Eastern Family, Part I: Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism

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23 Eastern Family, Part I: Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism









Intrafaith Organizations


Indian-American Hindu Temples



Sant Mat


What is Hinduism? Of no major religious community is this type of question more difficult to answer. It is without an individual founder, although the Vedas (c. 1500–800 b.c.e.), a set of orally transmitted and received revelatory texts in Sanskrit, are, strictly speaking, the authoritative scriptures of the tradition. While the Vedas are revered by almost all sects and groups within the Hindu tradition, they play a direct role in Hindu practice only rarely. Additionally, Hinduism has no single set of issues around which it can orient itself. Some writers, in the face of this frustration, have tried to turn these problems into a positive polemic for Hinduism by seeing its systematic anarchy as a sign of Hinduism’s universal character. “Hinduism is absolutely indefinite … It rejects nothing. It is all-comprehensive, all-absorbing, all-complacent,” says one Hindu writer.

Yet on a second look, Hinduism is not so vague as might first appear. While there is a great diversity of opinion among Hindus, it is no greater than among Christians. While Hinduism has no founders, it has some mythological figures to which it relates. Despite a variety of ideas and emphases, Hindus possess certain ideas in common, such as a belief in reincarnation and karma, and they do practice certain disciplines, the most common of which is yoga. Hindus also relate to a common history, that of India. Certain writings have a great value for them, although the Vedas and Upanishads have only rarely functioned as has the Bible or Qur’an. Hinduism might thus be defined as a set of religions that positively relate to several mythological figures (Krishna, Rama, and Shiva are examples), some metaphysical ideas and practices (reincarnation, karma, yoga), the Vedic texts, and a people’s history. That definition seems to describe justly the Hindus, while distinguishing them from other religious groupings, particularly the Jains and Sikhs (also discussed in this chapter).

Indian and Hindu history can be divided roughly into four periods. The first is defined as pre-Vedic. Prior to the arrival into India of the Aryans, or Indo-Europeans, a culture on a par with that of the ancient Mediterranean Basin existed, the artifacts of which have only recently and partially been uncovered. Although religious articles have been found, a clear picture of this people’s religious faith has not yet emerged.

The second or Vedic period begins with the arrival into India of the Indo-Europeans. The waves of Aryan migration have been variously dated from 1500 b.c.e. to 1000 b.c.e. The primary document of this period is the Rig Veda, the oldest of India’s existing sacred books. The Rig Veda actually comprises ten books of hymns and prayers to the gods, collected probably about 1000 b.c.e. The Vedas present a vigorous, worldly religion oriented to nature and a pastoral, agricultural life. The people of the Vedic period had a positive view of the world and saw their survival of death as a continuation of the good life. Along with the various gods, particular attention was paid to Soma, the deified intoxicant of the soma plant.

The third period of India’s history begins in the several centuries following 1000 b.c.e. and represents a significant shift in religious outlook, which the Aryan influence must have brought to the previous Indian culture. The change in outlook is from a positive view of life to a pessimistic world-fleeing one. The two ideas that symbolized this change are transmigration or reincarnation and karma. Transmigration is the principle that asserts that all persons may undergo a succession of earthly lives, in some of which they may incarnate as animals (and in more extreme forms of Hinduism, as plants). All of life is on the wheel of rebirth, and the goal of life is to escape physical rebirth by reaching spiritual perfection. Part of the rationale for the rebirth theory is karma. Karma is the principle that the results of the deeds of this life will accrue in the next life or incarnation. The final goal of Hindu tradition, after the Vedic period, has almost always been to escape karma and break the cycle of birth and rebirth.

Escape from karma comes either through the grace of the Divine or through the realization of identity with the divine Reality, which can be expressed in theistic terms or as an uncharacterized Ultimate. How can realization be accomplished? Some groups advocate attention to ceremonies at the local temple; others emphasize the moral life. Among the more common answers within those Hindu groups that have a presence in North America is yoga, a spiritual discipline designed to lead the human being to self-integration and then to union with the Divine or Ultimate, Brahman. The best known of the several forms of yoga in the West (though not as widely practiced in India or among Indian Americans) is hatha yoga, which includes a series of body postures (asanas) designed to bring the body into a state of harmony. Hatha yoga is a discipline used in the East in development of the body as a spiritual instrument for health, longevity, and

Eastern Family, Part I: Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism Chronology
1785Charles Wilkins translates Bhagavad Gita into English.
1790America’s first Naturalization Law limits naturalization (citizenship) to aliens who are “free white persons.”
1841Yale University establishes chair in Sanskrit and Indology.
1845Ralph Waldo Emerson reads the Bhagavad Gita and Henry Colebrooke’s Essays on the Vedas.
1846Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is heavily influenced by his having read Emerson’s copy of the Bhagavad Gita.
1879Helena P. Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott, co-founders of the Theosophical Society, move to India. The society subsequently becomes a major conduit of Indian religious ideas to the West.
1883Protap Chunder Mozoomdar, the first Hindu teacher to come to America, delivers his first talk in the home of the late Ralph Waldo Emerson.
1893Swami Vivekananda becomes star speaker at the World Parliament of Religions meeting in Chicago.
1894Swami Vivekananda founds the Vedanta Society of New York, the first Hindu organization in America.
1903New Thought teacher William Walker Atkinson begins to write books on yoga under the pen name Swami Ramacharaka.
1912Anti-Indian riots in American Northwest target Sikhs, misidentified as “Hindoos.”
1917Asian Exclusion Act bars immigration from Asian Barred Zone, including India. Based on reading of 1790 Naturalization Law, many Indian Americans actually lose their citizenship.
1919Sri Yogendra of Bombay introduces hatha yoga to America.
1920Swami Paramahansa Yogananda becomes one of the last Indian religious leaders to enter the United States before immigration is fully curtailed.
1923In U.S. v. Thind, the Supreme Court rules that immigrants from India, though rightly termed Caucasians, are not “white” and therefore are ineligible for naturalization.
1924The Asian Exclusion provision of the new immigration law strengthens provisions against immigration from India.
1927Best-selling Mother India by Katherine Mayo paints a very negative picture of India and Hinduism.
1934Paul Brunton’s A Search in Secret India introduces Westerners to Hindu gurus, especially Ramana Maharshi.
1946Swami Yogananda publishes Autobiography of a Yogi.
1947India gains independence from Great Britain, and immediately faces partition and the setting off of Pakistan.
1958Maharishi Mahesh Yogi begins his public teaching of Transcendental Meditation. Swami Vishnu Devananda founds headquarters for the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers in Quebec.
1965Asian Exclusion Law rescinded by the United States. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, in the United States on a tourist visa, is able to obtain a residency visa and stays to found International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
1968Haridas Chaudhuri founds the California Institute for Asian Studies, now known as the California Institute for Integral Studies, in San Francisco, California.
1969Sikh teacher Yogi Bhajan attracts youthful students to his lessons on kundalini yoga in Los Angeles.
1970The Hindu Temple Society of North America’s new temple in Flushing, New York, is the first of over a hundred temples serving the Indian American community to open over the next two decades.
1971Prem Rawat (better known as Guru Maharaj Ji), a Sant Mat teacher, brings the Divine Light Mission to California and becomes well known as the teenage guru. Richard Alpert publishes his first book as Baba Ram Dass, Be Here Now.
1972Maharishi Mahesh Yogi announces his World Plan for the complete renovation of human society via Transcendental Meditation and the science of Creative Intelligence.
1981Federation of Jains in North America founded.
1994World Vaisnava Association founded as a coalition of the various groups that grew out of the work of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
1996Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada of New Vrindavan, West Virginia, pleads guilty to one count of racketeering and begins serving eight years of a 20-year term.
200170 million people gather for the Kumbha Mela, humanity’s largest festival, at Allahabad, India.
2004The Hindu American Foundation is founded to provide a voice for the estimated two million Hindus in the United States. Hindu University of America, Orlando, Florida, holds first graduation ceremony. Largest Sikh gurudwara in America opens in San Jose, California.
2005The first Hindu Dharma Summit in North America, held at Rutgers University, leads to formation of the Hindu Collective Initiative of North America.

higher spiritual accomplishment. Some see hatha yoga as a preliminary to the four higher forms of yoga. In the West, hatha yoga has been put to a variety of uses in physical culture quite apart from Hindu notions.

The four paths to realization of the Divine or Ultimate by yoga are bhakti yoga (through devotion and/or love), jnana yoga (through knowledge), karma yoga (through work), and raja (royal) yoga (through meditative exercises). These four, more-advanced yogas are designed for the various types of people, according to Hindu analysis. Some people, being basically reflective, find the ideas and the philosophical, logical demonstrations of jnana yoga suited to their innate patterns. By taking thought, students of jnana yoga can come to a realization that many levels of self are finite, and the students can discern their eternal selves beyond the finite qualities of size, shape, emotions, and so forth. In a person for whom feeling and emotion reveal more than the intellect, bhakti yoga directs one’s emotional potential for love and redirects those potentials of love toward the Divine. A major feature of bhakti yoga is japa, the practice of repeating a sacred mantra. (A Christian form of this practice is the Jesus prayer in classical Russian Orthodoxy.) A physically active person can develop a realization of the Divine through work in the world. The smallest activity of life can be done wisely as a spiritual practice—karma yoga. Some believe that the highest path to the Divine is through raja yoga, the royal road to reintegration and realization. Through practice of the discipline of raja yoga, particularly meditation, the self penetrates the layers of the merely human until it reaches the beyond that is within. While bhakti yoga is most popular in India, raja tends to be the most popular in North America.

The collecting of the Upanishads (900 to 300 b.c.e.) became a watershed in Hindu history, as the Upanishads represent the end or culmination of the Vedic scripture to which Hindus give a more or less universal authority. From these writings the various schools of interpretation would arise, and to these writings later movements would react. Associated with the Upanishads were several subsidiary developments. The most important was the rise of the Brahmans, the priestly class, as the highest level of the caste system in India. The rule of the Brahmans would dominate Indian life and lead to reactions by later movements. The idea of maya or illusion developed at this period. Common to most Hinduism is the belief that outward life and suffering are mere illusion and that realization of this fact will lead to release from suffering. Ahimsa is one of the highest ethical precepts for Hinduism (it is also popular in several other religions) and is the vow of noninjury to life, nonkilling. Ahimsa is the foundation of the practice of vegetarianism.


