How does an immigrant community become part of American society without losing everything that makes it unique and different? How can Hindu-Indian immigrants preserve their rituals, languages, and culture—and pass this cultural heritage on to their children—and at the same time establish a presence for themselves within the broader American community?
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 changed the pattern of immigration to the United States, opening the door for skilled professionals from India to immigrate to the United States in search of educational opportunities and employment. Indian Hindus began arriving in the United States in large numbers during the 1970s and early 1980s. A later act, passed in 1984, gave preference to immigrants trying to reunite their families and triggered another surge in immigration by Indian Hindus in the 1990s. These Indian immigrants have established themselves successfully in their new society, but they face the same challenges experienced by earlier waves of immigrants to the United States—how to maintain identities that are rooted in the faith and culture they brought along with them from India and how, at the same time, to develop new identities as members of American society.
For Indian immigrants in the United States (and in other western countries, such as Britain, Canada, and Germany), religion has played a particularly important role in the preservation and negotiation of individual and group identities. Religion involves contending and contesting boundaries. More clearly than anything else, religion provides a transcendent basis for a group’s identity and distinguishes the group from others. So as they have become more established in the United States, Indian Hindus have established temples or cultural centers that play a significant role in the process of creating new forms of transnational religion and identity. These temples or centers foster an acculturation process through which immigrant Indians learn how to maintain their Hindu/Indian identities in ways that are consistent with their developing identities as Americans.
But such a process raises significant questions: What elements of Hindu/Indian worship do these groups preserve from their native practices in India? How do Hindus at the temple/center negotiate their Hindu/Indian identities in the United States, a country where “religious affiliation is such an important and socially accepted marker” (Williams 216)? More significantly, what does it mean to maintain a Hindu/Indian identity in the United States? Can one actually represent Hinduism in the public sphere through a voluntary, umbrella organization like a cultural center? These questions raise broader issues of cross-cultural adaptations and boundary crossing experiences. As Martin Heidegger claims, “A boundary is not that which something stops but, as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing.”
This essay, based on fieldwork visits during the first few months of 2009, presents an ongoing project that involves understanding public representations of Hinduism at the Indian American Cultural Center (IACC), a non-profit organization situated in Merrillville, Indiana. The primary focus of this project is to understand how Hinduism is represented through the IACC and how Hindus negotiate their religious and cultural identities in American society.
The essay is divided into two sections. First, it contains an overview of the Indian American Cultural Center of Northwest Indiana, which includes a brief introduction to the communities that worship, educate, and organize their cultural events there. Second, it briefly analyzes how the center enables Hindus in Northwest Indiana to maintain and negotiate their religious and cultural identities through this umbrella organization and how this organization represents ecumenical Hinduism.
There were two reasons to embark on such a project at the IACC. First, since I moved to Indiana in 2007, I was interested to find a Hindu temple where I could personally be engaged in my own understanding of the complex and diverse Hindu tradition and where I could also send my students to experience the religion and culture represented there. Second, the dual name presented by the center intrigued me. In its newsletter the center names itself the “Indian American Cultural Center,” while on the refrigerator magnets listing events it calls itself the “Northwest Indiana Hindu Religious Center,” and on its Internet website, both these names were included (www.iacc-nwindiana.org).
Indian American Cultural Center of Northwest Indiana
The IACC, situated on Merrillville Road in Merrillville, Indiana, is a rectangular building with a large glass door entrance that leads to a foyer. As one enters through the doorway, on the left is a room to take off shoes and coats. On the wall of the foyer to the left, a visitor can see a big picture of Mahatma Gandhi, his spinning wheel, and a dove symbolizing peace. On the right side of the foyer is a door that leads to an auditorium used for religious activities and cultural programs. On the west side of the auditorium are small classrooms for children’s education. This auditorium is often rented out to non-Indians in the community for wedding receptions and party gatherings.
The IACC was founded eight years ago with the goal of building a cultural center in Northwest Indiana. Hindus gather here and use the space for religious and cultural purposes. The center opened on 9 March 2002. The merging of Indian and American identities can be observed in occasional rummage sales, karaoke nights, and a long list of cultural programs at the center. Plans are underway to expand the center and to construct a permanent shrine for worship that will help build the community and make its presence ever more prominent in the area. As Diana Eck asserts, “For Hindu immigrants to America, the process of building a temple is simultaneously the process of building a community” (221). In the case of the IACC, the building of a shrine has drawn out a large number of volunteers to work toward the fruition of their dreams. As the IACC president’s message reads, “We have a great deal of work ahead of us and many dreams to realize. We all have to work together to make that happen” (Shah).
The establishment of the IACC, a space for regular worship, education, and cultural events is making a “presencing”; it is a space that facilitates the negotiation of Hindu/Indian identities and a “unified Hinduism” in the United States that transcends boundaries between various Hindu sectarian groups while maintaining some of those boundaries. Hindu/Indian identity refers to an identity that transcends religious and cultural boundaries. Sikhs and Muslims from India have their own Gurudwara and Mosque on Colorado Street, Crown Point , Indiana. One significant reason for the IACC’s growing popularity is the ecumenical vision of the center, which houses worship services of four different Hindu groups. In this regard, the IACC, an umbrella organization representing Hinduism, maintains diversity within Hinduism while also practicing inclusiveness. In other words, the IACC embodies both inclusivity and exclusivity, contesting and contending boundaries as devotees negotiate religious and cultural identities within the given space of the IACC.
