Essay, Research Paper: Hindu Revival In America


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Hindu Revival In An Alien Land. America is coming alive with the sounds and
images of Hinduism. From Ras and Garbha dances during Navratri in Chicago and
Edison to Diwali fireworks in Manhattan's South Street Seaport; from the sounds
of conches and the chanting of hymnals at temple ceremonies in Pittsburgh and
Flushing to the consecration of new dieties at the Balaji Temple in Bridgewater,
N.J., and the foundation-laying ceremony for a new Shree Raseshwari temple in
Austin, Texas; from the modest get-togethers of the devout before a makeshift
alter in a three-car garage in Glen Mills, Pa., to mini-culfests in Atlanta and
New York University, the American landscape this past month seems to have come
alive with the sounds and images of Hinduism. On Oct. 25, Jackson Height's 74th
Street, which is contemplating a name change to 'Little India', was transformed
into a Lucknavi Diwali mela, complete with Indian sweet and chat stalls and a
shadow puppet performance. New York Mayor david Dinkins joined the celebration,
as did San Jose's Mayor Susan Hammer a similar event in San Jose. In
Monroeville, Pa., the India Heritage Research Foundation is putting together an
Encyclopedia of Hinduism, while the International foundation for Vedic
Education, in Rahway, N.J., established this March to revive 'Vedic Education in
its true spirit and form', has announced plans for an international conference
on Atharva Vedas in July 1993. There can be no mistaking it. A Hindu revival is
taking shape in an alien land. Population Impetus For Growth The doubling of the
Indian American population in the 1980s is the impetus for this Hindu
resurgence. For the first time their numbers have reached the critical mass to
sustain Indian American religious institutions and temples in towns and cities
across the United States. Since 1965, when discriminatory national origin quotas
were lifted and the gates opened to Asian immigrants, the Indian population has
grown twenty-fold and is presently nudging a million. The population growth has
coalesced with a recognition among many first generation Indian Americans, who
have long harbored illusions of returning to India in their waning years, that
the United States has become their permanent home and that they therefore need
institutions to transmit their cultural and religious traditions to their
children. In the first two decades, says Raymond Williams, distinguished
professor of philosophy and religion at Wabash College, in Crawfordsville, Ind.,
and author of several landmark books on Hinduism in the United States, religion
was not important to Indian immigrants, most of whom were urban and educated.
But increasingly many of them are turning devout Hindus, much more so than they
were back in India. Religion for them, Williams says, has become a conscious,
deliberative process. The religious revival among Hindus is not unusual to
America, which has experienced similar efforts to transplant religious
traditions among other new immigrant communities in the past. Says John Felton,
associate professor of religion at Emory University and author of Transplanting
Religious Traditions: Asian Indians in America, 'When you get a large population
of immigrants they begin to duplicate institutions back home.' Ramakrishna
Chalikonda, of the Hindu Temple and Cultural Society, which this February
established the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Bridgewater, N.J., says, 'We want to
preserve some of our culture. The more we are away, the more we miss of it. We
want to get some of the same feeling as in India.' Chalikonda's sentiment is
echoed in a survey of Indians in Atlanta by Fenton, in which 94 per cent of the
respondents said preserving cultural values was important or very important to
them. The growth may have come at a faster pace for Indian Americans than it has
for other immigrants historically, because Indian Americans are the most
educated and affluent community in the United States. Theannual fund-raiser for
the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago netted $128,000 in cash and pledges this
October. The temple has paid off nearly three-quarters of its $1.7 million debt
on the temple. After putting down $90,000 as a 10 per cent deposit at a
bankruptcy auction this February, the Hindu Temple and Cultural Society raised
$800,000 in a whirlwind 42-day campaign to acquire a Bridgewater Church. The
Hindu Temple and Cultural Center in Berlin, which serves some 900 families in
South Jersey has an annual budget of $15,000 and its 100 founding members have
shelled out upwards of $1,000 for the temple. The Integration of Religion and
Culture Religion is a very integral part of Indian life and so even before they
could establish religious institutions in cities where they were numerically too
small to afford them, Indians congregated in homes for worship. Until they
purchased a rundown church in Berlin for just $50,000 in 1982, South Jersey's
Indian families would congregate once a month at Osage School in Voorhees.
