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.

Complete coverage: Defining America

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. joej

    Thats funny because they use the slogan "take back yoga" because the "ancient" art of yoga is a 20th century movement started in America in the 1960s.

    July 10, 2011 at 4:40 am |
    • John Richardson

      More misinformation from an another arrogant American.

      July 10, 2011 at 5:58 am |
    • dhg

      Actually Yoga predates Hinduism as well.

      July 10, 2011 at 6:14 am |
    • joej

      Cute, I could probably put a lot of sources on here displaying that yoga as it is was started to be practiced in America around the 1960's like all of these sources:
      and that yoga is actually derived from the Sanskrit word for Yoke: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoke#Etymology
      But that wouldnt mean anything because you are so stuck in the position that 'you are right because and I am wrong because you say so and anything otherwise is false." Way to be open minded to "misinformation" and close yourself off to facts. Maybe you should try to take up scientology, they would appreciate your closed minded personality towards those pesky facts and ridiculous common sense.

      July 10, 2011 at 8:30 am |
    • John Richardson

      @joej Yoga is practiced in a dizzying variety of ways at any one yoga studio. But even if you want to recognize a sort of "mainstream American yoga", to say that THAT AND ONLY THAT originated in 1960s America may be true, but it remains true that it is a watered-down, dare I say Americanized, version of something that had been practiced in India since ancient times. The term 'yoga', many of the terms American practi-tioners use, basically all the positions and the breathing techniques ALL originated in India, not 1960s America.

      July 10, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • John Richardson

      And did it ever occur to you that perhaps when the Hindus speak of wanting to "take back yoga", it is the inauthenticity of much of what is being taught by the ever burgeoning crowd of new age feel gooders that they are specifically objecting to? In any case, the 90 year old ambassador of yoga to the west sounds like a self-promoter himself. Attested cases of yoga practi-tioners coming from India to teach in America go back to the late 19th century. He is almost surely claiming more originality than he has any legitimate right to.

      Consider an analogous case that has gotten a lot of ink of late because of the recent conviction of a new age huckster for causing several deaths. If a new age dingdong sets up a sweat lodge and is SO stupid that he has people fast in a desert before going into the sweat lodge, it is at the very least grossly misleading and arguably fraud for him to call it an authentic Native American sweat lodge. But let's some other new ager comes upon the idea of Native America sweat lodges and has enough basic intelligence to know w/o being trained by a Native American to have people hydrate before and after an so doesn't kill anyone. OK, so he has no authentic training in the actual Native American tradition and does a passably good job and the basic physiological and psychological effects are achieved. Does THIS guy have the right to claim originality? Of course not. The basic idea and technique still have the origins that they have and you can bet that the Native Americans would also be perturbed if this guy used his lack of authentic training to claim that he therefore deserves all the credit for the basic idea.

      July 10, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • Katie

      Another idiot who doesn't know the facts. Look it up stupid!!!

      July 10, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  2. ExaltedMan

    Well the heading is very misleading. Practicing a religion in America is NOT Americanizing the faith. Rather the hindus leaving here feel so much Americanized that they feel safe to practice their religion here in this COUNTRY OF LIBERTY AND JUSTICE. Most of the immigrants do really appreciate what the framework of this country provides. Being a Hindu and from India I feel more safe and free in this land than the land I came from. Since I decided to live here for ever, why not practice the faith (Hinduism) I like. If I can share the good part of that faith with my friends and colleagues, and they do appreciate that sharing, then why not? This is not called Americanizing the faith, rather sharing the faith. After all when all good and healty part of all faiths and culture are taken that will beautify this country and the other way. Long Live America.

    July 10, 2011 at 4:23 am |
    • ExaltedMan

      Well, people in Pakistan drink Camel pees, Mullah Pees, Terrorist pees !!!

      I wish they should opt for COW PEES just to increase their wisdom and cool them down so that they can learn on how to live in PEACE !!!

      July 10, 2011 at 4:50 am |
    • Amrullah Yousafzai in Malam Jabba,Swat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (NWFP)

      And this is proof that the black bhaRATis actually do believe that gau jal has miraculous effects.

      July 10, 2011 at 4:57 am |
  3. George

    well, why would they WANT to americanize their religion?

    July 10, 2011 at 4:20 am |
    • Jingo

      Because these guys are Americans and are proud to be so. Would you rather have people like those Pakistanis who settle in US and still dress, talk and do things entirely un-American?

