Hindus may be among the most prosperous people in the US but they rarely assert their religious identity. Tulsi Gabbard's election to the US Congress could change that
As Tulsi Gabbard, the new Congresswoman from Hawaii, was sworn into the House of Representatives by Speaker John Boehner in Washington, DC on January 3, she repeated the oath of office voiced by hundreds of lawmakers before her over the years. But she was the first to do so with her left hand on a copy of the Bhagwadgita. The irony did not escape anyone: the first Hindu American in the House of Representatives had no native connection to India, the birthplace of Hinduism. On the other hand, the most powerful Indian American elected officials — Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley — are not Hindu. Ami Bera, another Indian American who joined the House along with Gabbard, is a Unitarian Universalist, though he was born Hindu.
So what does it mean to be a Hindu in the United States today, close to the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, the person credited with introducing Hinduism to Americans with his famous speech to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago? The Hindu identity in the United States is not just defined by numbers, though these are significant. While the number of Indian Americans is believed to be over three million, there are estimated to be over 2 million Hindus in the country — immigrants from India, the diaspora from places like Fiji, Guyana and Surinam, as well as a sizeable section of Hindus who are not of Indian descent, like Gabbard who is part-Samoan and part-Caucasian. “It’s much more diverse than people think and getting more diverse every day,” says Mihir Meghani, co-founder and board member of the Hindu American Foundation.
A report by the Pew Research Center last year said the US was second only to India as the top destination country for Hindu migrants, with most of them arriving in recent decades. According to Meghani, Hindu temples were few and far between as recently as the 1960s; now there are nearly a thousand, which is two or three opening every month in the past few decades. The latest addition is the Swaminarayan Temple near Los Angeles inaugurated last month, which was built at a cost of over $30 million. The island of Kauai in Gabbard’s home state Hawaii is home to a south Indian monastery-temple complex spread over 363 lush acres. The Kauai Hindu Monastery, comprising largely non-Indian Hindus, also publishes the internationally-known magazine Hinduism Today. There are other visible and growing symbols of the Hindu presence in America. Former President George W Bush’s administration started the practice of celebrating Diwali at the White House, while Barack Obama became the first president to attend the annual ceremony. He was also the first to mention Hindus in his inaugural speech in 2009, and to appoint the first Hindu American, Anju Bhargava, to the White House faith-based advisory council.
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Hindus are one of the most affluent groups in the US. According to the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey of 2008, 43 per cent of Hindu households make over $100,000 a year, as against 18 per cent of all US households. And, according to the US Census 2010, Indian Americans have the highest household income of all ethnic groups in the US; Hindus comprise over half of Indian Americans. This makes them one of the highest earning groups in the country.
But many in the community feel there’s still a huge awareness gap about Hinduism among Americans. Ramya Ravi, 25, an engineer in Houston, attended the conservative Texas A&M University, where she says several Christian groups were active. She recalls her roommate, a fellow Hindu, came home crying one day after a group had told her she was going to hell because she was not Christian. Ravi co-founded the Hindu Students Association after leaving the university. Seventeen-year-old Namita Pallod, a high-schooler in Houston, also says there’s a lot of misinformation about Hinduism. “Even though they teach it at school, they focus on all the wrong stuff and put it in such a negative light and I don’t think they give Hinduism the respect it deserves,” says Pallod. Hate attacks on Hindus are not as frequent or high profile as the ones against Sikhs; but the most recent case was of an Indian American, Sunando Sen, being pushed off the subway platform in New York last month. He died after being run over by an approaching train. The Hispanic woman arrested in the case is reported to have told the police she’s hated “Muslims” and “Hindus” ever since 9/11. She’s being charged with a hate crime, which is more serious with a longer sentence than plain murder. In another instance, parents in California recently threatened to sue a local school board for teaching students yoga, complaining that their kids were being indoctrinated in an “Eastern religion”. The school board said it would continue, pointing out it has removed all cultural references by giving asanas names like aeroplane pose and gorilla pose.
