Buddhists identify the sangha – or community – as one of the Three Jewels or Refuges of Buddhism. Many Hindu teachers likewise emphasize the importance of satsang or good company. In my experience, they’re right to do so. A supporting community is essential to one’s own spiritual practice.
For about four years, I was a practicing Hindu. A few people had tried to warn me that Hinduism is an ethnic religion and is inaccessible to Westerners. One of the warnings was totally off-base. I was told that since I was not born into a caste that I just technically cannot be a Hindu. No Hindu I met ever seemed to care about that. But other warnings turned out to be meaningful.
Some folks said that Hinduism is as much a culture as a religion. That it isn’t a universal religion like Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam. Therefore, Westerners can’t really be a part of it.
Many Westerners have taken that to heart by adopting a Hindu/Indian culture along with being religiously Hindu. Subramuniyaswami, for example, argued that Westerners, like himself, who want to be Hindus must, for example, legally adopt an Indian name and socialize with Indians. In general, people must, as much as possible, adopt the Indian culture that sustains Hinduism. Failure to do so, he says, leads to “ardha-Hindus” or “half-Hindus” whose commitment eventually fails. The Hare Krishnas also at least modify their names, often dress in Indian clothing, and adopt other aspects of Indian culture. These two organizations successfully sustain a Western Hinduism and sustain the practice of individual Western Hindus.
I rejected the arguments of the naysayers. And I was welcomed at a temple by a community of Indian immigrants and their children. Many people there taught me about Hinduism and how to participate in the rituals. Our Swami was especially helpful and open. He and the temple priest put together an initiation ritual for me to formally induct me. What more could I ask for?
But, in the end, I never felt like I fit in – despite the best efforts of my fellow congregants. Another white American did fit. Then again, she seemed more comfortable adopting aspects of Indian culture. I am so interested and invested in my ancestry, culture, and history that I could never open myself to that aspect of Hinduism. I wanted to be Hindu, not Indian. I went to my temple less and less. Eventually I stopped going altogether. I wasn’t open to the cultural matrix of Hinduism and, consequently, I became alienated from Hinduism. Without the sustaining community, my individual practice waned as well.
So what was I to do? The Buddha was Hindu. But he, for various reasons, said forget the ritual, forget the scriptures; let’s go back to basic principles and personal experience. I followed in his footsteps. Fortunately, Buddhism has taken root in perfectly American soil. For fifty or sixty years now, Americans have built their Buddhist groups, practices, and institutions. I can find a community of fellow American practitioners to help sustain my own practice.
The “sangha,” along with the Buddha and the teachings – the other two Jewels or Refuges – helps us along towards our awakening. I believe in the importance of a sustaining community for spiritual practice. I felt its value and I have missed it when it was absent.
It is the sangha that was missing for me in my experience of Hinduism. I recognize that my alienation from Hinduism says more about me than it does about Hinduism in the West. Nonetheless, Westerners should be honest about the difficulties involved. It is at least easier if one’s sangha is rooted in one’s own culture.