Our reporter asks Hindus throughout the United States to comment on important issues we confront in the country today
By Lavina Melwani, New York
The flourishing of hinduism in America has generated many questions. How does one answer them? A snapshot of our history in America can start by showing how far we’ve come.
When the first Indian immigrants came to America in the 1900s, all were simply known as “the Hindoos”—no matter what their faith—and were unwelcome in this new world. They were not allowed to bring their families or become citizens. Still they came, trying to create a foothold for themselves in this foreign land.
The 1965 Immigration Act enabled Hindus to bring their families to the US, and soon these few migrants swelled. Census statistics show there are now nearly four million Indians in the US; of these, 54 percent are Hindus. In addition, there are many non-Indian Hindus. One thing is certain: through difficult days and trying circumstances, many Hindus have held fast to the faith of their forefathers and the rituals they grew up with.
The earliest temples built by this pioneer community were makeshift, low-profile shrines in people’s homes and basements. Diwali was celebrated in isolation. To wear a bindi on the forehead or a sari was to attract unwelcome attention. Few can forget the racist Dotbuster attacks in the 80s, when Indians were attacked by white gangs.
Over the years things have changed for Hindus in America. Most important has been the massive surge of the Indian population in the country—and the birth of first-, second- and even third-generation Indian-American children. Many of the scattered storefront temples and humble basement gatherings have metamorphosed: there are now close to 450 temples across America, attended by many different denominations of Hindus, with hundreds of Hindu priests to guide growing congregations.
Hindus are a highly diverse population. They come not only from India but many countries, ranging from Nepal to Malaysia to the Caribbean. Different groups have embraced the faith in different ways. Many have lived here for five decades, while others are fresh off the boat.
Hindus have adapted to America in many ways. Some old customs have been jettisoned, others reinterpreted, and new ones created. The children, in particular, have adjusted and adapted. Some may have given up their religion totally, some have clung to it even more rigidly, and others have redesigned it to fit their life in the US.
The immigrants and their American children have brought their own nuances to Hinduism. Many Hindus have intermarried with Americans of other religions and must now rearrange and adjust their faith. Hindu children, growing up among many different religions, races and cultures, also see Hinduism through a different lens.
To explore where Hinduism is headed in America—and whether some of these changes have also been affecting society in India—Hinduism Today interviewed five noted leaders for their opinions: Dr. Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America in Flushing, NY; Dr. Vasudha Narayanan, distinguished professor of religion at the University of North Florida; Swami Ishwarananda of the Chinmaya Mission; Dr. Sthaneshwar Timalsina, a graduate of the Sanskrit University and professor of religious studies at San Diego State University; and Swami Parameshananda, the New-York-based United Nations and international representative for Bharat Sevashram Sangha. To include a younger voice, we also spoke with Anu Singh, a recent graduate from Rice University with a B.A. in kinesiology, who is an active participant in the Hindu student group YUVA.
Culture, Tradition and Community
“Let’s first understand the difference between three often-used terms: culture, tradition and community,” said Swami Ishwarananda. “Culture is the way of life from one’s homeland, including food, festivals, language, religious practices and art; this is often adapted to one’s new surroundings, as when a person moves from one state to another in India. Tradition is less fluid. Here, there are set norms and practices handed from one generation to another with the expectation that they be explicitly followed. Traditions are intimately connected to religious beliefs. Community refers to living together as a society governed by the laws of the land. A community may consist of people freely practicing different cultures and traditions, without insisting that others to do the same.”
How to Handle Modern Fads & Fashions?
What are your thoughts on trends, such as using religious hymns set to Bollywood music at home or in temple satsang, and wearing Western clothes when visiting the temple?
“I guess accommodation seems to be in order in the US—one needs to consider work situations and weather when thinking about clothes,” says Dr. Narayanan. “While some temples speak about ‘modest clothes’ (usually in reference to women), others are more specific. In South India, some temples require men to take off their shirt and wear a dhoti; that is hardly done at all in the United States.”
She believes music, like language, is constantly evolving. Some prayers must be said with specific intonations, but other songs are set to catchy tunes. “I think it’s a compromise between wanting to transmit the message, focusing on it—or stick to tradition and lose the transmission. Parents, religious institutions and teachers, in every generation, are in search of that ideal spot.”
