By Nithin Sridhar
Hinduism in US: Present and Future: Part 4
The latest PEW survey for the year 2014 has revealed that on one hand, there is a growth of Hindu population in US and on the other hand, more and more Americans are rejecting religion. The survey showed that Hindu population has increased from 0.4% in 2007 to 0.7% in 2014. It estimated the 2014 population as being around 2.23 million. The real figures may be much higher as revealed in a 2008 Hinduism Today estimate, which estimated 2.3 million Hindu Americans in 2008 itself. It also revealed that share of Christianity had reduced in the same time period from 78.4% to 70.6%.
To access these current trends in American society especially with respect to Hindu American community, NewsGram spoke to various people associated with Hindu Diaspora in US.
In this fourth installment of “Hinduism in US: Present and Future” series, NewsGram spoke to Dr. David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri), the renowned American author, Vedacharya and a teacher of Ayurveda, Yoga, Vedanta, and Jyotishya, regarding the current status of Hindu American society.
Nithin Sridhar: A recent PEW survey comparing 2007 and 2014 figures revealed two things. One, the share of Hindus in US has increased from 0.4% to 0.7% (though it is suggested that 2007 figures for Hindu population were undercounted). Two, the people who are identifying themselves as atheists, agnostics, or simply as not interested in religion have increased from 16.1% to 22.8%. How do these opposite trends affect Hindu Americans?
Dr. David Frawley: 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 lifestyle in terms of various yoga gurus and spiritual movements. The figure then would actually be much higher, perhaps more than double.
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.
So in fact, these two PEW trends are not always opposite but may represent two aspects of the same trend, a movement away from biblical religion and a looking for alternatives, which may include other forms of spirituality.
In my own personal background, I went through a short atheist/agnostic phase as I moved from a Christian background to Hindu Yoga traditions. We must remember that Christianity has no real philosophy or science of Self-realization, such as there is in Hinduism, Yoga and Vedanta. Christianity only has faith and belief in a personal God leading to either heaven or hell, which can seem quite regressive and irrational in the high tech era. For those people who reject these, many alternatives including Hinduism and Yoga become open for them.
NS: How should the Hindu American society respond to these trends of rising irreligiousness?
DF: Actually, this rejection of formal religion is a great opportunity for Hindus to explain, share and expand their dharma in the West. It should not be looked at as necessarily being bad. People are questioning religion but looking for a spiritual alternative, including spiritual practices of Yoga and meditation as already noted.
Hindu Americans should be prepared for dealing with this movement away from belief-based religion by learning to explain that Hinduism is not a religious dogma, like Christianity, but a set of spiritual paths, rooted in dharma and aiding all beings in Self-realization. Hindus should be careful and not cast Hinduism as merely another monotheistic faith, instead they should emphasize its broader scope and scientific relevance.
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. The youth should be allowed to question but there should be answers for their questions from a level of deeper insight.
NS: The practice of Yoga is continuously increasing in US. It has become a multi-billion dollar market. What do you think is the reason behind this popularity of yoga?
DF: No doubt Yoga has been commercialized to a great extent and such popular Yoga is growing in adherents. There is an entire Yoga community and counter-culture, which revolves around Yoga classes, conferences and retreats. But the spiritual Yoga movements are also growing in numbers, and have large communities, resources and facilities.
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. What makes people attracted even to the asanas (yogic postures) is their ability to bring practitioners to the states of relaxation, peace and letting go.
NS: Do American practitioners of yoga view it mainly as a physical exercise regimen, or do they recognize it as a spiritual lifestyle system rooted in Vedic philosophy?
DF: Many of the people who are new into Yoga or find it offered at a gym, spa, or community center see Yoga as mainly a physical regimen as that is how they encounter it.
But anyone who has been exposed to Yoga for very long, including all serious Yoga teachers, will discover that traditional Yoga is largely a spiritual life-style rooted in Vedic traditions. Some of these people will hold to the physical side only, and may prefer their modern western physical yoga approaches, and keep a distance from the spiritual side. But 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.
Most Yoga teachers will have to learn something about the Yoga Sutras or Bhagavad Gita in order to be certified, something of Yoga philosophy and some Sanskrit terms. While few Yoga teachers know the full scope of Hinduism, most know about some sort of traditional connection in India.
NS: Do you think, this increasing interest in Yoga and meditation will translate into people formally adopting Hinduism and Buddhism as their religions in near future, may be in a few decades?
DF: That desire to formally adopt Hindu Dharma is there even now. The problem is that Hinduism does not have an easily accessible means of converting people to Hinduism or of keeping in touch with those who do. The Buddhists are better in this regard. I know a number of people who had liked to become Hindus but became Buddhists instead because that was more easily available to them. Certainly this trend will grow.
Some Yoga groups, particularly of a spiritual nature, have taken to calling themselves Hindu at a legal level, to protect themselves from charges of being cults. Some Yoga practitioners want to have Hindu marriages, which are also legal in the West.
NS: Do you notice any difference in response towards issues of Hinduism, between Americans who have drifted towards Hinduism through the influence of Yoga and Ayurveda, and Hindu Americans who have inherited their religion and heritage?
DF: Of course, the two groups are coming from very different backgrounds. Americans who have taken up Hindu dharma are usually more serious about their personal practices, but may not understand Hinduism as a whole, being more connected to a particular Guru or lineage.
Those who have inherited their Hindu religion but live in America have to deal with being around a non-Hindu or anti-Hindu culture when they are growing up and in the educational system. And as all children tend to revolt against their parents and parental views, some may revolt against Hinduism as well, just to be different or to be like other American youth.
Some Hindu youth, like youth everywhere, may not be concerned with broader issues of spirituality and religion, and just want to enjoy themselves. It is important to educate the Hindu youth properly as to what Hinduism is, as it is often the lack of education that makes them vulnerable to outside and possible anti-Hindu views.
The Hindu youth is often targeted for conversion by Christian organizations. This must be kept in mind as well. Another problem is that the Hindu youth can be easily affected by anti-Hindu Indians, like the Indian Marxists and leftists who hold some important positions in Indian and western academia.
NS: What role do you see for Hinduism and Hindu American community in near future?
DF: 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.
The term Hindu is a more positive term in America today than it is in India. Hindus in America are associated with affluence, education, strong families, and strong community. Hinduism in India is still denigrated as backward and superstitious, particularly by the media and educational elite in Delhi, which follows more western and leftist values. The Hindu American community needs to challenge this group as well. Hindu-Americans can also work and do business in India and help raise the country overall.
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.
And remember there are immigrant Hindus in Trinidad, the Caribbean, and South America. Native America traditions also have much in common with Hindu ideas and there is room for dialogue with them as well. Ecology is another field where Hindu ideas can be very important.
Let us remember that Hinduism is Sanatana Dharma or the Universal Dharma and is not limited to any particular group or formulation. Hinduism has tremendous scope for growth and for promoting higher values and consciousness in the world for decades to come. The coming century will be marked by Hindu ideas for humanity as a whole.
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