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date: 25 March 2017

Hinduism in America

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: Hinduism, Vedanta, gurus, yoga, temples, Hindutva, Asian religions, transcendentalism, nationalism, diaspora

Imaginaries of Hinduism (1790–1893)

The image and, more importantly, the imaginary of the Hindu and Hinduism arrived at the shores of North America long before significant populations of Indian Hindus did. As a result, the story of Hinduism in North American begins with white Americans and their imaginings of Hinduism, which was often interpreted as one among many forms of “heathenism” to be combated through Christianity. In fact, it was likely in correspondence between British Protestant missionaries in the late 18th century that the term Hinduism was first used. The term itself has been the subject of considerable scholarly debate. On one hand, constructivists have argued that the term Hinduism (as well the modern category of religion) was imposed upon the distinct and only minimally interrelated religious traditions of India, which were bounded exclusively by geographical location.1 Defenders of the category of Hinduism argue that while the British may have been instrumental in establishing the term itself, there is and has always been a unified religious system among indigenous Indian Hindus. Like many polarizing debates, the truth of the matter likely lies somewhere in the spaces between. Evidence exists that the British catapulted the importance of the term and the category of Hinduism and instrumentalized it in the modern construction of world religions.2 There is also evidence that Indian Hindus collaborated in the discursive production of the category, employing long-standing indigenous religious ideals and practices to constitute its contents. Brian Pennington argues convincingly that “the historical role of the colonizer was not to invent Hinduism either by blunder or design, but to introduce an economy of concepts and power relations that dramatically enhanced the value of such identity markers.”3 While the provenance of Hinduism is still a contested issue among scholars, there is no question that Hindus (and their practices and beliefs) have thrived on the subcontinent since the Vedic period.

While the British controlled the colonial agenda on the subcontinent, North Americans were also eager to reap the spoils of the British Empire and worked with the British to develop trade networks at the beginning of the 19th century. Clipper ships constructed in Baltimore sailed to China and India for opium, cotton, silks, tea, porcelain, sugar, coffee, and other luxury items. Supercargo trading routes between North America and China and India required American employees to be stationed in both countries to manage trade operations.4 In addition to commerce, Christians from North America were some of the first missionaries to establish residence in India when the British began to open its borders to foreign religious interventions.

American Trinitarian missionaries financially supported and sustained the Baptist missions at Serampore in Bengal, while the Unitarians attempted to align liberal Protestant universalism with the monism of neo-Vedanta. Both aimed to combat and convert Hindus, but the Unitarians were excited by what they believed to be new forms of monistic and even monotheistic Hinduism that were emerging from the Hindu reform initiatives of the early 19th century. In fact, Rammohan Roy, who would become the founder of the Brahmo Samaj in 1828, became the first Hindu whose monistic interpretations of Hinduism became popularized in the United States. Liberal Protestants took note of his neo-Vedantic reformulations of Hinduism, which aimed to differentiate between the superstitious rituals of polytheistic practices and the Vedantic legacy of Hinduism positioned as a monistic and even monotheistic textual tradition. In 1817, excerpts of Roy’s Translation of an Abridgment of the Vedant were reprinted in the United States in both the Trinitarian Boston Recorder and the Unitarian Christian Disciple. Roy aimed “to prove to my European friends, that the superstitious practices, which deform the Hindoo religion, have nothing to do with the pure spirit it dictates.”5 In 1818, the North American Review ran an article about the literary placement of the Vedas and referenced Roy’s recent attempts to “restore the pure doctrines of the Vedas,” citing his reformist monotheistic interpretations.6 North American Unitarian publications such as the Christian Register and Salem Courier also published Rammohan Roy widely and favorably. Conversely, Baptist journals, such as the Christian Watchman, issued scathing polemics against him.7 While the Unitarians lauded his contribution, Trinitarian Christians balked at the “heathen” who presumed to “meddle” in the Christian religion.8 The Brahmo Samaj was at the epicenter of the Hindu reform movement that sought to defend Hinduism from the onslaught of missionary attacks. Rammohan Roy understood that Hindu customs were viewed alternately with abhorrence and fascination by the British colonial government and American onlookers. In response, he formulated a new Hinduism heavily influenced by monotheism and a focus on scriptures, with which he aimed to rebut the scathing critiques of the missionaries. Importantly, Rammohan Roy became an actor on the American stage advocating for a reformed version of Hinduism, but his thought was used as a tool in the fierce domestic theological debates between Trinitarian and Unitarian Protestants.

Despite Rammohan Roy’s efforts, the popularity of the monistic and even monotheistic ideas of the Hindu reformers had limited influence upon the dominant American understandings of Hinduism. Instead, Americans continued to be informed by the sensationalist interpretations of Christian missionary accounts. Like their European contemporaries, North Americans balked at what they viewed to be the bloody, sexualized, cacophonic, ritualized, and superstitious practices of the Hindus. As in the broader field of orientalist discourse, American publications and popular opinions oscillated between disgust and fascination, condemnation and attraction, disavowal and allure.

At this time, the majority of North Americans accessed information about Hinduism through books and publications, rather than contact with Hindus. The literature produced at the time was divided into missionary critiques and romantic orientalism, and the Christian category of “heathen” religions often conflated non-Abrahamic faiths. Even among those who believed themselves to be educated with regard to Eastern religious traditions, Hinduism and Buddhism were often intertwined in the American imagination. The famed American author Ralph Waldo Emerson was fascinated by Hindu texts such as the Viṣṇu Purāṇa, Kaṭha Upaniṣad, and the Laws of Manu and took particular interest in the Bhagavad Gītā. Even as an educated scholar delving deeply into the study of Hinduism, Emerson wrote a letter to his sister in 1845 in which he praised the famous Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gītā as “that much renowned book of Buddhism.”9 Still, Hindu thought emerged in Emerson’s work unambiguously as he contemplated “illusion,” a veiled reference to māyā (illusion) and constructed his notion of the “Over soul” as directly correlated to the Upaniṣadic idea of Ātman (the essence of self) and Brahman (the essence of the universe)10.

Emerson’s compatriot in the American transcendentalist movement Henry David Thoreau was enamored of Hinduism and believed the Bhagavad Gītā to be an ancient and sublime text that made modern literatures appear “puny and trivial” in its presence.11 The American public, however, was not yet prepared for an egalitarian field of world religions; Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers did not sell. In fact, four years after its appearance, the publisher returned more than seven hundred copies of the text to the author. Critics chastised Thoreau for his “pantheism” and balked at the juxtaposition of Christian religious ideals with their Buddhist and Hindu counterparts, seemingly portrayed as equals.12 Thoreau quickly learned that while his American audiences may have shared his romantic dabbling in the literatures of the Orient, they were not yet ready to accept wholesale its people or customs and certainly not its deities. Christianity reigned supreme in America, and all else bordered dangerously on heathenism. Missionary accounts of foreign converts would be circulated and celebrated in Christian periodicals, but the egalitarian valuation of foreign peoples and their faiths was still far away on the horizon.

