Born Hindu?

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.

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About HappyGoth

By day, I'm a graphic designer. By night, I'm a knitter. I'm doing my part to keep Hotlanta stylish. I imagine that if you don't already understand the title of the blog, you're probably confused and perhaps slightly annoyed, but never fear - I do have a reason (and it's a good one). Having gone to hear Stephanie Pearl McPhee, and then having been inspired to blog about knitting, I found myself wondering what to call the blog. I recalled a conversation I had with Mouse and the Chicken Goddess about why it is a Bad Idea to anger knitters - this conversation was following SPM, aka the Yarn Harlot telling the assembled throng about Those Who Do Not Understand Knitting and Therefore Belittle It Much to the Chagrin of Others, or TWDNUKTBMCO, which is not the acronym she used but is the one I'm using because I forgot hers - that is, we are numerous and we all have very pointy sticks, easily transforming into an angry mob. Therefore, knitters = angry mob.
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30 Responses to Born Hindu?

  1. Tāṇḍava says:

    I think that if you condense what you are saying you get “we are where we are”. You cannot go back and be born a hindu – though perhaps we will go forward and be born one. But neither can a born hindu who went through those ceremonies without understanding go back. Or one born into a Hindu family but not raised in the tradition.

    All that we can do is follow dharma the best we can from where we are. Aum

  2. Ambaa says:

    “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.”

    I suppose. Yet, to me those rituals are not prerequisites to one another. I feel that being Hindu has very little to do with following the right rituals and always doing everything correctly. Where is the growth in that?

    I have made the decision to define Hinduism myself and ignore anyone who says that I don’t have the right to! 🙂 I may not have lived a strictly Hindu life from start to finish, but I’m living a mostly Hindu life in as many ways as I can.

    • HappyGoth says:

      In my mind, I make a distinction between Hinduism and Sanatana Dharma – Hinduism, for me, is a set of rituals and practices. Sanatana Dharma is the underlying philosophy that guides those rituals.

      It’s easier to be a practitioner of Hinduism if you’re raised with those rituals and practices, but you can certainly develop them through a teacher or your own experimentation and learning.

      I can totally see the logic in thinking that you have to be born a Hindu to be a “true” Hindu, but I don’t agree with it. I think it’s great that various Hindu groups are starting to offer ways for newer devotees to access those rituals. Like the groups that offer naming ceremonies to initiates or funerary rites to devotees who may not have been born into a tradition but have been following it for some time. So hooray for the folks who get that there’s more to this than just rituals. Woo!

  3. sanhita says:

    Dear Happygoth,
    In my opinion,comparing a born hindu and a follower hindu is just not required.
    We should take “hindu dharma” easy.
    I am a born hindu, but cant say I am living a life in a complete hindu way.
    I do know about most of the rituals/Pujas/ceremonies to be done at various occasions, yet I cant claim I am a true/perfect hindu.
    Yes , I do perform daily pooja ay my home,I firmly believe in Ahimsa, Karma, Punarjanm(theory of rebirth), but a follower hindu may also be doing it in a more intense way.

    • HappyGoth says:

      I totally agree with you. Making distinctions between “right” and “wrong” obscures the point of the whole thing, which is to learn and grow and achieve true detachment, which can’t happen if you’re bogged down in minutiae.

  4. Mahalaya says:

    As a fellow raveler of yarn I had to stop by to say Namaste, Beloved<3

    I agree, with not only the post, but the conversation beneath.
    I was born with Dharma, it may take a life time to catch up(if I decide to:P) to the cultural aspects.

    The moment you find Hinduism, the word Dharma….absolutely profound.

    After years of seeking….the puzzle suddenly snaps into place and we are home.<3

  5. Sriram says:

    As far as I know there is nothing like being born a Hindu. I think there are rituals in Christianity and Islam to be called a a follower. I have never heard of any such rituals in Hinduism. Even the so called conversion ideas are a load of gibberish. Unfortunately the truth is the actual term would be religionless and that is what we all are when we are born. Being called a Hindu is just a piece of paper documentation.

