Hindu America

lotusBy Lisa Miller

America is not a Christian nation. We are, it is true, a nation founded by Christians, and according to a 2008 survey, 76 percent of us continue to identify as Christian (still, that’s the lowest percentage in American history). Of course, we are not a Hindu—or Muslim, or Jewish, or Wiccan—nation, either. A million-plus Hindus live in the United States, a fraction of the billion who live on Earth. But recent poll data show that conceptually, at least, we are slowly becoming more like Hindus and less like traditional Christians in the ways we think about God, our selves, each other, and eternity.

The Rig Veda, the most ancient Hindu scripture, says this: “Truth is One, but the sages speak of it by many names.” A Hindu believes there are many paths to God. Jesus is one way, the Qur’an is another, yoga practice is a third. None is better than any other; all are equal. The most traditional, conservative Christians have not been taught to think like this. They learn in Sunday school that their religion is true, and others are false. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.”

Americans are no longer buying it. According to a 2008 Pew Forum survey, 65 percent of us believe that “many religions can lead to eternal life”—including 37 percent of white evangelicals, the group most likely to believe that salvation is theirs alone. Also, the number of people who seek spiritual truth outside church is growing. Thirty percent of Americans call themselves “spiritual, not religious,” according to a 2009 Newsweek poll, up from 24 percent in 2005. Stephen Prothero, religion professor at Boston University, has long framed the American propensity for “the divine-deli-cafeteria religion” as “very much in the spirit of Hinduism. You’re not picking and choosing from different religions, because they’re all the same,” he says. “It isn’t about orthodoxy. It’s about whatever works. If going to yoga works, great—and if going to Catholic mass works, great. And if going to Catholic mass plus the yoga plus the Buddhist retreat works, that’s great, too.”

Then there’s the question of what happens when you die. Christians traditionally believe that bodies and souls are sacred, that together they comprise the “self,” and that at the end of time they will be reunited in the Resurrection. You need both, in other words, and you need them forever. Hindus believe no such thing. At death, the body burns on a pyre, while the spirit—where identity resides—escapes. In reincarnation, central to Hinduism, selves come back to earth again and again in different bodies. So here is another way in which Americans are becoming more Hindu: 24 percent of Americans say they believe in reincarnation, according to a 2008 Harris poll. So agnostic are we about the ultimate fates of our bodies that we’re burning them—like Hindus—after death. More than a third of Americans now choose cremation, according to the Cremation Association of North America, up from 6 percent in 1975. “I do think the more spiritual role of religion tends to de-emphasize some of the more starkly literal interpretations of the Resurrection,” agrees Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion at Harvard. So let us all say “om.”

This article originally appeared on Newsweek.com.


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14 Responses to Hindu America

  1. Now this is the difficulty. Because of extreme sectarianism in each religion be that Islam, Christianity and Gaudiya Vaisnavism, people go to the other spectrum and consider all paths can lead to God. This extreme sectarianism makes people gravitate towards the impersonal conception of lowest common denominator. Atleast you can avoid bitter fighting somehow. Now GV has to get a place for itself in this plural environment. For that it will need a different approach from 60’s and 70s, atleast in western europe and USA. In some countries, it is easy to get away by putting your path as the only way.

  2. What Lisa Miller states at the beginning of her article is not a fact. America was not founded on Christianity – none of the Founding Fathers of our nation were Christians. They were Deists. Deism has no church and is a belief in an impersonal Absolute being. It was an intellectual movement in the 17th and 18th Centuries that believed in a Creator but rejected the notion that the Creator interacted with the world after creating it.

    Washington, Franklin, Paine, Jefferson and others all subscribed to Deism. That is why the constitution mentions the word ‘God’ but not Christ. The Treaty of Tripoli, written during Washington’s second term as president, reads as follows:

    “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen.”

    • Syama Gopala dasa

      Your last quote confirms that America is not a Christian nation, but does not debunk that America was founded by Christians. Lisa Miller actually says America is a “nation founded by Christians.” And that is not the same thing as a country founded on Christianity.
      I agree many of the founders were deists, but there were also orthodox Christians among them. Even, Deism can be argued to have its roots in Christianity. It is a product of Enlightenment thinking on Christianity. So to say no founding fathers were Christians isn’t a fact either. It’s no so black and white. American Christianity was as diverse and complex back then as it is now.

    • Kesava-ji, perhaps Lisa Miller was refering to the early colonist people in general who were pretty much all Christians, not the so called Founding Fathers. The FF Deists you are talking about were actually all Freemasons (see http://www.watch.pair.com/mason.html for example).

      The article shows America to be a fertile ground for Lord Caitanya’s mission. We just have to change our approach in preaching to reach all of these people. Less dogma, less personality cultism, less ‘chopping people’ with rigid philosophy… more common sense, more civility, and more pragmatic practice. We know prasadam works, we know maha-mantra works, the rest will grow on people and be appreciated by them in due course of time. It is happening already, as this article says. 24 percent of Americans say they believe in reincarnation, according to a 2008 Harris poll – that is HUGE! The percentage of vegetarians is quite large as well – 3.2% (7.3 million people) according to a 2008 “Vegetarianism in America” study, published by Vegetarian Times. Additional 22.8 million follow a Vegetarian-Inclined Diet according to the same study.

