02/05/2015 09:49 am ET Updated Apr 07, 2015

Towards a New Generation of American Hindu Leaders

Does one have to go to a temple to be considered a devout Hindu? More importantly, can one be a Hindu leader without any formal theological training?

One of the most striking things about religious identities in America is how much notions of faith are tied to both culture and what can best be described as "scales of religiosity." Across the United States, more people are identifying as unaffiliated with any religion. As a 2012 Pew survey on religion and public life noted, "nones" are growing in number, but it's not as simple as a binary between believers and non-believers. The idea of being spiritual versus being religious is something that many young people are embracing, in part due to the perceived stigma around what it means to be religious (i.e., socially/culturally conservative and closed-minded).

Much of that definition of religion and spirituality comes from longstanding debates among practitioners of Abrahamic faiths and the concern that leaders within those communities have had about maintaining relevance, especially among young people. Religion in the American landscape is defined often by the quantity of worship (how many times one goes to a house of worship) rather than the quality and depth of one's spiritual journey.

For Hindu Americans, however, that conversation has gone quite differently, in part because religiosity can be highly individualized, thus providing the space for the direct and personal experience that spirituality is typically believed to offer. Hindus can be religious without being ritualistic, or spiritual with a robust ritual practice. This has created a diversity of who self-identifies as Hindu and how Hinduism is practiced.

Recently, my friend (and fellow HuffPost blogger) Varun Soni spoke with actor Arjun Gupta (How to Get Away With Murder) and comedian Aakash Singh about the need to define a Hindu-American identity proactively rather than simply ape the definitions used by members of other faiths in America.

Hindu Americans aren't defined by a scale of religiosity. Mindy Kaling, Ricky Williams, and Julia Roberts, for example, are as Hindu as a priest at a temple, though their level of practice or knowledge might obviously be different. And while Hindu philosophy emphasizes the role of gurus, or learned teachers, it is also fluid and open enough to recognize that everyone's own path is how they choose to define and follow it.

An African-American Hindu would likely have a different daily practice of the faith than a Hindu who was born in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (even if they have philosophical similarities), just as a Sri Lankan Hindu's practice might differ greatly from that of a Trinidadian Hindu. In short, the diversity of Hinduism and the fact that there isn't a scale of religiosity makes it all the more important to cultivate the idea of Hindu American leaders without being tethered to theological, cultural, ritualistic, or sectarian considerations.

As Soni rightly suggests, today's Hindu-American leaders can be lawyers or doctors, and just as easily be cab drivers and general contractors. They are also Miss Americas, surgeon generals, and members of Congress. Equally important is the fact that Hindu leaders can operate as leaders in the secular realm on the same level as those who come from religious centers. It's about how Hindu Americans articulate their identities in the public sphere and how their actions reflect the universal Hindu ideas of dharma, karma, and seva.

Today many of the Hindu-American leaders aren't from the temple-building or even the temple-attending generation, nor do they necessarily have a cultural/ethnic connection to the Indian subcontinent. Instead, they draw inspiration from how Hindu teachings impact their daily lives, particularly those emphasizing goodwill and service to others and the inherent pluralism that is the bedrock of Hindu scripture. They're also more willing to self-identify than in previous generations of Hindu Americans, a likely result of the Hindu population in the United States being more ethnically, culturally, philosophically, and geographically diverse than ever.

What we may be seeing, as Soni notes, is American Hinduism adapting to the same shifts that other religious communities are experiencing in terms of faith in the country's social fabric. If Oprah Winfrey can be seen as a faith leader, then it can be said that public figures who embrace their Hindu identity and lead in the civic realm can be looked at in the same light. In other words, to inspire others with your own faith doesn't necessarily require religious vocational training or connection to religious centers.

With that said, the opportunity exists for Hindu Americans to take on leadership roles in interfaith dialogue, community empowerment, civil rights, environmental protection, and even mobilization efforts like voter registration. The question is whether Hindu Americans can seize such an opportunity and become a vital part of the public sphere. As my colleague Suhag Shukla suggests, the community -- in all of its beautiful diversity and varying scales of religiosity -- is transitioning from self-consciousness to self-confidence.

Hopefully, with that self-confidence comes Hindu leadership on the gamut of issues we face today.