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Houston's growing Hindu community
July 10th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

In Texas, young Hindus want to Americanize ancient faith

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

Houston, Texas (CNN) – In many ways, 29-year-old Rishi Bhutada is a traditional Hindu, not so different from his Indian-born parents.

An officer at his dad’s pipefitting company, Texas-born Bhutada had an arranged marriage in India three years ago and then brought his wife back to his hometown, where they recently welcomed a son.

Bhutada is a strict vegetarian and avoids alcohol, as do many observant Hindus.

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And the dashboard of his Toyota Prius is adorned with a small metal statue of Ganesh, an elephant-headed Hindu god known as the remover of obstacles. Bhutada prays to it each morning before leaving his driveway.

And yet Bhutada is a different kind of Hindu than his mom and dad.

His parents were part of a major wave of Indians who arrived in the U.S. in the 1960s and ’70s and focused their religious lives on building a community of believers and temples around Houston, which was then a Hindu wilderness.

Bhutada, by contrast, wants his religion to step out from that now-well-established Hindu hive to engage the broader culture.

Surprising origins of "Don't Mess with Texas"

Driving to lunch recently at a strip mall Indian buffet, he spoke of trying to forge a distinctly American Hindu identity that’s more tightly woven into the national fabric.

“The immigrant generation is focused on India, on the home country,” he said, noting that the TV in his parents’ house is often turned to a Hindi-language channel beamed in from the subcontinent. “I’m focused on the United States, which is my home country.”

That helps explain why a national group he’s involved with, the Hindu American Foundation, recently launched a Take Back Yoga campaign, aimed at raising awareness about the practice’s Hindu roots and values among non-Hindus.

And it's why Bhutada testified at the Capitol in Austin last year against a statewide school curriculum that calls Hinduism a polytheistic religion, a characterization many Hindus reject.

And it's why one area temple has begun placing copies of the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture, in thousands of Texas hotel rooms, right next to the Gideon Bible.

The developments speak to a new, publicly assertive stance that’s shared by many first-generation American Hindus across Houston, home to one of the country’s largest and fastest growing Indian enclaves, and by many young Hindus across the nation.

“Our parents had to build everything from scratch to make a united Hindu community in this country,” said Tejas N. Dave, 17, a high school junior who volunteers with a project bringing yoga to unprivileged Americans.

“Now we’re trying to reintegrate it back into society,” he said, “to make people realize that Hinduism is a religion and a way of life and a philosophy that’s not too different from what a lot of others believe. We’re all trying to make a better society.”

Some young Hindus are envious of the attention that American Muslims and Mormons have received in recent years – even if not all of the attention has been positive – and are trying to raise Hinduism’s national profile.

The impulse is not about winning converts. Hinduism, the world’s third-largest religion, doesn’t proselytize.

Rather, many young Hindus say, it’s about making their faith less exotic to others while making it more meaningful to their own modern American lives.

When their parents arrived from India a few decades ago, it was hard enough just being Hindu.

The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which overhauled the U.S. immigration system by eliminating biases toward European immigrants, among other things, opened American doors to millions of Asian immigrants, including Indians.

Those first arrivals struggled to recreate ethnic and religious networks from back home. When Bhutada’s father, Ramesh Bhutada, arrived in the U.S. in 1968, Houston played host to a single Hindu temple, which had opened earlier that year.

It was a stark change from India, where Hindus can stop into seemingly ubiquitous temples every day for brief visits, helping explain why so many Indians say “Hinduism is a way of life.”

There were more prosaic struggles, too. Many Hindus believe that vegetarianism denotes religious purity and a commitment to nonviolence, but they struggled to maintain that tradition in what was then a very meat-centric American diet.

“There was not even anything like a vegetable burger in those days,” Ramesh Bhutada said.

In those early years, new Hindu arrivals turned their homes into makeshift temples, holding religious education classes for their American-born children.

“There would be kids’ activities in one bedroom and adults in another,” said Dhruval Amin, 28, a Houston-based project manager at an international consulting firm, recalling childhood visits to such homes.

Today, Amin worships at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, a sprawling, snow-white temple carved from Italian marble and Turkish limestone that sits on 22 manicured acres in Stafford, just south of Houston.

Opened in 2004, the temple is a proud symbol of the local Hindu community’s growth and prosperity, though it’s a story that’s hardly confined to Houston.

The U.S. Census does not track the number of Hindu Americans; the Census doesn’t ask about religion, period. But data from the 2010 Census show that Texas’ Asian Indian population nearly doubled in size in the past decade, to around 250,000.

Now, for the first time, Indians represent the largest Asian community in the state. Many were drawn by lucrative jobs in Texas’s booming oil, technology and medical sectors.

“A lot of the doctors in small metro markets across Texas are first- or second-generation Indians,” said Ray Perryman, who heads an economic research firm in Waco, Texas. “And the top two or three students in every high school tend to be from some part of Asia.”

Similar trends have emerged in other parts of the country. Nationally, Indian growth has surged by 60% in the past 10 years, according to the Census, with 2.8 million Asian Indians living in the U.S. today.

