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Global Hinduism in Gotham

The largest concentration of Hindu centers and temples, as well as 60% of the city’s total number of Hindus, inhabit the remarkable borough of Queens.

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Hindu Bride NYC.

 

The lay of the land

The global dispersion of Hinduism has ancient roots. Despite the brahmanical proscription against crossing “the black waters,” Indian traders whose religious sensibilities would today be called Hindu have plied oceans west and east of the subcontinent for at least two millennia. The worship of Shiva apparently dominated the Cambodian court in the fourth century C.E., and soon afterward there were settled communities of Hindus in Java. Hindu traders were probably also a regular presence in east Africa since they were noticed there by Periplus in the first century C.E., though we know few specifics until large numbers of recruits from Punjab and Gujarat followed British railway-building projects in the nineteenth century. At that time new forces unleashed by European capitalism and imperialism spread Hindu religious forms even farther from India. Hindus from northern India were transplanted as far east as the Fiji Islands and as far west as Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname, and Trinidad. In the late twentieth century each of these communities began to send emigrants to the United States, and Emma Lazarus would have been pleased to see that a number of them were drawn to New York City.

Even without immigration, the twentieth century had already cultivated a healthy Hindu presence in New York. Americans who had grown up Christian or Jewish found themselves responding to the missionary efforts of charismatic Hindu leaders. Swami Vivekananda was the first such missionary. He made a sensational appearance at the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893 and soon travelled to New York, where he gathered a circle of admirers who became the first of America’s Vedanta Societies (1894). For many years it has met in a handsome brownstone on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Another Bengali, a retired businessman from Calcutta named Abhay Charan De, made a similarly deep impression three quarters of a century later. His personal charisma as Bhaktivedanta Swami combined with his cultural moment to produce the Hare Krishna movement, whose singing, dancing entry into the East Village scene in 1966 has made it a countercultural legend ever since. Many other travelling gurus have had their impact, as well.

Undoubtedly Americans attracted to leaders like Swami Vivekananda and Bhaktivedanta Swami have contributed substantially to the many-faceted religious history of New York, but the present mood of transnational Hinduism in the city owes far more to second group, whose experience of the western hemisphere is much more recent. These are the immigrants from South Asia who have been touted as a model minority because their educational attainments and economic standing outrank those of all other ethnic groups in the American population today. They began to arrive in significant numbers after that watershed moment in 1965 when U.S. immigration laws barring non-Europeans were revised so as to assign priority to applicants not just on the basis of national origin but also in recognition of their educational and technical attainments that would make them useful in American society. Goodbye, Emma Lazarus! These these are hardly “your tired, your poor.” Some Hindu Americans feel the “model minority” billing conceals as much as its illuminates, but no one doubts that these Hindus have made a dramatic impact on the city’s financial, professional, and intellectual life. Thanks to them – but also to Sikhs from the Punjab and Muslims largely from Pakistan and Bangladesh – the New York metropolitan area now hosts the second largest concentration of South Asians living outside the subcontinent; only London ranks higher…

A third component of New York’s Hindu population also comes from India, but not directly. These are the city’s twice-migrant Caribbean Hindus, and reasonable estimates of their numbers hover around 100,000. A huge segment of that population arrived in the 1970s and 80s, especially in response to the repressive politics of Forbes Burnham and his Peoples’ National Congress party in Guyana, which particularly targeted Guyanese of Asian descent. Nothing so vividly demonstrates their special ethnic identity among New York’s Hindus as their eager participation in the boisterous, colorful West Indian parade that wends its way down Liberty Avenue in Brooklyn every spring in celebration of the festival Carribeanites call Phagwa (i.e., phalgun, known more familiarly in India as Holi). There are other indices of this separate sense of identity, as well. Caribbean Indians have their own newspaper, The Caribbean Indian Times, and can listen to a specifically Caribbean radio station, WVOX (93.5 FM). Recently several of the Hindus in this wider Caribbean group – they constitute some 85% of the total – have established the Rajkumari Cultural Center to coordinate Caribbean Hindu information and activities. Given their separate history and their separate categorization in census data, it is perhaps not surprising that these Hindus are completely absent from the standard sources on Indian immigration into the city. But it is regrettable.

