The Integration of Indian Immigrants to Temples
Run by North Americans - Part Two


Nov 19, 2010 — ISRAEL (SUN) —

Ideology: the Perception of India and America by Temple Residents
and Indian Immigrants

The term "ideology" refers in this study to the body of doctrine, myth, and symbols of Indian immigrants regarding their homeland and their host society. Scholars have discussed the importance of the immigrant's homeland and diaspora perspectives (Safran, 1991; Connor, 1986; Skinner, 1982; Helweg and Helweg, 1990). This section focuses on the way "India" and "America" are presented in the temple and the way they are perceived by the immigrants. It also focuses on the efforts of the immigrants to pursue their definition of a congregation embedded in American life by using the temple as an ethnic center.

In general, the Philadelphia temple does not provide any channels to relate to "India" and "America" as social or political realities, as the immigrants perceive these centers. The messages of ISKCON temples regarding "India" and "America" are purely religious. The movement, as an international organization, offers channels for Indian immigrants to invest in ISKCON's religious projects in India. However, no investments are made in projects related to India as a political or social entity. Shelters for widows and food for poor people are provided by ISKCON members in India, but the same assistance is given to needy people in South America, the USA and other parts of the globe.

In the local temple, India is never discussed as a political or social entity. Preachers, however, do refer to Vrindavan or other sacred Vaishnava places. These sites are usually discussed within an historical context—as places in which Krishna's various lilas (sports or events) have taken place. India is presented in the same manner in ISKCON's mainstream magazine Back To Godhead , which dedicates numerous articles to holy places in India. According to Prabhupada, "a pure devotee of Lord Krishna resides in the district of Mathura or Vrndavana and visits all the places where Krishna pastimes were performed" (Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, 1970: 139). However, Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami's article in Back To Godhead about his pilgrimage to Vrindavan demonstrates another legitimate perspective on the issue of residence in India: "I will have to travel so far to recognize that my home is in Krishna and that Krishna is everywhere." According to this view, home is not a place, it is a state of being, and one does not need to go to India in order to go back home. It is recommended but not obligatory.This ideology, which focuses on practice (chanting and serving Srila Prabhupada) and on visiting ISKCON temples, actually legitimizes the living of a full religious and spiritual life outside India.

Like India, America is not often discussed as an independent political or social entity in the ISKCON temple. Sunday preachers, as well as individual devotees, do not tend to talk about concrete social or political events outside ISKCON.[3] Secular American holidays are not celebrated, sometimes are not even mentioned. In the year 1993, the Fourth of July, United States Independence Day, was celebrated on Sunday. Even though the temple preacher had the opportunity to talk about the holiday, he completely ignored it. Similarly, the class that was given on Sunday of Memorial Day weekend 1992 was no different from any other Sunday class that was given during the year. Yet one often hears criticism of US presidents and of other aspects of American or western culture, among them addiction to television, alienation, and the huge unjustified investments in science.

Thus, the Philadelphia temple does not provide any channels for the immigrants to relate to "India" and "America", except as a religious center (with regard to India) and as a negative symbolic center (with regard to America). India and America are not presented and negotiated as relevant social or political realities, in spite of the fact that the immigrants do perceive India and America as a social-political entity.

ISKCON Philadelphia board members understand that the philosophical platform from which temple residents perceive these two centers does not satisfy Indian congregants. For that reason they make efforts to pursue their definition of a congregation embedded in American life and reacting to major events in the homeland. An example is the effort initiated by board members to provide an appropriate forum for congregation members to celebrate the New Year (1 January) together with other Americans; that is, local Indian leaders wanted to establish a way for the immigrants to be part of American life. The ISKCON temple, which is perceived by the immigrants as the place of the community, seemed to be an appropriate place to accomplish this task. The temple authorities (mainly the temple president) agreed to sponsor such an event and the celebration was a success. Many people came, sang devotional songs, and enjoyed the cultural program and the offered food. The festival for the New Year had not been celebrated in the ISKCON temple before and it is not part of the ISKCON tradition.

Board members initiated another program, under a religious umbrella, that reflected their efforts to unite Indians in America as an ethnic group operating within the American cultural context. On the day that Mother's Day was celebrated in the US, Board members brought a present to Radha (the deity), to the wife of the temple president who serves as the head pujari (the priest who serves the deities), and to the women who were initiated on that day. The presents were given during the Sunday program, when a large Indian audience was present.

Board members' activities not only reflect their concern about strengthening America as a center in the life of the immigrants; they also reflect their concern about strengthening national feelings toward India. A lecture given by a board member at a time when Hindus and Muslims were fighting over a sacred place in Ayodhya was highly political. The lecturer said that Hindus should be very active in defending themselves and their temples against others and that they should fight. The lecture was given when the temple president was not present. In its content, style, and sentiment it negated the temple norms.

Religion Differences between immigrants and temple residents were expressed not only in relation to macro perceptions of sources of identity, but also in perceptions regarding the religious functions of the temple.

Studies of the changing forms of Hinduism in the diaspora show that similar processes have taken place in different locations. In many places Hinduism is practiced as an ethnic religion and it becomes general, as opposed to local (Jayawardena, 1968; Vertovec, 1992; Burghart, 1987; Williams, 1988). According to Jayawardena (1968: 444), who studied the expression of Hinduism in Guyana, Fiji, East Africa, Natal, and Ceylon, the new Hinduism focuses attention on the major Hindu gods, particularly Vishnu in his avatars as Krishna and Ram; it draws its theology and ethical prescriptions from the Ramayan, the Puranas, and the Bhagavad Gita, and is administered by brahmin priests, who constitute the only group distinguished by the caste rank. Similar observations were reported by Burghart (1987), about the transplantation of Hinduism to the UK, and Vertovec (1992), about the transplantation of Hinduism to Trinidad.