Indians now represent the country’s second-largest Asian group, after the Chinese.

They’re also among the nation’s most successful ethnic groups, with 71% of Asian Indians earning bachelor’s degrees or higher, compared with 28% of all Americans, according to data from the U.S. Census’s 2009 American Community Survey.

The survey reported that Asian Indians have median household incomes of more than $90,000, compared with $50,000 for all Americans.

Not everyone from that community is Hindu. India’s Christian, Muslim, Sikh and Jain minorities are also represented in the United States.

At a recent yoga class at Houston’s India House, a community center, the instructor was Hindu, and most participants were Indian, but half were Catholic, Methodist or another kind of Christian.

When the instructor, Sarika Phalak, leads open and closing prayers that reference God, she invites participants to speak the name of their own deity. Many say “Jesus.”

Still, Hindu growth around Houston has exploded in recent years, with 19 temples now scattered across the sprawling metropolitan area, most built just in the past decade.

Temple-based Hindu youth camps long ago replaced home-based classes. And several national Hindu organizations now call Houston home.

The city’s Hindu onslaught put Charu Krishna Thammavaram, 28, in closer touch with her religion when she relocated from Lafayette, Louisiana, three years ago.

“I feel like a born-again Hindu now,” said Thammavaram, who works for an India-focused humanitarian group called Ekal Vidyalaya, which is headquartered in Houston.

In Louisiana, the lone “nearby” temple was an hour’s drive from Thammavaram’s home. Here, she had her choice of temples and settled on a Hare Krishna temple after shopping around, just as many Americans of other faiths do.

For many young Hindus, tweaking their religious heritage to make it more relevant has become an important project.

“My parents were just immersed in Hinduism, starting every day with prayer and accepting it without question,” said Kavita Pallod, a native Houstonian and first-generation American who recently graduated college. “But I don’t start my days with prayer. And Hinduism is something I’ve questioned and debated with friends.”

Yet Pallod, 23, has spent a good deal of time thinking about how to apply her faith to her life. “I believe that karma is the principal that guides the universe,” she said, referring to the Hindu concept of cosmic justice. “It’s one of the reasons I joined Teach for America.”

Pallod, who’s training for the teaching program this summer, was speaking at Star Pipe Products, the pipefitting distributor where Rishi Bhutada works and that his father, Ramesh, founded in 1982.

Situated at the end of a bland industrial drive on the city’s west end, the company doubles as a meeting place for local Hindus.

Among its warren of warehouse and offices spaces is a community center where a mural of Swami Vivekananda, a famous 19th-century spiritual leader who introduced the faith to the United States, fills the back wall.

But like the younger Bhutada, Pallod is intent on taking her religion outside officially Hindu spaces. As the president of the Hindus Student Association at the University of Texas at Austin until her graduation in May, she focused on introducing Hinduism to non-Hindu students.

Last spring, her group went all out to get non-Hindus to participate in Holi, a Hindu festival that involves throwing colored powder and water – often at other people – in a playful, rainbow-like spectacle.

“We wanted them to actually experience it themselves as opposed to just sitting there passively,” Pallod said of the event. “We wanted to teach that the colors are all about eliminating differences by making everyone look the same.”

The festival drew about 2,000 people, with many enthusiastically throwing colored powder at one another in the shadow the state Capitol. It was the kind of scene that Indian immigrant parents could have never imagined.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Content Partner • Hinduism • Interfaith issues • Texas

soundoff (2,004 Responses)
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    You actually make it seem really easy together with your presentation but I find this matter to be really something that I believe I would never understand. It sort of feels too complex and extremely extensive for me. I'm taking a look ahead to your next publish, I'll try to get the hold of it!

    September 25, 2012 at 11:33 am |
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    February 3, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  3. indian baby food tested recipes

    Stunning scene, wonderful capture !

    October 4, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
  4. j

    Hinduism is about loving each other and living in peace ... there are many comments and opinions on this page .. as Americans we need to respect each others beliefs because if we keep fighting and get angry over ignorant comments our children will be the ones to suffer! as responsible adults and caring humans we can make a change .. vasudava kutumbakam " the whole world is one family" is Hinduisms message to the world! God Bless all!

    July 20, 2011 at 12:04 am |
  5. SDM

    India's part of the Indo-Australian plate. It was never a part of Asia. That honor goes only to Europe, which is "conventionally" called a separate continent.

    July 19, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • Indian

      ARYAN invasion theory, proven false - INDIA (part 1 of 3) http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=MO8-JCK45tc#t=10s

      July 19, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • Indian

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MO8-JCK45tc&w=640&h=390]

      July 19, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
    • Brit

      India and Australia both are part of empire. Never forget Mother country.

      July 23, 2011 at 1:11 am |
  6. hari

    So in response to my prev comment about Hindu religion being liberal, tolerant etc ( with the acknowledgement that its got its own set of nut cases etc) people commented about dalits, hindu extremists and others responded about spanish inquisition, crusade, killing of millions of non muslims during islamization etc ..