Taken as a whole, this new Indian-American reality makes for an amazing scene, and Gotham’s global Hinduism is an important part of it. New York’s many Hindu temples serve as points of gathering, refuge, and concentration for vast numbers of ordinary Hindus resident in the city’s five boroughs. The largest concentration of Hindu centers and temples, as well as 60% of the city’s total number of Hindu residents, inhabit the remarkable borough of Queens, home to a kaleidoscope of immigrants from all over the world. We will visit three of these temples in the pages that lie ahead. Our purpose will be to see how each displays a transnational, even global identity while at the same time functioning as a local institution. They do so in strikingly different ways, yet there are signs that their individual styles increasingly interact, without necessarily converging.

 

The Great Ganesh Temple, Flushing

The great Ganesh temple – formally the Sri Maha Vallabha Ganapati Devasthanam – is New York's best known Hindu temple. It has a mailing list in 1999 that approaches 15,000, and it is accessible on the Web to many thousands more. This dot-com dimension is significant, but for the moment let's stay on the ground. The temple building is to be found on Bowne Street in Flushing, not many blocks away from the 3500-member Korean Presbyterian Church. The two buildings serve as anchors for this polyreligious street, but they look very different. While the Koreans have built a structure whose sloping roofs seem to soar into the future, the Ganesh temple strives to incorporate structural features that have been familiar to Tamil- and Telugu-speakers for many centuries: a golden pillar that culminates in an image of Vishnu’s avian mount Garuda and a richly sculpted gopuram that rises above the temple’s main entrance.

The Ganesh temple's myth of origin is densely transnational. The man who first envisioned it in 1970, Dr. Alagappa Alagappan, was a Tamilian lawyer trained in London who became a career civil servant at the United Nations. Two years earlier, on a visit home in South India, Alagappa had received a communication from the sage Agastya, who spoke through a Nadishastra medium reading palmyra leaves. Agastya told him the god Ganesh would establish a small abode in a city whose name begins with the letter N., and that Dr. Alagappa would be his instrument. Later Alagappa learned from the same medium that he should have the new image of Ganesh fashioned of stone from Tiruvannamalai, the major focus in Tamil Nadu for the worship of Ganesh. Thus the intercontinental religious bond expressed on Bowne Street is etched in stone.

In India, Ganesh normally appears as a supporting member of the divine cast. His image is apt to be placed in an ancillary or introductory position in temples dedicated primarily to other gods – often near the entryway – or it may appear alone in a roadside shrine. In Flushing, however, Ganesh is definitely the central deity; the other gods circle around him. This is no accident. Ganesh is a trans-sectarian figure worshipped by Hindus of many inclinations, and therefore ideally suited to a temple that intended, at least in its origins, to appeal to Hindus whose religious backgrounds might have separated them back home. As the god of beginnings, furthermore, he was the ideal inaugurator of a whole network of temples in the United States. In this work, Ganesh was supported by another major transnational Hindu actor, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam, easily one of India's richest temples, which made a loan of $150,000; and the Endowments Department of the government of the state of Andhra Pradesh played a supporting role. The Tirupati deity, a form of Vishnu, is also installed in the Flushing temple, further cementing the motherland connection.

The worship of Ganesh has been on the rise in India itself over the course of the last several centuries. In this he parallels Hanuman and certain forms of the Goddess.

In part because these deities sometimes act as mediators to the "high gods" Vishnu and Shiva, they have an accessibility as loci of power that has caused them somewhat to displace their elders or superiors through time. But each of these is also trans-sectarian, and that role is especially important in New York, where Hindus – especially Hindus of the first immigrant generation – formed associations across boundaries of region, language, and sectarian association that would have been somewhat unusual in India. This new catholicity is often found in the broad selection of deities represented in diaspora temples, again by contrast to India itself.

