Adapted with permission of Hinduism Today and the author.

Do Hindus eat monkey brains? You would think so if you saw the film "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." Though some western viewers might have taken this Hollywood excess with a pinch of salt, many still have misperceptions about Hinduism--from the horrors of caste to the burning of widows. Yes, and don't forget rat worship, arranged child marriages, female infanticide, dowry and the killing of young brides. As always, sensational aspects are magnified, and a deeply complex religion is seen as some sort of a primitive idol-worshipping cult. So who will set the record straight in the West? After all, here in America, Hinduism is not organized religion with a huge PR machine and official spokespeople. It is simply a way of life, a philosophy of living practiced by individuals in whichever way they choose, each working toward salvation. Enter the Interpreters of Dharma, the Mythbusters.They are ordinary people--students, housewives, physicians, retirees, academics and engineers--often asked by curious Westerners about the faith. Some have studied Hinduism in-depth; others have learnt the faith simply by living it. They speak to non-Hindus in schools, churches, colleges and social settings and answer the neverending questions."Naturally, I tend to get what I call 'the 3 Ks' on a regular basis: Kaste, Kows & Karma," says Fred Stella, 49, an actor and yoga instructor who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is president of the Interfaith Dialogue Association and has received training in the Self Realization Fellowship and the local Vedanta Society ashram. Stella, who started attending a Hindu temple when he was 15, was still being educated in the Catholic school system, and so "developed the ability to speak about Hinduism to those with a Christian mind set." He adds, "The other misconceptions are that Hindus don't acknowledge one absolute source of the universe or God, and that karma is fatalism. They also assume that the cruel tradition of caste bigotry is blessed by our scriptures and that we are somehow related to Islam. They even confuse 'tamasic' with turmeric!" Stella points out that the only exposure many church groups have to Hinduism is through missionary films which show images of destitute villages in India and say "Well, this is what you get when you practice bad religion."
Beth Kulkarni of Texas came to Hinduism through marriage and has become an evocative interpreter of the faith for non-Hindus. She has spoken at church religious classes, religion classes at schools and universities. She also takes non-Hindus on tours of Sri Meenakshi Temple, where she is an Advisory Council member. "One of the most frequent misconceptions is that Hindus are polytheistic," she says. "I reply that we believe in an 'Ultimate Reality' that is simultaneously both with form and without form, and that this Ultimate Reality is both transcendent and imminent, both personal and non-personal. I give the example that I, Beth, am a wife, mother, grandmother, friend, community worker, with different functions and relationships due to these various roles, but am still the same 'Beth.' How, I ask, could God, therefore, not have different roles, functions, and relationships?" In this Internet age, sometimes the best way to answer questions is in cyberspace, because you can reach so many more people. M. Menon, 63, who is an industrial design consultant, has been in the U.S. since the 1980s. During his college years he studied all the works of Swami Vivekananda and says, "India, Hinduism and Sanathana Dharma are my passions.""Most Indians are asked questions about India and Hinduism and very little support is available," he adds. "Over the past 5 years I have put together an informative Q&A online and have also been a participant in Internet discussion groups on Hinduism." One question he often gets is whether idols are Gods. He replies, "Idols are mere representations of God. They represent various aspects or attributes of a single spiritual reality. Consider for example, the IBM logo representing a company. Logo is not the real company. Icons are essential for focused attention. Much like a logo, the religious icons are full of symbolism." On the other side of the Atlantic, Jay Lakhani is also doing his share to interpret Hinduism for the British. The Gujarat-born physicist, now living in London, says, "I took early retirement to focus on what I love best: studying and promoting Hinduism."Although he received no formal education in Hinduism, Lakhani has been inspired by the life and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. He has become a popular speaker in the London school system, speaking with young people from all faiths and no faith.

He has fielded many questions from non-Hindus, but he finds that they are most attracted by the idea of the divinity of man: "When talking to youngsters of the Abrahamic faiths, this idea of the essential nature of everyone as 'divine' - equating it to God - grabs them and makes them run after me, asking me excitedly again and again: 'Is this really Hinduism?'"

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus