Becoming “Hindu European”
Living in a new land presents challenges and opportunities and requires civic engagement
WHEN WE TRANSPLANT OURSELVES to a foreign land, we naturally seek to make our new neighbors feel comfortable with us. We also seek to preserve our own cultural and religious traditions, and we hope the next generation will carry them forward. We find various ways to approach the cultural blending that naturally takes place, but it is never without its challenges and an ineluctable sense of uncertainty.
Marriage is one way in which immigrants blend with a local community. In Portugal and Italy, overall rates of intermarriage are low, but those immigrant communities are also young. In Spain and Germany, we were told that boys marry outside the faith far more than girls do. Mr. Krishnamurthy described the approach that the Sri Ganesha Tempel in Berlin is taking to this phenomenon: “To my knowledge, ours is the only temple in Europe hosting interfaith marriages. We know we are living in Germany, and if our children are going on a different path, we want to catch them and bring them back again. So we encourage them to marry here. Then their children grow up with us as a part of our community. If we say ‘no,’ we push them away.”
Luh Gede Juli Wirahmini Bisterfeld seemed to have arrived at a balanced perspective about her daughter’s future: “I think if she marries a Balinese I would be happy about it, but if she doesn’t, it’s no problem. What is important is that Hinduism is already in her. I think my duty as a mother is to bring her into the awareness of Hinduism.”
In the Netherlands, 80 percent of extended families have at least one interracial marriage, but Bikram Lalbahadoersing cautioned that the divorce rate among Hindus there is estimated at between 20 and 40 percent. “Here, the women have more education, freedom and money than they did in Suriname.” This, he said, creates a clash with men who maintain a more traditional perspective.
Insights into integration
VASAANT KRISHNAN; NIRAJ THAKER; NIRAJ THAKER
Luh Gede Juli Wirahmini Bisterfeld, Nitharshan Sharma Kurukkal, Ram Pratap Thapa
The Second Generation
Parents have extra decisions to make. Dr. Satish Joshi explained that he and his Swiss wife gave their children a choice. “My son and daughter have grown up Christian, not Hindu—not because of my wife’s influence, but because of the atmosphere. The situation which we cannot change is that we are not in India, we are in Switzerland, which is a Western, Christian civilization.”
Nitharshan Sharma Kurukkal, 19, is a priest at Frankfurt’s Sri Nagapooshani Amman Kovil. “The younger generation doesn’t come to temple, and the parents don’t seem to care. They think, ‘We’re in a foreign country now. Education is what’s important. We can teach them religion another time.’”
The priest of the Sanatan Dharm Mandir in Arzignano, Italy, said their young people are active because they are put in charge of seva (service activities). “They explained that because we give them freedom, they don’t feel they want to escape from something.” They are fluent in Italian, and when they go to school they dress like the other children—but at home they speak Punjabi, and when coming to the temple they dress in Indian clothes.
Ram Pratap Thapa, Consul General of Nepal in Cologne, Germany, shared, “As long as their parents are alive, there’s no problem. But once they are alone and they have no attachment with Nepalese culture, then it may be a problem.”
For the Sri Lankan Tamils in Switzerland, Mr. Ramalingam, who manages the temple in Trimbach, explained that even though the civil war in Sri Lanka ended, the political and fund-raising apparatus established across Europe to support it remains more or less intact. This effort causes strain in the community. “We don’t want to be involved,” states Ramalingam. “We are a religious and cultural organization. We have left Sri Lanka; it’s finished there. We are working well with the Swiss government, but if we don’t stay politically neutral that will become difficult. This is very important for the future of the second generation, because their life is here.”
Vivek Ojha said of the Czech Hindu community, “The main challenge is to form a temple here, and for that we need international support. We also need moral support, because we had communism here for a long time, and we couldn’t engage in any religious activities.”
Progress Toward Legal Recognition
Of the nine nations we visited, only the Netherlands and Italy have given Hinduism full legal recognition as a religion—Italy only since February 2, 2013. The Italian Hindu Union had worked with the Italian government since 1996 toward this end, and its persistence paid off: Hindu marriages are now recognized by law, and Hindu organizations are given the same legal protections, state funding and other advantages as those of any other recognized religion. In addition, the law now requires that employers allow Hindus to celebrate Diwali as a paid holiday.
