How to convincingly pass for a Hindu at a temple?
March 14, 2011 7:04 AM   Subscribe

How to convincingly pass for a Hindu at a temple?

I want to show up and participate at a small Hindu temple in town. This is a very non-touristed location. The one person I've asked so far (a Hindu) seemed a little put off when I asked when services were - "It is only for Indians".

"I am Hindu," I amswered, and she told me that Fridays at 6:30 would be the best time.

Let's say I am not being completely fake, that I really do want to properly respect these gods and make connections in the small Tamil community here. Let's say I would maybe like to become a Hindu.

So what to do to not completely be wrong and give offense on the day?

Long sleeve shirt? Sandals or dress shoes? Offerings? Payments?

There are a bunch of small freestanding shrines to individual deities. Just select one, or go to them all?

Any other tips?
posted by Meatbomb to Society & Culture (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Any reason you can't speak to the religious leader at the temple and tell the truth? There is, I'm certain, a proper method for converting to Hinduism and a proper method for worship and exploration by a person considering conversion. This ain't it.
posted by decathecting at 7:08 AM on March 14, 2011 [6 favorites]

Let's say I am not being completely fake, that I really do want to properly respect these gods and make connections in the small Tamil community here. Let's say I would maybe like to become a Hindu.

....If this is really the case, why can't you just explain this to the people at the temple and say that THIS is why you want to attend, rather than doing a whole clandestine thing? I suspect that they have a "no outsiders allowed" policy because they're annoyed by people showing up just to gawk, and your explaining that you're not showing up just to gawk may make them say "oh, okay, that's different" and they'll show you what to do.

If you ARE just showing up to observe, I still am wondering -- why not just ask at the temple proper?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:08 AM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

The way to be respectful is to not lie. You are not a Hindu. Pretending to be one to gain access to Hindu temples, for whatever reason, is the definition of disrespectful.

Maybe you should ask someone you trust how to best improve your knowledge of Hinduism before you hijack their temple services because you "would maybe like" to become a Hindu.
posted by lydhre at 7:08 AM on March 14, 2011 [41 favorites]

As a Hindu and Indian, I don't think you should be doing this.
posted by anniecat at 7:13 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

You're white. You're going to stand out. People will stare at you. This may or may not be because they are offended, at your presence and/or at your behavior. You may not be able to tell. But I figure, if you identify as a Hindu then it's not wrong for you to want to do this. (To want to do this -- doing it, I'm more iffy on.)

In case you decide to go:

In my experience (which is Karnatakan and not Tamil): you wear sandals, leave them in the pile of sandals outside the door, wash your feet at the tap/pump before going in. Bring flowers and/or fruit, go to whatever shrines feature the gods you care about the most, put your offerings in the pile of existing offerings, do namaskaar (kneeling) for as long as you want to, silently praying, and put some coins in the hundi (donation box). If you want a particular puja done, there will often be a chalkboard listing the prices of various pujas the pujari (priest) will do for you. I'm assuming you don't need that and will just pray by yourself.

Don't take photos.
posted by brainwane at 7:17 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with folks who say you should find an honest way to explore your interest. That said, you may find the book How to Be A Perfect Stranger helpful.
posted by not that girl at 7:19 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

This sounds like a bad, bad idea to me unless you really truly want to become Hindu. Are you living in this town? If you tell them that you want to go to a service because you're Hindu, and then you never go again, will they believe that you're Hindu or that you were lying?

Look, seriously, there are things that Westerners (and white folks, assuming you're white) may want to visit or see or experience in foreign countries. It's totally legitimate to wish deeply to experience something. But there are things where we just need to take a step back, instead of trying to cajole or trick our way into places where we'll disrupt other people's experiences. It's humility--recognizing that even if we have the money or the sneakiness to get something, we shouldn't necessarily go ahead just because we can.
posted by Frowner at 7:24 AM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

Oh, hold on, I thought you had meant to ask "how can I pass for an Indian Hindu?" (you can't, you're white) and I missed the part where you lied and said you were a Hindu when you've given like five seconds' thought to converting. Never mind. Why in the world are you being dishonest about this?
posted by brainwane at 7:25 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

You can attend a world religions course at your local university. They usually have class visits to different places of worship, and the religious leader talks with the class about the main tenants of the religion, the liturgy in the service, and so on. This will help you with your current questions, and also your questions about converting to Judaism while being an atheist, setting up communes under the guise of a religious organization, and even your questions about setting up your own cult if you are still doing that.
posted by Houstonian at 7:30 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I didn't lie, brainwane, and I think people are reading the wrong things into my motivations. I am certainly not a conventional Tamil Hindu. But the reason I want to go there is to pray to a god that I have some connection to. The temple is mostly open air and I have been there a few times when it is completely empty - so I could just do my own thing at those times but that seems even more sneaky and inauthentic.

