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The Hinduization of America - By Francis C. Assisi

Madhava - Fri, 17 Jun 2005 00:42:08 +0530
The Hinduization of America
By Francis C. Assisi at IndoLink

Like so many Americans who like to play “Indian”, Indian-Americans too have been traversing America’s sacred landscape without connecting with the deeply held beliefs of its ancient inhabitants, the American Indians.

But not anymore. They are becoming grounded on American soil. And from Hindu temples in Juneau, Alaska, to Tallahassee, Florida, and to Kauai, Hawaii, they are chanting praises such as this: America vasa jaya govinda or Victory to Govinda who lives in America.

That’s because there is an ongoing process of Hinduizing the American sacred space. Hindu Americans have begun to cultivate the strains within their own religious tradition that foster a sense of the sacred earth through myth, ritual, ceremonies, and spirit power that more or less reflects Native American or American Indian cultures. Indeed, Hindu Americans would not be doing this if they did not realize the land was sacred in some intrinsic way, something the Native American Indians knew for thousands of years.

Now, Hindu Americans are locating, establishing and embellishing sacred spaces in America by co-mingling the waters of the Ganga and the Kaveri with the Mississippi and Rio Grande, and by invoking the holy Indian rivers into the local waters. Even if this ritual is not viewed as purifying one of all sins it is a palpable affirmation of an emerging Hindu cosmology transplanted in America.

At the simples level there is a notion of transference – an idea that the sacredness attached to the India’s sacred rivers will physically attach itself to the local rivers. It’s a pattern that has grown with the earlier diasporas in Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius, South Africa, Fiji, Guyana, Trinidad, and the later migrations to Australia, Britain, Europe, Canada and the United States. Perhaps the stage was set when Hindu culture spread to Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia in its earliest phase.


In America itself the phrase "sacred land" is used frequently, but it’s meaning remains elusive to many non-Natives, who relate to land mostly through property lines or hiking trails. This difference highlights perhaps the widest gulf between the two cultures – Native Americans and European Americans. On the one hand is the Judeo-Christian belief that humans were meant to have dominion over nature; on the other is the belief in land as a living network, not as fragments they could purchase. "How can you 'save the Earth' if you have no spiritual relationship with the Earth?" asks Tonya Gonnella Frichner of the Onondaga Nation. "There is an intellectual abstraction about the environment but no visceral participation with the Earth.”

Perhaps one of the most pervasive concepts among American Indians is the belief that land is alive. Every particular form of the land is the locus of qualitatively different spirit beings. Their presence gives life to and sanctifies the land in all its details and contours. Thus, it’s when people recognize a shared spiritual essence in the world around them that their interactions with the land take on a quality of reverence and respect.

Seeing what a specific place means to a specific culture can help non-Natives understand how land plays not an auxiliary or symbolic role, but is a central, necessary force in many Native traditions. The rivers, the mountains, the air, the wind, animals, all living and non-living things, everything in the ecology - becomes meaningful because they are interconnected. This is a theme that is central to India’s holistic vision.

In his "Afterword" to the volume America in 1492, Vine Deloria, Jr., encourages us to reflect on the degree to which non-Native Americans "have responded to the rhythms of the land--the degree to which they have become indigenous." In the context of immigrant Indian Americans, "becoming indigenous" means knowing the land where they live and showing it respect. One way this is happening is by placing a relationship to the land in a religious context, as opposed to just an economic context. It helps Indian Americans experience the life force of the land, enabling them to see the land of their adoption as a distinct being deserving of respect.

Which is why, in the past twenty five years, the American landscape, with its rich surfeit of rivers, mountains, forests, animals, ancestral graves and relics, is becoming sacred space to Indian Americans as it has been for American Indians through the millennia. They have enhanced and spiritually empowered America’s sacred landscape with more than 1500 places of worship in North America.