Similarly, until they outbid a Korean Church and the YMCA and plunked down
$850,000 for an unoccupied Trinity Church in Bridgewater, N.J., this February,
Indian Americans in the area had been meeting in local school buildings for
Telugu language classes. That tradition still continues in cities with small
Indian American populations. But even in areas where their numbers are few,
temples have begun to sprout. Augusta, Ga., home to only 500 Indians, who
earlier met in homes recently dedicated a new temple. Fenton writes in
Transplanting Religious Traditions, 'While ... Indians acculturate fairly easily
in public situations, at home and among other Indians they remain ambivalent
toward American culture and are strongly attached toward Indian life-styles,
Indian cultural tradition, and idealized valuations of India. They are
bicultural, moving back and forth between private and public, indigenous and
alien cultures. They adopt American material culture traits, but not typical
middle-class values. And their Indian identity is reinforced by frequent return
trips to India, by the tendency of the men to secure their brides from home, by
participation in secular and religious voluntary associations, and by the heavy
use of movies, music, news, and other cultural materials from India. Only 25
percent of them are U.S. citizens, often for purely practical reasons.' The Face
of Hinduism The most visible symbol of the Hindu renaissance are the temples,
which have proliferated since 1977, when the Sri Venkateswara Temple, the first
by Indian immigrants was dedicated in Pittsburgh. In the years since, perhaps as
many as 50 new temples have been established, including a second one in
Pittsburgh, as well as temples in New York; Hawaii; Allentown, Penn.; San
Francisco, Calabasas, Berkley, Fremont, and Livermore, Calif.; Denver, Aurora
and Boulder, Colo.; Oakland Park and Miami, Fl.; Atlanta and Augusta, Ga.;
Chicago, Urbana and Aurora, Ill.; New Orleans, La.; Boston and Ashland, Mass.;
Adelphi, Bethesda, Silver spring and Lanham, Md.; Troy, flint and Lansing,
Mich.; Morris Plains, Garfield, Bridgewater and Berlin, N.J.; Toledo,
Cincinnati, Beavercreek and Columbus, Ohio; Nashville and Memphis, Tenn.; and
Houston, Peerland and San Antonio, Texas, among others. This Nov.6 the Balaji
Mandir in Bridgewater, N.J., consecrates marble idols from Tirupathi and Jaipur
at an elaborate three-day prathisthapana (consecration) ceremony. Early in
October, the Sri Siva-Vishnu Temple in Lanham, Md, began constructing a new
shrine to Sri Venkateswara. Today there are few concentrated population centers
of Indian Americans that either currently do not have Indian temples (some more
than one), or where plans for a temple are not currently in the works.
