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    Religious diversity In America

    Hinduism In America

    In search of spirituality
    With well over one million Hindus, and the proliferation of Hindu temples and societies, there is a more open approach towards Hinduism today among Americans

    By R. Balachandran/California




    "Post-September 11, everything has been different," said Pravrajika Vrajapana of the Vedanta Society's Sarada Convent in Santa Barbara, California. "We had a marked increase in people coming to the temple and sitting quietly. Our largest attendance for a lecture-ever-occurred the Sunday after September 11.

    Vrajapana does not think that the increased numbers post-September 11 came as much for "spiritual guidance" as for spiritual solace. "The vast majority of the people were westerners. The biggest change that we can see here is the centrality that both the family and religion in general has taken. Both had been given short shrift in American society and it took a tragedy of this magnitude for people to realise that they had wilfully starved themselves of what gives life deeper meaning."

    "Sisters and brothers of America, I'm proud to belong to a religion that has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance." Thus spoke Swami Vivekananda in 1893 at the World's Parliament of Religions, in Chicago. "I have to thank you America for the great attempt you are making to break down the barriers of this little world of ours."

    More than hundred years have passed since those words that authoritatively revealed the very essence of Hindu philosophy to an international audience. And, America, with its philosophy of freedom and equality, has given the world much in terms of technological and economic development while itself undergoing a gradual metamorphosis of peoples, cultures and traditions.

    Americans have accepted the professional credibility of Indians in the US. What is at stake now is the acceptance of their religious and cultural contributions
    Dr Vasudha Narayanan, Professor of Religion, University of Florida

    However, the new millennium showcases a changed America. Leo Sandon, professor of Religion at the Florida State University, put the issue in a post-September 11 perspective. "Not since the 1920s and 1930s when religious thinkers spoke and wrote the theologies of crisis, have we been so aware of human sinfulness, of the finitude and fragility of nations, of the reality of power and essential precariousness of life," he said.

    "The human social crisis poses a great challenge to religion," he added. "All faith and communities in the US and in other nations would have to acknowledge pluralism as a part of their societies. The American slogan E Pluribus Unum-out of many, One-has acquired a new significance. It has become a rallying slogan to highlight, to awaken, and create an awareness about the melting pot that is America." And what a melting pot-with over 1,500 distinct religious denominations and faith groups living and practising their respective faiths.

    "The greatest challenge facing American society is understanding, handling and living with increasing religious diversity," says Dr Diana Eck in a new book that is sending ripples across the American establishment. According to Dr Leigh Eric Schmidt, professor of religion, Princeton University, "It is a book with profound implications on how we negotiate the future of American civil society."

    Today, America is the most religiously diverse nation on earth. A fact that the average American is still to come to terms with. That the "world's religions are no longer on the other side of the world, but thriving right in the backyard of their houses," has been engagingly chronicled after almost ten years of research by Eck, professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies, Harvard University, in A New Religious America: How a Christian country has become the world's most religiously diverse nation.

    "One can conceptualise the book in the various ways in which Americans, and the west in general, have perceived Hindus," said Dr Vasudha Narayanan, professor of Religion at the University of Florida, and an associate of Dr Eck. "Some have ignored us, at times based on perceived superiority of one culture over another. Others have studied Hindu culture, misinterpreted it and condemned it. Still others have romanticised the culture selectively seeing certain elements in it and viewing this as an exotic other. Some have appropriated elements from it (like meditation and yoga) and frequently at the prodding of various teachers, have seen these as universal elements, disconnected from Hinduism." But the time has come, said Narayanan, to accept Hindus of all stripes in America. "In the last few years, Americans have accepted the technological and professional credibility of Indians in the US: what is at stake now is the acceptance of the social, political, religious and cultural contributions of the new Indo-Americans."

    It has been estimated that yoga, which came to the US in the late 1800s and entered mainstream awareness in the 1960s, is now practised by over 20 million Americans. Over one million newcomers take up yoga every year making it one of the fastest growing fitness activities. "More and more people have begun to realise that yoga has nothing to do with religion," says Dianne Harmon, a yoga teacher for 22 years. "Yet, there is an element of spirituality that has become acceptable. Today, there are a lot of achievers who take this up seriously as it offers them serenity, relief from stress and an aura of spirituality." It has also acquired fashion status with the extensive celebrity line-up and top executives who have taken to it.

