The Hindus - Are Here!

Cambridge, MA. June 27-30 I was in Orlando, Florida, for the Seventh International Conference of the World Association of Vedic Studies (WAVES). This is a meeting of Hindus who meet every second year for a conference that is in part a cultural event, in part a confidence-building gathering, and in part an academic conference. Most of those who came reside in the US, including a good number of young Hindus born in the West, but some participants came all the way from India. Some are professors in religious and philosophical studies, while others are professionals in other fields, but nonetheless deeply committed to their religion’s well-being. I was there because I was invited to give the keynote address on the first night, on "How the Hindu community can contribute to religious life here in America." I stayed the entire weekend, knowing that I would enjoy the gathering, and also learn much from the papers given and from the conversations at meals and between sessions. As an event, WAVES is a sign of a community that has "arrived" and is big enough to sponsor serious conferences, and yet is stilling finding its way. The Hindu community is well-established in the United States, and is largely very successful in business, technology, and the sciences; there are now Hindu temples in most large and medium-sized American cities, as well as many educational organizations, cultural centers, publications and websites, etc. If one also counts yoga as a practice most closely connected to Hinduism, we can say that Hinduism is already having a great impact in the United States, and this influence is destined to increase in the next decades. In saying this, I realize that some readers will be not used to thinking about the Hindu community, since we usually think of Islam and Buddhism as the "newly arrived" religions that are having the most influence on our society. Perhaps it is a blessing, though, that Hindus are simply here and flourishing, without any great fanfare or headlines. But of course, with success there are also growing pains. One underlying theme of the weekend was the need to keep continuity between Hindu life and values in India and here in America -- a problem that surely every immigrant group has faced. How do the venerable values of Hindu traditions still matter in today’s world? More implicitly, there seemed to be an underlying concern to sort out a love-hate relationship with the West: there is the legacy of colonialism, of centuries of Christian attacks on idolatry, paganism, and the deficiencies of the Hindus, and a feeling that even today, Indian culture and religion are little appreciated and understood in the West. So how to become increasingly American -- while yet having doubts about the good will and welcome of the West and its Christian majority? How to fit in, while keeping traditional values? Should the community keep its distance from the American mainstream? Should Hindus try to build their own educational system, as did Catholic immigrants in the 19th century? Do temple worship and other ancient traditions need in some way to be "Americanized"? The major point I tried to make in my opening address was that Hindus are now well placed to play an important role in the religious life of the United States, for reason such as these: they come from India, a large, diverse democracy in which many religions have long been present, and so our religious diversity is less of a shock than it is for many others; Hindus bring with them cultural and religious traditions that are complete, rich in literature and poetry, philosophy and theology, ritual and art, and so can remind us of how to live an integral familial and cultural life; the Hindu traditions are intellectually as well as religiously rich, and Hindus can bring intelligence to American conversations on religion, and spiritual vigor to the intellectual life; although Hindu beliefs cover a wide spectrum of views about the divine, many of the largest and most vigorous are theistic traditions, dedicated to a supreme God, or Goddess, or supreme divine couple -- and so, despite expectations to the contrary, they can share with Christians a sense of God as Person, and of God’s will, grace, and salvific involvement in the world. Everything is in a sense different, of course, and there will be points of real contrast, but Hindus and Christians who believe in God can talk to one another on many levels. So, I said, it is possible and important for Hindus to make themselves heard in American life, showing that their beliefs and values are not exotic but quite relevant as we look to the future. I concluded by admitting that we -- Americans and Catholics too -- can learn much from Hindus, and together we can work to make our country a better, healthier, more spiritual environment. Over the weekend, I had many conversations with individuals, and we did in fact find much to talk about. It helped, of course, that I have studied Hinduism for many years, but it was clear that we really did have something in common. My being a Catholic priest and Jesuit was a plus, not a negative, in part because Indians have great respect for the Jesuit educational institutions of India, and also because they have the highest respect for Jesus as a divine teacher. I would like to think that my experience on the weekend, and similar positive encounters across the country, indicate that the Hinduism is a underestimated blessing in American culture, and that we should not neglect Hindu-Christian relations even when other interreligious relationships seem to press upon us more vigorously. The Hindu-Christian dialogue is in a way the neglected dialogue that promises to teach us much about ourselves and America and about our Hindu sisters and brothers; I am confident it will grow during the decades to come. Note to the reader: If you do not know much about Hinduism, you might start with Vasudha Narayanan’s Hinduism: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places, and her edited collection (with Jack Hawley), The Life of Hinduism.
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