    Here is what I would say religion, god etc all being in mind ( and how much of that is real is anybody's guess) the thing that we all need to ask is if a particular religion allows co-existence, peace with other religion and recognizes there are many path to salvation ( whatever that means in real life) OR does it say "THIS IS THE ONLY WAY". When somebody says my way or highway that's what gives rise to intolarance and violance...

    July 18, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Kushal

      the cartoon characters of the fairy tails of hindu texts are only topic of jokes "STANDS NO WHERE INFRONT OF CHRISTIANITY".how tolerant are hindus is quite evident in India where "bhagva terrorism is a threat"

      January 15, 2012 at 7:07 am |
  7. Indian

    Dwarka, India – 12,000 Year Old City of Lord Krishna Found – 1 of 5
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQuMGjXfF7Y&w=640&h=390]

    July 17, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  8. Bharathi

    Scientific Verification of Vedic Knowledge in Hinduism http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rY4Q2xx7BTc

    July 17, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • Bharathi

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rY4Q2xx7BTc&w=640&h=390]

      July 17, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  9. Indian

    Ancient Aircraft Vimana's http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wFssEh-b7A8

    July 17, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  10. Indian

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wFssEh-b7A8 Ancient Aircraft Vimana's

    July 17, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Indian

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wFssEh-b7A8&w=640&h=390]

      July 17, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  11. Army

    It's no surprise that places like Lee County, Texas have tiny fractions of Asians (0.4% compared to 5.0% nationally). Asians congregate around places with top-notch education. Lee County? There's nothing intellectually fulfilling. No real scientists or engineers inspired to innovate. Screw places like Lee County. They only drag the human race down with their parochial viewpoints.

    July 15, 2011 at 11:06 pm |
    • Stephen Lang

      You mean there CHRISTIAN viewpoints!!Cristianity is a joke!And not a very good one eather.

      January 5, 2013 at 10:20 pm |
  12. James Black

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGSvqMBj-ig&w=640&h=390]
    *'

    July 14, 2011 at 11:00 pm |
    • Bharathi

      Ancient Aircraft Vimana's http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wFssEh-b7A8

      July 17, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • ....

      TROLL ALERT – don't bother viewing this garbage, click the report abuse link to get rid of this troll.

      July 21, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  13. Muneef

    THE QUR’AN
    AND
    MODERN SCIENCE
    by
    Dr. Maurice Bucaille
    Edited by Dr. A. A. B. Philips

    RELIGION AND SCIENCE

    There is, perhaps, no better illustration of the close links between Islam and science than the Prophet Muhammad’s often-quoted statements:

    “Seeking knowledge is compulsory on every Muslim.”

    “wisdom is the lost property of the believer.”

    “whoever follows a path seeking knowledge, Allah will make his path to paradise easy.”

    These statements and many others are veritable invitations to humanity to enrich their knowledge from all sources. It comes as no surprise, therefore, to learn that in Islam religion and science have always been considered as twin sisters and that today, at a time when science has taken such great strides, they still continue to be associated. Nor is it a surprise to learn that certain scientific data are used for the better understanding of the Qur’anic text. What is more, in a century where, for many people, scientific truth has dealt a deathblow to religious belief, it is precisely the discoveries of science that, in an objective examination of the Islamic scripture, have highlighted the supernatural nature of revelation and the authenticity of the religion which it taught.

    July 13, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
    • Muneef

      http://adelhasanin.yolasite.com/resources/The%20Quran%20and%20Modern%20Science%20(Dr.%20Maurice%20Bucaille).pdf

      July 13, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
    • Rehman

      As you are probably aware – A beautiful site that explains about Islam

      http://www.faithfreedom.org/

      Take the challenge – http://www.faithfreedom.org/category/the-challenge/
      Good luck with the challenge !

      July 16, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  14. Muneef

    Wonder what does the Hindus have as belief towards Angels and Demans and if any writings about the substance of their creation...and roles.?!

    Belief in Angel Messengers;

    As it seems that we even have our differences of belief with Christians in the Terms of Angels;

    -Islam says "Gabriel" is the Arch Angel while Christians belief it is "Michael" the Arch Angel...
    -Islam says Archangels and Angels were created from a substance of light,Christians not specified any substance.. 
    -Lucifer (Satan/Devil) is from DJinn and they were created from a substance of smokeless poisonous fire, Christians thought they were created as of Angels and called him and his tribe the fallen Angels.. 
    -Adam was created from a substance water and colorful mixture like clay.
    Muslim sites;

    http://www.missionislam.com/knowledge/Angels.htm

    http://www.alislam.org/books/study-of-islam/angels.html

    Christian sites;

    http://breadandwineministries.org/how%20to%20see%20angels.pdf

    http://www.whyangels.com/devil_demons.html

    July 13, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
    • Stephen Lang

      Why are You posting about this Cristianity crap?This Cristianity garbage had got to go!Christianity promotes hatred,bigotry,predudice,and mythical garbage!There is nothing good about Cristianity.

      January 5, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.