Is ‘Hindu’ an ethnic identity or a religious identity? – Deepti Hajela

Tulsi Gabbard

Deepti Hajela“According to an analysis issued last month by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, there are about 1 billion Hindus in the world. Of those, 94 percent are in India, and 99 percent in the larger South Asia region. The analysis, based on data from 2010, the latest available, estimated the population of Hindus in the United States at 1.79 million. Most are of Indian descent.” – Deepti Hajela

Dr. Uma MysorekarWhen Uma Mysorekar looks at the members of the new Congress, the Indian immigrant and practicing Hindu can see that, for the first time, there’s someone who shares her ethnicity and someone who shares her faith.

To her surprise, they are two different people.

Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii is the first practicing Hindu elected to Congress. Rep. Ami Bera of California, also a Democrat, is the third Indian American to serve in the House.

Gabbard, however, isn’t from India, where Hinduism originated and to which the vast majority of its adherents have ethnic ties.

Bera is a Unitarian. His two Indian American predecessors in Congress, Dalip Singh Saund and Bobby Jindal, also were not practicing Hindus. The late Saund, a California Democrat elected in 1956, was Sikh. Jindal, a Republican elected to the House in 2004 who is now Louisiana’s governor, is Catholic.

Gabbard’s presence in Congress creates an interesting moment for Hindus in the United States, a chance to celebrate a barrier broken but also a topic of discussion as they ponder how closely religion and nationality are entwined, or whether they even should be.

Mysorekar is glad to see a practicing Hindu in the country’s halls of political power, no matter the nationality.

Gabbard “is a Hindu representative. It doesn’t matter where she came from,” said Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America, a temple in the New York borough of Queens that is one of the country’s oldest.

As a non-Indian Hindu, Gabbard is most definitely an outlier.

Smita KothuriAccording to an analysis issued last month by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, there are about 1 billion Hindus in the world. Of those, 94 percent are in India, and 99 percent in the larger South Asia region. The analysis, based on data from 2010, the latest available, estimated the population of Hindus in the United States at 1.79 million. Most are of Indian descent.

Hinduism encompasses a range of beliefs and practices, and there is no formal conversion practice. That acceptance of plurality in the faith — that Hindus come in many forms — would make it “hypocritical” for Indian Hindus to look askance at Gabbard for not sharing their ethnicity, said Smita Kothuri, 38, of McLean.

“How can I hold it against her? I’d be untrue to my religion if I held it against her,” Kothuri said.

Other Indian Hindus agreed.

“I don’t think it makes a difference that she’s not Indian,” said Kinjal Dave, 17, a high school senior in Hillsborough, N.J. “I think it’s the faith that matters.”

The press secretary for Gabbard, a 31-year-old Iraq war veteran, declined a request to interview her for this article but sent along a statement that Gabbard had made upon being sworn into office, for which she used a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu religious text.

Suhag Shukla“I chose to take the oath of office with my personal copy of the Bhagavad Gita because its teachings have inspired me to be a servant-leader, dedicating my life in the service of others and to my country,” she said.

Gabbard has said that she was introduced to Hinduism through her mother and embraced it fully as a teenager. She also is the first member of Congress to be born in the U.S. territory of American Samoa.

The reception from Indians and the Indian media to her electoral victory has been largely positive, although there has been at least one mistaken media report referring to Gabbard as an Indian American. (She and all her siblings have Indian first names.)

Having any Hindu representation in Congress breaks barriers in a country where, despite religious freedom being enshrined in the Constitution, elected officials overwhelmingly come from Christian backgrounds.

It can be an inspiration to other Hindus who are interested in public office, that their faith and most voters’ unfamiliarity with it will not prove insurmountable. “I think it instills confidence to say there’s been a Hindu there,” said Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation in Washington.

It’s also an opportunity to introduce Hinduism as a faith to people who may have seen it as solely the purview of those who have a connection to India.

Pt. Dharmasetu DasDharmasetu Das knows all about that. The 55-year-old white man, whose original first name was David and who was born in Massachusetts to a military family, has been practicing Hinduism for decades. Now, he lives in San Diego and performs weddings and other ceremonies as a Hindu pandit, or priest.

Das was a teenager when he came across some books on the Hindu faith, and “I felt like this was it,” he said.

He hasn’t come across too many other non-Indian Hindus like himself over the years and is happy to know that there is now one in such a high-profile place as Congress.

“Just opening people’s eyes,” Das said, “it’s a great thing.” – The Washington Post, 17 January 2013

» Deepti Hajela is an American journalist who has been a newswoman for the Associated Press since 1996. She works in the New York bureau of the AP, covering a wide range of stories in the metropolitan region.

