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'Religion not top priority for Asian American Hindus'

July 26, 2012 11:16 IST
Prof Khyati Joshi, advisor to the survey -- Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths -- conducted by Pew Research Center's forum on religion and public life lends perspective on Asian Americans and their faith, particularly on Hinduism.

Dr Khyati Y Joshi, professor of education at Fairleigh Dickinson University, who was an external advisor to the Pew Research Center's forum on religion and public life, which last week released a survey -- Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths -- lent invaluable perspective to some of its findings that otherwise could have been misinterpreted vis-à-vis Asian American Hindus.

Joshi, author of the book New Roots in America's Sacred Ground: Religion, Race, and Ethnicity in Indian America, at a roundtable that participated in, said, "One of the more important things that have to be kept in mind regarding Hindus is that the idea that there are different ways to consider what does it mean to be religious."

Later in an interview, she explained the finding that Asian American Hindus may not consider religion to be an integral part of their lives going by the percentage of their attending worship services.

She said, "One of the most interesting features of the survey is about the number of Asian Americans who identified the importance of religion in their lives -- not very high, and in the case of Hindus, only 38 per cent."

Joshi said, where Asian Americans Hindus were concerned, "What rated the highest was being a good parent and what rated the second highest, was having a successful marriage -- that actually when it comes to Hindus, is not very surprising at all because within Hinduism you are thinking about the concept of dharma, the concept of obligation. The duty one has depending on one's life's stage."

"So, the majority of the folks surveyed were adults -- over 18 -- and when you receive a breakdown, the majority of Hindus, over 90 per cent are foreign born. So, with regard to attending services at a house of worship, Hindus go to the temple to a dharshan -- which is the act of seeing God and having God see you. And in people's minds, that's not necessarily associated with a service -- with something like a puja."

Thus, according to Joshi, the Pew data "makes a lot of sense if you have this background information."

When Luis Lugo, director of the Pew forum on religion and public life, which conducted the survey, recalled the Pew's global attitudes project, when the same question asked in India about the importance of religion had elicited a 69 per cent figure among Indian Hindus in India, who had made clear it was very important, Joshi said why it was much lower for Hindus in the United States was essentially because of the relatively new immigrant experience.

"There is a tremendous amount of pressure on the individual and the necessity to perform economically to provide for the family, to provide for the family back home in many cases, that far outdoes the importance in terms of spiritual well-being or the importance of religion," she argued. "So, there are so many other factors at play when one is going through the immigration process. Thus things that were very important and still might be important to the individual, for practicality reasons, they put them by the wayside."

Joshi also said that the finding that Asian American Hindus celebrate Christmas also had to be kept in perspective in terms of a cultural, as opposed to a religious experience.

"We don't know exactly in this survey when people say they do celebrate Christmas, what does celebrate mean. Is it religious? Is it cultural? Is it secular? Is it going to the mall?"

However, Joshi said, "It is important to understand that for some Hindus, sometimes Jesus can be seen as another incarnation of God. The theological exclusivity is not there and so it doesn't become an issue and especially in our religiously pluralistic democracy, it's incredibly important to understand this so that we do understand why some religious groups may be offended with the whole Merry Christmas thing, while others will just say Merry Christmas right back to you."

"And, this is a very real issue, I would say, on the streets of this country. So, I do think, Christmas is celebrated in a variety of ways, none of which can be discounted."

In terms of the socioeconomic discrepancy where Asian American Hindus while predominantly voting Democratic, on the critical question of less government, less services or big government providing more services, tended to be divided almost equally, Joshi said that "once again, it has to do with immigration."

"You have folks coming over and they weren't necessarily aware of what government can provide, but also you have -- and we are talking of the first major wave of immigrants who came over after 1965 -- highly educated, highly skilled folks -- it was very much the idea of pull yourself by your bootstraps, that I will get ahead, don't need to rely on other people, can't really rely on government. And, that I would say, is not that uncommon for different immigrant groups."

Two other external survey advisers, Jane Naomi Iwamura, visiting scholar and lecturer in Asian American Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, and Janelle Wong, Director of Asian American Studies, University of Maryland, were both of the view that the overwhelming propensity of Asian American Hindus to vote Democratic as did the Indian American Muslims as do the Muslim Americans in general, was much more pronounced after 9/11 and the racial profiling and discrimination they faced.

Iwamura said, "Hindus and Muslims see the Democratic Party reflecting their beliefs, but it also might be that they see the Democratic Party was looking at their interests as far as protecting their individual liberties."

Wong said, "The Asian American population as a whole, particularly the younger generation, does hold the view that it is more Democratic, and so, Hindus are reflecting that pattern. And, Asian Americans for the last 10 years has become more Democratic and have shown the biggest change towards the Democratic Party than other racial groups. So that's consistent as well."

She said, "Post 9/11, the Democrats may be attractive to Hindus because of the Republican Party involvement in those (racial profiling) incidents. It's likely a profiling issue for that population."

Joshi told that "as the report was being prepared, I offered feedback on Hindu-specific issues and provided wording on some questions and word choices, to diminish the Christian normativity. Pew was very responsive to this advice, and I think the report shows that."

She said, "Pew's report also now gives us information of what particular strains of Hinduism American Hindus identify with --19 per cent Vaishnavite, 10 per cent Shaivite, 3 per cent Hare Krishna, 2 per cent Vedanta philosophy, and 53 per cent as non-specific 'Hindu.'"

"Because this national survey collected data, this will increase awareness of the fact that there are different types of Hinduism, instead of Hinduism being discussed in a monolithic way and -- when contradictions are found, as they always are within religions -- treated as inconsistent, inadequate, or heretical."

Joshi said, "The data also tell us that the Indian American religious story involves embracing diversity: We see this in the 45 per cent of non-Hindu Indians who participate in Diwali celebrations, and in the number of Hindus who reported celebrating Christmas."

Image: Dr Khyati Y Joshi

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC