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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)
  1. grace

    If only all the Hindus got together and decided to abolish poverty in India, make sure that every child like their very own has a future and is not forced to work to eke out a living....this world would be a much better place!!!!

    We don't need temples we need Humanity at WORK!!!!!!!!

    July 10, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Whitefield

      Good point and in addition to it the American Hindus should stop funding organizations like the fishes Hindu parishad of America which is responsible incite hate and violence against the Christians.

      July 10, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • Mike

      While we're at it, why doesn't the USA just get together and decide to abolish poverty for 1 billion people too? I appreciate your sensitivity to the plight of impoverished people in India, but your request is pretty much like asking anybody of Eastern European ancestry to get together and solve the economic problems of the region formerly governed by the USSR. It just does not make sense. Demand of American Hindus what you demand of any American: pay your taxes, follow the law. Seems like the majority of these Americans are doing just that and are welcome any day in my book.

      July 10, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • mak

      Hindus never incite hate. They never speak bad about other religions. Hinduism is a way of life. they respect all the people. I agree there are bad and good aspects in every religion. But hindus move forward and do change with the society. They are now more americanized than anyone else.

      July 10, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Guppy

      Why don't you suggest your south-of-the-border neighbors do the same buddy.
      IIn fact, that would be so much better if the Mexicans would do just that, make money here in the US and use it to stamp out the narco trade, have free education, try to stop sending its millions here for us to take care of.

      July 10, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • Roy

      If only Christians could come together and abolish poverty in America, and make sure that every child like their very own has a future and is not forced to work to eke out a living....this world would be a much better place!!!! Why are there homeless and tent cities in the US? This being a developed country and all. You can send a man to the moon but you cannot eradicate hunger and poverty and homelessness in the US.

      We don't need churches we need Humanity at WORK!!!!!!!!

      July 10, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • grace

      @Roy, glad you agree we need Humanity at WORK!!!!
      now get back to Humanitarian work..
      or ask thyself how many times in your life you have seen a suffering Indian without clothes/food and have truly helped that soul...

      July 10, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
  2. John

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGSvqMBj-ig&w=640&h=360]
    `

    July 10, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  3. someoneelse

    Hindus don't have to Americanize their faith, just themselves. The whole point of America is keeping your faith while becoming American.

    July 10, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  4. JAG

    A BEAUTIFUL TEMPLE IN ATLANTA GEORGIA IS U NICK. I THINK EVERY ONE NEED TO LOOK AND THEY LET YOU KNOW HOW PEACEFUL SPIRITUAL WE CAN ACHIEVE INSIDE INNER PEACE.

    July 10, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  5. Phani

    The truth of any religion is supporting, Supporting for scariness to the death, for power to dominating one tribe on another, living happily than others.The truth no body knows about," when we will die".The immigration of people from one place to another place started from human birth on the earth for need of food and prosperous living,In spite of religion disputes conceived. So, what about the major religion robbed another countries wealth and prosperity in a veil of trade, Is it the faith told by Major religion?, Is it here (in US), Those who are decedents living in a veil of Natives, Those tribes Ancestors are not Immigrants?.

    July 10, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Kjcube

      @phani

      ....What the F are you even talking about?

      July 10, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
  6. ysr

    Hindhu temples were rich tooo... Recently they found the treasure of $20-$40 Billion dollars with market value of $100-$200 billion Dollars..richest god on planet earth....

    July 10, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • ysr

      http://expressbuzz.com/opinion/columnists/padmanabhaswamy-treasure-is-temple-property/292582.html

      July 10, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  7. marie

    I have been to Hindu temples and it was a beautiful experience. Hindus are not pushy at all unlike Christian churchs. Hindus accept all kinds of people as they are and harmonious with environment and people in general. A beautiful religion.

