Hindu Revival In America 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, …