Hinduism in Greater Boston

Hinduism“Hindu” was originally a word given by the Greeks, then the Persians, to the land and peoples beyond the Indus or “Sindhu” River. The term “Hinduism” came into common use only in the 19th century to describe a complex and dynamic pattern of li... is the world’s third largest religious tradition. On the whole, Hindus recognize the oneness of the Divine, as well as the many godsThe term god with a small “g” is used to refer to a deity or class of deities whose power is understood to be circumscribed or localized rather than universal, or to refer to a plurality of deities. and goddesses who give expression to the Supreme. When immigrants from South Asia first came to Greater Boston, they worshipped and celebrated festivals in homes and rented halls, but eventually saw the need for templesA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref... to institutionalize and preserve their religious and cultural heritage. Today, there are close to forty Hindu religious centers in Greater Boston, including the Sri LakshmiLakshmi is the goddess who embodies auspiciousness, wealth, and good fortune. She is often regarded as a wife of Vishnu or Narayana and is worshipped especially in the fall festival of lights called Divali. TempleA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref... in Ashland, which serves as a major religious pilgrimage site for a diverse community of Hindus from throughout New England.

Past to Present

In the 1970s, new Indian immigrants, most of them professionals, began to have children and put down roots in their new American communities. As they looked toward the future, they realized that their children would have no cultural or religious foundation unless they took action to create a temple. Here in Boston, a group of Tamil families from South India met for pujaFor the religious traditions of India, the term puja simply means “worship.. For Hindus, puja is the sequence of hospitality rites through which worshippers honor a deity with offerings such as water, fruit, a coconut, cloth, incense, and an oil lamp, a... and festivals in one another’s homes. In 1978 they incorporated as the New England Hindu Temple, Inc. and held their first public event, a DivaliDivali (also called Dipavali or Diwali) is the autumn festival of lights in the Hindu and Jain traditions. In the Hindu tradition, the festival is in honor of the Goddess Lakshmi, the Goddess of Good Fortune, who is invited to be present. In the Jain trad... or Lakshmi Puja, at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Melrose. For the next eight years, the New England Hindu Temple met regularly in the Needham Village Club. As one member recalled, “We used to go there once a month on a Sunday morning, clean up the whole place, rearrange the chairs, arrange the deities, and worship from about ten to two. Then we would eat together, clean up the place, and go.” In May 1990, the first major Hindu Temple was consecrated in New England: the Sri Lakshmi Temple, in suburban Ashland.

Nearly twenty years later, in July of 2009, the Hindu community celebrated the consecration of the newly-renovated Chinmaya Maruti Center in North Andover. In a large white tent bordering Route 495, amidst the hum of traffic, 200 Hindus gathered to take part in the procession. As the procession moved through the crowds, people blew conch shells and ceremoniously smashed coconuts on the ground. Afterwards, children ran around the center grounds, stopping briefly to munch on idlis and pakoras. Those who didn’t understand the origin or meaning of the consecration ceremonies might speak with one of the many priestsA priest is the leader of a religious community or congregation, specially trained and often ordained to service, who leads members of the community in the rituals and practice of shared and individual life. Many traditions have forms of priesthood.In the..., clad in saffron robes; others could learn about the cosmological significance of the Kumbaabhishekam from the PowerPoint presentation.

Today, Sri Lakshmi Temple and the Chinmaya Maruti Center are among the more than thirty-five Hindu temples—and a host of cultural, educational and religious groups—in Greater Boston.

Early Contacts

Centuries before the development of Hindu templesA Hindu temple will be called a mandir in northern parts of India or a koyil in the south. There are many styles of temples and temple-complexes, but most temples are laid out according to precise dimensions and proportions and erected to be the symbolic ... in Greater Boston, the ideas and the culture of India have had an impact on New England. The history of relations between India and Boston probably began with the trading ships that sailed back and forth from Salem and Boston to India in the early nineteenth century. Often it was “missionaries and ice” on the outbound journey. In 1841, for example, John Christian Frederick Heyer and three missionary couples sailed from Boston bound for Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), on a freighter with a cargo of 260 tons of ice packed in sawdust. By the mid-nineteenth century, there were reports of Hindus participating in Salem’s Fourth of July parade. The Peabody Museum in Salem today houses a rich collection of Indian art and artifacts expressive of a rich period of commerce between India and New England.

