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How the St. Louis Hindu community grew

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 3, 2009 - Since 1939, monks of the Hindu Ramakrishna Order have taught and led worship at the Vedanta Society Center, now in a house on Skinker Boulevard opposite Forest Park. The people who come there are mainly non-Indian intellectuals fascinated with Hindu theology, meditation, philosophy and thousands of years of rich literature.

Until the late 1960s, the St. Louis area, like most of the U.S., lacked a critical mass of Hindu families needed to support a temple. Many Americans under 40 may not know how rare it was in the first two-thirds of the 20th century for St. Louisans, indeed, most Americans, to know Indian-Americans in their own communities.

That changed in 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation eliminating the European-based quota system for immigrants to the United States, opening the door to people from other continents. The day Johnson signed the bill at the Statue of Liberty about 60,000 people with Indian roots were U.S. residents.

That year, thousands of Indians -- many of them Hindus, as well as Sikhs, Muslims and Christians -- who were studying medicine, the sciences and engineering at U.S. universities were among the first non-Europeans to apply for green cards, a first step toward citizenship. By the 1970s, the first wave of the immigrant generation had children, born in this country and ready for school.

Hindu parents were generally proud of their children's abilities, their U.S. educational opportunities, comfortable lifestyles, their American-accented English and, yes, success in spelling bees. They also were concerned about their children learning their faith, culture and ideals of family stability and respect for the elderly.

By 1980, 400,000 Indians resided in the United States. In next year's Census, many experts expect that number will be 1.5 million. The census does not count by faiths.

The St. Louis Hindus' passion to help their children stay true to their faith and roots is a typical American story echoing earlier immigrant waves. As with the first settlers here, the French Catholics, through the more recent immigrants including Bosnian and Somali Muslims, these Indian Hindu families fought isolation and tried to preserve their faith and their traditions, and celebrate their holidays with food, music and dance, as they settled in newer suburbs.

Most Indians who settled here in the 1970s and '80s are well-paid workers in highly skilled jobs in the medical, information technology and scientific professions. Many bought homes west of Interstate 270 or in the bluff suburbs of the Metro East. Small circles of new friends gathered in each others' homes and, eventually, under Dr. G.V. Naidu's leadership, built a temple.

Unlike immigrants in times when leaving their homeland meant they were unlikely to ever return, most Hindu immigrants save vacation time and take their children to India, every few years, some annually.

Raising their two children in the 1970s and 1980s before the Hindu Temple was difficult, said Rajyalakshmi Naidu, wife of the temple founder. The Naidus took their children to India every two or three years to visit relatives in hopes that their children would at least get "a taste" of their faith and culture, she said.

In St. Louis the couple got to know the monks at the Vedenta Society but didn't take their children there because discussions were aimed at adults, many of them European-American intellectuals, and too deep for children, she said. By the time the temple rose on Weidman Road, her children were grown with no habit of temple worship. Many good-hearted volunteers at temple who were born in this country skip services, though they stop to pray alone, she said.

In 1987, G.V. Naidu gathered a group of Hindus, who applied for nonprofit status and began raising funds for the temple. He had a list of about 500 Hindu households who offered support from financial to volunteer work, he said recently. They first had to determine the style and content of the temple.

In India, many temples feature shrines to one deity. In America, Naidu and his supporters realized that they had to be ecumenical. To get wide support they had to include favorite deities from various regions of India. With more than 300 Indian languages -- at least 100 spoken by devotees at the St. Louis temple -- differences in the rituals and stories developed over thousands of years of geographic isolation in India and segregation between various castes. All seem to enjoy the festival of Diwali but cannot agree that it marks the calendar's New Year, which is not unlike the way Christians denominations don't agree on the dates of Christmas and Easter.

All across the nation at many of the 60 or more Hindu temples built over the past 25 years, the immigrant Hindu generation has been challenged by differences, as individuals devotees pressed for their favorite deities to be placed in the most honored spots or have the community celebrate their favorite festive holiday rituals.

"Perhaps the more generations removed (from India) we are they may not find such differences so important," said  Anantanand Rambachan, chairman of the religion department at St. Olaf College, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America school near Minneapolis.

For the Children

The St. Louis Temple founders got volunteers to teach basic cultural and religious classes to children in their first building, called the Mahatma Gandhi Center. Such classes are not common in Indian because the heritage, the tales and the traditions are everywhere, adults said.

Then, in late 1991, Sudhir R. Brahmbhatt, moved to St. Louis for his profession, and offered to start the weekend Indian cultural school here. Brahmbhatt, who had directed a "Music of India” for 15 years near Philadelphia, started a “Music of India” radio show at KDHX 88.1 FM. In Pennsylvania he had headed the Bal Vihar school, and used that experience to train volunteers here. 