Anyways, I appreciate all of the advice but really, I have well heard the "don't do it" voices, and I am likely to go anyways. Maybe I will be a little more honest when I get there.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:31 AM on March 14, 2011

Again, if you "have some connection" to the god in question, why aren't you approaching the leader of this temple with your questions? I'm sure you would be welcomed with open arms and encouraged. Can you clarify why you haven't done this?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:33 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: EC: I would actually do this, but it is a little ways out in the countryside and seems to be uninhabited save for services - every time I have been there it is empty.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:37 AM on March 14, 2011

Anyways, I appreciate all of the advice but really, I have well heard the "don't do it" voices, and I am likely to go anyways. Maybe I will be a little more honest when I get there.

Maybe you will be a little more honest? You say you have some connection to a god in that temple, I'm pretty sure that god (and, more importantly, his followers) would appreciate your honesty.

What do you want to get out of the experience, if not a deeper religious connection? And how do you intend to achieve that if you are not true to others and yourself? You will get nothing out of this by lying. If you're just sightseeing (religiously or not), well, I would again advise you to think it over.
posted by lydhre at 7:38 AM on March 14, 2011

*His or her followers, obviously. I misspoke.
posted by lydhre at 7:39 AM on March 14, 2011

Why ask "So what to do to not completely be wrong and give offense on the day?" and then reject answers explaining exactly that?
posted by kmennie at 7:45 AM on March 14, 2011

The fact that you're using the word "authentic" is setting off alarm bells for me.

This isn't a restaurant. This is a place of worship, tied to an ethic and religious group of which you are not a member, and which you have previously fetishized here on askme. If you truly want to go and pray to a diety that has significance to you, either do so in private when the temple is empty, or approach the temple leaders with your request and attend services honestly with their permission.

You might also want to do some reading on cultural appropriation.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 7:51 AM on March 14, 2011 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Okay, I'm going to over look your fudging the truth to get a time from your local Hindu.

Now that you've been told the best time to go, you know there will be people there. No more of the excuse that you can't talk to a leader because the temple is empty.

Be humble and respectful. Wear respectful clothes. That means you should dress like the person you are, not like a white guy doing an impression of a Hindu. Wear nice slacks (or jeans if you don't own slacks) and a long sleeved shirt.

Be humble. Start outside the temple. Find somebody about to go in and ask to see one of the leaders. Then truthfully tell them why you're there. Tell them you really feel a connection to one of the gods and that you want to worship respectfully. Ask them what your next step should be.

I'll say it again, BE HUMBLE AND RESPECTFUL. If you don't just want to mess around then they will welcome you with open arms and you'll get the full experience.

If you are just messing around then you should just set up your own little shrine at home and leave the people who take this kind of thing very seriously alone.
posted by TooFewShoes at 7:56 AM on March 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Um, yeah, just go and be honest. I teach a comparative religions class and I require my students to attend religious services for a diversity of religions. Many choose to go to a local Hindu temple where, yes, they stand out like sore thumbs. There are no tourists here. They are always welcomed as guests and observers and there is often someone eager to give them a tour or talk to them about the temple, given the less regimented nature of worship there than in most Christian services where everyone participates in the same way at the same time. The community is actually pretty delighted to have them because they're a small minority locally and they really want the wider community to understand they are "just like everyone else," normal, non-threatening, life-affirming, peace-loving, all that stuff. (Rather than a popular local rumor among the less-educated that they spend all their time sacrificing goats. I mean, srsly, whut? They didn't even get the sacred cow confused, they just went right to goats?) Visitors coming to them helps promote understanding.

And, yes, they have several "white" converts in the community, so it's not unheard of and they are welcome.

If you're going to go, be HONEST. Show that respect to the religion you claim to be interested in, to the community, and to yourself. Lying about religion is disrespectful and distasteful. If you can't be honest and respectful, don't go.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:30 AM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Being fully aware of the centuries of discrimination man invented for people, Hinduism as a philosophy talks about inclusion, not some passé notion that Hinduism and its practices are reserved for those born into the culture. And in fact, while growing up, I have seen many non-South Asians/non-Indian diaspora (read: white and black people) participate in Hindu ceremonies. For many years while I was growing up in Virginia, we even had a white American priest!

Clearly, understanding Hinduism and actively participating in it starts somewhere, and everyone is certainly right that the way to go about that is very key. All Hindu temples do services open the greater public for whichever occasion (Diwali, Ugadi, etc.). However, all Hindu temples also do private puja (prayer ceremony) for people who pay separately.

Since you already know a Hindu in your area, I would ask her to go with you to talk to one of the priests directly OR to see if there is anyone who is a member of the temple that teaches classes on Hinduism. (Most temples have classes for children.) Explain to either the priest or the teacher what you are interested in seeing, and say that is just for you to understand Hinduism better. Even if your friend doesn't want to go with you, you could still ask any potential teacher yourself. Assuming you do the gestures mentioned above to be culturally appropriate, I bet you they would suggest you either come back for one of the pujas, or pay the priest to do a private one/explain the puja.

