Meet Hindus who debunk Western misconceptions about caste, cows, karma and more.
BY: Lavina Melwani
Lakhani is also faced often with the C-word, and works hard to demolish the idea of hereditary caste system as being part of Hinduism. He says, "I term this as 'Atrocity in the name of religion' and not religion. This is a very important distinction that sometimes gets overlooked in the way Hinduism is presented in the West. This does serious damage to the more important and vibrant aspect of Hinduism promoting 'Divinity of man.'"
In a small town in rural Pennsylvania, yet another Hindu is debunking myths for non-Hindus. Dr. Jeffery D. Long is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Elizabethtown College and received his PhD in comparative religious studies at the University of Chicago, focusing on Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Long, who is 34, has been involved with informal study of Hinduism since his childhood and ultimately embraced it.
Ask him about the questions he encounters from non-Hindus, and he says, "Where to begin? The most common questions are about karma and rebirth and the mechanism of rebirth. I usually treat this in some detail, making analogies between karma and the laws of physics (such as Newton's third law of motion), and citing the Gita, emphasizing that the body is the vehicle for the soul's growth and experience and that our true identity is ultimately not physical but divine."
The most common misconception of Hinduism that he has encountered has to do with cows and Gods: "There is a commonly held view that if people in India ate their cows, their hunger problem would vanish. This is, of course, absurd." He explains to these skeptics the symbolic importance of the cow in Hinduism, as well as the fact that respect for the cow is really emblematic of respect for all life. As for the perception that Hindus are idol-worshippers, Long explains the symbolism involved in murtipuja and the respects in which the many Gods are simultaneously One God.
"Since my audience is usually Christian, I typically make an analogy with the Christian ideal of the trinity, saying something like, `Imagine the trinity extended to an infinity, and you get the basic concept of God in Hinduism'", he says. "I also distinguish between the high Gods - Vishnu/Shiva/Shakti conceived as supreme manifestations of Saguna Brahman - and the many other devtas, which are liberated or advanced souls, which I compare to angels and saints when I speak with Christian groups."
Knowledge of different religions becomes imperative in talking to non-Hindus. Michael W. Smith, 61, of St. Francis, Minnesota, has been teaching high schoolers, college students and adults about Hinduism for 30 years. Smith, who acquired knowledge through reading and from his gurus, says: "Christians generally think of Hinduism in terms of idol-worship, a belief in false gods rather than a single God, cults, devil worship, primitive superstitions and the abuses of the caste system and ill-treatment of women.