Hinduism is believed to be the world’s oldest religion, with customs and practices dating back more than 4,000 years. With about 900 million followers, Hinduism is the world’s third-largest religion behind Christianity and Islam. Roughly 95 percent of the world’s Hindus live in India. An estimated 3.2 million Hindus live in the United States.
Hinduism encompasses diverse beliefs, traditions and philosophies. As there is no single head of Hinduism, there is no one person that speaks for all adherents. Also, many individual organizations will present Hinduism from a particular philosophical perspective. This is especially true when it comes to social issues. Every Hindu viewpoint should be represented as coming from a particular sect, from a particular spiritual teacher or from a prominent person who aligns with one of those.
Use of the term “myth” to describe Hindu epic stories is often considered pejorative in that many Hindu epics are believed to be history – either literal or poetic/symbolic history, depending on the person or lineage – and not myth in the colloquial sense of fiction. Using “myth” to describe Hindu epics can create conflict with those who see it as belittling their tradition. Calling them epics, or itihas (literally, ‘history’) to use the Sanskrit term, is more accurate and respectful.
The Mahabharata (which contains the Bhagavad Gita and is the longest poem in the world) and the Ramayana are the most popular and important of these. The Ramayana is not only important to Hindus but also has variations in Buddhist culture throughout Southeast Asia.
Many Hindus believe their religion is not accurately represented by journalists, who occasionally resort to what is sometimes called a “caste, cows, and curry” (or “caste, cows, and karma”) narrative of stereotypes, sensationalism and misrepresentation. Because of this, many people in Hindu communities are sensitive to any perceived potential slight – ironically in contradiction to the generally pluralistic, open and welcoming nature of Hindu communities.
Accurate and timely demographic data on Hinduism is not always easy to find. The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) generally relies on Indian census data and the latest research by Pew. HAF is a good resource for journalists. Its site includes a media toolkit. The Religion News Association’s Religion Stylebook contains some terms and definitions.
Some of the leading Hindu lineages represented in the United States:
For academic perspectives, some professors effectively represent Hinduism as a lived tradition that is recognizable to its adherents. The following list is a good place to start: