09/06/2013 01:53 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2013

How Do We Move Discussions About Hinduism Beyond India?

Over the past few months, I've met with educators around the country eager to learn how to better teach about Hinduism to their students. While I've gotten my fair share of the expected questions (caste, karma, reincarnation), one question continues to be a challenge and opportunity: How can teachers explain Hinduism in a way that moves outside of India?

First, we do have to acknowledge that Hinduism's roots are in India (and geographically, modern-day Pakistan), and that more than 90 percent of the world's 1 billion Hindus live there. Yet Hinduism's legacy is etched across the globe, notably like the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia or ones in China. But Hinduism's spread across the world has been obscured by the fact that present-day Hindu populations are often a small minority in their respective countries, with the notable exceptions of Nepal and Mauritius, where they are the majority, Sri Lanka (majority religion among Tamils), and Caribbean nations such as Guyana and Trinidad, where they make up a plurality or a significant minority (both countries currently have Hindu heads of state).

Many educators here in the United States often deal with the following realities: a) there aren't any students who identify as Hindu in their classes (or at least that they know of); b) the students who usually self-identify as Hindu are Indian-American; and c) there isn't necessarily a push by Hindu families who don't identify as Indian-American to get their views heard. For teachers who want to teach about Hinduism as a global religion, it is tough to move out of the India-centric paradigm. However, without this broader context, it can lead to feelings of isolation among Hindu students whose ancestry is outside of India. I had an eye-opening conversation years ago with a Hindu American of South African descent who said she never felt comfortable with her school's insistence on conflating her religious identity with India. She also insisted that folks not label her as an Indian since her family's roots in South Africa traced back to the 19th century.

Her story is a potential shared lesson for both teachers and members of the Hindu-American community, who often fuel the narrative of inextricably linking Hinduism with India. That has the unintended consequences of shortchanging Hindu influence across the globe and leaving out emerging populations of Hindu Americans, including those from the Caribbean, Bhutan, and Malaysia, to name a few. Just as many textbooks and social studies lesson plans highlight the global reach of the Abrahamic religions and even Buddhism, perhaps doing the same for Hinduism would bring us one step closer to acknowledging its role on the global stage.

In the meantime, educators who are interested in moving discussions about Hinduism beyond ancient India (some textbooks continue to imply that Hinduism somehow became irrelevant in the modern era) have numerous resources at their disposal. For example, the Himalayan Academy's What is Hinduism? chronicles the expanse of Hindu influence from the ancient era to the modern times, including detailed explanations of how Hindu philosophies and practices differ across the world. Other online resources are available as well, and teachers with specific needs aligning to their local standards or course syllabi can find just about anything they need.

This is by no means an overnight process, which is why it will be a challenge to move classroom discussions about Hinduism from exclusively India in the short term. Some educators might find it difficult to move away from long-established templates that have, for the most part, gone unchallenged. It could also be true that some Hindu-American community leaders, especially those who still have deep ties to India, may also find it problematic to embrace Hinduism as not exclusively Indian, just as many have grappled with issues of intercultural marriages within the Hindu community and from an increasing number of non-Indians converting into the religion (despite Hinduism being a non-proselytizing faith).

But in the long run, educators and members of the Hindu-American community will find it a shared exercise in acquiring knowledge about a religion that has defied borders -- and definitions -- for thousands of years.