The Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago sits on a wooded hilltop in the suburb of Lemont, Illinois. When this community dedicated its temple to the Hindu gods Ganesha, Shiva, and Durga in 1994, it published a souvenir program with reflections by community members on the American Hindu experience. A South Indian Hindu woman, Padma Rangaswamy, wrote about the special importance of Hindu temples and rituals for American Hindus.
It is a truism that many Hindus who live in India go through life without asking themselves what it means to be a Hindu. But we who live abroad as minorities in a multi-cultural setting are forced to ask ourselves the fundamental questions. How can we be Hindus in America? What do we want to learn about Hinduism? By subjecting our Hinduism to the logic of question and answer, and analyzing why we do certain things, we become shapers and interpreters of Hinduism. And our interpretations are no less authentic than those of the priests and the ascetics whose spiritual lead we often seek to follow.
The transmission of Hindu religious tradition is today an international phenomenon, spanning the globe, stretching across the continents of Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Here in North America, we are part of a tradition that recognizes the timeless and changeless nature of some aspects of Hinduism, but is not afraid to reinterpret traditional beliefs and practices in the light of our changing needs.
For starters, all of us from different parts of India have pooled our resources and established a temple in which we can worship in common. We are instrumental in the evolution of a trans-ethnic Hinduism that is responsive to the needs of Punjabis and Gujaratis and Tamilians alike, to name but three of the many linguistic groups who congregate under one roof. Our rituals may be somewhat different from our constituent regional traditions, but they represent a distinctly traditional Hinduism that reflects our perception of the continuity of our religious life from its ancient past.
Building and consecrating a temple is part of the process of understanding and explaining our religion to ourselves, our children, and our community. As we struggle with the important questions concerning the conduct of our lives, what choices to make regarding marriage, parent-child relationships, career options, we need to keep in mind that such choices will be far more difficult to make if we do not have any religious knowledge and if our ability to understand hidden, inner truths remains undeveloped.
The temple and temple-oriented religion are also important for us because they represent the only way we have of transmitting received tradition in a foreign setting. Without minimizing the significance of the inward or contemplative aspects of our religion, we must acknowledge the value of the ritual experiences, especially for the second and third generations who have no memory of experiences in the old country to fall back upon.
The temple can be a place for us to both remember tradition and create it anew. This is an invitation to the second generation to use your temple to learn about your religion in an open-ended process, to explore Hinduism all you want, and find out how it can meet your needs. Whatever symbolic interpretation we ascribe to the rituals we witness here on this auspicious occasion will tell us something of how we envision ourselves as Hindus in America.
[From Padma Rangaswamy, “On the Need for Temple Ritual,” Ganesha-Shiva-Durga Temple Kumbhabhishekam, commemorative souvenir (Lemont, Illinois: Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago, 1994). By permission of the author.]