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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. Murali

    No. But we will welcome all Americans to be Hindus...

    July 10, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  2. Peace2All

    From the Article:

    "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."

    😯

    Peace...

    July 10, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • Peace2All

      *(oops) actually it should be:

      😀

      Peace...

      July 10, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  3. SLick

    i meant not the one true faith..

    July 10, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  4. Pt

    Hinduism is tolerance - many paths to the One, it prescribes. And I was born in a town where Buddha died, near Nepal border. Hindus didn't kill Buddhists. Born a Brahmin... I don't think the religion undermines lower castes - in fact preferance is given to lower casts. I attended Catholic schools... the Vatican is at odds with more American Catholics... Tolerance.

    July 10, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  5. Krishna

    Stop fighting about petty job market, US makes billions from Trade in India, but I don't see one Indian cribbing about it, grow up.

    July 10, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  6. Neil Patel

    We hindus believe in tolerance, brotherhood and peace. We do not have any hatred to other religions or people of color or other nations. Yes, we hindus are coming & going to spread our message of peace & hindu culture. The biggest hindu temple is being built in Robinsville NJ By BAPS & inspire by His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj. Please visit us at:

    http://www.swaminarayan.org/

    July 10, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • Nick

      If yo believe in tolerance, why some Hindus killed a Harijan (untouchable) for entering the temple? This happened a few years back. I think there is lot of hypocrisy among Hindus. A daughter of my ex-colleague (they are Christians) married a Gujarati and after 21/2 years, he wanted to end the relationship because she is not becoming a "good Gujarati wife" (whatever that means). I don't know whether he would have done it if he had married a Caucasian woman.

      July 10, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • Nick

      http://truthofhinduism.com/hinduism/caste/untouchability-in-practice/

      July 10, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • ved

      Aum Namaha Shivaya

      July 10, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • Roy

      You think Christians have lived up to their talk of love to all. Crusades, Inquisition, etc... No. Individuals err in every faith.

      July 10, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • An Indian

      @Nick, show me any philosophy which does not have single flaw, will make you Guru!
      Reality is : Most peaceful and most flawless philosophy has to be Hinduism, read more on Hinduism, will open your heart and brain.

      July 10, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • An Indian

      And that Gijarati wife issue, its not uncommon for you guys to get out of vows for some simple silly reasons. It looks like 2 and half year and still married shows they are trying their best, what would otherwise be a one of many common amreican $100 divorce case!!

      July 10, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • Nick

      To An Indian: The girl is of Indian origin (parents are from India) and is christian. That is why I said they are hypocrites. and your putting down American couple does not help your case in any way or form and in fact, shows your bias. Americans at least will come out and confront the issue and agree it is not working and walk away. What I heard was this guy broke it off in an email. He did not even have the guts to tell her in person.

      July 10, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
  7. sam

    Hindus are peaceful people. Teaching Hinduism to Christians and Muslims will make our world a safer place and allow all of us to live peacefully rather than bombing innocent muslims as targets and killing of christians by jihadis

    July 10, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Nick

      Yeah right. There are so many Hindu-Muslim conflicts in India with each one killing loads ofo thers. If you state something, validate it with examples. I agree Hindus behave peacefully when they come to West but not in their home land.

      July 10, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Roy

      Sectarian violence happens in the West too – Ireland with Catholics and Protestant killing each other. It is not unique to any one religion or anyone region.

      July 10, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • Np

      @Nick, again, you are flat wrong, we must take weapons when it comes to injustice and the tolerance levels are being abused. I have lived in Ahmedabad and other small town with Muslim majority and know the reality inside out, probably, unlike you.

      July 10, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Whitefield

      Oh please, in the past 10 years majority of the terror attacks in India were organized by Hindu fanatics, please go do some research. In fact Sucide bombing was a creation of Hindu LTTE group.

