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.

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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)
  1. Mangesh

    This article really skims the surface ......it represents a small slice of American Indians one who go to temples, eat vegetarian....and practice like "Amin" the Swaminarayan cult which is not Hinduism; these guys worship a living guy (who had cardio-vascular surgery a few years back in NY to preserve his life), where they separate women and men in the temples .

    Dan Gilgoff get your facts straight and don't clump everyone in one group. Just like in the broader Christian world David Koresh, Jimmy Swaggart, the pope and Jesse Jackson all comprise the multifaceted outlook we have our own pedophiles and crowd enthralling priests/leaders.

    Many people from all religions practice their faith for a few hours a weak and go out in the world and are mean to their fellow human beings or to the world in general. Sicilian mafia, mexico cartel members, Hindu or Muslim fanatics to name a few of the extremes.

    Overall religion is for the weak-minded !!!!

    July 10, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • hgabriel

      Overall, religion is for those who think deeply and intuitevly feel deep mysteries: Newton, Einstein, Pascal, and many other great scientists were also deeply religious people. Atheism is for simpletons.

      July 10, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  2. springmom

    All, please be a bit civilized with your comments.. try to focus on what it is that you want and not attack any religions.. we are blessed to live in a countrly where all of us are allowed to live the healthy life we desire.

    July 10, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  3. ummm

    Well the real question is should all faiths Americanize...

    July 10, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • joe

      Maybe they saw American churches represent Jesus looking like a gay heavy metal guitarist, and just want to go with the flow.

      July 10, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  4. Jeff

    Why should they Americanize their religion?

    July 10, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • Niki

      All religions when they try to introduce themselves to other cultures "ize" their religion. Mary is pictured as wearing a sari in India.

      July 10, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  5. ummm

    Update? I bet theres only one religion out there that can never update their religion or ways.

    July 10, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • Rick in jp

      I suspect more than one faith is mired in the past. The two younger main Abrahamic religions need to reconsider their stances on lots of things... Modernity really isn't all bad.

      July 10, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  6. scallyWag

    Actually eastern religion is very sophisticated. I know it is hard for the western mind to understand, but for those willing to make the effort to think outside your own indoctrinations you will be surprised, as well as rewarded in spiritual understanding.

    July 10, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • PaMan

      I would also suggest the opposite is true......

      July 10, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  7. rev.spike

    I think a better question is *should* Hindus, Muslims, Christians, et. al. "Americanize" their faith.

    July 10, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  8. Kevin

    Whoa, why should any religion have to 'Americanize' to begin with? If it's anything like the 'Americanization' of Christianity, Hindus will want to reconsider.

    July 10, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • rev.spike

      absolutely agreed

      July 10, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  9. scallyWag

    Hard to have any 'debate on religion. Its all subjective. Everybody wants his version to be right, and don't tell me there's only one "version." If that were really true, there would be no controversey, would there.

    July 10, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  10. reddy

    I am not Hindu but their clothing, culture, food, yoga, and of course Weddings are awsome and all colorful and bright. Some how my family adapted the culture . Nice culture.

    July 10, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Peri Browner

      So you think they treat their women well?

      July 10, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  11. scallyWag

    I wonder when Christianity will ever update their ancient mythology? I mean, who today can relate with a bunch of Jews living in mud huts in the Sanai desert. Sorry don't buy this anymore than I buy the other guys version..

    July 10, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • bruno b.

      be thank the christianity a catholicsm gives u the freedom to choose if u wanna follow or not

      July 10, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • joe

      "be thank the christianity a catholicsm gives u the freedom to choose if u wanna follow or not"
      You mean be thankful the Pope isn't a de facto emperor anymore. When the popes and bishops had their own armed forces, you DID NOT have ANY "freedom to choose."

      July 10, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  12. Rainer Braendlein

    Christianity is the real thing. It is only that we in the Western World have a big lack in Christian praxis.

    The whole Koran is an accusation by Muhammad against Jews and Christians , who obviously saw that word and deed of Jews and Christians did not always go together (he draw the wrong conclusion and condemned us, better he had decided to become a model Jew or Christian).

    The best way to keep our traditional culture, is it to really live the Christian life without compromising. People of other religions will appreciate and God will protect us against our enemies (people, who want to kill us, although we live as faithful Christians).

    When we compromise, we will decline one way or another, independent from the influence of other religions.

    Other nationalities could enrich our culture. It is up to us to become strong (regarding the character). We should not blame foreign people for our own personal weakness.

    July 10, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • John Richardson

      No, Rainer. COKE is the real thing. 😀

      July 10, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  13. Joeinsense

    lol: when two people fight, the third always wins. been reading some interesting posts here between folks from pakistan and india, each deriding each other's religion and belief. trust me, both of you are being laughed at on this forum with your dumb interpretations to an other-wise informative article , just hope you realize that.

    hmmm, think i am gonna have a beer and some chicken curry for lunch.