Ganesh also has a civic and even national meaning that deserves note. Beginning early in this century, in Maharashtra, one saw an effort to turn the deity's annual celebration day, Ganesh Chaturthi, into a festival of corporate Hindu unity. That ritual has now begun to make its way to Tamil Nadu as well, and it is certainly at home in Tamil Queens. So when a portable image of Ganesh is paraded noisily through the streets on a huge temple cart around the beginning of September each year, a whiff of cultural nationalism is in the air. But is it “religious nationalism” in the narrower, more threatening sense? That seems unlikely. Hindus have long associated their understanding of what religion means with their community’s geographical basis. India itself is regarded by Hindus as being in some way divine, and this sensibility has often flowed naturally into the veins of Indian nationalism. For this reason, when a date was selected for the ritual inauguration (pranapratistha) of the central image in Flushing, the date chosen was one that had a political significance. It was not India’s Independence Day, however, but rather the fourth of July. Clearly nationalism matters here – nationalism in a religious sense – but in a complex and openly binational way.

American national consciousness is inscribed on the Ganesh temple in other ways, too. As links in the temple website indicate, this community sees itself as having been the genesis of a network of mostly Vaishnava, mostly South Indian temples throughout the United States. Unlike the others, however, the Bowne St. temple was not built de novo on a piece of suburban or exurban property. In Pittsburgh or Atlanta it was possible to approximate the physical setting of the influential Tirupati temple by choosing from a set of American hillscapes, but on Bowne Street geographic translation of this literal variety could not succeed. Because of New York, because of the urban base of the Indian-American community at that time, and doubtless because of financial limitations, the temple had to be built in a pre-existing structure that had already gone through several churchly incarnations (elsewhere in the city, vacated synagogues were often the buildings of choice.) Even with the recently completed annex for weddings, meetings, prayer sessions, and performances, the Ganesh temple presents quite a contrast to the brand-spanking-new elegance of comparable temples around the country. Here you leave your shoes in a rack next to the house next door – now part of the temple complex – or in the erstwhile church basement.

Actually, the basement and the sanctuary above it are not entirely separate. TV monitors downstairs enable overflow crowds on festival days to follow the ritual action that transpires in the immediate vicinity of the gods. And monitors have been suspended from the ceiling in the main sanctuary itself, permitting worshippers the same unhindered views – and incidentally, simultaneous access to more than one shrine area. It is a remarkably virtual, hypertext environment, favored by the heavily visual bias of Hindu temple ritual generally. In many ways, from the building of long vistas to the deft use of curtains to the shoving of the crowds, Hindu temple environments in India are closely attuned to the primacy of sight. Through priestly lineages and guilds of Indian craftsmen, a sense of authenticity in the physical basis of darsan (seeing the divine image) is maintained in New York, but it is amplified simultaneously by this open adoption of an electronic medium. Nowadays it is a global medium, as well, for static forms of the images one sees on the CRTs in the temple itself also appear on the temple website.

This website takes its place alongside hundreds, perhaps thousands of other Hindu websites. Given the astonishingly dense presence of Hindus, especially South Indian Hindus, in computer-related fields, this is no surprise: Tamil is among the languages most commonly used on the Internet today. Little in Hindu ritual etiquette impedes the community's creativity in cyberspace. This is not an iconoclastic tradition. Hindus have always cultivated an awareness of the power of images and symbols, and they have a long history of recognizing alternate worlds or levels of consciousness in which it is possible to live simultaneously. Hence the many disputes about one's proper relationship to images in cyberspace: are they to be downloaded freely for home veneration or not? Must non-Hindu viewers become Hindu initiates (through a few additional clicks) to access them? Can the economy of prasad – the offering and receiving of sanctified food – operate in this realm, as it does through the medium of a regular temple image? What would it mean to enliven such an image ritually, invoking the divine presence into this dot-matrix form? These are some of the leading-edge questions in global Hinduism today.

Such virtual media are familiar to many, perhaps most worshippers at the Ganesh temple in Queens, and I suspect the fact that the temple operates in this virtual space adds to its value as a space in Flushing itself, increasing the number of visitors. The importance of bodily contact with the deity, as mediated through prasad, has apparently not been sacrificed in the process. People flock from miles around, especially the suburbs, and take-home prasad is a major item for sale. At this point in the generational history of Hindus around New York, to come to Bowne Street is to return to some sort of center or source. When I was there on the night of Shivaratri in 2000, I heard a couple of teenagers say it was the only temple around that really rocks all night long.