      July 10, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • Sarah

      @Whitefield, you obviously need to do YOUR homework...most of the terrorist attacks in India in the recent past have been connected to Muslim terrorists. What exactly is your issue with teaching about other religions or things that you don't agree with? Wouldn't you say that it makes you the ignorant one when you're closed minded to everything else in the world? Even if one doesn't agree with something doesn't mean it shouldn't be learned about or understood. Do your research before making uninformed, uneducated comments.

      July 10, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
  8. jay

    Why do you guy talk about India when you talk about Hindus? Nepal is also the country with more than 80% hindus residing there. And any person with any religion is welcomed there.people respect the tourist from any country. Actually religions are not bad , but some people make it look bad. So let me give you some information that India is type of country where every religion looks bad coz people over there are bad and the politician OMG I don't wanna talk about them. Every bad thing that happens in india is because of politician not due to religious differences.they create the difference among the people and start fight among them. they misuse their power and hurt people , culture ,and religions as well.

    July 10, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  9. teachdiesel

    Nope, won't happen. Hinduism is un-American!!!

    July 10, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • Nonimus

      According to the Consti.tution Hinduism is just as American as Christianity. Are you saying Christianity is unAmerican?

      July 10, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Roy

      According to our Founding Fathers Hinduism is too American and welcome:

      "Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting "Jesus Christ," so that it would read "A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination."

      -Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, in reference to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom

      July 10, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
  10. Whitefield

    Oh please Ms Pallod, putting same colors doesn't make everyone the same. Nice try though hinduism is a caste based system, there are still many temples in India where the lower caste people can't even enter.

    July 10, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • Nick

      Exactly. If low class (what they call "untouchable") people deem to enter, they stone them to death in some places. I am not staying Hinduism is bad; I am saying that it is as good and as bad as any other religion. There are lots of people doing bad things in the name of Religion, and Hinduism is no exception. Remember Rajneesh (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rajneesh_movement). I come from Indian origion and been to places in India, good and bad
      (specially the bad sanitation that no one wants to correct) and no need of any education from some of you here.

      July 10, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
    • j

      Hinduism is not a caste based system .. the caste system was a degradation of of the varna system which was based on occupation and not birth! However Christianity too has been very racist and fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity continues to be intolerant and hateful to this day ... grow up mr.hypocrite

      July 21, 2011 at 12:39 am |
  11. Sharky

    Asians are breathing new life into our country. They are welcome here.

    July 10, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  12. AvdBerg

    For there is one God, and one mediator men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5).

    The most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands (Acts 7:48; 17:24).

    For a better understanding of the above scriptural references we invite you to read the article Can Christianity or Any Other Religion Save You? listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    July 10, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  13. universe

    And the God's say...

    Grow up people, I do not need places of worship to show off your craftsmanship and artistry, I have me a huge mansion fit for the Raja's here in heaven...

    please go , please go and make sure that you touch the lives of suffering humanity, feed my people, clothe my people, give water to the zillions of my people of without even drinking water, you know who I am talking about....forget not where your forefathers came from....

    signed.,
    Godessess

    July 10, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
  14. Rob

    With all the criticism we put up with, America is one of the few places, if not the only, where people can maintain their faith. We may loose that if immigrants and americans alike don't start recognizing that fact.

    July 10, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
  15. itsjustme

    There are Asian Indians who are Syrian Orthodox and there are Asian Indians who embrace a form of Methodism. Those religious groups are growing in the US at a sizable rate.

    July 10, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  16. maude

    Mother India, gave this planet its life. Please have some respect. Muslims, Christians, Buddhist all came from India.
    Settle down everybodY. The Hindus are the true Aryan nation. The swastika is Indian. We will protect what is rightfully ours.

    July 10, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • Roy

      Arya is a Sanskrit word that means noble. It is a character trait. It is 19th century pseudo scientists who twisted it to mean race. Aryavarta (ancient India) means Abode of the Noble. And you are noble if you follow the Vedas (Sanatana Dharma aka Hinduism)

      July 10, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  17. Whitefield

    Introduce Hinduism in colleges – America is better off without the caste based society and the concept of untouchables.