Swami Parameshananda asserts that traditional mandir music should always be the norm and Bollywood-style music avoided at all times. “If we become too liberal, then there goes morality and ethics, the backbone of a good foundation. We can always carry a change of clothes if we anticipate going to temple. It is all in the planning. Pray, make your offering, meditate, take prasadam and leave. It is all about God, not man.”
Swami Ishwarananda says, “Music has no language, neither does love. The love for God should be allowed full expression, irrespective of the kind of music in which the Lord’s glory is sung.”
Clothing, he says, should always be appropriate to the place. “Would we wear pajamas to work or shorts to a gala? Would shorts be permitted for worship in a church or mosque? I doubt it. What one wears to a place of worship should not be distracting. It should not evoke passion and lust in the people around. Let’s be clear, this applies to men and women alike. Offensive slogans on T-shirts are another problem and should be avoided in a place of prayer and worship.”
Sthaneshwar Timalsina does not think a dress code is practical, but everyone should be respectful of the sacred area and dress modestly. As for music, he says, “While popular songs might be quick to catch the minds of the youngsters, they lack the rasa, the transformative power. We need to educate people on the significance of the shastric modes. Imposing the ways of the elders in a dogmatic way would only deter the younger generation from going to temple or participating in rituals.”
How Can We Inspire More Youth Participation?
It is common for youth of any religion raised in America to become non- or even anti-religious shortly after entering college. What can be done to counter these trends among Hindu youth?
“This is sad but true,” says Swami Ishwarananda. “The trends in social media, movies and TV shows have become mostly anti-tradition and anti-religious, and unfortunately the younger generation in America believe in these more than what is taught by their parents or religious institutions.”
To counter this trend, he says, “parents should make extra effort to maintain friendly conversations with teens at home regarding values to be practiced and have them come together to serve the community through temple events and religious organizations. When they identify with an organization that stands for social welfare based on religious faith, there is hope.”
Swami Parameshananda agrees: “One of the trends we are seeing is that Hindu youths don’t attend mandirs, and it gets worse when they enter into higher-education institutions. Some will attend festivals as a form of socializing. Some will attend mandirs because they are musicians or singers. The solution? Create short inspirational talks in English on social media.”
He says while working with HMEC (Hindu Mandirs Executive Conference), he observed a youth wing that studied and promoted youth involvement in all aspects of a mandir’s operation, including management and planning. Youth, he asserts, should not be regarded simply as support or for following orders from elders.
Dr. Narayanan avers, “Actually, I also see some students who become very religious. Visiting other private universities, I encounter Hindu chaplains who seem to fill a lacuna. In these situations, something is lost when something is found. The students do get to know features of Hindu rituals and philosophy, but some of them may be generic and not the heritage rituals done in that student’s home. Ideally, one continues with the rituals of their childhood and the communities to which their parents belong.”
She suggests a solution: “Many universities offer courses in Hinduism, religion, Indian history, art and so on. Parents may want to encourage their children to take these. I have also seen parents get nervous if their children take too many humanities courses or courses which are not directly affiliated with a professional curriculum. I hope that in time they will show interest in these areas of specialization also.”
Anu Singh shares her experience of growing up in Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh: “We had positive interactions with the local community, such as tying rakhis to police officers and firefighters, honoring schoolteachers in Guru Vandana, and holding food drives with local food pantries. The main benefit I see is increasing awareness of Hindus within the greater community and showing that we are also valuable members of society beyond just practicing our religion.”
How Can We Make Temple Programs More Engaging?
It is common in some countries, such as Malaysia, for there to be active youth organizations attached to each temple who help especially with the celebration of festivals. To what extent are there programs in American temples that have successfully engaged the youth?
There seems to be a diverse landscape, with different organizations interacting with students at various levels. Says Swami Ishwarananda, “There are very few religious organizations and temples where the youth are active. The levels of activity are nowhere near as much as they could or should be. I would certainly hold the parents responsible for the lack of youth participation. Belonging to a faith-based organization does not make the youth antisocial or unable to meld in the mainstream, which most parents seem to think will happen.”
Dr. Narayanan has seen ups and downs in children’s participation, according to their ages and interests, with the younger children being more involved: “The balavihars and story-telling work at a younger age; the challenge is to find ways to keep kids interested. But let us not forget that many young men and women also learn a lot about Hindu culture through the music and dance classes they have when young.”
