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Friday, April 29, 2011

Slow, steady Hindu growth

Slow, steady Hindu growth

Hinduism has grown slowly and steadily in the United States — mainly through immigration from India, and much less through American-born converts led by high-profile gurus or groups chanting in public squares and airports.

Those are some conclusions of a recent survey by the Institute of American Religion.It found some 1,600 Hindu temples and other religious centers around the country, with about 600,000 practicing Hindus. A third are concentrated in California, New York and New Jersey.

A separate recent survey found a higher number of people claiming a Hindu affiliation — 900,000 adults alone, or 0.4 percent of the adult American population - but of course there’s a difference between claiming a religious identity and actually practicing a religion. American Hindus are fewer in number than adherents of two other major world religions, Islam and Buddhism, that have grown in the U.S. with the opening up of immigration to more people from Africa and Asia in 1965.

Hinduism has long had a token presence in the United States, influencing 19th and early 20th century writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville (who compared the whale Moby Dick to a Hindu deity) and T.S. Eliot. A Hindu speaker, Swami Vivekananda, gained celebrity for speaking at the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. And Mahatma Gandhi influenced the American civil rights movement.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Hindu movements gained publicity in the United States, such as Maharishi Maresh Yogi, guru to the Beatles and proponent of transcendental meditation. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness drew attention for its robed adherents chanting "Hare Krishna."

In some ways, Hindu influence has gone mainstream. Have we mentioned the recent flap about yoga?

But none of this has caught on with the masses in terms of making converts. If anything, Buddhism captured the market for American-born Caucasians converting formally to an Eastern religion with a focus on meditation. A majority of the nation’s 1.5 million Buddhist adults are, in fact, are white, while 88 percent of Hindus are Asian, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Yet this largely immigrant population has lived the American dream in some ways, as evidenced by incomes and educational levels significantly higher than the national average.

Online directories list two Hindu temples each in Kentucky and Indiana, including the Hindu Temple of Kentucky in Louisville, the Bharatitya Temple and Cultural Center in Lexington, the Hindu Temple of Central Indiana in Indianapolis and Swaminarayan Mandir in Avon, Ind., near Indianapolis.

The report by the institute’s J. Gordon Melton and Constance Jones of the California Institute for Integral Studies was summarized in a recent report by the Association of Religion Data Archives’ David Briggs. The researchers spoke at a recent meeting of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics and Culture in Washington.

Briggs writes:

Many Americans welcomed the gurus, but interest among non-Indians faded in the 1970s amid lawsuits, scandals and an emerging anti-cult movement.

At the same time, a growing Indian immigrant community began building temples and centers to meet its spiritual needs.

-The encouraging news for Hindus is they have avoided much of the hostility that has challeged other large groups of religious immigrants to America, including Catholics, Jews and, more recently, Muslims.Too small to be a threat to the status quo, and lacking some of the international baggage that followed other immigrants, Hindus have been largely left alone to meet the internal needs of finding and maintaining spiritual homes for a growing membership.

Even the interfaith movement, which slowly built up to include Protestants, Catholics and Jews, and has more recently reached out to Muslims, is still largely associated with what are considered the “Abrahamic” faiths.

And that last observation prompts a Kentucky sociologist to ponder the implications for upcoming Rotary-type banquets. How long before the banquet circuit starts inviting Hindus to take a turn giving the invocation?


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