I will preface this by saying that I realize this is a hot topic. So keep the conversation civil, folks.
Anyway. As somebody who was not raised in a Hindu family, I’ve encountered the “you have to be born Hindu to be a real Hindu” thing fairly regularly. And I’m going to be kind of a devil’s advocate and say, well, I guess I can see how that might be the case.
Hear me out for a minute.
I’m not suggesting in any way that I agree with the sentiment that nobody who wasn’t born into a Hindu family can’t be a faithful, devout practitioner of any of the traditions that go along with Sanatana Dharma. But I am saying that the traditions are just that, traditions. And it’s kind of hard to catch up to some of them.
So here’s my best Western example – Catholicism. The Catholic church has a set of rituals that are important to the spiritual progress of any individual in that faith. They’re called sacraments, and there are seven of them. You have Baptism, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick (formerly known as Last Rites or Extreme Unction). Each of these represents a distinct point in a person’s spiritual path. In the case of a person born into a Catholic family, you start these while the person is still an infant with Baptism, and then so on at various life stages. Holy Orders are generally not applicable to everyone, since not everyone is called (or is able) to be a priest. However, in Catholicism, these rites are open to anybody who converts, provided that they go through a process of training and education, known as the R.I.C.A. program. And then you go through the rites, starting with baptism and so on. Obviously not everybody gets married, either, but you get the idea.
I was raised in a similar tradition. You did your thing in the church, following the path laid out, and there was a lot of teaching and education along the way. There was an adult Sunday school class for those grownup types who didn’t understand. I think it was also made easier for most folks because like it or not, the U.S. is a predominately Christian country, so the traditions are fairly commonplace. You get Christian holidays as vacations. 75% of the population understands the basic tenets of the religion, even if practices vary from denomination to denomination. And the conversion process is designed specifically to help you along and give you all the tools you need to be an active, knowledgeable member of the church.
I think that Hinduism (as an imprecise term for numerous practices centered around sanatana dharma) is very much the same, except that if miss certain age-related rituals, or samskara, you have just missed them. Like the naming ceremony, or the first bite of food. I’m married already, so the marriage rituals aren’t something I can “go back” and do. To a lot of Hindus (or so it seems to me), these rituals are prerequisites to later life rituals, especially funerary rites. So yes, in a sense, it is very important to be born Hindu to live a strictly Hindu life, from start to finish. And because much of the practice of Hinduism is related to things your family has passed down, or your community has passed down, an outsider won’t have that background to pull from. Because Hinduism doesn’t really stress conversion (in fact, the core philosophy of sanatana dharma renders the need for conversion useless), there’s no equivalent training path for the devotee who finds it later in life.
So as a recent devotee, a lot of the time I feel like I’m playing catch-up, and that maybe I always will. I am really excited when I find videos or explanations of rituals or beliefs or festivals, because it makes it a little easier for me to understand the whole thing.
The word “community” is important here, though, because that’s really what you’re getting when you understand a set of rituals and practices. You’re getting shared experiences with a community of people. Sanatana dharma can be practiced by you, in whichever way makes the most sense. But Hinduism (and the Hindu community) is a particular thing.
The long and short of this, is that it’s completely possible to be a follower of sanatana dharma without having been born a follower of sanatana dharma, but being born a Hindu certainly makes things easier.
NOTE: I’m not complaining about this situation at all. This post actually comes from some recent “aha” sort of detached thinking about the situation, and the realization that if I know where to look, I can find many resources and explanations on sanatana dharma, if not the specific practices that go with a particular tradition, say, the Bengali Shakti traditions vs. Gujarati Vaishnava traditions vs. Tamil Shaiva traditions. It was more of an “oh, I guess I understand that a little” than “crap, this sucks.” Some online friends of mine have had great success once they’ve figured out which tradition fits them best; Adiyen Yathavan Ramanuja Dasan recently was initiated into the Sri Vaishnava tradition, and as I understand it has received a lot of education and guidance as a result. So it is totally possible.