Sthaneshwar Timalsina believes this is still a work in progress, and some temple organizations such as the Swaminarayan temples do a great job. “We have not created enough themes for attracting the young generation to the temple activities. Back home, children learned rituals and beliefs from cultural osmosis; but here, that is not possible. So temple organizations need to be more youth-oriented. And that will be possible only when they are more open-minded and less dogmatic.”
Anu Singh says, “In many colleges, there is a trend to become anti-Hindu and identify as South Asian but still practice the surface culture of Hinduism. Anything positive about our heritage is put under the blanket of South Asian, while Hinduism is portrayed as negative and superstitious.” The solution? “I think that youth should first be strong in their identity as Hindu. Then find like-minded people within your university or join a Hindu club on campus so that you can be stronger by associating with others.”
How Are Our Priests Faring?
What about the priests, who are the go-betweens, the interpreters of culture and religion? What about their lives is changing in America, and how will these changes impact future generations?
Dr. Narayanan believes that in general priests are stable, but salaries and long hours vary from temple to temple. Many temples were a bit more secure in earlier days, because there were fewer of them. Now, cities like Atlanta or Houston have dozens of temples in the suburbs. Many are in their early years and may struggle a bit.
Sthaneshwar Timalsina says the situation is complex: while temple organizations are quite sufficient in themselves, or even rich, priests are broadly exploited. “Often priests are used as servants and expelled for not bowing enough to the trustees. Most priests come from poor families, and they are exploited with the promise of the green card. Often they are asked to not develop their own social network.” He urges that before a priest is brought to the West, he should be given some cultural orientation, and if he later wants to find another job and move on, the temple committee should be cooperative.
Swami Parameshananda brings a personal perspective to this, since he is from Guyana: “Most temples with Caribbean and South American followings are owned and operated by family, as a business affair. Temples with an original culture are more organizationally run, importing a priest with an agreed salary, medical benefits, housing, vacation and the possibility of getting a green card.”
As president of the Hindu Temple Society, Dr. Mysorekar has interacted with many priests. She says, “They are paid quite well, and most big temples do provide them with living quarters and expenses. They send their children to school, colleges and professional institutions. So, they live a comfortable life, and we are happy to see that.” But the story may be different for smaller temples and freelance priests.
For the future, she suggests that the priests need to become more fluent in English so they can communicate with the younger generation. Presently, the older people are the interpreters for the young; but soon there will be a gap between the priests, who only speak the regional languages and Sanskrit, and a youthful congregation who speak mostly English, a smattering of regional tongues—and no Sanskrit.
How Are We Navigating the Waters of Diverse Marriages?
How are temples and priests dealing with the complexities of modern marriage, including unions across castes, races, ethnicities, religions and genders?
Dr. Mysorekar, living in America for five decades, has watched the Indian-American community evolve from scratch. She is based at the Hindu Temple Society of Flushing, New York, built in 1977 as America’s first traditional temple. “I have seen a significant change over the last 50 years. Parents who object to weddings with non-Hindus or across caste often lose their children. They have no choice but to adapt if they want to keep the connection with their children.
“In our temple we have had several weddings between Hindus and non-Hindus. Nobody bothers about caste anymore, and I’m very proud of that. Our temple really endorses this, and our young people are extremely happy about it. Things have changed considerably for the better, from that point of view.”
She adds, “The only ritual we have strictly not endorsed is same-sex marriage. Our priests will not do it.”
Dr. Narayanan agrees that intercultural marriages are now totally accepted in Hindu temples. The ceremony is adapted to satisfy both bride and groom. She points out that marriages across castes and even religions are very common in India and among Hindus all over the world: “In general, the priests have been very cooperative with the couples. It is the couples who struggle with blending customs and traditions. One issue that concerns some couples today is the idea of kanyadan (giving away the bride).
“The issue of officiating for a gay wedding seems difficult for some temple managements in the US. I have heard of priests performing them in India and in the US but, in general, they seem to be the freelance priests.”
She points out that some approach the marriage as a ritual of two families coming together. Several couples have asked her to help with the rites and to write up the program. “I highlight the mantras spoken after the saptapadi (when the couple takes seven steps around the sacred fire). These aspects of our mantras, such as the friendship and companionship that is envisaged between the couple, seem to bring out the beauty of the ceremony for the couple. Rituals evolve; but some, like the saptapadi, are considered integral to the wedding. When one works with the priests, they are also flexible.”
