Saturday, September 16, 2006

Passing on the (Hinduism) Faith in the US

Teaching Hinduism to a younger generation steeped in Western culture is an ongoing challenge.

As reported in the Wichita (Kansas) Eagle, September 15, 2006

Fourteen-year-old Samanvitha Sridhar has a reason for choosing not to wear the "bindi" --Sanskrit for "drop", suggesting a person's mystic third eye -- on her forehead in public.

It has nothing to do with how she views her Hindu faith and everything to do with how non-Hindus react.

"There's very few Hindus in our community, and it takes forever to explain to everybody why I do some things," said Samanvitha, a freshman at East High School.

"And by not doing that, it just makes it a little bit easier."

For Samanvitha, it's one example of the challenge that some Hindu youths face while trying to maintain the traditions and customs of their faith in America.

With an estimated 870 million followers around the world, and sacred texts dating back thousands of years, Hinduism is one of the world's largest and most well-established religions. But with the vast majority of those followers still in India, there are parts of the world, such as the United States, where Hinduism is relatively unknown.

Estimates from the World Christian Database at Gordon Conwell-Theological Seminary put the number of Hindus in America at just over 1.1 million. That's out of a U.S. population nearing 300 million, making Hindus a tiny minority in a predominantly Judeo-Christian country with a vastly different theological tradition.

That reality creates a challenge for Hindus here, and for their temples and cultural organizations, as they try to pass the faith on to a younger generation.

"To be Hindu in America is much more an intentional choice than it is in India," said Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies and director of The Pluralism Project at Harvard University.

"Even if you're first generation, you have to decide if you perpetuate it or if you just kind of let it go."

For Hindu temples in the U.S. it has meant taking on roles that Christian churches have long held but that temples in India would find unfamiliar -- such as community hub and religious education center.

The Hindu Temple of Greater Wichita is a site for events ranging from worship to social outings to classical Indian dance classes.

And this month, the temple, at 320 N. Zelta, began holding its "Bal Vihar" religion classes for first-through eighth-graders. This is the second year for the bi-weekly classes.

The purpose of the class, according to Suparna Tirukonda, one of the teachers, is to educate youths about the various aspects of Hinduism: mythological stories, festivals and the deities.
The class is one example of how the local Hindu community tries to meet the challenge of passing on the traditions of the faith to young people.

It's a difficult challenge, she said, mainly because there are so few Hindu families -- about 200 -- in the Wichita area.

"Here, we do need to actively seek out our culture because it is not all around us," Tirukonda said.

That can mean that even young children, such as Tirukonda's 11-year-old daughter, Varsha, can be questioned about their faith.

Varsha, who is in sixth grade, said a few classmates will occasionally ask her about her beliefs.
"And then when I don't mention their God, they'll say I'm going to hell," she said.

Although such comments make her angry, she said, "I'll just tell them they can believe what they want to believe, and I can believe what I want to believe."

Growth of Hinduism in America

When Indian immigrants started coming to the United States in larger numbers, after the 1965 revamping of immigration laws, they carried on their religious traditions as best they could.
They'd meet for prayers and worship at one another's homes or rent public spaces, said Anantanand Rambachan, professor of religion at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.

The first temples were built in the late 1970s, and construction continues to this day, as Hindu communities around the country grow. The Hindu Temple of Greater Wichita -- the area's only Hindu temple -- opened in 2002.

While most temples are designed like temples in India, the founders realized over the years that they would have to operate differently than they do in India, Rambachan said. That's because religious culture is different in the United States

The various Christian denominations separate themselves from each other and define themselves by the doctrines they follow, he noted, but Hinduism in India doesn't operate the same way. There, a single religion covers a wide spectrum of gods and beliefs.

In America, Hindus "are increasingly being challenged to articulate the Hindu tradition in a manner that places more emphasis on doctrine," Rambachan said. "People will ask, 'What do you believe?' "

Faced with that, temples and cultural organizations that had been working to make outsiders understand more about the faith realized they needed to help young people within the faith know what they believed, if the religion was going to be passed on.

And that's exactly what Hindu parents in the Wichita area are doing, said Ragu Tirukonda, president of the Hindu Temple of Greater Wichita.

Without those lessons, young people will "just assimilate with the mainstream culture, and I think they would have no roots later on."

Eventually, many would wonder: "'Who am I?' and there would be no answer to that question," he said.

Instead, children and youths need to understand their culture and what Hinduism means.

"I believe that's part of my responsibility to pass on to my kids," he said.