The temple was jammed that night, but there was in recent memory a moment of even greater concentration, when fully global simultaneity was achieved. This was the famous "Milk Miracle" of September 1995, when Hindu images worldwide, especially Ganeshes, suddenly started accepting and visibly ingesting spoonfuls of milk from their devotees. I say "suddenly" because news of the event spread like wildfire around the globe – by phone and e-mail through networks of family and friends – well before the public media picked up the story. Delhi (indeed, upper-middle-class South Delhi) was apparently the point of genesis, so there was an implicit political dimension as this seismic reality throbbed outward from the capital over telephone circuits and e-mail connections.

Yet I believe the global content was at least equally important, a sense of simultaneity that was not firmly anchored in national or even inter-national space. Most who flocked to temples like the Bowne St. temple had no idea that the pebble had dropped into the lake at Delhi. Moreover, certain Hindu commentators saw the phenomenon as a clear and indeed revelatory vindication of image-worship to a world whose monotheistic habits of mind were openly scornful of it. As a priest at the Mahalaxmi temple in Bombay, India's most cosmopolitan city, put it: “God has a message for us. He is saying, 'This is not just stone. It is me'.”

For many people with whom I talked, the miracle itself took sustenance from and even consisted in the social fact of global Hindu simultaneity. Many who thought long and hard about the dispersive capillary effect created when spoonfuls of milk touched the stone nonetheless felt that thrill.

 

Bochasanwasi Swaminarayan Sanstha Temple, Flushing

The Ganesh temple in Flushing, with its highly educated, overwhelmingly middle- or upper-middle-class constituency, illustrates some of the important vectors of transnational Hinduism. Yet very different versions of Hindu transnationalism can also be encountered within a five-mile radius of Bowne Street. One of the most notable of these is visible just down the street, in fact, at the Bochasanwasi Swaminarayan Sanstha. This temple was the first established in the United States by the worldwide network of Swaminarayan temples and ashrams headquartered at Ahmedabad, capital of the Indian state of Gujarat.

Originally unaware of the simultaneous presence of Hindus from South India who were gathered in the Russian Orthodox church down the street preparing to raze it and build the Ganesh temple, the Gujarati professionals who spearheaded the establishment of Bowne Street’s Swaminarayan temple were responding to quite another call. They were helping to spread a reformist brand of Vaishnava teaching and practice that had been developed at the beginning of the nineteenth century by a renunciant religious leader named Swaminarayan. The monastic order he established continues to provide the central infrastructure for the worldwide Swaminarayan community, but householders such as K. C. Patel, a professor of chemistry,  whose home near Bowne St. served as the first meetingplace for the Bowne St. temple, provide far more than financial assistance in the cause. Through their energy, self-conscious missionizing, and example the Swaminarayan movement (as it calls itself) has expanded from its single location on Bowne Street to a whole network of other temples in the United States and Canada. These in turn are linked to Swaminarayan pilgrimage destinations of an international frame. They include not only the home sites in Gujarat – some venerable and some newly constructed with substantial donations from abroad – but also magnificent temple complexes in London and New Jersey that are intended to serve, in the words of a Swaminarayan pamphlet, as “spiritual oases” in a world habituated to other paths.

The Swaminarayan religion has been studied extensively by Raymond Williams in a series of articles and books, but two aspects of its particular expression of transnational Hinduism in Queens should be flagged. These are the explicit global structure of the movement as a whole and its seemingly paradoxical counterpart: Swaminarayan’s devotion to Gujarati-ness.

On the global side, Swaminarayan is interested in producing a tangible, well-articulated network of sites that will serve as magnets for travel and as resources abroad (“oases”) for the extremely mobile Swaminarayan community itself. At the same time, somewhat after the fashion of the sparkling Baha’i temples that have been built on each continent, they are intended to display the brilliance of the Swaminarayan vision of humanity to others who might be attracted to it. When one visits the relatively humble Swaminarayan temple on Bowne Street, one hears of the greater glory of the temple being built in New Jersey and especially of the magnificence one can experience just outside London. The implication is that the London temple is not just an outpost; it is a new global hub.