Hinduism developed under significant political changes in the Indian subcontinent. Although Islam entered India in the 11th and 12th centuries, the subcontinent was ruled for almost 300 years by the Mughul Empire, beginning in the fifteenth century. After Mughul dominance, India experienced invasion and conquest by the British Empire in the early 1800s. The coming of the British marked the arrival of an alien culture and an alien religion, backed by political power. In the face of the development of a vigorous Christian mission, an initial defensive reaction was followed by a creative Hindu renaissance, which produced a number of outstanding leaders (such as Ram Mohan Roy and Sri Ramakrishna) and movements. These movements, in many cases, were important in the Indian nationalist drives of the twentieth century and in the dissemination of Hindu ideas and practices into North America.

Within Hindu circles, four figures are particularly important—guru, swami, avatar, and chela. A guru is a religious teacher who instructs the chela (pupil) on the basis of the knowledge the guru acquired either by inspired realization or years of practice of a spiritual discipline. The ideal of the guru is to become a satguru, or perfect master. The knowledge to be imparted by the guru to the chela is both technique and realization of the Divine (Brahman), which is the goal of the religious life. The guru may also be a swami (or monk) who functions both as teacher and religious leader. A guru may also be recognized as an avatar, that is, an incarnation of God, and thus properly an object of veneration and worship.

Increasingly, since the British made Christianity a force in India, the guru and swami have taken on a new function. In pre-Christian India, there was little or no congregational worship apart from the large seasonal festivals. The guru served primarily as a leader of an isolated ashram (retreat center) inhabited by only a few close disciples. Increasingly, the guru has become a resident of a population center and the leader of mass movements. Influenced by Christian worship, the urban ashram with regular gatherings of the guru’s followers is becoming a significant mode of religious expression.


Like American Christianity, Indian Hinduism is divided into a number of denomination-like groups, called sampradayas. Basic to Hinduism is the division of those groups in the northern part of India from those in southern India. Ritual calendars are different in the north and the south, which causes them to celebrate major festivals at different times. A second major division, roughly analogous to the Christian divisions of Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, separates Hindu groups into the Vaishnava, Shaiva, and Shakta. The Vaishnava, which emerged as a recognizable group around the fifth century b.c.e., worship Vishnu as the primary deity in the Hindu pantheon. In India, the majority of temples seen throughout the countryside are Vaishnava centers, and Vaishnava holy men, both monks and individual renunciates, can be seen in typical white robes and with vertical markings (tilaks) on their foreheads. Over the centuries, Vaishnavas have focused their attention upon a variety of Vishnu’s incarnations; however, that of Krishna has been the most popular. The merger of Vishnu, the hero of the Hindu classic the Mahabharata, with Vasudeva-Krishna occurred over the period of the writing of the Mahabharata and becomes complete in the Bhagavad Gita, a late insertion into the text.

The Gita also introduces a prime emphasis of Vaishnava Hinduism, bhakti yoga or devotional service. The volume, a dialogue between the god Krishna and his human devotee Arjuna, discusses the more traditional approach to the deity through gifts, sacrifices, and austerities (i.e., jnana and raja yoga), and then points the reader to the truer path of devoted service as the means to really approach Vishnu-Krishna.

Over the centuries, four main Vaishnava sampradayas (denominations) have arisen. The Sri Vaishnavas, traditionally considered the oldest of the four, is said to have started with Vishnu and his wife Sri Lakshmi (hence the popular name of the group), but emerged as a distinct path under Ramanuja in the early twelfth century. Ramanuja most clearly established both the position of theistic worship as opposed to the allegiance to an impersonal divine reality of the Shaivites and the legitimacy of devotional service as the way of salvation.

The Nimbarki (or Sanat) Sampradaya was founded by Nimbarkacharya, who taught a theology that might be termed dualistic monism. Human souls (and the world in general) are seen as both different from God, being endowed with their own qualities and limitations, but at the same time not different, since God is omnipresent and souls depend upon him.

The Madhva Gaudiya Sampradaya was founded by the famous Bengali saint, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1533). Centering his activity upon the Gita and the Srimad Bhagavatam, a voluminous devotional work on Krishna, Chaitanya taught the practice of sankirtan, the multiple recitation of the God’s name, as the most acceptable form of devotional activity in the present age. His perspective became well known in America in the 1970s through the high visibility of the Hare Krishna movement, one of several representatives of the Madhva Gaudiya in the West.

The Madhva Sampradaya or Brahma Sampradaya, generally traced to Madhwacharya in the thirteenth century, centers it worship on Krishna and is a purely dualistic school of Hinduism, arguing that God is separate eternally from both the souls and the phenomenal universe.

Competing with the Vaishnavas for the loyalties of Hindus are the Shaivas, those who worship Shiva (or Siva) as the one great God. Shiva, under the name Rudra, appears very early in the Vedas and Upanishads as a principle deity, but the Mahabharata contains a full description of the popular Shiva. He is seen as both the great yogi who practices jnana and raja yoga in his mountain home and the creative deity symbolized by his lingam (phallus), a symbol centrally located in many Shaiva temples (iconographically, the lingam is always surrounded by the yoni, the symbol of the Goddess’s vulva).

Two figures stand out in Shaiva history, Patanjali and Shankaracharya. Patanjali, about whom almost nothing is known (including the century in which he lived), brought together the scattered teachings on yoga and organized them into a system of practice, the following of which constituted the major method by which an individual could become united or yoked to God. Within the Shaiva community, yoga is given varying degrees of emphasis from those who practice it as the major avenue of spiritual enlightenment, to those who integrate it into a larger slavific scheme, to those who discount its significance. The practice of hatha yoga postures (asanas) is much more prominent in the American Hindu community than in India.

The goal of Patanjali’s system was kaivalya or “isolated liberation” reached through the practice of samadhi, a state of cosmic awareness reached through the control of body and mind. Practice begins with the negative discipline of yama (abstention from violence, falsehood, theft, incontinence, and acquisitiveness) and the positive observance of niyama (purity, contentment, austerities, study, and dedicated activity). Accompanying these overall disciplines was the practice of asanas (postures) of hatha yoga, pranayama (disciplined breathing), and pratyahara (detachment of the mind from senses by which it is connected to the outside world). Once the mind and body are suppressed, the yogi can progress to the ultimate three stages, dharana (contemplation), dhayna (meditation), and samadhi.

An important figure associated with Shaiva thought was the sage Shankaracharya (788–820). Shankaracharya became the major exponent of advaita (nondualistic or monistic) philosophy centered upon the sole reality of the impersonal Brahman. Brahman, the really real, is devoid of qualities. The phenomenal world with its qualities, designations, and forms is maya, illusion, believed to be real because of avidya (ignorance). If the world is illusion, so are most religious practices and beliefs, such as faith in a personal god. The avenue beyond ignorance is jnana (knowledge) resulting from withdrawal from maya and contemplation on Brahman.

Shankaracharya’s perspective led in two directions. First and foremost, he had little concern for lay Hindus and believed that jnana could only truly be practiced by one living a life of renunciation. He thus gave a great impetus to the orders of renunciates, the sannyasis. On a practical level, he reorganized the sannyasis around four monastic centers (one in each part of India) and 10 orders, two or three of which were attached to each math (or monastery). The leaders of the four Sankara maths are among the most respected leaders in all of Hinduism, though their ultimate power is more informal than organizational. The four centers and the orders attached to each are as follows:

Badrinath in the foothills of the Himalayas (north)




Shringeri in Karnataka (south)




Govardhan in Orissa (east)



Dvaraka in Gujarat (west)



Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu (also in the south) is recognized by some as a fifth math, but it is not contained in traditional literature.

A sannyasi renounces any connection with the world, including his family and any means of worldly occupation and support, and dons an orange (ochre) robe. He may be nomadic for part or all of his life. He may also engage in religious teachings, and many of the twentieth-century Hindu sampradayas have been formed by a sannyasi (or his Vaishnava counterpart) who gathers a personal following.

Along with the sampradayas, Hinduism has been structured through six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy. Only one (Vedanta) has modern Western practitioners. Nondual (advaita) Vedanta looks to Shankaracharya as its founder. It has additional importance because it is a way of being Hindu that exists outside of the Shaivite, Vaishnavite, and Shakta sampradayas.

While Shankaracharya discounted most religious practice, he did recognize its possible value as a preparation for jnana and the renounced life. Thus, Sankara’s philosophy mixed with the popular temple worship of Shiva and the associated deities in what is termed the Smarta tradition. Smartas follow the sutras or aphorisms of the Smriti, or memorized tradition. These detail the practices accompanying proper worship of the Vedic deities. The Smartas emphasize the dharma (duties) of puja (worship).

Typical of Smarta ritual is the puja of the five shrines, centered upon the worship of five deities: Shiva; Vishnu; Ganesh (Ganesa), the elephant-headed god who removes obstacles; Surya, the sun god; and Durga, the consort of Shiva. The Smarta tradition has been brought to the United States by Hindu immigrants beginning in the late twentieth century.

The third major group of Hindus, present in the United States in much greater proportion than in India, the Shaktas worship the feminine principle Shakti or the Goddess, one name of the female consort of Shiva. The practices of the Shaktas dramatize within the human the reunion of the passive Shiva with the dynamic Shakti, thus bringing enlightenment. This tradition emerged out of the Shaiva tradition around the fifth century b.c.e. with the production of a new set of ritual books called Agamas or Tantras.

The Shaktas worship the divinity in her female form. In one form of practice, associated with Tantrism, they emphasize the presence of the Shakti or female power within the human body. Commonly referred to as kundalini, a coil of power resting in potential at the base of the spine, it can be activated by specific practices and ritual procedures. Like a snake, kundalini awakens and springs upward.

Tantrics, who very often have a Shakta association, have also developed a unique view of the human body as possessing, in addition to the physical body, a subtle anatomy consisting of seven chakras (cosmic energy centers) located along the spine from its lower tip to the crown of the head, tied together by nadis (energy pathways). The practice of kundalini yoga releases the Shakti to rise through the chakras to the crown chakra. By thus bringing the dynamic Shakti back into union with the more passive Shiva, enlightenment is produced.

