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Hinduism in the West

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Hinduism in the West

The reception of Hinduism in the western world begins in the 19th century, at first at an academic level of religious studies and antquiarian interest in Sanskrit. Only after World War II does Hinduism acquire a presence as a religious minority in western nations, partly due to immigration, and partly due to conversion, the latter especially in the context of the 1960s to 1970s counter-culture, giving rise to a number of Hinduism-inspired new religious movements sometimes also known as "Neo-Hindu" or "export Hinduism".


Colonial period

During the British colonial period the British substantially influenced Indian society, but India also influenced the western world. An early champion of Indian-inspired thought in the West was Arthur Schopenhauer who in the 1850s advocated ethics based on an "Aryan-Vedic theme of spiritual self-conquest", as opposed to the ignorant drive toward earthly utopianism of the superficially this-worldly "Jewish" spirit.[1] Helena Blavatsky moved to India in 1879, and her Theosophical Society, founded in New York in 1875, evolved into a peculiar mixture of Western occultism and Hindu mysticism over the last years of her life.

The sojourn of Vivekananda to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 had a lasting effect. Vivekananda founded the Ramakrishna Mission, a Hindu missionary organization still active today.

Hinduism-inspired elements in Theosophy were also inherited by the spin-off movements of Ariosophy and Anthroposophy and ultimately contributed to the renewed New Age boom of the 1960s to 1980s, the term New Age itself deriving from Blavatsky's 1888 The Secret Doctrine.

In the early 20th century, Western occultists influenced by Hinduism include Maximiani Portaz – an advocate of "Aryan Paganism" – who styled herself Savitri Devi and Jakob Wilhelm Hauer, founder of the German Faith Movement. It was in this period, and until the 1920s, that the swastika became a ubiquitous symbol of good luck in the West before its association with the Nazi Party became dominant in the 1930s. In unrelated developments, during the same time Jiddu Krishnamurti, a South Indian Brahmin, was promoted as the "vehicle" of the messianic entity Maitreya, the so-called World Teacher, by the Theosophical Society.

Another early Hindu teacher received in the west was Sri Aurobindo (d. 1950), who had considerable influence on western "integral" esotericism, traditionalism ("Perennialism") or spirituality in the tradition of René Guénon, Julius Evola, Rudolf Steiner, etc.

Neo-Hindu movements 1950s–1980s

During the 1960s to 1970s counter-culture, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (ISKCON or "Hare Krishna"), Guru Maharaj Ji (Divine Light Mission) and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (Transcendental Meditation movement) attracted a notable western following, founding religious or quasi-religious movements that remain active into the present time. This group of movements founded by charismatic persons with a corpus of esoteric writings, predominantly in English, is classed as founding, proselytizing religions, or "guru-ism" by Michaels (1998).[2]

Hatha Yoga was popularized from the 1960s by B.K.S. Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois and others. However, western practice of Yoga has mostly become detached from its religious or mystic context and is predominantly practiced as exercise or alternative medicine.

Since the 1980s, Mata Amritanandamayi and Mother Meera (the "Divine Mother", self-identifying as an avatar of Shakti) have been active in the west.

Hindu migration to Western countries

Substantial emigration from the (predominantly Hindu) Republic of India has taken place since the 1970s, with several million Hindus moving to North America and Western Europe. In 1913, A.K. Mozumdar became the first Indian-born person to earn U.S. citizenship.[3]

The largest immigrant (Deshi) Hindu communities in the west are found in the United States (1.5 million), the United Kingdom (0.8 million), Canada (0.5 million), besides smaller communities in other countries of Western Europe (Germany 0.1M, Netherlands 0.1 M, France 0.06 M, Switzerland 0.03 M) and in Australia (0.2 million). Much of the Hindu presence in Canada is due to the Tamil diaspora as a result of the Sri Lankan civil war, as well as Gujarati and Punjabi immigrants from India - along with a small hindu community from the Caribbean.

Hinduism-derived elements in popular culture

Growing out of the enthusiasm for Hinduism in 1960s counter culture, modern western popular culture has adopted certain elements ultimately based in Hinduism which are not now considered necessarily practiced in a religious or spiritual setting. This concerns yoga in particular, which is widely practiced for health and fitness. As an instance, Bikram Choudhury's Bikram Yoga has attracted many celebrities.[4]

"Hinduism is attracting Western adherents through the affiliated practice of yoga. Yoga centers in the West—which generally advocate vegetarianism—attract young, well-educated Westerners who are drawn by yoga's benefits for the physical and emotional health; there they are introduced to the Hindu philosophical system taught by most yoga teachers, known as Vedanta."[5] It is estimated that around 30 million Americans and 5 million Europeans regularly practice some form of Hatha Yoga.[6] In Australia, the number of practitioners is about 300,000.[7] In New Zealand the number is also around 300,000.[8]

'In the West, a more modernized “New Age” version of Ayurveda has recently gained popularity as a unique form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).'[9]

"Vegetarianism, nonviolent ethics, yoga, and meditation—all have enjoyed spates of Occidental popularity in the last 40 years, often influenced by ISKCON directly, if not indirectly."[10]


  1. ^ "Fragments for the history of philosophy", Parerga and Paralipomena, Volume I (1851).
  2. ^ Alex Michaels "Hinduism Past and Present" (2004) Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-08952-3, translated from German "Der Hinduismus" (1998) page 22
  3. ^ Indian American#Timeline
  4. ^
  5. ^ Changing the Game: Why the Battle for Animal Liberation Is So Hard and How We Can Win It By Norm Phelps
  6. ^ P. 250 Educational Opportunities in Integrative Medicine: The a to Z Healing Arts Guide and Professional Resource Directory By Douglas A. Wengell
  7. ^ "Yoga Therapy in Australia" by Leigh Blashki, M.H.Sc.
  8. ^ "The Growing Global Interest In Yoga" Monday 16th April 2012
  9. ^ P. 56 Let Thy Food Be Thy Medicine: Plants and Modern Medicine by Kathleen Hefferon
  10. ^ P. 225 Essential Hinduism By Steven Rosen

See also

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