Neopaganism and the Appeal of Buddhism, Hinduism

Part of being an anthropologist means finding the “Other” in your own community, which in my case means that this summer I began a research project with another anthropologist looking into how neopagans (specifically speaking with  a group in Birmingham) construct their individual identities and practices and – perhaps more interestingly, to me anyway- build tight knit communities despite the fact that they all believe rather different things. On one particular day we spoke with a Buddhist, a druid, a Wiccan, and a follower of both Hinduism and the ancient Egyptian pantheon of gods Which, for me, begs an interesting question- can you pick and choose traditions like this? Is a neopagan worshipper of Ra and adherent to Hinduism really Hindu? What about a self proclaim Buddhist who also believes in the Wiccan definition and practices of magic? Can these coexist without in some way cheapening one another? Many of the neopagans I’ve spoken to are split on the issue- some say that the construction of a path is a highly individual experience, that it exists without the oppressive doctrine of Abrahamic religions. Others are just as eager to counter that Buddhism feature just as much doctrine and dogma in certain branches as the Abrahamic faiths. But the question I am most interested in, personally, is what the appeal is? What draws so many neopagans to Buddhist and Hindu paths, or at least to borrow elements from them to fold into their own personal belief systems?

This article, for example, discusses from the perspective of an adherent to various neopagan traditions / paths a number of ways in which Hinduism and Buddhism (particularly tantric Buddhism and the specific ayurvedic medicinal traditions) are growing in popularity amongst the community. The concept of unity and tolerance is heavily pushed, particularly in regards to Hinduism with its pantheon of gods and consorts, and various inner divisions. A recurring theme noticed in our research (which is still in its infantile stages) is that there is a certain interest amongst the community in drawing from old traditions- in establishing a type of continuity. Particularly, as one druidic woman stated, in trying to study and learn of the old ways and beliefs in order to update them- to bring them to life again, not exactly as they were, but as they would have been if they hadn’t fallen out of favor and had been allowed to modernize and change and grow over time. This perhaps sheds light on why Hinduism and Buddhism are so popular among the community- they’re ancient traditions that have survived, with practitioners all over the world, with a blend of the old traditions and beliefs and the new, and a firm grasp on their roots, on the history of their belief. In addition, many neopagans aren’t from India, China, Korean, Japan, or any of the other myriad places the influence of Hinduism and Buddhism took root in long ago, which means that these traditions present an appealing ‘Other’ compared to the Abrahamic religions they are often attempting to escape or distance themselves from. And, just as we’ve seen before, Buddhism in particular offers just enough familiarity to be appealing without being entirely similar, making it the best of both worlds- and Hinduism, with its free-to-interpret style and overarching sense of tolerance and acceptance between sects that might worship different gods/ aspects of Brahman appeals to those who (especially here in the Bible Belt) have often felt persecuted for religious differences, while still offering the legitimacy of reputation that comes with practicing an ancient, established tradition. They offer a sense of both continuity and customization, both of which are sought  out by the community. 

In the Tweed article we read he embarked on cataloging the different  types of “American Buddhist”, and after having read the article I was fascinated to find that more modern “American Buddhist” and Buddhist- inspired neopagans fall into similar patterns, though perhaps taking a different approach (for instance, none of the people we spoke to would have been likely to use the term “Buddhist Catechist”). 

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About mghartley

An anthropologist of religion (in the making) with a focused interest in East Asia (specifically the mudang of Korea) and an abiding love for folklore and mythology. Student of Korean (and sometimes French and Japanese) with an interest in linguistics and culture.

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