Pittsburgh Indians began worshiping in a renovated Baptist church in 1973. Four
years later, with assistance from the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Tirupathi,
Tamil Nadu, which provided skilled labor for construction, the Sri Venkateswara
Temple was dedicated. Three years later, North Indians dedicated a new temple in
Monroeville. The Pittsburgh Temple was followed by the Mahaganapati Temple in
Flushing, the Sri Meenakshi Temple in Houston, and the Balaji Temple in Smyrna,
Ga. In addition to the Mahaganapati Temple, New York also has a Hanuman Mandir,
a Geeta Temple, a Swaminarayan Temple, as well as several smaller temples and
religious institutions under the aegis of various gurus, such as the Chinmaya
Mission, Sathya Sai Baba, Bhram Kumaris, and the Hare Krishnas, to name just a
few. The city is also home to several gurdwaras and Indian Christian churches,
as well as a Jain Bhavna. The proliferation of temples is a measure of the
religious diversity of the Indian American community. Says Williams, 'Once you
might have had a temple, or a mosque that everybody went to. But when a
community becomes large enough then various types of religious institutions
develop.' Although many temples, such as the Geeta Temple in New York, the Hindu
Temple in Pittsburgh and the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center in Berlin, NJ, are
ecumenically based, sub-ethnic identities and religious diversity begin to be
asserted as the population grows. Several cities now have separate South Indian
and North Indian temples. Atlanta has a million dollar Sri Venkateswara Temple,
a Shakti Mandir and a Swaminarayan Temple. Plans are afoot for a Greater Atlanta
Vedic Temple to serve North Indians and Indians from Trinidad and Fiji. The
Swaminarayan sect that boasts upwards of 20,000 followers in the United States
has established 30 centers all over the country, including several large
campuses with temples. The 30,000 estimated Jains in the United States have
established temples in New York City, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and New
Jersey. Fenton says the Pittsburgh Indian American community split early between
North Indians who wanted a modern temple with many dieties and South Indians who
wanted one primary diety. the result is that the city now has two temples and a
third is on the cards. Hindus in America are beginning to organize along
religious and regional lines, providing the full flavor of regional and local
variations of Hinduism. Some temples are seeking to bridge India's religious
pluralism within a single organizational structure. When the India Temple
Association was established in 1975 in South Jersey, its constitution provided
for a council of trustees drawn equally from each of four geographic regions of
India so that all religious traditions could be represented. In 1982, the
constitution was revised to take account of the shifting profile of Indian
Americans. The new 24 member board of trustees has three from each of four zones
in India and 12 at-large. The Sanctity of Tradition Many U.S. temples have been
built in close collaboration with major Indian temples. The famous Sri
Venkateswara Temple in Tirupathi, Tamil Nadu, has assisted in the elaborate
Balaji temples in Pittsburgh, Flushing, Atlanta and Houston, among others.
Nonetheless, purists argue that since Hinduism is rooted in a way of life, it
cannot be transplanted from its cultural base in India, even though it is
undergoing shifts of its own in that country. And the fact that Hinduism does
not have a single sacred text like the Bible or the Koran, nor an organizational
form, such as the Catholic church, makes transplanting of its rituals and
traditions doubly difficult. Adapting to the American context has required
compromises and is reshaping the face of Hinduism. For instance, temples
accommodate toilets in public areas to meet building codes requirements. In
India, religion is for the most part an individual activity and in that
tradition, most Hindus in the United States practice their religion at home,
often before small religious shrines. Many more perhaps invoke the even more
convenient Hindu philosophical concept of karma yogi, in which they meet their
moral and religious obligations through their vocations. In the public arena,
perhaps the most dramatic adjustment that Hindus have made is by accepting an
institutional structure, which the religion lacks in India. The practice of
Hinduism in the United States is through group association and even people who
would have been relatively indifferent to religious institutions in India are
getting involved, often contributing generously. Fenton's survey of the
religious traditions of Indians in Atlanta found that almost onein two Indians
participates in group worship at least once a month. Felton believes that many
immigrants are more religious than they would have been in India because they
believe the whole burden and responsibility of perpetuating their religion and
culture has shifted on them. Says Felton, 'They realize that if they do not do
it, it won't be done.' Unlike temples in India, Hindu temples in the United
States maintain membership lists and frequently rely upon members for their
growth and maintenance. They also serve non-ritual purposes, indeed frequently
are nodes of cultural activity, organizing Navratri celebrations with Ras and
Garbha dances, bhajans, Bhangra, Diwali celebrations, sometimes to raise money
for temple operations. Fenton's Atlanta survey found that only 16 percent of the
Indians there felt that religion was the most important Indian cultural trait
they wanted to preserve, well behind, family, and the Indian character.
