Re-constructing the role of Mandir critical for Hinduism in US: Dr. Richard Benkin


By Nithin Sridhar

Hinduism in US: Present and Future: Part 2 

According to the recent PEW survey of religious demography in United States, the followers of Christianity is on the decline (from 78.4% to 70.6% between 2007 and 2014), whereas those who identify themselves as unaffiliated with religion (atheists, agnostics) have substantially increased from around 16.1% to 22.8% between the same period.

It further indicates that American Hindus are a flourishing community with their population growing from 0.4% in 2007 to 0.7% in 2014 with around 2.23 million American Hindus currently living in US. But the real figures may be much higher. According to an estimate given by Hinduism Today magazine, there were 2.3 million Hindus in 2008 itself.

To access the current position of American Hindus in society and the challenges faced by them, and to access the future of Hinduism as a whole in the US, NewsGram spoke to various people associated with the Indian Diaspora and Hinduism in the US. Hinduism

In the second installment of this “Hinduism in US: Present and Future” series, NewsGram spoke to Dr. Richard Benkin about the perception of Hinduism and Hindu community in the larger American society, the challenges faced by Hindu Americans and how they could be overcome.

Dr. Richard Benkin is an American Jewish human rights activist who is currently working on a mission to stop atrocities on Hindus in Bangladesh.

Nithin Sridhar: A recent PEW survey says that the number of Americans who reject religion and don’t identify with any religion substantially increased between 2007 and 2014. The survey attributes this to the declining interest of people in Christianity but also adds that it may be a general trend. Do you view this increase in “non-religious” people as a rejection of organized religions like Christianity, or as a rejection of any concept of religion and spirituality?

Dr. Richard Benkin. Photo Credits:
Dr. Richard Benkin. Photo Credits:

Richard Benkin: Actually, neither. The phenomena PEW identified tends to be cyclical and often secondary to other social trends. For instance, large-scale immigration from traditional social settings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries inflated US religious identification figures for generations. The current and longstanding breakup of neighborhoods and small communities hastens alienation from traditional religious structures. Those communities which were once built around religious institutions are now diffused.

Moreover, the American experience exercises a strong pull that results in the children of immigrants shedding traditional religious forms, especially as they become better integrated in the larger American society and economy. Ultimately, they reconstruct new ones using the same sort of social adaptations that served them in other social settings. The forms look different, but they are rooted in the same history and values. Cheaper mass transportation and communication, information technologies and social media, the breakdown of inter-faith barriers, and consequent inter-faith relationships are among the social trends that challenge traditional religious identification.

This, then, does not appear to be a rejection of Christianity but its evolution. For all the talk about new religions in the United States, all of them together represent only about four percent of the US population according to the Hindu American Foundation. Nor is that likely to change much with the large influx of Latin American immigrants with an overwhelmingly Christian majority.

The US remains essentially a religious country with Christianity as its dominant faith, and its history has seen periods of lower religious identification and those of religious revivals. We do not know how long term the current trends are and what they will look like on the other side. However, we do know that changing demographics are likely to keep the religious fervor high.

NS: How do common Americans perceive Hinduism and Hindu Americans? How does the rise of Hindu Americans as shown in PEW survey, affect the American society?

RB: People often ask me if Hindus are vegetarian. I tell them, “Hindus are vegetarian like Jews are Kosher.” Hindus, like Jews, have a strong identity distinct from American Christianity. They maintain that identification and others recognize it as well. In both cases, however, many of their adherents do not follow their faith’s identifiable dietary laws that are rooted in religious principles. That is the paradox of non-Christian American religions.

images (1)It is embarrassing to admit that a small number of Americans know anything of substance about Hinduism.

