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Copyright for the journal © 2005
M. S. Thirumalai
HINDUS IN AMERICA
M. S. Thirumalai
HINDU ARRIVAL IN AMERICA
- "India came to America by mistake." Columbus wanted to go to India but landed in America.
- Now, Hindus are in America by choice, and after enormous effort.
- I've read at least two different accounts of the recognition of Hindus/Indians in America: one report says that the earliest Hindu immigrants (and possibly Sikhs) were traders from India spotted in Salem, Mass, around 1804. In another report, some Hindu gentleman with darker complexion (possibly from south India) was noticed in some newspaper reports. These people were said to have married black women and disappeared into the general milieu.
- Hindus came in larger number as indentured labor to the British and Dutch Caribbean Islands before Hindus entered the United States.
- Fascination with Hinduism entered the United States before Hindus in good number entered America: "The ancient Indian past is full of insights, but these are not rationally elaborated in the manner of Isaac Newton's ratio."
- Thoreau admired Hindu philosophy, but also felt thankful to God, "no Hindoo tyranny prevailed at the framing of the world, but we are freemen of the universe, and not sentenced to any caste." He also wrote, "There is such a thing as caste, even in the West, but it is comparatively faint; it is conservatism here; It says, forsake your calling, outrage no institution, use no violence, rend no bonds; the State is thy parent." Thoreau described the penances of Hindus and felt that the toil of average American was also equally futile: "They (Americans) toiled without any sense of the spiritual, whereas the Brahmins tortured themselves without any sense of the practical."
- "Passage O soul to India! … Passage O soul to primal thought' (Walt Whitman). Others like Emerson, John Adams, et al., were not far behind. They all knew the complexity of social hierarchy in actual Hindu social life and some of them detested the treatment meted out to the lower classes among the Hindus, but were content to extract the seemingly sublime thoughts from the Hindu philosophical traditions, simply to find a solution to their own spiritual conflict. This separation of so-called Hindu sublime spiritual thought and experience from reality continues even today.
- Hindus come from more than a dozen countries, but the bulk comes from India, and their source of inspiration is also India.
- Race is likely to be replaced by religious diversity as the dominant social issue in the 21st century. "Unlike many immigrants of the previous decades, (people who migrated after the Immigration Act of 1965 are likely to keep) in touch with their mother countries with a keener passion. They were content to be American to a certain extent" only. Hindus may be no exception to this characterization.
IMMIGRATION PROFILE AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
- Early immigration was a trickle.
- Increasing immigration since 1960s.
- Immigration policy brought university-educated skilled professionals and created a selective and unrepresentative Hindu population - mostly from upper castes. The composition of the Hindu population, in some sense, is "the result of state selection, whereby the US state through the special skills provision of the 1965 Immigration, fundamentally reconfigured the demography of South Asian America."
- Tightening of immigration to UK from India and South Asia also coincided with the opening of the doors of immigration in the USA.
- Immigrants settled in major metropolitan cities, thus making the Hindu population mainly an urban community.
- Interest in alternate living styles and non-Christian religions coincided with the opening of immigration doors. This created several important effects: Confidence that Hindu religion is valid because it attracts the Westerners; efforts in building temples and para-temple institutions as centers of religious disciplines such as Yoga, and community centers.
- Immigration policy also defined the characteristics and religious distinctive of Hindu immigrants: The Elitist form of Hinduism - intellectual and ritual Hinduism became the predominant face of Hinduism in America. Those who came from the Folk Religious backgrounds also began to adopt or adjust themselves to the elitist form of religion.
- Religion and national identities were progressively emphasized as one and the same.
- Various estimates of Hindu population have been offered, ranging from one million to 1.5 million. Hindus in America form the fifth largest religious group after Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism.
- Temples. It is estimated that there are over 1000 Hindu temples in North America.
- The temples are distributed throughout North America. Please see the list for a temple located near your place and begin to pray for the Hindus to turn away from their gods. Eck, author of the well-known secular study, A New Religious America "found Hindu temples housed in a warehouse in Queens, a former YMCA in New Jersey, and a former Methodist church in Minneapolis."
- There are many Temple-like Institutions established, as para-temple organizations.
- Priests, well-versed in elitist forms of worship and rituals (using a classical ancient language Sanskrit) are brought from India. These priests also help with family rituals performed from birth to death, necessary in the life of Hindu individuals, families, and communities.
- Philosophical (mainly Vedantic, which is more intellectualistic and also tends to be monistic) traditions seem to be strengthened. However, it is possible that other traditions also would become popular among American Hindus, depending upon the developments in India. For example, the temples with the deities lower castes usually worship have begun to show up in recent years, as the number of people coming from the lower caste background increases.
- Communal rituals and holidays are deliberately celebrated with enthusiasm.
- Hindus are making conscious effort to make them known through religious markers, through communal celebrations, and through the use of mass media.
- Summer camps, and Sunday schools for Hindu children in Hindu temples are introduced with some success.
- Hindus make efforts to make their religion known to their neighbors, explaining their rituals. The community does not depend or wholly trust the high-profile gurus for their religious life.
