LUCKY SEVERSON (guest anchor): Next, the
rising profile of Hinduism in the United States. New census
figures show a sharp rise in the number of Asian-Indian
immigrants to America. The vast majority of them are Hindus.
At close to 1.5 million, they now form the fifth largest
religious group, after Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and
Buddhism. Recently, the increased attention to Hinduism has
come from a clash with an American icon --
Fred de Sam Lazaro has our
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Brij Sharma prays
twice each day in his suburban Seattle home. In the kitchen
that houses his altar, no meat is ever cooked. Sharma, like
most Hindus, does not consume beef.
So he would seem
an unlikely customer of McDonald's, the world's largest
seller of beef. But he began going there in the early '90s
after the chain announced it would stop using animal fat to
prepare its fries.
MR. BRIJ SHARMA: I heard on TV
that they will not use beef fat to cook the french fries,
so after that I started eating french fries from McDonald's.
DE SAM LAZARO: But last year,
McDonald's issued a clarification. Although it had switched
to 100 percent vegetable oil, so-called natural ingredients
added to the french fries do include a miniscule amount of
beef flavoring -- much to Sharma's horror.
SHARMA: For quite a long time, in the morning, I started
DE SAM LAZARO: At the thought of
MR. SHARMA: At the thought of it. Because
when in the morning, I'd go for my prayer, and that time I
used to feel there is something wrong I have done in my
DE SAM LAZARO: To Hindus, the
cow has been a revered figure, a bountiful animal that gives
milk and butter. It was the favorite of Lord Krishna, one
of Hinduism's most commonly revered deities, a symbol of
love, the destroyer of evil.
Seattle attorney Harish Bharti,
[a] Hindu and vegetarian himself, has taken up the cause of
Sharma and perhaps others. He hopes to file a class-action
suit on behalf of vegetarians and Hindus, who he says feel
MR. HARISH BHARTI (attorney):
Think of somebody who is [an] animal lover or loves dogs
and they found out that some corporation has been feeding
them dog meat, or that a group of people have been fed a
miniscule amount of human meat, in some product. How would
that make people feel?
LAZARO: Many Hindus in America feel the McDonald's
lawsuit represents a coming of age, a growing
self-confidence in this mostly first-generation immigrant
PROFESSOR SREENATH SREENIVASAN
(Columbia University): The kind of attention that has
been paid to this particular story we have never seen
before. This is an American story, this is someone living in
this country who is reacting to something so American as
McDonald's, and that has caused everyone to sit up and pay
DE SAM LAZARO: Most Hindus are
immigrants from India. They began arriving in the U.S. in
the mid-'60s. Many are doctors, engineers, and
entrepreneurs, notably in the software business -- making
them overall one of the most affluent ethnic groups in the
For the first time last year,
a Hindu priest delivered an invocation in the U.S. Congress.
But like many Hindu names, Hinduism itself
has been difficult for the American public to grasp and, at
times, to accept. New York gynecologist Uma Mysorekar
remembers when the Ganesha temple, one of the oldest in
North America, opened in Queens 25 years ago.
UMA MYSOREKAR (gynecologist): A lot of residents around
were totally unfamiliar with Hinduism. They couldn't
understand the rituals that were being performed, and [there
was] to some extent some mockery and a lot of vandalism the
first five, six years.
DE SAM LAZARO: Dr. Mysorekar says
things are fine now, thanks to a concerted effort to invite
neighbors into the temple for celebrations and to demystify
Hinduism and its seeming contradictions: believing in one
supreme being while worshipping many deities.
example, in Hinduism, God is manifest in many deities. The
stories, legends, or parables behind them go back 5,000
years. An individual's choice of a deity and the rituals are
informed by personal choice and centuries of
DR. MYSOREKAR: Hinduism is such a
simple religion. Many people come here and tell me, "I want
to become a Hindu, what shall I do?" I tell them, "You stand
here and declare yourself a Hindu, that's all." There is no
ritual as well for the individual to become a Hindu, which
means what your belief, what your faith, what you follow, is
what you are.
DE SAM LAZARO: In general, she
says, Hindus are asked to do good unto others, or at least
to do no harm, and to serve the community.
PROFESSOR SREENIVASAN: You sort
of make your own rules within a generic, general framework.
We also see that you can't be really excommunicated, there
isn't anyone to excommunicate you, and those are difficult
things for Americans of other religions to understand. Because
they are used to the teachings, they're used to going to
mass on Sunday or keeping the Sabbath on Saturday. That's
partly because of the way Hinduism evolved thousands of
years ago. It was more of a way of life than an organized
DE SAM LAZARO: However, Hindus in
America have begun to organize along some of the
Sunday school-like programs
are held in temples like the Arya Samaj in New York.
There are summer camps, like this one in
Minnesota, intended to offset the immersion these kids get
in their daily lives.
Unidentified child counselor: I
had a little problem identifying myself with other kids
because they were so strong with their religion, because it
was an Episcopalian school. So you always learned about
Jesus and the Bible and everything. But I think after going
to camp I know a lot more about my own
DE SAM LAZARO: Going to camp also
equips them to answer questions from non-Hindus.
children at camp): What's the most common question you're
CHILDREN: The cows,
DE SAM LAZARO: The cow
and reincarnation are at the heart of the McDonald's
lawsuits. Hindus believe in reincarnation -- that one's
conduct in this life affects the quality of the next.
Consuming beef is a setback in that quest, and Sharma says
he'll have to work to cleanse his soul.
SHARMA: I might have to take a dip in the Ganges,
consult with priests ... until then I will feel
DE SAM LAZARO: Sharma gets sympathy
from most Hindus, but some worry the lawsuit may hurt their
PROFESSOR SREENIVASAN: Many Hindus are happy, at
least we're fighting McDonald's. Others who eat there, who
eat beef -- including me -- say you get what you deserve
going to McDonald's. It isn't exactly a house of vegetarianism.
Some feel that this is not the battle to be fought.
DE SAM LAZARO: Minnesota
legislator Satveer Chaudhury does not believe the lawsuit
will hurt the acceptance of Hindus. He's the first Hindu in
the U.S. to be elected a state senator.
MR. SATVEER CHAUDHURY (Senator,
Minnesota): You have a group of people asserting their rights
just like any other group has the right to do. That's part
of America ultimately, and perhaps the fact that these Hindus
are suing for some consumer protection makes them clearly
more American than they were before.
SAM LAZARO: For its part, McDonald's has denied
violating any laws and has issued an apology for what it
calls confusion. The switch to vegetable oil with a beef
flavoring was a cholesterol concern, not a religious one,
the company says. A hearing in the Seattle case is expected
For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY,
this is Fred de Sam Lazaro.
The Hindu Temple
Society of North America
Search Engine for Hinduism
FROM THE GANGES TO THE HUDSON: INDIAN IMMIGRANTS IN
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edited by Johanna Lessinger and Nancy
THE RELIGIONS OF IMMIGRANTS FROM INDIA AND
PAKISTAN: NEW THREADS IN THE AMERICAN TAPESTRY
THE SOUTH ASIAN RELIGIOUS DIASPORA IN
BRITAIN, CANADA, AND THE UNITED STATES
edited by Harold
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PASSAGE FROM INDIA: ASIAN INDIANS IN NORTH AMERICA
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THE ASIAN INDIAN EXPERIENCE IN
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by Parmatma Saran
ETHNICS: ASIAN INDIANS IN THE UNITED STATES
Edwin Eames and Parmatma Saran
INDIAN IMMIGRANTS IN AN AMERICAN METROPOLIS
TRANSPLANTING RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS
John Y. Fenton
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