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The Future of Hinduism in America's Changing Religious Landscape

05/26/2015 10:30 am ET | Updated May 26, 2016
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The recent PEW Research Center findings on America's religious landscape revealed that approximately 56 million Americans are religiously unaffiliated and belong to the category of religious "nones". There are more " nones" than Catholics or mainline Protestants and the "nones" are second only to evangelical Protestants. "Nones" are comparatively younger and more educated.

In addition,the PEW survey estimated that the number of Hindus rose from 0.3 percent of the population in 2007 to 0.7 percent in 2014. 77 percent of Hindus in the U.S. are college graduates. Good questions have been raised by Murali Balaji about the challenges of gathering accurate numerical data for American Hindus. He suggests that the actual numbers may be higher.

Although we may rejoice at our growing percentage of the adult population, the rise of the "nones" is particularly worrying for Hindus. Hindus are not immune from these wider trends in the United States. When I was a child attending a Hindu elementary school in Trinidad, we recited a series of questions and answers about Hinduism from a small catechetical text. One of the questions was, "Why are you a Hindu?" The answer followed: "Because I was born a Hindu." It may have been a good answer in its time, but it will not work for a new generation of Hindu Americans. Affiliation with the Hindu tradition will not be guaranteed by birth.

The principal challenge to the religious commitment of a new generation of Hindu Americans is the rejection of a religious worldview or indifference to religion. Many young Hindus will pursue the finest education, achieve great success in their careers (36 percent of Hindu families have incomes exceeding 100,000 annually-compared to 19 percent of the overall population), live productive and, for the most part, ethical lives, and do all of this without any significant commitment to the Hindu tradition. The Hindu tradition will not inform their choice of a profession, a marriage partner, their leisure activities or their political values. They will not see what religion contributes to the pursuit of their primary life goals or even understand themselves as having religious needs.

The choice, as I see it for a new generation of Hindus in the U.S., is not between the Hindu tradition or another religion; it is between being Hindu or being non-religious.

When the challenge is the attraction of another religion, one may respond by demonstrating and commending the virtues of the Hindu tradition. When the challenge is indifference or the rejection of religion altogether, the response must be different. In the first case a religious need is assumed and one tries to demonstrate the best way of fulfilling this need. In the second case, there is no religious need; one has to begin by establishing one.

We must be clear about the ways in which a Hindu worldview enriches individual human and community life. In order to commend our tradition to another generation, we must first answer the question, "Why am I Hindu?" Answering this question is not just a matter of offering the right words, but also embodying what the tradition means for us in the way we live all dimensions of our lives in the world. This is not an easy question to answer since most of the first-generation Hindu Americans are Hindus by birth and do not wrestle in significant ways with alternative choices, religious or non-religious. They are Hindu without feeling the need to know why -- a new generation wants to know why.

A new generation of American Hindus will answer this question in ways different from the earlier generation. A significant number of the first generation Hindus in the U.S. are immigrants from India. For good historical and other reasons, there is a deep connectedness to India and to its languages and cultural traditions. There is a close connection between Hindu identity and Indian identity. I hope that the richness of Indian cultural traditions will continue to flourish in the United States. It is also true that a new generation of Hindus will identify strongly as Americans and engage the world politically and otherwise on the basis of this identity. The Hindu tradition, if it finds expression in their lives, will be less connected with India, nationally, linguistically and culturally. Religion will be, for them, a profound understanding of the meaning of life and a source of values for acting in the world.

In the transmission of the tradition to a new generation, our emphasis will have to be on its deep wisdom that is accessible and meaningful to all human beings. The teachings of the Hindu tradition, after all, are not only relevant to those with ancestral and cultural roots in the Indian sub-continent. If in the transmission of the Hindu tradition to a new generation we are not attentive to this fact, we risk losing its universal dimension. As we look to new generations of Hindus in the United States, these universal teachings will become more important and appealing.

If the universal insights of the Hindu tradition are the ones that will be especially important to a new generation, it is in a particularly strong place to articulate and to offer these teachings. The Hindu tradition is a knowledge-based tradition. Its pre-eminent sacred text is the Veda (knowledge) The Veda describes the fundamental human problem as ignorance (avidyā), and it values in a special way the teacher of wisdom (guru). The tradition does not have to be fearful of truth, whatever its source.

The Hindu tradition values knowledge that aims at the overcoming of suffering (duḥkha) and this concern must again be prominent in its transmission. We need to focus on how its teachings promote a deeper human fulfillment and meaning that are not attainable by prosperity and success in the world. We must show also how these teachings promote the common good and contribute to the flourishing of communities. Religious teachings cannot be good for us if these inflict and legitimize suffering on others. We must return to Hinduism's emphasis on religious teaching and practice that are always concerned with the public good (lokasaṅgraha).

Although the PEW findings suggest a future of change and uncertainty, a Hindu tradition that commits itself to truth (satyam) goodness (shivam) and beauty (sundaram) is more than likely to win the allegiance and hearts of a new generation in the United States.

This reflection is a summary of a keynote address delivered at Hindu Mandir Priest Conference (Hindu Temple of Minnesota, 16 May 2015)