    July 10, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  14. CheekyIndian

    After a read I believe the question should be would american hindus understand their faith? Can they understand this 'way of life' that involves a lot of complex intricacies like idol worship of a more than thousands of deities, caste system, dharma etc etc. Inviting publicity is ok, but doing so without understanding what you are talking about can pull the rug off from under your feet. And I am a Hindu myself.

    July 10, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  15. 1nd3p3nd3nt

    I wish the writer would have focused more on the philosophy and religion, instead of the physical location of a church or two. I know in Hindu faith there are several gods, Brahman I wanna say in the guy in charge. Kali was the awesome looking 'cleansing fire' concept kind of god focused on destruction but I believe ultimately so that new creation can take place.

    I thought in Hindu, there were many, many gods? Maybe the top three or so are in a trinity-type situation, where they are separate yet still connected? Is very similar to christian faith and the concept of 'saints,' just not sure if the gods are considered gods, or if they are simply higher dimensional beings... mainly i'm curious about the backlash against the polytheism claim and why they'd want to distance themselves from it?

    July 10, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • CheekyIndian

      Ah! the dilemma.....hinduism involves worshipping thousands of gods. God is one, Universal, supreme. All beings have a small portion of god in ourselves. Now depending on their godliness, beings are classified and sometimes worshipped. hence many gods and deities, larger and smaller.

      July 10, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • Murphy

      The reason they want to distance themselves from it is simple. When in rome do as the romans. In this case the USA.Imagine being in middle school and trying to explain your hindu religion to your friend and them not laugh at it. I've seen it happen.

      July 10, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      i can understand the 'want' of doing as the roman's do, just very rarely the logic. I can understand children making fun of other children, but they do it against everyone, for everything. Hindu's may get made fun of for being Hindu, but Joey in the second row, a good ol' christian, gets made fun of for farting, or tripping that one time when he tried to make a jump shot, etc etc.

      Children aren't cruel. Children are honest, just not always informed. The problem is, I think, less the children, and more the adults that never figured out how to mature intellectually or emotionally.

      July 10, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • JC

      Right as we laughed at Mormons.

      July 10, 2011 at 11:09 am |

    Everybody will be scøøped up into my loving antlers just as søøn as I figure out how to do that.

    July 10, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • John Richardson

      Yeah, yeah. And I guess we can safely assume that it'll take you at least 2000 years to figure that out.

      July 10, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  17. Noble9

    Every little blow that chips away at the monopoly Christianity has on the U.S. is a good thing, imo. For minority religions, persecution by intolerant Christians is the number one problem faced in the Bible Belt states.

    July 10, 2011 at 10:53 am |
  18. Samuel

    For all who though that it was a peacful religion – here is an eyeopener! They appear peaceful here coz they are a miniscule minority right now!


    July 10, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • Jack Brady


      If I started adding links for Christianity and Islam the way you did, it would take hundreds of pages....

      July 10, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • ad

      wow! you are one stubborn catholic. I can give thousands of examples of christian atrocities from darfur to uganda to nigeria to kenya to bosnia to south korea.

      July 10, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • Murphy

      This is for all the people that say its peaceful...don't pick and choose what you like about a religion. Take it as a whole.

      July 10, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  19. uddi smith

    Yoga is not based nor rooted in religion, Yoga was there before any form of religion –not Hinduism, not Buddism; And Hindu faith is the largest world religion, according to the UN

    July 10, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  20. Shiva

    Hinduism is definitely polytheistic.. it is almost like Greek mythology where there is a God for everything. Why is it so offensive for them to be polytheistic... But in all I don't understand why do you need religion for a good way of life. Why do you need the fear of hell or karma in order to be good to everyone. Why is it so tough to live without a belief that there is someone higher up there? atheism is the way!!

    July 10, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • ME

      I don't understand why, as the article states but does not elaborate on, why some hindus reject the characterization of hinduism as polytheistic. Hindi has many gods. That's the definition of polytheistic. I wish the article would have elaborated on why some hindus reject that characterization when it perfectly fits the definition.

      July 10, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • hindu

      The reason why Hindus take offense when they hear hinduism is polytheistic is because it simply is not true. Quick web searches on Hinduism and their beliefs for a couple of minutes should be enough to prove this. May be we should do that first. Won't a christian object when someone says without properly reading the main tenets of christianity and says: Ofcourse Christianity is polytheistic. At least bitheistic. May be Tritheistic if we include the Holy Spirit. Clearly there is a God the Father and then his Son. And christians seems taken more to the Son and what he did for humanity and are more bent on worshipping Jesus than the the 'one' God.

      Hope you understand what I am trying to do.

      July 10, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • John Richardson

      @hindu But that's just the point. Christians may take offense if someone denies that Christianity is monotheistic, but it truly isn't monotheistic the way Judaism and Islam are.

      July 10, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
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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.