PBSThirteen

Feature: Hindus in America

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 -- McDonald's.

Fred de Sam Lazaro has our report.

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 SharmaMR. 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.

MR. SHARMA: For quite a long time, in the morning, I started vomiting.

DE SAM LAZARO: At the thought of it?

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 life.

Lord KrishnaDE 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 added insult.

Mr. Harish BhartiMR. 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?

DE SAM 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 community.

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 attention.

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 nation.

Priest in CongressFor 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.

DR. 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.

Dr. Uma MysorekarDE 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.

For 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 tradition.

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.

Prof. SreenivasanPROFESSOR 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 religion.

DE SAM LAZARO: However, Hindus in America have begun to organize along some of the Judeo-Christian models.

Hindu Sunday schoolSunday 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 religion.

DE SAM LAZARO: Going to camp also equips them to answer questions from non-Hindus.

(to children at camp): What's the most common question you're asked about?

Hindu camp counselorsCHILDREN: The cows, Ganesh, reincarnation.

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.

MR. SHARMA: I might have to take a dip in the Ganges, consult with priests ... until then I will feel guilty.

DE SAM LAZARO: Sharma gets sympathy from most Hindus, but some worry the lawsuit may hurt their image.

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.

Rep. Satveer ChaudhuryMR. 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.

DE 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 in September.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, this is Fred de Sam Lazaro.


Related Links:

The Hindu Universe
http://www.hindunet.org

The Hindu Temple Society of North America
http://www.indianet.com/ganesh/

Hinduism Today
http://www.hinduismtoday.com

Yahoo Search Engine for Hinduism
http://dir.yahoo.com/Society_and_Culture/Religion_and_Spirituality/
Faiths_and_Practices/Hinduism/


Related Books:

FROM THE GANGES TO THE HUDSON: INDIAN IMMIGRANTS IN NEW YORK CITY
edited by Johanna Lessinger and Nancy Foner

THE RELIGIONS OF IMMIGRANTS FROM INDIA AND PAKISTAN: NEW THREADS IN THE AMERICAN TAPESTRY
by Raymond B. Williams

THE SOUTH ASIAN RELIGIOUS DIASPORA IN BRITAIN, CANADA, AND THE UNITED STATES
edited by Harold Coward, John R. Hinnells, and Raymond Brady Williams

PASSAGE FROM INDIA: ASIAN INDIANS IN NORTH AMERICA
by Joan M. Jensen

THE ASIAN INDIAN EXPERIENCE IN THE UNITED STATES
by Parmatma Saran

THE NEW ETHNICS: ASIAN INDIANS IN THE UNITED STATES
edited by Edwin Eames and Parmatma Saran

NAMASTE AMERICA: INDIAN IMMIGRANTS IN AN AMERICAN METROPOLIS
by Padma Rangaswamy

TRANSPLANTING RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS
by John Y. Fenton



Search for Transcripts of Previous Segments


Headlines

White House Faith-Based Head Announces Resignation

White House Officials Release New Faith-Based Initiative Information

Diplomatic Team Begins Negotiations With Taliban For Aid Workers' Release

First Phase of Mother Teresa Beatification Process Complete

Archbishop Decides to Stay with Catholic Church

ELCA Votes Against Expanding Role of Gays in the Church

Jains Celebrate Paryushana Parva

 

COVER STORY: Charismatics

There are over 20 million charismatics in the United States -- 540 million worldwide -- and they include Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Baptists. Sometimes called "Holy Rollers" or Pentecostals (the terms Pentecostal and Charismatic are usually interchangeable), the movement was founded about 100 years ago.

This week, RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY looks at the charismatic movement. Correspondent Lucky Severson visits Father Brendan Williams, who leads a charismatic healing mass at St. Veronica's Catholic Church in Hopewell, New Jersey.

Read the full story.