Hinduism in the United States (National Institute)
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 ($).
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Religious Tolerance - Hinduism: The World’s Third Largest Religion
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