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


Philadelphia Ratha Yatra

Nov 20, 2010 — ISRAEL (SUN) —

Social Structure

Two different social structures exist in the Philadelphia temple: that of local residents, and that of Indian congregation members. The core of full-time temple residents consists of approximately 29 people, among whom there are about five residents of Indian origin. The principles that dictate the power structure within the temple are derived from ISKCON ideology, among which are: seniority in the movement; being a direct disciple of ISKCON's founder Prabhupada; the devotee's stage in ISKCON practices (defined by movement members as "spiritual advancement"); and the devotee's sex.

The highest position in the temple is given to the temple president (almost always a man), who is in charge of the spiritual advancement of temple devotees and of the proper conduct of temple affairs. Other powerful positions in the temple are usually given to advanced devotees. The correlation between the level of advancement in the movement, which is expressed in one's first or second initiation, and the kind of position one gets, is an illustration of the ISKCON premise of social hierarchy. According to ISKCON ideology, one should accept the authority of more advanced devotees, consult with devotees who are at one's own level, and give instructions to less advanced devotees.

The second social system which exists in the temple is that of the Indian immigrants who are affiliated with the temple. The leaders of the immigrants work as physicians, engineers, and businessmen. They serve voluntarily as leaders of the community by participating in the temple advisory board. Officially, participation in the board is open to everyone. In reality, the people who serve on the board are the more respected and affluent members of the community, and the majority are men. Indian board members have close contact with most of the regular visitors of the temple, as well as with the temple president. Along with board members, there are other people who contribute work, time, and money to the temple and who are closely involved in temple affairs.

These two systems are different because they organize two different categories of temple populations. They also differ in their basic organizing principles regarding the definition of legitimate sources of power, i.e. the sources that enable a person to act or force his/her will on others. Within ISKCON (and the Philadelphia temple), seniority in the movement, being a direct disciple of ISKCON founder Prabhupada, the devotee's stage in ISKCON practices, and the devotee's sex are most relevant. For the immigrants, however, respected positions in the society outside, which are related to money, formal education, occupation, and networks, are most important (as well as other variables such as place of origin and caste).

There is an overlap between the principles that organize social hierarchy in these systems, e.g. the influence of age and sex. However, most of the immigrants do not consider advancement in ISKCON practices or seniority in the movement as important. Temple residents, on the other hand, do not consider money, formal education, etc. as valid criteria of social hierarchy. A second major difference between these two systems is the definition of the system boundaries: that is, the rules that govern who is, and who can be, a member of a specific category. A fundamental premise in ISKCON philosophy, which is often voiced in the temple, is that the way to God is open to everyone. Caste, gender, ethnic, or religious divisions are not relevant in the spiritual way to Krishna. In practice, anyone who follows the temple rules is considered to be a devotee. As a result, people from different nationalities live in the temple.

Issues related to the boundaries of the immigrant's community in the American diaspora are beyond the scope of this paper. However, I will focus on the examination of the Indian immigrant's boundaries within the context of temple life. This topic is discussed in relation to two questions. First, do the immigrants accept ISKCON members as priests? That is, is it possible for a non-Indian convert to be accepted as a brahmin? Second, are members of the Indian community willing to marry non-Indian temple residents? In general, non-Indian ISKCON brahmins are not accepted as temple priests nor as family brahmins by the Indian immigrants, even if they are well-trained (Zaidman, 1996).

Members of the ISKCON Philadelphia Indian community, like other Indian immigrants in America, perform life cycle rituals at home and use the assistance of priests for this purpose. The immigrants go to non-ISKCON temples or priests in order to perform these rituals. ISKCON priests perform only about 15 rituals in a year. There are two reasons for such a low number of ritual performances. First, the majority of the immigrants do not accept converts as priests. Many of them think that one should be born of an Indian family in order to be able to take the position of a temple priest and that of a brahmin who can perform life cycle rituals. Second, Philadelphia temple residents are ambivalent when they are asked to perform the role of a family brahmin. Many residents believe that performing rituals in Indian homes is important as long as it provides an opportunity to preach (Zaidman, forthcoming).

Congregation members not only reject non-Indian temple residents as ritual experts, they also refuse to apply the definition of a priest—a person who should be supported by the community, from whom one can get advice—to temple residents. Some 40 percent of temple residents with whom I talked said that they had no relationship with Indian visitors except saying "Hare Krishna" on Sundays. The other 60 percent, including devotees in high positions in the temple, were very bitter and highly critical of the immigrants. They argued that the immigrants do not accept them as devotees; that is, as people who make efforts to advance spiritually (Zaidman, forthcoming).

The distribution of the immigrants' donations to the temple is another indicator of their priorities. Contributions given to the temple by Indian donors are given to be used for the deities' expenses, or they are invested by board members in projects related to the public areas of the temple. Contributions are not given to improve the living space of temple residents (which needed repairs), or to any project related to the preaching mission of the temple. In other words, temple residents, in spite of their conversion to the belief and practices of a Hindu sect, and in spite of their rigid sadhana (practices that lead to mastery of one of the yogic traditions), are perceived as westerners.

Non-Indians are also rejected as appropriate mates for marriage for Indians. On different occasions, congregation members expressed their negative opinion about the association of Indian male devotees with non- Indian devotees. [4]

The position of the temple president and his wife is an exception to the rule. Both are accepted as temple priests and family brahmins by many Indian congregation members.

