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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. Dennis K. Biby

    "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."

    Interesting quote and I believe it might be accurate; however, searching the Census's site failed to show a reference.

    Can you provide a direct link to this claim?

    Thanks,

    Dennis

    July 10, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
  2. Anup

    we should nuke pakistan..............
    and let them join 72 virgins pig

    July 10, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • Whitefield

      Isn't this forum to talk about Hinduism? When will your obsession end with Pakistan or Islam?

      For the record I am not a friend of Pakistan – it's a failed state

      July 10, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
    • Aditya

      Way to be nonviolent, buddy. Ever heard of ahimsa?

      July 10, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • ahmed

      that is very hurtful and hateful.
      i would never say that about india.
      you just blogged your desire to mass annihilate a whole nation.
      someone on this forum should report you to authorities.

      July 10, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
  3. Whitefield

    How do you Americanize Hindu faith? spin it the American way and hide all the facts just talk about good things....

    July 10, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
    • Boogle

      Yeah, like Christians do...

      July 10, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
  4. HOLY

    American hindus are usually higher class hindus "Shudurs and untouchables" cannot qualify for American visas or get an education. If higher class hindus touch untouchables in india "they have to bathe" per hindusim and in true hinduism widowns must wear white and shave her head and walk bear foot.

    July 10, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
    • joejoefromhouston

      Yeah, 50 years ago.

      July 10, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
  5. Kaved

    iIslam is already in the White House

    July 10, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • CheekyIndian

      you were able to smell it out when you went there werent you?

      July 10, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  6. Atheist God

    http://news.ninemsn.com.au/world/336669/bandits-cut-off-holy-mans-magic-leg

    July 10, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • Frank

      LOL

      July 10, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
  7. xyuvam

    India Kills 10 million girls in 20 yers.Google: Dowry Deths...Please!!!

    July 10, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • Anup

      all indians are hindu
      all hindus are not indians

      July 10, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
    • slothy

      Wow ...as usual, Pakistanis with their atrocious English skills are starting to invade this forum.

      July 10, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
  8. CasualEvil

    Taking back Yoga? Are you kidding me? You do realize that it is a modern invention right? Only based off of somethings in the Indian culture, but it actually never existed until the '60s. Eesh Research does a brain good.

    July 10, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • joejoefromhouston

      ummm.... yoga has been around for millenia. look it up.

      July 10, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
    • chandra

      no wonder your name is "evil"

      July 10, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
  9. Whitefield

    Hopefully my Hindu friends will educate my fellow Americans that Sucide bombing was the creation of the Hindus – full disclourse please....

    July 10, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • slothy

      @Whitefield

      I know where this is going. Yeah, suicide bombing was made popular by LTTE, which has as many christians & atheists as Hindu among its cadre. The LTTE chief Prabhakar was a christian

      http://www.lankaweb.com/news/items/2009/05/17/prabhakarans-real-allies-glimpses-from-the-past/

      LTTE is not a religious organization, but rather a anti-buddhist group. But u should give it to muslims for taking this practice to an altogether different level. Any way, nice try Paki boy 🙂

      July 10, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
  10. Anup

    you born as hindu and die as hindu
    its a way of living
    convert is unacceptable , try other religion

    July 10, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
    • Anup

      respect elder and love younger

      July 10, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  11. belem

    islam is taking over america. we have knocked our way into your country. we will be in the white house soon. we have spread islam 1000fold since 911.

    July 10, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • LA

      nut....

      July 10, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
  12. Joe

    Everybody in this world has their own religion to follow and no religion can be considered as the wisest compared to other religions... so stop spreading! If someone wants to follow then they know what to do and if they dont want to then jus leave it to them. There's a lot of other things to work on and this is not worth it... Enough of all good preachings is already in place in all the religions I guess... so stop it pls... if someone like hinduism then they can follow it but they dont need to make others follow it instead jus ask them to follow their own religion if they really thing that the other person needs guidance ...

    If it's really bothering to stay away from your culture then why is it required to stay away from your country... just go there and life your life who is going to restrict it...

    This is my heartfelt feeling as an Indian and as a good follower of Hinduism !!!

    I wish we all work on our current financial instabilities and make this world a better place for our following generation and lets us all pray our own God for that. Let GOD (whoever it is) Bless Us All !!!

    July 10, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
    • HOLY

      This article did not tell you that american hindus are usually higher class hindus "Shudurs and untouchables" cannot qualify for American visas or get an education. If higher class hindus touch untouchables in india "they have to bathe" per hindusim and in true hinduism widowns must wear white and shave her head and walk bear foot.

      July 10, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • slothy

      @ Holy

      Cannot qualify for visas? Are u kidding? 50% of all the higher education seats in Indian universities are reserved for lower caste ppl. So, where are all these ppl, that are graduating under these quota going?

      July 10, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
  13. AvdBerg

    Neither is there any salvation in any other: for there is none other name (Jesus Christ) under heaven, whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12).

    For there is one God, and one mediator between God and 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 6:10 pm |
  14. Atheist God

    There is nothing American about Hinduism!! Born here or not adapt or go home!!