Professor Vasudha Narayanan, an authority on diasporic Hinduism claims that Hindu rituals are part of the many ways in which the local landscape is being transformed to be sacred liturgical space for immigrant American Hindus. Dr. Narayanan, a former President of the American Academy of Religions and professor at the University of Florida's Department of Religion, has looked at how post-1965 immigrant Hindus perceive the land of the Americas and how they consecrate the ground on which they build their temples. She has outlined this in a paper presented at the American Academy of Religion and titled "Victory to Govinda who lives in America: Hindu Ritual to Sacralize the American Landscape."

Narayanan is the author and editor of five books and more than 80 articles, chapters and encyclopedia entries. Her book "The Hindu Traditions in the United States: Temple Space, Domestic Space, and Cyberspace" was be published by Columbia University Press in 2004. She is currently working on Hindu temples and Vaishnava traditions in Cambodia.

The point this distinguished Hindu American has made is that Indians have made the land of the Americas ritually sacred in at least four ways: composing songs and pious Sanskrit prayers extolling the American state where the temples are located; identifying America as a specific dvipa or island as noted in the Hindu Puranas; physically consecrating the land with waters from sacred Indian and American rivers; and literally recreating the physical landscape of certain holy places in India, as in Pittsburgh or Barsana Dham, Texas. Thus, Prof. Naryanan discerns “a process by which land or shrines held sacred by the native inhabitants is coopted by Hindus and the sacrality is re-articulated with Hindu motifs.”

For example, devotees at the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, praised Lord Venkateswara, a manifestation of Lord Vishnu, in song: America vasa jaya govinda, Penn Hills nilaya radhe govinda, sri guru jaya guru, vithala govinda, which means, "Victory to Govinda who lives in America; Govinda who with Radha resides in Penn Hills. Victory to Govinda, Vithala, the sacred Teacher." Singing about a place expresses its sacredness and makes it a palpable spot of holiness, explains Prof. Narayanan.

Also, a statement put out by the Venkateshwara temple noted: Pittsburgh, endowed with hills and a multitude of trees as well as the confluence of the three rivers, namely, the Allegheny, the Mongahela, and the sub-terrainean river (brought up via the 60 foot high fountain at downtown) to form the Ohio river is indeed a perfect choice for building the first and most authentic temple to house Lord Venkateswara. The evergrowing crowds that have been coming to the city with the thriveni Sangama of the three rivers to worship at the Temple with the three vimanas reassure our belief that the venerable Gods chose this place and the emerald green hillock to reside in.

Dr. J. Sethuraman, professor of statistics at the Florida State University in Tallahassee, who is now retired, went one step further. The Madras-born Sanskrit scholar composed an elegant poem called Sri Venkatesha America Vaibhava Stotram, "Praise of the Appearance of Lord Venkatesha in America." It is in classical Sanskrit, in the style of a traditional kavya, or poem, replete with exquisite literary flourishes and ornate verses: "Such a Venkatesha, the ocean of nectar of kindness, has come to the hilltop at the well-known city of Pittsburgh, surrounded by the three rivers, Allegheny, Monongahela and the Ohio, to remove the miseries of the people." Dr. Sethuraman then proceeds to glorify Lord Vishnu; in his manifestation as Venkatesha, as the deity in more than 20 American towns, and describes with local imagery the different places in the United States where Venkatesha is enshrined.

As Prof. Narayanan explained: “While all temples go through formal ceremonies of vivification with pitchers of sanctified waters, the devotees' songs promulgate the sacredness of the land; the terrain is now internalized in landscape of devotion. Many Hindu devotees celebrate the lord's accessibility more than his supremacy, and to make himself accessible, he is said to abide in a local shrine close to the devotee. Thus, Venkateswara (also known as Venkatesha in songs) is totally present in Tiru Venkatam, India, and this is important; but even more important is that this deity is now perceived as abiding in a local shrine at Penn Hills, Malibu, Chicago, Dayton, Atlanta, etc. The devotees in Pittsburgh, just as the many Hindu saints celebrated it, see the lord as being physically close to them sanctifying the land they live in.”