While Emerson and Thoreau were turning to the East, the burned-over district of upstate New York was erupting in the ecstatic, hell-fire sermons of the Methodists and Baptists. Antiestablishment religious fervor distinguished this historical moment, which is often termed the Second Great Awakening. In the latter decades of the century, this same geographic location gave birth to the Spiritualism movement, which was fueled by the mysterious rappings of the Fox sisters who claimed to be receiving messages from spirits and mediums who conjured spiritual manifestations at the Eddy farm. Spiritualism was a rapidly growing movement that involved séances, communing with the spirits of the dead, telepathy, magnetism, Swedenborgianism, energy manipulation, and sometimes ecstatic experience. Madame Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott had both traveled to the district to witness spiritualist phenomena and, after meeting there, formed a lasting and influential partnership. In 1875, they founded the Theosophical Society, an organization that combined spiritualism and Western occultism with a romantic orientalist understanding of the mysteries of the East, particularly focused on India and Tibet. Despite a failed alliance with Dayananda Saraswati of the Arya Samaj after traveling to India in 1880, the organization proceeded to establish one of the most prolific publishing houses emphasizing the spiritual intersections between East and West. Critics repeatedly leveled accusations of plagiarism against Blavatsky’s own writings, but still the Theosophical Society publications were instrumental. They introduced American audiences to the Indic figure of the esoteric yogi, the practices of meditation and yoga, and translations and adaptations of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras through the writings of Blavatsky herself, N. C. Paul, Annie Besant, Alice Bailey, and Ernest Wood, among others.13

Hindu Emissaries (1893–1965)

The majority of accounts of Hinduism in North America begin with the cataclysmic events of the World’s Parliament of Religions at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. There Swami Vivekananda spoke on behalf of Hinduism, sponsored by Pratap Mazumdar, the representative of the Brahmo Samaj. When Vivekananda took the stage, newspapers reported how he was “dashing” with the “superb carriage of the Hindustanis” and how the audience was filled with “ladies ladies everywhere.”14 Introducing Hinduism, he explained the singular, omnipotent, formless God who resided at the heart of the most ancient Vedic tradition. He declared that there was no polytheism in India, only the misunderstandings of uneducated people. He validated the fundamentality of the Vedas and, drawing from them, explained that “the Hindu believes that he is a spirit” and that his “soul” is not “bound by the conditions of matter” but instead is “free, unbounded, holy and pure and perfect.” He told his American audiences that the doctrine of love in the Vedas teaches us to worship “the pure and formless one,” “the All-mighty and the All-merciful,” through love. He recounted that the Vedas tell us, “‘He is to be worshipped as the one beloved,’ ‘dearer than everything in this and the next life.’”15 He also championed Hinduism as a religion that has taught the world “toleration” and “universal understanding” and believes all religions to be true. Vivekananda was instrumental in popularizing the neo-Vedantic view that all religions are “the same light coming through different colors … But in the heart of everything the same truth reigns.”16 The Brahmo-Samajists at the World’s Parliament of Religions also told their American audiences of a theistic monism at the core of Hinduism. B. B. Nagarkar said, “The fundamental, spiritual ideal of the Brahmo-Somaj is belief in the existence of one true God.” He presented the theism of the Brahmo-Samaj as the religion of eclecticism, wholly inclusive and not exclusive.17 Vivekananda was also one of the few representatives at the World’s Parliament of Religions who publicly criticized Christian missionary activity in his home country, despite the liberal Protestant allegiances of the parliament’s leadership.

After the World’s Parliament of Religions, Vivekananda embarked on two-year-long lecture tours, sponsored by liberal Protestant organizations. Through these connections, he was invited to become the chair of a position in metaphysics at Harvard University, which he declined, and he established himself among the elites and literati of New England society. He was vastly influential in spreading his reformist vision of Hinduism in the United States, but also he began to develop a following of disciples who were interested in the practical methods behind his philosophical teachings. In 1896, he published his paraphrasing of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras in a short book entitled Rājā Yoga, or the “Yogi of Kings.” He wrote, “Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divinity within, by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship or psychic control, or philosophy—by one, or more, or all of these—and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.”18 With regard to practice, he also began instructing his followers in the daily breathing and meditation exercises of yoga.19 In general, however, Vivekananda distained the postural practices of Hatha yoga as inferior and did not advocate for them in his discourses.

Vivekananda popularized a controversial form of reform Hinduism in the United States. Influenced by liberal Protestant theological ideas and American social conventions, it differed considerably from Hindu practices of major strata of Indic society, including localized village ritual offerings of devotional worship (pūjā), brahmanical fire sacrifices (homas), and temple worship. Still, he was lauded in the United States for his reformist theology and championed at home for his ability to confront the West with an anticolonial message that bolstered the Indian nationalist cause. In fact, when Vivekananda returned home to India, he received an effulgent welcome, and his rhetoric became much more aggressively nationalist. It was in his speeches after his return to India that he called for the development of a strong and healthy Hindu citizenry, a class of “warrior monks” who would cast off the shackles of British colonialism.20 It was at this point that Hindu nationalists adopted his message and personae as emblematic of their cause, as would later Hindu nationalist organizations.

In the United States, Vivekananda’s legacy found a home in the Vedanta Societies that he established and that continue to flourish in the present day. The structure in San Francisco that is frequently identified as the first Hindu temple in the United States, established in 1906, was in fact the first permanent home of the Vedanta Society. The Vedanta Society has maintained its presence in the United States despite perilous economic moments. It continues to espouse a theology that resembles Vivekananda’s teachings, namely, the neo-Vedantic teachings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, drawing on Upaniṣadic theological premises. They adhere to the teaching that Brahman, the essence of the universe or, in their view, the Supreme Consciousness, is formless and indescribable, save for the attributes of sat-chit-ananda—absolute existence, consciousness, and bliss. Brahman, they claim, can be reached by multiple paths and known by multiple names. Brahman also takes on various forms, both impersonal and personal, transcendent and immanent. As such Brahman can be realized through multiple paths and worshipped in various aspects according to one’s personal spiritual proclivities. Despite this unconditional acceptance of a plurality of methods to reach the divine, the Vedanta Society theology emphasizes the three paths highlighted in the Bhagavad Gītā: jñāna yoga, the path of knowledge; karma yoga, the path of action; and bhakti yoga, the path of devotion, as well as rājā yoga, the path of concentration.

In the 1910s and 1920s, the populist rhetoric of the United States became heavily conditioned with nativism, largely in response to the exponential increase in immigrant populations arriving from Eastern and Central Europe. In 1917, the U.S. government expanded the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 by passing the Asian Exclusion Act, which effectively barred all immigration from Asian countries. The anti-Asian sentiment of the period drew heavily on commonplace economic arguments against cheap and exploitable immigrant labor in favor of domestic workers. This sentiment was also inextricable from racist North American policies of the time that were threatened by nonwhite immigrants and concerned to retain white, European, Christian dominance in both the United States and Canada. The 1910s and 1920 saw broad abuses against Indian Sikh workers (who were classified as “Hindoos”) as they were pushed from Canada to the United States and then subsequently forced to flee from violent mobs of anti-immigrant protestors southward from Washington to Oregon and into California’s Central Valley. Once there, many of them allied with Mexican farmers and married into Mexican families, creating entire generations of Punjabi-Mexicans in a fascinating moment of American ethnic history.21 In 1923, Bhagat Singh Thind’s appeal to be considered as a U.S. citizen was denied on the basis of his race. Even established Hindu American institutions like the Vedanta Societies struggled to survive economically. The nativism of the period culminated in the 1927 publication of Katherine Mayo’s book Mother India, which offered a scathing indictment of Indian culture.22 Mayo argued that the problems of India stemmed from the unbridled sexuality of the Indian male; as a result of this and its subsequent detrimental effects on Indian women, Indians were not suitable subjects to govern themselves. Mother India’s anti–Indian nationalist and pro–British colonialist critique became a quick sensation in India, Britain, and the United States.23 Mayo’s Mother India was soon followed by Wendell Thomas’s Hinduism Invades America (1930), both of which cemented the long-standing critiques of American Christian missionaries regarding the deficiencies and failings of Hinduism and limited popular affinities toward the rich cultural heritage of India.

Nevertheless, despite restrictive immigration policy and nativist public sentiments, several Hindu emissaries from India entered the North American scene to build on Vivekananda’s legacy. In 1919, Sri Yogendra immigrated and established his Yoga Institute in New York, which aimed to present postural yoga as a medically informed, scientific technique for the prolongation of health, strength, and life. In 1920, Paramahansa Yogananda arrived in the United States, propagating a unique hybridized theology that blended Hindu and Christian ideas and practices. He systematized his thought and built a religious organization, the Self-Realization Fellowship, which has since become one of the most institutionalized forms of guru-led Hinduism in the United States. Yogananda highlighted the confluences between a neo-Vedantic interpretation of Hinduism and Christ’s teachings in the New Testament. He also hybridized Christian and Hindu worship practices, founding churches with pews, Sunday congregational gatherings, hymns and hymnals, and rich garden spaces for meditation and yoga practice, prayer, and contemplation. He instructed his followers in the mystical practices of the yogic path and included postural exercises in his teachings. In 1940, he published his most famous writing, Autobiography of a Yogi, which combined the personal account of his own yogic path blended with an account of the most extraordinary and miraculous yogis of India. The book was lauded among his followers initially, but it became a countercultural sensation only in the late 1960s when it was widely regarded as the “hippie Bible.”

Owing to restrictive U.S. immigration policy, Hinduism would not enter into mainstream America as anything other than a caricature of its Indian expressions for decades. The Hindu leaders who did enter the United States during this period and the singular institution of the Vedanta Society struggled to extract followers from mainline American religions. Instead, their movements and messages were relegated to the fringes of society, furthered by the countercultural critiques of American Christian nativism. There were, however, fascinating developments in the field of yoga. Yoga is an Indic cultural product that draws its roots from Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Tantra. Still, it was often positioned in early-20th-century American circulation as a Hindu practice, but often iterated with the language of spirituality because of the negative connotations that white Americans associated with the term Hinduism. Traveling yogis exhibited their gymnophysical prowess to American audiences, often operating within and exaggerating orientalist tropes for their own profit. These Indian yogis became embodied articulations of the stereotypes of Asiatic magicians, snake charmers, and magical yogis, who could manipulate matter, both internal and external. This era also encouraged non-Indian Americans to don the religious and cultural apparatus of yoga and Indian mysticism, in efforts to draw power from the prevalent orientalist tropes of the day. So began the age of cultural appropriation that intersects with gray areas of religious conversions. In the yogic field, non-Indians flourished. Pierre Bernard, a white man who coined himself the “Omnipotent Oom,” taught students a version of tantra yogic practice that became wildly successful and controversial. People of African descent also saw the yogi as a means of escape from antiblack racism; for example, Hazrat Ismet Ali, a black man from the British Caribbean, became famous in the guise of an Indian yogi.24 In 1947, just as India achieved its independence from the British, without the help of the U.S. government, Indra Devi, a white Russian woman who had trained with the esteemed postural yogi Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, opened her yoga studio in Hollywood and began to teach postural yoga to the stars.25

Post-1965 Hindu Communities


In 1965, the Immigration and Naturalization Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. It allowed for an annual quota of twenty thousand immigrants from all nations of the world to apply to enter the United States. Between the years 1965 and 1972, immigration from India increased 2,800 percent. For the first time in U.S. history, Indian Hindus arrived in significant numbers. Because of U.S. selective immigration policies, the immigrants who were accepted were largely skilled workers with technological skills in engineering, medicine, and computer science. When these immigrants arrived, they found limited resources for the expression of traditional forms of Hinduism available in the United States. Despite their educational status, they often found themselves bounded by stereotypes of their ethnic and religious heritage and sometimes persecuted by expressions of individual and institutionalized racisms.

Temple building became one of the primary means by which Indian Hindu communities sought to assert their presence in the American religious landscape and foster centers for the expression of cultural and religious values. Once Hindu communities had found their footing in the American context, one of the first communal dreams was often the establishment of a temple wherein Hindus could worship but also where they might connect with each other and teach their children about Hinduism. India is a country of extreme diversity, with geographic localities governing religious practices and language. In the United States, despite their regional differences, Hindus soon found that they needed to band together in expressions of communal solidarity. An example of this can be found in the fact that some of the first temples established in the United States hosted a variety of Hindu deities, deities who would have been separated by sectarian or geographic traditions in India but who were hosted together in temple complexes in the United States. For example, the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago hosts Shivaite, Vaishnavite, and Devi images and figurines, as does the Hindu Temple of Oklahoma and the Hindu Temple of Central Indiana. This form of practical ecumenism is also evidenced in the urban developments in India, wherein temples become ecumenical as they become increasingly cosmopolitan.26 As Hindu populations increased in strength, diversity, and financial resources, this physical expression of ecumenism decreased. For example, in New York, Texas, and New Jersey, where there were concentrations of Hindu populations, sectarian groups began to raise capital in order to support temples dedicated to specific sectarian traditions. That is to say that in high-density Hindu states, one is much more likely to find a temple dedicated to Krishna, another to Durga, and another to Shiva, rather than all of the Hindu deities worshipped together in one temple. There is also a practical aspect, in that often it is the donors who contribute financially to the construction of the temple who determine which deities are installed.

Apart from the 1906 Vedanta Society temple in San Francisco, the oldest traditional Hindu temple in the United States is the Shiva Murugan Temple in Concord, California, which was established in 1957. The second, the Maha Vallabha Ganapathi Devasthanam in Flushing, New York, was established in 1977 and is owned by the Hindu Temple Society of North America. In 1981, the Hindu Temple Society of Southern California established the Malibu Hindu Temple. In addition to establishing temples, Hindus also re-created the sacred landscapes of India, as evidenced by the Radha Madhav Dham in Austin, Texas, which is a two-hundred-acre property marked with hills, rivers, and fields representing various locations in Vrindavan, India. There, the ornate Shree Raseshwari Radha Rani Temple is one of the largest Hindu temples in the United States. Today, there are approximately 450 Hindu temples in the United States.

One of the most important additions to the temple architecture of Hinduism in the United States has been the rapid expansion of BAPS Swaminarayan Hinduism. Significant populations of immigrant Indian Hindus in the United States are from the Indian state of Gujarat, the birthplace of the modern guru Swaminarayan (1781–1830 ce). BAPS Swaminarayan Hinduism began as a guru devotional movement, but it soon became articulated as a branch of traditional Hinduism. Across the world, the organization has refocused attention toward Hindu heritage, particularly emphasizing Vedic knowledge and history. It has also strategically focused on building elaborate and ornate temple complexes in major urban centers. As a result, BAPS Swaminarayan temples have become tourist attractions and highly visible representations of traditional Hinduism around the globe. In the United States, there are BAPS Swaminarayan temples in Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. They have become epicenters for the Hindu community and cultural and religious ambassadors of Hinduism for the general public. BAPS Swaminarayan Hinduism provided the temple infrastructure and opulence that many Hindus in the United States were lacking. Their emphasis on the glories of Vedic culture, traditional gender roles, and conservative (and sometimes political) Hinduism has also influenced Hindu thought in the United States considerably.

The influx of temples in the United States provided expressions for the devotional and ritualistic aspects of Hinduism that had been largely ignored in the U.S. context in institutional arenas. While previous generations of Hindu immigrants had maintained the custom of domestic shrines and altars, now temples became primary sites wherein to host devotional rituals (pūjā) and festival occasions honoring particular Hindu deities. Temples established forums for these devotional and ritual activities, as well as sanctuaries for the performance of life-cycle rituals—marriages, funerals, first feedings, sacred thread (upanayana) rites, and so on. They also became congregational centers for community networking and development. Oftentimes, temples established curricula for the study of Hindu scriptures and other cultural heritage preservation activities, such as language classes, cooking classes, workshops providing immigration information, and community development. Like many other “ethnic church” spaces, they largely conform to American Protestant norms, such as hosting congregational gatherings on Sundays that involve preaching and hymns. Temples often host priests (pūjārī) from India to live in residence, which fosters transnational relationships between Hindu communities in India and in the United States.

