Hinduism in the United States (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course US: Religious Records - Part 2  by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

History of Hinduism

Hinduism is considered the world’s oldest religion. It has grown to become the world’s third largest religion, after Christianity and Islam. As people emigrated from India to many countries during the second half of the 20th century, Hinduism became a “world religion.” This is a designation which was once reserved for Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Unlike other “world religions,” it does not have a single founder, a specific theological system, a single system of morality, or a central religious organization.

The word Hindu originally referred to the peoples and cultures east of the Indus River in what is now India. Gradually the term was used to distinguish India’s native religious and cultural practices from those of the Muslims who entered India, attracting many converts to Islam.

During the British colonial period in India (which ended in 1947) Hinduism began to be seen as a nationwide phenomenon, due both through scholarship and through unifying communication and transportation.

Beliefs and Practices

Hinduism recognizes a single deity, but also recognizes other gods and goddesses as manifestations or aspects of that supreme god. Hindus worship god in several different forms, related to two important deities (Vishnu and Shiva) who between them create and sustain the world. Temples are designated either Vaishnava or Shaivite. Hindus offer devotion and offering to the two deities at shrines in their homes and in their temples. Religious codes outline appropriate conduct for men and women at various life stages.

The religious calendar is marked with several holy days to be observed with special rituals and visits to the temples. Hindus believe that people are reborn multiple times, and that the circumstances into which they are reborn are determined by their behavior in their previous existence. The goal ultimately is release from this cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Hindus honor their parents and religious teachers and pay respect to holy men and women who have given up worldly concerns, remain unmarried, and devote themselves to religious service.

Non-violence is one aspect of Hinduism. The best known Hindu, Mahatma Gandhi, led the resistance to British rule that brought Indian independence in 1947. He represented a group who practiced methods of peaceful, nonviolent resistance.

Hindus in Particular

Even in India, most are not “Hindus in general,” but rather “Hindus in particular,” followers of specific varieties of Hinduism. Both in India and America, each of the Hindu traditions has its own leaders, scriptures, symbols, and social location. Hindus have many forms of belief and practice, sometimes called sampradaya (religious path), and these create great complexity within Hinduism.

In India, an individual’s family and social position largely determines the deity, teacher, temple, texts, and festivals which are central to that person’s experience of Hinduism.

American Hinduism is affected by American society, custom, and law. Here there are administrative officers, constitutions, bylaws, and trustees, in compliance with our laws which allow groups to register as tax-exempt organizations.

Immigrants to the US

Hindus make up more than 80 percent of the population of India, their place of origin. Since 1957 official U.S. government records do not identify people by religion, but informal estimates suggest that at the end of the 20th century more than a million Americans were Hindus, many of whom are creating their own forms of the religion in the U.S.

Before 1965, fewer than 15,000 people had emigrated from the Indian subcontinent to the United States. Some had first moved to British Columbia in Canada, then on south into Washington and Oregon, and later still farther south into California. Between 1980 and 1990 the number of Asian Indians reached 800,000, and then reached almost 1.7 million in the 2000 census. As a group, they are generally young and well educated.

You may encounter the terms “missionary Hinduism” and “immigrant Hinduism” to distinguish between the early immigrants and those who came to America since 1965, the result of the loosening of immigration requirements by passage in the U.S. of the Immigration Act of 1965. Missionary Hinduism started early in the 19th century when New England Transcendentalists were attracted to aspects of Hindu philosophy and religion.

Missionary Hindus usually cut their ties to their families, favored communal living, and carried out lives dedicated to self-denial and full-time religious activity. The more recent immigrants have ways of life and values not dissimilar to those of mainstream America and find opportunity in America to practice their religion more than they had back in India.

Hindu Organizations

The largest Hindu organization in the United States until the 1960s was the Self-Realization Fellowship, founded in 1920 by Paramhansa Yogananda; the group numbered 200,000.

During the late 1960s and 1970s during a turbulent period of American history, many young people converted to Krishna devotion, becoming members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), sometimes called the Hare Krishnas. This group attracted some of the new immigrants.

