Editor’s Note: I am very proud to publish this interview with Carolyn “Ambaa” Choate, a Hindu of choice, born in the United States of pure Caucasian descent. Based in Maryland, Ambaa manages an excellent blog called The White Hindu where she expounds on her experiences and learnings of Hinduism with profound clarity and depth. When I accidentally came across Ambaa’s site, I immediately felt the strong desire to reach out to her for an interview.
The question and answer session transcribed below from early July 2015 turned out to be far more interesting than I could have hoped for. Ambaa is indeed a unique and courageous person, as are her parents, and this interview has focused on questions seeking to explore her special journey.
You mentioned that you came across Hinduism through your parents, who were involved in meditation and philosophy based on Vedic traditions. As an adult, how did you choose this path for yourself?
AMBAA: It was when I moved out of my parents’ house and went to college that I began to see my experience in a new perspective. It took me a few years to sort through my own beliefs and try out different worship styles and religions to figure out where I fit. What I grew up with had a huge influence on me, still. I experimented with letting go of beliefs I learned from a young age but many of them stuck with me, just feeling right.
How did your parents come to join that Vedic organization originally?
AMBAA: It was a few years before I was born so I just know the stories as they are told to me. My understanding is that my father moved to Massachusetts for school and was also looking for some deeper meaning in life. He saw an ad for the School of Practical Philosophy and started going. This was the mid 1970s. My mom wasn’t immediately part of it. After they got married she found his Sanskrit homework and was fascinated. She has always been great at puzzles and language. Her love for Sanskrit ushered her into the organization and she is still very dedicated to it today.
By the time I was born, both of them were deeply involved in Philosophy School (also called the School of Economic Science in the UK). I was part of a relatively small group of second generation people in the school.
After I left and found Hinduism, the organization had a schism and my parents followed the side of the split that went further into Indian philosophy. It was because of that split that I have been able to travel to India and to meet His Holiness Sri Bharati Tirtha.
Some people believe the heyday for Hindu culture in the West was in the 60’s and 70’s. Do you think Hinduism has the ability to spread further in the United States and other Western countries in the future, especially among those of non-Indian ethnic backgrounds?
AMBAA: I am the direct result of that heyday!
I think Hinduism still has a lot of ability to spread in the West but it’s a little different now. It seems to me that in the 60s and 70s people saw Indian philosophy as perfect and better than everything in the West. Now I think there’s some amount of disillusionment, some feelings that every philosophy has problems. We’re a jaded bunch these days.
There’s a more cautious growth of Hinduism in this age. While some people see only the problems in all religions and cultures and societies, I feel that we need to see how many religions and cultures have different strengths and weaknesses and we can find the best in each of them. We don’t need to throw away everything the west has accomplished but to balance it with the best ideas from the east.
Racism may get in the way a bit too. It seems difficult for some Americans to accept that a better way might come from a “third world” country. Non-Indians also need to learn to approach becoming Hindu while maintaining respect for where Hinduism comes from. We need to respect and care for India and Indians because they gave Hinduism to the world. It doesn’t need reinterpretation from white people. We need to approach it with a humble attitude rather than as something for us to take and change to suit our own purposes.
Have Hinduism or Hindus disappointed you in any way, and if so how?
AMBAA: There is a tendency to think that everything about your new faith is perfect and all the people are better than people in other faiths. And then you discover that people are people and in any population there are similar weaknesses that come up. Very few of us practice our faith perfectly and beyond that we all have different ideas about which parts of Hinduism are the most important to follow.
Even with a principle that God is present in the people around you and in yourself, defensiveness and fear is still as common for Hindus as for people in other faith traditions. Seeing the world as it is in Truth is challenging no matter who you are. It is not easy.
Everyone is at different stages in their journey towards moksha and we have lifetimes to get there. Whatever misinterpretations and understandings I have now will eventually be resolved and fixed. Same for everyone else. There is almost always more growth ready for us.
Do you believe your attraction to Hinduism may relate to your past life or lives?
AMBAA: Absolutely. I have no doubt about that at all. I am certain that I have done a lot of spiritual work in previous lives to get me to this point. I suspect that I was Indian in a recent past life and I wonder sometimes about what purpose there is in me being born not Indian this time. I wonder if I needed a little distance in order to appreciate all that I have in Hinduism. I can take nothing for granted in my current situation.
Have Indians you have come across been welcoming toward you and your personal spiritual journey?
AMBAA: Very much so. Most of the time when I feel unwelcome or left out it has a lot more to do with me than with other people. A lot of that is in my head! Or I want people to be super welcoming and they don’t quite know how to be. It’s so unusual to find a non-Indian person at the temple that a lot of native Hindus don’t quite know how to approach it. But the vast majority of the time when I get into a conversation with an Indian Hindu I find them to be delighted to share their faith with me.
Christian traditions tend to have a history of learning how to bring in newcomers. They often have welcome committees and social gatherings and a lot of worship is concerned with making new people feel loved and wanted. Hinduism doesn’t have traditions like that and that’s something that I think we could learn from. I’d suggest that leaders in Hindu temples and worship groups observe and learn from how Christian groups respond to visitors and new people.
Do you think it’s OK for Americans who aren’t well-versed in Hinduism, to display bindis or other Hindu apparel?
