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July 23, 2001
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'Hinduism a part of American culture'

Arthur J Pais

When Venkatachalapathi Samudrala opened a joint session of the United States Congress with a prayer in Sanskrit (with some Hindi and English added), the American establishment was sending a clear message across the nation: Hinduism had become part of the American religious landscape.

For Harvard University Professor Diana Eck, whose fascination with the American religious scene began with her own experience with Hinduism over three decades ago, Samudrala's presence in Washington DC was more evidence of America maturing as a nation of multiple religions.

'The United States is the most religiously diverse nation in the world,' Eck writes in her new book, A New Religious America: How a Christian Country Has Become The World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation. (Harper San Francisco).

But Eck, professor of comparative religions, is quick to point out that many Americans are not aware of who their new neighbors are, even though Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Muslims have lived in America for over a hundred years.

When the Southern Baptists issued a prayer book on the occasion of Diwali in 1999 for its members to pray for Hindus so that they could be saved from 'darkness,' the conservative Christian sect hardly expected any protests.

When the protests started and pickets were held at churches, Eck said in an interview recently that the Baptists were more surprised that the people who showed up were the Hindus from next door. The protestors included students, academics, doctors and high tech workers.

The Southern Baptists discovered, just as many Americans did under different circumstances, that, 'members of the world's religions live not just on the other side of the world but in our neighborhoods,' Eck notes.

Her book is a passionate plea to understand religions other than Christianity; it is an eye-opening guide to the complex and fascinating religious realities of today's America.

  • Did you know there were as many Muslims (6 million) as Jews in America?
  • Did you know that Hindus in America come from more than a dozen countries?
  • Did you know that Los Angeles is the most complex Buddhist city in the world with Buddhists from more than a dozen countries including Sri Lanka, Laos, India and Kampuchea?

    Eck's book is not only a granary of fascinating facts, a detailed history of religious diversity in America, it is also an urgent call for interfaith dialogue and action.

    'How Americans of all faiths and beliefs can engage with one another to shape a positive pluralism is one of the essential questions -- perhaps the most important facing American society,' notes Eck, who founded the Pluralism Project at Harvard.

    While race has been the dominant American social issue in the past century, religious diversity in our civil and neighborly lives is emerging, mostly unseen, as the great challenge of the 21st century, she asserts.

    For just as world religions are making their presence felt across America -- be it in Nashville or San Jose or Minneapolis -- bigotry is also on the rise, she notes.

    And bigotry will continue to plague America unless, she says, Americans 'see signs of a new religious America and begin to think of ourselves anew.' Eck invites Americans not just to recognize but also to embrace the religious diversity of their own land, and to live up to America's highest ideals of freedom and tolerance for all faiths.

    How is the 'new religious America' different from the religious America of the 1920s or 1930s?

    Eck notes after the changes in the Immigration Act 1965, new varieties of Jews, Catholics, Muslims and Hindus began arriving in America in significant numbers.

    Unlike many immigrants of the previous decades, the new immigrants kept in touch with their mother countries with a keener passion. They were content to be American to a certain extent: They paid their taxes, voted in local and national elections, ran for political offices, accepted top positions in government, involved themselves in local charities. But they also proudly proclaimed their religious roots.

    And though this new religious diversity is 'now a Main Street phenomenon,' she complains, 'Many Americans remain unaware of the profound change taking place at every level of our society, from local school boards to Congress, and in small-town Nebraska as well as New York City.'

    'Islamic centers and mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples, and meditation centers can be found in virtually every major American metropolitan area,' she continues. 'There are Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists in Salt Lake City, Utah; Toledo, Ohio; and Jackson, Mississippi. Buddhism has become an American religion, as communities widely separated in Asia are now neighbors in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Chicago.'

    In her research for the book which took over five years, Eck discovered Muslims worshiping in a U-Haul dealership in Pawtucket, Rhode Island; a gymnasium in Oklahoma City; and a former mattress showroom in Northridge, California. She found Hindu temples housed in a warehouse in Queens, a former YMCA in New Jersey, and a former Methodist church in Minneapolis.

    Her book has received praise from religious scholars across America.

    "A wonderful book with delightful descriptions and challenging insights that revise the traditional Norman Rockwellian pictures of America," says Vasudha Narayanan, a professor at the University of Florida. "Professor Eck's book presents a new family portrait with Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus and encourages us to acknowledge the new family members who live and work with us in America."

    One of the best-known religious thinkers in America, Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School, recommends the book with great enthusiasm.

    'Meet your new neighbors! The religious complexion of America is changing so fast we all need a road map and a trustworthy guide,' Cox writes. 'This highly readable book is the best map available, and Diana Eck is an immensely well-informed guide. We need this book to tell us who we are and who we are becoming.'

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