The Shaktas, when they have Tantric leanings, are also to be distinguished from other Indian traditions by their acceptance of the world. Enlightenment is to be received by using the world, not by denying it. The most controversial practice of the Shaktas has been the ritual use of the very items other Hindus avoid as most harmful to the person seeking spiritual progression, since they excite the outward senses. The so-called panchamakara (five m’s) ritual involves the partaking of wine, meat, fish, grain (considered an aphrodisiac), and sexual intercourse (in Sanskrit each word begins with “m”). In the West, the word Tantra has become (though quite incorrectly) synonymous with any form of sexual magic.


The history of Hinduism in America begins long before any guru came to the United States to expound his tenets. During the seventeenth century,

colonists and missionaries began an active relationship with India that led to the translation into English of many of the Hindu sacred writings. Some of these, especially the Bhagavad Gita, had a direct and powerful influence upon New Englanders, particularly Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803– 1882) and the other leaders of the Transcendentalist movement.

As the Transcendentalists absorbed the insights of Hindu literature, Hindus were responding to the impact of Christianity. Among the reformist movements that developed both as a positive response to Christianity and as a new presentation of Hinduism was the Brahmo Samaj, led by Ram Mohan Roy (1774–1832). The Brahmo Samaj was based upon the monotheism of the Upanishads and advocated the abandonment of all image worship. Roy’s first book, The Precepts of Jesus (1820), reprinted in America in 1825, aroused a great deal of controversy but found some acceptance among early Unitarians. In the 1850s, Unitarian Charles Dall (1816–1886) and Brahmo Samaj leader Keshub Chunder Sen (1838–1888) developed a friendship that led to a relationship between the two organizations that is still active.

The first Hindu guru to come to America was a representative of the Brahmo Samaj. Protap Chunder Mozoomdar (1840–1905) delivered his first American address on September 2, 1883, in the parlor of the widow of Ralph Waldo Emerson in Concord, Massachusetts. His brief tour was the only appearance by a Hindu teacher until the monumental events of 1893.

In 1893 Mozoomdar was one of several Hindus who traveled to Chicago for the World’s Parliament of Religions. His addresses at this first international conclave between representatives of the major Eastern and Western faiths were eclipsed, however, by the appearance of Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), the young flamboyant disciple of the late Bengali saint and priest Sri Ramakrishna (1836–1886). Vivekananda’s impact was so great that he left the parliament to tour the country for two years and eventually founded the first Hindu movement in America, the Vedanta Society. Returning to India in 1895, he organized the scattered disciples of Ramakrishna and found two, swamis Abhedananda (1866–1939) and Turiyananda (1863–1922), to head the Vedanta groups already formed in New York and San Francisco, respectively.

A small wave of immigration from India beginning in the 1890s brought other teachers. Swami Rama Tirtha (1873–1906), a young sannyasi, arrived in 1902 and lectured throughout America for the next two years. That same year, Baba Premananda Bharati, a Bengali student of the teachings of Sri Chaitanya, began a five-year stay, during which time he organized the Krishna Samaj. He left behind disciples who carried his memory into the 1980s.

These early teachers from India were joined by westerners who adopted Hindu teachings and expounded them through writings and the formation of groups. No writer surpassed the popularity of William Walker Atkinson (1862–1932), who began to write books on Hindu teachings under the pseudonym of Swami Ramacharaka in 1903. His 13 books have remained in print since their initial appearance. Pierre Bernard (c. 1875–1955), known to his followers by his religious name, Oom the Omnipotent, founded the first U.S. Tantric organization, the Tantrick Order of America, in 1909. In spite of the several scandals that hit it, Bernard’s group lasted for several decades, and his nephew, Theos Bernard (1908–1947), wrote classical texts on hatha yoga.

The growth of Hinduism was stymied in the decades during and after World War I (1914–1918). A growing anti-Asian sentiment, primarily directed against Chinese and Japanese Americans, included Indians in its attack, leading to the passing of the Asian Exclusion Act of 1917. This action effectively cut off Asian immigration for several generations and stymied what would have become, in all likelihood, the steady growth of Hinduism in the United States. Several years later, as the result of a lawsuit brought by Bhagat Singh Thind (1892–1967), an Indian Sikh, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled Indians ineligible for citizenship, an act that also revoked the citizenship of some who had already received it. Then, in 1927, Hinduism was viciously attacked in a best-selling volume, Mother India, by Katherine Mayo (1867–1940), a book credited with affecting Indian-American relations for a generation.

The Hindu community grew very slowly in the half century after the passing of the Asian Exclusion Act, but it did grow. A number of teachers were able to emigrate just prior to the passing of the law, and several stayed to found movements. For example, Basudeb Bhattacharya (1888–1949), a young playwright, migrated to New York, where he assumed the religious name Pundit Acharya and founded the Temple of Yoga, the Yoga Research Institute, and Prana Press. The most successful of the several gurus was Paramahansa Yogananda (1893–1952), who arrived in 1922 to attend an interfaith conference, but stayed to found the YogodaSatsang, known today as the Self-Realization Fellowship. His Autobiography of a Yogi (1946) was immensely popular and assisted the spread of Hinduism far beyond the fellowship.