Consequently, many temples, such as the ones in Berlin and Allentown coordinate
baluihar programs for children, yoga abhyasa for adults, as well as youth
programs. The Mahaganpathi Temple in flushing is building a mandap for wedding
ceremonies. The Berlin temple has recently acquired a mandap for the nearly two
dozen marriage ceremonies that are performed annually at the temple. This
function of temples is driven by an assumption that Indian culture and religion
are inseparable. Says Mahesh Dixit, priest at the Hindu Temple in Berlin, N.J.,
'Hinduism is a way of life; you cannot make it separate from living. Religion
and culture are intermingled.' Temples, Chalikonda says, are not simply a
religious phenomenon, but they also serve as cultural nodes. He says that people
are more willing to contribute to the development of a temple, but the
Bridgewater temple also plays a very crucial cultural role. The nexus between
the religious and cultural strands was plainly evident in 1983 at a general body
meeting of Atlanta's Indian American cultural Association as it examined the
objectives of an Indian cultural center. The members rejected a view that the
center should be secular and limited to cultural activities and agreed to name
it the India Cultural and Religious Center. Similarly, the India Temple
Association in South Jersey named its center as the Hindu Temple and Cultural
Center. Authenticity of Rituals Notwithstanding a strong urge to preserve
authentic forms of worship, Hindu temples are discovering the need to modify
rituals because of local circumstances. Fenton points out that Hindu temples in
the United States are open to the public, including those unfamiliar with purity
requirements, and that food is often not cooked by Brahmins. The Atlanta temple
even allows the serving of meat and alcohol in nontemple areas of the center.
Most temples also have to maintain restricted worship hours, often limited to
just weekends. The Berlin, N.J., temple attracts fewer than a dozen people on
weekdays, upto a hundred on weekends and between 600 to 800 during major events,
such as Diwali. Dixit says his congregation has animatedly debated the approach
of bhakti marg, the path of devotion, which argues that humans are liberated by
god because of their devotion whether or not they understand the rituals, and
gyan marg, advocated by those who seek real knowledge. The debate centers on
preserving the authenticity of traditional rituals. At the Berlin temple, many
volunteers perform puja, including some who are not Brahmins. While
conservatives may argue that only Brahmins can perform rituals, Dixit says, a
'Brahmin is not someone who is born into a Brahmin family', but rather one who
has the traits and the purity of a Brahmin. Says Dixit, 'It can be a Patel, a
Gandhi, a Bhatnagar, a Dave, a Amin, a Vardhana, from all sectors of India,' all
of whom perform services at the Berlin temple. The temple also decided to retain
the stained glass windows it inherited from a run-down church it had picked up
for $50,000 in 1982, even repairing some that were in need of work at
considerable cost, because, Dixit says, 'good art from western civilization' is
to be valued. The sanctity of traditional rituals and the rigidity with which
they are followed is nonetheless a contentious and sometimes a departure point
for many congregations. At the Geeta Temple in Corona, bhajans are performed in
Hindi, whereas at the Flushing temple, which attracts mostly South Indians, the
pujas and rituals are conducted in sanskrit by pujaris. The same is true for the
Sri Venkateswara temple in Pittsburgh. The newly-opened Bridgewater temple,
which will only be dedicating the first idols in November, nonetheless brought
in two priests from India (training facilities for priests being unavailable in
the United States) to ensure the sanctity of rituals. While resources and
circumstances impose limits on ritualistic forms at most temples (such as
whether a full-time priest is affordable), the congregations and the priests
also bring different levels of sensitivities: some stress the sanctity of
tradition, while others truncate it or add explanations. Hindu tradition demands
worship three times daily, but that is not possible at the Berlin temple, which
has settled instead for a single worship ceremony. The temple, currently staffed
by part-time volunteer priests has not had the resources to afford a full-time
pujari, although it is now planning to acquire one from India. Like many other
roving, freelance priests, the current volunteer priest at the Berlin temple,
Dixit was drafted to the role some 25 years ago. A civil engineer by profession
he discovered himself at a friend's wedding in 1965 at which the pujari did not
show up. since he was a Brahmin and had attended a sanskrit patshala the family
turned to him to perform the wedding. As Dixit did not know any of the rituals,
he squirreled himself inside a room with a how to book and emerged four hours
later to perform his first 45 minute ceremony. Since them, Dixit has discovered
himself officiating at similar ceremonies, particularly in the early years when
priests were hard to find. He does not consider himself a professional priest,
still performing his priestly duties on a voluntary basis. 'It's my karma, my
obligation,' he says. When Dixit performs a marriage ceremony he adorns a
traditional kurta pyjama. But once the ceremony is over he appears at the
reception in a suit. 'I am in a different role,' he explains. 'I am no longer a
priest. That is all part of Hindu philosophy. We play different roles.'
