11/09/2011 03:17 pm ET | Updated Jan 09, 2012

Should Hindus Study Hinduism?

Should Hindus Study Hinduism?

When I teach "Introduction to Hinduism" in the fall of every year most of my students are neither Hindu nor of Indian heritage. I often hear from the few Hindu students who do take my class, that their Hindu peers felt that by reason of their being Hindus, they do not need to study it. The mantra is "I was raised a Hindu, read Amar Chitra Katha comic books, and know everything I need to know already about Hinduism."

Is this true? Does birth in a tradition preclude/ recuse/ exempt one from studying it? Do occasional visits to India, or to the local Hindu temple count? Should Hindus study Hinduism?

I think that Hindus should indeed study Hinduism.

I think that college students are obliged to learn to think critically, and Hindus are obliged to become virtuoso readers of Hindu texts.

It is hard to distinguish between the question, "Should Hindus study Hinduism?" from the related questions of whether a college education ought to be mere vocational training, and whether or not students should study anything outside of their intended major. I think that any accredited "institution of higher education in the liberal arts [should be] devoted to the intrinsic value of intellectual pursuit."[1] Students should "learn and demonstrate rigor and independence in their habits of thought, inquiry and expression."[2]

Though the current economic system and accompanying congenital crises have caused many to disparage this pattern of becoming an enlightened human being, it will nevertheless survive, and may be the reason why we humans eventually persevere as a race.

So a Hindu should study Hinduism by reason of being a college student, who has chosen to learn for the sake of learning and chosen to learn to think critically. If the student, Hindu or otherwise, does not have these goals then s/he ought to drop out and seek apprenticeship with a virtuoso in the desired vocation.

A self-proclaiming Hindu ought to be able to explain who is a "Hindu" and what is "Hinduism." If such a student took a class with me then s/he would learn that the answers to these questions are thorny.

Though "Hinduism" is often heralded as the "oldest religion," it is among the youngest of the world's religions. This claim is justifiable if one examines the history of the term "Hindu" itself and its original uses. Students are often surprised to learn that Hinduism does not have a founder. Hindu students are especially surprised to learn that Persians developed the term "Hindu" and that they used it as a geographical, rather than a religious, term. The term referred to the country where one finds the Indus River and to the people who inhabited this land. The term slowly evolved (devolved?) into a religious one when it was used by Muslims, by Christian missionaries, by British colonizers and later appropriated by colonized Hindu[3] reformers. Consequently the term has developed a life of its own and, ironically, has become the means by which the majority of Hindus self-identify. Hindus ought to learn about this history and ought to learn about the multiplicity of beliefs that are now regarded as Hindu. They also ought to learn about the agendas of those who sought and seek to reify Hinduism.

Young Hindu Americans have been particularly susceptible to simplistic presentations of a unified Hinduism. They have had to offer reified and dogmatic responses to their Christian and Jewish peers. They have relied on their parents, who may have little or no knowledge of Hinduism, or who may possess only knowledge of a reified/ simplified Hinduism. Ironically, many of these parents immigrated to satisfy secular, rather than religious, drives. It was only after arriving in North America that they sought to educate themselves and, more importantly, their children about Hinduism. They collected money to build temples within which they could teach their children and renew/ reinvent/ reclaim their own Hindu beliefs and practices.

These parents created Hindu catechisms and established "Sunday schools" which propounded a reified version of Hinduism that ignored the richness and diversity of the religious traditions of India.

So should Hindus study Hinduism? Should young Hindus learn about the history of "Hinduism," of the term "Hinduism"? Should they learn that they need not offer simplifications?

Of course they should.

Not only would they get a more nuanced understanding of "Hinduism," but they may also become more enlightened human beings.

[1] Reed College Mission Statement. Parentheses are mine.

[2] Ibid.

[3] I will use the term "Hindu" and "Hinduism" hereafter without the quotation marks. This should not be taken to mean that I endorse the term. Rather, I do so in full acknowledgment of its inherently problematic nature.