Four Trends: Hindu Travel, Studies, Politics, and Immigration

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.

At the same time, a nostalgic attachment to the homeland and the pull it exerts as the locus of "authentic" religious activity have cultivated a commitment among well-traveled and well-heeled Hindus to temples and gurus in India, expressed in a flow of capital, strategies, and ideas developed in North America that are transforming Hinduism in its place of birth. At the same time, Hindu piety is reinventing itself in North America to meet the needs and circumstances of a changed social and economic environment. New, more individualistic and less orthodox styles of worship centered in middle-class puja rooms well-appointed with items from India express the confidence and spiritual longings of a highly successful diaspora.

Wildcard: Indian Democratic Politics

Few predicted the rapid rise of the Hindu right in India beginning in the late 1980s, and few foretold its stunning defeat in the general elections of 2004. Indian national politics can be an unruly and dirty business, but the secure place of democracy in the framework of Indian society remains unchallenged. Voter turnout and political participation, even among the poor and illiterate, remain high compared to those in western democracies. The pervasive religiosity of Indians of every community also means that religion can be manipulated by unprincipled party leadership to cultivate resentment and suspicion between different religious groups. The horrifying Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002 are but one example of the capacity of politicians to provoke conflict and then profit electorally from it.