Matters of faith

How ISKCON took Hinduism to the US heartland

In the US, gurus and yogis have attracted tens of thousands of followers. But there is a huge gulf between American devotees of Hinduism and immigrants from the subcontinent.

In March last year, more than 65,000 people attended Utah’s famous Festival of Colors in 2014. The event was held at an ISKCON temple, and only a small percentage of attendees were Indian or Hindu. It was just one sign of how firmly Hinduism has come to be established in the US. Today, tens of millions of non-Indian Americans engage with Hindu religious beliefs and practices, whether through events like the Holi Festival of Colors, devotion to gurus, or postural yoga.

Most non-Indian Americans who are interested in Hinduism find their entrée into the religion through guru-led organisations and postural yoga. While Anandamayi Ma, Yogananda, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi), Shirdi Sai Baba and Sathya Sai Baba have all developed vibrant communities of American devotees, A C Bhaktivedanta Prabhupad and his organisation, ISKCON, has been one of the most visible, influential, and proselytizing voices of Hinduism in the United States.

Unlike other versions of Hinduism that gurus have presented to Americans, ISKCON is unique in that it has never attempted to universalise or dilute Hindu beliefs and practices in order to fit into local American customs. In fact, ISKCON encourages its disciples to learn Sanskrit, chant mantras, wear Indian clothing, eat vegetarian food, and devote themselves to Krishna. ISKCON presented Krishna as a monotheistic supreme deity, and has augmented its theology to draw parallels with Christ.

Engaging with the public

Soon after Prabhupad founded the organisation, ISKCON quickly became one of the most public voices of Hinduism and an active leader in the countercultural movements of the late 1960s. Though The Beatles famously visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in India in 1968, it was George Harrison’s hit single of ISKCON’s mahamantra that the American public remembered. ISKCON came to represent the countercultural American religious exploration and birthed the now perennial ideal of spiritual tourism in “mystic India”.

The success of ISKCON also emerged from two of Prabhupad’s successful strategies: public engagement and the distribution of literature. Hare Krishnas (ISKCON devotees) did not retreat into temples with their devotions. Instead, they began their mission in airports, on street corners, in public parks and on university campuses. They publically chanted the name of Krishna and were highly visible in their signature Indic clothing. Hare Krishnas also solicited the American public in visible ways through their popular kitchens and restaurants.

Second, the Hare Krishnas distributed books to people who were used to reading religion. Historically, religion in the United States has been largely focused on sacred books. Nearly 80% of Americans identify as Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, all religions of the book. Eighteen percent identify with no specific religious identity, but many of these people are active consumers of “New Age” and “spiritual” publications. In fact, each year Americans spend close to $1 billion on self-help and inspirational books. When ISKCON developed its strategy of soliciting the American public by handing out free spiritual books, it was brilliantly calibrated to American cultural values.

Popularity of yoga

While ISKCON struggled through the 1980s and 1990s with sex and financial scandals, today, it is becoming vibrant again. ISKCON has realised that fun, festival and cultural tourism are some of Americans’ favourite pastimes. In recent years, the organisation has also had major successes with its “Festival of India” campaign and the recreation of Holi through the Festival of Colors.

In addition to the influences of gurus, yoga has become a booming business in the United States. In 2012, 20.2 million Americans reported that they do yoga. Each year, Americans spend $10.3 billion on yoga. ISKCON sponsored festivals and temples in the US have capitalised on this popularity, and many host yoga classes and workshops that draw Americans into the fold.

But despite the fact that more Americans are chanting “Om” and praying to Hindu deities than ever before, very few non-Indian Americans would say that they have converted to Hinduism.

The reason for this is the commonplace understanding that Hinduism is an ethnically dependent religious category, and one to which there are few clear avenues of conversion. While some pujaris may officiate “conversion” ceremonies, non-Indians who claim to have “converted” are often viewed with scepticism. Some opponents suggest that their conversions are inauthentic because one must be Indian in order to be Hindu. Others view the claim to have converted to Hinduism (particularly among whites) as a condemnable and neo-colonial form of cultural appropriation.

Belief and practice

Although there are many non-Indians who have an affinity for and even a deep devotion to Hinduism, the implied ethnic requirements, the historical exclusivity, and the potential backlash from Indian Hindus stymies attempts at official conversion. Furthermore, American multiculturalism insists that immigrant populations represent their particular cultural-religious background in the public sphere. As such, it dictates that non-Indians have no viable claim to represent Hinduism. Instead, these growing populations turn to gurus, yoga and pastiche spiritualities, and live out their religious convictions through personal belief and practice, and not in the name of Hinduism.

In the midst of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s push for a national anti-conversion law and the increasing accounts of ghar wapasi (reconversion or “homecoming”) events, one might question: why aren’t Hindus abroad converting non-Indians to Hinduism in similar fashion? The absence of such conversion efforts lies in the fact that in the North American diaspora, Hinduism is largely viewed as an ethnically exclusive religion available only for Indian Hindus. Instead, proselytization efforts are left to the gurus and yogis.

The Vishva Hindu Parishad of America, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh USA, and the Hindu American Foundation each are powerful voices for Hinduism in the United States, but they are largely focused on education, building communal solidarity and identity, and networking resources for Indian-Hindu Americans. Instead of proselytizing to Americans, they serve as a financial engine supporting Sangh affairs in India.

Exclusive religious community

Historically, the primary concern of the VHPA, HSS, and HAF has been to present the history, culture, beliefs and practices of Hinduism in a positive light to American audiences. These advocacy groups have intervened in public discussions, academic debates and intellectual property campaigns in efforts to ensure that their versions of Hinduism become the dominant representations. These are the activist territories of the Sangh in the United States. Quite simply, there has been little time left over or impetus remaining for proselytisation to non-Indian Hindu communities.

Because Sangh organisations and Hindu temples dedicate most of their attention to immigrant Indian Hindus, most non-Indian Americans view them as ethnically exclusive religious communities. Although some non-Indian Americans may visit temples and Sangh events, few attend regularly and few would consider themselves members. Faced with the difficult questions of religious and cultural representation in multiculturalist America, the majority of non-Indian Americans prefer to practice their “Om-s” on their own, without any claims to conversion.

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