The Integration of Indian Immigrants to Temples
Run by North Americans


Nov 18, 2010 — ISRAEL (SUN) —

The author of this article [published in 2000] analyses the integration of Indian immigrants in an ISKCON temple in the USA. Perceptions of Indian immigrants and temple residents, as well as attempts to negotiate new definitions, are discussed within the context of three major areas of temple life: ideology, religion and social structure. Data for this paper were gathered between 1990 and 1994, when the author was a participant observer in the ISKCON Philadelphia temple.

Part One

The second wave of Asian Indian immigrants to North America began after 1965 and is still under way. The total number of Indian immigrants to the United States since 1965 is over half a million (Fenton, 1988: 9). Scholars have discussed the processes of the formation of the ethnic-religious identity of these immigrants from different angles.

A few scholars have focused on the expressions of Indian ethnic identity as seen in the creation of formal organizations. The research in this area was influenced by Barth (1969), who argued that ethnic boundaries are created as a response to specific social and economic conditions in the host society. Thus, Fisher (1978) argued that, in the late 1970s in New York City, Indians were pursuing a bi-national strategy, which was aimed at facilitating their permanent settlement in either India or America. The author noted that the accommodation of the Indian immigrants to the host society is expressed in the emergence of organizations resulting from the awareness of some Indian community leaders that, in the United States, the staging of power politics and the allocation of strategic resources (notably jobs) are frequently organized along lines of ethnicity.

Williams (1988) also discussed the expression of Indian ethnic identity in the United States as seen in the creation of formal organizations. According to the author, immigrants can choose to emphasize one of several designations according to the context. However, in the United States, religion is the social category with the clearest meaning and acceptance. Thus, the emphasis on religious affiliation and identity is one of the strategies used by the immigrants to maintain self-identity (p. 11).

The author discussed four major "adaptive strategies" of immigrants from Indian and Pakistan—national, ethnic, sectarian and universal. The dominant forms are the national and ethnic expressions. "National" organizations stress Indian culture and art. They are officially secular, but in practice they support the celebration of civil and religious events in distinctly Hindu voices (p. 28). Ethnic or "regional" organizations are regional-linguistic groups whose organizational boundaries are rooted in India and which the immigrants have tended to carry with them to the United States (Fenton, 1988).

The formation of Indian ethnic identity has also been discussed within the framework of "new ethnicity" thinking. Within this paradigm, ethnicity is a general state of consciousness, an identity that is not necessarily obvious, and not something that is simply passed on from generation to generation. Ethnicity is something dynamic, which is reinvented and reinterpreted in each generation by each individual (Fisher, 1986). Thus, Fisher examined recent autobiographical works that focused on ethnicity, and Karamcheti (1992) reflected on similar works written by Indians. Both analyses—the macro analysis of immigrant ethnic identity as expressed in the emergence of formal institutions, and the analysis of the identity of the individual Indian immigrant—contribute to our understanding of the phenomenon. But, while we know about these two levels of immigrant interaction, we know little about processes in the "semiautonomous social field" (Moore, 1978); that is, in units that are part of a larger organization/society/culture, but which are still autonomous. An analysis of immigrants' perceptions and activities in a "semiautonomous social field" allows the examination of the "cultural pluralism" model, and especially the concept of integration. According to Saran (1985: 6), "the notion of cultural pluralism implies that the immigrants in time would become Americanized, but at the same time that they would also retain much that was distinctive and creative in their own cultural heritage".

The author quotes Glazer:

    . . . integration implies, on the one hand, an organic relationship. Just as a personality may be integrated, so may a society. On the other hand, it [integration] implies that there is still a clear articulation of the parts; that is, some degree of identifiability of each part. (Glazer, quoted in Saran, 1985: 9–10)

According to Saran, the Asian Indians in America show a clear preference for the cultural pluralism model. They participate actively in the educational, economic, and political institutions of American society, and at the same time see no conflict in maintaining their culture and religion. A few questions present themselves when one analyzes the integration of Indian immigrants from the point of view described above. First, what are the core values that are accepted and allow the integration, and what are the aspects that identify each part? Second, what are the tensions or conflicts that take place in a pluralistic society, and how are they managed?

This paper presents an attempt to answer some of these questions within the context of a specific "semiautonomous social field". The paper provides data about clusters of related problems, such as different conceptualizations of the social, economic, and ideological issues that play a role in the process of identity formation of the immigrants. The paper provides an analysis of immigrant integration that is based on data taken from a concrete field, as well as with references to larger cultural, social, or economic systems.

The ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) Philadelphia temple can be considered as a semiautonomous social field. It is part of ISKCON in terms of ideology, leadership, daily practices, and matters of legal ownership of property, but, at the same time, it is an economically independent unit. ISKCON Philadelphia's Indian visitors share the same ethnic and religious perceptions, as well as concepts and practices, that are found in the general community of Hindu immigrants. The interaction of the Indian immigrants with the American temple residents and the immigrants' efforts to establish congregations within very well-defined theology, structure, ideology, and practices provide an excellent case to discuss the immigrants' integration.