Diwali at the White House 2012

Diwali at the White House 2012

Famous converts to Hinduism 

From Christianity

From Islam

  • Harilal Gandhi — converted to Islam, adopted the name “Abdullah Gandhi”, but later reverted to Hinduism.
  • Bukka I – King of Vijayanagara empire who converted to Islam, then reverted to Hinduism. The early life of Bukka as well as his brother Hakka (also known as Harihara I) are relatively unknown and most accounts of their early life are based on theories.
  • Mahboob Ali – King of Vijayanagara empire who converted to Islam, then reverted to Hinduism. The early life of Bukka as well as his brother Hakka (also known as Harihara I) are relatively unknown and most accounts of their early life are based on theories.
  • Nargis – noted Bollywood actress, politician, and social worker. Mother of actor Sanjay Dutt she converted to Hinduism and took the name of Nirmala Dutt on her marriage to actor Sunil Dutt.
  • Annapurna Devi (born Roshanara Khan) – surbahar (bass sitar) player and music teacher in the North Indian classical tradition. She converted to Hinduism upon marriage.
  • Harilal Mohandas Gandhi – son of Mahatma Gandhi. Upon converting to Islam he adopted the name Abdullah Gandhi, but later again reverted to Hinduism.
  • Asha Gawli – (born Ayesha) Wife of Arun Gawli, notorious gangster turned politician from Mumbai, India. She converted to Hinduism upon marriage.
  • Harihara I – King of Vijayanagara Empire who converted to Islam, then reconverted.
  • Aashish Khan (born Ustad Aashish Khan Debsharma) – Indian musician.
  • Hassan Palakkode – Malayali writer on Islam.
  • Netaji Palkar – Maratha noble and commander-in-chief of the army of Shivaji, 19 June 1676.
  • Sarmad – 17th century mystical poet and sufi saint, arrived from Persia to India, beheaded for assumed heresy by the Mughal emperor, Aurungzebe. Sarmad renounced Judaism, briefly converting to Islam and then Hinduism. He later denounced all religions and rejected belief in god.
  • Anwar Shaikh – British author.
  • Ifa Sudewi – Chief judge for the 2002 Bali bombing trials.
  • Khushboo Sundar – Tamil movie actress. She converted to Hinduism upon marriage.
  • Haridas Thakura – Prominent Vaishnavite saint, instrumental in the early appearance and spread of Hare Krishna movement.
  • Zubeida – Hindi film actress, on whose life story the film Zubeidaa was based. She converted to Hinduism upon marriage.
  • Nalini Patel (born Nayyara Mirza) – Miss India finalist of 1967, was the first Muslim to participate in the pageant. She converted to Hinduism after marriage. She is settled in the USA.
  • Sonam (born Bakhtawar Murad) – Wife of Bollywood director Rajiv Rai. She converted to Hinduism upon marriage. She is the niece of character actor Raza Murad and granddaughter of veteran character actor Murad.

From Judaism

Other Dharmic religions

From Buddhism

From Jainism


From other faiths and religions

From non-religious backgrounds

From undetermined former religion

» Source Wikepedia.

Ganga ghat at Varanasi ca. 1950s

See also

  1. Who is a Hindu? The historical definition – Koenraad Elst

  2. Who is a Hindu? The credal definitions – Koenraad Elst

  3. Who is a Hindu? The legal definition – Koenraad Elst

  4. Neo-Vedanta: The problem with Hindu Universalism – Frank Morales

4 Responses

  1. The geographical definition is outdated and no longer relevant. It was coined by the Persians when India did not have Christian or Muslim communities to contend with. And when there was not yet a diaspora of Hindus living in every other country except the homeland Bharat.

    The term ‘Hindu’ today denotes the follower of the ‘religion’ of Sanatana Dharma.


  2. If you look at the definition of Hindu or Hindustan this is amply clear.”हिमालयं समारभ्य यावदिंदुसरोवरम् ।
    तं देवनिर्मितं देशं हिंदुस्थानं प्रचक्ष्यते ।। meaning area between Himalayas and Bindu-sarovara i.e. ocean; is known as Hindustan. and the resident is a Hindu. May he belong to any ‘Puja Practice’ or no Puja at all. Sanatana Dharma is about spiritual evolution and encompasses all sects including Atheism. It envelops Idol-worshipers as well as those do the Antaranga puja or popularly known as medition. Today religions or should we say the religious leaders have contorted perceptions and promote religious jingoism.


  3. Ms Tulsi,Congress Member is true Hindu as she avoided interview to Deepti Hajela.Hindu hallmark prevents association with fellow hindu’s.Any non hindu journalist must have been granted’s reason that 1billion hindu population in world is most insignicant as a community.Deepti Hajela toiled for Hindu pride to write this blog but result is disappointing.In US Congress Ms Tulsi may earn her own livlihood but she can not be any hope for ‘others’i.e. Hindu’s or for their cause.


  4. Whatever the term ‘Hindu’ meant in the past, it can only designate a person’s religious identity today. It can also designate a cultural and civilizational identity for an Indian who may not be a practicing Hindu, i.e. nominal Hindu by birth in a Hindu family. Indian Muslims and Christians do not want to be identified as Hindus, and it is a presumption on the part of some Hindu nationalist organisations to include them into the Hindu identity paradigm.

    Hinduism’s most aggressive and deadly enemies have been born into Indian Hindu families, sometimes very cultured and religious families. It would be absurd and self-defeating for the Hindu community to include these secularists, Marxists and Christian converts in the Hindu identity designation.

    The ethnic identity term for an Indian Hindu is ‘Indian’ or ‘Bharatiya’.

    There is a very well established conversion ritual for Hinduism (which many Indian Hindus are not aware of because they have internalised the Christian missionary propaganda that a Hindu is born not made by conviction, and must be born in a Hindu family in India, and that a non-Indian born into a Muslim or Christian family cannot convert to Hinduism). It involves a havan and shuddhi ritual, the putting on of new clothes and, most important, a change of name (Namakarana Samskara).

    The Arya Samaj has a popular conversion ritual for all those persons accepting the authority of the Veda and wishing to become Hindus. The ritual has legal force and is recognised by the Government of India. The Arya Samaj does not require the new convert to join their samaj or any other Hindu sampradaya. They also give a certificate which is very useful in this day and age when it is difficult to establish an identity without an official paper.

    For Christians converting to Hinduism, a de-baptismal certificate can be obtained from their former priest (except in Spain where Hinduism is not a recognised religion). But this is also not strictly necessary as a Christian adopting a Hindu (Sanskrit) name is automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Other Christian denominations have similar procedures.

    See the article “Hindu Conversion” here

    Baba Rampuri

    American ex-patriot and famous Naga sannyasi Baba Rampuri (CL) is a mahant of the prestigious Dashanami Juna Akhara.


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