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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. Burton Desque

    Great, just what America needs – MORE religion.

    July 11, 2011 at 12:27 am |
    • Nikhil

      who are you to say what America needs?

      July 11, 2011 at 1:30 am |
    • xmxm

      Well, Nikhil, in America one is allowed and encouraged to voice an opinion on what America needs. Burton is expressing his right and I congratulate him.

      July 11, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  2. Vijesh Mokati

    Hindu is a natural way of living,making believe on presence of God and continuosly believing on it. Thanks.

    July 11, 2011 at 12:26 am |
  3. Smokey

    The hindu philosophy of advaita vedanta is a very inclusive and holistic way of looking at the world and it's made a huge difference in how I think and live my life, even though I wouldn't call myself a hindu. There's a great deal of wisdom and knowledge in this faith and I think more people ought to learn what hinduism really is all about.

    July 11, 2011 at 12:23 am |
  4. Oodoodanoo

    At its heart, Hinduism is very pagan nature worship: Priests asking the stars, "How do you work?" so that they could predict whether the crops would grow, whether newborn princes would prosper or die, and so on.

    Like all organized religions, its intent became perverted by those who controlled it. But along the way, it gave us beautiful things like Shiva Nataraja (an anthropomorphic form of the conservation laws, millenia before the western version), and the earth spinning on its axis around the sun.

    A philosophy based upon observation is otherwise known as science. Modern Hindus (and I consider myself one) would do well to embrace the original meaning of the Vedas - study nature. Study science, or at least appreciate its beauty.

    July 11, 2011 at 12:09 am |
  5. LW989

    A group of people from a foreign land that came here to better themselves and contribute to, rather than live apart from, America... sounds good to me! I wish more immigrants were like this. And this is more religion-specific, but I'm glad to hear Hindus don't proselytize. We already have enough religions here that have eagerly taken that task upon themselves already.

    July 10, 2011 at 11:56 pm |
  6. blessedgeek

    This is really SILLY.

    Should Jews organise a campaign to take back the Bible from Christians? Should pagans organise a campaign to take back Christmas from Christians?

    Yoga belongs to the world now not to Hindus. You do not need to be Hindu to practice Yoga. You do not need to be Zen Buddhist to practice Shaolin. Or Taoist to practice Tai Chi. Some Jews have judaized form of Yoga and "mantric" meditation. Some Christians have christianized form of Yoga.

    Take back Yoga? You must be kidding.

    Americanize Hinduism? Hinduism has always been about India? Read your Hinduism history, dear. 500 years ago and prior, all of southeast Asia was Hindu and Buddhist, before the arrival of Islam. Hindu is not just about India. Hinduism has been an internationalized religion before you young pongs thought Hindus are found only in India. Have you ever thought why people in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand still have Sanskritized names? Oh, you are Hindu and you don't know the history of Hinduism romantic and rennaisance periods?

    C'mon! Leave Hinduism alone as it is and get on with enjoying your Hindu life.

    July 10, 2011 at 11:41 pm |
    • blessedgeek

      BTW. I had Hindu friends who consider themselves devout, totally vegetarian who imbibe alcohol as social recreation activity. Don't you think that aversion of alcohol is a modern/renaissance period development, like Vivekanandaism? Renaissance Hinduism is a Hindu reform movement in response to Christian and Muslim evangelism. Which is good. However, the claim that devout Hindus abstain from alcohol is an anecdotal theological observation. It is like saying all Christian women cover their hair because the apostle Paul said so.

      There is no truth that all devout Hindus abstain from alcohol.

      July 10, 2011 at 11:53 pm |
    • RamSekhar

      @blessedgeek

      Your sample size is very small and is not necessarily the most authentic. Many Indians/Hindus adapt to the life style in the USA in different ways. Food and drink habits are usually the first things to change.
      If you are looking for a tenet as in the ten commandments or the quoran that says 'A devout Hindu must not drink', you will not find one. It has been amply noted in multiple scriptures that one should NOT consume intoxicating substances that make you lose control over self. The whole religion of Hinduism revolves around the control of self and doing good to all living beings. Vegetarianism and prohibition of alcohol follow from it.

      There is also a reason why you observe so many different practises being put forth by the participants in this discussion. It is simply because, they are free to do so. The religion DOES NOT FORCE dictats on the adherent. Hinduism was never about dictation to the perceiving mind. The numerous Hindu scriptures expounding on the broader aspects and the complex philosophical nuances almost always reason with the person. That is one reason why you will find different practices in different states of Indian, for that matter even in different households in the same family.