AMBAA: This is a tricky one for me. I feel that wearing a bindi is pretty much the only thing I can do to express my faith outwardly. No one is going to look at me and think that I’m Hindu and that bothers me. The base assumption is always that I am Christian or Jewish. A bindi is a way for me to show my faith. When people who are not Hindu wear it, then my symbol of my faith becomes meaningless. I am left with no way to indicate to the world that I am Hindu. Maybe that shouldn’t matter, but it is something that matters to me.
I agree with you completely that Hinduism is for everyone but for pop stars wearing bindis it has nothing at all to do with religion and they wear it without even knowing that it is Hindu at all. I’m not going to get angry about it or waste my energy on it but it does bother me.
As an example, when someone sees a hijab, they know what that means. It is completely and totally connected to Islam. Even if someone were to put one on for fun or to experiment, the people who see them would ask about their connection to Islam. It is completely firmly linked to the faith it represents. In an ideal world I would like the bindi to be the same way. In that world when Selena Gomez put on a bindi magazines would be full of articles like “Is Selena Hindu?” or “Is Selena Becoming Hindu?” and then she might say, “No, I just liked how it looked” and that would be fine. It would be an exception. That’s how strongly I would like to see bindis associated with Hinduism.
Have you convinced partners, family members, friends, or others to consider or even join Hinduism?
AMBAA: I don’t think so! Through my blog I try to support others who are considering Hinduism or just starting on their path into Hinduism but I don’t think people are reading there who aren’t already interested in becoming Hindu.
I could be wrong but I think that I have opened up my parents’ way of looking at their faith. They don’t consider themselves to be Hindu but they’ve become more comfortable participating in Hindu things. My mom now takes and teaches Sanskrit classes at a Hindu temple. They have both traveled to the maat at Sringeri and paid respects to the Shankaracharya.
My husband and non-Indian friends now recognize various Hindu Gods and they pick up on and notice when Hindu issues are in the news.
I hope that my life is an example to others that the idea that “Hinduism doesn’t accept converts” is not entirely accurate. I want people to see me and realize that Hinduism is an option for them, no matter who they are.
So you have been to India. Did you visit any temples or holy sites?
AMBAA: I have been very fortunate to be able to visit India and I hope to visit much more in the future. At this point I have been twice, both times with my father. He was visiting Sringeri to meet His Holiness Sri Bharati Tirtha.
I was more aloof and skeptical my first time visiting. But over time after I got back I felt the guru working in my life and by the second trip I was his devotee. Being in his presence is unlike anything I can describe. Truly amazing.
On our second trip we visited many temples around the Chennai area and we visited the Ramana Maharshi ashram.
I felt so much in these places. On the one hand so at peace and on the other hand so very aware of how far I still have to go. In America I think it’s easy for me to get a little too smug about my spiritual progress. India overwhelms me with how much I still have to learn and grow.
Have any specific literature or books on Hinduism really connected with you?
AMBAA: The one thing that comes to mind is when my mother and I found a copy of Dancing With Shiva at a library sale in Waltham, Massachusetts. It’s this enormous hardcover book and it was a dollar in the library basement because they were clearing out old books. It really felt like it was destiny that brought it to us.
It was one of the first things that helped me make the connection between my beliefs and Hinduism. I also learned an enormous amount about the cultural context of Hinduism. I had never learned any of the cultural side of it before.
Though it is a huge book, each section is only a page so it is easy to read and absorb one lesson each day.
Though I did not become a disciple of the guru who wrote that book, I love the book and the organization that published it.
Looking at Hinduism on a global level, do you believe the religion is going in the right direction right now?
AMBAA: There are things I worry about in the more powerful Hindu groups. We’ve survived a long time being kind to other faiths and seeing how other people’s beliefs can fit into our framework. In the west Hindus have a reputation for being kind and peaceful. I don’t want to lose that.
I hear some people say that in order to be respected we need to follow the example of more violent sects of religion and I say that there’s a difference between being respected and being feared. No one respects ISIS. Leading by making people afraid of you isn’t going to inspire people to join you. Organizations like ISIS are destroying the reputation of Islam and making people hate it. Hinduism should not go in that direction.
On the other hand people who are not Hindu need to understand that being proud of being Hindu is not an expression of violence or force. I can love and adore Hinduism and think it’s the best thing ever without at all wanting to force you or anyone else to become Hindu.
Hinduism has no history of forced conversion and people who come from traditions that do have a history of forcing conversion on others really easily misinterpret and misunderstand the way that a nationalistic Hindu may speak.
But most important, let us stay true to ourselves and not change the way we see the world because of fear. Truth can never be destroyed.
Do you believe Hinduism has something to offer in order to improve Western society?
AMBAA: Absolutely! When one really internalizes and understands the Hindu idea that all of us are part of the same Self, defensiveness and hoarding of resources fades away. In the west we have too much of the philosophy of taking care of me and my family first and screw everyone else. Hinduism teaches us that who is “my family” is a lot larger than what we usually think of. Everyone we come in contact with is a member of our family and that attitude repairs social ills. When you learn to expand your definition of family and love everyone you find a way to share resources and help everyone who is struggling. That is something the west is in desperate need of.
Thank you so much for having me on your blog. I appreciate so much meeting new people and sharing conversation about Hinduism and conversion. I am grateful every day that Hinduism is a part of my life. There is no doubt that it is the perfect faith for me. I can’t imagine trying to survive life without it!
Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor
Ambaa’s blog can be found here.