The development of temple infrastructure recalibrated the neo-Vedantic emphasis that had until now been the dominant expression of Hindu religiosity in the United States. With the massive influx of various types of Indian Hindus, the diversity of Hinduism radically increased. While the majority of Hindus were willing to ascribe to the neo-Vedantic monistic mantra of “all gods are one,” still they brought with them their favored deities (iṣṭadev) and family deities (kuladev), and these deities needed to be revered. Hinduism in the United States contains both universal ecumenism and the particular veneration of personal deities. The outward conviction that all gods are one provides an ecumenical veneer that enables the veneration of multiple sectarian and regional forms of the divine. As in India, the majority of Hindu devotional worship occurs at home altars, with temples providing spaces for congregational worship on special occasions. (Only a small minority of Hindus attend services each week.) The most common religious event in which Hindus participate is Diwali, the festival of lights, with nearly ubiquitous participation. Festival occasions like Diwali provide opportunities for Hindus to celebrate both their ethnic and religious heritage and to represent it with grandeur in the American multireligious landscape.


The 1980s and 1990s signified a major milestone in the “institutionalization of Hinduism” in the United States.27 Hindu immigrant communities in the United States became particularly motivated to establish Hindu resources, such as educational materials, student networks, and defense organizations in response to their children’s exposure to negative stereotyping. Religious and cultural allegiances are a critical influence on identity formation in the dislocated context of the immigrant experience. The hybrid or hyphenated identity that emerges (Indian American/Hindu American) from the adoption and valorization of native culture and religiosity confirms the appropriate ethnic status on immigrants now positioned in culturally recognizable intellectual spaces.

After 1965, Hindus established organizations that aimed to unite Hindus in North America and to connect diaspora Hindus with Hindus in India. In efforts to connect with politics affecting Hindus at home, they established umbrella Hindu nationalist organizations mirroring their Indian counterparts: Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), modeled after the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), and Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), modeled after the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). These organizations are an integral branch of the nationalist Hindutva ideological project; they also claim to unite, represent, and advocate for all American Hindus. These umbrella Hindu organizations are one of the most vital arenas for the construction of Hinduism in North America, because they are explicitly engaged in knowledge-building projects, from elementary curricula to monitoring the production of Hinduism through academic publications and university-level instruction. In the 1980s, the VHPA was involved in two major knowledge-production projects: the establishment of a Hindu University in Florida and the Encyclopedia of Hinduism project.28 These Hindu organizations support the widespread establishment of educational resources on Hinduism, youth religious education groups (bāla vihār), and Hindu student associations at the university level, such as the Hindu Student Council, founded in 1990.

This emphasis on controlling the educational instruction about Hinduism largely derives from a fear of misrepresentation. In the United States, many Indian Hindus continue to be dismayed and offended at the manner in which their religion and culture have been presented in elementary, secondary, and university publications in the United States. Parents objected to elementary and secondary school textbooks that contain factual errors and racist stereotypes. They argued that the representation of Hinduism is a caricature comprising no more than “caste, cows, and curry.” The multiplicity of Hindu deities has been presented as polytheism and the worship of Hanuman derided as animism. In response, parents and community leaders began to organize to revise and reform the textbooks. They submitted edits with the support of the Vedic Foundation (VF) and the American Hindu Education Foundation (HEF), which aimed to correct factual errors but also to eliminate any reference to caste, polytheism, or the Aryan Invasion theory. When the edits were submitted for scholarly review, a mixed group of American scholars (including Indian and non-Indian members) were concerned that the VF and the HEF were attempting to rewrite history and the extant hierarchies and ritual practices of Hinduism as it exists in India. They argued that this sanitization of Hindu practice and the reformulation of history demonstrated the close ties that the VF and the HEF held with Hindu nationalist organizations in India (the RSS and VHP). At this same time, the RSS and the VHP were implementing similar curricular modifications in Indian educational curricular materials. The scholarly voices were joined by Indian Dalit groups, such as the Dalit Freedom Network, the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, Dalit Shakti Kendra, and the Dalit Solidarity Forum; other Dalit groups from within the Buddhist community also testified and objected to the edits that eliminated references to caste in Hinduism. Ultimately, the California State Board of Education voted to approve the initially agreed-upon edits and to reject the disputed edits. In response, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) filed a lawsuit, but the judge upheld the State Board of Education’s decision. Another Hindu organization, the California Parents for Equalization of Educational Materials (CAPEEM), also filed a lawsuit and reached a settlement with the Attorney General of California wherein CAPEEM received a $175K settlement from the State Board of Education in 2009. In 2016, the California textbook debate rekindled aggressively. The HAF, the VF, and the HEF were again at the center of the conflict demanding textbook revisions. They argued for the use of the term “India” instead of “South Asia”, to dissociate the caste system from Hinduism and instead locate it culturally and to suggest that Hindu women had “different” rights from men, instead of “fewer” rights. The California State Board of Education (CSBE) received petitions and protests from multiple groups of scholars and a significant mobilization campaign led by lay Hindus (the CSBE received the highest number of e-mails in a single week in CSBE history). The CSBE issued revisions that attempted to assuage all parties but satisfied few.

Other Hindu organizations and individual leaders have also become concerned about representations of Hinduism more broadly, in American universities and in the publications of American scholars. Most particularly, some Hindus have objected to what they view as the sexualization of Hinduism but also the application of Western theoretical models to Hindu materials (particularly psychological ones) and the emphasis on caste and gender inequities and exoticism. Some Hindu groups, such as the Dharma Civilization Foundation (which also has connections to Hindu nationalist groups, such as the RSS and VHP) aim to reclaim scholarship in the field of Hinduism for scholar-practitioners and to reframe the study of Hinduism within indigenous epistemologies. While many of the most vigorous critiques have been made against non-Indian Hindu scholars (Wendy Doniger, Paul Courtright, James Laine, Jeffrey Kripal, and Sheldon Pollock, among others), many Indian Hindu scholars have been targeted by conservative Hindu organizations with ties to Hindu nationalism (Vasudha Narayana, Partha Chatterjee, Romila Thapar, and Deepak Sarma, among others). These attacks on scholarship are not limited to the U.S. context but instead are global in scope, as the more militant and conservative factions of Hindus attempt to control representations of Hinduism and confine them within the boundaries of their political agendas. They are a part of a much broader movement from within the political mobilization of an aggressive Hindu nationalism within India that aims to silence any critique of the nation-state or its dominant religion of Hinduism. It also equates the Indian nation-state and population with Hinduism, which has had egregious effects on minority religious populations in India since its rise to power.

