Hindu Diaspora in America

9. Building a traditional Hindu presence in America: the arrival in greater numbers of Indian immigrants, the building of temples across the continent, where authentic vedic rites are celebrated by immigrant Brahmins.

Some Hindu scholars and Brahmins are still of the opinion that belonging to Hinduism is somehow identified with dwelling in the land of ‘greater India,’ that is, the current national territory plus Pakistan, Bangladesh, all of Kashmir, and perhaps also Sri Lanka. This is not a political judgment but one of jurisprudence (based on the Laws of Manu) and even of a certain theology of sacred place and time. Hence some believe that Caste Hindus who leave India thereby lose their caste status and become ‘profane,’ whatever their personal adherence to Hindu credences may be.

Of course, times have changed, the Hindu diaspora has extended itself to every continent, and other canonical-theological considerations have come to the fore, making the above-mentioned opinion a minority position (a position, by the way, which does not speak to the important historical fact of earlier diasporas, such as the pre-Islamic presence of Hindus and Buddhists in the Indonesian archipelago, or the forced migration of Indians to South Africa, Guyana, and British Caribbean islands in the colonial era).

Even in the strictest sense of ‘belonging to India,’ there was never any question raised with regard to the swamis (Vivekananda, Yogananda, et al.) and other gurus who went abroad or lived abroad; as liberated spirits, they had gone beyond space and time, caste and formal religion. Both V and Y were given a hero’s welcome on their respective return to Mother India.

So today the issue for Hindus in America and elsewhere is mainly practical, albeit with psychological repercussions: Is there a temple where I may (occasionally or regularly) worship? How best may I fulfill caste duties in a secular context? What if I marry a non-Hindu, or my children depart from Hindu devotion and rules? Hindu culture and mores in India are generally quite conservative, but even if a Hindu in America is of a conservative mind-set, he or she may be attracted to America’s privatization of religion and our respectful indifference to others’ creed or ritual practices.

When the wave of Indian immigration to the U.S. was beginning (often made up of well-educated and qualified professionals), and in the absence of traditional Hindu places of worship (temples, pilgrim sites etc.), many attended services in the temples of Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship, which was, in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, the largest neo-Hindu body in this country. The Vedanta Society and the centers of the Ramakrishna Mission were also available.

Then, through the eighties and nineties of the last century, Hindus in America began to acquire the financial means to begin building temples. Builders and sculptors were brought over from India, and (most important) Brahmins consented to come to this country, to bless the grounds and foundations of the temples, and to consecrate them at their completion. With some adaptation to local circumstances, the Brahmins have continued to conduct the vedic rites in full conformity to their traditions. See Diana L. Eck, Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India (N.Y.: Columbia U. Press, 1998), pp. 77-92.

About ashramdiary

Thomas Matus, who blogs this Ashram Diary, was born 1940 in Hollywood, California. Academics: A.B. in music from Occidental College (Los Angeles); S.T.L. in ecumenical theology from Athenaeum Anselmianum (Rome, Italy); Ph.D. in comparative mysticism from Fordham University (New York). Initiated into Kriya Yoga (by direct disciples of Paramahansa Yogananda) in 1958. Became a Catholic in 1960 and entered New Camaldoli Hermitage (Big Sur, California) as a novice monk in 1962. Lived for more than 30 years at the Monastery of Camaldoli in Italy. Traveled to India some 20 times; made frequent retreats at Saccidananda Ashram (Shantivanam) in southern India. Was in Brazil, off and on, from 1999 to 2006. Now back in California, he lives at the Hermitage in Big Sur and Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley, California. See: http://www.youtube.com/user/thomasmatus
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