    July 10, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  8. John

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGSvqMBj-ig&w=640&h=360]
    '

    July 10, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  9. maude

    It would seem to this Chicago guy is hatefull little tart with half a brain. Constepation of the brain and diarria of the mouth.
    Idiot without a cause. As Chicago rots in its own filth, the Indians are being productive, spreading peace and love around the world. No more would we allow his kind to destroy what we have. No more would we allow forieign parasites to invade our land. Grow fat and die you hatefull little tart. You are no better than me. You crap stinks also, look at your history.

    July 10, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • George

      ndian Americans made remarkable impacts in many areas of American history through their contribution. This can be seen in many fronts like economy, education, and politics. Nursing opportunities in America opened up the door for nurses from many parts of India especially from south. Many of the Guajarati emigrants were business people and they settled in different parts of America, started doing business, and flourished in it. Indian emigrants and their children considered education as the powerful tool to realize the American dream. Indian Americans have the highest percentage of higher education and professionals when compared to other racial groups. American Indians are contributing about 88 billion dollars into the economy of United States of America.

      July 10, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  10. Noble9

    The real question is: can Americans Hinduize their country?

    July 10, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • maude

      No– you can not be trusted. We will do it ourselves.

      July 10, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
  11. Chetan

    Hi. When you talk about "Brahm" in Hinduism, "Father" in Christianity or "Allah" in Islam then you are talking about the only and only that Omnipresent Omniscience one – God. Peace be with you. Aum.

    July 10, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Another male supreme being. Stupid.

      July 11, 2011 at 12:45 am |
  12. DINESH DEORAS,

    Mr. Dan Gilgoff has compiled a very realistic picture of Hindus in Houston metropolitan area. Superb work. Similar, but may not be exactly experience he may have in all big metropolitan US cities; e.g. Atlanta, Suburbs in New Jersey & New York, and on west coast San Jose and surrounding suburbs.
    Dinesh, from Lafayette, Louisiana

    July 10, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
  13. Cathy

    The temple is actually just south of Pearland Texas not Stafford. I watched the temple being built!

    July 10, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • nancy

      The temple in Pearland in Sri Meenakshi Temple. The one mentioned above is another one located in Stafford.

      July 10, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  14. Daniel

    DEMOLISH ALL HOUSES OF WORSHIP. Build a park or library instead.

    July 10, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Dan

      I m a doc. & I think u need some medicine.

      July 10, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  15. Niraj

    First, lets not go in to the strategic achievements of Europeans as it was built on an early lead in world exploration/occupation/slavery/domination/pillaging/resource manipulation/re-writing history, etc. It's ugly, so lets not go there.

    But as far as scientific achievements are concerned, there is no doubt the early foundation work for many branches of science came from east. Mainly India. If it were not for India, you wouldn't have number system, zero, decimal, pythog* theorem, calculus, algebra, astronomy, etc. etc. There were many others, just google around.

    The funny thing is when many of there advance work were being done by the Hindus (and Buddhists) the Europeans were most likely fighting with animals in caves or having a nomadic existence. Not taking the credit away, of course there were leaned men in Europe, but history as written today, who knows how much of the achievements attributed to them are really theirs?

    contd...

    July 10, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • ummm

      Well, along with the obvious false claims given to India, you forgot to mention the Hindu practice of Sati pratha. It is a beautiful aspect of the Indian culture isn't it? After all, you want to attack Europeans and depict them as wild animals. Look up the practice of Sati pratha and who put an end to it (Europeans). Also, one example of your false claim's to India – Algebra, developed in Baghdad, Iraq, is Arabic an origin: aljabr الجبر

      شكرا

      July 10, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Roy

      There are thousands of communities that are Hindu. Very few communities ever practiced Sati. You confuse what a minority group once did with what the religion instructs.

      All those educations insights (zero etc...) did come from India. The claims are true. No need though to disparage ancient Europeans.

      July 10, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
  16. PRA

    I could go on all day on this, but I have a house to clean, groceries to buy, and food to cook. Maybe Indian, maybe American, maybe Mexican...I don't know I like all foods.

    And that's the beauty of this country. My beautiful country. I can live how I want to live (as long as I'm not breaking the law of course), say what I want to say, and practice any religion I want to practice.