Yet it is worth remembering that the presence of Gujaratis in England is even more marked than in the United States, so unlike the Baha’i parallel the London temple makes sense in local terms as well. Not only that, it makes sense in Gujarati terms. Swaminarayan is insistent in its devotion to the culture of Gujarat and its language, which was the medium of the founding guru. With the westward dispersion of Gujarati professionals, who constitute a large and influential segment of Indians recently immigrant to the United States, the Swaminarayan movement has taken a leading role in attempting to preserve Gujarati culture abroad. This is one reason that many immigrant Gujaratis whose families had not been connected with Swaminarayan back home have joined the community abroad. Summarizing this picture, Raymond Williams has spoken of Swaminarayan’s particular brand of global religion as emphasizing “transnational ethnicity.”

Not surprisingly, some of the most difficult issues that the community faces are connected to the loss of fluency in Gujarati on the part of the second generation, as is the case with Sikhs in regard to Punjabi. In both instances this is not just an ethnic but a religious issue, since scripture is involved. There is nothing wrong with being a second-generation American; quite the contrary. But the prospect of being a second-class citizen with respect to one’s own religion – separated from its language – is an unhappy new development. This is especially so in traditions like Swaminarayan and Sikhism, both of which began by stressing the vivid, broad-based access to religious truth they provided by favoring the language commonly spoken in their religions. Swaminarayan’s imaginative, carefully maintained, and officially supervised website plays on the reach of the medium itself to underscore the community’s global identity, but that new sense of instant community only partially replaces the sense of deep belonging that comes from speaking a common language and hearing it used as the language of faith. Swaminarayan’s “transnational ethnicity” still has to confront the threat of growing alienation from Gujarat and Gujarati on the part of it diasporic young.

 

The America Sevashram Sangha, Jamaica

Such problems of cultural alienation and reintegration have long been familiar to Hindus who have made their way to New York from the Caribbean. Members of the Sri Ram Mandir of Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, for example, continue to use Hindi in the devotional songs (bhajans) that form a major part of every Sunday morning worship service (puja), but many participants do so with the aid of hymnbooks that have the Hindi words transliterated out of their original Devana-gari script and into the Roman alphabet. The regaining of Hindi, in part to permit real access to the celebrated Ramayana composed in the sixteenth century by Tulsidas, is a constant project. Yet this degree of devotion to Hindi is not central in the practice of other Caribbean Hindu communities. Hindi bhajans may be overshadowed by chants using a basic Sanskrit, and the lan-guage of preaching and conversation is far more apt to be English than Hindi.

Such is the milieu of the America Sevashram Sangha, located in the Jamaica section of Queens. In its current demographic composition, this neighborhood is a bit farther down the economic scale than Flushing. Here the most visible ethnicities are not Korean and Chinese, but African American, Latin American, Philippino, Pakistani, and Guyanese.

It was Hindus from Guyana who converted a good-sized synagogue building at 153-14 90th Avenue into the America Sevashram Sangha. Their forebears had come to Guyana in the middle and late nineteenth century as indentured laborers from various locales in north India, especially Bihar, but this particular religious organization (sangha) owes its genesis to the missionary activity of an enterprising member of the monastic order established by the Bengali reformer-guru Swami Pranavananda (1896-1941). He is Swami Vidyananda, a stocky man in his mid-sixties who dresses in a long saffron robe and wears a necklace of rudraksa beads, sacred to Shiva. The sense of solidness he communicates goes well beyond the physical, and is always served with a smile. Swami Vidyananda was born in Guyana and entered into his religious life at the age of twenty, when he met Swami Purnananda, a disciple of Swami Pranavananda’s who had recently arrived in Guyana from Trinidad in hopes of establishing a educational institution that would contribute to the advancement of Hindus living there both spiritually and practically. Swami Purnananda founded Hindu College and Hindu Primary School, which opened their doors in 1957 to anyone who wished to come: Hindus, Muslims, Christians. The then-novitiate Swami Vidyananda was teaching science.

