in Hindu scriptures that spiritual sound vibrations can affect the atman (soul) in a particularly potent way. Such spiritual sound vibrations are said to have the ability to awaken our original spiritual consciousness and help us remember that we are beyond the ambivalence of life, and actually originate from the Divine. As such, the main goal of many types of Hindu musical expression is to help stir us out of our spiritual slumber by evoking feelings of love and connection that help us to better perceive the presence of the Divine within all. Some of the more popular examples of musical expressions within Hinduism include shlokas (verse, or poem), mantras (sacred syllables repeated in prayer), kirtans (congregational singing of mantras), and bhajans (devotional songs). You can find musical spiritual expressions through the US in temples,  Mandirs, and community centers.

The Power of Music According to Hinduism

What is Kirtan?

10/10/22Yoga

Yoga is considered Hinduism’s gift to humanity. At its broadest, yoga, from the root word “yuj” in Sanskrit, means to unite. Most Hindu texts discuss yoga as a practice to control the senses and ultimately, the mind. The most famous is the Bhagavad Gita (dating back to 6th-3rd Century BCE), in which Krishna speaks of four types of yoga – bhakti, or devotion; jnana, or knowledge; karma, or action; and dhyana, or concentration (often referred to as raja yoga, though not all sources agree on the term) – as paths to achieve moksha (enlightenment), the ultimate goal according to Hindu understanding. According to a 2016 study,  in the United States there are an estimated 36.7 million people currently practicing yoga in the United States.

Yoga.Day

The Hindu Roots of Yoga

10/9/22Swami Vivekananda

According to Vedic cosmology, 108 is the basis of creation, representing the universe and all our existence. As the soul is encased in two types of bodies: the physical body (made of earth, water, fire, air, and ether) and the subtle body (composed of intelligence, mind and ego), Swami Viveknanda is often attributed with bringing Hindu teachings and practices — such as yoga and transcendental meditation — to Western audiences. In 1893, he was officially introduced to the United States at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, where in his speech he called for religious tolerance and described Hinduism as “a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance.” The day that Swami Vivekananda delivered his speech at the Parliament of Religions is now known as ‘World Brotherhood Day.’ And his birthday, known as Swami Vivekananda Jayanti, is honored on January 12th each year. On this day he is commemorated and recognized for his contributions as a modern Hindu monk and respected guru of the Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism. In 1900, Swami Viveknanda founded the Vedanta Society in California and to date there are 36 Vedanta Society Centers in the United States.

Swami Vivekananda Influenced Countless Americans

Hindu Holidays & Dharmic Days Calendar

10/8/22108

According to Vedic cosmology, 108 is the basis of creation, representing the universe and all our existence. As the soul is encased in two types of bodies: the physical body (made of earth, water, fire, air, and ether) and the subtle body (composed of intelligence, mind and ego), 108 plays a significant role in keeping these two bodies healthily connected. Hindus believe the body holds seven chakras, or pools of energy, which begin at the bottom of the spine and go all the way down to the top of the head and it is believed there are 108 energy lines that converge to form the heart chakra. Ayurveda says there are 108 hidden spots in the body called marma points, where various tissues like muscles, veins, and ligaments meet. These are vital points of life force, and when they are out of balance, energy cannot properly flow throughout the body. Sun salutations, yogic asanas that honor the sun god Surya, are generally completed in nine rounds of 12 postures, totaling 108. Mantra meditation is usually chanted on a set of 108 beads.   In Hinduism there are 108 Upanishads, the sacred texts of wisdom from ancient sages. Additionally, in the Sanskrit alphabet, there are 54 letters. Each letter has a feminine, or Shakti, and masculine, or Shiva, quality. 54 multiplied by 2 equals 108. Ultimately, breathwork, chanting, studying scripture, and asana’s help harmonize one’s energy with the energy of the supreme spiritual source. These processes become especially effective when they are performed in connection with the number 108. Hindu scriptures strive to remind people of this divine commonality by continuously highlighting the innumerable threads connecting everything in existence. One of these threads is the number 108.

