There are at present more than one billion Hindus in the world, mainly in India. But they are also present in many other countries. Hinduism is the most predominant religion in India (974,000,000) and Nepal (23,000,000). They are also in significant numbers in the United States of America (2,400,000), Canada (685,000), Cuba (24,000), Martinique and Guadeloupe (50,000), Jamaica (31,000), Panama (10,000), Colombia (9,000), Trinidad (402,000), Guyana (318,000), Suriname (144,000), French Guyana (2,900), Brazil (3,000), Argentina (5,000), the United Kingdom (966,000), Germany (98,000), Belgium (7,600), Austria (9,600), France (65,800), Spain (23,000), Portugal (56,000), Greece (6,000), Switzerland (30,000), the Netherlands (175,000), Norway (25,000), Denmark (6,000), Sweden (11,000), Lebanon (10,000), Egypt (1,000), Gulf States including Dubai (3,877,000), Ethiopia (4,000), Libya (10,000), Nigeria (20,000), Uganda (254,000), Zambia (39,000), Malawi (30,000), Botswana (7,000), Ghana (12,000), Zimbabwe (13,000), Mozambique (43,000), Rwanda (11,600), Seychelles (4,000), South Africa (805,000), Madagascar (20,700), Reunion (177,000), Mauritius (640,000), Tanzania (389,000), Kenya (386,000), Somalia (2,900), Yemen (157,000), Pakistan (3,500,000), Sri Lanka (3,100,000), Malaysia (1,737,000), Singapore (203,000), Hong Kong (41,000), Japan (8,000), Bhutan (167,000), Cambodia (40,000), Bangladesh (15,800,000), Myanmar (2,336,000), China (16,000), Vietnam (5,500), Thailand (68,000), Philippines (47,000), Indonesia including Bali (5,200,000), Brunei (6,000), Fiji (293,000), Australia (158,000), New Zealand (75,000), Slovakia (5,400), Ukraine (46,000), Uzbekistan (3,000), Kazakhstan (3,300), and Iran (15,000) (adapted from Hinduism Today, Oct-Dec 2011). In smaller numbers, they are spread in almost all countries of the world.88 It is believed that more than sixty million Hindus live outside India. Although Hinduism originated in India, it has spread now all over the world through mainly by the process of migration of Hindus to other countries, rather than by conversion of other religious people into Hinduism. The Angkor temples of Kampuchea (formerly Cambodia) gives evidence of Hinduism in the South East Asian countries around 12th century. This temple was built by king Suryavarman, obviously a Hindu name, suggesting that Hinduism was the main religion of the region in that period. The inhabitants of this region were vastly influenced by India since the 1st century or even earlier. They had very close contacts with India, and also adopted the Hindu religion. In more recent times, British who ruled India sent large number of Hindu laborers to many of their colonies like West Indies, Mauritius, Fiji, Guyana, South Africa and many other counties to serve in the agriculture fields. After the end of the colonial rule, many Hindus also got opportunity to migrate from these countries to U.K. and other similar colonial countries as they obtained the visa facility. The first large batch of Sikh farmers migrated to U.S.A. in the 18th century when similar job opportunity was offered. Small trickles of Hindus migrated thereafter, but main influx of Hindus to USA occurred after 1960s as the migration rules softened.
Together with the followers of Buddhism (360 million), Jainism (10 million), and Sikhism (23 million), which may be considered as the companion faiths and which share very considerably the religious philosophy with Hinduism, the total number swells to a staggering 1.5 billion world-wide for this whole group of religions—almost a quarter of the total population of the world.
Hindus are generally known to be tolerant and non-violent people; undoubtedly there are exceptions too. India has been home to people from all almost every religion, philosophy, and cultural heritage who have lived together harmoniously for thousands of years, creating a vibrant tapestry of more than 2000 ethnic groups. It has more than 1650 languages as mother tongue of different groups; most of them have their own script. India has 22 languages recognized by the constitution; both Hindi and English accorded as official languages.
There is no doubt that the ancient philosophies of the Hindu culture are now regarded with great respect and enthusiasm. Yoga is taught in many universities and other teaching institutes in India and abroad, especially in the United States. Modern medical faculties all over the world have acknowledged and recognized the concept of the Ayurveda, the ancient health science of India. The ecological conduct of the Hindu philosophy has become a world issue. Reverence for life and vegetarianism are hailed with respect. Meditation is a household word in the United States and many other countries. But above all else, it is the recognition of the root concept of the Vedic teaching that all beings, human and others, are the children of one Supreme Divine, whatever our faith. Underlying this ancient philosophy of India is the vital ethical principle of non-violence—ahimsa. In tomorrow’s world, this principal doctrine of equality of all creation may well become an important Torch bearer.
Hindus have performed generally very well in most countries where they have settled. They have earned a high reputation for attaining a good academic education, maintaining a superior family system, a low crime rate, and big economic progress.