      July 12, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  4. Ajay

    @candy – what is american?

    July 10, 2011 at 4:00 am |
    • Candy

      I don't know? I know I am... Why don't you say what it is, since your questioning it? I would think 'American' would be 'one' who lives in america, but that's just me!

      July 10, 2011 at 4:04 am |
  5. josh

    no, dont americanize. Why would you even think about something like that? keep your culture dude, its what makes people different

    July 10, 2011 at 3:59 am |
  6. Ajay

    Hindus will but only when christinas discard their smelly perfurmes.

    July 10, 2011 at 3:59 am |
  7. Candy

    Let's all do Bollywood!!!

    July 10, 2011 at 3:56 am |
    • guest


      July 10, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • Bookwormwendy

      I love Bollywood

      July 11, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  8. Candy

    Whatever – This article is lame!!! Are the hindus looking for some kind of yoga respect or what??? It's real simple... you want to live american, be american? Then do what you do...

    July 10, 2011 at 3:54 am |
    • Yoda

      This article is lame indeed. Wonder how a religion can change with nationality, rather than culturally "In Texas, young Hindus want to Americanize ancient faith". :(:(:(

      July 10, 2011 at 5:03 am |
    • Bucky Ball

      Agree. BE AMERICAN ! That means you vote, and go to school and revere your ethic heritage and traditions just like all the many many other heritage groups that MAKE UP the USA, ie the Norwegians, ( Norwegian Heritage Day), the Swedish, ( Svenskarnas Dag ), the Mexicans, (Cinco de Mayo), etc. You are exactly right. By "American" I can only assume you mean the NATIVE AMERICAN, and the HUNDREDS of indigenous groups that comprise that large group have many different traditions, all of which I know you are familiar with, and follow scrupulously, since you value "LIVING AMERICAN".

      July 10, 2011 at 7:58 am |
    • Katie

      Like you don't practice a religion or any holiday/festival that your ancestors brought with them from the old country ie Jew, Christian, St Patrick's Day, Santa Claus, Halloween???? Grow up!

      July 10, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  9. Bhasky

    start an all veg McDonalds inside the temple..that will be a start to Americanization! What does it even mean? Its a stupid question to begin with! The problem with faith is that in its true form as described in respective religious text, u cant mess up with them. People do mess up for the sake of convenience. No wonder u have a rise in religious extremism the world over.

    July 10, 2011 at 3:54 am |
  10. saaaly

    anderson cooper is gay.

    July 10, 2011 at 3:49 am |
    • News Flash

      So genius, you just figured that out ? The rest of the world has known that for some years now, and BTW it makes ABSOLUTELY NO DIFFERENCE. He is a great journalist, and has done more in the last week for the world than you will EVER do. Why are you worried about what he does in bed ? You must be gay too, if that's what you have on the brain.

      July 10, 2011 at 4:11 am |
    • joe

      Anderson Cooper is an albino Hindu!!!! This is all adding up!!!

      July 10, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • american

      and HOT!!!

      July 10, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  11. kt

    Dear Mr Dan Gilgoff, May I say you are unnessarily poking your nose in our private lives. its none of your business what Hindu's do in this country as long as it does not mke you feel unsecure. So please back off and focus on some other stuff that is more relevent.

    July 10, 2011 at 3:31 am |
    • obsthetimes

      but he's a total loser. He has no life or anything useful to do with his time?

      July 10, 2011 at 3:48 am |
  12. obsthetimes

    these douchy indian christians are fooling no one with their hate...
    they're mindless idiots and americans don't care about them which is what drives them crazy.

    July 10, 2011 at 3:31 am |
  13. menard

    Americanization means losing the essence. You see this, it's great, you see the american version, it's stupid. No savor, no intellegence, no elegance, no class, nothing. What America touches, it spoils. Usually it does not touch, it destroys, eliminates. Simpler. More american.

    July 10, 2011 at 3:22 am |
    • dhg

      The Yoga Sutras don't even mention the Hindu Gods. Hinduism can't take back yoga because it never had it in the first place.

      July 10, 2011 at 3:28 am |
    • Np

      @dhg, dude what you learnt is in fact modern day Yoga that intentionally tries to disconnect Yoga from Hinduism. So of course you wont see any thing Hindu about yoga. And thats exactly what part of the article talks about...Damn you morons...

      July 10, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • Jingo

      Every single one of Yoga asanas was taught by Shiva -from the Holy Trinity. You might want to read up more on this.