When my synagogue decided to have a year of inter-religious outreach, they at first considered only Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I objected that this ignored the many Americans who belong to non-Abrahamic faiths. It was not that people were bigoted; the other faiths just did not occur to them. The people at my synagogue, however, are especially good people who welcomed the new insights, and ended up devoting half a year to Abrahamic faiths and half a year to non-Abrahamic faiths. The Hindu American Foundation and other Hindu groups have made great strides in educating Americans about their faith. Americans are a third of a billion people, and many Americans are not engaged in this sort of education. It is going to take time. I’m still shocked at how little some Americans know about Judaism, and we’ve been here in numbers for a century and a half. Hindus are arguably the most successful ethnic-religious group in the United States. Individual Hindus are excelling in all walks of American life and already are making an impact on the US.

In 2012 we elected our first Hindu Member of Congress, Tulsi Gabbard, who took the oath of office on the Gita. A lot of Americans might not have realized the significance of Congresswoman Gabbard’s action, as distinct from “former” Hindus like Governors Bobby Jindal and Nicki Haley.

Hindu Americans will witness a lot of social changes and adaptation as they become part of the US landscape, and non-Hindus will come to know more about them as they change that landscape. I am very proud to know of Hinduism’s beauty and be associated with the Hindu community in the US and elsewhere. How wonderful if more non-Hindus had that in their lives.

NS: What are the challenges that Hinduism is currently facing in the US that will have long term consequences for its future?

RB: The biggest challenges are the same that other religious groups, especially minority groups, face. Life in America is great and attractive. History has taught us that with every successive wave of immigration. US-born Hindu children interact with non-Hindu Americans and like all kids take on the identities of their age cohort groups. The answer is not to push back against that. The challenge is to figure out as a community what is essential to Hinduism that is compatible with a more general US culture.

Today faith communities, except for fundamentalists, recognize that unlike their older generations, current ones do not see faith adherence as something they have to do simply because it is the faith of their parents. They might not reject it outright or embrace another faith. However, they are likely to opt out of their religious identity and participation if it does not confirm with the other elements of their lives. To take a simple example, most high school football games are held on Friday night; yet, most Jewish youth will participate even though it violates traditional religious rules about Shabbat.

Insisting on a way of life that is in conflict with what these youngsters know and see in their friends will alienate them from Hinduism. The only way is to find a symbiosis of the two, but that takes time and a great deal of thought and experimentation. It is not an exaggeration to say that we are witnessing the birth of new forms of Hinduism, different from what we have known, yet born of social adaptations not changes to the essence of the faith and the core values of its adherents.suryam

NS: How should the American Hindu society deal with these challenges?

RB: An effective response to these challenges has to come out of the Mandir (temple). Jews are famous for forming organizations and for this synagogues are the key. Synagogues were the central institution in the community-wide effort to save Soviet Jews; they also are central to Israeli education, and many have added social events that bring Jewish singles together.

For US Hindus, re-constructing the attitude and the role of the Mandir will be critical. I have seen how Hindu temples are centers of community activity that inculcate pride in being Hindu.

What would attract young Americans who are also Hindu to make the Mandir part of their lives? While I would not presume to tell Hindus how to run their faith, I will throw out suggestions that have helped American Jews deal with the same challenges.

  • The Jewish community has Jewish summer camps around the nation, which help build a sense of solidarity and identification, while giving youngsters more ways to stay connected, including going from camper to counselor as they get older and forming friendship and other relationships.
  • When Jews in the USSR were being persecuted, the community as a whole fought for them and freed over 1.2 million. Much of the effort came from “average” Jews who you might see at work or in the market. It strengthened Jewish identity and solidarity and saved lives. Children and youth, especially in religious schools, were part of that effort and got that same feeling.
  • We sponsor “birth-right” trips to Israel for young Jews—chaperoned but without their parents (very important) and have a tremendous impact on youth who go.
  • The first and most widely attended part of a Jewish child’s education culminates in a religiously and socially significant ceremony and party: the Bar or Bat Mitzvah. These young people get a sense of accomplishment, and it gives some structure, tie-in, and goal to the education. The Bar Mitzvah is recognition that a child has come of age, began in Biblical times. The ceremony we know did not develop until the Middle Ages, and American Jews have added their own elements.

