Hindus are a lot of things. There are Hindu monotheists, polytheists, panentheists, and even atheists. There are Hindu monists, dualists, non-dualists, and qualified non-dualists. There are Hindus who identify strongly with terms like these, and there are those who feel strongly that the religion shouldn't be pigeonholed into convenient subdivisions. One thing Hindus aren't, however, is conspicuous.
You won't find Hindus sitting behind a table on College Walk and passing out flyers in an effort to convince you that whatever you believe in is wrong. The Hindu lecturers invited to campus speak to inform, not to preach. Unless you usually attend the annual Diwali celebration in the fall or play Holi on the steps in the spring—events to which anyone with a penchant for having fun (and eating good Indian food) is invited—you might easily never notice the large Hindu presence on campus.
Keeping a low profile is a manifestation of the non-interventionist mindset that has enabled Hinduism to survive some 8,000 years in spite of assaults like the Muslim invasions, the Goa inquisition, and more recent encroachments like the Gospel Fellowship Trust India's campaign to aggressively convert Dalits and impoverished tribesmen to Christianity. Although this live-and-let-live philosophy probably originated as either a product of geographic isolation or a defensive tactic, it persists in Hindus today—not due to isolation or fear of ostracism, but because it is inherent in the religion and in the tradition of San?tana Dharma, the literal translation of which is "eternal natural law." San?tana Dharma is simultaneously a weltanschauung, a set of spiritual laws, and a philosophy, central to which is the idea that lauding one's own beliefs as superior to other belief systems is unnatural and contrary to the notion that people must progress toward truth on their own.
Being Hindu and living San?tana Dharma at Columbia on a daily basis is not difficult—in general, the people here are accepting. There are challenges, however, associated with the fact that Hindu students are not an especially noticeable presence on campus. In October of last year, anti-Semitic graffiti, including a swastika, was found in Lewisohn Hall. Although in context the swastika was intended to be offensive to Jews, its use was cause for alarm among other groups—not only because the graffiti was hateful and destructive, but also due to the history of the symbol. Among Hindus, the swastika has long been an extremely holy and auspicious symbol. The administration, commendably, dealt with the graffiti expeditiously and contacted those student groups they felt were most likely to be affected. But the Hindu Students Organization (HSO) wasn't among those groups. When some members of the Hindu community expressed concern about the possibility that the perversion of the swastika and its use as an anti-Semitic symbol might reflect negatively on the Hindu community, the HSO was at a loss to respond because it hadn't been promptly informed about the incident.
Another effect of the Hindu community's inconspicuousness is the lack of academic discussion at Columbia about Hinduism, which is both a boon and a disadvantage. In both informal and organized arguments about religion, Hinduism is often overlooked—these arguments are, more often than not, about Abrahamic religion rather than about religion in general. While this allows Hindus to escape any uncomfortable perlustration, it also means that followers of Dharmic religions don't benefit from the same scrutiny that Jews, Christians, and Muslims are often subjected to—largely, they must question and challenge their personal philosophies for themselves.
The intellectual and personal growth of students at any university is contingent upon the presence of engaging and open-minded debate. The absence of such debate is not only detrimental to those whose views are left unchallenged, but also to students who are largely unfamiliar with a religion whose relevance increases every day, as most of Hinduism's adherents inhabit a country with one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. It is imprudent to allow the third-largest and oldest extant religion to go unnoticed, especially at a university that is always at the forefront of global affairs. In spite of the lack of debate about Hinduism, the open-mindedness of the people at Columbia and the presence of a close-knit Hindu community have, for me, greatly facilitated the process of self-discovery that many people begin to undergo when they reach young adulthood. It has been a largely positive experience.
The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in physics.