Michele Verma

Michele Verma began researching Indo-Caribbean Hindu communities in Queens and Hindu educational efforts in New Jersey while she was a student at Columbia University. Dr. Charles Harrington was the faculty sponsor for the latter research project, which took place in 2004.

Indo-Caribbean Hindus in Queens

Verma updated the Pluralism Project’s directory of religious centers and sent out letters of introduction, a written questionnaire, and interview request to forty Hindu temples in Queens. This work contributed to her personal data collection for her dissertation research.

Verma conducted a one year exploratory ethnographic study investigating how Indo-Caribbean Hindu practices and identifications are constituted through ‘religious instructional scenes.’ While many studies of diasporic Hinduism emphasize the construction of identity and tradition, she found few studies examined how informal and formal forms of Hindu education contribute to such constructions. Informed by Garfinkel’s (1967, 2002) ethnomethodology and conversation analysis (Psathas 1995; Coulon 1995; Hutchby and Wooffitt 1998), Verma aimed to produce analytic descriptions of ‘religious instructional scenes’ in institutional and domestic settings in Queens, New York City with the aim of analyzing how people, together through their talk and actions, produce activities and identifications labeled as ‘Hindu.’ For each ‘religious instructional scene’ she was concerned with what kind of speech and behavior is prescribed as properly Hindu, what core competencies are taught (curriculum) and how this is accomplished (pedagogy). Her research consisted of:

  1. Finding out where and when subjects from my selected research population are engaged in educating Hindus. She anticipated that she would find this educational work in two primary settings: the temple and the home.
  2. Identifying ‘religious instructional scenes’ in these settings.
  3. Documenting the following observable and auditory details for each ‘religious instructional scene’: participants, setting, material artifacts used by participants, what is said, and what is done.

At the time of this research, Verma wrote:

Queens is one of the most ethnically diverse counties in the nation. It is home to a large Indian immigrant population which is made up of not only Indians from India, but Indians from the Caribbean who can be termed “twice migrants” (Bachu 1985). Indo-Caribbean immigrants living in New York City are third, fourth and fifth generation people of Indian descent. Their ancestors were Indian emigrants who went to Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Surinam between the years 1932 and 1917 under indentured labor contacts (Samaroo 1987, 2004; Tinker 1974, 1977). Due to the political, racial and economic climate in these countries, large numbers of Indo-Caribbeans have immigrated to the United States for permanent settlement. Gosine estimates that there are about 210,000 East Indians from Trinidad and Guyana in the United States, but that undocumented immigrants may bring the number to 300,000 (2002:38-39). I would guess that this number is even higher now in 2006 given the extensive chain migration pattern of Indo-Caribbean settlement. According to Gosine (2002) Richmond Hill, Queens, New York City has the largest Indo-Caribbean population, with smaller numbers in the Bronx, Washington D.C., Virginia and Miami. The Indo-Caribbean population in Queens is religiously plural with Christians, Muslims and Hindus; Hindus are most numerous. In Queens, New York City there are approximately sixty Hindu temples which have been founded by Indo-Caribbeans and serve an Indo-Caribbean population.

Hindu Religious Education: Two New Jersey Sites

 This project continued a study of a Hindu summer camp and Hindu “Sunday school” sponsored by two different Vedantic institutions in Central New Jersey founded by post-1965 immigrants from India. Verma propose to document and better understand what is at stake for various Hindu participants (parents, teachers and youth) who participate in activities sponsored by Arsha Bodha Center and Central New Jersey Chinmaya Mission. Additionally, she wanted learn which values are articulated as centrally important by teachers, parents and students and how these values are negotiated, lived and communicated in settings outside of the Hindu educational institution. She proposed to use a self-administered questionnaire, semi-formal face-to-face taped interviews, participant-observation and photography. This research contributed to the study of formal institutional Hindu religious programs for youth and how these sites deal with various challenges of transmitting Hinduism to the next generation.

While formalized Hindu classes for youth are rather limited in number in India, they are extremely important resources for Hindu parents living in the United States who seek outside support in transmitting Hindu and Indian knowledge and practice to their children. Arsha Bodha Center in Somerset and Chinmaya Mission Central New Jersey (CNJ) Balavihar and Yuva Kendra in Monmouth Junction are two large and expanding Hindu youth education programs in New Jersey. The teachers from these centers aim to relate a Vedantic vision to youth in age appropriate ways. These teachers engage in cultural translation by presenting Hindu traditions and practices in forms that are compelling and culturally familiar to American born youth of Indian descent.

Selected Links and Publications