Centers of Learning
--By Dr Ramesh N. Rao
The Indian Diaspora has expanded in the past twenty years. We now have Indian communities in Japan and in Australia, in Germany and in Russia. With about two million people of Indian origin in the US, there is a critical mass of people who desire and seek change and whose dreams and goals bring with them both opportunities and heart aches. One of the biggest challenges facing first generation Indian-Americans is that they don’t know how what they have created will be used or become useful for their children and grandchildren. These second and third generation Indian-Americans may go through the same kinds of alienation, identity crises, acculturation and re-adjustment processes that have marked the “Assimilation” of other immigrant groups in the US.
Hindus, as the biggest religious group among Indian-Americans and may be the most diverse and “Different” compared to other religious groups that have made America home, are pondering their own status and future well-being in this “Alien” land. They have been a mostly successful group, created a lot of wealth and have sought to grow roots by building temples, by funding India studies chairs in universities, by starting lobbying groups in Washington D. C. and by challenging some of what is being taught about Hinduism and India in American schools and universities.
As a community, one of its largest investments has been in constructing temples. There are at least 150 to 160 temples in the US The Mandirnet web site (mandirnet.org) lists 152 temples which have their own web sites. The amount of money invested in building and maintaining these temples can be estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Elections to the temple committees are hard fought and there is a fair amount of jostling and complaining about the priests hired to conduct pujas, whether the temple premises can be rented out for certain kinds of activities and whether more money should be raised for the next gold crown for the main deity. Amidst all these activities, one rarely hears discussions about what these temples will become in the hands of second and third generation Indian-Americans. Will they continue to be centers for worship and prayer? How much of the Hindu rituals, beliefs, prayers and practices will be continued? Who will be the future priests? What kind of community outreach will there be and how vigorous will be the effort to maintain tradition or to push for change?
The Indian experience in the US is vastly different from the Indian experience in Africa, the Caribbean or Southeast and the Pacific. It is different too from the Indian experience in Europe. This is a diverse community of businessmen, technologists and scientists, artists and academics, doctors and journalists and many, many more. We are a fairly wealthy community. We are much more self-conscious of our traditions, morès and history. We are not the indentured laborers carted off to far-away lands but mostly migrants who have come in search of opportunities and wealth. But we are also growing old and we need to become a little more attentive to the challenges that our children and grandchildren will face in this, our chosen home.
As a perceptive second generation Indian-American wrote me that Hinduism, like other religions, “Can help as a tool-kit for the pursuit of spirituality”. She felt that “The wealth of the knowledge of this spiritual tradition will be diminished and perhaps one day lost if constructive efforts are not taken to preserve and revive the faith” and her fear was that “If a strong, moderate centrist Hindu majority does not rise up to claim the religion from the fringe elements of right wing and left-wing extremists, the repercussions will be potentially bad”. It is an astute observation.
So, what can we do to make sure that those constructive efforts are made? Hindus have spent a lot of energy and effort in constructing temples. These temples can and should become centers of learning, training and community outreach if they are to play any significant role for the future generations. These centers of learning should focus on the dissemination of knowledge of Hindu traditions and ideas through regular lectures by experts, by maintaining libraries, by conducting classes in Hindu philosophy and religion, as well as discussions on comparative religion and by publishing books, videos and other educational material that can be used in local schools and communities. Temple committees should hire experienced professionals who will plan and execute these programs and who will devote time and energy in enabling children and youth to plan and attend these activities.
Temples should become centers for training priests. In collaboration with the Hindu University of America, for example, youngsters could be trained in Hindu philosophy and religion and could be sent to India to undergo training under master priests. On return they would be hired as assistant priests and fine hone their skills and repertoire.
Temples should become community outreach centers, making sure that the larger society is fully aware of their presence and their programs. Organizing regular visits by school children, meetings with other religious groups and by providing resources to local scholars and university students temples would become vibrant centers for exchange of information and knowledge.
There are already a number of programs envisioned and carried out by some temples and it is time that there be a meeting of visionary leaders, dedicated volunteers and committed scholars to meet and draft a blue-print for the future of Hindu temples around the country. There will be skeptics who will question such an enterprise and there will be alarmists who will charge that this is a plan to convert temples into “Fundamentalist Citadels”. It is therefore necessary that care and serious attention be paid to make temples real centers of learning and training. These temples could become models for reconstruction and change for temples in India too. Would it not be exciting if American Hindu temples are instrumental in bringing down barriers of caste, sex and creed in India and help rejuvenate the religious dynamic there?
Originally published on January 30, 2004.