By Khyati Y. Joshi
Hinduism arrived on U.S. shores before Hindus did. America had its earliest encounters with Hinduism in the writings of the transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, both of whose more philosophical works were significantly impacted by the Bhagavad Gita. By and large, however, the story of "Hinduism in America" follows the immigration story of Indian immigrants and migrants of Indian origin from all parts of the globe in the years since federal reforms in 1946 and 1965 opened America's immigration doors to Asians.
The immigrant or "first" generation built Hindu temples across the U.S., motivated by the desire to build community and concerned in particular with the transmission of heritage, ritual, and culture to their children. Looking at the scholarship on Hinduism in America, one would be quick to identify gathering at temples as a major facet of American Hinduism, and the local temple has indeed been the major ethnic and community center for immigrants; it is a source of social capital and a place where newcomers can find acceptance and familiarity.
American Hinduism in the Second Generation
While the first generation may have built temples with their children in mind, however, the fact is that second-generation Indian American Hindus generally don't find religion in their local temples. For those members of the second generation who grew up in a temple community, the temples did serve as a major force in the lives of many second-generation Hindus. This is where they connected with co-ethnics and co-religionists their own age, and consciously and unconsciously learned about Indian culture and Hindu traditions.
As grown adults in their 30s and 40s, however, few go to temples with any frequency; raised in the U.S., they have other sources of community and, consistent with the highly-mobile American culture, may now live far from the temples and communities in which they were raised. Rather, it is the continual stream of young adult immigrants to the U.S., like "H-1B" visa-holding high-tech workers in the 1990s, who are benefiting from the structures built by their predecessors.
Despite these trends, religion is present in the everyday lives of second-generation American Hindus in a myriad of ways. For example, Hinduism can play important roles in identity development as the source of "critical incidents" in peer interactions, which can shape the individual's ethnic identity; as a motivating factor in the academic choices of second-generation American Hindus during the college years, as they seek information about their home religion; and as a "moral compass" for Hindus raised in a Christian-normative country.
The second generation learned from their parents that temple going is not central to practicing Hinduism; they grew up seeing, hearing, and sometimes participating in daily prayers and rituals and periodic fasting, all performed in the home. Many who don't feel connected to the local temple find solace in the idea that temple attendance is not essential. Members of the second generation who continue to go to temple in adulthood often do so because they still reside in their home community and attend with their parents.
Lessons for Scholars
The fact that temple-going is less common must not lead scholars to believe that religion is less important to young Hindus. Some studies have compared the involvement of second-generation Asian American and Hispanic Christian youth with their Hindu counterparts, and reached the conclusion that Hindu American youth participated less in religious activities. This conclusion betrays the researchers' failure to understand differences between Christian and Hindu practices. Christianity has, among other things, a weekly Sabbath on which it is traditional to gather for group worship; it also has houses of worship in virtually every city, town, and village in the U.S.
Hinduism, by contrast, has neither a day of the week widely recognized as holy in this sense, nor a tradition of group gathering as a primary mode of worship; and while in-home pujas are ubiquitous in the U.S., free-standing temples are not. Scholars who conclude that Hindu youth "participate less" in their religion, while defining participation according to the Christian norm of weekly group worship as a primary mode of religious involvement, fail to understand and appreciate how Hinduism is practiced and lived in America. Scholars and the popular media must avoid making assumptions about belief based upon a Christian-normative understanding of what constitutes "religiosity."