    • HappyGoth says:

      I hear a lot of debate between the term “Hindu” and the practice of sanatana dharma. I usually just consider myself to be a follower of the latter, and whether or not anybody recognizes me as the former is immaterial. It’s all just titles, anyway. It took me a while to get to that realization, but I was very relieved when I did.

  6. surya says:

    The converted ones know more about Hinduism than many born ones, for unlike many born ones, the former took interest and studied the underlying philosophy of sanatana dharma before looking at it favorably or later even embracing it. Hindus say Brahman has no shape or gender or form and everything out there and not there is Brahman. Stratification of hindus is very much part of ignorance or darkness.
    Believe me sadly ‘the list of samskaras’ are ignored by a lot hindus , most if at all adopt only the anna prasana (first feeding), wedding and funeral ritual. Nowadays the list is truncated only to the later two. A small percent of orthodox hindus adhere to the list in its entirety. So therefore no major worries from that POV, you all belong to the majority group!! I can further recommend something for your consideration, what about taking marriage vows in a typical hindu way? Yes, for a second time!! All that you need is to call your home a purohit/pandit from local mandir and undergo the wedding ritual at home on an (subha) auspicious muhurtham (time). It will be nice to have a few loved ones attend the hindu wedding.
    Most hindus who live in non hindu lands assimilate and adopt local culture and sometimes go a bit too far, like for example my kids went easter egg hunting and demanded and got Christmas gifts, we didn’t disappoint those small souls. Many hindu women don’t put bindi or bottu on foreheads just to avoid unnecessary attention. A fair mix of culture, religion and spirituality is more rewarding in my opinion.
    The new hindus shouldn’t feel obliged to rub their shoulders with the born brown ones, there simply is no need for it. If it happens ‘routinely’ it is okay to mingle with them (us). I don’t eagerly seek company of white or black people just so to feel oneness with them, but along the way if I get to meet them I quickly jump and take up the opportunity to smile and shake hands with them. Going to a local mandir and spending a few minutes help the overall process of assim

    • HappyGoth says:

      I have thought about taking marriage vows again at some point, though generally I am a little reluctant at the moment. Mostly this is because my husband, though very supportive of me and my views, is not a Hindu, nor is he particularly religious, so I don’t feel like it’s necessary to get him to do something he feels he’s already completed, just for my personal spiritual progress. It has become a matter of balancing the “obligation” of performing necessary samskaras and the real value of keeping a happy, healthy and equal marriage. So I’m comfortable with that. However, if he begins to suggest possibly doing that, then I will probably reconsider.

      A big part of me is very excited at the idea of undergoing the wedding ritual, but I feel it’s also important to have a relationship with a community and a pandit before going through a process like that, and I haven’t established either yet, so I’m in no particular hurry! Someday, maybe!

      That said, I have been thinking a lot about potential future children, and what to do with them. Will I make sure that they have the proper samskaras, along with a healthy education in Hindu tradition and scripture? It’s very probable. And I’m also fairly sure that I would like to have my funeral rites performed in a traditional Hindu manner. Actually, before I acknowledged to myself that this was a part of who I am, I had decided that cremation was the proper funerary procedure, so that has been a kind of no-brainer.

      Really the cultural challenge for me has been finding good places for both my family’s culture and the culture associated with my spiritual practice in my life. I still sort of celebrate Christmas, but not in the same way as I used to, because Diwali and Holi and other Hindu festivals have taken more prominence in the past few years. I have finally realized that stressing over it is not particularly productive, and so even though there are vocal dissidents to my opinions, the practicality of it and the larger volume of supportive voices keeps me very positive.

      Thanks for being one of those supportive voices!