Through weekly gatherings, different groups of Hindus engage in devotion, education, and services. There are four groups that meet on a regular basis at the center: the Chinmaya Mission Society (CMS), the Ārati Pūja Group (APG), the Ammachi Bhajan Group (ABG), and the Sai Bhajan Group (SBG). All of these groups meet at different times at the center. This essay focuses primarily on the CMG and the APG.
The Chinmaya Mission group consists of around fifty families, all of them Indian-American, who meet at the IACC from 4:30 to 7:00 pm every Sunday for education, devotion, and fellowship. The majority of these families immigrated to the United States in the 1970s. They reside primarily in the communities of Merrillville, Schererville, Munster, and Valparaiso. A couple of families travel all the way from South Bend, Indiana, to attend CMS worship and programs.
At 4:30 a few children attend bālvihar—instruction about Hindu culture and creed, similar to Christian Sunday school—in small classrooms. The classes are divided according to grade levels. During this time children are taught lessons from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gīta, and they make craft items based on those lessons and in relation to American practices. For example, on the Sunday after Valentine’s Day, I saw children holding heart shaped craft items with Hindu ideals such as “love parents” or “love and respect for all” written on them. Children also learn the art of reciting verses from the Gīta and singing devotional songs called bhajan during worship.
Simultaneously, in the foyer behind a screen partition, a group of adults (around ten) study the Bhagavad Gīta under the guidance of Swami Sharananandaji, who travels regularly from Chicago. The Swami and the adult group read verses from the Gīta and reflect on those verses, relating them to the contemporary global situation and discussing how one should lead a life based on the moral values emphasized in the Gīta. The educational programs as well as the worship hour reinforce the Chinmaya Mission Society’s pledge.
We stand as one family bound to each other with love and respect. We serve as an army, courageous and disciplined, ever ready to fight against all low tendencies and false values within and without us. We live honestly the noble life of sacrifice and service producing more than what we consume and giving more than what we take. We seek the Lord’s grace to keep us on the path of virtue, courage, and wisdom. May Thy grace and blessings flow through us to the world around us. We believe that the service of our country is the service of the Lord of Lords, and devotion to the people is the devotion to the Supreme Self. We know our responsibilities; give us the ability and courage to fulfill them. OM TAT SAT.
As the education hour progresses, more families arrive to attend the worship service, which begins at 6:00 in the auditorium. In the worship room, its air filled with the aroma of incense, children and women, most of them wearing bright Indian dresses, sit on the floor singing and reciting verses from the Chinmaya Mission book, Hṛdi Bhāvayāmi, while men, all of them wearing Western-style clothes, sit on the chairs neatly arranged in rows at the back of the room and join the signing and recitation. All the worshippers face the far end of the room where a temporary shrine has been built on a table neatly draped with red brocade cloth. The shrine houses small stone carved images of Kṛṣṇa-Rādha, Ganeṣa, and a framed image of Chinmayananda Swami, founder of the CMG. Other items on the table include fruit and sweet offerings, a bell, and small votive candles lit during the worship service. Beside this temporary shrine the Swami, wearing saffron dhoti (loin cloth) and kurta (Indian tunic), remains seated on a chair.
The worship begins with everyone greeting each other, “Hari Om.” The Swamiji leads the worship service, which typically includes the children reciting ślokas, verses from the Gita, and a short moral lesson they learned in class. The service concludes with a ritual called ārati. During that time, Swamiji offers the parsāda, a food offering, to the deity, and this offering is later distributed to the devotees outside the worship space. Before anyone makes an announcement, he or she first prostrates before the Swami, receives his blessing, and then begins by saying “Hari Om.” At the conclusion of the service, people form a line to pay their respect, first to the host of deities and Chinmayanandaji’s image, and second to the Swamiji by prostrating before him and receiving his blessings. The worshippers vacate the room leaving the images of deities on the temporary altar for the Ārati Puja Group. As soon as the CMG service is over, a person quickly carries away the framed picture of Chinmayanandaji and stores it in a cupboard in a room beside the auditorium.