    Yes, even the people who fled from Europe due to religious prosecution. I wasn't there, but I'm pretty sure they weren't thinking...hey lets start a new country based on Christianity. They just wanted to go somewhere and practice their religion without being killed. What a concept. Sadly this still happens across the world.

    Why can't you be Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, etc and let me be Hindu? I'm not trying to take over the U.S. with Hinduism or change American culture (please, I cannot live without my football and baseball). I just want to live a good, productive, successful life, just like everyone else. What? Why can't I do that in my own country? I'm from the U.S. Check, done. Immigrants don't come over to "take over" the US.

    I can't imagine that God, everyone's God...wants all of us to be arguing about who's religion is better or even killing over it. From what I understand of all scriptures (I haven't read them all)/religions, the bottom line is live a good life, help one another out, and love everyone as they are. When you die, people aren't to going to remember you for your religion, they will remember you for the life you lived.

    We all have different types of friends, because they all have something different to offer, which in some small way shapes who you are. I think of culture and religion the same way. We all have something to offer to shape this country in a great way.

    You do what you want to do, let me do what I want to do. Just learn from, understand each other. It doesn't require converting to anything. Most of all understand that everyone is different...that's how God made us. Again, yes...everyone's God.

    July 10, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • S

      YES.

      July 10, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • maude

      your request is denied.

      July 10, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • Roy

      Maude you are a nobody and have no authority at all to deny or approve any request. She does not have to request permission from you or anyone else.

      July 10, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  17. Daniel

    The fact that religions have these discussions, "How can we change to fit into the modern world" proves that they are exactly what every atheist thinks they are, a disgusting joke. If religion was right and true then it is by its very definition infallible. An infallible thing has no need for change. All religion is a horrible cancer on mankind. The only change we should be making is to build a big enough dumpster to throw all of it into.

    July 10, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • MA Deviah

      Daniel, we always say that Hinduism is a way of life, not just a religion. I am a Hindu, but I am allowed to pray to any god I like, including in churches and mosques.

      July 10, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • chandra

      Just so that you know, you can be atheist and a Hindu. Charwak was a famous atheist Hindu , who wrote Brihaspati Sutra 2000 years ago. An Indian supreme court recently ruled that (in case of temple management in Kerala) one doesn't have to believe in god to be a Hindu. As long as you do good thing in your life, you have lived a good life and you deserve good thing after your life.

      July 10, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • Manoj

      May be you true in a way the religions are being practices today. But when you dig a little deeper, all religions believe in SUPREME GOD and provides human kind with basic principles to live life within a community. With changes in the way communities live across regions and ages, the specific rules of religions change (or should ideally change). The religions that do not accept these changes would end up with internal and external conflicts. The religions/beliefs that change will generally flourish.
      I am full believer when it comes to community living and accepting supremacy of GOD; but I am a total atheist when it comes to accepting hard written specific rules of any religion.

      July 10, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  18. frank

    I would like to make love to a Hindu girl but I am in fear her father will cut off my testicles!!!

    July 10, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • PRA

      Her father won't, but she will.

      July 10, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • frank

      Well, true, but not only for Hindu girls...

      July 10, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  19. Bala

    There is great Book Called Logic of Hindusim , every body should read that give Great Concept of Hindusim, Next Basically Hindusim focus on Karma, every body's life ups and downs directly proportional their Karma. Fear your conscience, if try to do any bad things your Conscience going to kill you, judge whether right or wrong based on your conscience[Don't worry about the whole world what says] , that brings morality, fear for Conscience before doing any bad things. Those are important things need to bring the better citizens of any country. If people are better Citizens Crime and Other Issues really reduce, people value other felow citizens and help them Also Hindusim says to respect all the other religions, it does not says ,you must only believe Hindusim like some other religion said that's where problem starts.

    July 10, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  20. Ron

    The exterior of the Temple appears to be rather beautiful. I'd enjoy seeing the insides of the Temple and the statues of their Gods.

    July 10, 2011 at 1:23 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.