Q: I have heard that one must be born a Hindu, and that one may not "convert" to Hinduism in the same way that one may convert to Christianity. Raja yoga and hatha yoga, which are both Hindu traditions that point to liberation are contemporarily practiced by Westerners. Is it, according to Hindu philosophy, futile for a Westerner to practice yoga in the hopes of attaining samadhi? Can samadhi only be reached by Hindus?
A: Let’s put it this way: Hinduism is not a “membership” kind of religion. In other words, in contrast to other religious organizations, one cannot simply point to a universal initiation ceremony and say that anyone who has gone through that ritual now is a member of the group. Hinduism is a very complex religion, involving world views, many different forms of beliefs and rituals, and multiple levels of social interaction. So, if you are looking for a point of “conversion” into Hinduism, it would be very difficult to put your finger on such a thing.
Let’s make a contrast with Islam, for example. One becomes a Muslim so long as one sincerely affirms the confession, “I give witness that there is no God but Allah, and that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” From that point on a person is a Muslim; whether he is a good Muslim or a bad one remains to be determined, but a Muslim he is. By contrast, then, there is no such point of entry into Hinduism. The very nature of the religion demands a self-identification on many different levels, which simply is not possible with a simple declaration.
Furthermore, let us remember that in its truest sense Hinduism is a social system as well as a set of beliefs and practices. To be a Hindu traditionally has meant to participate in Hindu society, complete with the caste system and its rigid rules. Although there is extremely wide latitude within Hinduism as to beliefs (even to the point of permitting atheism, as in the Samkhya school), to deny the Brahmanic system means to exclude yourself from Hinduism (as happened, for example when Buddhism broke off from Hinduism). However, even though you can leave the Hindu social system by your actions, it is not possible to join it or to improve your standing in it. Those who are fenced out from it, such as the dhalits, cannot break into it. Thus, if we are talking about someone’s full participation in traditional Hindu society, there is also no possibility for conversion into it.
Having said as much, there is no good reason why someone, such as a Westerner, should not be able to take up the practices of Hinduism. This is particularly true because much of the time when this happens, the Westerners do not actually pick up Hinduism in its most widespread Indian forms, but are more likely to focus on one of the yogic or Vedantic schools, such as you mention. There are a number of questions surrounding this practice:
1. Is it still Hinduism? Many times when Westerners decide to practice Hinduism, it is not so much Hinduism that they follow as some religion of their own making in which they accept the parts of Hinduism that appeal to them and reject the parts that they don’t care for. Hinduism then becomes a vague cover term for an essentially Westernized mysticism with a few Hindu buzzwords.
2. Is it a conversion? Strictly speaking, a “conversion” takes place when someone turns away from one belief and towards another one. Simply adding a new set of beliefs or practices to those one already holds to would not really be a conversion in the literal sense.
3. Is it yoga? Let’s face it: much of what is touted as “yoga” in the western world is an embarrassment to Hinduism and the profound philosophies that are enacted by serious yogins and yoginis. The asanas (physical postures) and pranayama (breath control) are only a small part of true yoga as elaborated by, say, Patanjali or the Bhagavad Gita. To label as “yoga” the sight of men and women in tight nylon outfits wrapping themselves in pretzel shapes and thinking beautiful thoughts for the sake of weight control make as much sense as someone partaking of Christian communion for the nutritional value of the Vitamin C in grape juice.
4. Is it worthwhile? Still, it is, of course, undeniable that there are Westerners who are spending their entire lives pursuing the goals of genuine Hindu religion by way of Hindu methods of attainment. Furthermore, since in practice the yogic schools often separate themselves from the prevailing social order, there is nothing within the Hindu philosophies themselves that should prevent the realization of these goals by serious foreign-born practitioners. Moreover, I cannot question that many of these folks may be experiencing certain trance-like states, which they identify as samadhi. However, I cannot get away from the question if, when all is said and done, they have done anything ultimately worthwhile. The problem is that the yogic systems are enmeshed in far-flung conceptual systems that contain many disputable assumption concerning the nature of reality and the human person. If one is serious about the quest, one does not just take up yoga and hope for something really cool to happen; one must commit oneself to a particular way of seeing the world.
Now, this question-and-answer format does not permit my going into lengthier explications of the philosophies underlying yoga, so let me just mention the most popular two. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali advocate a picture of reality in which there is an absolute dualism between the soul (purusha) and matter (prakriti). The point of Patanjali’s yoga is for purusha to find liberation from prakriti, in other words, for your soul to distance itself from all physical things, including your body. Is that what you believe? Then again, in the Bhagavad Gita the underlying picture is one in which all humans are enmeshed in the strands of karma and uncountable reincarnations. The point of the yoga in this book is to devote yourself utterly in spirit, mind, and body to the service of Krishna, the Lord of the Universe. Is that what you believe? My point is that you don’t get true yoga for free; it comes with the price of committing yourself to, not only a set of exercises and spiritual experiences, but also some very problematic beliefs.
At issue is whether yoga really solves the right problem for a person. Let us say that there is a treasure waiting for me in another country across the ocean. I begin to prepare myself for traveling to that country and living in it in order to claim this treasure. So, I learn the language of this country; I acquire the customs of its people; I set up elaborate schedules for my life once I’m there; and I even convince myself from time to time that I have already arrived. But I never actually make the trip, and so I miss out on the treasure. I’m afraid yoga is in many ways like that. It focuses on individual persons and the cultivation of their souls, and, depending on the particular framework, it may even include devotion to a god. However, a well-disciplined soul, even one that may have attained the state of samadhi, is still a soul that is bound by its sins and separated from God for all of eternity. The spiritual work-outs of yoga, so to speak, do not bring a person any closer to the treasure of salvation that God has awaiting for us because of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
There is a reason why “conversion” has become such an important issue in Christianity and why it would not be a term normally associated with, say, Hinduism. This is because the Bible teaches that in our natural state, all human beings are in a sinful, fallen condition, even if they are born into a nominally Christian context, and all of their attempts at spiritual perfection (whether described as yoga or in some other way) fail to solve this fundamental problem. It takes a conversion, that is to say, for a person to consciously place their faith in Jesus Christ, to receive salvation from God. So, as you think about the question of “conversion” in Hinduism, let me encourage you also to think about the need for conversion as it is taught in the Bible.