What makes a Hindu?

When one thinks of Hinduism, one is automatically transported to a world nestled in the Himalayas where people with peaceful faces practice yoga and are non-violent, peace-loving, and of a fundamentally different religion. Naturally, some images of smoke and an illegal substance may also come to mind, but for the most part, Hindus are viewed in a positive, tranquil light. Any Hindu could tell you what they believe the core values of “Hinduism” are—karma, dharma (duty), rebirth, sanatana dharma (the ultimate truth), and many others.

As a person born and brought up in a Hindu family in India, I was drawn into an intense discussion on what it really means to be Hindu with a friend who was taking “Intro to Hinduism” at Tufts. It really made me start to wonder about what characterizes all Hindus, what it means to be Hindu, and who can actually be Hindu. Does ancestry matter or is it simply about one’s beliefs? Given that there is no set procedure to convert to Hinduism, why is Julia Roberts’ conversion to Hinduism right after "Eat, Pray, Love" such a big deal? For all practical purposes, if someone is born into a Hindu family, does this make them Hindu?

If one were to go back into the history and origins of Hinduism, one would not find any lasting evidence to support all the myths and illusions surrounding the contemporary beliefs that people have about it. Hinduism does not in fact fit into the most basic requirements that draw the Western Abrahamic religions and many Eastern faiths together. In Islam, for example, a common belief in Allah (peace be upon Him) and the prophet Mohammad defines the religion and its followers. Hinduism, in contrast, has no common founder or fundamental belief that binds all Hindus together.

Contemporary Hinduism is a smorgasbord of ideas and faiths. The term “Hindu” actually emerged during the 19th century as a result of colonialism. When the British arrived in India and saw a completely different category of people with beliefs they could not understand, they called them all Hindu—“people who live beyond the river Indus.” But despite their shared name, all Hindus do not have the same methods of praying, living, or eating.

So what does draw all the Hindus together into this common classification? The fact that Hinduism accommodates variations in belief. Today, you can be vegetarian or non-vegetarian and still be a Hindu. You don’t have to believe in karma or dharma to be a Hindu. You can deny the existence of the holy trinity of Gods (Brahma the creator, Vishnu the sustainer, and Shiva the destroyer) and still be a part of the Hindu community. For the most part, Hinduism has multiple layers that one can keep peeling off and can be embraced as much as one wants. In the end, Hinduism is a way of life—a collection of multiple ideas and an evolution of faith since time immemorial.

Hinduism defines itself by a wide range of indigenous practices and beliefs that originated in India but have since changed and adapted to different peoples and cultures as they spread around the globe. At its heart, Hinduism is polytheistic and pluralistic. There could be more than 500 different gurus advocating for their type of Hinduism and none of them would be wrong or right. At this point in time, an Israeli could be sitting in Dharamsala trying to get rid of war scars by following an inventive, intoxicating Hinduism; an American could be scrubbing the floors of an ashram in Pune; an Indian could be sitting in a temple making offerings to the priest, and another could be sitting at the dinner table, just being thankful for another meal. What do all these people have in common? Not much, except that they are all following what they believe is Hinduism. And honestly, each of them is as close (or as far away) to the truth as anyone else.