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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. Indian

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_mathematics
    http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Indexes/Indians.html
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/p0038xb0
    Indian Contribution to maths includes Buddhist, Jains whose parent was ancient Indian relegion presently called hinduism
    and much befor other nations came into existense from India

    July 10, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
    • herbert juarez

      like pakistan?

      July 10, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
    • RamSekhar

      @Herbert
      LOL yeah, Pakistan has gotta be India's worst contribution to the world but hey, The British take a huge chunk of blame for it too.
      Your fake name though, sucks. Obviously, you gotta hide behind it when you write all those crappy comments you have all over
      the place.

      What's your fake name on the other thread about $800 Million in aid being cut off from US aid to your country Pakistan?

      July 11, 2011 at 1:02 am |
    • herbert juarez

      who you callin fake willis?i am always your obedient borderfence hoppin herbie, don't tell me your momma named you ramsekar

      July 11, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  2. ryan evans

    Wow... ignorant of a culture you're writing an article about? Surely you're aware "Yoga" was invented in the early 1960's by an american in India... and that there is no evidence of it ever being a part of ancient Hindu culture. The "evidence" of yoga's hindu origins involve two paintings of people sitting cross legged, and a reccommendation that you sit in a relaxing position to meditate. so how are they going to "take back" yoga?

    July 10, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
    • herbert juarez

      hindus are into peace and love, read all the posts.they will" take back" yoga by brutal force if necessary!

      July 10, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
    • NIsh

      Sorry bud, but you're distillation of the evidence of Yoga in ancient times to simply people "sitting cross legged" is not only absurd and misleading, but also smacks of intellectual laziness. Go do a cursory search (or just look up "Yoga" on wikipedia) before you post such nonsense.

      July 10, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
    • Anup

      white people colonise world untill 60s
      now its brown people to colonise world
      next on line are black people

      July 10, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
    • Simon

      Obviously the name Patanjali is unknown to you. Read a bit. Yoga is no more American than Bratwurst.

      July 10, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
    • Sachin

      Are you really stupid or just trying to be? Is that because your teacher told you the wrold was invented in america too? Lots of things, yes sure, but definately not everything.

      July 10, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
    • Rahul Doshi

      @Ryan, Even your church wouldn't agree with your argument. Hatha Yoga for example is only about physical exercise to the body and has nothing to do with the spirit. Some churches explicitly proscribe even that.

      Sorry to disappoint you, but Yoga is from India and is millenia old. Patanjali was the first person to put the knowledge together in his book, 'Yoga Sutras'. Just like 'Basmati Rice' was not invented in America and 'Medicinal Properties of Turmeric' were not discovered in America. (For those who didn't get the connotation in the last sentence, both of those were patented by corporations in America. It didn't matter that they were already existent for hundreds of years.)

      Like others have mentioned, there are multiple forms of Yoga now including probably a Christian Yoga. Some of these the puritans like and some they don't. I'd say, let free will win 🙂

      July 11, 2011 at 3:56 am |
  3. Anup

    you live as a hindu and die as a hindu
    why u should we americanise it.as convert are unacceptable,
    peace and love

    July 10, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
    • herbert juarez

      you americanise it for the fast buck,it's what america is all about.if the temple thing don't work out it'd make an awesome casino

      July 10, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
  4. Indian

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqPmZKNyD_E&w=640&h=360]

    July 10, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
  5. Truthseeker

    Please read the following article. It gives a brief summary of Sanatan Hindu Dharma. Thank you. Peace.

    https://docs.google.com/fileview?id=0Bxmb43ISDdJdNzczZGZkMWUtYWZmMi00ODZkLThhYzMtYjFhYTM0YzU0NGJh&hl=en

    July 10, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
  6. Mark from Middle River

    Thank you to those that answered my questions. I guess from popular media and a scene in movies such as bend it like Beckham I sorta grew up with the concept that Indians, mostly those who are Hindu , did not like dark skinned minorities. Add to that the Ghandi legal papers from when he was a lawyer in south Africa and the multiple news reports of the booming skin lightening market in India, and it all seemed to back up my outlook on Indian culture.

    A year ago I read a national geographic article about the untouchables , I think they were call Dalits. It horrified me and that many Indians are darker in skin color than me, really confussed me.

