Monday, March 28, 2016

To be a Hindu, doesn't one have to be born a Hindu?

Last updated on 7th April 2016

In response to a question about whether to be a Hindu, doesn't one have to be born a Hindu, on this FB post, https://www.facebook.com/ravi.s.iyer.7/posts/1721424181407485, I responded by a few comments, which I felt I should put down as a separate post (giving it more visibility), as it may be of interest to others too. Those comments are given below (slightly edited):

Hinduism, as I have experienced it in the second half of the 20th century and early 21st century is not that organized a religion as Christianity or Islam. Further, there are perhaps thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of different sects and thousands of temples and/or gurus that Hindu families associate with.

So I think it is possible for anybody from any religion, and whether of Indian nationality or foreign, to associate with many sects and to be accepted and viewed as Hindu, especially those sects that are associated with a Guru, provided the sect finds them acceptable in terms of the way they conduct themselves. I do not know whether there is a specific ceremony like baptism in Christianity to formally induct a non-Hindu as a Hindu (though one does read about some functions conducted by some Hindu organizations to re-convert some Hindus who had converted to other religions).

Most Hindu religious functions are also typically open to people from other communities to participate in. So any person who chooses to embrace Hinduism should not, as far as I know, face any barrier in terms of participating in most PUBLIC Hindu functions (different from conducting the function as a Hindu priest).

However, acceptance by members of a caste-based community may be another matter. In particular, acceptance of some non-Hindu who embraces Hinduism by Brahmin caste-communities (there are many variations in them), may be problematic, and these issues really come to the fore in matters like marriage alliances in traditional & conservative Brahmin families.

Let me share some details from my perspective. But I must also say that I do not have direct exposure to this matter of non-Hindus who embrace Hinduism and want to participate in Brahminical ritual conducted by a suitable Brahmin priest, on a regular basis.

BTW I don't know whether you folks know about how Brahmins keep track of their genealogy. According to tradition, the Brahmin is supposed to introduce himself to other Brahmins (& respected elders like kings, I guess) by the Abhivadaye. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abhivadaye, "The importance of giving respect to elders, in whole means it is an introduction of self with lineage. It consists of a set of lines which is essentially used to introduce one's Pravara, Gotra, Sutrakaara or the author one has been following, Branch of Veda one is versed, and One's own name"

The Pravara part above is explained in more detail here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pravaras. An extract from it: 'In Brahmin Hindu culture, a Pravara (Sanskrit for "most excellent") is a particular Brahmin's descent from a rishi (sage) who belonged to their gotra (clan). In vedic ritual, the importance of the pravara appears to be in its use by the ritualist for extolling his ancestry and proclaiming, "as a descendant of worthy ancestors, I am a fit and proper person to do the act I am performing."'

Ravi: As an example the Abhivadaye used by a relative of mine (which should correspond closely to what I should be using had I followed the Brahmin ritual practice; I stopped doing Brahmin ritual practice some years ago as I moved away from family life to single spiritual aspirant life), is as follows:

Abhivadaye Aangiras Ambarisha Yuvanasva thrayarrisheya pravaranvitha Haritha gotraha Drahyayana sutraha Sama sahathyaayee Suryanaryana Sarma namaham asmi boho

Which states that he (and I) traces his (and my) ancestry to the Rishis/Rishi-kings Angarisa (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angiras_(sage)), Ambarisha (possibly this, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambarisha) and Yuvanasva, and belong the gotra (clan) of Harita (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harita) and learn/practise/propagate the Drahyayana sutra (set of aphorisms) of the Sama Veda (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sutra which shows Drahyayana Sutra as one of the Sutras of Sama Veda), and his (and, in this case, mine too) name is Suryanarayana. Salutations.

[The traditional name given to me was Suryanarayanan and I had to use that name in Brahmin functions that I participated in, but I was called Ravi at home, and so my name as per official (govt.) records including my school records became Ravi!]

From what I have given above, one can understand how those who are very conservative Brahmins and want to have their children marry Brahmins only, will not easily accept a non-Hindu who has embraced Hinduism and is viewed as a Hindu by many Indians, as that person will not have a Brahmin lineage record! Now I am not saying anything about approval/disapproval of such practices or views. I am just sharing how these matters stand among very conservative Brahmins. I am sure that today there would be many Indian Brahmins, especially city based Brahmins, who are not so conservative and I am sure many Hindu Brahmins would not have serious issues marrying Hindu converts who embrace the Brahminical customs and way of life (which does have its challenges as many things are prohibited, and many rituals have to be performed).

Another issue may be the willingness of Brahmin priests to go to homes of such Brahmin families where the husband or wife has converted to Hinduism, and wants to perform Brahmin rituals. I really don't know where things would stand on that. These priests would typically hail from a Veda Patashala (Veda school) and would follow their rules on this matter, as otherwise they could be questioned within the Brahmin priest community for breaking any such rules.

