Countless people across the world ask me : "Have you converted to Hinduism?" The question is understandable. After all, people don't often behold an American woman of Jewish ancestry draped in the saffron robes of a Hindu renunciant.
However, although the question is simple, the answer is complex. Hinduism does not convert. It does not exist in a box with borders and boundaries. There are more differences between lineages within Hinduism than there are between Hinduism and some other religions.
If one were to ask several Hindus, "What is the most fundamental tenet of Hinduism?" or "How is God understood in Hinduism?" one would get a wide range of equally viable, equally legitimate answers. In fact, two of the most fundamental teachings of Hinduism are "Let all the noble thoughts come from all directions," and "The Truth is one but the sages call it by different names."
So, what exactly is Hinduism, then, that is open enough to embrace an American sanyasi?
"By whatever name and form the devotee worships me with love, I appear to the devotee in that form."
Nowhere in the Vedas - the foundational texts of Hindu theology - does one find the word Hindu. Rather, "Hindu" is actually the name given to the people living beyond the banks of the Sindhu or the Indus River, in what was known as the Indus valley civilisation. Hindus refer to their religion as Sanatan Dharma, the eternal way of life. This way of life encompasses everything from a philosophical understanding of the nature of the universe and our role in it, to treatises on science, math, music, architecture and medicine.
The "religion" of Hinduism, if one wanted to attempt to neatly box it up, could be said to include several components.
The first of these is inclusivity. Hinduism excludes almost nothing. The arms of Hinduism are immeasurably long and embrace innumerable names, forms and concepts of the Divine. However, worshippers of varying Divine manifestations all agree on one essential component: the Supreme Reality is infinite, omniscient, omnipresent, and knowable by all names.
As God is infinite and all of creation a manifestation of the same Creator, Hindus see the whole world as one family. In fact, the scriptures state clearly: Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam, or "The world is one family." Hindu prayers are prayers for all; Hindus don't pray for Hindus or Indians. Rather, Hindus pray,
Sarve bhavantu sukhinah
Sarve santu niraamayaah
Sarve bhadraani pashyantu
Maakaschit duhkha bhaag bhavet
It means, "May all be happy, may all be healthy, may all behold that which is good and auspicious, may no one suffer."
Another aspect is that of a personal relationship with God. Regardless of the name, form in which a Hindu believes, he or she is encouraged to have a personal connection with that particular form. The God of Hinduism is a God who is knowable, approachable, infinite and yet fully prepared to incarnate in material form, a God to whom our food, water, earnings and lives are dedicated.
One common misconception of Hinduism is that it is polytheistic. With so many images, it is understandable that people would assume that each image is a separate God. However, Hinduism is very much a monotheistic religion, in which that one, infinite Supreme Reality is manifest in all of creation. The first line of the Isopanishads reminds us:
Ishaavaasyam idam sarvam
yat kim ca jagatyam jagat
It means the entire universe is pervaded by the divine. That same all-pervasive Supreme Reality manifests in infinite forms with infinite names. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains beautifully, "By whatever name and form the devotee worships me with love, I appear to the devotee in that form."
For this reason, Hindu practices emphasise ahimsa or nonviolence toward humans, animals and Mother Nature. A large majority of Hindus are vegetarians, avoid leather, pray to and for Mother Nature, and have rituals surrounding the ways and times that one may pick flowers, fruits or otherwise injure a living plant.
Stemming from the tenet of an all-pervasive God, one of the core components of the Hindu tradition is service, seva, or karma yoga. Hinduism teaches us to see God in the poor, sick, and needy; the tradition is filled with stories of God appearing as an unexpected guest or a beggar.
Most Hindu organisations have large social service programs engaged in a wide range of charitable activities. Service is seen as one of the highest forms of worship.
As the traditional name of Hinduism is Sanatan Dharma or "eternal way of life" the tenets and principles of Hinduism are not relegated only to worship or prayer. Rather, Hinduism informs every aspect of our lives from the moment we awaken to the moment we sleep. There are shastras and sutras for nearly every component of life, as well as for architecture, medicine, science, math and music.
Hinduism, in the words of Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, "is not a weekend business." A Hindu's actions are governed by spiritual laws in the home and in the workplace as well as in the temple.
Another central and unique aspect of Hinduism is emphasis on the divine feminine, or Shakti, as the essential energy and force through which creation, sustenance and dissolution are performed. Worship of the Divine Mother - whether in Her nurturing, compassionate form or in Her fierce, fiery form - is a common thread that weaves through the entire tapestry of Hinduism.
However, it is not only the Feminine in Her ethereal, celestial role that is worshipped, it is the feminine in her human form. We are exhorted by the scriptures to hold women in the highest ideal: "Wherever women are adored and respected, there the Gods are happy."
As news reports cover the rape and abuse of girls and women throughout India, people misconstrue this as a subjugation of the female endorsed by Hindu culture. The abuse of women is a societal evil which must be swiftly eradicated. However, it couldn't be further from the very tenets of Hinduism.
The author is the director of the International Yoga Festival at Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh. The festival runs from 1-7 March.