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Julia Roberts Converts to Hinduism, Further Complicates Yoga and Hinduism Debate

in YD News

Julia Roberts went to India and all she got was a little ‘Pray’ action for her starring role in a soon to be summer blockbuster and a conversion to Hinduism! What? In the same interview for the September Elle magazine where America’s sweetheart eschews botox because she wants her kids to recognize her happy vs mad face, Ms. Roberts reveals that her entire family has embraced the Hindu religion and “chant and pray and celebrate” together at the temple, adding that she is “definitely a practicing Hindu.” News to us! Or is it? We got a clue last year when The Times of India reported that before shooting for Eat, Pray, Love in Delhi, Swami Daram Dev of Ashram Hari Mandir gave Julia’s three kidlets new names after Hindu Gods: twins Hazel and Phinnaeus as Laxmi and Ganesh, Henry as Krishna Balram. He also gave his blessing for the flick.

Oh no! Did Julia Roberts just launch the next biggest trend in Hollywood since Scientology and Kabbalah? Are we all destined to be Hindu converts? Let’s discuss.

EPL author Liz Gilbert (Julia’s role) goes to India and spends time meditating in an Ashram (in the Siddha Yoga tradition). Does this mean if you go to India as a person on a spiritual journey, or playing one in a movie, you’ll automatically go Hindu? No. Does this mean you have to buy into the Hindu religion to practice yoga? No. Will this throw a cloud of confusion over the already convoluted ‘yoga and Hinduism’ debate? You betcha! Somebody call Ganesh.

Surely, Hindu devas and devis tend to pop up in yoga class, especially in big poppa John’s Anusara style. Kali, Shiva, Durga, Vishnu, etc, are leading characters on the yoga stage, and also happen to be Hindu deities. Confusing? You tell us.

PS. We’re tickled by how USA Today presents this story with an uh oh WHo’s NExt?? angle, like it’s an epidemic…dun dun dunnn…and proceeds to point directly to Sarah Palin and her yoga dabbling, hilariously. Even better is how they link to YD’s post on SP’s offending use of sneaker-on-knee tree pose!

UPDATE 8/11/10: Suhag Shukla, co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, responds with an editorial in the Washington Post/Newsweek the same venue where Deepak and Aseem duked out their beef. According to Mr. Shukla, this celeb religion swapping should be old hat by now: Richard Gere is Buddhist, Tom Cruise turned scientologist! So Shukla responds to the Julia Roberts-Hindu news with a shrug and a “been there, done that”, because hey, isn’t America a salad bowl of religious flip-floppers who’ve already been swimming in Hindu-flavored dressing? Huh? Strange imagery aside, he points out some valid recipes for Hindu-American infusion:

Whether Americans know it or not, we’ve been embracing Hinduism for longer than most would guess. Remember that revolt against the “establishment” called the American transcendentalist movement? Yes, the one sparked by the American philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau? What inspired them? You guessed it: Hinduism. One of the earliest Hindu centers of worship in the U.S. — the Vedanta Society — was established in 1894 by Caucasian American disciples of Indian Hindu, Swami Vivekananda, after he took the first-ever World Parliament of Religions by storm. The Vedanta Society continues to have a strong “convert” and “born” Hindu following with centers across the 50 states. Let’s not forget Martin Luther King Junior and his non-violent civil disobedience movement, a movement which affords each and every one of us dignity and equal rights regardless of the color of our skin — a movement which I am also proud to know was strongly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, a practicing Hindu, and his interpretation of the Hindu concept of ahimsa or non-violence. And how about the example of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi? He may be better known as the Indian guru of the Beatles, but in the late 60s and early 70s, he boasted some one million meditation followers.

Umm…we’re not 100% with you, but we’re picking up what you’re putting down. And now the YOGA bit:

Fast forward to 2010. Is there a city left in the United States that does not have at least one yoga class or a spa that doesn’t have ayurvedic offerings? And one would be remiss to leave out Oprah — streaming into some 7.4 million households daily and using her monthly magazine as well social networks to promote the teachings of Eckhart Tolle — teachings he has said are influenced, in part, by Hindu saints Ramana Maharshi and Krishnamurthy. From the practical — yoga, meditation, vegetarianism and ayurveda to the more esoteric — belief in karma and reincarnation as well as an adherence to the trademark Hindu world view that multiple paths to the Truth can exist, core concepts of Hinduism are not only being embraced by Americans but are slowly being assimilated into the American collective conscience just as Judeo-Christian values were generations before.

Crap, here we go again. Granted this man has a total Hindu bias, he founded the foundation! We can probably all agree that there is influence, sure, but religion is individual prerogative, so you can have your yoga with or without the croutons, right?

(we’re on a roll with that salad analogy. sorry.)


