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Hindu Revival In America

Updated February 9, 2019

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.. 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 role. 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.

Authenticity of Rituals 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 to be valued. 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 from India. 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 the first generation.’ 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 of this interchange. The Second Generation 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 everywhere.’ 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 traditions through balvihar. 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 Sivaya.”‘ 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.’ Hinduism in American Society 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 the heathens’ (See box). 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 instance. 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 temples have run into, he says. 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,’ he says.

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 backlash.

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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