Achal Mehra, Hindu Revival in an Alien Land, Little India, 30 Nov 1992, pp. PG.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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.’
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
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
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
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,’
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
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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