    July 10, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • Rob

      We already have it. Although, it's defined by capitalism, not religion. Just look at the celebs, including people like Paris Hilton. Capitalism keeps the masses on the treadmill and in line. By the time they figure out how they've been used, they're too old to change things and already spent.

      July 10, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • Sarah

      Your comments are completely false and ignorant. For you to make the comments you have on this article, you are clearly not educated on anything from this matter. And to claim that it is bad to teach about things that you don't agree with is completely contradictory to what is taught about in this country. Do we not teach about slavery? Does that mean we support it? Do we not teach about the injustices from WWII? History is history and to be informed is what is needed to create a brighter future. Your comments on this post are truly disgusting and you need to think before you speak.

      July 10, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • Roy

      Caste is a Portuguese word. It is not a Hindu Sanskrit word or a word from any Indian language. The religion of Hinduism does not teach caste nor does it teach untouchability. Did later Indians discriminate by class yes, and that is the fault of the people and not of the faith. Class based discrimination is not unique in the world, nor is inherited class status not unique to India. Wherever you see royalty you see inherited class status. What the Portuguese mixed was Varna(non-hereditary) and jati and projected their word Caste on to two different concepts.

      "Casta (Spanish: [ˈkasta], Portuguese: [ˈkaʃtɐ]) is a Portuguese and Spanish term used in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries mainly in Spanish America to describe as a whole the mixed-race people which appeared in the post-Conquest period. A parallel system of categorization based on the degree of acculturation to Hispanic culture, which distinguished between gente de razón (Hispanics) and gente sin razón (non-acculturated natives), concurrently existed and worked together with the idea of casta." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casta

      July 10, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  18. Whitefield

    Interesting Hindus in American want to change the school curriculum, why don't they start this from the state of Gujarat where HItler is praised in the school text books.

    July 10, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • Ned

      Start in Alabama. They teach that a Great Genie in the Sky that Nobody has Ever Seen created the earth in 7 days, 64,000 years ago.

      July 10, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • mmmggg

      I am from gujarat and I barely study about hitler or europe as we has enough history about our own fight against britishers and kings and etc. Unless ou quote a good reference, information you provided is incorrect.

      July 10, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • Rob

      I've noticed that the Christians tend to want to change school curriculum too.

      July 10, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • whitefield know nothing

      You have wrong information, Its all rumours that somebody is spreading. Gujrat is one of the prosperous states in India.

      July 10, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • Samuel

      How true Whitefiel – infact here are some of the activities of the peace loving hindus of asia!
      http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/2528025.stm
      http://articles.cnn.com/2002-04-25/world/india.violence_1_gujarat-narendra-modi-religious-violence?_s=PM:asiapcf
      http://www.asianews.it/index.php?l=en&art=13658
      http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/759221.stm

      July 10, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Roy

      I am sure Native Americans, Black Americans, Latino Americans, Chinese Americans have a great deal to say about the non-violence and love they felt from White Christians over the centuries in America.

      July 10, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  19. Zee

    hinduism, sikh and other religions are not growing yet islam is spreading and thousands converting to the true religion that
    beileves in one God and it's messengers including Moses, Jesus and the last one is Muhammad

    July 10, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Rob

      That's the problem. The 'true' religion? It's time to start respecting each persons choices as being 'true' and valid for them.

      July 10, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • Roy

      Propaganda. Rather sad that you think the value of your religion comes from how many other people convert.

      July 10, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • Nick

      One cannot convert to a Hindu. You have to be born a Hindu. As far Is I know, Hinduism is the only religion which does not allow conversion.

      July 10, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
    • NP

      Yet, only 5% of you guys are truly Muslim, peaceful and postive. So at that rate, you will never have good TRUE religion!! Yes, you will have TRUE Terrorists everhwere. Man, Cant believe you actually had to say that on a positive story on hinduism,which never happens for Islam. So, Jealous?

      July 11, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  20. bearwalker

    the hindus are a peaceful people,i welcome them more than i do muslems hate teachings.

    July 10, 2011 at 2:27 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.