This article focuses on an analysis of the negotiation and relationships of immigrants/ISKCON members in three major areas of temple life: ideology, religion, and social structure. It includes the analysis of the principles that allow the coexistence of two socio-cultural systems in the same temple. Data for this paper were gathered between 1990 and 1994, when the author was a participant observer in the Philadelphia temple. Fifty-nine formal interviews and hundreds of informal discussions were conducted with temple residents, congregation members, temple visitors, and ISKCON leaders. Thirty questionnaires, which were sent to Indian congregation members and temple visitors whose names appeared on the ISKCON Philadelphia mailing list, were analyzed. Additionally, books, magazines, newsletters, and flyers published by ISKCON were analyzed.

The Relationship between ISKCON and the Indian Immigrants ISKCON is an international movement, which was instituted in the late 1960s by an Indian leader, Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. ISKCON temples and centers are established for deity worship and for an elaborate system of education. 1 The goals of ISKCON are to worship Krishna and to preach Krishna consciousness to the world. 2 Although ISKCON's principles of devotion to Krishna were not foreign to Indians in India and abroad, it was mainly non-Indian devotees who joined the movement as full-time members to spread the message of the movement. When the Indians first came, ISKCON temples were already in place in most of the cities where the immigrants chose to reside. The images of Radha-Krishna and the daily rituals were similar to those in India, and most immigrants began to visit the temples for darsan (visual perception of the sacred) and to participate in the devotional songs. During the 1970s, the movement went through a series of difficulties, and the numbers of Asian Indians in most congregations grew to outnumber the American converts (Shinn and Bromley, 1989). The major festivals sponsored by ISKCON attracted many immigrants (up to several thousand in the major cities). The immigrants have been called to testify to the religious authenticity of the movement and they have gone on pilgrimages to specific ISKCON attractions. Yet, the negative publicity ISKCON received during the 1970s had an effect on the efforts of the immigrants to propagate Hinduism. In addition, some ISKCON practices (such as the request to pay for mahaprasadam, the sanctified food, in the temple restaurants after the ritual) led to criticism. Another difficulty was that little opportunity existed for leadership by Indian immigrants in the temples that were run by white American converts (Williams, 1988: 133).

A major catalyst in the ISKCON leadership's initiation of a new policy regarding Indian Sunday visitors was the deteriorating financial situation of the movement's temples in North America in the 1980s. The general decline both in membership and in financial income brought the development of programs for the Indian community (such as life membership in return for donating $1111). In 1987, the North American representatives of ISKCON's central governing body, the GBC (Governing Body Commission), formed a new body, the ISKCON Foundation, which focused on developing congregations. The ISKCON Foundation recommended instituting advisory boards for each temple. Members of these boards are supposed to assist their temples in "wealth, wisdom or work". At present, eight of 11 members of the ISKCON Philadelphia Temple Advisory Board are of Indian origin. The non-Indian members of the Board are the temple president, the temple vice-president, and a former temple resident. The functions of the board, as defined by the Philadelphia temple, are to advise the temple administration and to raise funds for temple expansion. The board (which was formed in December 1991) has become a major force in pursuing the ideology and interests of the Indian immigrants.

At present, there are three types of immigrant involvement in ISKCON in the United States. The most committed followers are a small number of people who have been initiated by ISKCON gurus and have become more dedicated to the movement's goals. There are no official figures regarding ISKCON Indian initiates. The secretary of the ISKCON Foundation has estimated that there are 500 ISKCON initiates of Indian origin in North America. There are also people whom Beckford (1985) defined as patrons, who visit the temple and often assist it by donating money, giving advice, or performing other services. Some of these have also been initiated by an ISKCON guru. The majority of the immigrants, however, are Sunday visitors of the local temple. There are about 100 people who visit the Philadelphia temple every Sunday, and several hundred people visit at festivals. The majority of temple visitors on Sundays and festivals are Indian immigrants. Of these immigrants, there are about 25 families and individuals who tend to visit the temple regularly, that is, every week.

Approximately 29 long-term residents (those who have lived in the temple for at least six months) reside in the Philadelphia temple, and the majority of these are Americans.


[1] In the Philadelphia temple, there are four sets of deities, which are the focal point of daily and annual activities. Deity worship starts at 3.30 a.m. and ends at 9 p.m. every day. Temple residents cook special food for the deities, change the deities' dress twice a day, decorate them with flowers, and perform seven rituals of offerings daily for them. The main deities in the temple are Krishna and Radha, his consort. Krishna is one of the most popular gods in Hinduism and is considered to be the supreme god by ISKCON followers.

[2] Krishna Consciousness is a state of consciousness that is purely centered on Krishna by one who has surrendered to Him completely.

Nurit Zaidman teaches at Pinhas Sapir Negev College, Israel. Her expertise is in the area of religious movements, with a focus on new religious movements in the West.


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