Another example of making America a sacred home is evident in the "declaration of intention," done at the beginning of every ritual. The land is usually identified with one of the dvipas, or "islands" from the Puranas.. Thus, Hindus in India begin most rituals with the line, "in this island of the Rose-Apple (Jambudvipa), in the fragment of land called Bharata, south of Mount Meru." In Canada and America there are new parameters. Almost all temples state that America is located in the Krauncha (Egret or Heron) island, which is west of Mount Meru. In the intention recited in Tallahassee, Dr. Sethuraman chanted: "In this island of Krauncha, in the delightful continent, in the sacred province of the cows that is east of the Mississippi River, in the sacred land called Tallahassee."

Interestingly, according to the Puranic Encyclopedia of Vettam Mani, Krauncha is the fifth of seven islands in Indian mythology. Surrounded by milk, and guarded by the god Varuna, it is also said to contain a mountain, where a haughty and arrogant asura, also named Krauncha, was leading a wicked life.


Hindus think of rivers as capable of spiritually cleansing all those who bathe in them. But why should they mingle the sacred waters brought from India's rivers with the local waters of the Mississippi and the Suwannee? On the simplest level, the belief is that the sacredness of the Ganga, the Kaveri and other rivers will physically attach itself to the local rivers of America. But there is more going on here than just spiritually or physically invoking the holy Indian rivers into the local waters. Just as the supreme being makes itself accessible through an incarnation or manifestation on earth, the sanctity of the remote site in India is made accessible in this country to the devotees, claims Prof. Naryanan.

Another way Hindus in America enhance the sacredness of their temples is to try to either recognize and rediscover resemblances between American physical landscape and distinctive sacred spots in India, or to recreate that similarity. The earliest attempt was at the Venkateswara Temple in Pittsburgh. Devotees voiced the similarity between the sacred place in India where the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the underground Saraswati meet, and the confluence of three local rivers.

According to Prof Narayanan, some of the most sustained attempts in recreating the landscape are in Barsana Dham, Texas, and at the Iraivan Temple to Siva, in Kauai, Hawaii. Barsana Dham resembles Barsana in Northern India, said to be the hometown of Radha, the beloved of Lord Krishna. Here, all the important landmarks of Krishna and Radha's homeland were recreated. At Iraivan Temple in Hawaii, not only are the names reminiscent of India, but the similar environment of tropical India meshes with the local Hawaiian land to create a unique milieu.

As expected, the Pittsburgh temple, the Barsana Dham in Texas, and the Iraivan Temple in Hawaii have become new pilgrimage destination for millions of Indians living in North America. Even visitors from India make it a point to include these temples in their itinerary. Dr. Sambamurthy Sivachariyar, an important priest of a large temple in Madras, India, who presided as chief priest for the stone-laying ceremony of Iraivan Temple in 1995 said, "I am too old to go on pilgrimage to the holy sites in the Indian Himalayan mountains, where, according to Hinduism, God Himself resides and gives His grace to pilgrims. That was a life-long dream of mine. But now that I have come to the most beautiful place in the world, Kauai, to this sacred land, I feel my dream has been fulfilled. I have come to the home of God."

Interestingly, the ancient Hawaiians called the temple site, which is at the foot of Mount Waialeale near the sacred Wailua River, Pihanakalani, "where heaven touches Earth."

Last December, Prof Seetharaman put final touches to his version of the Sri-Venkatesha-America-Vaibhava-Stotram by including all the traditional style Hindu temples in North America and concluded with the following shloka:

“It is no wonder that you have many such divine residences; Oh Lord, Oh kind One; in spite of all this, do shower me with your grace and please come with Sri Devi and Bhuu Devi and reside in my house. This resident of Tallahassee, Sethuraman, requests that you give a mind, calmed of the raging fires of desire, to the devotees who think again and again of your divine residences, contemplate again and again on your divine form, and praise you with these slokas.”