Feet in 2 Worlds invited several faith leaders to join a written round table. The following is a response from a devotee of a Hindu temple in Queens.
One of the results of the liberalization of U.S. immigration laws in 1965 was the eligibility of people from South Asia to settle in America. Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians began arriving from India to make America their new home. However, even in cases of voluntary migration, the challenges resulting from displacement are not uncommon among immigrants. Long after their arrival, migrants yearn for the continuity of the culture of their land of birth.
India is a land of multiple languages, varied cultural norms, and even culinary needs. So, various formal and informal “regional” groups appeared on the landscape. In spite of language and cultural differences, almost all were and still are united by their faith — with Hindus being the majority.
Here’s the question we posed to the faith leaders:
Many immigrants speak of how faith and religion have helped them deal with the challenges of leaving their homeland and establishing a new life in the U.S. But religion is also a way for some people to categorize, stereotype or discriminate against immigrants. How do religious leaders who come from and serve immigrant communities meet the spiritual needs of the faithful and at the same time help members of their faith navigate the tensions between stigma and the embrace of a new American identity?”
Religious leaders play a critical role in bringing unity in diversity within the Hindu community. Beginning in the seventies, to fill the spiritual and religious needs of the growing number of Hindus, community leaders spearheaded the building of Hindu Temples. Faith leaders from the U.S. and India began offering religion-based seminars. As more volunteer teachers became available, more formal religious educational programs were established by the religious organizations. Over the years, several temples in major metropolitan areas have evolved into cultural centers.
Read another voice in our roundtable – “To Immigrate is to Experience a Chasm” – Reflections of a Rabbi
However, this was not without hurdles. Religious leaders faced numerous problems — not the least of which was bigotry from the local residents — who resented temple construction and the assembly of people with unfamiliar beliefs. However, various factors worked in favor of Hindu leaders. First, The U.S Constitution guarantees the freedom to practice one’s own religion. Second, Hinduism in its essence is not dogmatic, and preaches tolerance and actually declares that there are many religious paths to salvation. Third, America is a nation built by immigrants, so most of the succeeding generations are essentially open minded about legal immigration.
To find a peaceful balance, religious leaders encourage Hindus to assimilate with their host community. They remind them that they are Hindu ambassadors, with the responsibility of explaining the true meaning of Hinduism and the life lessons it offers. They urge them to give back to the community by participating in soup kitchens, disaster aid, social causes, as well as in events of other communities. These activities tend to foster mutual respect among diverse communities. In addition, participation in interfaith organizations, inviting local residents and elected officials to secular and other events at the temples etc., help Hindus in general, and the leaders in particular, spread the meaning and values of Hinduism.
It is a slow but steady process, and Hindus have come a long way. But there is still a long way to go. Religious leaders of today not only face the challenge of supporting immigrant communities, but also educate the youth – global citizens of tomorrow — to understand their roots and continue with the values of Hinduism.
Ramaswamy Mohan is a financial professional and a retired chief financial officer of a multinational company and currently a volunteer religion teacher and a trustee of The Hindu Temple Society of North America.
Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, and the Nicholas B. Ottaway Foundation.