24 comments… add one
  • Phyllis

    I prefer to keep yoga and religion separate. I’ll do yoga; if you want religion, that’s your choice, but not mine.

    • Ganak Shastri

      Hi, Phyllis!

      Have you ever realized that Yoga and Religion are synonyms?

      If you doubt it look up sanskrit dictionary.

      Om Tat Sat.

  • as someone who has been to India 4 times and who has seen non-Indian Hindus not allowed into the inner sanctums of temples, I wonder, i.e., if JR has truly converted, if she will be allowed into the inner sanctums of temples.

  • From the knowledge I have as one who has been to India, and has academically studied about India and its traditions, the very name ‘Hinduism’ is not very accurate, since it has so many different beliefs and sects, some contradictory to others. Originally it is all very tightly connected to the Varna (“color” – cast) system, which comes from the Purusha Sukta in the Rig Veda. The one where the gods sacrifice and dissect a huge prototype of “man” – Purusha, the original man, and from sacrificing every part of his body came all those varnas, casts we know of today. Western man isn’t one of those casts- we have no place in the varna system (‘untouchables’ don’t have a place in the system either). A person’s varna is his Dharma- by staying in his cast and acting the way he is supposed to, he keeps the “order”, the dharma- both the cosmic and the social.
    According to those beliefs one is born into a certain cast according to his karma. One cannot get out of a cast once he was born into it, and as an untouchable cannot become a Kshatrya or even Shudra, accordingly a western man, should not be able to become one either, and thus cannot actually become a Hindu. He can however accept the Hindu beliefs, the Vedas, the gods and so on.

    Yet, the Sanatana Dharma (‘Hinduism’) went through many changes during the years, starting with the Upanishads, and later on such classics as Ramayana and Mahabharata. The ideal of “Dharma” or “Order” – in a cosmic, social and personal sense began to change. In the Upanishads for example, in one story a guru accepts a student without a clear knowledge of his cast (he should be one of the upper 3 – Brahmin, Kshatrya or Vaishya ), since the boy didn’t know who his father was, and his mother was a simple servant. The guru told the boy he must be a brahmin since he speaks truthfully. Thus for the first time we see that a way of conduct or behavior can determine one’s cast, and not his birth. This was a revolutionary idea back then – about 7th century B.C, and now things have changed even more. So it should not be surprising that these days a western person can convert to Hinduism.

    In fact, the classical Yoga is a clear expression of the revolution that happened in India around the 7th century B.C – the original Yogis, would leave society and every material possession behind and go into the forest, to live alone, with minimum food, practice meditation and attain liberation. They deserted the very basis of what made ‘Hinduism’ – the Dharma, they deserted their role in the social and cosmic system of the Varna. In a way, Yoga was a revolutionary act against the known system, and in the old days there was a big conflict between Dharma and Moksha. With time philosophies such as Sankhya and Advaita emerged, different sects of Yoga also emerged. And as it is the beauty of ‘Hinduism’ – they all were accepted as legitimate paths (just as Buddha was later embraced as an avatar of Vishnu, even though Buddha went against Hinduism in his day).

    There are different paths of Yoga, obviously the westernized “yoga” mainly emphasizes Hatha yoga- the physical practices of asana and pranayama. Yet even if you look into the Yoga sutras of Patanjali it is very obvious that Yoga is not a “Godless” practice at all. For example, in Sadhana pada: 2.45. “By sacrificing all to Ishvara comes Samadhi.”
    There is the practice of Ishvarapranidhana – complete surrender and love for God, which may as well be the surrender and love for the divinity in ourselves.

    When it comes to the more subtle philosophies and practices of the system of Yoga, we may indeed often encounter a lot of reference to Hindu deities, such as Shiva, Shakti and Ganesh. Indeed Yoga is connected to Hinduism- it is its source. We do not have to believe in those deities of course, and may choose to look at them symbolically, but as one deepens his practice and studies more, there are plenty of such encounters.

    I think Yoga can certainly be practiced without the belief in Hindu deities, and without any connection to religion, but it is a practice that requires a certain level of faith in whatever it is you may want to call “God”, the infinite. Even when speaking of the asana practice, Patanjali says: 2.47. “By lessening the natural tendency (for restlessness) and meditating on the unlimited, posture becomes firm and pleasant.”

    As for Julia, she may do as she pleases, of course. I don’t think there will be many more converts to Hinduism any time soon, either. It’s not as attractive to westerners as Buddhism or Kabbalah and unlike the Kabbalah center or Scientology, it doesn’t seek any new believers.


