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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. Enjoying God's Grace

    I am an Indian. But i have relationship with Christ the living Savior, who took the penalty of my sin and of yours to make me pure, to declare me not guilty, otherwise not possible. You can find him by seeking Him. You can be pure and have a living relationship with one and true living God. There is none like Him.

    July 10, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • Ram

      good for you, I'm Indian, and a Hindu. But I have no problem with Christians as long as you don't force anything on me. We all need to respect each other, Hindu, Christians, Buddhist, Muslims etc.

      July 10, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
    • Chai Man

      I'm an Indian-American and I am an agnostic deist. We are all just people.

      July 10, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
    • AmchiMumbai

      Hello there,

      Whoever you are and whatever you do! That is very bold and hypocrite of yourself simply ignore people's feelings and freedom about their religion.

      I dont understand the problem here. There are thousands of churches in India. Westerners propogate christian religion in India as if there is no other religion without caring the emotions of billions of Hindus. I have witnessed westerners giving gifts to poor in return of conversion.

      So what if there are temples being built in America? It is a free country and build by immigrants. At least Hindus dont try to convert people against anybody's wish.

      July 10, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
    • Paul

      To AmchiMumbai: actually, militant hindus do murder people who do not convert, sorry.

      July 10, 2011 at 11:36 pm |
    • Dan

      Hello, AmchiMumbai.

      You stated that Christians win converts in India without upsetting people, but yet you fail to mention that India has a whole political party dedicated to making it against the law to convert to any other religion, but the one you are born into. Apparently, many people are, in fact, upset by conversion.

      July 11, 2011 at 12:00 am |
  2. Dan

    I love everybody... I must be crazy too !!

    July 10, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
  3. Dr.Kumar

    Hindu Students Association which seems to be the central point of your article is not mentioned at all. wonder why?

    July 10, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
  4. Chai Man

    Reading the comments on this article make me realize how ridiculous and mean people are..

    July 10, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
  5. John

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

    July 10, 2011 at 9:14 pm |
    • Hal

      evolution

      July 10, 2011 at 11:24 pm |
  6. Wizard Louie

    I like everybody, I must be crazy?

    July 10, 2011 at 9:14 pm |
    • Brahma

      If you like (love) everyone... you are not crazy..

      In fact you will be happy to know, that you are the true man of God ...(no matter what religion you follow)

      July 10, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
    • Dan

      Brahma....Every road cannot lead to the same place.

      July 11, 2011 at 12:15 am |
  7. A free man

    Hinduism makes much more sense to me than christianity, and I find a few of the Hindu dieties particularly interestibg, at teh top of the list is Hanuman. I have found something strange though, some Indian americans I have met have been ridiculously arrogant, I think because they are part of a "lofty" caste, and they think it makes them special here in America. Which it absolutely doesn't.

    July 10, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
    • Hindu_American

      The arrogance does not have to do with a higher caste. Success in India is harder than in the US and successful Indians tend to be a little prouder of their accomplishments than an American who has done just as much.

      July 10, 2011 at 11:04 pm |
  8. Parik

    This article has so much wrong information. Hindus are not necessarily Vegetarians. Go back to India and you will see most Hindus actually eat meat. And all this campaign about Take Back Yoga is like some religion saying "take back chanting" or "take back prayers". All the good things will spread and will be shared, which is a good thing. Why the need to take back?
    – A Hindu myself.

    July 10, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Re the bad info: Anyone who knows much about any given topic is all but guaranteed to be appalled when the American media report on it. (I'm not sure that the American media are really all that much worse than media elsewhere. It's just the one media culture I'm immersed in and can comment on.) If you've ever had the misfortune of being interviewed by the media, giving careful answers only to see a few way out of context words make it into print, you will know first hand how indifferent to accuracy the media can be. Re the rest of what you said: Your points sound very reasonable to me!

      July 11, 2011 at 12:15 am |
  9. John

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

    July 10, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
  10. Prasoon Tiwari

    There are many whites who are doing mediocre jobs (fixing drinks for immigrants) when they can be excellent engineers & doctors. White women have no choice but to make babies. I have done my duty by giving my job to a white guy.

    – KK Tiwari

    July 10, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
  11. Ram

    @IcanCu: Oh, yeah like Christians..