    The normal process of growth, economic need and the demographics of immigration are doing as much to fuel this acceptance as the growing number of temples and other centres of Hindu religious discourse and learning in the US. This despite the fact that there has always been a subtle level of indifference and even opposition towards other religions. This began changing, according to Dr Eck, with the change in the Immigration Act in 1965,which opened up the country to millions of new immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Hindus came not only from India but from the Caribbean. Muslims came from India, Pakistan, the Middle East and Indonesia; Christians with over a 2000-year tradition from India, Egypt and other countries. "We are now religious in so many different ways than we ever imagined before. It takes our breath away," says Dr Eck.

    Over the years temples have become bigger in size and the ceremonies match the sanctity of any of the renowned temples in India

    Today, American mainstream is a growing blend of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Bahais, and Buddhists. Many may not be aware that Los Angeles is considered to be one of the most complex Buddhist cities in the world with Buddhists from over a dozen countries and an estimated 300 Buddhist temples. Houston is the only city with a comprehensive Islamic plan for its zones and neighbourhoods. Yet, it also has 19 Buddhist temples and 14 Hindu temples including the spectacular Meenakshi temple. Another recent landmark has been the Sikh Heritage project under the aegis of the Smithsonian-a project to protect, preserve and highlight the cultural heritage of the Sikhs.

    Dr Eck's book is rich in detail, describing her encounters with various religious traditions in America. It not only showcases the thriving reality of Hindus, Muslims, Zorastrians, Buddhists and other religions in America but challenges those who still think of the country as largely Christian into seeing anew, and to the fact that this new multi-religious America is enriching for all and that the new migrants are contributing socially, politically, and spiritually to their new home.

    The start of Hinduism in the US goes back to the Vedanta Society, established in New York by Swami Vivekananda, one year after his famous oration of 1893. That was the first Hindu organisation designed to attract American adherents to the universal principles of the philosophy of Vedanta. Soon other teachers like Baba Premanand Bharti, Swami Paramananda and Swami Paramahamsa Yogananda propounded their own teachings and made their imprint on the western minds. Paramahamsa Yogananda's book, An Autobiography of a Yogi, released in 1946, became a bestseller. However, it was the Vedanta Society that built the first Hindu temple in the US, in San Francisco in 1906.

    The Vedanta Society, which Swami Vivekananda established in 1894, built the first Hindu temple in San Francisco in 1906

    Hindu institutions in the US fall under two categories. One, those that promote self-help practices like yoga, the various forms of meditation and service to humanity and two, organisations that provide the means for formal ritual worship, such as temples. However, it was only during the last 30 years that building Hindu temples has become a dominant focus. As of now, there are some 545 temples dotting the American landscape and more are on their way.

    Over the years the temples have become more g*****ose in scale and size and the ceremonies that are conducted regularly would match the sanctity and purity of any one of the renowned temples in India. The latest Swaminarayan temple that was consecrated in the garden state was built at a cost of over $7 million and is possibly the largest Hindu place of worship in New Jersey. Three idols weighing 260 kilograms each were flown in from India and weighed with an equal quantity of gold during the consecration.

    Dr Vasudha Narayanan, who has done research on the temples in America, recalled the Memorial Day in 1997 when the Atlanta temple was consecrated with the pouring over its brand new royal towers and main entrances (raja gopuram), jars filled with the waters of the Ganga, the Cauvery, Mississippi and the Suwannee, to the accompaniment of recitation of the Vedas and Hindu scriptures, for several days.

    At the same time, there has also been a transformation in attitudes- from the campaigns against the creation of new temples in their neighbourhood to a stage where local state and city officials now participate in such functions, in response to the changing demographics of their counties. In a historic public exposure of the changing attitudes, the mayor of San Francisco officially acknowledged the conclusion of the Ganesh Chathurti festival. An unthinkable possibility a few years ago.

    As the number of Hindus in the US now number over one million, Indian Americans find occasions where they organise together, as was seen at a unified Hindu Sangam in the San Francisco Bay. "Dance and the performing arts are increasingly becoming the main ways in which we are transmitting our culture in the diaspora," said Narayanan. True, there is today a more open approach towards Hinduism among westerners. But as Narayanan put it, "Some do meditation or yoga but the cultural lifestyle of Hinduism in practice is alien to them."

    Modern America has hospitals with doctors and nurses who are Muslims, Hindus, Jains or Buddhists. Universities are a kaleidoscope of religious diversity. Schools too have begun to reflect this mix. Despite all this, a recent survey on a small representative sample conducted by the Hindu Leaders Forum found that a large percentage of Americans had still very little idea of Hinduism as a major religion. "There appears to be a significant gap between the growth and presence of Hindu population and the American's knowledge and beliefs and practices," said B.K. Modi, director of the Forum. Dr Eck agrees, saying "Christians in the US are abysmally ignorant about the religious traditions of the rest of the world. They need to understand that there is a vibrant, religious tradition that has transformed the whole of Asia and is now beginning to transform America."