    • A true Indian

      All English people , I will suggest , go to gym to be fit…. but If You want realize true spiritual satisfaction , healthy & keeping body & mind peaceful , then do Yoga . Yoga is just one Great element of Hinduism & there lots more . Buddhism , Jain, Sikhs are just sub-sects of Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma. That why , Hypocrites failed to bring separate Buddhism Religion in India . Its is dead. Truth always wins .. Jai Hind!!!

  • Phyllis

    Thank you for your most informative comment. Even though yoga may have been founded to align itself nicely with religion and deities, I think I can practice without any faith in my life. It isn’t required that meditation on the “unlimited” be narrowed to a form of ‘god’. It could be anything–goodness, space, natural surroundings, etc. Again, whatever works for others is fine; I just don’t want anyone to try to convert me!!!

  • Nalini. Thanks for this very interesting overview. You have one of the more interesting blog I’ve come across recently.

    My personal preference is to leave the Hindu Gods out of my Yoga. To me this actually seems pretty consistent with the Gita. Many of the Gods are mentioned there, but only in passing, and only to be totally subsumed in the oneness of the universe. (For my approach, see The Gita in a Nutshell.)

    Really enjoyed reading your comment.

    Bob Weisenberg

  • For the record, I teach yoga in West Texas, which is smack dab in the middle of the Bible belt, and I am here to testify that you don’t have to convert to Hinduism, or any variation thereof, to do yoga. As I told one woman who asked me if she’d become a Hindu if she came to my class, “No more than going to the garage makes you a car.” I do practice Kashmir Shaivism and am a practicing yogini, but as such, I do not foster my beliefs on others, nor do they try to influence me. Those who know me and my beliefs, and who respect me, also trust that I am simply following my heart and that I wish the same for them. If they want to learn what my teacher has taught me, they can take meditation classes from me, although I have even adapted those classes once or twice to incorporate some Christian philosophy so everyone can learn to meditate in a way that is comfortable to them. The philosophy comes from the human; the work gets us in touch with the divine. Who cares by which path, so long as the practitioner is comfortable with it and harms no one. Enlightenment, nirvana, heaven: they all represent the same basic goal. How we get there is unimportant. All that really matters is that we breathe into our heart and get there!

  • BB

    Dear readers please dont get misled by nalini. She has a shallow knowledge of hinduism. Varna system was never by birth, and in earlier times there was no ‘untouchables’ among hinduism. Varna or caste was defined by someones tendencies..not by birth, which is clearly written in bhagawad gita. Caste system in its present form was a decay of hinduism ( to monopolize the property of a family)- which came only after the invasions and colonialised india. I can give you umpteen examples where a shudra (say fishermen or a child whose father is unknown) was called as rishi/muni (the most revered wise men). I regret people come up with their half baked knowledge just to try maligning vedic systems of living which is also living in harmony with the nature. There were atheist or pantheist yogis in ancient times(of course much before 7 century) like kapil muni, charvaka etc . Charvaka pholosophy was degraded by his unworthy desciples, but its one among the leader of atheism. The forms of deities came much later, and they are formed to showcase gunas(manifestation of qualities). And samkhya was a part of veda itself! Hinduism is basically a pantheist religion, gods(forms) are there to guide one, also they are viewed as forms of a supreme formless(beyond guna/qualities). Yoga helps you understand that formless. One can do it without thinking abt any hindu deity and of course without any kind of conversion. As far as I know, conversion into hinduism is unnecessary and never really possible. U can call urself hindu if u like to, its most democratic religion, u can choose to pray and to the god u feel closer to. BTW I am an atheist(so far) indian, but practise yoga. If I FIND OUT there is a supreme god, I will accept him.

  • Biz

    The greatest example of one such yogi was Gautama Buddha (son of the then Hindu king Suddhadana) who did not worship any Hindu deity.
    At first the very term Hindism is wrong. Truely this is not a religion by itself rather this is the taditional Indian civilizational practices that developed over thousands of years.
    Lastly, never try to learn the Hindu philosophy from any tom, dick or harry. Best way to know about it to some extent is to read all the Vedas, Upanishads, Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita.

  • Ravi

    Interesting views. Hinduism is a way of life. It is not the name of organised religion. Within the broad definition of Hinduism we have Jains, Buddhists, Vedantists etc.
    Caste and Creed ! Spare us. This is no longer an issue among educated indians especially in urban india. True some temples do not admit non hindus, but lots of temples admit all, irrespective of caste or colour . That is all about religious freedom right ?
    Some clubs in Bombay do not admit members not wearing footwear -nobody makes a hue and cry about this- see some similarity there ?
    Ah yes. Yoga has nothing to do with Hinduism. One of the contributors has quoted from Patanjali. Nowhere in the yoga sutras does patanjali refer to any God, Hindu or otherwise.
    I was born in India and am an Indian and Hindu. However, Hinduism and Spirituality are two different animals !