- Insistence on traditions, and the knowledge of Sanskrit among upper castes are continued in America with some success since most of the immigrants or H1 visa holders (skilled techies) come from this group.
- The Gurus: A link between Hindu religion and science. TM (Maharishi) movement calls itself a scientific and secular movement. Hare Krishna adopts a different style. And the rush of Gurus have introduced a variety of styles of Hinduism, all however are philosophically-oriented styles. As said earlier, American Hindus admire these but are also skeptical. Traditional Swamis (gurus) are highly venerated. (May be because Guru-ship is an open-ended system to which all and sundry can enter if they can find new ideas and styles. Even those who are not born Hindus have become gurus.)
- Ethnic (Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam, Panjabi, Gujarati, etc.) and regional diversity (South Indian, North Indian, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Bengal, etc.) among Hindus in America reflect the ethnic and regional divide in India.
- Hindu fundamentalists have been making great efforts to unite Hindus under a single umbrella owing allegiance only to religion - insistence more on the religious identity.
- Attempts to unite may not succeed wholly because of restraints or restrictions on spousal exchange, which prefers same caste, same language, same ethnic background to a large extent. However, this is an area that may see drastic changes in the future among the Hindus in America.
- Existence of ethnic associations, celebrating ethnic holidays, festivals, and worshipping ethnic deities in ethnic temples.
- Ethnic diversity and consequent differences in religious gatherings are bound to persist for a long time.
- "With my daughters more interested in the exploits of Barney than Rama (a Hindu god), how was I going to raise her a Hindu in America?"
- "What you need to do is find a community of Indians who are willing to practice Hinduism. Hold bhajans (ritual singing) in your home.'
- "Order books" that narrate Hindu mythology.
- "Learn the Sanskrit language."
- "One measure of comfort is the realization that thousands of Hindus in America are treading on that path along with me." (Shobha Narayan, a well known of fiction in English with Indian themes.)
- "Americanization of immigrant children lowers GPA."
- "The progression of Hinduism seems to have little correlation with the practices of the parents. In other words, children had a tendency to move away from the traditional aspects of Hinduism, placing much more emphasis on Hindy values, independently of whether or not their parents practiced daily, weekly, monthly, or rarely. In the most extreme cases, children no longer worshiped or practiced at all. …"
- Dot-buster problem faced by American Hindus in New Jersey and other states. ("We will go to any extreme to get Indians to move out of Jersey City. If I'm walking down the street and I see a Hindu and the setting is right, I will hit him or her. … You said that they will have to start protecting themselves because the police cannot always be there. They will never do anything. They are a weak race, Physically and Mentally.")
- Some studies indicate the following:
- The connection between being an Indian and a practicing Hindu is weakened in the younger generation. More emphasis is now placed on morals, values and social activity based on Hindu religion than on traditional religious practices.
- The interaction between parents and other South Asians continue to be based on religious and caste affiliation and for a religious purpose, whereas the children's interactions with other South Asian contacts are more on social plane. Parents participate in more religiously oriented gatherings.
- Parents do not expect their children to practice their traditional rituals.
- Marriage by choice (by love) is becoming popular among younger generation, slowly being approved by parents. Getting spouses from the India is still widely considered.
- There is strong belief that Hinduism in America will not die or be lost, and will become more attractive. Loss of ritualism at the individual plane will be supplemented by the practice of ritualism at the community gatherings.
- A viewpoint among younger generation: "America isn't a two-way street in terms of culture. Indians are newer in this nation. We grow up in an environment, which is predominantly white, and I think that's why culture transmission is so overwhelmingly one-sided. But, … people are willing to learn new things."
- Caste affiliation is becoming more important in recent years with the arrival of people from different castes. Hindus in America have begun to establish caste-based associations, for example Okkaliga Caste (a dominant non-Brahmin caste of farmers) associations, etc. The divide between the Brahmin and non-Brahmin already exists among the Hindus from South India in America.
POLITICAL: Participation in American Public Life
- "Attach themselves" more "to the task of capital accumulation."
- Hindu Activists have begun to make use of the free institutions of America to assert Hindu identity in a lawful manner:
- McDonald's Episode (Beef flavoring in French Fries without notice is likened to "Feeding dog lovers dog meat," or "a flavoring of human meat");
- Petitions to include Hindu prayers: A petition addressed to President Bush said, "As our national leader and someone who has repeatedly expressed the respect for America's pluralistic and multicultural tradition, but Hindus have been excluded from your prayers several times. Hindus constitute 2% of the total population. There were 250 Indians died in World Trade Center terrorist attack. There is a Hindu temple in every big city of America. Hindus are contributing members of our society. … We urge you Mr. President, to remember Hindus in your speech and in your prayers."
- "Outrage at the music group Aerosmith for disparaging Ganesh with an image on their album cover for Nine Lives."
- And they have disapproved the act of Madonna for usurping the Mehendi and "inappropriate inclusion" of Sanskrit Bhagwad Gita slokas in Eyes Wide Shut.
- They have criticized Pat Robertson's comments against Hindus.