Anu Singh says: “In my view, Sanatana Dharma gives freedom and independence to its followers in many aspects of life, including marriage. As interfaith marriages become more common, temples must address this.”
The issue of same-sex marriage, however, makes most priests and temples uncomfortable. Therefore, most same-sex marriages have been done by freelance priests or women priests who think more progressively. Anu calls this a step in the right direction.
Swami Ishwarananda cautions, “Same-sex marriages may be accepted by the community but not by culture and tradition. Temples, being the bastion of culture and tradition, may not be the appropriate place for same-sex unions.”
Swami Parameshananda offers a word of caution to temples and licensed priests who will not endorse same-sex marriages:“If you are a state-licensed marriage priest in the United States, equal-rights laws can be enforced.”
Should Women Be Allowed to Perform Last Rites?
May a female light a parent’s funeral pyre if no son is available or if the daughter is older than the son?
Dr. Narayanan speaks from experience: “I had the good fortune to be with my father when he passed away in Chennai. I am the first of two daughters. Because of the circumstances, I volunteered, and I did the last rites for him in Chennai. I came home emotionally and physically exhausted after the rites and submerging the ashes in the Bay of Bengal, where my father would walk daily. By then, the extended family had come in from Bengaluru and Mumbai. My mother and the larger family were all pleased I had done it. So that question applies to India also.”
Sthaneshwar Timalsina says gender roles based on older texts are not fully applicable in today’s society. “What if someone has only a daughter, or has a daughter who is willing to perform the rite. Is it not hurtful and adharmic to prohibit her from performing the rites?” In classical times, he points out, this was the son’s duty because the daughter’s duties would be to another family after her marriage: asking her to perform the last rites would have been excessive. He adds, “It also had to do with inheritance rights. So many issues have changed today. In classical times, it also had to do with someone carrying on the fire rituals for the agnihotra. How many of us are maintaining that today?”
Swami Parameshananda asks, “Why should not the loving, caring, dutiful daughter perform the last rites for her father? The spiritual bonding of father and daughter supersedes all religious dogmas. If there is a son and he is willing, then first preference should be given to him.”
Dr. Mysorekar says parents and priests in India are accepting this, so why not here? “I have seen the priests here change because they also understand the changes that are happening here. A daughter’s performing the last rites is perfectly acceptable when there are no sons, or if the son is very young and the daughter is older. There is nothing wrong with this. Our dharma does not teach otherwise.”
She points out that even in India, there are now women priests who perform rituals. “It is no longer gender-based. We should definitely follow with the times; we’re all children of God, and I think everybody is entitled to do this Godly work.”
Anu Singh refers to the holy texts: “My father heard this story on a pilgrimage in Gaya: Once Sri Ram was away and King Dusharath appeared to Sita Devi near the Ganga. He told her it was an auspicious time and asked her to do his shraddha (death ceremony), which she did. So, I believe Hindu tradition allows a daughter to lead the cremation of her father. In many cases it would be impractical not to allow this.”
What Is the Most Effective Way to Present the Epics?
Children in America often live apart from grandparents and are unfamiliar with the Ramayana and Mahabharata and the traditions embodied within these sacred books. How can the epics be used effectively?
Swami Ishwarananda points out that besides embodying the cultural ethos and religious beliefs of their particular time, these texts convey values that are essential for every Hindu to understand Sanatana Dharma, which is based on the oneness and mutual respect for all living beings: “It is the wisdom they contain that makes these two books timeless. It should be conveyed contextually and appropriately to the next generation.”
Anu Singh believes people teaching these stories can focus too much on the literal events or the morals of those times, which may not resonate with Hindu children raised in the US: “I think focusing on the deeper meanings of the stories and applying the ethics to current situations could make these texts more relevant. Modern youth are more critical and scientific, so we must present these texts in an appropriate manner. As a child, I learned the epics as stories; but when I grew older, learning the metaphorical meaning of the stories helped me realize their significance and greatness.”
Dr. Narayanan offers, “Stories are one of the main ways in which Hindu culture has been transmitted through the centuries. A grandparent telling a story, a bhajan, a dance which depicts the characters—these performative ways are integral to a child’s immersion into a narrative and exposure to the larger culture.” She recalls that by the 1970s in India, as nuclear families were becoming more common, Amar Chitra Katha versions—and, later, the Doordarshan productions—became very popular, and these became the way children learned about the epics. The animated versions of the epics seem to capture children’s attention in the Diaspora. Acting out some of the scenes also has an enormous impact, as does hearing songs, in reinforcing the stories.