In the United States, the umbrella Hindu nationalist organizations of the VHPA and HSS are buttressed by sister organizations like the Vedic Foundation, the Hindu Education Foundation, and the Federation of Hindu Associations. Often their membership networks overlap significantly. This enables Hindu organizations to operate in service of Hindu nationalist causes, without the controversial name recognition of the VHPA/VHP or HSS/RSS. In the 1980s the VHP specifically targeted the middle classes in India and Hindu populations living in diaspora as receptive audiences and generous sources of funding through a series of Hindu world conferences. They looked to the diaspora Hindu community, in particular, because it was dislocated from local religious complexities and politics in India. The VHP endeavored to create a modernized “spiritual Hinduism” that preached personal development, success, and social ethics. Fueled with neo-Vedantic ideals, this version represented Hinduism (and the VHP) as “a great tradition clustered around an essential religious core, consisting of peaceful contemplation, tolerance, and spiritual development of the self.”29 Currently there is no diasporic counter-voice as strong as these heavily funded religio-political umbrella organizations. In addition to providing services to their local members, these organizations network on a national level through conferences, such as the Future of Hindu Dharma in North America conference for representatives from Hindu organizations held at the University of Central Florida in 2007. Additionally, websites provide another effective communicative tool for immigrant Indians in the United States to connect with each other and share resources; they have also become a primary resource for disseminating the Hindu nationalist perspective. One activist claimed that the VHPA alone has 2,600 websites on the Internet.30

Hindu nationalist organizations aim to diminish the sectarian and caste differences among Hindus by vilifying Muslims and Islam (and alternately the West and Westernization) as the threatening Other. In so doing, they create unity among Hindus by using scare tactics and scapegoats—often to the point of the propagation of untruths and the rewriting of history. Prema Kurien argues convincingly that militant Hinducentrism and Hindu nationalism, which are steadily gaining influence among diaspora populations, are also products of American multiculturalism. She quotes Ajah Shah, the convener of American Hindus Against Defamation, as saying, “In seeking the honor of Hindus and demanding they not be ridiculed … we are being good Americans. In our fight for Hindu dignity, we are championing American pluralism.”31 American multiculturalism demands that Hindu Americans represent their religion and cultural heritage in the public sphere in order to be considered fully American, to occupy legible, hyphenated identities. Under this sustained pressure, it is likely that battles will continue over the nature of those representations and an increasing adamancy among Hindus to represent themselves and their own communal interests in scholarship about Hinduism, in both elementary schools and academia.

Gurus and Their Followers (1965–Present)

The 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act also opened U.S. borders to a wide assortment of gurus who arrived from India to proselytize to participants within the American countercultural movement. That same year, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who would go on to establish the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) arrived in New York, and he would be followed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Osho/Bhagvan Rajneesh, Swami Muktananda, and Swami Satchidananda. By the 1980s, there was Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and the Art of Living Foundation, Mata Amritanandamayi, Swami Nithyananda, Karunamayi Ma, Mother Meera, and many others. Each of these gurus brought particular theologies and methods to bear on Hindu traditions. Each of them attracted both Indian Hindus and non-Indian Hindus to their followings. Even gurus who never set foot on American soil, like Shirdi Sai Baba, Sathya Sai Baba, and Anandamayi Ma, have drawn in sizable populations of North American followers. Gurus who derive their teachings from Hinduism have drawn Americans to their feet ever since they arrived in the United States. In some cases, non-Indian Americans have even taken over the helms of their movements after the gurus left their physical bodies.

Contemporary gurus have multifaceted and varied relationships to their parent tradition of Hinduism. The large majority of gurus who have proselytized and become popular in the United States have espoused a form of neo-Vedantic theology, which arose in popularity in the Hindu reform movements of the 19th century. These movements are often ecumenical in their relations to other faiths and promote forms of Hindu inclusivism. They argue that all forms of divinity are ultimately one and that there are many paths to the same goal. Cultural and religious specificity occurs because of the unique characteristics of cultures, religions, and geographies on the earth but also within the cosmic realm, wherein all specificities dissolve and only the singular ultimate realty of the divine essence exists. This theological reasoning is an adaptation of Upaniṣadic (Vedantic) ideas from centuries earlier. While this view is ancient to Hinduism, it is also popular in the modern period because it is socially productive in eliding religious differences in diverse and often religiously conflicted societies. It also serves as a salve for gurus’ proselytization, assuaging concerns from receiving populations who may initially regard Hindu gods and practices as strange or unfamiliar.

The grandfather of proselytizing gurus who espoused neo-Vedantic theology was Swami Vivekananda, who first introduced it to North American audiences at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. After Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda used neo-Vedantic reasoning to create a unique Christian-Hindu hybridized theology and drew followers by locating the similarities between the teachings of Jesus and his lineage of gurus. The gurus of the 1960s and 1970s were forced to define their methods and practices as distinct, in order to succeed in the growing religious field, but still many drew in their followers with ecumenical language, freedom of belief, and evidence for the efficacy of their particular forms of spiritual practice. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi developed Transcendental Meditation but also welcomed those of all faiths into his community. Bhagvan Rajneesh (Osho) developed Dynamic Meditation as a productive method of self-cultivation, but he also fostered ecumenism and developed his own theology imbued with a rich eclecticism of multiple religious and psychoanalytic sources. Swami Muktananda developed the path of Siddha Yoga and encouraged his followers in the paths of Kundalini teachings. Despite the fact that the practice of shaktipat, a momentary transferal of energy from guru to disciple, became integral to his teachings, he espoused an ecumenical and inclusive theology, and the experience of shaktipat was not often viewed through the lens of conversion.

Swami Satchidananda Saraswati, the guru who gave the invocation at the Woodstock music festival in 1969, proposed his own form of yogic teachings and practices but invited Americans of all faiths to participate in the spiritual activities of his organization and ashram. Similarly, Swami Kripalu (Amrit Desai) also founded an ashram community wherein devotees were encouraged to adopt yogic and meditative practices, but they were not expected to undergo a formal conversion. Later gurus who have become popular in the United States, such as Mata Amritanandamayi and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar have also drawn from these neo-Vedantic roots. They espouse their distinct theologies and practices but flavor them with ecumenism, fostered by the ideal that all religions are ultimately one. In many of these cases, the gurus have even gone so far as to eschew the term Hinduism, if not the Hindu roots that inform their ideologies and methods. Instead, in efforts to attract non-Hindu followers, many have chosen to identify their movements as spiritual, or even as secular and scientific. The result has been the proliferation of guru-led movements and organizations in the United States that are best referred to as Hindu-derived or Hindu-inspired.32

One of the most vibrant exceptions to this pattern is ISKCON, which was founded by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in 1965. Unlike the other guru movements active in the United States, ISKCON advised devotees to adopt Hindu religious conventions, often with a focus on traditional ascetic practices. Devotees adopted devotional attitudes toward both Prabhupada and the Hindu god Krishna, and they were encouraged to express that devotion through the study of Gaudiya Vaishnava scriptures and the recitation of mantras, particularly the māhāmantra (Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare). They also adopted Hindu conventions with regard to dress and food (vegetarianism). In the early years of ISKCON, many devotees were encouraged to adopt the lives of celibate renouncers, but over time the organization has accommodated devotees who wish to pursue the life of the Hindu householder, with marriage and children. From the outset, ISKCON was an actively proselytizing organization. Unlike the majority of Hindus around the world, ISKCON devotees focused their attention on spreading their religious views to strangers, with the aim of conversion. One of the primary methods that Prabhupada encouraged proselytization was through the dissemination of religious literature. Hare Krishnas (ISKCON devotees) soon became known for their public presence in the United States, as they gathered in airports, parks, and on street corners in their traditional Hindu dress, chanting the māhāmantra and passing out scriptures (most of which are productions of ISKCON itself) to passersby in exchange for small donations. This practice raised the profile for ISKCON in the North American public sphere while it raised money for the organization and spread the teachings of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, filtered through the perspective of Prabhupada.

Several of these guru-led communities established significant ashrams (religious hermitages) that housed temples, dormitories for devotees, schools, classes, and retreats. Some of them were open and welcoming toward the general public, while others were protectionist and exclusive to devotees only. The most historically significant were the Vedanta Societies, headquartered in Hollywood, California; Paramahansa Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship, headquartered in Encinitas, California; Bhagvan Rajneesh (Osho)’s sprawling ashram complex, Rajneeshpuram, in Oregon; ISKCON’s New Vrindaban in West Virginia; Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Maharishi University in Iowa; and Kripalu’s ashram in Massachusetts. Mata Amritanandamayi also has a large ashram in the exurbs of San Francisco, as well as dozens of others across the country. Shree Ma, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Shirdi Sai Baba, Sathya Sai Baba, Muktananda, Nithyananda, and many other gurus have established centers across the North American landscape, which have contributed to the increasing institutionalization of Hindu-inspired, guru-led religions in the United States.