      If I may, I would suggest that you try and dig deeper. Even then, the cultural barriers will make it rather difficult for a westerner to accurately understand the nuances. Simply put, self-control and no harm to any living being guide the Hindu everyday.

      July 11, 2011 at 12:41 am |
    • RamSekhar

      @blessedgeek

      For that matter, even the emphasis self control is to ensure that you don't fall prey to temptation and harm any living thing intentionally or even unintentionally. Just look up 'Sarveh Janah Sukhinobhavanthu' or Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavanthu'.

      July 11, 2011 at 12:48 am |
  7. Deo

    That temple is absolutely BEAUTIFUL! I wish I lived closer so I could visit. Ever since I was young, I always made it a point to visit a Temple, Shrine, Mosque, Church, Synogogue (sp?) etc. if it was near to where I happened to be visiting or living. I have seen beautiful expressions of man, honoring and worshipping God. Always I felt the serenity of God and peaceful love in those places. I have gained much wisdom by listening to every religion of how they understand God and the universe.

    July 10, 2011 at 11:12 pm |
  8. Awake America

    America... it's time to wake up!!... This country is built by "In God we trust"... Now you are inviting all kind of religions in this land ... also letting idol worship.... this country is never going to come up, if this continues... Instead India is going to be No 1 since 1 million souls are added to church every year and millions of Godly people are praying for everyday for the country.... America it's time for revival....

    July 10, 2011 at 10:55 pm |
    • Brian

      Actually our country was built on the principle that anybody that wasn't a Puritan is the devil. So, unless your a Puritan I suggest you get out of my country.

      July 10, 2011 at 11:04 pm |
    • SB

      Do whatever you like but keep it to yourself.

      July 10, 2011 at 11:14 pm |
    • JF

      "America it's time for revival"

      I think it's time for natural selection.

      July 10, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
    • ummm...

      A good many of the founding fathers were Deists... not Christians. They believed in God.. but doubted the divinity of Christ. That being said.. most of the founding fathers realized that bringing religion of any kind into government was a bad idea.. thus why they left England with it's King and head of the church of england as the same person.

      July 10, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
  9. Vijay Kumar

    Majority of hindus are non-vegetarians. So it is a distortion to say that vegetarianism denotes hindu religious purity. So this so-called Americanization is equating all of hinduism to brahminism alone?

    July 10, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
  10. Indian

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnVqPCtH4nE&w=640&h=360]

    July 10, 2011 at 10:53 pm |
  11. Indian

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ok8qO9-uws&w=640&h=360]

    July 10, 2011 at 10:52 pm |
  12. Paco the Avenger

    I at a duck's anus once. By mistake.

    July 10, 2011 at 10:43 pm |
  13. sam reddy

    I am a Indian Christian convert. Not to show which one is correct. The big differences between Hinduism and Christianity. These difference are from the HOLY BOOKS but not from the practicing groups(Shivaites/Vishnavites/Catholics/Protestants). UNIVERSE CREATION – Multiple versions(H): In Six Days(C); SIN DEFINITION – Goes with the group of people who defines the rules(H): Doing against GOD's said WORD-Bible(C). DAILY LIVING WITHOUT SIN – Sorry, I don't know(H): With the strength of God's Holy Spirit and will be strengthened through personal prayers(C). CLEANSING SIN – Immerse in HOLY rivers, visiting TEMPLES(H) : Acceptance of Sin before GOD through prayers from any place not just in the Church(C). AFTER DEATH – Re-birth/Re-Generation(H): Single Life/No Re-birth – either Heaven or Hell(C);
    Thanks,
    Sam Reddy
    Note: Nobody becomes a christian if they born in a christian family. It is a personal FAITH/CONVERSION. That is what Bible says.

    July 10, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
    • Brian

      There's major differences between the two christian sects you mentioned, just like between the two hindu sects you mentioned. Try not to force them into categories.

      July 10, 2011 at 10:50 pm |
    • Dinesh

      @Sam I have not read Bible. I have not read Vedas in its entirety. But I can say one thing. Your interpretations about Christianity seem to be as stated in BIBLE facts and that is good. Your interpretations about Hinduism are very weak thoughts that you may have heard of. The Universe creation is very clear, its varied interpretations are hazy. there is nothing as washing away sins by taking bath, immerse in water etc. Again, these are weak introduced ritualistic steps based on someone's interpretations. A true HINDU is supposed to carry knowledge and seek the ultimate truth. There is no one in that path.

