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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. Addi

    Hinduasim in AMerica. You will need to lot of Cow pee to convert.

    July 10, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Jack

      Christian teachings are destroying US and making it economically weak. Before China owns US time to convert to Buddhism or Hinduism

      July 23, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  2. MakingIndia

    On 911 America was exposed to HATRED from one religion but before that on another 911 century ago there was a message of PEACE coming from another! Swami Vivekananda Speech at Chicago – Chicago, Sept 11, 1893
    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxUzKoIt5aM&w=640&h=360]

    July 10, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • MakingIndia

      He also said this during Chicago event .....

      "We who had come from the east have sat here day after day and have been told in a patronizing way that we ought to accept Christianity because Christian nations are the most prosperous. We look about us and we see England the most prosperous Christian nation in the world, with her foot upon the neck of 250,000,000 Asiatics. We look back into history and see that the prosperity of Christian Europe begin with Spain. Spain’s prosperity began with the invasion of Mexico. Christianity wins its prosperity by cutting the throats of its fellow men. At such a price the Hindoo will not have prosperity.
      They come to my country and abuse my forefathers, my religion, and everything; they walk near a temple and say ‘you idolators, you will go to hell’, but they dare not do this to the Mohammedans of India, for the sword will be out, but the Hindu is too mild.
      And may I ask you, Europeans, what country you have ever raised to better conditions? Wherever you have found weaker races, you have exterminated them by the roots, as it were. You have settled on their lands, and they are gone for ever. What is the history of your America, your Australia, and New Zealand, your Pacific Islands and South Africa? Where are the aboriginal races there today? They have all been exterminated, you have killed them outright, as if they were wild beasts. It is only where you have not the power to do so, and there only, that other nations are still alive.
      If Christianity is a saving power in itself, why has it not saved the Ethiopians, the Abyssinians?”

      July 10, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • herbert juarez

      Ain't sure about the Austrailians and Kiwis, but the American Native Peoples are running casinos now

      July 10, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • saturndisc

      http://www.facebook.com/pages/Superpower-News/249697628377697

      July 10, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
  3. Enoch2000

    I prefer Hindus to many Middle Easterners, but they don't seem to have a sense of humblness and justice.
    Another disturbing fact:

    http://www.cathnewsindia.com/2011/06/09/woman-accused-of-witch-hunt-killed-eaten/

    July 10, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • Jay

      I could point out a lot of Christian Americans who also have a poor sense of justice too.

      July 10, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  4. just a thought

    I didn't read the whole article because it was too long, nor did I dear all the posts, but I see no reason for an argument. The youg man just wants to Ameincanizs his religion, so what? Let him alone, let him do it so long as he isn't asking any special favors or doing anything that harms anyone else. I didn't expect to to see so many posts because it is a non issue. I certainly do not think all atheists are stupid not by a long way, but I did expect to see a lot of stupid remarkes from the stupid pothead atheists who make no sence. They didn't disapoint me, the stupid ones are always there.

    July 10, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
  5. Hindu American

    On a lighter note, for those of you truly interested in knowing more about Hinduism, check out this video about our colorful Hindu wedding customs. Click on "Watch on YouTube" if it doesn't play for you here. Enjoy!!
    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDIN6KNilkU&w=640&h=360]

    July 10, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
  6. Prakash

    As per the Hindu religion the woman should burn herself in the same fire in which her dead husband's body is burnt by his community as per the ritual of this religion. This process continued for many centuries till the time it was protested by revolutionary people. Such shameful act was supported by the people of this religion in India for centuries, can you believe that?
    Lower caste people (created by this religion) are not allowed to eat, drink the same food and water or share it for many centuries and it still happens in many parts of India especially the urban India whereas in the metro cities you will not see it.
    Hence I will like you all to visit the urban and undeveloped parts of India and not only the big cities to know the reality yourself.
    And also there are thousands of other non scientific theories given by the religion which you all should read for yourself.

    July 10, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • Jay

      Do you have any idea how many christians did the same thing back in the days. Years ago Christians would burn women alive because they were accused of being a witch, or know magic. every religion on this planet had a violent past. you are just very ignorant and uneducated

      July 10, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • vivash

      @Prakash, I truly agree with you, Every religion has some elements that no body is proud of and Hinduism has a lot of things to work on, As you pointed out, the caste hierarchy is the most. I am glad that some of the practices were eliminated, and there are things which we still have to. However, I also believe that hindu philosophy has a lot to offer to mankind.
      @ Jay, I don't understand your agression. So what if Christians used to burn women accusing them to be a witch years ago, go to asian hindu nations dailies and you will read that some woman is accused of being a witch and is beaten to death by villagers even today. Christians have evolved, we need too. why don't you admit there are good things as well as bad things in Hinduism..