  7. surya says:

    it is but natural for an adherent of an abrahamic faith to officially convert to hinduism and I dont see anything odd about it. Yes there are some paths to get converted to hinduism and among others arya samaj offers a coversion ritual. The initiation process is important in my opinion. Cohabitation is different from marriage !!

  8. kodanda says:

    Well I know for myself I didn’t “convert”, you just embrace it. BUT, when I came into the Sri Vaishnava fold I did have panchasamskarams done. I did notice before my ritual I was looked upon with a little suspect, but the moment I received the brands on my shoulders I could feel those in the room warm to me. Even a lady that at one moment seemed to be stand offish and wondering why I was there offered and applied salve to my brands with her own hands. So I believe that in everyday occurrences and chance meetings there is a bit of suspicion from the native Hindu’s, but when you take part in something like that together the walls do come down… at least with those who have experienced the same religious experience.

    • HappyGoth says:

      It’s sort of half and half, I think. Some are really wary of people who have adopted Hindu practice, but others are very excited when they discover that you have more knowledge/interest/dedication than the average American who sort of knows who Ganesha is but has little to no knowledge otherwise.

      I had a really fantastic experience out looking for a bazaar lithograph of Rama at a shop a couple of weeks ago; the shopkeeper did not have one, but when I told him why I was looking for one (in response to his asking about it), his face lit up and I left the store with him calling blessings after me. It was really cool.

      • surya says:

        born ones always get excited if someone views their faith favorably, the abrahamics threw stones at hinduism in all their history. A white face is automatically perceived a s a christian by almost all hindus, well, up until recently I mean. So they get nervous if one stands in front of the born ones and asks something about hinduism. After the initial barrier is broken once the born one is convinced the guy/gaal standing in front is a genuine enthusiast or follower all love explodes with embarrasing openness !!

      • HappyGoth says:

        I am coming to learn that. It’s been a nice surprise!

  9. surya says:









    if born ones refuse to embrace the converted ones, it would prove to be impossible for the latter to perform in the ancient lord Jagannath’s sacred mandir in Puri; watching the westerners performing the classical hindu dance and vocal music, I feel they are hindus like myself with a lighter skin and no more, no less.
    As I always said the westerners should not bother what a few ignorant people say, it helps if the westerners meet up and draw inspiration from one another. Also be warned that many naysayers are actually christians from india ( with hindu screen names !) who try to dissuade people leaving Christianity. Most westerners have no idea the schemes adopted by some christian evangelicals to convert poor and gullible hindus. Talk to former evangelicals if you can and you will be shocked.
    Namaste.

    • surya says:

      please click on the links which havent come up with pictures, they are different ones.

    • HappyGoth says:

      I have my own issues with Christian Evangelicals, and did when I was going to church regularly, too. So I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to find them when I’m going down a path that isn’t Christianity. Oh, well. That’s good to know, though. I have read some about the use of evangelical practice and the British Empire, and it all makes me very sad. I don’t call myself a follower of Christ any more, but I’m pretty sure the tactics used by most radical evangelicals aren’t exactly what you’d call Christian, not if you actually pay attention to what Christ actually said.

      Anyway. Thanks so much for sharing those lovely bhajans and dance videos. I love to see people (of any color and background) joyful in their devotion. This gets me in a good mood for Shivratri!

      I am very encouraged and bolstered by folks like you and the others who comment on the blog. That’s the main reason I keep it going; I love the community of people that have found it and engage with me in dialogue. Except for a couple of crappy ones (who thankfully don’t comment much here anymore), everybody has been informative, supportive, and really great.

      Namaste.