It has been perhaps one of the greatest challenges for Hindus living outside of India to integrate and adapt themselves to different cultures, while at the same time retaining their own identity of religion and tradition. Hindus cannot afford to throw away their long-cherished heritage, but some useful changes may be needed periodically. Human evolution is a saga of such endeavors, where the good and worthy is accepted and the harmful and unworthy is dropped.
Only fifty years ago, the Hindu swamis and gurus lived a very austere and simple life. They lived in ordinary cottages, ate the simplest food, traveled in lower class, and did not enjoy any luxuries of the modern world. All this has changed considerably. The sanyasin who has pronounced renunciation now would consider this vow as a vow of mental rather than physical abnegation. This change, however, may not necessarily be regarded as a serious shortcoming. It may be accepted more as a sign of the changing times, although a sense of propriety is essential. Even so swamis, sadhus and sanyasins do play very important role in Hindu society. Many personally guide the lives of hundreds of families; others run institutes that provide social service. Even those who live reclusive lives in the mountains, by their deep meditations, send spiritual vibrations for the good of mankind. Priests, who conduct the rituals and ceremonies in the temples and homes of the devotees, are not always well trained and professional in their behavior. As there is no code for their curriculum etc., the variations abound. A judicious supervision and guidance in this regard may be called for. In recent times, there has been a perceptible change in the conduct of spiritual teachings and ceremonies. Swami Vivekananda declared boldly that the ritual and worship ceremonies may not be in the sole hands of brahmins and heredity priests; anyone with aptitude and proper training may do so with impunity. In US all church ministers need to undergo full course in university or some recognized institute; similar arrangement is being worked out for the priests in Hindu temples also. The continuing shortage of man power in this field only enhances the need for such professional approach.
Hindus are much more family-oriented than most other religious communities. Starting and maintaining a family is considered a religious duty, which is well defined in the Grahastha Ashram. Sacrifice is the bedrock of good living. Hindus basically endorse the family lifestyle in preference to an individualistic one. Sharing and caring are virtues of greatest importance in Hindu society. Children are often given the highest attention in their formative years. The need for the children to learn the basic discipline of the traditional Hindu family, however, cannot be overemphasized. Most youngsters do well in education and conduct. Parents teach best by example.
Elders have enjoyed very respectful position in Hindu society for millennia. The Vedic teachings “Treat your mother as God, and treat your father as God” gave high status and dignity to the elderly. Even though the parents don’t generally live with children now, they often arrange to live near to each other. In olden times, the elders occasionally had undue dominance over the youth, especially the daughter-in-law of the family. In some urban places, the tables have turned, and it is the elderly who are pushed to the wall and have become targets of humiliation and abuse by the young. Undoubtedly, a harmonious balance is needed for healthy survival of the family and society.
Women have enjoyed a twisted status in Hindu society. In the Aryan patriarchal society, at the beginning, women were pushed down along with the lower castes to remain ineligible to learn the Vedas. This was later rectified, and they were given equal standing in all Hindu rituals. The prevalence of the dowry system, in direct or indirect manner, still continues in certain areas, occasionally with dire consequences. The plight of widows in many places remains pathetic and shameful. The women in Hindu society are, of late, becoming very vibrant and awakened of their rightful position.
Although traditionally Hindu women are not encouraged to work outside their homes, the modern setup has changed that option considerably. Typically Hindu women in the past gave lot more attention to make homes places of serenity and joy, while men folks worked outside. While more and more women are now working to supplement the home income as well as to fulfill their own dreams, men have not yet taken to domestic chores enough as yet.
Divorces are not favored by Hindu society, but they are becoming more common than before. More and more women are now working. Their contribution to the economic structure of the family has increased significantly. Although the divorce is not sanctioned in the Hindu religion, many suggest changes while keeping in view the dynamic nature of Hindu theology. Swami B. V. Tripurari said, “If a husband abuses his wife and this cannot be resolved, she should not remain with him. Any woman who finds herself in such a situation should get out of it for her spiritual and material well-being.” 89
Sex has never been considered a sin in Hindu philosophy. The open expression of sexuality in some of the temples and the detailed descriptions in the scriptures, especially the Kama Sutra, is an indication that sex is accepted as a natural activity of human beings. Sex outside wedlock, however, is not sanctioned in Hindu society. There are some cultural differences also; for example dating is not traditionally allowed, even married couples do not hug or kiss in open public, and in mixed company women often remain in the background and do not participate in conversations and arguments along with men. Some changes are of course happening, but these may be done with discretion and wisdom. Respect and pride for one’s own culture is a necessary ingredient for good and happy life. Hindu society generally has a tolerant attitude toward sex. It largely leaves the choice of birth control and many other sexual decisions to the individual and family. It does not extend any condemnation or code of harsh punishment in matters related to a person’s sexual behavior. Hindus recognize that life starts at the time of conception, but they generally have a tolerant attitude toward abortion. This may have been a result of their progressive attitude of adjustment, according to the present situations and needs of society.
