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."With Christians, I like to use Plato's Cave Parable as a starting point, one of the most famous parables East or West, and from there, show how both Eastern and Western religions related to it, and then to each other."Coming from very different walks of life, all these people have devoted considerable time and energy to explaining the finer points of Hinduism, combating the misconceptions. What satisfaction do they get from being the Interpreters of Dharma? Says Lakhani, "The truth of the matter is I have no choice but to carry on like this. If a little bit of Vivekananda gets into one's bloodstream--one has no choice in such matters!"He believes that many Hindus living abroad are adopting the worst of both the East and the West: "This cocktail has produced a very grotesque scenario for modern India and for Hindus everywhere. Concepts like brahmacharya, or respecting and looking after the elderly, are considered old-fashioned and [are] abandoned, while promiscuous lifestyles and chasing after mammon are considered to be cool."For Sidhaye, excitement comes from conveying that Hinduism is the only religion not out to convert people: "Because we believe each individual has the freedom of thought to achieve salvation--I use the word `salvation' because non-Hindus are familiar with it. In fact, I tell them that you will not even find a process for somebody to become a Hindu; I ask them to show me any place where Hindus have gone and done mass conversions. I make `freedom of thought' as the basis of my presentations."Kulkarni, who has become a part of the Indian-American community and has raised her two children in that environment, finds it even more imperative to change the perceptions people may have of Hinduism. She says, "So many Americans know very little about Hindu traditions and I tell them `It's not like 40 or 50 years ago, when Hinduism was the religion of people on the other side of the globe. Today they are your doctors, they are the motel owners down the street, they are your neighbors.'"
She adds, "Hindus are part of the community and we have to know something about the traditions of each other. It's extremely satisfying when I explain reincarnation or karma, and non-Hindus realize that they are not such strange notions after all because they do make sense."