The new Ārati Pūja Group met for the first time on 4 January 2009. This worship service begins every Sunday at 7:15 p.m. and ends around 7:45. A relatively small number attend the worship, around five persons. More women attend this service than men. The Ārati pūja ritual—led by Dr. Devanathan, a retired professor of physics, who is assisted by his wife Ambuja—typically includes chanting ślokas, singing bhajans, ārati, and the distribution of parsāda. The flame is passed for devotees to receive the light symbolic of illumination overcoming ignorance. This is followed by the devotees paying their respect to the deities. Once the pūja concludes, the deities are carried away and carefully placed in a cupboard in an adjoining room at the center. Dr. Devanathan mentioned that they omit some recitations, such as the Tamil Śri Vaiṣṇava hymn narrating the sovereignty of Viṣṇu “Pallāndu, Pallāndu,” because there is no one to sing those and many who attend the APG meetings are not from the Tamil background. He added, “We try to include everyone when it comes to languages and devotees because there are people from North India who worship with us.” Moreover, his wife recently has expressed her willingness to learn about Śaiva tradition. This is the tradition of those who worship Śiva, a Hindu god. She could never have thought of doing this when she was in India, because she is a Vaiṣṇava (devotee of Viṣṇu, another Hindu god), and there has been tension between the Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava devotional sectarian groups in India going back to the medieval period. In such instances, one can observe how Hindu immigrants, with their variant regional and sectarian traditions, become more inclusive while also maintaining their distinctiveness, as they worship in different groups. “Hindu temple life is part of the diverse and textured life of the Hindu tradition; especially, in the United States the topography is highly nuanced” (Eck 223).
Ecumenical Hinduism and Hindu/Indian Identities
Ecumenism, oikumene, is a term derived from the Greek word oikos meaning “house.” As a house has various rooms under a roof, the IACC, as an umbrella organization, houses diverse groups of Hindus and represents ecumenical Hinduism (see Vertovec 162–64; Williams 1988 and 1992, 238–40). The center in this regard becomes a space for negotiating religious and cultural identities for Indian/Hindu immigrant families in Northwest Indiana.
Fred Clothey, in his study of the Tamil in Singapore, classified their temples into five stages. The first stage involves the creation of a makeshift space and representation of deity, such as a picture or a portable shrine, and the establishment of a “cultural center,” which presents a sense of “liminality or marginality” in the new society. The second stage is when the community begins to perform more formal āgamic rites and when funds become available for the construction of a permanent shrine and the installation of permanent deities. The third stage includes the installation of a Brahmin priest and the attempt to enlarge or update the temple in a way that is as consistent as possible with an authentic Indian temple. The temple reaches a fourth stage when all of the necessary religious elements of the temple are present and spaces are also available for subsidiary events such weddings and other cultural events. The fifth stage is when a temple becomes an international pilgrimage center (Clothey 58–77).
Based on Clothey’s classification, the IACC stands in-between the second and the third stages, representing continuing marginality as well as the community’s desire to attain “authenticity.” This became apparent while conversing with an immigrant worshipper of the Chinmaya Mission group, who also worships with the Ārati Pūja Group. “We are doing our best to present the authentic religion and culture in the Northwest Indiana region as well as to our kids.” In a subdued voice he added, “None of the young adult children come to the center for worship; they say they feel bored, while many come more often to attend cultural events than religious events.” This response points us to a generational gap between immigrant parents and their American-born children. During the CMS’s weekly gatherings, hardly any adolescents ever were present at either the bālvihar or the worship service. This leads us then to think that the IACC can be considered a bridge that enables immigrant Indian/Hindu families to connect between India and America, between the traditional and the modern, while bringing together various traditions of Hinduism as one Indian community in northwest Indiana.
The IACC is a space in which ritual processes take place giving meaning to the religious life of Indian Americans and a space where Hindu identities and generational differences can be negotiated. Religion is central to American life, and immigrant communities desire to become part of American society while also maintaining some of their distinctiveness (Kurien 6; also see Williams 14). Clifford Geertz described religion as a system of symbols that establishes powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence (113). The IACC, then, as a space for religious and cultural representations and for negotiations of Indian/Hindu identities, gives Indians/Hindus a sense of order. The building of a Hindu temple or shrine by Indian Americans represents the founding of a world, a cosmos, in that the Hindu temple is a space in which cosmic processes are reenacted and maintained. A temple is a psychic space in which the community lives and acts out its identity (Clothey 51). It is a world on the boundaries, no longer purely Indian but not yet part of the American majority. It is neither entirely Indian nor entirely American.
The building of the IACC in Northwest Indiana and the current expansion plans make the private world of Hindu worship and identity public, and it announces Hinduism as a viable part of the American landscape. The center becomes “a favored arena for acting out these identities” (ibid). The religion represented through the IACC is a religion in the making; the center allows Hindus a space to recreate Hinduism in a different way, in a new version. What we see represented through the IACC umbrella organization is the emergence of an “American Hinduism” similar to “British Hinduism” (Knott 89–102).
The IACC represents this ecumenical Hinduism in the public sphere; that is, it represents various traditions of Hinduism, makes space for Indian/Hindus to negotiate religious and cultural identities, and redefines Hinduism in its transplanted context adding to the existing “heterogeneity” of a tradition called Hinduism. In this, it serves an important need not only of immigrant Hindu communities but also of Indian immigrant Christian communities and many other immigrant communities as well. The Indian American Cultural Center, and many other centers and organizations like it, provide a space where members of immigrant communities can learn how their own cultures and traditions can become part of the complex socio-religious matrix of American society and where they can maintain and negotiate their own communities’ unique conglomerations of identities.
George Pati is Assistant Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University.
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