  3. The historic truth is that those Kesavananda mentions subscribed to the Deist ideas in different ways and to different degrees, as did many of American intellectuals. But these do not constitute a comprehensive list of the nation’s founders. The idea that the founders were not Christians is simply a canard based on a couple of things we may remember from 8th-grade or 11th-grade U. S. History classes.

    America’s founders, leaders of the revolution, also included many Quakers and Catholics. There were Baptists, Presbyterians, and other evangelicals of the time who strongly influenced James Madison’s push for a bill of rights that included religious freedom. Patrick Henry proposed a tax in Virginia to support Christian churches, and Madison and others feared that government involvement in religious institutions would weaken those institutions. The founding of the new nation included many struggles for adherents of different Christian demoninations to get along with each other.

    In fact, then, the picture of religious and spiritual life in the early years of the United States is considerably more complicated than we may have learned in school and included many Christians.

    • That was a very interesting dissertation by Babhru das.
      However, the actual constitution of the United States seems to have been much more Masonic and less Christian in it’s character.
      The actual forging of the U.S. Constitution had more to do with the Masonic element of American politics than any evangelical Christian cult.

    • Syama Gopala dasa

      Nice to see my views confirm to yours, Babhru.

  4. The so called Deist founding fathers were actually Freemasons (see http://www.watch.pair.com/mason.html ). Their influence on the newly forming national institutions was rather pervasive.

    But what this article really shows is that America is a very good preaching ground for Lord Caitanya’s mission. We just have to adjust our approach: less dogmatism, less personality cultism, less ‘chopping style’ philosophical arguments. More common sense, more pragmatism, more what people like about us already: chanting of the holy names and prasadam distribution. It is not a battlefield, it is a marketplace.

  5. Actually, as Worm said, the so called Deist founding fathers were all Freemasons (see http://www.watch.pair.com/mason.html for example). Their influence on the newly forming national institutions was rather pervasive.

    But what this article really shows is that America is a very good preaching ground for Lord Caitanya’s mission. We just have to adjust our approach: less dogmatism, less personality cultism, less ‘chopping style’ philosophical arguments. More common sense, more pragmatism, more what people like about us already: chanting of the holy names and prasadam distribution. It is not a battlefield, it is a marketplace.

  6. Actually, the so called Deist founding fathers were all Freemasons (see http://www.watch.pair.com/mason.html ). Their influence on the newly forming national institutions was rather pervasive.

    But what this article really shows is that America is a very good preaching ground for Lord Caitanya’s mission. We just have to adjust our approach: less dogmatism, less personality cultism, less ‘chopping style’ philosophical arguments. More common sense, more pragmatism, more what people like about us already: chanting of the holy names and prasadam distribution. It is not a battlefield, it is a marketplace.

  7. Despite the statistics cited above, fundamentalist Christians seem to have a much louder voice in America today as compared to when I was growing up in the 1960s. These new “Hindu-like” Christians must be less vocal!

    • The reason that they are more vocal today than during the 60’s is that at one point in more recent history Christianity decided to participate in the American political process. Whereas previously they were for the most part not involved. Karen Armstrong details this in her first book (forgot the name).

  8. The point I was making is that the statement of Lisa Miller is somewhat misleading in that it suggests that America was founded solely by Christians, which is not true. As Babhru Prabhu says, the early religious and spiritual scenario of the United States is not as cut and dry as some (such as the Christian fundamentalists) would have us believe.

    One also has to take into account that many of the Founding Fathers of America were more than eager to have a divide between church and state after witnessing the atrocities that went on in Europe in the name of Christianity.

  9. What Worminstool mentions about the American Constitution being based on Masonic elements rather than Christian ideals is interesting.

    Actually the Masons were quite powerful politically in the US during the 19th Century and many of the early presidents were Masons. However, after the “Morgan Affair” (wherein an ex-Mason, William Morgan, was kidnapped and murdered by the lodge for exposing their secrets), Masonry declined in political strength.

    Ethan Allen, Edmund Burke, John Claypoole, William Daws, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, John Paul Jones, Robert Livingston, Paul Revere, Colonel Benjamin Tupper, and George Washington were all Masons and of the forty signers of the Constitution, nine were known Masons, thirteen exhibited evidence of Masonic membership, and six more later became Masons.

    Actually Masonic influence features highly in early American history.

    (1) Lafayette, the French liaison to the Colonies, without whose aid the war could not have been won, was a Freemason.

    (2) the majority of the commanders of the Continental Army were Freemasons and members of “Army Lodges”

    (3) most of George Washington’s generals were Freemasons; the Boston Tea Party was planned at the Green Dragon Tavern, also known as the “Freemasons’ Arms” and “the Headquarters of the Revolution”

    (4) George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States by Robert Livingston, Grand Master of New York’s Masonic lodge.

    (5) the Cornerstone of the Capital Building was laid by the Grand Lodge of Maryland.

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