Reincar-Nation: Hinduism in American Society

by Malcolm Fox

If a psychiatrist were to play a word association game with the American public, what response would “Hindu” garner? No doubt it would mention such phrases as “India,” “gods,” or even “Ghandi.” After all, Hinduism is a rich South Asian tradition vastly different from faiths that have widespread followings in the West. However, the Hindu tradition and community may be more deeply entrenched in American culture than it first appears. In a country that is growing ever more conscious of tensions between different racial, ethnic, and religious groups, it is imperative that we recognize the diversity within our borders and do away with the misconception that the U.S. is squarely a Judeo-Christian nation.

Rapid Community Growth

It is true that Hindu Americans are a relatively new phenomenon. Anandi Gopal Joshi was the first Hindu woman to ever set foot on American soil in 1883 and in 1965 there were fewer than 6000 Hindus living in the U.S.[1] However, due to high levels of immigration from countries with significant Hindu populaces, the Indian American population – 51% of which are Hindu – grew to 815,000 in 1990[2]. In recent years, the portion of Americans identifying as “Hindu” has jumped from 0.4% of the population in 2007 to 0.7% in 2014. Not only are there 2.23 million Hindus in the U.S; Hindus make up the fourth largest religious faith in America. American Hindus may not be as common as Christians or Jews, but a community of 2,230,000 Hindus – the eighth largest in the world – is still incredibly large and can in no way be ignored.

This community has experienced unprecedented growth – nearly doubling in population between 2007 and 2014.

This sudden increase significant to Americans’ perceptions of the Hindu community when combined with the fact that the American public is deeply apathetic towards Hindus. In one survey, Hindus were given an average rating of 50 on a “feeling thermometer” between 0 and 100 for negative and positive feelings. This shows that if the American public sees Hinduism in the U.S. as a largely unfamiliar and unimportant phenomenon, we had better expand our understanding of this community soon because the Hindu American population will only continue to grow in size and importance.

Hinduism in the American Consciousness

At first glance, Hinduism seems removed from the American public sphere. Rhetoric about the United States being a “Judeo-Christian nation” makes eastern polytheistic tradition at first appear incompatible with the culture of a secular western country.

The Hindu tradition is much more deeply entrenched in American culture than one might originally think.

After all, Hinduism is more than faith – it’s a way of life and a philosophy. This is one reason why essential Hindu concepts have become a part of American life. Not only have words like “karma,” “nirvana,” and even “yoga” entered the collective lexicon, there is widespread adherence to significant aspects of Hinduism amongst non-Hindus in America. For example, a belief in reincarnation – an indispensable aspect of the faith – is held by about 24% of Americans. Hinduism revolves around the concept of reincarnation – within all beings is an eternal essence or soul called the atman. Together the atman of all beings make up an ultimate reality known as Brahman. Consciousness is created when a jiva or life force breaks off from the ocean of Brahman, and that jiva is reincarnated through a host of lower life forms like microbes, insects, rodents, lesser mammals, and when it finally is born into a human body it is able to attain ultimate wisdom, be released from reincarnation, and return to the void that is Brahman.

Americans are also becoming increasingly accepting of pluralism, or the recognition of more than one ultimate principle that can lead to eternal life, enlightenment, liberation, etc. This is a characteristic of Hinduism that has long distinguished itself from Western traditions that often reinforce the belief that only one faith is true. According to one 2008 survey, 65% of Americans believed that “many religions can lead to eternal life.” This “many paths up the same mountain” mentality is representative of the way American culture is multi-faceted and made up of more than just Judeo-Christian concepts and philosophies. In yoga classes and spiritual circles across the U.S. and western society, participants are told to say “namaste” as a salutation and a symbol of spiritual awareness. This term too has roots in the Hindu tradition – it’s a Sanskrit word that means “I bow to the divine in you.” Realizing the way Hinduism and its adherents have become a part of American society and culture and made great contributions to it as well can help us to appreciate the atman within us all; that is, the divine and the value that each of our lives hold, no matter the faith. Your Hindu neighbor would probably approve. Namaste.

[1] Eck, Diana L. Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

[2] Eck, Diana L. Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Malcolm Fox is a first year at Trinity University from Everett, Washington. He’s pursuing a Religion major at Trinity and is interested in a career involving the protection of human rights. He’s passionate about human rights, civil liberties, cultural heritage and political discourse. In his spare time I enjoy working out, listening to extreme metal, and spending time with friends in and around South Central Texas.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

This image is a work of an employee of the Executive Office of the President of the United States, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

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