5 Things to know about 108

Here's How the Number 108 Binds Us to the Universe

10/7/22The Hindu Diaspora in Trinidad/Tobago

A decade after slavery was abolished in 1834, the British government began importing indentured labor from India to work on their estates in other countries such as Trinidad and Tobago.  From 1845 to 1917, the ships would continue to arrive, carrying over 140,000 Indians to the island, facilitating Trinidad's population growth from Indian laborers. Today, there are roughly 240,000 declared Hindus in Trinidad and Tobago, comprising about 18% of the island’s population. There are a total of about 300 temples on the island, welcoming all who wish to enter and where many beloved Hindu festivals take place. But for some, the migration journey doesn’t end as New York and Florida have seen the development of large Indo-Caribbean communities.

Hinduism beyond India: Trinidad and Tobago

10/6/22Tattoos

From ancient tribes to present-day devotees, tattoos have held a special place in Hinduism for centuries. In the Indian states of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, the Ramnaami community invoked Rama’s protection with tattoos of the name “Rama” in Sanskrit on every inch of their skin, including the tongue and inside the lips.The Mahabharata tells the story of the Pandavas that were exiled to the Kutch district of Gujarat. Today, their descendants - members of the Ribari tribe - live as their ancestors did, with women covered in tattoos that symbolize their people’s strong spirit for survival. Some Hindus consider tattoos as protective emblems,such as tattoos of Hanuman are often used to relieve physical or mental pain. People will often get tattoos of other deities to invoke their blessings. Mehndi, a plant-based temporary tattoo, is commonly done at weddings and religious ceremonies as a form of celebration of love and spirituality. While tattoos have been in Hindu communities for centuries, tattoos as symbols of honor, devotion, and even fashion are incredibly popular today. Hindus and non Hindus alike adorn themselves with Hindu emblems and tattoos that reflect Hindu teachings.

Guidelines for Commercial Use of Hindu Images

10/5/22Navaratri

Navaratri (nuhv-uh-RA-three) is a nine night celebration of the feminine divine that occurs four times a year — the spring and fall celebrations being amongst the more widely celebrated. Some traditions honor the nine manifestations of Goddess Durga, while others celebrate the three goddesses (Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati) with three days dedicated to each. This is a time to recognize the role in which the loving, compassionate, and gentle — yet sometimes powerful and fierce — feminine energy plays in our lives.

Nine Things to Know About Navratri

Hindu Holidays & Dharmic Days Calendar

10/3/22Ahimsa + Cow sanctuaries

Many Hindus hold reverence for the cow as a representation of mother earth, fertility, and Hindu values of selfless service, strength, dignity, and non-harming. Though not all Hindus are vegetarian, for this reason many traditionally abstain from eating beef. This is often linked with the concept of ahimsa (non-violence), which can be applied to diet choices and our interactions with the environment, and potentially determine our next birth, according to the doctrine of karma. This is part of the reason that some Hindus may choose a vegetarian lifestyle as an expression of ahimsa as well as explains the growing number of cow protection projects that are led by individuals who have felt compelled to put their Hindu values into practice. The US is home to several cow protection projects and sanctuaries

Dairy Is Traditionally Sattvic Food, but the Way We Treat Cows Today Can Be Tamasic

Cultured Meat and Animal-Free Dairy Upends the Plant-Based Food Discussion

10/2/2022Gandhi Jayanti

Gandhi Jayanti marks the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, the ‘Father of the Nation’ for India and the Indian Diaspora. To honor Gandhi’s message of ahimsa (non-violence), volunteer events and commemorative ceremonies are conducted and statues of Gandhi are also decorated with flower garlands. Gandhi and the satyagraha (truth force) has inspired many of America’s most prominent civil rights and social impact movements and leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., and Cesar Chavez. The United Nations declared October 2 as the International Day of Non-Violence in honor of Gandhi, whose work continues to inspire civil rights movements across the world.

Examining the Impact of Mahatma Gandhi on Social Change Movements

Why we should not tear down statues of Gandhi

10/1/2022First Hindu temple in US

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 facilitated the journey of many Indian immigrants to the United States. In this new land, many created home shrines and community temples to practice and hold pujas (services). As Hindu American populations grew in metropolitan and rural areas, so did the need to find a permanent temple site for worship. In 1906, the Vedanta Society built the Old Temple in San Francisco, California but as this was not considered a formal temple, many don’t credit this with being the first. Others believe it is the Shiva Murugan Temple built in 1957 in Concord, California, whereas others believe it is the Maha Vallabha Ganapati Devanstanam in New York that should be considered the first. Today, there are nearly 1,000 temples in the United States . Regardless of where you live, you have the right to practice your faith.

A Guide To Temple Safety and Security

5 Things to Know About Visiting a Hindu Temple