Hinduism is hardly new to the United States. Swami Vivekenanda is thought to have first introduced it when he visited as part of the World's Parliament of Religions at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. He received a standing ovation from the 7,000 people in audience, whom he declared his "Sisters and Brothers of America."
In spite of Vivekenanda's reception, subsequent series of lectures, and ultimately the establishment of the Vedantic Society of New York, with satellites in Boston and San Francisco, Hinduism remained a tiny presence in the United States for decades. It was but a demographic trickle. Only after 1965, with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which eased immigration from India and the rest of Asia to the United States, did the population of Hindus begin to grow. They now comprise a reputed .4 percent of the U.S. Population or, depending on whose arithmetic, 1.2 million people.
And what a population it is! According to the Pew Forum's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, nearly half of Hindus living in the United States in 2009 had a post-graduate degree, by far the highest percentage of any community and five times the national average. As a population, they appear to be socially mobile and rising quickly within American society.
Hindu communal organizations similarly appear to be burgeoning; there may be as many as 1,600 Hindu Temples and centers across the country. And now the Hindu community is developing a national infrastructure.
One of the groups working to envision the future for Hindu Americans on a national scale is Hindu American Seva Charities, a not-for-profit organization working "[sic] to mobilize the Hindu American community around 'seva' (public service) to advance interfaith dialogue ... social justice, and healthy living."
While its work has already engaged the Hindu community on a national scale, it is about to orchestrate something more ambitious -- something that might best be understood as the debut of the Hindu community on the national stage. As part of its 2nd Annual Conference, "Impacting Change in America and Abroad," it is holding the first ever community briefing organized by Hindu Americans at the White House on July 29.
Leaders from many different spheres will be in attendance -- from former Senator Harris Wofford, to Joshua DuBois, Executive Director, Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and Dalia Mogahed, Senior Analyst at Gallup and Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. (Full disclosure: I have been graced with an invitation to speak at the briefing as well, but certainly do not count myself among these dignitaries.)
The degree to which the speakers and participants in the White House briefing -- and the Hindu American Seva Charities conference as a whole -- are from different religious backgrounds is striking. I, a future rabbi, will be traveling to the conference with a Born-Again Christian and returning home with Mainline Protestant friends, after having visited with Muslim colleagues throughout.
I derive two messages from the multi-religious nature of the conference. The first is a genuine and authentic effort on the part of the conference organizers and the Hindu community more broadly to reach out to other religious communities and establish positive relations with them. Interfaith collaboration is a priority for Hindu-Americans. The second is an invitation to bear witness to a remarkable moment. The Hindu community in America is joining other religious communities on the national stage, not only as an equal participant, but a veritable host to them.
This moment has been a long time in the coming for Hindu-Americans. They are a community here to stay, a gift to American society. Yet the nature of their national debut also seems very authentic, and true to Swami Vivekenanda in his initial message of tolerance to Americans: "I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true."