One piece of advice that has been alluded to already: If you show a genuine interest in what is going on, don't cheapen the tone by even suggesting you are doing this to mock anyone, or purposely be disrespectful.
posted by msk1985 at 8:31 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: How to convincingly pass for a Hindu at a temple?

You won't, not if it's a place that, as your friend said, is seen as being for Indians.

I bet any temple (regardless of religion) of any size and denomination has at least a few people who are only going through the motions, who don't really believe there's anything supernatural going on and don't believe the party line. They go because they're expected to go, because it helps them to maintain their social standing, because they like participating in the traditions of their ancestors, etc., and those temples don't explode or burn down because they're there without believing exactly what a true Scotsman is supposed to believe. I can't see any problem with you or anyone else being one of them for a day provided you don't disrupt the people who actually believe the stuff.

But the long-time fakers know how to avoid offending the ritualists by knowing exactly when to kneel, when to bow, when to sit, when to stand, when to throw themselves on the floor, when to kiss this or that piece of stone, and when to light up a bit of smelly stuff and blow smoke around. They know all the words to the songs and chants and won't accidentally yell out when they're supposed to be quiet. You'll never get the routine down on such short notice. Moreover, your appearance will always be wrong to a certain set of the locals, and some of them will think you're mocking them if you dress like they dress but inauthentic if you don't dress like they dress.

Your best bet is to wash your feet, wear shoes that are easy to kick off, and otherwise spiff yourself up like you're going to a wedding. Then publicly and obviously latch yourself on to a respected local, maybe a religious leader or a local elder, someone people would listen to in a religious argument. Convince that person that you're in it with all respect and do exactly as you are told.
posted by pracowity at 9:06 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Whoever told you that the temple services was only for Indians was clearly not a genuine Hindu. This is a photograph I took outside a Tamilian Hindu temple, one of hte oldest in Singapore. The board clearly states:

All are welcome.

This place of holiness is for people of all religions and races

There is no conversion required.

Everyone is deemed to be a Hindu.

Just wash your feet to enter.

Ask to join the prayer service at the time stated and ask for explanations. Otherwise wander around on your own, nobody will stare or disturb you. I'm surprised at this thread's negativity.

~ born into a Hindu family in India type speaking
posted by infini at 9:08 AM on March 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks to all, this is really useful advice and I feel much more positive about going now.

I should point out that my conversation was really limited by her tiny English and my zero Bahasa Malaysia. So "It is only for Indians," was probably not a categorical, just her small way of explaining with the language she had. "I am Hindu," was my way of grading my language to her... as you can see this is a complex topic, and given our limited communication I would not really be able to unpack everything for her.

Glad that the forces of light have triumphed here. :)
posted by Meatbomb at 9:13 AM on March 14, 2011

I asked a question that is related to this. My experience was that I showed up, participated in the service, was as polite as I could be, and everyone was seemed OK with that. This was in suburban San Jose which is also not a heavily touristed area but probably not in the sense you mean it. Everyone other than me, African American, and my Italian friend appeared to be Indian but I didn't get any weird vibe off of that.
posted by rdr at 9:33 AM on March 14, 2011

Glad that the forces of light have triumphed here.

With all due respect, I don't think the "forces of darkness" ever were in this thread, and the skepticism you were getting was more a reaction to your initial phrasing in which you said you wanted to "pass for Hindu", which suggests that you were going to try to do this clandestinely. It was that clandestine stuff people were reacting to.

But it sounds like you've gotten another option, so yay.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:43 AM on March 14, 2011 [6 favorites]

In my (Hindu, Indian) opinion, the easiest way to do this to go with someone, a local guide so to speak. This person should be able to escort you inside and maybe even tell you what is expected. Don't wear or do anything that would stand out. Don't ask anyone in the temple anything, walk as if you know what you're doing. Good luck.
posted by dhruva at 10:41 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Tamil Indian-American here.

Conversion process? I've never heard of such a thing. Exclusion? No way. I say go for it, as long as you're honest, respectful and more or less quiet.

Even growing up in the 80's it was common to see one or two white Americans at any given Sunday visit to my temple. It was fine. Some people would stare at them, but more out of simple curiosity than anything else. Don't be put off by it.

The "It's only for Indians" message you received may be her limited English. I can see how that could be intended to say "People only speak Tamil here, you won't understand anything, and you will be totally lost unless you're already familiar with this stuff." Which is a good point. Having an Indian friend accompany you might be helpful.

Remember to take off your shoes. No one will tolerate someone who walks into the worship areas tracking mud everywhere.

Someone said dress like you're going to a wedding - um, not in my experience. Pretty sure you'll be fine with jeans and a t-shirt.
posted by naju at 2:39 PM on March 14, 2011

(Oh, unless you have tattoos or something, then it might be good to cover up with long sleeves.)
posted by naju at 2:47 PM on March 14, 2011

Just a small P.S. to the good answers above -- there are a few temples in south India that don't allow admittance to non-Hindus, but this is an official policy, formally posted usually near the entryway of the temple.
posted by artemisia at 4:31 PM on March 14, 2011

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