Guest Author - Sangeetha Ekambaram
Often when thinking of a specific religion, we might carry preconceptions of where a religion is practiced and by whom. Hinduism (like Judaism) has traditionally been bound to ethnic and cultural identity. This trait differs from religions such as Christianity, Islam or Buddhism that have deliberately expanded to various geographical locations and cultures. Hinduism originated and flourished in South Asia (modern-day India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka). To this day, the largest population of Hindus lives in South Asia. Nepal hosts the largest majority percentage of Hindus, while India hosts the largest population of Hindus.
Hinduism spread beyond South Asia primarily due to the voluntary or forced migration of populations that practiced the religion. For instance, in Malaysia the migration of Hindus in search of economic opportunity dates back to the 200 or 300 A.D. Populations from the Indian subcontinent traveled to Malaysian kingdoms for the purposes of trading goods. Historians speculate that Hinduism appeared in Indonesia during the first century A.D. probably for similar reasons. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, British colonial rule induced a new wave of Indian immigrants in Malaysia. These immigrants included indentured laborers who worked on the plantations to those assuming government jobs. In Trinidad and Tobago during the early 19th century, the British colonial government brought indentured servants from the Indian subcontinent. Hindus can also be found in other parts of the Caribbean and parts of Africa particularly South Africa for similar reasons.
Hinduism has spread and continues to spread all over the world. Large populations exist in North America, England and other countries in Europe. Most of these migrations resulted for economic opportunities. I grew up as a Hindu in the United States as a result of my parent’s immigration during the 1970s in search of job opportunities.
Adding a final picture to this portrayal of “where Hindus exist” is the relatively modern phenomenon of new religious and spiritual movements that have Hindu roots. These movements often adhere to a particular philosophical system or spiritual teacher (guru). They have followers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds beyond South Asia. Furthermore, the practitioners of these traditions often do not identify themselves as Hindu but might follow certain practices that are direct expressions of a Hindu tradition or have Hindu roots. One example is the Vedanta movement, which started in India based on the teachings of the renowned spiritual figure Ramakrishna. The movement now finds adherents all over the world.
As you can see, the answer to the question “Where do Hindus exist?” has many complicated answers as well as angles by which to approach it. In some ways it is fair to say that Hinduism is bound to ethnic identity and has been firmly established all over the world because of various migrations of people from the subcontinent. However the issue of modern religious and spiritual movements questions this assumption while also expanding our idea of exactly how widespread the religion is.