These could be the examples for the Hindu American community. Hindus face so many challenges around the world. My focus is Bangladesh, but I recently spoke at a protest against the abduction and gang rape of a young Hindu woman in West Bengal. I have also been at events for Kashmiri Pandits. A successful community effort that stops these anti-Hindu activities will grow pride and strengthen identity. Many of the elements are already there in the community; it takes someone or something to galvanize them.

NS: Why is there a negative portrayal of Hindus and Hinduism in certain quarters of the American media and academics?

RB: Some people will tell you that it’s related to Christian or Islamic efforts, but that is not the reason for these portrayals. The essential reason is ignorance, not mal-intent. Where there is ignorance, people without knowledge (and even those with a political agenda) can fill in the blanks.

Most Americans have never met a Hindu. When one educated American heard about my work for Bangladeshi Hindus, she asked me: “Hindus. Are they Muslim?” Believe me, that is an exact quote, and I was aghast as I am sure you are. Admittedly, academia in the US as in India has a decidedly leftist tinge, and part of that is solidarity with international movements that oppose US influence, one of which is Islamism.

Academics then become many of the “experts” that media and others interview, and their bias spreads and is accepted by those who have nothing with which to counter it. Please do not take the wrong interpretation. Americans who have that contact with Hindus and Hinduism tend to be very positive about it, and most of the others have no opinion.

NS: What are the measures that American Hindus must adopt to counter these negative portrayals that are rooted in ignorance?

RB: There are four measures to be adopted: general outreach and education, interfaith outreach, political activism, and strong public outrage as needed. Some of that is happening already. I reject the argument of those who claim that there is something flawed in Hindus themselves or that Hindus are innately passive.

  • General Outreach: As noted above, most Americans are ignorant about Hinduism, and aggressive efforts by groups (Hindu and otherwise) to provide missing information is critical. The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) is doing a great deal in that respect, however, the US is a large country and they cannot do it alone. (They did a great and effective job opposing bias in school books.) These are the people—not the academics mentioned above—they should be the ones that media go to for interviews and expert advice. I know that the US Congress does. For years, HAF has been building relationships in Washington where it is recognized by many there as the source of expert opinion on Hinduism. Though not a Hindu, I too, have been asked for advice and information by US lawmakers. More needs to be done, and every Hindu can be an ambassador for his or her faith by being the person who informs the ignorant, who shows people the beauty of Hinduism.
  • Interfaith Outreach: Next month, I will be part of a Jewish-Hindu event at a Mandir outside of Chicago. It is one of several events we have held that is building a strong Hindu-Jewish coalition. Goodwill between the two religious groups is as high as is their mutual admiration. Hindus can do so much more. What a beautiful religion! Most US houses of worship are looking for inter-faith opportunities, and an aggressive outreach by Hindus would be welcomed by many. We need to know where the opportunities are and take advantage of them.
  • Political Activism: Over the past three election cycles, I have been working with the Chicago area Hindu community in supporting those candidates for Congress and other offices that support those issues and values of concern to the Hindu community. I remind people that there are only about a million more Muslims in the US than Hindus, and we can make sure candidates know about our influence at the polls. Charitable groups are barred by law from engaging in such activity, however, others can and should take part. Jews, Muslims, and Christians do it. There is nothing wrong with it, and Hindus have the same right. The growing prominence of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the US and elsewhere is also helping those of us who are emphasizing the importance of Hindus to our elected leaders.
  • Strong Public Outrage: Recently, I was part of public protests over the abduction of a young Hindu. It was successful, and similar protests were held in other cities; however, attendance was low. Most Hindus stayed home, and even some of those who attended tried to excuse the others by saying that those who did not attend had other things to do—which I find a terrible indictment. I have been meeting with Washington lawmakers and media for years discussing the ethnic cleansing of Hindus in Bangladesh, and I am often met with the response that if it is not important to Hindus, how bad can it be? When Jews are persecuted, don’t the Jewish turn out in their defense? When Muslims are offended, don’t they? Hindus should be at least as enraged as I am (and certainly enraged as the people at HAF and those few who were at the protests with me). And they should act on that outrage.

More in this segment:

Hinduism in US: Present and Future: Part 1