Many people associate missionaries with Christianity, but other religions, including Hinduism, have missionaries, too. Hindu missionaries greatly differ from missionaries of other faiths, in that they do not aggressively seek converts, but unintentionally find them while ministering to members of their own faith living abroad.

Hindu History

Bronze artifact depicting Hindu god Shiva

The Hindu religion is over 4,000 years old and has evolved during various time periods: the Indus Valley Civilization (dating prior to 2000 B.C.), the Vedic Period (1500 to 500 B.C.), the Epic, Puranic and Classical Age (500 B.C. to 500 A.D.), the Medieval Period (500 B.C. to 1500 A.D.), the Pre-Modern Period (1500 B.C. to 1757 A.D.), the British Period (1757 to 1947 A.D.) and Independent India (1947 B.C. to present).

Modern Hinduism can trace its origins to the Epic, Puranic and Classical Age. During this time period, pillars of Hinduism, such as bhakti (devotion) and temple worship, arose. Poetic literature written in Sanskrit became a unifying factor in Hinduism. Devotion to Vishnu, Shiva and Devi, Hinduism’s principal deities, spread after 500 B.C.

It was not until the 20th century that Hindu missionaries began to leave India to teach about their faith – and mostly to members of their own community living in other countries. Initially, Hindu clerics and teachers relocated to Britain and North America to cater to Indian immigrants there. However, these missionaries soon attracted Western religious converts and yoga practitioners.

Hindu Missionaries in South Africa

Map of South Africa

In the 20th century, Hindu missionaries also traveled to other parts of the world, such as South Africa, to serve the spiritual needs of the Hindu Indian diaspora. They established religious institutions, gave lectures and worked with members of the immigrant Hindu communities. Missionaries helped establish the Maha Sabha – South Africa’s “institutional Hinduism." Swami Shankaranand, a Hindu missionary, was Maha Sabha’s first leader and created many of the organization’s policies, which had political and religious implications in South Africa. Today, the Maha Sabha is a nonprofit organization whose vision is to “promote Hindu Dharma through observing the best principles of Hindu religion, philosophy, ethics, values and culture according to the highest tenets of Hindu teachings.”

Modern Hindu missionaries

Woman in sari praying

Nowadays, modern Hindu missionaries have been leaving India to spread Hinduism to Indians in other parts of the world. The religious movement initially was tied to a political movement that wanted to discourage Hindu expatriates from converting to other religions. Politics and religion overlap in this situation as politicians fund clerics to achieve a common goal -- the Hindu retention of Indian expatriates. These missionaries teach expatriate Indians about Hinduism and tend to the spiritual needs of the people.

The missionaries – Brahmin priests – are expected to be well-versed in ancient Hindu scriptures, spread the virtues of Hinduism and perform rituals for expatriate Indians. Various seminaries prepare Brahmin priests for missionary work and have different requirements. Graduates from the Hindu Heritage Parishthan seminary at Modipuram, near New Delhi, must be proficient in Sanskrit and able to communicate in English. The aspiring clerics study ancient religious scriptures, memorize complicated Sanskrit prayers and learn to officiate marriages, child-naming ceremonies, death rites and other religious ceremonies. After the nine-month training ends, the new clerics are awarded diplomas and are ready to do missionary work abroad.

Importing Hindu missionaries

Indian expatriates seek and demand Brahmin missionaries from India to serve their religious needs. Organizations such as the Temple Society in North America and the South Indian Religious Society in Singapore actively recruit Brahmin priests from India. Hinduism has had and still has missionaries, but rather than trying to convert people from other religions, they seek to serve those of their own faith, but will gladly teach others about their religion and philosophy.