By Nithin Sridhar
Hinduism in US: Present and Future (Concluding part)
In May 2015, the PEW Research Center released the results of its survey for assessing “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” wherein it concluded that “The Christian share of the US population is declining, while the number of US adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing.”
The survey showed that the US Christian population declined from 78.4% to 70.6% between 2007 and 2014. During the same period, the survey revealed, the share of those who do not identify with any religion – atheists, agnostics, or those to whom religion does not matter, increased from 16.1% to 22.8%. The Hindu population in the US also flourished with an increase in their population share from 0.4% in 2007 to 0.7% in 2014.
Therefore, on the one hand, adherents of Christianity declined by 7.8 percentage points and on the other hand, the share of non-religious people increased by 6.7 percentage points. The Hindu population also increased by 0.3 percentage points.
NewsGram decided to assess the impact of this changing American religious demography on the Hindu American community and the future of Hinduism in the US. As part of this assessment, NewsGram, over the passage of a month, spoke to various important people associated with the Hindu American community and published their views as interviews in this “Hinduism in US: Present and Future” series.
Now, in this last installment of the series, we present a summary of the observations formed on the basis of those interviews.
Is the Hindu population in the US more than what is estimated?
According to the PEW survey, the US Hindu population in absolute numbers stood at 2.23 million in 2014. But, an estimate done by Hinduism Today magazine stated that at least 2.3 million Hindus were present in the US in 2008 itself.
If we accept the Hinduism Today figures as being more reflective of the ground situation, then there is a clear undercounting of US Hindus in the PEW survey. Another aspect that points towards the undercounting is that most of the American surveys take into account only the Indian-origin Hindus when they make the survey.
Hence, Dr. David Frawley (renowned American author on Hinduism and a Vedacharya) concludes: “PEW figures only address immigrant or Indian-origin Hindus but has no real way of counting those Americans who have converted to or actually follow Sanatana Dharma in their life-style in terms of various yoga gurus and spiritual movements. The figure then would actually be much higher, perhaps more than double.”
What is the role of Hinduism in the lives of Hindu Americans?
Hinduism plays a vital role in the lives of Hindu Americans, but the extent of its influence is highly depends on various factors like generation, age, family upbringing, etc.
Dr. Jyotsna Kalavar says: “From what I have seen, most Hindu children in the United States, take immense pride in their heritage, go through some period of soul searching and questioning, and pursue their personal definition of what it means to be a Hindu. Some take up the study of Sanskrit, literature, art, Vedic chanting, Vedanta, dance, music, Yoga – whatever aspect of Hinduism that appeals to them.”
Dr. Jyotsna Kalavar is a Professor of Human Development & Family Studies at Pennsylvania State University, USA and is an instructor at Samskrita Bharati, USA.
She adds that many Hindu American children are more Hindu than children in India, but at the same time, some children are totally disconnected with their cultural roots. There is a continuous tug of war between the “culture of parental origin and the culture of the land of their birth.”
Elaborating on this tug of war, Dr. Frawley opines that Hindu children brought up in America find themselves in a non-Hindu culture while growing up and in the education system. In many cases, they encounter scenarios that are completely hostile to Hindu culture. As it is a general behavioral pattern among children to revolt against parents and parental views, some may revolt against Hinduism as well, so that they could be different or be more like other American youth.
Acharya Arumuganatha Swami, the Managing Editor at Hinduism Today magazine, opined that every Hindu American does not identify himself strongly with Hinduism. Some hold strongly to Hindu principles, whereas some keep only an ethnic identity as Indians without much thought about religion.
When asked about the tenets of Hinduism, to which the practicing Hindu Americans adhere to, Acharya Arumuganatha Swami listed these tenets: “Existence of God everywhere and in all things, a belief in the law of karma (actions) and the principles of dharma (duty and righteousness), and a respectful attitude toward all religions.”
Hence, Hinduism definitely plays a vital role in the life of Hindu Americans, though the extent of this role may vary from family to family, location to location, and from generation to generation.
Does the increasing irreligiousness in American society affect Hindu American community as well?
The increase of people rejecting religion especially Christianity was one of the main highlights of the PEW survey. So, naturally the question arises about how this irreligiousness affects Hinduism and US Hindu community.
When asked if this rising irreligiousness be interpreted as a rejection of organized religions like Christianity or as a rejection of religion and spirituality as whole, Dr. Richard Benkin, who is an American Jewish human rights activist closely associated with Hindu American community, opined that the phenomenon represents neither.
He said: “The phenomena PEW identified tends to be cyclical and often secondary to other social trends… 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.”
He further pointed out that the new religions in the US form only four percent of the total American population and it is not likely to change especially considering the fact that there is a large scale influx of Latin American into US who are mostly Christians.
He also added that: “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.”
Therefore, according to Dr. Benkin, the rise of irreligiousness is not a rejection of Christianity and instead it has more to do with various social trends.
On the other hand, Dr. Frawley believes that: “Those who identify themselves as non-religious are often rejecting only the biblical traditions, particularly Christianity, with its emphasis on blind belief and dogma. They may be willing to recognize a higher consciousness behind the universe, such as many modern physicists are proposing. Many of these so-called non-religious people are interested in meditation, spirituality, and natural healing, and are not necessarily averse to Yoga, Hinduism and Vedanta, which they may not know much about.”
He adds that Hindu Americans should consider this as a great opportunity to explain and share the tenets of Dharma. They should prepare themselves to explain to people how Hinduism is different from Christianity and how it is not a dogma, but a spiritual path rooted in Dharma.