The gurus of the 1960s and 1970s often fell prey to sexual and financial scandals. Often combinative factors influenced their downfall, from the spurious actions of individual leaders to institutionalized systems of abuse and neglect. Many devotees had detached from their families and communities to follow their gurus, and the gurus operated with ultimate power over their followers. Devotees revered their gurus not only as charismatic leaders but often as infallible divine persons, which meant that when accusations of misconduct were levied, they were rarely believed initially by fellow community members. Trapped within frames of social isolation and unquestioning devotion, members experienced cycles of abuse that continued in prolonged and severe ways in many cases. However, it is also important to recognize that because of the marginalization of guru-led religious communities in general, they have historically been subjected to scandalous, yet fanciful accusations by leaders in the dominant strains of American religion. Unlike the external critiques against guru movements of the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, many of these cases stemmed from internal accusations. These accusations emerged from inside the devotional communities, and they were only buttressed and fueled by external critiques. In response, ISKCON, in particular, has issued active, corrective institutional measures to address abuses. Many guru movements, however, have experienced rampant attrition in the wake of scandal, with their numbers either dwindling or buoyed by new recruitment and expansion efforts. Even more surprising are the significant populations of devotees who remain devotees, even with the allegations, and justify and rationalize the behavior of their guru or deny the allegations entirely.


Many of these gurus drew their practices in some fashion from the Indic teachings of yoga. Yoga is a multifaceted term that is used in many different contexts and draws on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. In Hindu scriptures, such as the Bhagavad Gītā, there are several paths to liberation. In these cases, the paths themselves are referred to as yoga: bhakti yoga is the path of devotion, karma yoga is the path of action, and jñāna yoga is the path of knowledge. Hindus in the United States often think of their religious practice as the daily performance of one or all of these forms of yoga. Particularly bhakti yoga, the path of devotion, has considerable salience among the Indian Hindu population, as Krishna in the Bhagavad Gītā explains that this path is the best path for our age. Other gurus have advocated for the path of kriya yoga, the path of contemplation.

However, in popular North American parlance the term yoga has begun to signify modern postural yoga, a system of sequential physical postures that was popularized in the early 20th century in India by T. Krishnamacharya in Mysore (and later Chennai) and Shivananda Saraswati (in Rishikesh). These contemporary yogis drew on ancient Indic systems of philosophy and meditation that also included some minor references to physical postures. To these roots, they added physical motions from the traditional Indian sport of wrestling, Indian bodybuilding, and even Swedish gymnastics and European esoteric dance.33 The result was a new form of bodily movement that focused on the fitness, health, and wellness of the body and mind. While its roots could be sourced to the Indic religious traditions, including Hinduism, it quickly took flight and became wildly popular globally in multiple forms and with endless variations.

The postural yoga community in the United States is largely a fitness- and health-oriented industry, but nevertheless 63 percent of all North Americans believe that yoga is a spiritual practice.34 In 2008, the HAF initiated its Take Back Yoga campaign because it recognized that Yoga Journal, one of the leading magazines for the postural yoga community, often referenced Hindu scriptures but referred to them as “ancient” or “Indian,” never Hindu. Yoga Journal admitted that it avoids the term Hinduism because it distracts readers and has “too much baggage.”35 In response, the HAF initiated a widespread campaign to highlight the Hindu roots of modern postural yoga, which climaxed in a 2010 article in the New York Times.36 This controversy also emerged as a legal case in 2013, wherein the HAF found itself in unlikely agreement with Christian parents in Encinitas, California, who argued that yoga is Hindu and therefore should not be taught in the physical education curricula in a public school. The judge ultimately ruled against the parents’ and the HAF’s position, supporting the argument that postural yoga draws from multiple Indic religious traditions, not only Hinduism, and that the yoga curricula implemented in the Encinitas public schools were largely secularized and not Hindu in content. Like the Californian textbook controversies, this debate also derives from questions of representation. In order for Hindu ideas to become accepted into mainstream American culture, many of their non-Indian Hindu proponents have erased the term Hinduism in favor of terms like spirituality, yoga, and meditation. The result is that many ideas derived from Hinduism are not attributed to Hinduism, and this continues to foster debates about religious misrepresentation and erasure in the public sphere.

Review of the Literature

The literature regarding Hinduism in the United States is still developing as a distinct subfield to the study of Hinduism, gurus, and yoga more generally. As a result, much of the literature that addresses forms of Hindu-derived religiosity in the United States is located within studies that may include sections on the United States but are focused on India or globally. With regard to colonial and 19th-century American history, Michael Altman’s dissertation, “Imagining Hindus: India and Religion in Nineteenth Century America,” is the primary resource focusing on Hinduism in the context of 19th-century North America.37 There are a number of sources that engage Hindu influences on the American transcendentalists in the mid-19th century: Alan Hodder addresses Henry David Thoreau in his article “‘Ex Oriente Lux,’” Russell Goodman addresses Ralph Waldo Emerson in “East-West Philosophy in Nineteenth-Century America,” as does Arthur Versluis in American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions.38 There is a growing body of literature on the Hindu influences in the 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly on Vedanta and Theosophy, such as Carl T. Jackson’s Vedanta for the West, Gauri Viswanathan’s articles “Have Animals Souls? Theosophy and the Suffering Body” and “The Ordinary Business of Occultism” (among others), Gary Lachman’s Madame Blavatsky, and several chapters in Smriti Srinivas’s book A Place for Utopia.39 Turning to the World’s Parliament of Religions, Richard Seager’s Dawn of Religious Pluralism (1999) and The World’s Parliament of Religions (2009) are the primary references.

Studies focused on 20th-century and contemporary Indian Hindu communities in the United States have contributed broadly to the sociological understanding of Hinduism within the analytical frame of immigration and religion. The most influential of this genre has been Prema Kurien’s sociological study A Place at the Multicultural Table.40 For an approach more grounded in religious studies, Corinne Dempsey’s The Goddess Lives in Upstate New York engages deeply with the nuances of temple devotion in the context of diaspora and transnational religion.41 E. Allen Richardson’s Seeing Krishna in America engages the Pushtimarg (Vallabhacharya’s Vaishnava bhakti) traditions, while Iswari Pandey’s South Asian in the Mid-South presents ethnographic research among several different Hindu groups.42 Much of the work on Hinduism in the United States can be found in select chapters of larger edited volumes, for example, Raymond Brady Williams’s A Sacred Thread, Diana Eck’s A New Religious America, Stephen Prothero’s A Nation of Religions, Rachel Fell McDermott and Jeffrey Kripal’s Encountering Kali, John Zavos and colleagues’ Public Hinduisms, Brian Hatcher’s Hinduism in the Modern World, and Raymond Brady Williams and Yogi Trivedi’s Swaminarayan Hinduism.43

In the United States, religion functions as a location for building and solidifying ethnic identities among immigrant populations. No other scholar has taught us more about South Asians within the context of race relations in the United States than Vijay Prashad in his books The Karma of Brown Folk, modeled after W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous book The Souls of Black Folk, and Uncle Swami.44 Also situating South Asians within the context of North American ethnic relations is Nitasha Tamar Sharma’s insightful book Hip Hop Desis and Ajay Nair and Murali Balaji’s collection of essays Desi Rap. There is also a broad field of Asian American studies wherein the experiences of Indian Hindu Americans occupy chapters in larger volumes, such as Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America.45

