Largest human gathering in history, Hindu festival highlights the religion's growth and influence

Published: Thursday, Feb. 21 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

Despite the signs of progress, ignorance of and discrimination against Hinduism persist, said Khyati Joshi, an associate professor at Farleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. As evidence, she cited continued community opposition to Hindu temple-building projects, the bullying of kids for being vegetarian and the exotification of Hinduism.

“(Hinduism) is seen as something far-fetched," she said with regard to the latter. "The story of Hanuman jumping from present-day India to present-day Sri Lanka to save Sita is categorized as a myth. That’s no more, or less, of a myth for a believer than is the virgin birth.”

Politicians need to do their part, Joshi said. “There has to be greater awareness among lawmakers so that 'Asian' religions don’t all get grouped together.”

She said the first Hindu appointed to President Obama’s Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships was asked to represent not only Hindus, but Sikhs and Buddhists, also.

“It ends up creating friction. It doesn’t go over well when there’s just one Christian representative for just Christians. So when you have one representative for three religions, that’s problematic to say the least. This notion of putting them all together — that has got to stop.”

Sanskrit for service

The spreading influence of Hindu Americans stems, in part, from their loyalty to their faith. Among Asian immigrants, Hindus enjoy the highest retention rate, with 81 percent still professing the faith of their youth, according to a 2012 Pew Forum poll.

By comparison, only 54 percent of those raised Buddhist identify as such today.

That doesn’t mean that second- and third-generation Hindus are as traditional as their parents, however. In fact, the evolution of American Hinduism is the subject of much discussion among first-generation Hindu Americans.

“The children growing up are more Americanized,” said 61-year-old Shyamala Chivukula, who emigrated from India in the early 1990s.

“Second- and third-generation want to be involved in everything. They want to say exactly what they think.”

Professor Joshi agreed. “The second generation isn’t really going to the temple," she said. "That’s not to say they aren’t engaged spiritually with Hinduism and doing things at home.

“(Many) don’t know Sanskrit, don’t know the prayers, but still want to identify as Hindu, still believe they’re Hindu.”

She sees rising generations of Hindus becoming more civically engaged, living out their faith through the concept of “seva,” which is Sanskrit for “service.”

In 2009, Hindus established an organization called Hindu American Seva Communities (HSAC) with guidance from the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The group works with colleges, Hindu temples and municipal governments to organize Festivals of Service in communities around the country.

“(Young Hindus) want to be involved in the community, and seva is going to be a way they’re going to do it,” Joshi said. “It’s something that’s, of course, very much valued in our society in the United States.”

HSAC also works with yoga studios, which continue to multiply in number and serve as an introduction to Hindu principles and practices for millions of Americans.

Yoga and pilates (the latter is not related to Hinduism) are now a combined $7 billion industry in the U.S., growing at nearly eight percent with approximately 25,000 studios, according to market research firm IBISWorld.

Keeping traditions alive

Shyamala Chivukula bathed in the Ganges in her younger years. Half a century later she's teaching science at Bonneville Junior High School in Salt Lake City.

In a way, her experience tells the story of Hinduism in America. Born in Bombay to a civil servant and housewife, Chivukula grew up in a world of contrasts.

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