Where Did the Hindu Religion Spread?

by Rachael DeBrouse

Hinduism is considered the world’s oldest continually practiced religion, although it is actually composed of many different practices with similar features. It began in the Indus Valley region of the Indian subcontinent as a mixture of the Brahmanic beliefs of the Aryan-speakers and local, indigenous beliefs. Although the largest population of practitioners have remained in India -- over 800 million -- it has spread throughout the rest of the world.

Southeast Asia

One of the earliest regions that Hinduism spread to was Southeast Asia. Indian Brahmins may have arrived in the area through trade. The rulers of these regions seemed to have gravitated to them and adopted many of the Hindu religious practices as part of their own. The lasting influence on the rest of the social classes in Southeast Asia is more debatable, but Chinese works speak of the influence of India in second-century Vietnam, while Sanskrit accounts of Vedic rituals date back to fourth-century Borneo. Whether a result of immigration to the region of Indians or travelers to India bringing concepts back to their homelands, by the middle of the first millennium many people had adopted Hindu ideas and practices. However, Bali is one of few places where the religion has maintained a presence in the region, which has instead gravitated towards Buddhism.

British Colonies

As a colony of England, India was prime territory to recruit native Indians to work plantations in South American and African colonies. Guyana, in South America, has a very large Indian population, much of which is Hindu, due to the British bringing Indians to work as indentured servants starting around 1850. Likewise, Indians were brought to African countries, such as South Africa, Uganda and Ghana, for the same reasons, at approximately the same time. Over 60 percent of Uganda’s South Asian population is Hindu, although they were dispelled from the country for 20 years. Meanwhile, in South Africa, Hindus were forced to convert to Christianity, which hurt the cultural identity of the Hindus for quite some time. However, Hindu missionaries began to spring up in the country to counteract Christian missionaries, bringing with them a renewed desire to hold onto the culture and beliefs, particularly later in the 20th century with the emergence of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. In Guyana, this heritage is very important to the people, who still celebrate important Hindu religious festivals like Holi and Diwali.

Great Britain

India was once a colony of Great Britain, which had great influence on the people and culture. The familiarity with the country made it a prime choice for Indian immigration, and several waves of immigrants came through in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The majority arrived from East Africa in the late 1960s to early 1970s when they were expelled from Uganda. They arrived poor, and were forced to live in inner-cities and work blue collar jobs. As time has went on, Hindus have become highly successful in the country as students, doctors, lawyers and other well regarded professionals. They maintain a connection to the religion by means of magnificent mandirs -- temples of prayer and worship -- which showcase the growing regard of the religion in the country.

The United States

The United States' first brush with Hinduism was the result of the famous American authors Ralph Waldo Emerson and David Thoreau during the time of the Enlightenment in the mid-1800s. They were familiar with the important Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, and many of the ideas present in it were seen in their works. Decades later, in 1893, Hinduism came into the spotlight at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago when Swami Vivekananda spoke to the crowd about the religion. He focused much attention on the concept of religious unity present in Hinduism, resulting in the religion appealing greatly to the audience. One year later, he established the Vedanta Society in New York, with ones springing up in Boston and Los Angeles soon after. In 1906, the first Hindu temple was built in San Francisco, the beginning of what would become a highly temple-oriented practice of Hinduism in the United States. Temples have continually been built since that time, some directed specifically at native Indian populations and others that are open to new Euro-Indian adherents. The United States has the eighth largest Hindu population in the world, with over 1.3 million practitioners.

About the Author

Rachael DeBrouse graduated with honors from Christopher Newport University where she obtained a B.A. in English, writing concentration, and a minor in philosophy and religious studies. She has been studying religion and spirituality independently and in academic environments since high school.

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