Asian American religions have dramatically increased their presence in the United States. Partly, this is a function of the increasing population of Asian Americans since 1965.
Asian American is a name given to the United States residents who trace their ancestry back to the area of Asia from Pakistan in the west to the Pacific islands east of the Asian landmass. There are over 18 million Asian Americans in the United States (about 6 percent of the national population), and Asians are immigrating to the country at rates that far exceed those for any other group.
Other names have been taken, given, or forced upon Asian Americans. Such terms as “Chinese or Japanese imperial subjects” heightened a unity of political and religious obedience to a divine emperor. “Oriental” started as a French idealization of the Confucian state before descending to the level of being an epithet for backwardness.
Immigrants come with nationalities like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, and so forth that often intervene into religious discourses (see an example of this process in the Chinese American experience as described by Fenggang Yang (Chinese Christians in America. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999). In the 1970s the name Asian American was popularized by West Coast intellectuals in order to gather forces at the barricades of political and racial movements. Some scholars like Michael Omi and Howard Winant (Racial Formation in the United States. From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge, 1994) claimed “Asian American” as a racialized reality, which was the result of racial conflicts innate to American society. Others saw the identity as an ethnic claim to assimilation into American cultural reality.
Asian immigrants and their progeny find ways to balance out the religious, national, ethnic, racial, and other identities from their homeland, new nation, and religion. “Asian American” has also become a common-sense meaning that was institutionalized by the U.S. census. But one should remember that many layers of names sit upon Asian American houses of worship as so many barnacles telling tales of ancestral honors, woes, and self-reflections.
Over three-quarters of Asian Americans profess a religious faith. About a quarter say that they are “religious nones,” that is, either having no particular religious faith or identifying as agnostic or atheist. About half of the “nones” actually have religious beliefs and ethics and practice them as an intrinsic part of Asian American culture, not as something that is “religious.”
Two-thirds of religious Asian Americans are Christians. This is not surprising when we take into account the rapid growth of Christianity in the non-European world. Asian Americans are contributing to the “de-Europeanization” of American Christianity and signal the increasingly religious direction of the 21st century.
Other Asian American religions include Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroasterism, new Japanese religions, and many more.
The history of Asian American religions involves a dynamic interplay of the United States and Asia, global politics, democratic revolutions, persecution in Asia, racism in the United States, Supreme Court cases, and religious innovation.
The largest Asian American groups, those with 1–4 million people each, trace their ancestry back to Japan, China, Philippines, Vietnam, India, and Korea. Seven smaller groups have over 100,000 people each: Bangladeshis, Burmese, Cambodians, Hmong, Laotians, Pakistanis, and Thais. And there are many more smaller groups.
The diverse ethnic and national origins of Asian Americans means that their religions have a kaleidoscope of religious styles and cultures.
Hinduism came to the United States first in the American imagination and only second with emissaries and immigrants from India. The initial features of Hinduism that captivated North American audiences were those that were lauded for their compatibility with Protestant Christianity and those that were derided for their incompatibility with the same. The Hinduism that flourished in the North American context drew heavily from the neo-Vedantic theology of monism, which was propagated by Hindu reform movements in the 19th century. This monism drew on simplified Upaniṣadic teachings of the similitude of Ātman (the essence of self) and Brahman (the essence of the universe) and from this claimed that the same divinity comprises all of existence. Many of the early Hindu emissaries to the United States drew on ideological confluences between Christian and Hindu universalism. They diminished the importance of temple and domestic rituals, sacrifice, personal devotion to the multiplicity of Hindu deities, and priestly class and caste hierarchies among their North American audiences.
In the 20th century, increasing populations of Indian Hindus immigrated to the United States and began to challenge this narrative. These Hindus were not gurus or yogis who were interested in developing followings among white audiences. They were families concerned about maintaining their cultural and religious traditions. They also came from diverse regions of India, and they brought their sectarian and regional practices and devotions with them. After the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, Indian Hindus worked diligently to create community networks by establishing temples and religious organizations. These religious spaces provided the infrastructure to maintain and further ethnic identities as well. In most cases, Hindu temples and organizations continue to be internally focused on providing resources to communities of Indian Hindus, such as language and scripture instruction, social support networks, ethnic food, and pan-Indian and regional festivals and events. While most temples are open to non-Indian Hindus, traditional Hinduism is not a proselytizing religion, and few non-Indians convert to Hinduism formally. ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) temples are the only Hindu temples in the United States that sometimes have proportionate numbers of Indians and non-Indians worshipping together.
Outside traditional forms of home altars, temple worship, and festivals, there are many ways in which Hinduism has influenced American culture. The guru movements that flourished in the countercultural spiritual experimentation of the long decade of the 1960s continue to draw followers today. In fact, the guru field in the United States has diversified significantly, and many gurus have established successful ashram communities across the nation. Some gurus became mired in scandal in the 1970s and 1980s, but still they have survived and in some cases thrived. The New Age movement of the 1990s also brought rekindled interest in Hinduism, often recoded as Indian spirituality, and this has sponsored a new wave of gurus and their teachings and the rampant expansion of postural yoga practice in the United States.