    July 10, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
  12. Jiva Soul

    Obviously some of you have never heard of the Vedas, or the hare Krishna Movement – American born Vaisnavas! Learn from them.

    July 10, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
  13. Puran

    Think of the Bhagavad Gita like a good fable in the Bible. Arjuna loses the entire kingdom to his Pandava cousins who rig a game of dice. Krishna guides Arjuna to fight the war against his own cousins. Arjuna had doubts about killing his own family members but he needs to do what is right. This is a guiding principle for a lot of Hindus to never give up and always face the war. Whether it be in marriage, in your job, or sport......always do the right thing. The situations around you that are good or bad are exactly the way it was supposed to be. Overcome and persevere, fight the daily battles and dont run away!

    July 10, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
    • IcanCu

      Apu is that you?

      July 10, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
    • Ram

      @IcanCu: No, it's the typical arrogant dumb white(yellow) Homer...

      July 10, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
    • DG

      You really need to get your Mahabharata right before making an expert comment here, man. 'Arjuna's Pandava cousins'???

      July 10, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
  14. AHindu

    Regarding americanizin their faith .. its a tough ask from a 1000ands of year old faith .. the faith will automatically americanize if americans have better knowledge about it .. americans of all shades , black or white or browns ..hinduism has about 2 main flavours .. north and south ..20 main languges .. two classical ancient languages (sanskrit/north and tamil/south) .. three main gods brahma the creator, vishnu the preserver, shiva the destroyer .. rama and krishna are most important avatars of vishnu historically .. krishna happeed 5100 years back to fight for dharma .. after going aay of krishna human beings stopped to live pure lives based on dharma .. and became greedy, warlike, unrighteous .. forgetting god given righteous principles ..
    so dharma is destroyed in kaliyug – vishnu is protector of dharma ..

    dharma means –
    pure living so you dont have to take birth again.
    respect parents.
    respesct all life and nature.
    respect and conduct ur duties towards ur familial
    ties .. true freinds .. society .. with selflessness ..without greed attachment or
    sense of profit .. and many more .. good honest living can call for ..

    July 10, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    AHindu
    modern hindus are mostly materialistic .. like their counterparts in west .. even when they observe dharma by being vegetarians .. they cant let go of desire for wealth .. fame and much more desires .. holy books of hindus are vedas ..

    July 10, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
  15. Indian

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Inventions List of Indian inventions and discoveries

    July 10, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
  16. rh

    There is a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds of Hindus here in the NYC area, including illegal immigrants brought in by more wealthy compatriots for hefty fee.

    What strikes me most is the comment about "there weren't even vegetarian hamburgers" as if people in India are eating them. It's not the first ethnic group to deal with not getting their own food when they go out, my parents could never bring themselves to eat a Big Mac or Whopper not because of the meat but because it was so foreign to them.

    July 10, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
    • IcanCu

      No difference between them and Muslims . They are not committng acts of violence and of terror because they re not threathened by something but the moment they re . It will be a different tune.

      July 10, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
    • shri

      oh yeah? Think hard. India and Hindus have never attacked any country. They are the most passive country and religion in the world and are more tolerant than any other. they were ruled for thousands of years by foreign forces and managed to assimilate their culture into their own. talk about terrorism – check your facts before rattle off your racist mouth

      July 10, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
    • BG

      Yeah – check your facts...

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

      July 11, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  17. Johnny

    Unacceptable Idiotic Comment Here. Hint: do something else besides read the drivel below.

    July 10, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
    • herbert juarez

      unacceptable idiotic comment here. hint: do something else besides read the drivel above

      July 10, 2011 at 8:34 pm |
  18. Muneef

    Guess some thing better than nothing...

    July 10, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • Muneef

      Some faith better than no faith at all.

      July 10, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
    • DiamondSky

      Muneef, you sound like a Hindu rather than a Muslim. That a t t i t u d e locked mankind in the darkness of injustce for the longest time in the Eastern sphere. Without getting the Truth, what's good for having any faith?

      July 10, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  19. shirlomando

    I cant beleive how ignorent this person is!

    July 10, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
  20. DiamondSky

    Most Americans are faithful Hindus already, making up their own religions freely as they want. No need to quest for the truth, unlike their forefathers. That's why the middle-class is turning into Dalits.

    July 10, 2011 at 7:51 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.