Though it has been attempted by many, Srinivas Aravamudan has compiled the most thorough historical account of the various roles of Hinduism and gurus in North American history in Guru English.46 With regard to the history of the 20th-century gurus, several studies have attempted a relative survey of the field. Lola Williamson’s Transcendent in America and Williamson and Ann Gleig’s edited volume Homegrown Gurus both attempt to systematize and analyze the various roles of gurus in the United States.47 Karen Pechelis edited a volume addressing female gurus in India and in the United States, The Graceful Guru, and Thomas Forsthoefel and Cynthia Ann Humes compiled another, Gurus in America, addressing the most influential gurus.48 Arthur Versluis’s book American Gurus includes several gurus who have not been fully addressed by the literature.49 At the more popular level, Philip Goldberg’s American Veda has been instrumental in telling the intricacies of American Hinduism, often through the lens of the developments initiated by guru-led movements.50 There are also several important books that focus on one particular guru and his or her movement in the United States: Hugh Urban’s book on Osho/Bhagvan Rajneesh, Zorba the Buddha, and Amanda Lucia’s book on Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma), Reflections of Amma, both focus on the North American context, while Smriti Srinivas’s In the Presence of Sai Baba devotes a chapter to satsangs (congregational gatherings) in Atlanta, Georgia.51 Several influential books focus on the Hare Krishnas (ISKCON) in the United States: E. Burke Rochford’s Hare Krishna in America, Larry Shinn’s The Dark Lord, and Edwin Bryant and Maria Ekstrand’s edited volume The Hare Krishna Movement.52 With regard to modern postural yoga, both Elizabeth de Mechilis’s A History of Modern Yoga and Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body have studied its global spread, and Andrea Jain’s Selling Yoga focuses particularly on the context of the United States.53

Further Reading

Albanese, Catherine L. “Metaphysical Asia.” In A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion, 330–393. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Beckerlegge, Gwilym. “The Early Spread of Vedanta Societies: An Example of ‘Imported Localism.’” Numen 51.3 (2004): 296–320.Find this resource:

Black, Sarah Brown. “Krishna, Christians, and Colors: The Socially Binding Influence of Kirtan Singing at a Utah Hare Krishna Festival.” Ethnomusicology 58.3 (Fall 2014): 454–480.Find this resource:

Bose, Purnima. “Hindutva Abroad: The California Textbook Controversy.” Global South 2.1 (Spring 2008): 11–34.Find this resource:

Coward, Harold, John R. Hinnells, and Raymond Brady Williams, eds. The South Asian Religious Diaspora in Britain, Canada and the United States. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Deslippe, Philip. “The Hindu in Hoodoo: Fake Yogis, Pseudo-Swamis, and the Manufacture of African American Folk Magic.” Amerasia Journal 40.1 (2014): 34–56.Find this resource:

Doniger, Wendy. “Hindus in America 1900–.” In The Hindus: An Alternative History, 636–653. New York: Penguin Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Eck, Diana. “‘New Age’ Hinduism in America.” In Conflicting Images: India and the United States. Edited by Sulochana Raghavan Glazer and Nathan Glazer, 111–142. Glen Dale, MD: Riverdale Publishers, 1990.Find this resource:

Hess, Gary R. “The ‘Hindu’ in America: Immigration and Naturalization Policies and India, 1917–1946.” Pacific Historical Review 38.1 (February 1969): 59–79.Find this resource:

Iwamura, Jane Naomi. Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Jackson, Carl T. The Oriental Religions and American Thought: Nineteenth-Century Explorations. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981.Find this resource:

Lavan, Spencer. Unitarians and India: A Study in Encounter and Response. 3d ed. Chicago: Exploration Press, 1991.Find this resource:

Lourenço, Inês, and Rita Cachado. “Hindu Transnational Families: Transformation and Continuity in Diaspora Families.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 43.1 (January–February 2012): 53–70.Find this resource:

Mehta, Reena. “(Re)making Hindu Sacred Places in Northern California.” Built Environment (1978–) 30.1 (2004): 45–59.Find this resource:

Narayan, Kirin. “Refractions from the Field at Home: American Representations of Hindu Holy Men in the 19th and 20th Centuries.” Cultural Anthropology 8 (1993): 476–509.Find this resource:

Narayanan, Vasudha. “Diglossic Hinduism: Liberation and Lentils.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 68.4 (December 2000): 761–779.Find this resource:

Palmer, Norris W. “Negotiating Hindu Identity in an American Landscape.” Nova Religio 10.1 (August 2006): 96–108.Find this resource:

Pati, George. “Temple and Human Bodies: Representing Hinduism.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 15.2 (August 2011): 191–207.Find this resource:

Pew Research Center. “Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths.” Pew Forum Report. July 19, 2012.

Rocklin, Alexander. “‘A Hindu Is White Although He Is Black’: Hindu Alterity and the Performativity of Religion and Race between the United States and the Caribbean.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 58.1 (2016): 181–201.Find this resource:

Singleton, Mark, and Ellen Goldberg, eds. Gurus of Modern Yoga. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Sweetman, Will. “‘Hinduism’ and the History of ‘Religion’: Protestant Presuppositions in the Critique of the Concept of Hinduism.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 15.14 (2003): 329–355.Find this resource:

Thursby, Gene R., ed. “The Study of Hindu New Religious Movements,” Special issue, Nova Religio 15.2 (2011).Find this resource:

Tweed, Thomas, and Stephen Prothero, eds. Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Waghorne, Joanne Punzo. “Global Gurus and the Third Stream of American Religiosity.” In Political Hinduism: The Religious Imagination in Public Spheres. Edited by Vinay Lal, 122–149. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009.Find this resource:


(1.) P. J. Marshall, The British Discovery of Hinduism in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1970); Heinrich von Stietencron, “Voraussetzungen westlicher Hinduismusforschung und ihre Folgen,” in “… aus der anmuthigen Gelehrsamkeit, ed. Eberhard Müller (Tübingen, Germany: Attempto, 1988), 123–153; Hermann Kulke and Gunther-Dietz Sontheimer, eds., Hinduism Reconsidered (New Delhi: Manohar, 2001); Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Post-Colonial Theory, India, and “The Mystic East” (New York: Routledge, 1999), 96–117; Frits Staal, Rules without Meaning: Ritual, Mantra and the Human Sciences (New York: Peter Lang, 1989); Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion: A Revolutionary Approach to the Great Religious Traditions (1962; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991); and Will Sweetman, “Unity and Plurality: Hinduism and the Religions of India in Early European Scholarship,” Religion 31 (2001): 209–224.

(2.) Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

(3.) Brian Pennington, Was Hinduism Invented? Britons, Indians, and the Colonial Construction of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 172.

(4.) Thomas Layton, The Voyage of the ‘Frolic’: New England Merchants and the Opium Trade (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 24; Michael Altman, “Imagining Hindus: India and Religion in Nineteenth Century America” (PhD diss., Emory University, 2013), 57–58, 90–99; Amanda Huffer [Lucia], “Darshan in a Hotel Ballroom: Amritanandamayi Ma’s (Amma’s) Communities of Devotees in the United States” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2010), 106; and Sachindra N. Pradan, India in the United States: Contributions of India and Indians in the United States of America (Bethesda, MD: SP Press International, 1996), 57.

(5.) Altman, “Imagining Hindus,” 78.

(6.) Adrienne Moore, Rammohun Roy and America (Calcutta: Brahmo Mission Press, 1942), 155.

(7.) Srinivas Aravamudan, Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 40.