      July 10, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  7. Tim

    Hate to break it to you, but yoga is a pretty recent invention, at least in its modern form. The ancient Hindu practice was a mental and spiritual one. The physical aspect wasn't conceived until the 1800s, and it wasn't written down until 1960. That's right New Agers, your precious ancient excercise is predated by The Beatles.

    July 10, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • Jay

      Wrong, go back to school and study again. or harder.
      your attempt at intellect is an epic failure

      July 10, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • Vivek

      I wonder where you got this theory. Yoga is dated thousands of years back in Hindu mythology. In our sacred Bhagawadgita, it has been mentioned that Lord Shri Krshna teaches Yoga to Arjuna (a great warrior- one of the Pandavas) before he goes on to fight the Kauravas in Mahabharata. Yoga was born in ancient India, educationalized by India, and now used throughout the world. Oh wait...forgot to mention, its been corrupted by western world by the introduction of unnecessary obscenity as well.

      July 10, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • SeeBee

      Really ?? Yoga had no physical aspects ? The very word 'Yog' means Mind & Body. Where did you get your dates 1800s from ? The forms of Yoga were practised by ancient Hindu saints and was part of Vedanta philosophy. Some reading might open up your eyes (and perhaps mind ) !

      July 10, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Uma

      Yoga means to join. Join with the higher self in you, and finally merge with God (which means your own essence, which is the essence of every human/thing in the Universe). The physical aspect of Yoga is at the lowest level of the Yoga pyramid. First balance your body and then mind. With balanced body you are more likely to balance your mind, and then have capacity to think even higher (to see oneness in everyone). This concept is as ancient in India as can be, thousands of years old. Most people only get stuck at the physical aspect which is very small part of whole Yoga and most popular in the west, because we are obsessed just with physcial aspect of world. There is much more to life than that.

      July 12, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  8. Hindu American

    On a lighter note, for those of you truly interested in knowing more about Hinduism, check out video about our colorful Hindu wedding customs.
    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDIN6KNilkU&w=640&h=360]

    July 10, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  9. Enoch2000

    Why are HIndus persecuting Christians in India?

    http://www.speroforum.com/a/54173/India-Persecution-of-Orissa-Christians-by-Hindu-extremists-continues

    July 10, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • ron12

      Because Christian Church started arming terrorists & rebels & started to forcibly convert Hindus to christianity.

      http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/south_asia/717775.stm

      http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/953200.stm

      You have to remember that Hindus do not proselytize & do not interfere with other religions. But if other religions try to create mischief like this, some tensions might arise. For example, India is one of the few countries in the world, where Jews were never oppressed. That is because Jews do not proselytize too & never interfered with Hindus.

      July 10, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • herbert juarez

      because they are so peaceable and loving check out the pro hindu posts

      July 10, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  10. REPLY : I AM INDIAN HINDU UNTOUCHABLE

    YOU ARE RIGHT.. WE WELCOME HARDWORKING INDIANS, BUT WE WILL KICK INDIAN HINDU CASTE SYSTEM AND UNTOUCHABILITY ( Its Shame 25% of Indian 1 Billion population untouchables, is govt blind), IT'S LIKE MUSLIM SHARIA LAW.

    July 10, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • herbert juarez

      is eliot ness welcomed in hindu culture?

      July 10, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  11. Shailendranath

    Please read more in depth about Hindu religion. It divides human beings into hundreds of caste system and it mentions that one cast people are superior than other and so on. It also created a caste called as untouchable or the lowest caste of people which for thousands of years were deprived of their basic human rights in India. This religion discriminates all human beings based on their caste which is a big shame to humanity. As you all will read in depth the mythology of this religion and stories written by the so called leaders of this religion you will understand it better. This religion did not give any basic human rights to women for thousands of years. It is s only after the hardwork and protest of several revolutionists that the women got equal rights but that too not completely still in many remote parts of India as of today. This religion is strongly based on blind faith and do not believes in equal levels of rights and opportunities to all human beings. Only Brhamins are the superpower people as per this religion. Although now people with this religion might say that we do not believe it anymore they still practice the same or atleast in their hearts they believe the same principles of this religion and will never marry their sons and daughters in the lowermost castes and also outside their religion and if it happens there were also the cases of honor killing. Hence people please do not follow it blindly but read and analyze and evaluate yourselves.

    July 10, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • herbert juarez

      can those without sin caste the first stone?

