Brian K. PenningtonBy Brian K. Pennington

The Interpenetration of the Regional and the National

One of the most significant shifts now underway in Hinduism is the cross-fertilization of this religion's pan-Indian forms with those that are rooted in India's numerous, distinctive cultural regions. At least three changes are responsible for this shift: the tremendous infiltration of media into every stratum of Indian society, the rapid growth of private car ownership and tourism among the middle class, and the development of infrastructure that expands the orbit of people's everyday movements. As a result, routine contact between Hinduism's "little" traditions (whose deities and rituals are unique to a cultural region) and the Hinduism that is commonly practiced throughout India is now well established.

The fascinating products we see from this encounter include the wide renown quickly achieved by local miraculous sites as their reputations spread because of media coverage, their promotion by tour companies, and the massive influx of religious tourists along pilgrimage routes whose draw had been previously more geographically limited. One prime example is found in the cave shrine at Amarnath in the contested region of Kashmir that houses the seasonally reappearing ice formation representing the Hindu god Shiva.

As travel becomes more common and awareness of India's regions grow, so does the cachet of their natural beauty, their unique cultures, and their religious shrines, practices, and personalities as commodities to be consumed firsthand. Not only sites, but regionally distinctive rituals are achieving tremendous popularity at a rapid rate, such the worship of the snake goddess rooted in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

The status of Hinduism's "great" religious tradition, however, is a powerful check on the growth of distinctively regional ideas or practices, and as such culturally specific phenomena spread, they assume characteristics that adhere to widely normative expectations. The cheap lithographs sold in the bazaars at the Himalayan shrine of Kedarnath, for example, are produced far outside the region and conform to a calendar-art aesthetic familiar to all Hindu Indians.

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The Impact of the Growth of the Hindu Diaspora

The elimination of immigration quotas favoring Europe in 1965 has radically altered the religious demographics of the U.S. in just a generation or two, but the reverse effect -- the rising influence of India's religious diaspora over global Hinduism -- will be one of the 21st century's major developments. The now-secure establishment of Hinduism on the landscape of North America is visible in the impressive temple complexes of such major urban centers as Atlanta, Toronto, and New York, and in the many smaller worship and meditation centers found in cities, suburbs, and even rural areas across this continent. The reputation of South Asians as the most successful of the America's immigrants is well-deserved, and their influence on the practice of Hinduism, not only in North America but also in India itself, is increasingly obvious. This highly professionalized first- and second-generation transnational community has created institutions and spiritualities that mirror its material success.