When Swami Vidyananda’s guru deemed him ready to advance beyond the student’s stage (brahmacari) in his religious vocation, the two men travelled to the order’s headquarters in present-day Bangladesh. There in 1970 Swami Vidyananda received his full initiation as a celibate renunciant (sannyasi). Later in the 70s he replaced his guru as headmaster of the schools he had established, and served in that role through a decade of difficult political challenges at the national level, some of which might have claimed his life. In 1985, under intense pressure from the government to join its compulsory National Service Program – and simultaneously under pressure from his own staff, many of whom did not wish to appear less than enthusiastic about the NSP – Swami Vidyananda resigned his position, explaining that his growing obligations as preacher and teacher beyond the schools had made the change necessary. In 1987 he joined the huge migratory flow out of the Caribbean into New York.

The America Sevashram Sangha is his handiwork. The congregation gathered to worship there on a Sunday morning comes primarily from the immediate neighborhood, but other Guyanese come from as far away as New Jersey. In a few cases they are prompted to do so by their association with the educational institutions Swami Vidyananda left behind. In Jamaica, Queens, education remains a central focus both of the Swami and of his “parishioners.” One member told me proudly that his son had been accepted to Columbia. Another young woman, enrolled at nearby St. John’s University, waited patiently through a long conversation between the Swami and me to present him with a check to support the medical center his order is now building back in Guyana; she was acting on behalf of the Guyanese students’ organization at St. John’s. Especially at the aspiring socio-economic level represented by many members of America Sevashram Sangha, education seems to provide the most basic sense of transnational security, and all the more so when it is framed in a religious context.

In such ways the America Sevashram Sangha both represents and enacts ties to the Guyanese homeland, playing exactly the sort of active role that religious centers often do for recently immigrant Americans. Yet because it serves a twice-migrant community, the temple necessarily facilitates a sense of identification between Guyanese Hindus and their more distant South Asian homeland. Swami Vidyananda has promoted this process in recent years by taking certain members of his flock on an annual tour of various pilgrimage sites in India. Most of these destinations – Banaras, Hardwar, Rishikesh, Vrindaban, Kuruksetra – would figure in any standard religious journey around North India, but the itinerary culminates with a visit to the burial place (samadhi) of Swami Pranavananda in Bajitpur, now in Bangladesh. When these Caribbean-Americans travel to South Asia in the company of their spiritual leader cum guide, they use a vocabulary provided by religion to close the India-Guyana-New York triangle that they and their forbears have otherwise travelled for economic reasons. In South Asia, pilgrimage routes have for centuries provided Hindus with an idealized yet flexible representation of what it would mean to encompass the whole. Here that pattern is adapted to global ends as Guyanese Hindus acquire the means to cross a border that was far more difficult for them to approach in Guyana itself: the border to India.

One of the most exquisite aspects of the Hindu tradition is its ability to prize the specific, the local, the bodily, the imagistic in a context that is dramatically universal. Extreme forms of other religious traditions, particularly the monotheistic ones, may devote themselves to a vision of the global that reduces many to one. But among Hindus, characteristically, the globe’s abundantly evident plurality is interpreted as a sign that there is value in every part. In the crunch of life in Queens, this message comes across as plainly as it could anyplace on earth.
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It is a pleasure to acknowledge the efforts of a number of students and former students who have helped me understand the temples explored in this essay: Michelle Caswell, Virginia Cromie, Scott Hanson, Gregg Hansbury, Anne Murphy, Shrivani Persad, and Shana Sippy. I also wish to express my gratitude to the many people who welcomed me and cheerfully answered my questions as I traveled in Queens, several of whom are cited in reports of interviews below. In particular I am indebted to Swami Jagdishwaranand of the Geeta Temple and Swami Vidyananda of the America Sevashram Sangha; and for editing, as ever, to my wife Laura Shapiro.

For the complete article see Asian American Religions. 2004.

7 Responses to “Global Hinduism in Gotham” Leave a reply ›

  • Like this.

  • Excellent, interesting, and informative article. Thank you. Two comments:

    • Dr. K.C. Patel, founding president of the Swaminarayan temple was a Ph.D. Professor of Chemistry, not a medical doctor.
    •The July 4th was chosen for the dedication of the Ganesh temple primarily because it was a long holiday weekend when Hindus were free from work to travel to NYC for the ceremonies that lasted longer than one day.

  • Thanks!

  • Great report. Since my wife grew up in India where her parents were missionaries, I find this especially poignant !!

    Continuing the great work of Journey !!!

  • Like this too.

  • Like this article.

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