Whither Hinduism in America?

Natwar Gandhi
18-09-2021

Professor Howard Spodek, the distinguished historian and a chronicler of Ahmedabad, has raised an interesting issue about the continuity of Hindu culture and religion in the United States.  Recalling his after-school Hebrew school from second grade through the end of high school that instilled in him the essence of Judaism, asks:  What do we “know about Indian cultural education, including school, camps, and temple (or mosque, or gurudwara) programs for first- and second-generation kids (also maybe for adults) coming from India?”

There have been sporadic attempts to educate children in the cultural and religious tradition of Hinduism.  However, I do not know of any sustained efforts to do so in the manner of Jewish tradition of encouraging children to attend a Hebrew school where they would learn the language, culture and religion. The Jewish emphasis on religious education is rooted in their history as a perennially persecuted minority. To persevere through persecution and the perpetual wandering, the Jews had to come up with a survival strategy.  It was the preservation of religion and culture. 

The famous 12th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides called Jews the chosen people and asked them to keep the Torah and admonished them that God would punish those who transgressed it. (See below the loose translation of my Guajarati poem on Jews.)  Hindus never faced such perennial persecution.  Even during the worst excesses of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in the 17the century, the Hindus never suffered like the Jews.  Further, they always had a home that the Jews never had until the establishment of Israel in 1948.

Jews have a sense of history and a historical perspective that Hindus generally lack. Again, to quote Maimonides, for Jews “history is holy, and memory a priceless treasure, because we suffer and suffer and still strive and survive.”  Hindus’ sense of historical memory was largely given to them by the British historians.  Most of the history of India was written only after the British came to India. Recall, for example, the pioneering work of Sir William Jones, the great Indologist, who founded Asiatic Society in 1784.

Further, unlike Judaism, Hinduism has been splintered into numerous branches.  Thus, for example in Washington, DC, we have the Jains, the Swaminarayanis, the Vaishnavites, the Shaivats, just to name a few.  Each claim to be unique and different from others, yet they all call themselves Hindus. Most of them have their own separate places of worship and conduct some sort of weekend religious services including education. However, these efforts are not integrated, systematic or sustained.

Hindus are also fragmented along the linguistic lines. There are many linguistic groups such as Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi, Bengali, Sindhi, Telugu, Tamil, etc. in India as well as places where they migrated.  Each language group has its own social organization that arranges regular events and gatherings.  There are even literary associations that hold periodic meetings.  These associations attempt to conduct linguistic education; however, these efforts again are not sustained and have very little lasting consequences. These associations cater mostly to the first-generation immigrants to soothe their social isolation from mainstream American society.

Yes, the Hindus do build big temples, witness for example Swaminarayan temples in Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, Robbinsville, NJ and other places where there is a large concentration of Indians.  These temples are built to calm religious anxieties of the first-generation immigrants. They are places of worship, social gathering as well as venues of occasional revival meetings when renowned Gurus or Swamis visit from India. However, the Hindu children who are born and raised in the United States are blissfully indifferent or ignorant of religious activities of the temples.

Islam as a religion can be practiced in widely different social environments.  Hinduism on the other hand is integrated with Hindu society and the way of life. How can we separate such staple religious festivals as Ganesh Chaturthi, Rama Navami, Navratri or Diwali from their larger societal context?  The Hindus who migrated to Africa over the last two hundred years have been able to maintain their religion but only by creating a society separate from the host country.  They did not assimilate with local communities and maintained their separate social life.  However, they paid a heavy price for such isolation. Recall what happened to Hindus, particularly Gujaratis, in Uganda in 1972 under the regime of Idi Amin.

Creating a separate Hindu society independent of the mainstream is highly improbable and problematic in the United States.  Isolated attempts to create such a society here have been dismal failures. Witness for example the Hare Krishna movement.  Assimilation of Hindus in the larger American mainstream is a foregone conclusion. Still, the Hindus will maintain their cultural identity in a manner similar to Chinese or Italians. They will have their Little Indias in New York, New Jersey, Chicago and other places with a considerable Indian population.  These little Indias would be like Chinatowns and Little Italys that we find in most American cities.  They cater primarily to the first-generation immigrants.  For the larger society, they mostly serve commercial and culinary purposes.  Their religious and cultural importance is minimal.

Hinduism as a phenomenon will not disappear in America.  It will endure as an academic discipline at major universities.  The younger Indians will continue to participate with gusto in Navratri Ras Garba or Bhangra, but that is because these festivals provide them an opportunity to dress up and dance. Their participation has very little do with the preservation of Hindu religion. Their observance of Hindu religious rituals, if any, would be perfunctory and without comprehension.  However, as long as there is continuing immigration of Indians into the United States, the arriving first generations will continue to practice the religion in their homes and at temples.  But their second and third generations would have moved on and assimilated into the American mainstream.  The melting pot works!

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The Jews

We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt
Wandering for decades
In the burning sands of the desert.
Then came the Lord
To take us out of Egypt
With a mighty hand
And said: 
Out of all people that are on the face of the earth,
The Lord has chosen you to be
A people for his possession,
It was not because we were more in number
Than other people
But because the Lord loves us
Because we believe thus:
That God exists
That God has no corporeal aspect
That God is eternal
That God knows the actions of man
That God rewards those who keep the Torah and
Punishes those who transgress it.
The Lord has chosen us to be a people of his own.
Because we give more than what we receive
Because we keep our religion
Because we serve our God the lord no matter
Where we are on this earth or who we are
Because for us history is holy,
And memory a priceless treasure
Because we suffer and suffer
And still strive and survive.
We have proclaimed the lord to be our God
And the lord has proclaimed us to be his people.

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Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features