When asked, whether this irreligious trend will affect Hindu Americans or not, Dr. Frawley said: “It is true that some of the Hindu youth may become non-religious as well. The best way to deal with them is to acquaint them with the philosophical and scientific aspects of Hinduism such as Yoga and Vedanta.”
What challenges do the Hindu Americans face in US?
One of the biggest challenges that Hindu Americans face in the US is that very few Americans know anything about Hinduism. Dr. Benkin says: “It is embarrassing to admit that a small number of Americans know anything of substance about Hinduism.”
He further says that, when Hindu children interact with non-Hindu American children, there is a mutual exchange of culture and identities. Hence, “the challenge is to figure out as a community what is essential to Hinduism that is compatible with a more general US culture.” He cautions that insisting on a way of life that is in conflict with what youngsters know may further alienate them from Hinduism. Hence, the only way out is to find a symbiosis between the two.
Expressing a similar opinion, Dr. Frawley says: “The youth should be allowed to question, but there should be answers for their questions from a level of deeper insight.”
Speaking about the negative portrayal of Hinduism in certain sections of US academics and media, Dr. Benkin said: “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.” But, he adds that: “Americans who have contact with Hindus and Hinduism tend to be very positive about it, and most of the others have no opinion.”
When asked about how to counter these negative portrayals, Dr. Benkin gave a four-point strategy that Hindu Americans should implement in their interactions with the rest of the Americans. The four points are: General Outreach, Interfaith Outreach, Political Activism, and Strong Public Outrage.
He further said: “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.” He gave examples from his own Jewish community and how they use Synagogues to connect with each other and pass on their culture and values to the younger generation.
Regarding the role of temples and other spiritual organizations, Acharya Arumuganatha Swami said that: “the temples serve for the ritual worship, for cultural events such as music and dance, for celebrating festivals, and for the sense of community. Spiritual organizations and the larger temples provide teaching centers for the youth.” He further added that for imparting dharmic values, “Most important is that parents themselves start living a dharmic life and thus start modeling the Hindu lifestyle and values for their children to follow. Further, a better systematic presentation of Hindu practices and beliefs should be adopted.”
Therefore, through a temple and community centered movement, personal practice, proper presentation of Hindu tenets, and through outreach to other communities, the Hindu Americans can tackle various challenges that are being faced by them.
What is the future of Hinduism in US?
Dr. Frawley says: “Hinduism as a whole now has strong roots in the American culture, both owing to the immigrant community and over a hundred years of influence of Hindu ideas and gurus. Hinduism will continue as a force of higher knowledge, healing, and consciousness in many forms. It is important that more bridges are made between those following Hindu-based teachings in the West and the world Hindu community, which is primarily in India.”
He further adds: “The Hindu American community has become the role model for Hindus in India and what they wish to achieve in years to come. This is owing to their affluence and high education in the Western world. The Hindu-American community shows how by following a Hindu way of life, Hindus can be successful in the modern world, without having to give up their religion or culture. In fact, Hindu values can be used to promote achievement in the modern world.”
When asked about the popularity of Yoga in the US, Dr. Frawley said: “While the physical aspect of Yoga is popular, all Yoga groups promote something of a spiritual aura. Even kirtans (singing devotional songs) are becoming popular in America…. most Yoga practitioners will eventually bring in some aspects of Hindu spirituality, such as a picture of guru or deity, use of Om, some mantra or meditation, kirtans, rituals or travel to India. Some even will do pujas (worship) and havans (fire worship), use some Ayurveda, Jyotishya (astrology) or Vastu.”
He further adds that, many such Yoga practitioners are willing to formally adopt Hinduism, but Hinduism does not have easily accessible means for those who want to convert.
Acharya Arumuganatha Swami says that his organization allows non-Hindus to formally adopt Hinduism and many people who have adopted Hinduism have come through Yoga and meditation.
When asked what role will Sanskrit likely to play in the future growth of Hinduism, she said: “Sanskrit is inextricably linked to Hinduism but not limited to Hinduism alone. Sanskrit texts are found in Jainism and Buddhism also. Sanskrit provides the key to our culture and heritage. It is the basis of Vedic thought, and also provides a treasure trove of information on various secular subjects such as astronomy, mathematics, engineering, medicine, etc. The language need not be cast in a religious mold alone. Knowing Sanskrit is empowering as it enables us to understand Hinduism without relying on translations.”
At a social level, Hindu American community will undergo a lot of changes as its integration with the mainstream American community grows. Dr. Benkin says: “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.”
He adds that: “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.”
Therefore, Hindu American community is likely to flourish further in the USA. The Yoga, Vedanta, Sanskrit etc. will further influence the culture of America.
Though, the influence of Yoga is huge in popular culture, there is ignorance about Hinduism as a religion. With more interaction of Hindu community and Hindu thought-leaders with the rest of the society, these ignorance and negative portrayals would slowly pave a way for positive understanding of Hinduism as a Dharmic religion and tradition.
Most Hindu American children face a tug of war between their ancestral identity and an American identity. Many may choose to alienate themselves from Indian roots and many may choose to discard the American way. But, this tug of war may slowly pave a way for the evolving of newer forms of Hinduism which would be Hindu at its core, but would be American in its external adaptation. Such, American Hinduism would still be very much connected to the Indian roots, but would be American in everyday interactions. And Sanskrit is likely to play a very significant role in this.
The increased interactions between Hindu Americans and the rest of the society will also have positive influence on American society, which may undergo transformations that would make it more open to Hindu principles and may adopt more principles of Hinduism into mainstream American culture.
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