The opinion is sometimes expressed that the line between Hindu religious devotion and new age psychology and meditation is thin. Perhaps the most successful popular offshoot of Hinduism is Transcendental Meditation (TM).

Some expressions of Hinduism encounter negative public reaction in the United States. Strands of both the earlier missionary Hinduism and those arising out of increased immigration still exist, but the latter are increasingly more significant.

Family Oriented

Hinduism is family oriented and home-based. Shrines in the home have a significant role. Much of the religious life occurs within the home. The traditional marriage ceremony authorizes the husband and wife to perform religious rituals for the family. One can be an observant Hindu but rarely enter a temple.

Hindu families may claim allegiance to particular gurus, the majority of whom are world renouncers living celibate lives. American Hindus visit gurus when they visit India or make contact with those who tour the United States, visiting homes and temples or rented halls for lectures.

Pilgrimages and Priesthood

An important part of Hinduism is the making of pilgrimages to sacred temples and sites. Hindu temples and their supporters are patrons of traditional Indian arts.

Priesthood is by tradition a hereditary occupation, with young men learning through long apprenticeships under their fathers. Temples in the United States usually hire pujaris from India because the traditional training isn’t available in the United States. Pujaris welcome invitations from families to perform special rituals in homes.

Traditional Paths of Hindu Practice

The four traditional paths of Hindu practice are:

  1. bhakti (devotion)
  2. yoga (meditation)
  3. jnana (knowledge
  4. karma (action).

Hindus have a series of rituals to mark life’s transitions, called samskaras. In the U.S, the five rituals most often performed are these:

  1. Ritual before birth
  2. Name-giving for the newborn child
  3. The sacred thread ceremony for Brahmin boys
  4. Marriage
  5. Cremation

Rituals, Calendar, and Festivals

Most rituals can be performed in the family home. However, most weddings are too large for homes and are instead held in rented halls. In addition to using their homes as a place for rituals and ceremonies, the homes are a primary site of religious teaching. Before American Hindus established temples and cultural centers, homes were the gathering places for religious groups, including worship, study, or meditation.

The Hindu calendar, like the Jewish calendar, is based on the cycles of the moon. Fast days and feast days fall upon different dates from year to year.

Festivals include those to honor the birthdays of the most important deities. Diwali, the festival of lights, is an all-India festival that most American Hindus observe in October or November.


The family is the primary vehicle through which Hindu traditions pass from one generation to the next. American Hindu families lack the wide support network that exists in Indian society. Here they have to organize all religious functions and instruction for their children within family settings. This explains why representatives of the faith have told genealogists to look to the homes as the source of records.

As the numbers of Hindus have grown and the strength of their religious institutions increased, some national organizations have emerged. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad is an organization which generally emphasizes the Hindu foundation of Indian culture and society. They support the political goals of the Bharatiya Janata party (a nationalist Hindu political party in India).

Communication between Hindus was very informal prior to the immigration influx beginning in 1965. Now each temple and organization has a mailing list for its newsletters and journals. Many of the Hindu temples and organizations have created web sites.

Hinduism has grown to become the world’s third largest religion, after Christianity and Islam. It claims about 762 million followers - 13% of the world’s population. It is the dominant religion in India, Nepal, and among the Tamils in Sri Lanka. According to the “Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches,” there are about 1.1 million Hindus in the United States. The “American Religious Identification Survey,” believed to be more accurate, estimates a smaller number: 766,000 Hindus in 2001.


My query to several Hindus about religious records elicited polite responses but little information. This was a typical comment, “I am sorry that I won’t be of much help to you. I think, some people may keep all records and some may not. I think, people of my faith generally keep their records at home.”

Still another response, “I am not officially affiliated with a Hindu temple. I have studied temples in this area, but I do not have the information that you are seeking.”

Hinduism Website

Religious Tolerance - Hinduism: The World’s Third Largest Religion


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses US: Religious Records - Part 2 offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com <br>

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.