    Many colleges in the US are today host to different socio-religious groups. And as thousands of Indian students make their way to the various campuses across the US every year, one finds festivals like Diwali and Holi being celebrated in many a campus, with increasing participation from the locals. One significant result of all this mingling at the college level has been the increasing inter-denominational marriages.

    Krishnamacharyalu, the priest at the famous Malibu Temple off Los Angeles, confirmed there had been an increase in mixed marriages and, westerners getting married as per the Hindu rites at the temple.

    Also, often this union becomes a double marriage event as per the rituals and practices of the partners. And in some cases, according to Narayanan, even when two Indian Hindus marry in the US there are changes in peripheral rituals with the introduction of bridesmaids and best men.

    Interestingly, there have been attempts by Hindu parents to have an event called Kalpavriksha, that focused on Indian heritage and Hindu faith for their children to enjoy during the season of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. "The kids get to celebrate and be a part of the fun," says Reddy Ganta, a member of the Connecticut Valley Hindu Temple Society in Middletown. Kalpavriksha, which means magic wish tree, is part of a story in the Vedas. "The tree is represented by an evergreen decorated with lights that looks just like a Christmas tree with ornaments shaped like an elephant, a cow, the sun and dolls in bright costumes-elements of Hindu mythology."

    Perhaps the most significant change has been the realisation by corporate America of the enormous potential of countries like India as a huge market place for their goods and services. Corporate America today is increasingly a cross cultural mix of people from different parts of the world. Over 40 per cent of all companies surveyed recently by the Society for Human Resource Management said that they have more religions represented in their workforces compared with five years ago.

    Also, new businesses, particularly in the high-tech sector, have been set up by Indians and Asians who have been employing local Americans. This has resulted in a cross flow of business travel and a better understanding of the country, its people and its religion.

    At the same time, some US employees are at the forefront of a grass-roots movement that is quietly creating a spiritual renaissance in the workplace. Religion and spirituality, normally taboo in corporate America, have suddenly become topics that matter as more and more employees search for more meaning at work and as some business leaders seek more socially responsible approach to business and new ways to motivate and inspire workers.

    Not surprisingly, the country's management and marketing people have not missed this new high-value target segment who are estimated to control purchasing power of over $20 billion annually. And, the market is not just Indians alone. The combined strength of South Asians makes them an economic powerhouse that cannot be ignored. This was evident at a recent training session at one of the largest chain stores, Sears. While training new customer service associates, the trainer asked, "Who are the people who have the money to spend in our shops?" The unanimous answer was, "The Asians".

    So now one sees leading advertising agencies incorporating an ethnic touch to reach these consumers. A recent MetLife advertisement had the Papa kehte hain song featuring a father who wanted his son to become a doctor. Such advertisements are also clearing up a lot of misconceptions about the negative images people used to have of India.

    The world's religions are no longer on the other side of the world, but thriving right in the backyard of Americans' homes
    Dr Diana Eck, Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies, Harvard University

    Playing an equally positive role in changing the attitudes of local Americans to Hinduism and India have been organisations like the one run by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who has influenced over a million followers in the USA and around 200,000 in Canada. At the same time, recognising the values and philosophies of Hinduism did not mean a change in the American's own religious practices. All of them continued to practise their own faiths. Yet, they believe in Transcendental Meditation, live in Sthapatya Veda houses, have become vegetarian by choice (ISKCON, in fact, arranges to serve vegetarian food in colleges for a donation or even free), learn to read and understand Vedic literature in Sanskrit, heal the body through Ayurveda, participate in yagyas and even discus the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

    Similarly, The Chinmaya missions have been at the forefront in ensuring that children and adults alike understand and appreciate the message in the Gita. While the discourse has often been aimed at Indians, there has been a growing increase among others in these. Many temples are also now doing a lot of humanitarian work which is increasing involvement with local society. So much so that in many cities and towns, local schools and colleges regularly take students to these temples. "The Bharatiya temple in Detroit even organises regular open houses for school officials," said Dr Narayanan.

    Perhaps the biggest inroads that Hindu philosophy has had in the US has been in the so-called New Age teachings where ancient Indian teachings of karma, reincarnation, dharma, yoga, etc., have filtered into the society's arena of discourse. One of the prominent movements now working in the US promoting courses on how to relieve stress and anxiety is Sri Sri Ravi Shanker's Art of Living programmes. This is one organisation that has involved itself in a major way in the post-September 11 rehabilitation process. The Art of Living Foundation announced its sponsorship of "Back on Track America", a coalition aimed at getting businesses across America back on track in the post-September 11 business climate.

