Hinduism without Religion: Amma's Movement in America

By Huffer, Amanda J. | Cross Currents, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Hinduism without Religion: Amma's Movement in America


Huffer, Amanda J., Cross Currents


As Hindu new religious movements globalize and disseminate their theological messages outside of India, they have a substantive tendency to wrestle with the category of the "Hindu" in their rhetoric and practices. While diasporic temple communities of ethnically Indian immigrants frequently embrace a Hindu identity as a means to take their place "at the multicultural table," (1) transnational gurus and modern practitioners of yoga both have a unique legacy of tension with the category of the "Hindu." Some disavow the category entirely claiming the terms "spiritual" and "spirituality" as more effective markers and distance themselves from the perceived orthodoxies of Hindu religiosity by using a decontextualized theolinguistic register to signify more egalitarian, democratic, inclusive, ecumenical, and universalistic impulses. Very few of these types of modern global movements that derive their roots, practices, and theologies from Hindu religiosity proudly proclaim themselves to be Hindu. But why?

For many, the active distancing from the Hindu religiosity of their roots develops in tandem with their rise to global fame. As Tulasi Srinivas tells us, "No longer rooted in traditional Hinduism, the new sacred person of Sai Baba is disembedded from the religiocultural milieu and is free to travel across the global network." (2) But do global guru movements perceive this distancing from "traditional Hinduism" as a necessary correlation to becoming globally marketable? Does this signify that Western audiences (and even modern Indian ones) are unprepared to accept Hinduism with its plurality of particular and localized formations and even suggest a continued prejudice against Hindus and Hinduism as many staunch Hindu advocates would have us believe? Or has the historical legacy of the extraction of a generalized ecumenical universalism, often based in derivative forms of Advaita Vedantic philosophy, become so ingrained that it constitutes an independent religious category, nearly complete in its dissociation from its broader religious context of Hinduism?

Turning our gaze toward the pragmatic, one might argue that this ambivalence toward the category of the "Hindu" stems from discomfort with the fact that the term "Hindu" can readily be defined as a religioethnic category and one bound to a particular sacred geography: India. Thus, when attempting to reach geographically exogenous non-Indian Hindu audiences, [Hindu] gurus must at least deal with the potential for, if not the prior existence of, categorical dissonance among their followers. They must preempt the possibility that potential non-Indian Hindu recruits will question, "How can I follow this [Hindu] guru, if Hindu religiosity is a religio-cultural birthright available only to ethnically Indian Hindus?"

Or to speak in the stark terms of materialism, it might simply be the fact that the language of spirituality sells more effectively to global audiences, among both practitioners who identify with non-Hindu religious denominations and by the increasing populations of those who have become disillusioned by mainline Christian traditions.

The active distancing of largely Hindu ideologies, practices, discourses, and so on from the category of Hindu religion engenders the often virulent contemporary debates in which Indian Hindu activists attempt to reclaim contemporary modalities (such as yoga) as Hindu, while many of their practitioners staunchly defend their spiritual (non-Hindu) foundations (Vitello 2010). Recently, the head of the Hindu American Foundation touched on the commonplace marketing of Hinduism as spirituality, when he explained, "our issue is that yoga has thrived, but Hinduism has lost control of the brand." (3) Like yoga, Advaita Vedantic theology has been branded globally as "spirituality" by religious leaders who locate their roots in India and draw heavily from Hindu religiosity. But also like yoga, this particular strain of Hindu theology, often termed neo-Vedanta, has been adapted and transformed, sometimes to the point of non-recognition in order to make it palatable to diverse (both intra-Hindu and inter-religious) audiences. …

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