Membership, Community, Diversity

Have Hindus traditionally sent out missionaries to convert others?

Hinduism has generally not produced the kind of missionary activity characteristic of traditions like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Significant traces of Hindu tradition and culture are very much in evidence all over southeast Asia, especially in parts of Indonesia. Throughout Late Antiquity (fourth through eighth centuries) and the Middle Ages (ninth through fifteenth centuries), important Hindu dynasties ruled portions of present-day Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Major archaeological research attests to their splendor and power. But their trappings of Hindu symbol and ritual were less a matter of missionary zeal than of a desire to cloak themselves with the prestige of the great Indian dynasties. In addition, they sought to enhance their political legitimacy through the concept of divine kingship by identifying their monarchs as descendants of the gods. In modern times, however, a number of missionary organizations have grown from Hindu roots. In addition to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Vivekananda’s (1863-1902) Ramakrishna Mission has made important contributions in this regard. Although its gains have been modest in terms of numbers, the Mission’s members have become known for various kinds of social outreach as well as for offering lectures and spiritual guidance. In many major United States cities, branches of an organization called the Vedanta Society appeal to a well-educated public by emphasizing the traditional Way of Knowledge, rather than the Way of Devotion preferred by both Vivekananda and his teacher Ramakrishna (1834-86).


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