'Hinduism has those conveniences built into it,' Dixit says. 'That is its
essence. Hinduism gives us the freedom of thought and expression.' It is going
to need that room, because it is bound to undergo even deeper revisions at the
hands of the second generation. The ingredients of the new Hinduism that will
emerge, Fenton says, will be that it will be 'more general, less sectarian, less
regional, and less temple oriented.' Temples may still thrive among new
immigrants, but Felton sees an emerging 'split between second and third
generations and the first generation.' Hinduism in America is not all
constricting, however. New temples require elaborate Pran Pratishtha ceremonies
to consecrate the dieties. These ceremonies are very rare, which few people in
India have witnessed as most temples have been around for a very long time.
Dixit says visitors from India who have attended one of the three such
ceremonies held at the Berlin temple have expressed wonderment at the
opportunity to witness an event that is such a rarity in India. By contrast, the
upcoming Now. 6 consecration of dieties at the Bridgewater, N.J., Balaji Mandir
is one of nearly 100 such consecrations to take place in the United States in
the past decade. Nor is the change in Hinduism uni-directional. Williams says
that the silpis from Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, who came to the United States to
build temples in Chicago and Pittsburgh returned to India and are applying their
new architectural techniques back in India. 'With rapid communication and travel
this change in India is bound to intensify,' he says, adding that a new 'global
Hinduism' could be the outcome of this interchange. The Second Generation The
urgency many first generation Indian Americans feels for developing their
religious institutions is driven by the concerns for the second generation.
Because their children are being socialized almost exclusively in the American
tradition, many Indian American parents feel the need for Indian institutions
that can help them mould the Indian cultural identity in their children. Dixit
says, 'The temple is needed more for our children than for you and me. All of us
have a small alter for us at home and god is everywhere.' But there is a need
for acculturating second generation Indians in the Hindu tradition, he says. 'We
are losing the battle because the children are indoctrinated in Western culture
300 days. But in the 26 meetings a year of balvihar, we give people some
choice.' The efforts, he says have 'some degree of success.' Like many other
temples, the Berlin temple organizes regular programs for youth: a bimonthly
balvihar for 'physical, mental and spiritual de velopment' of youngsters, yoga
abhyasa for adults and youth programs to promote knowledge and understanding of
Hindu dharma. Other temples organize camps, language courses and training in
Indian dance for youth. But, Felton says, the second generation has little
enthusiasm about the temples. Indian American students in his religion classes
at Emory University don't comprehend the puja. 'The rituals are in sanskrit and
even many of the parents do not understand them so that they cannot explain them
to the children. The children know when it is time to eat. They recognize aarti.'
Given the weak religious educational system and the enormous pressures of
socialization and Americanization among children, Felton says, 'there does not
seem much chance' for Hindu traditions to prevail. 'It is a paradox and it is
ironical because the first generation is setting up these institutions for the
children. But the effect they want them to have will not happen.' However, Dixit
says the religious educational programming is effective with children who go
through it. He says it is easy for him to pick out children who have
participated in a balvihar program. Having graduated from performing marriage
ceremonies to officiating at funeral ceremonies as the Community ages, Dixit
says, he discovers that the family structure is much stronger among children
exposed to Hindu traditions through balvihar. Hindu camps for youth, mostly
organized by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and occasionally by regional temples and
religious organizations, are another effort to transmit religious traditions to
the new generation (See accompanying story). At the camps, children are exposed
to yoga, meditation, aarti, dandia, Hindu philosophy, dating, etc. Says Bharat
Gajjar, who directed the Vivekanand Camp this summer in Medford, N.J., 'On the
first day of the camp, a boy from North Carolina came to me and said, "My
parents are Hindu but I am not sure I want to remain Hindu or become Christian.