    July 10, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • LA

      "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 the word "Jesus Christ," so that it should read, "a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination." – Thomas Jefferson

      July 10, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
  15. HOLY

    This article did not tell you that american hindus are usually higher class hindus "Shudurs and untouchables" cannot qualify for American visas or get an education. If higher class hindus touch untouchables in india "they have to bathe" per hindusim and in true hinduism widowns must wear white and shave her head and walk bear foot.

    July 10, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • itsme

      Holy... your kind of thinking is the very reason to bring out & enlighten people about hindu culture. If you really knew what hindu culture is you would not be talking about untouchables.

      July 10, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  16. legions

    "Thou shall worship Idols and build temples in the land in their honor"!!!!

    July 10, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
  17. Mark from Middle River

    A serious question for those Hindu that hold to the caste system.

    If a person was to convert to Hinduism .... What caste would they enter into? Would that then extend to his family? Are other minorities welcome to visit the temple? Can minorities convert to Hinduism?

    Thanks

    July 10, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • LA

      No, caste system sir. Many people who are Indian, don't know what Caste they are, (I don't.) Just being good, tolerant, fair, living life in a moral way is good enough. People of other beliefs are always welcome, as long as you come with an open mind. And it's not necessary to convert, but you can. Stay a Christian, become a Hindu. It all leads to God.

      July 10, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • saturndisc

      LA is a liar. These people are very caste cauntious and kill their dauther (even while living in the US and UK) for marrying out of the caste.

      July 10, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • saturndisc

      Here's proof to LA's lies. All from credible sources such as BBC, NYT, Guardia, CNN.... http://www.facebook.com/pages/Superpower-News/249697628377697

      July 10, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • AD

      Mark, I am Hindu and I belong to the so called "upper caste", I do not support the caste system. I honestly cannot answer your question, but I really believe in the phrase "Hinduism is a way of life". Hinduism "as a religion" does not have a caste system, the Indian society does.

      July 10, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
    • Rao

      Mark- You have valid questions and let me try to answer. There are four groups within Hinduism and they started based on the following. Kshatriya (kings ), Brahmin (ministers), Vysya (people handling groceries) and Shudra (people doing hard physical labor). Now we dont have Kings etc and any Hindu can be anybody within Democratic Bharat (India)
      The 2nd and 3rd group are vegetarian (milk allowed). As far as I know, there is no standardized way of converting to a Hindu. Also, no Hindu temple restricts people from any other religion to enter. Ofcourse meat, including eggs are not allowed inside a temple/ premises. If you are White or Black and enter a Temple in India, you may get strange looks, not because they dont want you to come in but out of curiosuty. In USA, I dont expect any such issue. You start going to temple, familiarize yourself with traditions, stories and soon you will be a Hindu.

      July 10, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  18. JON

    Muhammed was a black militant raping little girls & babies in the middleeast......

    July 10, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
    • Sfhr

      LOL.. it's very surprising that this article is not even talking about Islam and yet you're bringing Islam into it.

      It's very easy to defame a religion...

      They say "Don't say bad things about others' religion so that others do not say bad things about yours" – Surprisingly this is from Islam.

      July 10, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
  19. Chris

    Houston is a big melting pot. People try to act like were racist, but we have more Mexicans then California. In the big cities you have large groups of Asians(street signs are in their language) and people from the middle east.

    July 10, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
    • Sfhr

      you should come to Toronto, Ontario. Every first person you would see on the street is an immigrant. Greater Toronto has about 45% minorities!

      July 10, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  20. saturndisc

    I see my comments are being moderated! What is the problem? Please go to the Facebook page mentioned. All stories are from credible sources. I do not want to be hindu because I do not want my daughter to die for making her own choices. Making your own choices and being responsible for them is the most American way of life. So hinduism is inherently against being American. I sometimes shudder having to go back (what if I don't get a green card?)....what will happen to my wife and daughter if I can't defend their individual freedom from society that thinks killing women for any reason is acceptable.

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

      72 virgins waitng for you to put some dynamite in your ass.....

      July 10, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
    • LA

      You're a liar buddy, no matter if you convert or not, you're Indian, or of Indian origin, but doesn't mean you can't be American. hmm..."what will happen to my wife and daughter if I can't defend their individual freedom from society that thinks killing women for any reason is acceptable." Lets see I'm Indian, I'm a women, I have 2 daughters, none of them were murdered, they are free to make choices, they are free thinking.

      July 10, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • sam

      saturndisc – In Most of the honor killing family members are involved . You should be more worried about ur daughter getting pregnant here in US before age 14 then about her dowry .B/W every religion in India there is dowry . Its an Indian Problem not Hindu Problem

      July 10, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
    • RamSekhar

      @SaturnDisc Are you preparing grounds for seeking asylum out here in the USA? That's risky business. Since peace and security in India in general have been on the ascendancy, you might not get your Citizenship through seeking Asylum. You could end up as 'dhobi ka kuttha na ghar ka na ghat ka'.

      Angry and resentful as you might be, I thought I'd do my part and talk some sense to you. Be safe.

      July 10, 2011 at 9:43 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.