The Future of Hinduism in America: Publicly Engaging Pluralism for Peace

The Future of Hinduism in America: Publicly Engaging Pluralism for Peace June 30, 2015

When I last wrote about the Future of Hinduism, I had become a voice for the Hindu community in interfaith relations, as co-founder of both the local interfaith group in Michigan’s most Asian American cities and the Outreach Committee of one of Michigan’s oldest and largest Hindu temples. Because of my interest in the way that Hinduism is presented, perceived, and practiced in the US, I received numerous emails with links to Lisa Miller’s Newsweek article of how U.S. Views on God and Life Are Turning Hindu.  But temple membership and patronage still continued to consist of Indian immigrants, not people raised in the US like me, although the number of visitors and the curiosity exceeded what our Temple’s Outreach Committee could  handle with ease.

The continued increase in Hindu temples in America, built by the multitudes of Hindus arriving to the US, largely as doctors, engineers, and IT professionals, is a testament to the importance of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965.  In writing about the Pattern of Hinduism and Hindu Temple Building in the US, Karen Pechilis Prentiss of Harvard’s Pluralism Project, explains the two streams by which “Hinduism has become increasingly established in the U.S. through a series of encounters over the past 150 years…. 1) Organizations that promote self-help practices (e.g. yoga, meditation); and 2) Organizations that provide the means for formal ritual worship (e.g. temples).” But among second and third generation Hindu Americans, temple involvement and attendance is much like what is happening at churches around the country. For example, best-selling author Rachel Held Evans points out in a Washington Post essay: “In the United States, 59 percent of people ages 18 to 29 with a Christian background have, at some point, dropped out.”  But what place Hinduism in America has, and what roles American Hindus will play is not necessarily linked to temple attendance, as this is not necessarily an indicator of how actively one engages in Hindu practices or approaches the spiritual.

Hindus can find many ways to understand “who is God?”, and “who am I?” – be it through multiple forms of yoga  and different ways of reaching the Divine: bhakti, hatha, gnana, dhyana, etc., through different understandings of God (as monotheistic, polytheistic, monistic, to name a few), using different languages, and coming from different sampradaya. Stephen Prothero, religion professor at Boston University, has long framed the American propensity for “the divine-deli-cafeteria religion” as “very much in the spirit of Hinduism. You’re not picking and choosing from different religions, because they’re all the same,” he says. “It isn’t about orthodoxy. It’s about whatever works.” Suhag Shukla, Executive Director of the Hindu American Foundation, clarifies this with more nuance, stating that “Hinduism isn’t about radical universalism but the humble acknowledgment that there may exist more than one legitimate path to the Divine.” [Full disclosure: I serve on the Board of the Foundation, and Suhag has been a sounding board on my journey of interfaith activism for over a decade]. Others like to call Hinduism the Open Source Faith – perhaps ideally suited to the American context, as Lisa Miller indicated.

Having multiple spiritual/religious paths will help us define and accept who we are more easily, as more Americans have hyphenated identities across religious and ethnic lines.  Rabbi David Rosen of the AJC points out here, that there is “this inextricable relationship between religion and identity, [where] religion gives meaning and purpose to our understanding of who we are, as part of smaller units or circles that broaden to make up the wider circles and greatest whole.” As progressive Christianity (and progressive versions of other faiths that lay singular claim to the Truth) becomes more inclusive, and we wrestle with the definition of religious freedom, it is the Hindu ability to accept and reconcile a multiplicity of identities, paths, and perspectives that will contribute to the American frontier of spirituality and religion – and perhaps even help with addressing the structural racism that is both denied and confronted by people of all faiths. This reconciliation or conjunction, samanvaya, is more about acculturation, not simply assimilation, where we don’t lose who and what we are, and acknowledge our roots – for America is largely a nation of immigrants from around the world.

Hinduism’s other role in the future of America is to remind us that we are part of a global family, bringing yet another foundational concept from this Eastern tradition to the West, reflected by Vasudaiva Kutumbakam. Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, a scholar, a statesman, and the second President of India, laid out key differences between Eastern Religion and Western Thought, nearly 80 years ago. His call to action – based on lectures he gave in the 1930s – has relevance today:

The obstacles to the organization of human society in an international commonwealth are in the minds of men who have not developed the sense of the duty they owe to each other. We have to touch the soul of mankind. ‘For soul is Form and cloth the body make.’ We must evolve ideals, habits, and sentiments which would enable us to build up a world community, live in a co-operative commonwealth working for the faith: ‘so long as one man is in prison, I am not free; so long as one community is enslaved I belong to it.’

The supreme task of our generation is to give a soul to the growing world-consciousness, to develop ideals and institutions necessary for the creative expression of the world soul, to transmit these loyalties and impulses to future generations and train them into world citizens.

According to David Briggs, who writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives, “Hinduism is not expected to remain under the radar too much longer.” Several public figures are Hindu: Tulsi Gabbard serves in the US Congress; Vivek Murthy serves as the US Surgeon General; actress and writer Mindy Kaling has her own network TV show; Julia Roberts said she’s a Hindu. And recently, from temples to Times Square to Capitol Hill, thousands of people of all faiths celebrated the International Day of Yoga, gaining an understanding of a Hindu practice that doesn’t require you to denounce your own beliefs. As Hinduism is presented on par with other religions in textbooks and the media, no longer diminished as the religion of “caste, cows, karma,” – more people will understand the Hindu teachings of pluralism and the oneness of the world. And this path of pluralism will help us find peace.

Editors’ NoteThis article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Future of Faith in America: Eastern Religions. Read other perspectives here.

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