Cooperation and Segregation

In previous sections I emphasized the major differences in the perceptions of both populations in order to explain the attempts to change the temple tradition. In this section I will present a more balanced analysis which is based on the principles that allow the existence of two systems in the same temple.

Two organizing principles govern most domains of temple life—cooperation and, at the same time, segregation. Cooperation between residents and Indian followers is expressed in different areas of temple life. Both groups help in the organization and the production of the temple's traditional festivals and weekly programs; both worship Krishna together; and, both accept the authority and the leadership of the temple president and his wife.

At the same time, segregation is the principle according to which many other aspects and activities of temple life take place. Segregation is expressed in relation to the temple gods. For ISKCON members, Krishna is the supreme god who should be worshipped in his temple like a king. However, Indian followers, although they participate and contribute to this worship, do not perceive Krishna as the supreme god; they worship other gods as well. In order to meet the immigrants' expectations, the ISKCON Philadelphia temple president suggested the segregation of Krishna from his followers. For example, the festival of Durga took place outside the temple. Similarly, Krishna was not awakened at midnight at the festival for the New Year, as Board members requested. The festival of the community took place in the temple room, beyond the closed doors of the deities (see Zaidman, 1997).

The segregation of Krishna from other gods, and from the temple visitors, is a policy initiated by the temple president and common in other ISKCON temples as well. For example, in ISKCON Dallas, one of the temple buildings is used as a hall for community gatherings and festivals of Indian congregation members. Temple deities are located in a different building. The segregation is thus planned, formal, and perceived as a pragmatic solution to theological problems.

The principle of segregation is also expressed in the domain of power relations and authority in the temple. In this domain segregation is not only the result of planned policy, but is also influenced by grass-roots activities. Temple residents hold to a set of principles according to which they structure their hierarchy. Indian followers, however, hold to a different set of principles and beliefs. They do not accept ISKCON residents as monks, and they do not see themselves as responsible for the residents' support. Indian followers do not accept the religious authority of the temple priests unless they were born into an Indian family. There are exceptions like the temple president and his wife, who are mature in age, have formal education or wealth, have vast knowledge of Hindu philosophy, or have served the movement for many years, but, in general, temple residents are effectively barred from serving as spiritual leaders, or as religious advisers for Indian followers. They do serve as spiritual guides for American youth. In matters related to temple life, some immigrants regard the Indian members of the board as their representatives in the temple.

Segregation is also expressed in different forms of preaching. Preaching to a mixed audience takes place in the temple room on ISKCON's traditional festivals and on Sundays. The temple devotees also run one evening program a week outside of the main temple in a rented apartment. The programs are open to all, but most of the participants are American high school and college students. A different form of preaching takes place in meetings held in homes of congregation members. In contrast to the other two forms of preaching, Indian immigrants are the only audience at these meetings, and the message of the preachers is different: only on these occasions does the speaker encourage the Indians to preach to Americans. [5]

Temple resources are also segregated. While both residents and congregation members invest time, money, and work in the temple deities and temple festivals, each category of people uses its own resources to achieve its own goals. Indian followers use donations in order to improve the public areas of the temple, while residents' income is used to maintain the temple and its preaching mission.


The relations between Indian immigrants and ISKCON in the United States in general, as well as the relations between immigrants and the Philadelphia temple in particular, provide a rich field for documenting processes of immigrant integration in the American diaspora. During the first stage, the ISKCON temple served as a social and religious center for the immigrants. The immigrants were not actively involved in the initiation changes in ISKCON temples.

The immigrants' realization that their stay in the United States was permanent, and their need for frameworks to reinforce their ethnic-religious identity, encouraged the creation of different kinds of ethnic-religious organizations and temples. This realization also had an impact on how they saw the functions of the ISKCON temple. In a way, ISKCON temples were co-opted to become agents in the formation of Indian ethnic identity.

Granting political power to representatives of the Indian immigrants, at national as well as local levels of the movement, created the beginning of significant processes of integration. In general, one can see the similarity between the cultural pluralism model as it is expressed in the absorption of the Indian immigrant in the United States and the context-related model of processes of integration in the ISKCON temple. At these two levels, the immigrants are actors in the major institutions or activities of the society (or the temple). However, along with it they keep and maintain their own "cultural territory" and social boundaries. Specific to the ISKCON temple, one can say that they adopted a model of cooperation and segregation. This model can also be found in non-ISKCON Hindu temples that have been established in the American and British diaspora. From the Hindu point of view, traditions overlap and people may participate in rituals of several traditions while not losing contact with their own. The structural expression of this understanding is the temple that allows the coexistence of several religious traditions.

The case described in this paper focuses on the transplantation of the concept of "national" (Williams, 1988) or Neo-Hinduism (Burghart, 1987) into a sectarian organization run by Americans. The immigrants accepted parts of the ISKCON model and negotiated other parts. However, they insisted on keeping clear group boundaries.


4. In India (especially in Vrindavan), however, ISKCON members are in many cases treated as Indian brahmins: "they are eating with brahmins who refuse to eat with non-brahmins; brahmin fathers have inquired about the possibility of marriage between their daughters and ISKCON men; Vrindaban residents have accepted ISKCON devotees as gurus; devotees have acted as family priests and are approached for spiritual advice" (Brooks, 1989: 203).

5. The following is an example: "We, the Indians, should bring the message of India to the Americans; it is like bringing a lamp to blind people."


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Nurit Zaidman is a lecturer in the Department of Business Administration, Ben-Gurion University, Israel.


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