  • Wundermonk

    Hmm…I can see people are trying to answer the age-old question, “Who is a Hindu?”. Good luck trying to answer that. The question of relevance of a man-made institution commenting on religion apart, the Supreme Court of India managed the following in terms of a response: (taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindu)

    “When we think of the Hindu religion, unlike other religions in the world, the Hindu religion does not claim any one prophet; it does not worship any one god; it does not subscribe to any one dogma; it does not believe in any one philosophic concept; it does not follow any one set of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not appear to satisfy the narrow traditional features of any religion or creed. It may broadly be described as a way of life and nothing more.”

    More recently, they managed the following: (taken from http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Name-immaterial-practice-is-what-counts-for-being-a-Hindu-SC/articleshow/6526489.cms)

    “Hinduism appears to be a very complex religion. It is like a centre of gravity doll which always regains its upright position however much it may be upset. Hinduism does not have a single founder, a single book, a single church or even a single way of life.”

    I guess one may be a Muslim/Christian and practice yoga, although I have doubts if one would be able to progress spiritually if one believes in the “my-way-or-the-highway” philosophy put forward by the Quran/Bible.

    Personally, I do believe Hinduism is a way of life. You may be born/brought up in different cultures. But if you believe in the validity of simultaneous existence of multiple pathways to “God(s)” (who knows how many Gods are out there, if at all) and multiple expressions of such beliefs, you may be practising Hindu philosophy without your knowledge even if you vehemently detest being labelled a Hindu.

    It is really not fair to compare Islam/Christianity which are fairly doctrinal in their beliefs with Hinduism which is really a huge tent under which many different tenets and practices co-exist.

  • alan

    you have got hinduism completely wrong and you are all misguided, if you want to know sanatana dharma then you must read the Bhagavad Gita by his divine grace Srila Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement

  • Samjay S. Devkar

    The worlds first ever and the last one and only “Dharma” i.e. a moral code of conduct and not a religion; this dharma stresses only and only on protecting the creations of the creator, we as the representatives of this saga are stressing on our ethos of sustainability.
    At FMP with the support of our skills “creative conceptualising” we are all set to bridge the gap between the creative media and the corporate world; as CSR.
    Please learn our wall on Facebook [CSR Bharat India] and provide us your views, helping us to go beyond our capabilities to re-establish “Sustainability”.
    Our earth is a home for all the creatures; thus we all should live as a family,

  • concerned

    I think it might be a good idea to be very wary of lauding film stars religious convictions, whether devout or no, as something to be emulated. More often than not such persons become the most monumental of embarrassments (due to their rather excessive lifestyles and professions), or have a tendency to trivialize whatever they have attached their names to. So it might a good rule of thumb for religious institutions and their periodicals, newspapers, websites, etc., to mention such things only in the most casual of ways or not at all.

  • jay

    yaga is for body and yoga is for mind. yoga for body is just like going to gym. where as yoga for mind is like going to mental gym. we are souls and supreme soul is god. supreme soul never take birth so he is full of power. detaching our mind from body and attaching to supreme soul is like connecting to batery for charging. this is true religion. hinduism islam and others came later on in worship mode. knowledge is i am soul and supreme soul is god. if i am the soul full of power then i dont need supreme soul. i only seek supreme when i am dried up. shiv is supreme soul. a shining star. and you are eternal and you were once a shining star. long time ago when you wake up in the morning your face shines . now your face is grumpy. so do effort to for shining face. that is sri math. means elivated religion. om shanti………………

  • Prabhat Chauhan

    The fact is that…The Yoga is one of the six limbs of Hinduism/Santan Dharma .It is NOt Bhuddhism ,NOt Jainism,Not Sikhism,Not Christanity..NOt Islam..It is basically required for the spritual Upliftment of the Human Beings…Read Yog Sutras of Patanjali..If you Want to have full benefit of Yoga ..you have to Embrace Sanatan Dharma/Hinduism…You Can convert to HInduism in your local temple where Shuddhi Yajna and Namkarnam has been done…To be frank with you if you are doing yoga…then offcourse you are HIndu ..Because the meaning of yoga itself is to Unite your Soul body with one Supreme God ..and which is Santan Dharma

  • madhu parmar

    Hinduism is one religion that no one can formally convert to. You’re either born Hindu, or if its teachings and philosophy appeal to you you can follow them in your life, but there is no such thing as “converting” to Hinduism. I think Julia Roberts and the Swami who “initiated” her are out to gain publicity, that’s all. Yoga and Hinduism are mistakenly percieved as synonymous – just because you are into yoga doesn’t make you a Hindu, although it evolved from the ancient Hindu scriptures and therefore refers to explanations made by Patanjali and other sages.

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