I'm here on this camp to find out what Hinduism is all about." ... On the
last day to my surprise he asked for a mala (which I give to any child who asks
for one) and asked me to show him how to chant "Om Namah Sivaya."'
Felton's survey of Atlanta youth found that more than half consider themselves
religious and almost two-thirds say they perform some form of individual worship
at least once a week. Nonetheless, Felton says, more liberalized forms of
worship is inevitable. 'As they grow older they will produce an American form of
Hinduism that does not exist any where else.' Hinduism in American Society
America is noticeably more tolerant of Indian Americans and their religion than
it was eight decades ago when the arrival of a few thousand sikhs sparked
alarming reports of a 'turbaned tide' and the 'invasion of the heathens' (See
box). Indians have kept a fairly low profile and so public awareness of them and
their religion, is still minimal, although their domination of the motel
industry is beginning to be noticed. Given the difficult economic times, Felton
says, it is possible that Americans may react with hostility to foreigners, as
they have demonstrated toward the Japanese. Currently, only the Methodist Church
has attempted to convert Hindus, Felton says. The Indian Christian churches
arenot very active and mainstream American churches haven't undertaken the kind
of aggressive proselytizing efforts that they have with Koreans, for instance.
Felton says that some awareness of Hindus has grown locally and there have been
isolated incidents of vandalism of temples. More subtle form of racisms may be
behind the zoning conflicts that many Hindu temples have run into, he says. This
July the Norwalk, Calif., City Council voted to deny permission for building a
$1.2 million Swaminarayan temple adjacent to two Christian churches in the
95,000 person township following resident protests. Mayor Robert J. Arthur
expressed concerns of heavy traffic because the temple would service the Indian
community in Southern California. Several Indian Americans denounced the
council's actions as racist and the Long Beach Press Telegram weighed in with an
editorial blasting the ruling as 'narrow beyond belief' and suggesting that the
council's actions would have been different had the request come from a Catholic
church. At a packed public hearing many residents sported badges reading
'Preserve Our Neighborhood.' Fenton says it is difficult to determine whether
there is a veiled prejudice against foreign religions in these zoning
controversies, because the problem is coupled with choices of locations that are
often not the best for parking and access. 'It's hard to prove, although one
suspects there is some racism at work,' he says. Not surprisingly, some Indian
temples are getting around zoning difficulties by buying up vacant churches.
Atlanta Indians purchased a Pentecostal church in Smyrna for $250,000 and
transformed it into a temple. similarly, the Berlin temple bought a church that
was up for sale. And most recently, the Hindu Temple and Cultural Society in
Bridgewater picked up an unoccupied church building from a bankruptcy court.
Chalikonda says that the fact that the building already had the necessary
permits and zoning clearance was a consideration in their choice. Nonetheless
the temple organizations have been careful about possible local resentment at
the conversion of churches into temples. The Atlanta temple did not face such a
problem because the congregation had moved to a bigger building elsewhere. The
Trinity Church in Bridgewater had never been occupied, having ended up in
bankruptcy court following a fight within the congregation. But the congregation
was from out of town and the church is not in a residential area, minimizing
possible backlash. Felton, who says, he finds Hinduism very stimulating, hopes
that Hinduism will not only be tolerated, but that it will make positive
contributions to the religious atmosphere. 'The new pluralism is, I believe,
enriching. It brings possibilities for fruitful exchange among people of
different religious commitments and opportunities for genuine learning from each
other.' As Hinduism chimes in with the new religious symphony that is playing
itself out in America, williams says, it is difficult to assess the impact of
the new religious pluralism on society. 'There will have to be new basis for our
civic life and relationship between the various communities, but that will have
to come through negotiation between the various groups. We don't know what the
shape of it will be.'
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