Sri Paskara Gurukkal of Hamm, Germany, has made significant progress toward legal recognition of Hinduism in his country. On June 17, 2013, his Sri Kamadchi Ampal Tempel was granted full status as a religious organization—placing it in the same category as a Christian church. “I have been working on this court case for ten years, and finally it was heard,” he rejoiced. Hindu weddings performed at his temple will now be legal as well. Other temples wishing to obtain the same status, he said, “have to apply pressure to their local courts.” They will surely benefit from his pioneering work.
Hindus in other countries are just beginning the process of seeking legal recognition. Mukundrabhai Joshi noted that in Austria, Hinduism currently has the status of a “registered” religion. This differs from full recognition, which is presently given to fifteen religions, including Buddhism and Islam. For Hinduism to achieve full recognition, the census must show at least 2/10 of one percent of the population—roughly 16,000 people—belonging to the religion. Joshi pointed out that the various isolated groups of Hindus must come together to make this happen.
HINDUISM TODAY; HINDUISM TODAY; NIRAJ THAKER
Sri Paskara Gurukkal, V. Ramalingam, Mukundrabhai Joshi
Community Integration and Outreach
Once established, a Hindu community has a choice: to engage with the population in meaningful ways, or to remain apart. Groups involved in community projects earn respect, acceptance and good will.
At the Templo de Shiva in Lisbon, Pradeep Lalit Kumar told us, “Our temple is open for everyone. We are using our pavilion for various sports, and the facilities are available for all to use.” The Portuguese government, in turn, offers classes in computers, language, even hairdressing, to promote employment.
In Spain, on the other hand, there is no help from the government; in fact, officials look upon Hindus with suspicion, thinking them odd and cultish.
Italians respect the Hindu work ethic and even join in temple bhajans. Oddly, it is the Hindus there that are divided. Svamini Hamsananda Giri explained, “There is this mentality to divide, divide, divide. Strangely, Hindus are friends with Italians but not friends among their own.”
Berlin’s Sri Ganesha Tempel works with the local high schools, inviting students from as many as 30 schools each year to learn about Hinduism.
In conservative Switzerland, Hinduism is perceived as foreign—and therefore suspect. The Omkarananda Ashram works to counter this, providing language studies, career training and counseling—a model for others to emulate. Dr. Joshi divulged one of the unspoken problems: “There is what I call optical pollution.” Immigrants from the subcontinent visually stand out in a region where the local people are quite fair-skinned. “Because of the color, there is an uneasiness when half a dozen Hindus get together somewhere like the Bern train station.”
Language is frequently the biggest barrier; but as language skills evolve, community relations improve. This is dramatically seen in the second-generation Hindus born in Germany: they are accepted and fully engaged in society, something that was impossible for their parents.
Of all the Hindus in mainland Europe, the 200,000 in the Netherlands are the most fully integrated. They enjoy their government’s largesse. Radio and television broadcasting services are provided to Hindu groups at no cost. Even in prisons, satsang is provided, and flowers and incense for puja. Prisoners are encouraged to have shrines in their cells. Hindus have become part of the social and political network and now have access to the corridors of power.
Andras Sukub, the president of the Prague Hindu Society, offered that the Czech people are open to all things Indian. Vivek Ojha described his family’s seva: “My wife runs a hostel for indigent mothers with children. We provide clothes, food, education and computer classes for about 200.” Despite all this, the Czech media are critical of Hinduism, so more work remains to be done toward full acceptance by the community.
The vast majority of Hindus in Europe are living peaceably and amicably. A basic challenge for immigrants is to fully adopt their new nation as home, to self-identify as Hindu Europeans rather than as Hindus living in a foreign land. It takes two or three generations for a new group to become an intrinsic part of society. In the decades to come, with wisdom and the knowledge of its incomparable culture and philosophy, Hinduism will become recognized as a precious gem in the multi-colored mosaic that is Europe.