Besides those mentioned above, other teachers who founded movements upon which modern American Hinduism is built were A. K. Mozumdar (1864–1953) (Messianic World Message); Swami Omkar (Shanti Ashrama); Sri Deva Ram Sukul (Dharma Mandal); Rishi Krishnananda (Para-Vidya Center, Sant Ram Mandal [Universal Brotherhood Temple and School of Eastern Philosophy]); and Swami A. P. Mukerji (Transcendent Science Society). Joining them were a number of teachers, such as Bhagwan Singh Gyanee (1882–1962) and Rishi Singh Grewal, who did not found their own groups but wrote books that enjoyed a circulation among those interested in Eastern and esoteric philosophies. Theosophy also contributed greatly to the growth of Hinduism through its continued dissemination of Indian books among the American occult community and its promotion of Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895–1986) as the vehicle for the coming world teacher.

Krishnamurti, a young Indian boy, had been picked out in the early twentieth century to be the cosmic figure predicted in Theosophical literature. He lectured through the 1920s on behalf of the Theosophical cause, while for health reasons he settled in Ojai, California. Then, in 1929, he renounced his messianic role and began a career as an independent teacher. Beginning with the remnants of his Theosophical following, he gradually attracted both an international audience and a following among academics. He became a forceful element in the buildup of interest in Hinduism noticeable after World War II (1937–1945), for which the most visible component, the spread of hatha yoga, was a far cry from Krishnamurti’s emphases.

Just as 1893 and 1917 had become years of dramatic junctures in the history of American Hinduism, so was 1965. In the fall of that year, the Asian Exclusion Act was repealed and the immigration quotas from Asia were placed on a par with those of Europe. The number of Indian immigrants escalated. Also, during the years that the Exclusion Act was in force, Indian teachers who were not opposed to teaching Hinduism to westerners emerged in significant numbers. As quotas allowed, they came to America and began to build movements, primarily among young adults. Though Shaiva yoga teachers and Shakta Tantric teachers were most successful, Vaishnavas were also represented.

Most Indian immigrants have not been teachers motivated by goals of building an American following; rather, most have been Hindu lay people faced with the task of reestablishing traditional and familiar temple structures in the West. As their numbers have increased, they have banded together to erect both Shaiva and Vaishnava temples and have brought priests from India to lead ritual activities. The emergence of these traditional temples has completed the spectrum of Indian religion in North America. At present, the only significant element of Indian religious practice not evident in the larger Western Hindu community are the bands of holy men that roam the Indian countryside, some without clothes, living off the alms of the working people and regular pilgrimages to holy sites, all of which at present are within the country of India.

Since 1965, Hinduism has grown significantly by the immigration of Asian Indians to the United States who have proceeded to build Indian-style temples in urban centers across the nation. Several hundred Indian spiritual teachers (from Brahman priests to independent purveyors of spiritual wisdom) have arrived both to care for the spiritual needs of the Hindu community and to develop new centers of Hindu spirituality among Americans of other ethnic traditions. As the twenty-first century begins, the entire spectrum of Hindu thought had found a home in both the United States and Canada.


The early sixteenth century was a time of bitter conflict in North India. A series of invasions that culminated in 1526 established Muslim supremacy. The Punjab area was one of the most hotly contested regions, and it was here that Guru Nanak (1469–1539), the founder of Sikhism, was born. One day while bathing in a river, he had a vision of God’s presence in which he was told to go into the world and teach the repetition of the name of God, the keeping of ritual purity through absolution, and the practice of charity, meditation, and worship.

According to tradition, after a full day of silence, he uttered the pronouncement, “There is no Hindu [follower of the native faith of India] and no Musselman [Muslim].” He adopted a unique garb, which combined both Hindu and Muslim features, and developed an eclectic faith that took elements from many religions, but mainly from Hindus and Muslims. From Islam he taught of one creator God, called the True Name to avoid such designations as Allah or Vishnu. From Hinduism he taught the ideas of karma, reincarnation, and the ultimate unreality of the world. Nanak also emphasized the unique role of the guru (teacher) as necessary to lead people to God. After Nanak’s death, nine gurus followed him in succession.

The fourth guru, Baba Ram Das (1534–1581), began the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the present headquarters of the world Sikh community. The fifth guru, Arjan (1563–1606), completed the temple and installed the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, or Adi Granth, the collected writings of Nanak and the other gurus, within it.

The tenth guru, Gobind Singh (1666–1708), had the second most significant role in molding the Sikh community— second only to Nanak. Gobind Singh completed the Adi Granth, the main Sikh scripture, and militarized the Sikhs by forming the Khalsa, the Community of the Pure. Members were initiated by baptism in which they drank and were sprinkled with sweetened water stirred with a sword. They changed their name to Singh (Lion) and adopted the five K’s: (1) kesh, or long hair, a sign of saintliness; (2) kangh, a comb for keeping the hair neat; (3) kach, short pants for quick movement in battle; (4) kara, a steel bracelet signifying sternness and restraint; and (5) kirpan, a sword of defense.

After Gobind Singh’s death, the Adi Granth became the guru and no further human gurus were allowed. The military emphasis continued, however, and Sikhs served with distinction in British army units.


As early as 1790, some unnamed East Indian visitors, possibly Sikhs, were said to have landed in Salem, Massachusetts. They were much the exception, as Sikhs, mostly from northern and eastern India (the Punjab region), rarely traveled to the New World prior to the twentieth century. Sikhs were among the major religious groups not represented at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions.