(8.) Leaders of the Brahmo Samaj (Madras: G. A. Natesan, 1926), 16.

(9.) Ralph Rusk, ed., The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939), 179.

(10.) Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Illusions,” referenced in Sachin N. Pradhan, India in the United States: Contributions of India & Indians in the United States of America (Bethesda: SP Press International, 1996), 14. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Over-Soul,” referenced in Catherine Albanese, ed. The Spirituality of the American Transcendentalists (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1988), 93. See also Edward Waldo Emerson, ed., The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1904), (particularly v. 2 and 3).

(11.) Henry David Thoreau, Walden, in Walden and Other Writings By Henry David Thoreau, ed. Joseph Wood Krutch, 324–325 (New York: Bantam Books, 1989).

(12.) Alan D. Hodder, “‘Ex Oriente Lux’: Thoreau’s Ecstasies and the Hindu Texts.” Harvard Theological Review 86.4 (October 1993): 430–438.

(13.) See David Gordon White, The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 103–115.

(14.) Richard Hughes Seager, ed., The Dawn of Religious Pluralism (Peru, IL: Open Court, 1993), 337.

(16.) Ibid., 421–432.

(17.) Ibid., 435.

(18.) Vivekananda, Raja Yoga, commentary on Yoga Sutras II.25: 201. Swami Vivekananda, Raja-Yoga or Conquering the Internal Nature (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1994). (II.25 is section II verse 25 of the Yoga Sutras).

(19.) See Shreena Gandhi, “Translating, Practicing and Commodifying Yoga in the U.S.” (PhD diss., University of Florida, 2009), 59–68.

(20.) See Sikata Banerjee, Make Me a Man! Masculinity, Hinduism, and Nationalism in India (New York: State University of New York Press, 2005); and Joanne Punzo Waghorne, “Global Gurus and the Third Stream of American Religiosity,” in Political Hinduism: The Religious Imagination in Public Spheres, ed. Vinay Lal, 122–149 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009).

(21.) See Karen Leonard, Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994).

(22.) Katherine Mayo, Mother India (New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1927).

(23.) Mrinalini Sinha, “Introduction,” in Mother India: Selections from the Controversial 1927 Text, 2d ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), 4.

(24.) See Robert Love, The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America (New York: Viking, 2010); and Alex Rocklin, “‘A Hindu Is White Although He Is Black’: Hindu Alterity and the Performativity of Religion and Race between the United States and the Caribbean,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 58.1 (2016): 181–210.

(25.) Michelle Goldberg, The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West (New York: Knopf, 2015).

(26.) Joanne Punzo Waghorne, Diaspora of the Gods: Hindu Temples in an Urban Middle-Class World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

(27.) Madhulika Khandelwal, Becoming American, Being Indian: An Immigrant Community in New York City (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002), 122.

(28.) The Encyclopedia of Hinduism was sponsored by the India Heritage Research Foundation (based in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania), referenced in Prema Kurien, A Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American Hinduism (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007), 51.

(29.) Thomas Blom Hansen, The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 156.

(30.) Kurien, A Place at the Multicultural Table, 152.

(31.) Ibid., 240.

(32.) Amanda Huffer [Lucia], “Hinduism without Religion: Amma’s Movement in America,” CrossCurrents, Special issue, Religion in Asia Today 61.3 (2011): 374–398; and Lola Williamson, Transcendent in America: Hindu Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion (New York: New York University Press, 2010).

(33.) Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); and Andrea Jain, Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

(34.) “2016 Yoga in America Study,” Ipsos Public Affairs, The Social Research and Corporate Reputation Specialists, sponsored by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, 1–87: 18.

(35.) Rheana Murray, “Hindus want to take back yoga, say American needs to recognize practice’s roots,” New York Daily News, Thursday, April 12, 2012, accessed November 1, 2016.

(36.) Paul Vitello, “Hindu Group Stirs Debate over Yoga’s Soul,” November 27, 2010.

(37.) Altman, “Imagining Hindus.”

(38.) Alan D. Hodder, “‘Ex Oriente Lux’,” 430–438; Russell Goodman, “East-West Philosophy in Nineteenth-Century America: Emerson and Hinduism,” Journal of the History of Ideas 51.4 (1990): 625; and Arthur Versluis, American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

(39.) Carl T. Jackson, Vedanta for the West: The Ramakrishna Movement in the United States (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994); Gauri Viswanathan, “‘Have Animals Souls?’ Theosophy and the Suffering Body,” PMLA 126.2 (2011): 440–447; and “The Ordinary Business of Occultism,” Critical Inquiry, 27.1 (Autumn 2000): 1–20; Gary Lachman, Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality (New York: TarcherPerigree, 2012); and Smriti Srinivas, A Place for Utopia: Urban Designs from South Asia (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015).

(40.) Kurien, A Place at the Multicultural Table.

(41.) Corinne Dempsey, The Goddess Lives in Upstate New York: Breaking Convention and Making Home at a North American Hindu Temple (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

(42.) E. Allen Richardson, Seeing Krishna in America: The Hindu Bhakti Tradition of Vallabhacharya in India and Its Movement to the West (New York: McFarland, 2014); and Iswari Pandey, South Asian in the Mid-South (Pittsburg, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2015).

(43.) Raymond Brady Williams, ed., A Sacred Thread: Modern Transmissions of Hindu Traditions in India and Abroad (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992); Diana Eck, A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation (San Francisco: Harper, 2002); Stephen Prothero, A Nation of Religions: The Politics of Pluralism in Multireligious America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Rachel Fell McDermott and Jeffrey Kripal, Encountering Kali: In the Margins, at the Center, in the West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); John Zavos et al., eds., Public Hinduisms (New Delhi: SAGE, 2012); Brian Hatcher, Hinduism in the Modern World (London: Routledge, 2015); and Raymond Brady Williams and Yogi Trivedi, eds., Swaminarayan Hinduism: Tradition, Adaptation, and Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

(44.) Vijay Prashad, The Karma of Brown Folk (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001); and Vijay Prashad, Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today (New York: New Press, 2012).

(45.) Nitasha Tamar Sharma’s insightful book Hip Hop Desis: South Asians, Blackness, and Global Race Consciousness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Ajay Nair and Murali Balaji, eds., Desi Rap: Hip Hop and South Asian America (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008); and Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America: A History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015).

(46.) Aravamudan, Guru English.

(47.) Williamson, Transcendent in America; and Lola Williamson and Ann Gleig, Homegrown Gurus: From Hinduism in America to American Hinduism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014).

(48.) Karen Pechilis, ed., The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus in India and the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); and Thomas Forsthoefel and Cynthia Ann Humes, eds., Gurus in America (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005).

(49.) Arthur Versluis, American Gurus: From Transcendentalism to New Age Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

(50.) Philip Goldberg, American Veda: From Emerson to the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation—How Indian Spirituality Changed the West (New York: Harmony, 2013).

(51.) Hugh Urban, Zorba the Buddha: Sex, Spirituality, and Capitalism in the Global Osho Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015); Amanda Lucia, Reflections of Amma: Devotees in a Global Embrace (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014); and Smriti Srinivas, In the Presence of Sai Baba: Body, City, and Memory in a Global Religious Movement (London: Brill, 2008).

(52.) E. Burke Rochford, Hare Krishna in America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1985); Larry Shinn, The Dark Lord: Cult Images and the Hare Krishna’s in America (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1987); Edwin E. Bryant and Maria L. Ekstrand, eds. The Hare Krishna Movement: The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).

(53.) Elizabeth de Mechilis, A History of Modern Yoga: Patañjali and Western Esotericism (New York: Bloomsbury, 2005); Singleton, Yoga Body; and Jain, Selling Yoga.