Suicide is not sanctioned in Hinduism. An individual is expected to complete his mission of fulfilling all his karmas in its natural course. In case of a terminal condition of life, a voluntary fast (vrat) until death is sometimes accepted as a spiritual option, especially amongst the Jains.
The present time seems to be a period of transition for Hindu society. Undoubtedly, the rituals are an essential part of Hinduism. They have an important role to play, creating an eternal bonding with religion and culture. Their contribution, however, needs to be modified to suit the modern age of science and technology. Lengthy rituals performed without any understanding may be better molded to make them precise and purposeful. In America, at present, the Hindu priest usually explains the meaning and significance behind each step of the ritual associated with most wedding and death ceremonies. A judicious combination of ancient Sanskrit as a traditional culture, along with the regional language, Hindi, or English as a practical language, may be a prime requirement in years to come.
The ravages of the caste system have not yet completely disappeared. Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Swami Dayanand Saraswati started the crusade against the caste system. Mahatma Gandhi spent his lifetime in services of the low castes, calling them Harijan—the people of God. Bhimrao Ambedkar (1893–1956) waged a war against this evil, which also gave birth to a vertical division of Hindu society. Even though he was directly involved in writing the new Constitution for free India in 1950, he soon became frustrated by the slow pace of change. The changes in the laws alone do not bring about the changes in the hearts and attitudes of the people. The real solution lies not in blaming, quarrelling, and bringing down those who are in the superior position but, as Swami Vivekanananda said, “…in uplifting the downtrodden.”
Hinduism has always been a dynamic religion, absorbing changes and modification as the situations and circumstances demand. Any violence and hatred by a religious organization or individuals however is unbecoming. Some take the position that protecting religion and God is an ordained duty; this responsibility may be best performed by the dully assigned personnel. They may also remember what Swami Vivekananda recalled in similar circumstances, when he heard the divine voice of Mother saying, “Do you protect me? Or do I protect you?”90
Despite several hurdles, Hindus outside India have maintained a very close connection with their religion and culture. They have built an enormous number of temples, some of which are most gorgeous and elegant. At home, most Hindus carry on their daily routines in a more traditional manner. They also observe many Hindu festivals and customs fairly well, although with some modifications as suitable. It is rather interesting that in some places Hindus are even more conventional and orthodox than Hindus in India. As an example:
Bali is a province of Indonesia, a country with biggest population of Muslims in the world. Even so Bali has maintained its unique Hindu image; 93% of its population is Hindus, names of Hindu Rishis like Markandeya, Bharadwaja, and Agastya are properly taught in history books in schools, none is allowed to enter Hindu temples without wearing Dhoti, Trikala Sandhya and Gayatri Mantra are practiced daily by the children in class!
Hindus are now present in most countries of the world. Occasionally, they are also treated unfairly in foreign countries. In some places, there is racial prejudice; in schools it may be because of the usual bullying habit of some children, or there may be unnecessary damaging comments about the Hindu religion or culture in text books. Hindus may need to address these issues on various planes, both at individual as well as community levels. Most importantly, Hindus must themselves know and appreciate the positive and glorious aspects of their own religion, and also bring about the same awareness in their children. The strength of such awareness can not be underestimated.
Marriages in Hindu society are often still “arranged”, although with some modifications. The would-be bride and bridegroom usually meet and discuss their options and plans for the future more freely than before. Westerners often wonder how “arranged marriages” work and succeed. But the fact is that these “arranged marriages” often succeed more than the so-called “love marriages” without any parental council! In Hindu society, it is said, “To separate the marriage is to displease God”.
Rituals still do form an important, rather indispensable part of the Hindu religion. However there is no pressure on how to perform the same; in some places these are performed in a symbolic manner, and in others these may be very prolonged and laborious. Rituals are performed in Sanskrit language, but they are also explained in the local or English language, especially in foreign countries.
Women in Hindu society are becoming more and more free and liberated. Even so the old habits of male dominance are not completely gone. Husbands still do not extend an equal helping hand in home chores, child care etc. even when their wives are very busy and have fulfilling careers. In the presence of guests, many men feel shy to carry out any tasks, because of the culture’s patriarchal social attitudes.
Divorces are not yet common in Hindu society, but are no longer regarded as a disgrace on women. Although Hindu religion and culture stress on saving the marriage to the utmost as a matter of spiritual duty, and the consideration of children remains uppermost in the minds of parents, divorce by no means is totally ruled out. It is now accepted in a more positive manner; even the religious leaders seem to give tactical support by remaining silent on the issue.
Caste system is nearly becoming extinct. The new problem now is about the quarrel over who should get the benefit of the “special advantages for the low caste”. Many compete to be included in the category so that they may take those fat doles!