[Most Brahmin families don't know all the details of all the Brahmin rituals conducted in the Brahmin home. They know the simple ones (e.g. Sandhyavandanam, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandhyavandanam) which they do daily but not the special ones done on occasion. So they call a Brahmin priest to act as a guide (guru) for the special ritual, with them participating as instructed by the priest. The participation includes chanting of mantras as instructed. That was the way I recall participating in many, many Brahmin rituals I did when I was living the Brahmin family life with my mother and siblings (my sacred thread ceremony which qualified me to participate/perform these functions was done after my father died; I was in my teens then).]

Hope this response was not too long, but it gives the relevant info., IMHO.
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I was just responding to (the) question about whether one has to be born a Hindu, from a practical life in India point of view, as far as I know (as the varieties in Hindusim are enormous, my exposure is more on the Hindu Brahmin tradition side).
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I must also add that the Avatar of the age, Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, (one of the three Avatars of the age, to be more precise), who spent a lot of efforts on showing the right path of Hinduism to people today, was (and is) a great Hindu reformer. He has opened it up bigtime for anybody who wants to seriously pursue the Hindu way of life, irrespective of religion, caste, nationality and gender.

But it must also be noted that as of now, most of Hinduism, with perhaps a billion followers goes by the Hindu shastras as interpreted by the various Hindu religion mutts (monastic centres focusing on maintaining Hindu religion) and Veda pathasalas (schools) in India. So my previous comment was more from the general Hinduism view rather than the Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba teachings view in particular.
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A comment on https://www.facebook.com/ravi.s.iyer.7/posts/1721424181407485, by brother Ivan Escalona, on April 3rd 2016, stated "The answer is a categorical NO, one needs not to be born a hindu to become one, from one point of view as I mentioned, the word Hindu is not even the correct for the religion that is based on Vedas (Sruti) and Vedic literature (Smritis)." He went to say that if one accepts and practices Sanathana Dharma (it should be enough) and whether the Hindu community accepts/recognizes you or not should be irrelevant. He adds that he was born a Christian Catholic and followed/accepted its sacraments till the 1st communion, after which he 'found' Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba (Swami), and understood Christianity and Jesus' teachings in a 'new and brighter light'. He accepted that Swami is the Purna Avatar and followed His command to study the Vedas, got his Upanayanam samskara/function (thread ceremony/"second birth" into Godly path as per Hindu Vedic tradition), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upanayana done, and tries to do his Nitya karma (daily ritual) and so on.

He then says that he is not worried whether people accept him as Hindu or not (even though it is nice to be accepted) but that the acceptance that he is seeking is that of Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba.
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Ravi S. Iyer responded on April 4th, 2016:
Interesting thoughts & information Ivan Escalona. I thought that brother Sai Das' query was from the sociological angle and not the eternal truth (paramarthika sathyam) kind of angle, and so responded from that angle. But, as I wrote in an earlier comment (He being Bhagavan), "He has opened it up bigtime for anybody who wants to seriously pursue the Hindu way of life, irrespective of religion, caste, nationality and gender."

I agree that one does NOT have to be born a Hindu (Sanathana Dharma follower) to be a Hindu (Sanathana Dharma follower). Did you get the impression from any part of my comments that I was saying that non-Hindus cannot become a Hindu? If so, please point me to those parts specifically so that I can review them, and correct them, if necessary.

About Bhagavan's words being final: Well, I have no doubt whatsoever, due to my study of some Hindu scripture and Sai literature, as well as direct experiences of Bhagavan's divinity, that Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba was/is the Avatar of the age. So I do place great value to Bhagavan's words (seriously said/written as against light jokes) on matters related to spirituality and Sanathana Dharma (Hinduism). I do think that Bhagavan wanted the Christian to become a good/better Christian, the Muslim to be a good/better Muslim and the Hindu to be a good/better Hindu. He certainly was all for people from various religions participating and being respectful of practices of other religions. He pursued a syncretic approach to religion & spirituality. [Shirdi Sai Baba too seems to have been that way.]

But I think he was a practical person too. He did recognize that from a practical family life point of view, one needs to face up to sociological realities of the day. So while he would say that there is only one religion - the religion of the heart, he, I think, also recognized that different religions and communities & families associated with them, would continue to be around.

Today, I do read up on other spiritual and religious leaders too who may not/do not accept that Sathya Sai is the Avatar. My comments and posts reflect that exposure to spiritual and religious leaders other than Sathya Sai.
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[I thank Wikipedia and brother Ivan Escalona, and have presumed that they will not have any objections to me sharing the above extracts from their website on this post which is freely viewable by all, and does not have any financial profit motive whatsoever.]

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