Sthaneshwar Timalsina likes using technology in the teaching of the holy texts: “We can make effective video games based on Puranic themes. While we should still teach Sanskrit and mantras exactly the way the tradition mandates, we should be open to altering the medium to convey the message. What is important is not the medium but the message.”
How Vital Is it to Teach Our Native Language to Kids?
How important is language in conveying the precepts of Hinduism? Some groups teach youth in English and others in Indian languages. What is the most effective and sustainable approach?
Sthaneshwar Timalsina says, “I am a strong advocate of Sanskrit. But honestly, not many students are going to maintain Sanskrit learning. Most of our scriptures are in Sanskrit language, and mantras cannot be translated. But if we want our children to actually understand something, we have to teach them in the language they are willing to learn. The point of teaching is to make students understand, and if teaching in English helps them understand easier, we should use English, too. But we should also educate our children in our heritage language.”
Swami Parameshananda observes, “Mother language is always best in religion. Many Indians and non Indians recite prayers in Sanskrit and other Indian languages they don’t understand; but they would not change, as it is culture and tradition. I am a typical example: when I was growing up in rural Guyana, Hindi was not taught in the school or temples, but I am a swami, more spiritual than religious. God’s grace transcends all languages. Silence is the language of God.”
Dr. Mysorekar values all the regional languages, but believes it is practical to use English so everyone can understand. The Hindu Temple Society has a religious director, a priest who can teach in fluent English. There is also a youth group and a group of young professionals who conduct lecture series on all aspects of Hinduism. She finds the same situation in India, where educated youth speak their own regional tongue but are also fluent in English, often understanding English better than they understand their regional languages.
Anu Singh agrees: “I think teaching in English is the most sustainable approach, because it is probably easier for most youth to understand and communicate in English. But there are certain words and concepts that can only be communicated in Sanskrit, such as dharma. If we translate everything into English, we will lose the true meaning and adopt an ‘Abrahamized’ concept of Hinduism due to the language. I think it is important for youth to learn their mother tongue as much as possible and engage in Hinduism with that language, but it may not be the most practical idea for a lot of youth.”
Dr. Narayanan is all for language learning, which when combined with religious teachings can be effective. “But there are many challenges, especially in small towns in America. BAPS communities have Gujarati members, and there is a certain homogeneity. That is not seen in other temples or in institutions like the Chinmaya Mission which cater to people from different ethnicities and languages. In such cases, English becomes the only medium of education. It may be effective to combine that with teaching prayers at home and telling kids stories in the mother tongue. In many cases, however, the language gets lost over the generations.”
Swami Ishwarananda sums up the pros and cons of the language debate: “The purpose of a value-based, cultural education is to make the students clearly understand the subject matter. Whichever language the student is fluent in should be used. Having said this, every effort can be made to teach the youth Indian languages. Chinmaya Mission has many language classes as part of the curriculum for children to enroll in and remain in touch with their culture. There is no insistence that only one language be learned by the student.”
Summing It all Up
Sthaneshwar Timalsina offers an inclusive and open-minded conclusion to our survey of Hindu dharma in America: “We need to understand the twovfold problem we face. One, our traditional marital system is under assault, being labeled as casteist and oppressive. Two, we are not openly thinking about the existence of different ethnicities and different languages, or about conserving different cultures within the broader cultural paradigm. When we are broadly homogenizing cultures, we need to be mindful of the nuances of cultural sensitivities that are being erased today by the blanket statement that these traditional guidelines are all bad and oppressive.”
He implies that we have to look at the larger picture if Hinduism is to remain a dynamic and growing force: “We need to make our tent bigger and open the platform from a real dharmic perspective. In addressing gender disparity, we cannot interpret dharmic codes through the rules from other civilizations and cultures.
“Society has changed from classical and medieval times, so we must openly evaluate each situation according to our times, from within the dharmic culture, with dharmic solutions. Above all, our goal is to disseminate dharma for the welfare of the world; and in this world there are all types of people wanting to live different ways of life. We do not have to like everything people do, but we have to learn to respect the choices people make.”
Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who has written on the arts, spirituality and life for several international publications. She is a columnist for CNBCTV18.com and is a co-founder of Children’s Hope India. She blogs at www.lassiwithlavina.com. You can follow her @lavinamelwani