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) was launched ten years ago with the objective of advocating for the community and educating American policymakers in the government, legislatures, media and think tanks. Meghani remembers an incident seven years ago when a US Congressman asked an HAF delegation if they were Shia or Sunni. “When we first went to Capitol Hill, Congressmen and Senators recalled that they had always met delegations representing Indian interests, but they had never met a group that represented Hindu interests, although there were, of course, groups coming all the time that called themselves Jewish American or Muslim American, even Sikh American… and, of course, Christian groups were always on Capitol Hill and active publicly. So we’ve moved past that barrier,” says Meghani.
While HAF focuses on political advocacy and watching out for bias or discrimination against Hindus, Bhargava, Obama’s appointee to the faith-based advisory council, believes it’s equally important to get Hindu Americans involved in governance. It’s an area where the community gets no guidance from India, she says. “India sees itself as a secular country in which no faith plays a role, whereas in America, and this is a big difference, religion is very much upfront and plays a role in the public platform,” says Bhargava.
Bhargava, who moved to the US three decades ago from India, also started Hindu American Seva Communities, an organisation that provides the community a role in social and local community issues. Hindu Americans do plenty of charitable and volunteer work, but must become more vocal about it, and hold them up as a reflection of Hindu values, according to Bhargava. “We have to learn more explicitly how to address our Hinduness on a public platform; then people will see us more as equals.” But the challenge is to encourage Hindus, especially those from India, to stand up for their values, says Bhargava. “Hindu has become a five-letter word, I found. If you say you’re a Hindu, it must mean you’re a part of the saffron brigade. We don’t understand, we just don’t know what it means to be a Hindu at the community level.”
Indeed, the 2010 US Census contained data from a survey carried out by Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, that showed religious self-identification by Hindus had dropped by a quarter, from 766,000 in 2001, to 582,000 in 2008. One of the co-authors of the study, Barry A Kosmin, said Hindus could have been undercounted in the survey, but pointed out Hinduism was less formally organised than a faith like Christianity in the US.
“Most Hindu life revolves around families and weddings and informal gatherings, celebrations and things like that,” he said; so they might identify less strongly with the religion than with the culture. That’s why community leaders consider Gabbard’s election so significant, as she has been openly assertive and proud of her Hindu beliefs in a way few Indian American politicians have. “I chose to take the oath of office with my personal copy of the Bhagwadgita because its teachings have inspired me to strive to be a servant-leader, dedicating my time and energy on a daily basis in the service to others (karma yoga),” she stated after being sworn in. She also declared, “Since I’m a practising Hindu, the unique concerns of Hindu and Indian Americans are very near and dear to my heart.”
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Even organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad America, which tend to appeal more to older, first-generation immigrants from India, are trying to keep the youth engaged and comfortable with their faith. VHPA organises an annual Hindu Mandir Executives Conference to discuss ways to engage young Hindus and provide them with activities and programmes at temples. In fact, says Gaurang Vaishnav, advisor and former executive vice-president of VHPA, it’s easier to keep Hindu traditions alive in the US than in India. “Being Hindu in the US today I would say we’re better equipped to understand our heritage compared to being in India. Because we are in a country where we are in a small minority and our ways of life are distinct from the mainstream, we are literally forced to understand what we are.”
However, India looms large in their lives as Hindu Americans. Most Americans equate whatever little they know about India and Hinduism with each other, and events like the recent rape of a student in Delhi inevitably reflect badly on the image of the Indian and Hindu communities in the US. “People assume, since India is a Hindu majority country it is Hindu ideology that is causing all these things,” says Bhargava. But even if their knowledge of Hinduism remains limited, Americans may be becoming more “Hindu” without realising it. Things like yoga, meditation and vegetarianism are all now fairly mainstream, even if few Americans may associate them with Hinduism. Meghani points to a Pew survey that found more Americans than ever believe there is more than one path to reaching God, a very Hindu concept.
A hundred-and-twenty years ago, on September 11, 1893, a thirty-year-old Indian stood before the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago and declared, “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance.” It was a momentous introduction of Hinduism to America, and as various groups gear up to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda across the US, they will conclude that the acquaintance has blossomed despite the occasional rocky patches.