The school, which started in 1992, meets on alternate Sundays from fall through spring. It outgrew the Mahatma Gandhi Center on the temple grounds and in recent years moved to Ballwin Elementary where it rents space.

A Bal Vihar, which is usually attached to Hindu Temple, teaches Indian culture traditions, history, yoga & meditation, Hindu philosophy, the stories of Upnishad and Hitopadesh, a bit of Sanskrit. It also offers platform for youth to provide community services in the area and exchange beliefs with other faiths by visits or inviting others to the school. School leaders stress the curriculum is for culture and it is not a religion school.  The annual tuition is $150 a child.

Volunteers help children learn how to explain to non-Hindus that the faith has one God but many images of God. The oldest children learn about karma, a core Hindu belief that each individual's thoughts, words and actions can affect his or her destiny.

Founder Brahmbhatt hopes that with a few thousand Indian families in the St. Louis region the school might have a pool of several hundred students that might enroll.

"I think there would be many more parents who would bring their children if we were at the temple," said Marquette High junior Madhav Narayan who volunteers at the school.

The Hindu parents' focus on their children getting into top colleges and participating in their weekday schools' weekend extra-curricular activities makes taking off to study Indian culture a challenge, said Dev Patel, 14. He did not attend the Bal Vihar but made temple friends by attending social events at the youth group that gathers at the Gandhi Center, he said.

The temple's board of trustees and the school's parents have begun raising money to build a two-story, approximately 23,000-square-foot school on vacant land that the board recently bought adjacent to the temple. The building also would be used for adult activities, yoga classes and education.

Understanding Hinduism

Hindu priests are ritual specialists who chant generally in Sanskrit and not theologians nor arbitrators of religions positions, Rambachan said. He is a self-described Hindu theologian -- a professional term unknown to Hinduism. A leading scholar of his faith, he has represented Hinduism at the World Council of Churches, Vatican interfaith gatherings and other international forums. He spoke at a national meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association at the newly dedicated Minnesota Hindu temple.

Hinduism has never had a central authority. There are many canonical works of philosophy, poetry and stories that are found in the rich holy writings, including Hitopadesh, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita,, but not a systematic theology, no 10 rules to live by or just one Bible-like book, which several academically inclined second-generation American Hindus said they crave to explain their faith to non-Indians.

Hinduism "labors painfully to be understood," Rambachan said.

Khyati Y. Joshi is an expert on second-generation Hindu devotees. She is a member of the generation herself and has interviewed many people similar to Priti Shah, a West County mother who missed out on Hindu schooling, wants to learn more and can learn from her young daughter. Joshi, an associate professor in the School of Education at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J., and author of "New Roots in America's Sacred Ground: Religion, Race, and Ethnicity in Indian America," interviewed second-generation American Hindus in Atlanta and Boston.

By the age of 30, graduates of the other Bal Vihar weekend schools can't remember what they learned, Joshi said her research showed. She found a few Indian-American college students who continue to perform aarti -- or make offerings to images of their favorite deities in their dorm rooms. Many regret that they can't find courses at college about their faith other than all-inclusive world faith courses taught by professors who may be earnest but have only book knowledge of Hinduism.

"All these temples that the immigrant generation has built, well most of their (grown) children just don't go," Joshi said she found in her extensive interviews.

While many surveys of Hindus have shown that they marry within their faith, the New Jersey professor say that that is true of the immigrant generation but much less true of the American-born generation. In St. Louis even some of the founding members' adult children rarely attend temple services, except for important family occasions to please their parents.

"My complaint is that because priests take an hour and half to two hours for services in a language the children do not understand it is difficult for Americans to sit still." said Rajyalakshmi Naidu, wife of the temple founder. Even in India, few understand word for word the Sanskrit prayers. A few priests are beginning to pray a few lines in English, her husband said.

College Connection

Today, more colleges have specific programs, and some schools have Hindu volunteer chaplains or branches of the Hindu Student Council.

As Tanvi Subramanian, a John Burroughs junior and volunteer teacher at the Bal Vihar, considers which colleges she'll apply to, she'll look for those with Hindu chaplains, student organizations such as a Hindu Student Council branch or, at the least, nearby Hindu temples, she said.

"If the school didn't, I would certainly consider that in making a decision," she said. "I want to keep close to my heritage, want to keep it up."

The St. Louis temple's move to buy land for the school signals its determination to engage the second- and third-generation Hindu Americans, leaders said.

"We have many young people happy to have a temple for weddings and celebrations, but they are very busy, like young people and they do not have time now for leadership positions," said temple board chairman Krishna Reddy of St. Louis, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1980 and has an adult daughter. "Like all American children, they are very busy."

If the Hindu faith is to attract the best young Indian-Americans minds maybe it is time for a seminary system," the theologian Rambachan said. Then, temples would not have to import priests from India.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer who has been covering religion for many years..

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.