At the end of the nineteenth century, some Punjabis developed a wanderlust, seemingly occasioned by the 1897 diamond-jubilee celebration in London for Queen Victoria (r. 1837–1901). On their return journey, the Sikh regiment that played music at the event was taken across Canada. Members of the troop were impressed with the potential for farming in the prairie provinces. Traveling by way of Hong Kong, a few Sikhs reached Canada as early as 1903. In 1904 there were a reported 204 Sikhs in British Columbia. Most would arrive during the next four years. Of the several thousand who came into Canada, some settled in British Columbia; others headed immediately for the United States. Measures restricting Indian immigration into British Columbia and discriminatory legislation against the Indians by the government caused a shift of movement from Canada to the United States. Many Canadian Sikhs migrated southward. By 1915, there were approximately 7,000 Indians in America, the overwhelming majority being Sikhs and residents of California.

The first gurudwara, the Sikh’s house of worship, where the copy of the scripture, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, is enshrined and where housing for the needy is provided, was begun in Vancouver in the summer of 1906 and opened in January 1908. It was modeled on the gurudwara in Hong Kong. Four years later, a gurudwara opened in Stockton, California. During the early twentieth century, others were constructed in California and western Canada.

In 1917 the United States stopped almost all immigration from Asia, and the U.S. Sikh community, then numbering only in the thousands, stopped growing. The mostly male population found wives among their non-Indian neighbors, many of whom were Mexican. Immigration began to flow again after the 1965 change in immigration laws, and since then the Sikh community has grown considerably, with annual infusions of members moving to America from India. The North American Sikh community is no longer bound to the West Coast and has established gurudwaras across the continent. The development of an American consciousness has been assisted by organizations such as the Sikh Foundation, established in 1967 to promote Sikhism, pass its heritage to the next generation, and advance Sikh culture. The Sikh Communications Council, based in Menlo Park, California, assumed leadership in countering the attacks upon individual Sikhs following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

In 1984 American Sikhs hosted fellow believers from around the world in New York City, where the World Sikh Organization (WSO) was founded as a representative voice of Sikhs. There is currently both an American and a Canadian section of the WSO.

In the 1970s the Punjabi Sikh community was joined by a new organization, the Sikh Dharma, headed by Sri Singh Sahib Bhai Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji, popularly known simply as Yogi Bhajan (1929–2004). Bhajan concentrated his efforts on converting non-Indian Americans to the Sikh faith and was able to build a national organization during his first two decades of activity.


Jainism developed in the sixth century b.c.e. out of the teachings of Vardhamana Mahavira (599–527 b.c.e.) who, like his contemporary, the Buddha, was born into a kingly family, which he rejected to become an ascetic. After some twenty years of meditation and mortification, Mahavira discovered enlightenment and became a jina, a conqueror, from which the name of the community he founded took its name. By the time of Mahavira’s death, his followers numbered about ten thousand.

Jain theology is atheistic. It poses the existence of two realities—jivas, eternal souls, and ajivas, eternal, nonliving, material elements. Humans are forced into cycles of reincarnation because their jiva has attached itself to ajiva. Attachment is by karma, the actions done in existence which inhere in the soul. Liberation occurs by directing one’s life to reducing karma. Among the practices that aid liberation are: ahimsa —the nonhurting of any life (which implies strict vegetarianism); preservation—proper control over the mind, speech, and body; carefulness—proper care in walking, speaking, eating, lifting, and lying; ascetic observances; meditation; and right conduct. Among these, ahimsa is by far the most central to the Jain faith and the special feature by which Jains are recognized.

The austere practices required of Jains have led to some extremes. For example, the Digambara Jains reject the ownership of all property, including clothes, and encourage the practice of going naked. One visitor to the United States, Muni Sushil Kumarji, a Jain monk, made news because of the mask he wore (to prevent inhaling microscopic insects, thus harming them) and the brush he used (to gently sweep insects from his path so that he would not step on them).

In 1893 Virchand A. Gandhi (1864–1901) traveled to Chicago to address the World’s Parliament of Religions, a most impressive endeavor. Like later Jain migrants, Gandhi was opposed by many coreligionists who felt that any travel, other than by foot, was morally wrong. From that time to 1972, only a few Jains, such as Champat Rai Jain, who ventured to England in the 1930s, found their way to the West. By 1975 a community of some 200 was reported in Chicago, with others scattered in various urban centers. By 1981 there were enough Jains in the United States and Canada to establish the Federation of Jains in North America. By the end of the century, the four original member groups had grown to 57.


General Sources

The largest archive of material relative to Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains in America can be found in the J. Gordon Melton American Religions Collection at the Davidson Library of the University of California–Santa Barbara.

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Ghurye, G. S. Indian Sadhus. 2nd ed. Bombay, India: Popular Prakashan, 1964. 260 pp.

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Hopkins, Thomas J. The Hindu Religious Tradition. North Scituate, MA: Duxbury Press, 1971. 156 pp.

Johnson, Linda. Daughters of the Goddess: The Women Saints of India. St. Paul, MN: Yes International, 1994. 128 pp.

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Klostermaier, Klaus K. A Survey of Hinduism. 3rd ed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. 700 pp.

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Pararignanar, Saiva Ilakkia. The Development of Saiviam in South India. Dharmapuram Adhinam, 1964. 359 pp.