    July 10, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • Shelly

      So you are admitting you were wrong about something in a bigoted and ignorant way? I can respect that. We all have to get rid of our ignorance if we are going to go forward. A lack of accurate information is like a stone around a person's neck.

      July 10, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
  7. HC

    @SaturnDisk. Your comments are being removed because You belong to Saturn not Earth and seem to have arrived only to condemn hinduism. You should be in NASA laboratory waiting for an autopsy on your brain to be performed by NASA scientist. Come on, help US figure out mysteries of alien life will ya? Until you came across, we thought idiots are only in America. But looks like this is not only Global pandamic, it's Universal.

    July 10, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • MOMO

      LOL

      July 10, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
    • herbert juarez

      guy comes all the way from saturn to tell us you're full of crap?lets hear him out he might have something

      July 10, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
  8. CommonSense

    You poor christians will never learn. What a load of insular, over-grown children you are. The Indians in this country are peaceful and non-threatening people. I interact with them everyday. You have to be a small minded fool to not see that. But then again you think the bible is factual, so I guess reasoning is beyond most of you.
    India is the world's largest democracy. Do you right-wing hateful Jesuns understand that fact? Does that confuse you? I'm sure it does.
    The muslims are just as ignorant here as they are every where else in the world. Maybe you were prefer them as allies to your vision of Theocracy in America. They are just as intolerant and stupid as you evangelicals.

    July 10, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    • islam

      I see .How about Dowry in India??peaceful ?? FU

      July 10, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
    • herbert juarez

      if it wasn't for british christian charity, indians would be still writing in sanskrit in their own dung with sticks,and it took 100's of years of occupation before india figured out democracy,which india screwed up and divided their own country,peaceable divide ?yeah right.

      July 10, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
    • Pankaj

      Yeah, if it was not for British charity, India would be an economy much much bigger than USA. Have you ANY idea how much wealth British took from India? India was not called Bird of Gold for nothing for centuries. Go read some history – the world didn't come into existence 400 years back you know.

      July 10, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
    • Pankaj

      Correction – India 'was' called bird of gold..........

      July 10, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
    • RamSekhar

      @herbert
      If it weren't for the British looting, the world would have been a much better place.
      And the pakis who are talking Islam here better worry about explaining to the CNN readers how peaceful they are. Certainly that's a bigger task awaiting your attention, don't you think?
      Ah, credibility doesn't seem to be something that you lose sleep over, eh?

      July 11, 2011 at 1:08 am |
  9. islam

    belem you WEAK KA LOSER,WEAK,WEAK .....................Do you qualify as an "awesome" human being NO............Weak so Weak.

    July 10, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
    • Boogle

      loser...

      July 10, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
  10. Indian

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cQ4hIG9w7c&w=640&h=360]

    July 10, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  11. BAD religion vs people-HINDU(S)

    Agree with @saturndisc, being an Indian from South India (heard lot of bad news about North Indian religious faith), I know the unhuman way of Hindu's life such as,
    I FEEL SORRY FOR MY FELLOW HINDUS WHOM I AM VERY MUCH ATTACHED WITH. PROFESSIONAL LIFE MOST OF THEM ARE GOOD BUT WE HAVE TO STAY WITH THE UNFORTUNATE RELIGION DUE TO CULTURAL, ETC. REASONS. NOTHING PERSONAL BUT DEJECTED WITH THE WAY OF HINDU LIFE INCLUDING MY FEW FAMILY MEMBERS PRACTICING.

    0. girls asked to touch Saamiyars internal parts, so many Swamis...and Gods...
    1. cutting/inserting rods into, tongue for the temple festivals, etc.
    2. killing women and children while men escaping mostly for the religious sacrifice, 3. passing urine on the roads, walls, including ladies sitting in front of men exposing body, 4. many Dalit Hindus has moved/converted either to Islam/Christianity due to inhuman treatments they had received from their own people due to the Hindu religious faith,

    PLEASE VISIT http://www.ndtv.com, http://www.enadu.com, http://www.malayalmanorama.com, http://www.dinamalar.com (RSS sponsored Tamil Channel), etc. to see how many killings the HINDU religion practices and the very basic reason it is not growing except the Indian Hindus migration to different parts due to various issues in RICH DOMINATED INDIA.
    I FEEL SORRY FOR MY FELLOW HINDUS WHOM I AM VERY MUCH ATTACHED WITH. PROFESSIONAL LIFE THEY ARE GOOD BUT THEY HAVE TO STAY WITH THE UNFORTUNATE RELIGION. NOTHING PERSONAL BUT DEJECTED WITH THE WAY OF HINDU LIFE.