- They have taken up arms against Xena the Warrior, who has teamed with Krishna in a TV adventure.
- Protest against a prayer book published by the Southern Baptists on the occasion of Diwali, a major Hindu festival of lights, etc. The prayer book asked Christians to pray for Hindus so that they could be saved from darkness even as they celebrate the festival of lights.
- American Hindus Against Defamation is a new outfit. It expressed its "outrage at the introduction of shoes with images of Hindu Gods and Goddesses imprinted on them. Hindu culture considers shoes to be 'dirty'" and this is a "deliberate attempt to denigrate Hindu dharma and Hindus around the world." Unfortunately, this outfit does not see the reality in India where all kinds of objects carry the images of gods and goddesses.
- There is widespread political apathy among Indian Americans. But religion, however, plays an important role as a mark of identity. Selected individuals have begun to participate in the political life of the United States through getting elected to state legislature and as mayors of some towns. Primary focus is on influencing leaders of both Democratic and Republican parties through donations.
- Influence over Indian Political Life: It is claimed that Hindu fundamentalistic resurgence is encouraged and supported by the material help from American Hindus. One critic wrote, "It is befuddling that these people (Hindu chauvinists in America) have elected to safely put a distance of 10,000 miles from the fires they are stoking on the subcontinent. In many instances, members of such organizations as the Overseas Friends of the BJP and the even more militant Vishwa Hindu Parishad have taken out U.S. citizenship. Why they would seek to commit India to a Hindu theocracy when they presumably will not be riding the udankhatolas or chariots there boggles the mind."
- Another writer opined, "The fundamentalist Hindu groups in the US are a microscopic though very voluble minority. …"
- Participation in political processes through membership in and support of the major political parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Until recently Hindus voted in large number in favor of the Democratic Party candidates. There is significant shift now towards the Republican Party: growing affluence and secular conservatism that would protect their religious rights seem to motivate this shift. Possibly shift in India's foreign policy also contributes to this subtle shift. Certainly there is also greater eagerness in the US government to make some shift in their foreign policy toward India, after many years of lukewarm and/or almost hostile posture.
- July 23, 2001: A Hindu priest "opened a joint session of the United States Congress with a prayer in Sanskrit (with some Hindi and English added)."
- A satire on American Hindu by an American Hindu: "The Hindus, who are few in number and silently meditating, issued a statement that the ability to transform in a single lifetime was the unique privilege of Gods, Demons, and Kafka. It was inappropriate for mere human beings to comment on matters of higher beings. They reminded the world that reincarnation is not a myth and if the Americans do not perform the good deed of nuking Pakistan, they would all be born as worms in the next life. To appease those whom the statement may have offended, they decided to include the American Congress and the President in their pantheon." - Gaurang Bhatt, M.D. November 17, 2002 on the Congressional Transformation.
ECONOMIC LIFE, PROFESSIONS
- Generation of wealth through participation in trades, professions, such as engineering, IT, medical services, banking, and commerce.
- Creation of supporting services including religious institutions - construction of temples and other spiritual centers such as Yoga centers.
- A report in Washington Times said, "the 300,000 Indian Americans living in the Silicon Valley take home $60 billion annually. They also hold down roughly 40 per cent of the high-tech jobs there and have started some of its most successful new businesses."
- The new millionaires are IT professionals, but many that form this group come from the batch of very recent immigrants, and several among them fuel Hindu fundamentalism, a characteristic of younger generation from upper castes in India.
- Success in professions has generated a wrong sense of superiority among Hindus in America, sometimes unwittingly supported by others in America. There is a danger of pitting the economically successful Hindu community in America against the less affluent and less educated African American and Hispanic groups. The thesis of Dinesh D'Souza, an Indian Christian immigrant scholar, that "the oppressive conditions of life among black Africans is more a result of their civilizational collapse than on the persistence" of existing discriminating structures (Dinesh D'Souza, The End of Racism, 1995) appeals to Hindus and the American conservatives alike. While there is some truth in the statement made, there are also serious lapses in analysis and application. The Hindu community in America is a community constituted largely by state selection dictated by immigration policies.
MAKING AMERICA A HOLY HINDU PLACE
Transmitting Hindu spiritual power to America:
- Composing songs and pious prayers in Sanskrit extolling America.
- Identifying America as an Island mentioned in Hindu sacred texts.
- Consecrate the land with holy waters from Indian rivers.
- Recreate the physical landscape of certain holy paces, as in Pittsburgh, or Barsana Dham, Texas. (Vasudha Narayanan)
- Primary Sacrality (in addition to resemblance, blessed land, and waters), that is, association of local American (primarily animistic) spiritual centers with Hindu projects.
- Twin Cities area in Minnesota now has a massive Hindu Temple.
IDENTIFYING AND CLASSIFYING HINDUS IN AMERICA AS
TO THEIR SECTARIAN BELIEFS
- Ritual Hindus
- Intellectual Hindus
- Folk Religious Hindus
- Secular and Atheistic Hindus
It is possible that a very same Hindu invidual may exhibit the characteristics of these categories.
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M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
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