      July 11, 2011 at 1:57 am |
    • Bruce

      Sam, actually the scriptures record that the conversion of the head of the family (the father) saves the entire family. Look it up.

      "If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy." 1Cor7:12-14

      July 11, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  14. Brian

    Chick better be carefull where she throws water and powder around. Many a person would simply bite her head off for that.

    July 10, 2011 at 10:36 pm |
  15. Indian

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9jaAoSHkeM&w=640&h=360]

    July 10, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
  16. Ricardo

    Good. Catholics should learn from them. Congratulations.

    July 10, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
  17. Poudel

    Religion and belief is your personal choice.In fact religion was a guidance for our life in past.Ethic,moral , love and happiness is a true sprit of any religion .
    Does not matter you are Hindu,Christian,Muslim or Buddhist;first you are human beings. We should be proud to be human kind so we have to love all till we live in this earth not to fight in one work or few words.If you think your religion is good show it in your own nature . Life is precious fruit do not throw it in bin .
    USA is a place of diversity,it is made from the different people and different part of the world which is great itself. People from different belief ,race and thought are living there.
    We all know that human kind need food,shelter and cotton to continue their daily life. Is there any one who can complain your mother while she is feeding us?If she can does why we cannot support her in her old time ?Why we are complaining if somebody is sending money from here and there;will it become injustice to protect your own family or support them then what we for?Another thing is that even President Barrack Obama visited Kenya why anyone cannot visit in his/her origin.Be proud to say what you are it's not matter of shame.

    July 10, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
    • Dan

      Can they all be true? Common sense says no. And if they can't all be true, shouldn't you at least try to find out what the truth is? I don't mean to offend you, but it seems to me that this idea that "everyone's religion is true, is just intellectual laziness.

      July 11, 2011 at 12:08 am |
  18. Amit Singh (Three Bridges, NJ)

    Hindus are born free, practicing cultural uplift meant, liberty (knowledge & discipline) and oneness (consciously or unconsciously). One faith under universal God is Hinduism.

    Can you define Americanization, or your article is an aberration in understanding the art of living that is inherent in the multi streams of American pluralism?

    July 10, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
    • Dil

      Like that, but i think we still can add hinduism is like flower garden, where we can find 100s color of flowers(school of thought).. and we respect that. But people want to make 100 colors of flowers to one (one single unified thought) which is impossible through scientifically... so live 100s thought to one single hinduism... and respect other thought tooo.. that's one knowledge from my guru..

      July 10, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
  19. raja red

    Buddha has been left out, why?

    July 10, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • MrHanson

      All Americans need to bow down to the bearded buddah (Darwin) and denounce any theology of any type. Otherwise you will be called ignorant and stupid if you don't by many people on these forums.

      July 10, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
    • John Richardson

      @MrHanson Again, NO Darwinians deify Darwin. He was a brilliant man who discovered an important truth, but he was, like ALL people, fallible in both his professional and personal lives, He never claimed otherwise and those who admire him never claimed otherwise. If you don't like being called ignorant, stop being so ignorant.

      July 11, 2011 at 12:07 am |
  20. DN Toronto

    Okay...nobody needs to be like any one else....we can be what we are and they can be what they are.
    Hindu Scriptures can be summed up simply as for every deed ( karma ) there is a return. But the rule there
    is for good deeds or karma return is like US treausres these days...3% may be but for ill deeds or bad karma
    return is 1000% 10 times.

    BTW have seen a conventional watch or a clock...it is round and what does that mean...hisotry repeats it self...how long can India be a 3rd world and can America be forwever first world after all those bad Karmas...read this NY Times article and evey American can learn about the reason for their plight:...and they have spread the virus of greed in all continents.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/19/magazine/19wwln-idealab-t.html

    Hindus believe "Yatha Karma tatha Fullum ie Reap as you sow or Way you act the way you will be repaid".
    We are all mortal black white brown yellow it applies to everyone not just one religion.

    One thing though Good times don't last but Good deeds do !!

    July 10, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
    • Dan

      We have the same saying from the Bible, "As you sow, so shall you reap." A human cannot be good enough to earn God's favor. That comes by grace alone, through faith in Jesus Christ.

      July 11, 2011 at 12:13 am |
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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.