We’ve discussed the incursion of the West into Hindu life in India. Let’s turn to discuss the reciprocal reaction: the movement of Hindus and Hinduism into the West. The history of this movement is far briefer than the other. By the late 19th century, the main vehicle for the transport of Hinduism to the West was literary. Some of the most important Hindu scriptures had been translated into European languages in the 18th century and were available to intellectuals in the West.
Because western impressions were based principally on these translations from the Hindu scriptural traditions, many thinkers had a rather obscure understanding of Hinduism that neglected its more popular expressions. At the same time, westerners who actually visited India saw a different side of Hinduism: the many colorful festivals and images, the astrologers and fortune tellers, the caste system and the rituals. They were more often than not repelled by what they saw. To these western visitors, Hinduism wasn’t more than superstition, idolatry and cultural backwardness.
These impressions, based on translations of its philosophy on one end, and the observation of its popular practices on the other, contributed to an extremely ambivalent western view of Hinduism. Some who knew Hinduism through scripture regarded it as morally and spiritually superior to the western traditions. Many who knew it from popular practice regarded it as vastly inferior to western ways.
The First Missionary
It was in this context of western ambivalence that the first significant representative of Hinduism came to the West. Swami Vivekananda is sometimes known as the first Hindu missionary to the West. He appeared in Chicago in 1893, at the First World Parliament of Religions. Vivekananda’s address to this international gathering of delegates from the major religious traditions was extremely well received and widely celebrated. Vivekananda subsequently established centers for the study and practice of Advaita Vedanta, the monistic Hindu philosophy that he embraced.
Vivekananda was followed by numerous Hindu gurus to the West. Many of their names or the names of their orders are familiar to westerners today. We should mention the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. The name Maharishi Yogi became well-known to many in the West as the guru of the Beatles in the 1960’s, and as the promoter of a spiritual practice called transcendental meditation.
The names of these modern teachers continue to evoke ambivalent feelings among many westerners. Many celebrate these teachers and their messages and many consider them dangerous. It is unclear at this point what will be the future of Hinduism beyond the Indian subcontinent. In India and the surrounding area Hinduism remains firmly established and its future seems secure, although how Hinduism would negotiate the challenges of westernization is not certain. Nor is it clear how the West would negotiate the challenges of Hinduism. Already western culture is beginning to accommodate Hindu immigrants as great number of temples and Hindu societies multiply throughout the United States and Europe.
It is evident that many westerners find much in Hinduism worth of adoption and admiration. Ultimately, what effects the advent of Hindus and Hinduism would have on the religious practices of the west remains to be seen.