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Santucci, James A. An Outline of Vedic Literature. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1976. 69 pp.

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Tripathi, B. D. Sadhus of India. Bombay, India: Popular Prakashan, 1978. 258 pp.

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Hinduism in America

Agarwal, Priya. Passage From India: Post 1965 Indian Immigrants and Their Children. Palos Verdes, CA: Yuvati, 1991.

Bromley, David, and Larry Shinn, eds. Krishna Consciousness in the West. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1989. 295 pp.

Fenton, John Y. Transplanting Religious Traditions: Asian Indians in America. New York: Praeger, 1988.

Fisher, Maxine P. The Indians of New York: A Study of Immigrants from India. Columbia, MO: South Asia Books, 1980. 165 pp.

Forsthoefel, Thomas A., and Cynthia Ann Humes, eds. Gurus in America. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005. 236 pp.

Jackson, Carl T. The Oriental Religions and American Thought: Nineteenth-century Explorations. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981. 302 pp.

Joshi, Khyati Y. New Roots in America’s Sacred Ground: Religion, Race, And Ethnicity in Indian America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006. 240 pp.

Kamath, M. V. The United States and India, 1776–1976. Washington, DC: Embassy of India, 1976. 222 pp.

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Mann, Gurinder Singh, Paul Numrich, and Raymond Williams. Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs in America: A Short History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 168 pp.

Pechilis, Karen. The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus in India and the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Riepe, Dale. The Philosophy of India and Its Impact on American Thought. Springfield, IL: Thomas, 1970. 339 pp.

Thomas, Wendell. Hinduism Invades America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1930. 300 pp.

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Cole, W. Owen, and Piara Singh Sambhi. A Popular Dictionary of Sikhism. Calcutta, India: Rupa, 1990.

Dhillon, Mahinder Singh. A History Book of the Sikhs in Canada and California. Vancouver, BC: Shromani Akali Dal Association of Canada, 1981. 519 pp.

Hawley, John Stratton, and Gurinder Singh Mann. Studying the Sikhs: Issues for North America. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Juergensmeyer, Mark, and N. Gerald Barrier, eds. Sikh Studies: Comparative Perspectives on a Changing Tradition. Berkeley, CA: Graduate Theological Union, 1979. 230 pp.

Kaur, Sardarni Premka. Guru for the Aquarian Age. Albuquerque, NM: Brotherhood of Life Books, 1972. 131 pp.

Kharak, Singh, G.S. Mansukhani, and Jasbir Singh Mann, eds. Fundamental Issues in Sikh Studies. Chandigarh, India: Institute of Sikh Studies, 1992.

Macauliffe, Max Arthur. The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings, and Authors (1909). New Delhi, India: Chand, 1978. 6 Vols.

McLeod, W. H. The Sikhs: History, Religion, and Society. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

———. Who is a Sikh? The Problem of Sikh Identity. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

Mann, Jasbir Singh, and Harbans Singh Saraon, eds. Advanced Studies in Sikhism. Irvine, CA: Sikh Community of North America, 1989.

Mathur, L. P. Indian Revolutionary Movement in the United States of America. Delhi, India: Chand, 1970. 169 pp.

Singh, Gopal. The Religion of the Sikhs. Bombay, India: Asia Publishing House, 1971. 191 pp.

Tatla, Darshan Singh. Sikhs in America: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Sant Mat

Fripp, Peter. The Mystic Philosophy of Sant Mat. London: Spearman, 1964. 174 pp.

Johnson, Julian. With a Great Master in India. Beas, India: Radha Swami Sat Sang, 1953. 200 pp.

———. The Path of the Masters (1939). Punjab, India: Radha Soami Satsang Beas, 1972. 572 pp.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. Radhasoami Reality: The Logic of a Modern Faith. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Lane, David Christopher. Radhasoami Parampara in Definition and Classification. M.A. thesis. Berkeley, CA: Graduate Theological Union, 1981. 132 pp.

———. The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Successorship. New York: Garland, 1992. 351 pp.


Cort, John E. Jains in the World: Religious Values and Ideology in India. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Dundas, Paul. The Jains. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Gopalan, Subramania. Outlines of Jainism. New York: Halsted Press, 1973. 205 pp.

Jain, Muni Uttam Kamal. Jaina Sects and Schools. Delhi, India: Concept, 1975. 162 pp.

Jaini, P. S. The Jaina Path of Purification (1979). Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass, 1990.

Kumar, Bhuvanendra. Jainism in America. Fremont, CA: Jain Humanities Press, 1996. 221 pp.

Roy, Ahim Kumar. A History of the Jainas. New Delhi, India: Gitanjali Press, 1984. 179 pp.

Shah, Vikram V., ed. Jain Heritage—Then, Now, and Forever: Pratishtha Mahotsav Souvenir. Bartlett, IL: Jain Society of Metropolitan Chicago, 1993.

Singh, Narendra K., ed. Encyclopedia of Jainism. 30 vols. New Delhi, India: Anmol, 2001.

Stevenson, Mrs. Sinclair (Margaret). The Heart of Jainism (1915). New Delhi, India: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1970. 336 pp.

Tobias, Michael. Life Force: The World of Jainism. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1991.

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Eastern Family, Part I: Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism

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Eastern Family, Part I: Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism