Julia Roberts has become a Hindu. In an interview given to promote her new movie "Eat Pray Love," the actress declared that she discovered the Hindu faith and adopted it while filming. (Part of the story was inspired by author Elizabeth Gilbert’s experiences at the Muktanand Ashram in Ganeshpuri).
Why the surprise when famous people become Hindus? Those who subscribe to cults are not regarded as being particularly Hindu. For instance, the Beatle George Harrison was an early convert of the Hare Krishna movement and had an on-off relationship with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. But Hindus regard Hare Krishnas as weird, not representative of mainstream Hinduism; Mahesh Yogi was a jet-set guru, not much of an advertisement for mainstream Hinduism.
Hinduism may well be the oldest religion to come out of India but it is not the only one. Jainism is less well known outside of India. But Buddhism is probably better-known abroad than it is in India even though the Buddha was Indian.
The contrasts between Hinduism and Buddhism are interesting. Buddhism only became a global religion after King Ashoka converted to it after the conquest of Kalinga (around 273 BCE). Ashoka spread Buddhism throughout India and sent emissaries abroad to spread the Buddha’s teachings. It took a few centuries, but eventually Buddhism held sway in much of Asia: China, Japan, Thailand, and even Sri Lanka. Tibetan Buddhism took on a different form from Indian Buddhism and eventually Buddhist monks came to rule Tibet. (It is this tradition that the Dalai Lama is descended from.)
For some centuries Buddhism held sway in India till gradually Hinduism re-asserted itself and virtually pushed Buddhism out. (In contrast, Jainism which never spread globally retained its small and committed following within India.)
Vaguely conscious of this background, Hindus are not particularly surprised by the fervor with which Hollywood stars adopt Buddhism. Richard Gere is one of the Western world’s most famous Buddhists, and Uma Thurman was born into a family of Tibetan Buddhists. Buddhism welcomes converts and is more instantly appealing to followers of other religions.