Whole books have been and could still be written on the topic of Western perceptions of India, but here are just a few things that regularly come up in my dealings in the West between Hinduism and the Westerners. First, Westerners tend to look upon India as if it was just one thing. They fail to see the huge diversity that exists within India. India is more diverse than Europe. The differences between Bengal, for example, and Gujarat, two Indian states, one in the east and the other in the west, are more diverse than between Germany and England. The Germans and the English at least share a similar writing system. Bengalis and Gujaratis have different alphabets. Similarly, the differences between North India and South India are even greater. The ways of worship, the ways of food, the ways of a marriage are vastly different between the North and the South. Westerners should be aware of the huge diversity within India and Hindu culture in general.
The West is Materialistic/India is Spiritual
The second misperception is that India is spiritual and the West is materialistic, but this is simply not true. There is a great hunger within India and within Indians in the West for modernization and for all the material goods of a modern world. Hinduism has no problem adapting to modern technology or dealing with modern science and using these things for all the pleasures of life. In fact Hindu culture has a great tradition of so-called secular advancement. There is nothing exclusively spiritual about Indian culture. Indian culture is a mixture of spirituality and materialism. On the other hand, there is nothing inherently materialistic about the West. The roots of Western culture are profoundly spiritual. Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the three pillars of Western culture, have grappled with the deepest spiritual questions and what we have today in the West with all its so-called materialism is a culture that is still grounded in deep spirituality. My point is this, both Hinduism and the Western traditions are neither exclusively one or the other. They both are ancient traditions that attempt to express the aspirations, hopes and dreams of humanity with all its spirituality and its material ambitions. There are indeed differences between the two traditions, but for a Westerner to think that the West is materialistic and India is spiritual is a great mistake.
And finally, when Westerners come to Hinduism they tend to be attracted to the more mystical and exotic sides of the tradition. Meditation and kundalini yoga come to mind, but your average Indian Hindu practices a kind of Hinduism that is more like what the average Christian practices. Most Hindus are just “normal” people who work during the week and come to a temple to pray on the weekends. Exotic mediation and raising serpent powers through chakras is far from their minds. Most of what is practiced as Hinduism in the West by Indians is more like the religion of the average Christian than the exotic forms of Hinduism that many Westerners seek. Sensing this hunger for exoctic forms of Hinduism there are many Indian “gurus” who come to the West in order to “cash in” on the lucrative Western market for exotic spirituality. Westerners should be aware that there is a lot of cheating going on in the guru market.