The changing forms of Hinduism are expressed in the form and functions of temples in the diaspora. In "all-India" temples, which are the majority in the American diaspora, images of several deities are worshipped, the participants are from many different regions, language groups, and sects, and rituals of many sects are practiced. This is different from temples in India, which can be identified as either Vaishnava or Shiva according to the resident deity (Williams, 1988; Fuller, 1992) and in which kin-based deities are worshipped. Temples in the diaspora have also become ethnic centers. This process occurs along with the reduction in value of orthodox brahmins and with the understanding that the community of lay people is now the focal point of these temples.

The Hindu immigrants who are affiliated with ISKCON temples are not different in their ethnic-religious perspectives and interests from other Hindu immigrants. The general perception of Hinduism in general, and of temple functions in particular, is not very different from that of other Indian immigrants in the United States. When Indian ISKCON congregation members and temple visitors were asked: "What do you think the top three functions of an ISKCON temple should be?" half of the respondents defined the functions of the temple in terms of religious and socio-cultural practices (e.g. "propagating the cultural and religious aspect of Hindu and Indian culture"). The other half of the respondents defined the functions of the temple in religious terms only. These findings show that a significant portion of the respondents view the temple as an arena in which cultural activity for the purpose of strengthening the Hindu tradition should take place. For ISKCON members, however, there are clear boundaries between the religious, ethnic, and social domains.

The main objective of the ISKCON temple is to serve God, not to be a center for any community, even if it is a community of God worshippers. These differences between ethnic Hinduism (in which the community of worshippers is at its center) and the form of Hinduism which is practiced in ISKCON (in which a monastic order completely dedicated to God is at its center) are explained by Dumont. Sects in Hinduism "have been founded by sanyasis [the people who have renounced the world in order to realize God] and the greater part include, apart from the worldly adherents, a sanyasi order which constitutes the nucleus of the sect" (Dumont, 1960: 59). This feature still describes ISKCON today, although the movement has experienced a few changes. Sanyasis take an important role in the leadership of the movement today. About 63 percent of GBC members are sanyasi and overall there are 76 sanyasis in ISKCON (ISKCON, 1992). In addition, most temple residents are unmarried brahmacharis (celibate students). In terms of ideology, to renounce the material world is still the ideal, and negation of the material world is still a main principle.

The second characteristic of Hindu sects, according to Dumont, is that they hold to one doctrine. Often it is monotheistic; it denies other gods. The sect transcends caste and is open to all. As opposed to being tolerant towards the object of religion and exclusive towards the subjects of religion, the sect is inclusive towards the subjects, and strict and exclusive towards the god and belief, the object of religion (Dumont, 1960: 60). According to ISKCON philosophy, Krishna is the supreme god. This form of Vaishnavism is exclusive. It does not allow the worship of Shiva, Mother Shakti, Ganesh, etc., as full gods. A few of these gods could and can be worshipped only as aspects of Krishna.

The Indian immigrants who are involved with the ISKCON temple, like other Hindus in India and abroad, are familiar with the worship, teaching, and practices related to Krishna (see Fuller, 1992; Singer, 1966; Jayawardena, 1968; Knott, 1987). However, in contrast to ISKCON members, most of them do not consider Krishna to be the supreme god. They believe that the worship of different Hindu gods should be performed and that different Hindu traditions are equally elevated. When asked, "Do you believe that Saivtes, Vaishnavism, and Advaita Vedanta are all equally elevated Hindu traditions?" 76 percent of congregation members and temple visitors answered "yes".

Observations, open discussions, and questionnaires answered by immigrants show that they worship non-Vaishnava gods at home and in non-ISKCON temples; 70 percent answered that they visit non-ISKCON temples several times a year; and almost 30 percent answered "hardly ever". In that respect, they are not different from other Hindus in America, who "freely worship in temples across regional and sect lines" (Williams, 1988: 56–57). In both aspects—the worship of many gods and the focus on the community—ISKCON temples are different from the majority of Hindu temples in America.

The attempts of Indian leaders to accommodate the needs of the immigrants were expressed in the religious domain as well. Board members initiated religious enterprises aimed at introducing the worship of different gods to the ISKCON temple. They organized an evening for Durga (one of the oldest and commonest names for the Divine Mother). People from Gujarat (who make up more than half of the Indians affiliated with the ISKCON temple), as well as people from other places in India, are used to worshipping Durga at home. As previously indicated, the only deities that are worshipped in ISKCON temples are those of Krishna and his incarnations. Durga, like any other demi-god, is merely empowered by Krishna and therefore should not be worshipped in the temple room. The program took place in a rented hall outside the temple. A group of singers were invited to the hall. They sang songs for Durga while the audience danced the Garba dance (a folk dance common in Gujarat) around the goddess. However, a picture of Krishna was placed at the top of the table while the picture of Durga was placed at its bottom. The type of arti ritual performed was not in accordance with ISKCON protocol. Unlike the celebration of the New Year, the program for Durga was not organized again by board members during my field work.

Another example of a religious enterprise initiated by a board member was the organization of Lord Ramachandra Appearance Day (Sri Ram Navami). The idea was to bring to the temple those Indians who celebrate the event at home. The festival was celebrated in the temple room, since Ram is considered to be an incarnation of Krishna. The program started at midday and included readings from the Ramayan (an epic poem in which Rama is the hero), archana (objects and acts offered to the deities by a lay person with the mediation of a priest) to Sita Ram, arti, and feasting. The majority of the audience at the event were Indians. Westerners were barely visible; they started to come only to the evening arti for the temple deities.


3. Each Sunday the temple organizes a program which is open to all. It includes the performance of the arti ritual, devotional songs, a lecture, and a feast.


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