      July 10, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • flywithme

      And somehow Christians and Muslims are better...c'mon Hinduism has many faults, but it's not the only one...

      July 10, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  12. herbert juarez

    does the swami river run through huston?

    July 10, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
  13. Kuldip Vasisht

    Christianity is the root of all world problems

    July 10, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • herbert juarez

      tell it to pakistan

      July 10, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  14. ramu

    Hindus are in general peaceful, do not harm any one. Majority of Hindus are less reliougous in first place and visit temples on major festivals. All the teachings of Hinduism are for common good for humanity, absolutely no place for hatred for others. Negligible hard core relious Hindus will become 'sanyasi' (leave all material stuff, live life for others doing prayers).

    July 10, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  15. amarjit

    Hinduism cannot be Americanised as Hindus continue to do what they do in India. They do not go across the borders of temples to other religion's worship places to teach & preach what good & universal values they have. Unlike Gurdwaras all Pandits are busy in collecting donations, offering & taking back to India to boost of their earning in US & bring more Priests of their favor to US.They are ecouraging groupism, greed & not integration. In community functions they do not invite other religions to facilitate learning.Go to any temple there is no free kichen for visitors unlike Sikh Gurdwaras where most people go only for Langar/free food with its unique taste & universal values to sit alike on ground mate & eat. I have seen in Lankershim & other Gurdwaras, all other races people have started visiting but still is negligible. There is no transport service in many towns & nobody takes elderly to temples who could be more useful to religious harmony. Only Christian churges do it & even Muslims are doing it with most kids going to mosques on every Friday.

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

      It goes to show other minority religions like Sikhs even if they have felt prejudice, can still hold prejudice against other minority faiths and be arrogant about how better they think their own faith is.

      July 10, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • herbert juarez

      if you can turn a buck with it it can be americasnized yoga class anyone?

      July 10, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • ron12

      @Amarjit

      At least Hindus don't fight like Sikhs in places of worship with swords like they did few days ago in New York.

      http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/04/25/us-crime-sikh-temple-idUSTRE73O5YG20110425

      But frankly, don't u feel ashamed to lie like this when you know very well that "some" Sikhs indulge in blatant groupism too? Make a note that I said "some" Sikhs, because I am not arrogant like u to generalize a whole religion like you.

      July 10, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • Kanwarjeet

      @Roy – why do you think Amarjit is prejudicial?? His comment merely indicating what Hindusim could do to spread itself – among one thing is the facility to transport older people to temples and another is to go to other religious places and teach about your religion. Open your eyes and stop being defensive – I do agree that he could have used a slightly different tone.

      @Ron12 – you are criticizing Amarjit yet you are doing the exact same thing.

      July 10, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  16. steve

    this is sad. american is surely going to fall apart if this stuff continues.

    July 10, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • Roy

      Diversity has always been a part of America. It is its strength.

      July 10, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  17. Jeanine

    We also have two temples in Pittsburgh, one of them is Jain. The other, S.V. temple. I like the vegetarian, non-violent beliefs and I also like the importance of marriage among Hindus. It seems like a religion unique to Indian people, though.

    July 10, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  18. John Perkins

    This story is as much about Houston, TX than it is about any particular religion. Houston is one of the world's most diverse, international, and progressive cities. From the 19 Hindu temples to the mosque in the middle of downtown on Main Street to the first elected openly gay mayor of any major city, Houston is not the backward cow town full of rednecks that many people imagine it to be. Virtually every race, every nation, every religion, and every lifestyle is well represented here. Moreover, they all get along quite well and the city has had virtually zero racial and ethnic violence since it's founding in 1836. The world could learn a lot about tolerance from Houston.

    July 10, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @John Perkins

      Interesting post, -John. Good to know about.

      Regards,

      Peace...

      July 10, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  19. kamlesh patel

    The whole world can learn from Sanatan Dharma (the eternal religion) or pure Hinduism, which has a history of peace and non-violence. Only in the Vedic scriptures will you find God, full details of God. Only the Bhagavad-Gita teaches that God is the father of all living beings, and thus we are all brothers and sisters including the animals. That's why we Hindus are vegetarian, we don't our unfortunate brothers (animals). We love all living beings due to this knowledge that God is the father of all living beings. The Muslims and Christians can learn a great deal from the eternal religion. Visit http://www.HareKrishna.ws and know God.

    July 10, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  20. Lagos

    Anything resembling modern-day yoga in the slightest is as much hindu as cheesburgers are chinese.

    July 10, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • An Indian

      and as much as you being ignorant of reality.

      July 10, 2011 at 4:16 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.