    July 10, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
    • sam

      @BAD religion

      Its same as
      0.12 year muslim girl marrying 80 year old man or a pastor abusing kids at church
      1. muslims beating them self to death on moharam
      2. killing women and children while men escaping mostly for the religious sacrifice that is a Muslim middle east thing,
      3. passing urine on the roads, walls, including ladies sitting in front of men exposing body that is an indian problem all religion involve
      4. many Dalit Hindus has moved/converted either to Islam/Christianity due to inhuman treatments they had received from their own people due to the Hindu religious faith – and still they are treated as Dalits by christians and muslis now they are called dalit christians and muslim .

      July 10, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
    • RamSekhar

      @saturndisc
      The same or very similar issues exist in all major religions. You obviously paid no attention to the child molestation controversy in the catholic church nor did you ever read about pederasty practised by the mullahs.

      You are too angry my friend and hence the biased vision. As Swami Vivekananda said 'Of those who promote religion, 80% turn cheats, and 15% hardly come close to achieving salvation only the remaining 5% have any hope of really getting there'. This, I guess, would apply equally to all religions, since that is the nature of man.

      Pent up anger isn't a good thing, be good.

      July 11, 2011 at 1:15 am |
  12. anotherHindu

    iam hindu born and while i appreciate some initiatives by these folks, there is one thing which does annoy me – why spend so much money building such temples? sure kings those days spent tons of money doing this stuff.. but in todays world it does not make sense.. a decent looking place of worship is good enough.. and rest of the $$ help in charitable or development efforts..

    July 10, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • Boogle

      You're right...but a nice place to worship is important too. I live near a mosque, that can put the vatican and this temple to shame. They spent millions on it, even though millions are starving across the middle east also.

      July 10, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
  13. Charles

    I think this was a great article. Inevitably, cultures have to change in America on account of there being such a heterogeneous mix. Religion is another part of this, as religions are defined in part by their worshipers, and in that sense, the surrounding community. Hinduism in America is not identical to Hinduism in India. It will be interesting to see what changes come about over the next few decades with my generation.

    July 10, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
  14. Ken

    Yeah, the muslims put bombs in their ass to meet 72 virgins. but they are 72 virgin donkey stallions waiting for them, there must be allot of noise around allah.

    July 10, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
  15. John

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

    July 10, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
  16. alex

    Its all fine if and only if YOU CONSIDERED YOURSELFS AMERICANS FIRST and then whatever you want. Im latino and christian but before that American meaning ................. that im not trying to create a community formed by 1 ethic or religion group

    July 10, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
    • Anup

      hindu first homeboy
      i don't care who u r

      July 10, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • chris

      Can appreciate just about everything mentioned in the article in terms of trying to educate the non Hindus about Hinduism and Hindu culture. Fine. No problem. But how in the world is Hinduism a non polytheistic religion? In fact, to me, it's the very definition of one.

      July 10, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • chris

      @Anup. Hindu maybe first for you, but even the article contends that it's not first for the majority, and probably never will be...Not being so insular and extended a reaching hand out to the community in a 2-way, repeat, 2-way cultural exchange is a positive thing.

      July 10, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
  17. belem

    there will be something big in america soon.....islam will ensure this.

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

      WEAK KA LOSER,WEAK,WEAK .....................Do you qualify as an "awesome" human being NO............Weak so Weak.

      July 10, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
  18. morno

    SICK,SICK,SICK u india .....

    July 10, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
  19. Indian

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgf86k8C62g&w=640&h=360]

    July 10, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
  20. belem

    america is ripe for islam

    July 10, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
    • islam

      WEAK KA LOSER,WEAK,WEAK .....................Do you qualify as an "awesome" human being NO............Weak so Weak

      July 10, 2011 at 7:06 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.