    Jane Applegate, founder and CEO of SBTV (Small Business Television), felt that both the economy and the healing process needed a strengthened American entrepreneurial spirit. She began putting together a coalition that includes business experts, corporate sponsors and retired executives. She also called the Art of Living Foundation to actively participate in the programme and present some of their stress-management and meditation techniques.

    Faith spreads: Devotees in front of a picture of Shirdi Sai Baba in Florida

    Another person who has been attracting wide media coverage in the US in recent times is Mata Amritananda Mayi, labelled The Hugging Saint. During her last 10-city US tour, which included stops in Santa Fe, Dallas, Chicago, Washington, New York, Smithfield (Rhode Island) and Boston, more and more people came for darshan. "In France, Catholic nuns come to her; in Japan, Zen Buddhist monks come, she's universal,'' said her spokesman Rob Sidon. In Los Angeles, a steady stream of locals poured into the lobby of a Hilton hotel to see her. Businessmen in suits, college students, women with sick children and artists and performers braved sweltering heat and heavy traffic to sit for hours on the hotel lobby floor, cross-legged and barefoot, waiting. "That truly was intense,'' said Greg, 43, a sculptor, after a blessing by Amma.

    Perhaps it is not a surprise then that a recent bestseller in Belgium and Holland was the translation of the Bhagvad Gita into Flemish.

    Clearly after September 11, there is a greater movement towards God and religion. An increase in attendance has been confirmed across all religions through their places of worship. Apart from increased fervour there has been a surge in the sales of books like the Koran, Bible, books on Islam and to a certain extent, books from the various organisations propounding the Hindu philosophies of Gita and Vedanta. Books like the one by Dr Diana Eck as well as the book of Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief, have captured the public imagination.
    But even before September 11, a noticeable change was an increasing acceptance of a holistic approach to living and a search for a deeper meaning about life. This was brought out in a research survey conducted by psychologists Paul Gray and Sherry Anderson over a period of 13 years. Their research has revealed an entirely new subculture of Americans which they have dubbed "The Cultural Creatives", who by the the sheer size of their numbers, the researchers say, are poised to shape a new kind of American culture for the 21st century. The study said that over 50 million adults are exploring new paths by choice, leaving behind old values and beliefs, and they are courageous enough to experience new levels of consciousness in life. No wonder that yoga, meditation, Ayurveda, astrology and vegetarianism have been gaining large number of followers in recent years.

    The Atlanta temple was consecrated by pouring over its towers and main entrances, the water of The Ganga, The Cauvery, The Mississippi and The Suwannee

    Of course, Christianity is and will continue to be the dominant religious framework in the country. But the changing religious demographics is posing the question: how does it affect the lives, attitudes, beliefs of the people who are exposed to such diversity? The issue is more poignant among second generation immigrants of other religions. As Dr Eck says in her book: "Straddling two worlds and two cultures, in their own struggles with identity lie the very issues that are beginning to torment the soul of the United States." Or in the words of Steven Tipton, Professor at Emory University and author: "What will come of this moral drama all of us inhabit? Greater cultural conflict or liberal tolerance? Providential or problematic, the next act will keep us guessing and praying. In both pursuits this book is an invaluable guide."

    The issue is really dealing with the changing social equations that will be set in motion with the changing demographic trends of falling birth rates, increasing life expectancies of senior citizens and greater immigration of skilled professionals from other parts of the world. Some changes to cope with this change are already visible. The departments of religion in almost all colleges now have a greater emphasis on inter-faith studies. And organisations like the RSISS, a coalition of public and private secondary school teachers, are committed to the idea that education is not complete without the study of the world's religious traditions and the ethical values, literatures and cultures.

    To quote Swami Vivekananda again, "Do I wish that the Christian should become a Hindu? God forbid. Do I wish that the Hindu or Buddhist would become a Christian? God forbid. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his own individuality and growth."


    Melting pot
    Numbers do offer some perspective on the diversity. There are roughly 17 million people, over 6 per cent of the US population, practising diverse religious traditions.

    Diverse religious traditions: Islamic Center of Tempe, Arizona

    Bahais, with about 1,152 local spiritual assemblies, number around 143,000. Current estimates of the number of Buddhists range from 3-4 million, including 800,000 Euro/American Buddhists with around 1,212 Buddhist centers. Zorastrians are estimated to be 18,000. Jews are around 6 million while the Muslim population is the largest at an estimated 7 million

    The estimated number of Hindus ranges from just over one million to almost 1,300,000 with about 545 temples. Sikhs are thought to be roughly around 250,000. And Jains about 25,000 with 107 centres and temples.
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