      July 12, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  14. sandip

    Tell you what, if you want to criticize a person, religion, race, ethnicity, country, or belief, post it on CNN and i bet 7 out of 10 will condemn, disrespect, humiliate, and criticize the concerned party in the article. They then will write a post without verifying their facts and authenticity of the sources they get their facts from.

    July 10, 2011 at 3:18 am |
  15. diego

    I was reading about Buddhism when I meet my dear friend Mrudu. She encouraged me to read the Ramayana and from that moment I became obsessed with Hinduism or sanatana dharma. I must confess I love all things Indian, the culture, the cuisine, but mostly the spiritual philosophies. Mrudu and her family treated me like one of their own and even now jokingly say I must have been Hindu in the past life as they have never met a non-Indian who mastered Indian cookery as quickly as I did.

    I am so happy to see that American born Hindus are taking the initiative to make others aware of their culture, of their beliefs. Be proud of your heritage! And Please take back yoga! I am sick of these commercialized and trendy yoga clubs full of people who have absolutely no idea what they are doing or even understand the many different forms of yoga that exist and what they are doing is simply the first step towards a greater spiritual awakening. I am also tired of people calling Hinduism polytheistic because its NOT! if you want to learn more about Hinduism or India check out one of Stephen Knapp's many wonderful books or just pick up a copy of the Ramayana and read it. I guarantee that even if you treat it as a novel and nothing more you will still be totally blown away by its sheer beauty, eloquence and deeper meaning . Jai Hanuman! Jai Sita Ram!

    July 10, 2011 at 3:13 am |
    • sandip

      Thanks for sharing your views.....

      July 10, 2011 at 3:20 am |
    • SoundGuy

      Nice comments. Meditation is the core practice in yoga. Learn to calm your mind using sound therapy as offered by TranscendentalTones.

      July 10, 2011 at 3:37 am |
    • american

      you missed the point. look at you, being sick of everything. everyone should think like you. Key to meditation and yoga is complete acceptance and surrender. Read more my friend.

      July 10, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Jesus Christ

      American....charging $50 and more per month for something that was meant to be free for all is robbery and that is not the point of yoga. You should pull your head out of your rear end and also put the bong down..

      July 10, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • Brian

      What to you call a religion with more then one god?
      Or we could just go back to calling them pagans.
      And the way you talk, you think the Western World hasn't advanced the idea of philosophy more then the Eastern.

      July 10, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
  16. bc49er


    July 10, 2011 at 3:09 am |
    • ExaltedMan

      Poor PORKIES !!!

      July 10, 2011 at 4:51 am |
  17. Steve

    With all due respect, "update their *ancient* faith"? That's incredibly patronizing coming from a country (US) that still selects its presidents based on how much well conform to an ancient cult and requires public officials and even its young (Pledge of Allegiance) to recognize a "god".

    Don't get me wrong, I don't have an issue with religion or people who adhere to them. But the way archaic beliefs play a role in American public life and politics boggles the minds of those who live in places where religion is a personal matter and just not a big deal in general.

    July 10, 2011 at 3:08 am |
    • JLS639

      Ancient faiths are updated every few decades (including Christians, Muslims, Jews, and probably the eastern religions, too). It has been happening for centuries. All those "reformed" churches you see? Updated faiths. Vatican II, Sayyid Qutb, Jacobus Arminius, Joseph Smith, Pope Gregory I? Updates. Have to update the eternal truths to keep up with changing sensibilities. They won't stay eternal if they don't keep current.

      July 10, 2011 at 3:43 am |
    • Steve

      Agreed. By the same token, Hinduism in India isn't the same as it was thousands of years ago. It just seems odd that Mr. Gilgoff would feel the need to say that Hinduism has to be "updated" to make it fit for the 21st century.

      July 10, 2011 at 3:52 am |
  18. Swell Fellow

    So glad to be out of Hinduston, or um Houston. Such a madhouse for this CRAP!

    July 10, 2011 at 3:06 am |
    • guest

      good riddance. don't come back.

      July 10, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  19. DiamondSky

    If karma is true, all humans go straight to hell, especially the rich ones and old ones. No hope of salvation for any human being.

    July 10, 2011 at 3:05 am |
  20. gbL

    lets ban religion and start with islame...not freedom of religion but freedom from religion!!

    July 10, 2011 at 3:03 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30
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.