(RNS) — Eighty-seven percent of Hindus in the United States today are immigrants. A striking 62% are male, suggesting that many families in South Asia, where Hinduism is geographically and historically rooted, are first sending men of working age abroad in search of opportunity and only later send over other relatives.
It’s a familiar picture of American immigration, with newcomers embracing the comforts of the religion they brought with them, even as they strive to integrate themselves into their new home. Hindus, like other non-Christian groups especially, have typically tended to limit expressions of faith to their home life and their neighborhood temples.
But a rising cohort of Hindu leaders is becoming more public about its spirituality. Inspired by the Hindu concept of “seva” — selfless service — they are organizing themselves and seeking common ground with believers in other South Asian traditions, such as Sikhism and Buddhism, to contribute to their communities. And increasingly they are taking part in national public policy conversations.
One such leader is Anju Bhargava, who grew up in Chennai, in Southern India, and attended Madras University before immigrating to the U.S. In the early 1980s, as she worked her way to senior positions as a banker, Bhargava found herself asking questions about belief and identity. Moving from these broad questions to the practice of her faith — from “philosophy to ritual,” she has said — Bhargava became one of the few female Hindu clergy in the United States.
She had already become involved in corporate diversity efforts at work; she then threw herself into interfaith work around her northern New Jersey home. She saw that Hindu Americans were underrepresented in community development. When the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offered a fellowship in community development, she used it to create a place for South Asian women and Hinduism in the public square.
That meant defining a consensus voice for U.S. Hindus. “Even within the community connected to India by origin, there is a great deal of diversity, based on the region of India,” Bhargava told Religion News Service, “not to mention the large number of Hindu practitioners in America who come from Guyana, Trinidad, South Africa, Africa as a whole, England and so on. Indian communities lived in many places for generations, so their way of practicing is very different from when we all came to America.”
The American Hindu community, she said, needed to “search for the common thread of values and practices to bring us all together.”
With a number of fellow community builders, Bhargava came to the conclusion that the most common element across the disparate streams of Hinduism, as well as many other Vedic religions, was “seva,” the Sanskrit word that translates as “selfless service of others.”
“That’s how a group of us came together to found the Hindu American Seva Communities,” she said, launched as Hindu American Seva Charities in 2009. Serving as a hub for anti-poverty and other community development efforts nationwide, the group made its resources and guides available to a wide network of temples and other organizations.
“It was, as they say, like letting 1,000 flowers bloom. We did research and development with college campuses so that students could launch their own initiatives, supported Hindus who were part of the armed services and created a strategic paper that I gave to the president (Obama) and others in Congress.”
Her work had attracted the attention of the Obama White House, which invited her to join the White House’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. She was the only non-“Abrahamic” representative on the council. “It was new for us as a community, and certainly new for me,” she told RNS.
This public role pushed Bhargava to talk about Hindu tradition in political circles, another novelty for Hindus in the U.S., who had avoided the increasingly politicized Hinduism that had been gaining momentum in India.
“Until then I wasn’t a card-carrying Hindu,” recalls Bhargava. “There are people who are right-wing and left-wing, and I joined with other Hindus who were in the middle. We did not get involved with politics in India, because we saw ourselves as Americans first and saw that we were creating a new form of our tradition in America.”
Finding common ground among Hindu immigrants at once Americanized Hinduism and gave Hindu Americans the confidence to talk about their tradition and to act on its principle of seva, not only within the Hindu community but to help people outside it. This in turn further empowered Hindu Americans to share both their identities and inspire other Americans.
Americans have slowly come to appreciate Hinduism’s traditions, chiefly through yoga and meditation but also adopting Diwali and Holi celebrations as more or less secular public festivals.
Bhargava is working to make seva as much a part of this spreading Hindu culture as Holi’s explosions of color. “The Hindu community has kind of absorbed our efforts,” she said. “Now seva is part of monthly festivals in Hindu temples across the country. People gather to pray and make offerings, but they stay together to serve and get to know each other through common purpose. In turning outwards and expressing our beliefs and values through action, we have come to better know ourselves.”