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?'"
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."