*Originally posted at Sacred Duty
Houston Belief editor Kate Shellnutt’s recent article on a new Hindu temple in The Woodlands got me thinking about the Asian-Indian religious experience in the U.S.A. Is it all Hindu? Is it all located in prosperous centers such as The Woodlands? How does education and economics effect Indian religious choices? Are Indians more religious in the United States then they are here? What kinds of religions do they populate? What kind of people do they gather with? What do they experience from people of other faiths or non-faith? How does this shape their religious experience?
Houston has a large population of Asian-Indian immigrants and Indian-Americans. Indeed, it has the sixth-largest Asian-Indian population in a metro area (behind New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas/Ft. Worth and Philadelphia). To understand the Houston religious scene, to get the Texan religious landscape and to apperceive the new wave of American religion is to be familiar with Asian-Indian religion’s diversity and its socio-cultural influences.
First of all, Asian-Indians in America are not all Hindu. While a great number of Indians are Hindu, they are also Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Christian, Parsis and Jewish. In fact, the first exclusively Asian-Indian religious institution in the United States was a Sikh gurudwara established in Stockton, CA in 1912. A hundred years later there are thousands of temples, gurudwaras, mosques and churches serving the Asian-Indian American religious landscape of Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Jews.
There are about 2.8 million people of Asian-Indian descent living in the United States and the vast majority of them are religiously active. Their demographics reflect the religious realities of India where Hindus are the vast majority, Muslims claim a sizable chunk of the population (1 in 10) and Christians and Sikhs make up another 2% respectively. The rest of Asian-Indians, at home or abroad, are Jain, Parsis, Jewish, Buddhist or non-religious.
Whatever the religion, faith and practice take on new shape and meaning for Asian-Indians in the United States. This new form is influenced by three forces: cultural values, education/economic levels and misunderstanding and/or persecution.
When any cultural group enters a new culture they look for positive vehicles for passing on their pre-existing ethnic values and rhythms. This may happen immediately and/or it may be realized in a latter-generational cultural revival. Talking with a young Asian-Indian woman who recently immigrated from Mumbai to Austin, TX I discovered she came to the United States excited to become American. For the first few months and years she adopted everything American, casting off the “shackles” of all things Indian. This process already started in India where, she said, Hinduism had taken a backseat to her education,social life and vocational aspirations. Then, a tragedy hit and an identity crisis followed. Soon after she revived her bhakti and got involved in a local Hindu community in Texas. As of today she hopes to raise her children as Hindus believing that through Hinduism they might share her Indian sense of community cohesion, family unity, self-control, emphasis on education, self-discipline and respect for authority. Back home in India such community was passed on in various ways, in the United States the Hindu religion became the sole vehicle for her to transmit and retain Indian identity and create ethnic community.
Here in Houston the growing Telugu Christian Fellowship provides not only a place of religious devotion, but a means of passing on Telugu Christian culture and traditions to next generations. Telugus from all over Houston drive long distances to find cultural familiarity alongside fellow Telugu Christians. As one visiting student put it, the Telugu Christian Fellowship is “a Telugu home away from home. They help me remain Telugu in America.”
Education and Economics
The Pew Forum released data in 2007 and 2010 that showed that some of the most educated and affluent religious adherents in the United States are Hindus, the vast majority of which are Asian-Indian. From what I can tell anecdotally, this holds true across religions with prosperous Asian-Indians filling the majority of the pews at local Indian-Christian fellowships. These figures reveal an immigration bias – prosperous Asian-Indians can afford, and have the education, to immigrate to the United States and be successful. Be that as it may, their educational and economic attainment impacts the way Asian-Indians gather and worship. While Asian-Indians associate with ethnically familiar fellowships (Hindu temples, Sikh gurudwaras, Indian-Christian churches etc.), they will often also attend ethnically diverse mosques and churches that are more homogeneous in economic stature. Over time they may even come to prefer the latter and identify more along the lines of economic and educational values than ethnic ones.
I see this played out at the University of Houston where intelligent and highly educated Hindu students tend to associate with similarly endowed individuals, whether they are Hindu or not. They are more likely to associate with someone who is just as sharp and educated than they are who shares the same beliefs as them. This leads to their continued education as they interact with Asian-Indian Muslims and Christians learning about the “religious other” in a way that, as they admit, they may not at home in India.
Misunderstanding and Persecution
While Hindus in the The Woodlands do not experience much persecution, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims elsewhere certainly do. Most natural born Americans don’t understand the diversity amongst Asian-Indian religion. For example, an older woman I know thinks all Sikhs are Muslims. Bless her heart, but when we pull up to a corner gas station near her home in the San Jose area she let’s me know how the Muslim man that runs the joint is doing. While she doesn’t think it’s nice that so many of her neighbors talk bad about this nice Iraqi man, she herself has no clue who Talan is, where he is from or what he believes.
I had the opportunity to talk with Talan a couple of years ago. It turns out that Talan is not from Iraq. He is not Muslim. He is Sikh. He is from India. He is Punjabi.
According to Campbell and Putnam in American Grace, Hindus are just as likely as any other minority religion to experience scorn, distrust and misunderstanding. Most of the time Talan feels at home in the U.S.A., after all he’s been here for over a decade. However, the misunderstanding and the occasional unflattering remarks that Talan, his family and his people struggle with make him feel ostracized, marginalized and discouraged. Talan flocks to his local gurudwara in San Jose for comfort, support and shelter from a storm of misunderstanding and prejudice.
More than anything else, culture, education/economy and misunderstanding influence the way Asian-Americans practice their religion in the United States. The obligation to pass on cultural values and re-create authentic ethnic identity, the desire to associate with people of similar educational and economic prowess and the need to protect a community from negative outside forces give shape to the Asian-Indian religious experience in the United States.
Prema Kurien puts it well in her book A Place at the Multicultural Table:
The institutions of popular Hinduism in the United States, in addition to practicing and reproducing Hinduism, also become the means to create community; provide professional, educational, and economic support; understand and articulate identity; and provide a shelter from the racism and cultural misunderstanding that Hindus encounter in the wider society (237).
While speaking solely of Hinduism, Kurien’s words apply across the Asian-Indian religious spectrum. I see it here in Houston, throughout Texas and in associations with Asian-Indians in places like Los Angeles, San Jose and Chicago. So much of what Asian-Indian religion is here in the U.S.A. is shaped by Asian-Indian socio-cultural needs. Such a realization not only helps us understand the Asian-Indian religious experience, but might give us pause to wonder just how much our own cultural needs, education and economic attainment impact our faith and religious practice.