  10. surya says:

    Happy Maha Shiva Raatri to all esteemd readers

  11. shivayatra7 says:

    Namaste,
    Hope you don’t mind but I added you to my blogroll. 🙂
    Peace,
    Ricky

  12. ArunaSharan says:

    Very interesting post. Though I’ve praticed a Hindu path for over 40 years, I never saw myself as voncerted. But from the moment I saw my Guru’s face, I knew (actually, even before that!). As soon as I walked into the Ashram at Tiruvannamalai, I knew. The moment I sat before a shrine where young Brahmins chanted the Vedas, I knew. I never went through any coversion ceremonies, and actually, even puja is, to me secondary. How can I best describe it? It’s a certain turn of mind that has been my instinct all through the years, that links me to Hinduism. Though, like you, I prefer the term Sanatana Dharma.
    Anyway, thanks again. Adding this blog to my list.

    • HappyGoth says:

      Sometimes, when I think about Sanatana Dharma and the perfect “rightness” that my heart feels for it, I get very emotional, which I think is further proof that I’ve found my home.

      Thank you very much for reading! I’ve been following your blog for a little over a month now, myself, and I enjoy all the posts very much!

  13. Prabhat Chauhan says:

    Namaskar Happy Goth ,
    Great Job….I enjoyed reading of your Blogs…To be frank with you I am yet to find a hindu who says that for being a Hindu you have to born as a HIndu…however in contrary I have listened People saying “Sanatan Dharma” The Eternal Religion is for world which crosses the barrier of Language /Race etc its is all about HUmanity and your Spiritual Quest.. ..However Hindus feel very glad/happy if they see different races in temple..or if you ask them about Sanatan Dharma…However if you interact first time with any Born Hindu about his dharma he will Not open up quickly… because of the hesitation toward Abrahmic Faiths.In the History of Sanatan Dharma the Abhrahmic faiths always tried to destroy it ….People have bad experience about Missionaries in India working to convert people for money .& Not Sprituality..People go there because these Missionaries offer them good money/Houses etc if they change their faith…however after some time they came to know they are fooled by them some of them revert back.. & History of Islam in India is Bloodiest in the History of ManKind..People Killed/ Converted forcibly to Islam…Barbarians formed Towers of Human Heads…War widows were Raped..Jazia was put on them..that have introduced Sati “Firing Widow ” practice as Women were taken as sex slave by Invaders which was NOT acceptable by Hindus…BalVivah “Early marriage of Girls ” To save young Girls from Islamic Barbarians .Force conversion of young girls To Islam is still happening in Islamic Nations i.e Pakistan/Bangladesh. you can see around this time how Christan Missionaries & Muslims spread wrong Information about Sanatan Dharma..& you can’t find Hindus who are Spreading Wrong Info about any other faith even some of them tried to misinterpret the sacred texts in English to demean Sanatan Dharm .Santan Dharma doesn’t rely on Sales Persons .People feel attracted toward this beautiful Dharma because of their Spritual desires Not for any other material wishes.
    However I feel things are changing Hindus are getting comfortable with the invent of WWW & IT Boom ….& We love to Discuss Santan Dharma across boundries because as the Name suggest it is Eternal Dharma…for Humanity.Lets spread The HUmanity…Love for All ..Hate for None..& Any one who believes in core principle of Santan Dharma is a Hindu..

    To be frank with sometime I feel those Hindus who are NOT born Hindus have more curiosity to learn and Good grasp on basic tenets then any regular born Hindu.

    I Appreciate your Blog and your enthusiasm.

    OM Shanti Shanti Shanti.

    • HappyGoth says:

      Namaskar, and thank you so much for reading!

      I completely understand the concerns of Hindus who were born into Hindu families, especially in light of what “conversion” cultures have done in the past. I also do appreciate folks like you who are welcoming and willing to share opinions and knowledge. It makes this journey a little smoother (or at the very least, it makes it easier for me to focus on the things that matter, instead of letting myself get dragged down with worry).

      Thank you!

      (Apologies for the delay in comment approval; I have been incredibly busy and am not checking this blog as often as I should.)

  14. Prabhat Chauhan says:

    Aum Shanti Shanti Shanti

  15. Hellen says:

    Hi, for all time i used to check weblog posts here in the early hours in the dawn, since
    i like to gain knowledge of more and more.

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