Hindu texts and ideas also became a lively part of the intellectual life of New England’s famous transcendentalistsTranscendentalism was a movement of 19th century American thought, associated especially with Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), Henry David Thoreau (1817-62), and subsequent liberal and Romantic thinkers. Their vision was stretched toward universalism by a v..., Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry DavidDavid was the King of Israel (c. 1000 BCE) credited with uniting the many tribes of Israel into a centralized kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital. David is said to have planned for the Temple in Jerusalem, which was subsequently built by his son Solomon... Thoreau. As early as the 1820s Emerson began to write of India in his journals. He was introduced to Hindu literature by his aunt, MaryMary was the mother of Jesus and, as such, has a special place in the affection and devotion of Christians. The Gospels of Luke and Matthew speak of her as a Virgin who conceived Jesus by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Devotion to the Virgin Mary, also cal... Moody Emerson. By the 1830s, he had copies of the Bhagavad GitaThe Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Lord” forms part of the sixth book of the epic Mahabharata and contains Lord Krishna’s teachings to the warrior Arjuna. The Gita is beloved by Hindus for its message of selfless action and devotion to God. and the Laws of ManuThe Laws of Manu constitute one of the classic sources of teaching about Dharma in the Hindu tradition. Dating to the period from about 200 BCE to 200 CE, this articulation of law or dharma begins with the story of creation and then covers such subjects a..., and by the 1840s he began to publish excerpts from “Ethical Scriptures” in the transcendentalistTranscendentalism was a movement of 19th century American thought, associated especially with Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), Henry David Thoreau (1817-62), and subsequent liberal and Romantic thinkers. Their vision was stretched toward universalism by a v... journal The Dial. Thoreau clearly had the Bhagavad GitaThe Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Lord” forms part of the sixth book of the epic Mahabharata and contains Lord Krishna’s teachings to the warrior Arjuna. The Gita is beloved by Hindus for its message of selfless action and devotion to God. with him during his sojourn at Walden. He wrote, “In the morning, I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta . . . in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.” In the winter, he marveled at both the physical and mystical connection between the land of the holy Ganges and his beloved Walden. In 1855, Emerson and Thoreau received the Rig VedaThe Rig Veda is a collection of more than 1,000 hymns dating in its oral form to at least 1,200 B.C.E. The hymns are addressed to a variety of Vedic gods, with many invoking Agni, the sacred fire. It is the oldest of the four samhitas, “collections,” ..., the Mandukya UpanishadThe Upanishads, dating largely from the eighth to the sixth centuries BCE, are the “wisdom literature” of the Vedas. Most Upanishads take the form of dialogues between teachers and students. They turn from the rites of the fire altar that had been the..., the Laws of Manu, the Sankhya Karikas, and Hardy’s Manual of BuddhismBuddhism is a multi-hued tradition of life, thought, and practice that has developed from the teaching and practice of Siddhartha Gautama (6th century BCE) who came to be called the Buddha, the awakened one. The three major streams of the tradition—Ther... from a British friend, which must have been America’s largest trove of the wisdom of India at that time.

SwamiSwami means “master” or “lord.” In the Hindu and Jain traditions of India it is used as a title of respect for deities, gurus (spiritual teachers), and sadhus (ascetics). VivekanandaVivekananda (1863-1902) was the foremost disciple of the great mystic Ramakrishna. Well educated and articulate in English, he spoke at the World’s Parliament of Religion in Chicago in 1893, describing Vedanta as a rational, spiritual, and universal tra... and Paramahansa YoganandaParamahansa Yogananda (1893-1952) was the first Hindu teacher of yoga to settle in the United States for an extended period, some 30 years. Soon after he came to the United States in 1920, he began teaching yoga to Americans. He launched th. Self-Realizat... 

Despite more than fifty years of interest in Indian thought, few New Englanders had met a Hindu. So in the late summer of 1893, when a young saffron-clad Swami Vivekananda arrived in Boston for a month’s stay before the opening of the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, he attracted a great deal of attention. He was surely the first Hindu many people in New England had ever seen or heard speak about his own religious tradition.

Vivekananda returned to Boston many times in the two years after the Parliament. He spoke at the MethodistThe Methodist church is a Protestant communion of churches which began in England with John Wesley (1703-91) and has become a worldwide movement. In the U.S., the United Methodist Church—one of the largest Protestant denominations—is known for its str... churchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ... in Lynn, at the North Shore Club, at Radcliffe College, and at the Procopeia Club on St. Botolph Street in Boston. During the summer of 1894 he spent time at Sarah Farmer’s rural home in Eliot, Maine, a place called Green Acre where she invited the serious study of religious ideas. Here, the Swami taught VedantaVedanta means the “end of the Veda” and refers to the Upanishads, those teachings which investigate the nature of the soul and ultimate reality and which are the last part of the Vedic corpus. The term also designates the philosphical system of classi... to a group of transcendentalists and seekers. During Vivekananda’s 1894 and 1896 visits, he held meetings in Cambridge at the 168 Brattle Street residence of Mrs. Ole Bull (Sara Bull), where a lively circleIn some Pagan traditions, a “circle” refers to the people who gather for a ritual. When standing in a circle, all the participants are able to see each other, with no one member elevated over any other. This practice is often felt to encourage egalita... of people gathered to discuss everything from spirituality to women’s suffrage. He lectured twice at Harvard, in May of 1894 at Sever Hall and in 1896 to the Harvard Philosophical Society.

In the years following Vivekananda’s early visits to Boston, monksA monk is a man who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully ord... of the RamakrishnaRamakrishna (1836-86) was a Bengali mystic, a devotee of the Goddess Kali, who also venerated his wife, Sarada Devi, as Holy Mother. In his spiritual experience, he claimed to have had the supreme mystical “God-realization” of many religious tradition... order in India regularly followed in his footsteps, including Swami Saradananda in 1896, Swami Abhedananda in 1897 followed by Swami Paramananda in 1909 who established the first home of the Boston Vedanta SocietyThe Vedanta Society is affiliated with the Ramakrishna Order, headquartered at Belur Math in Calcutta. The first Vedanta Society in the United States was founded in New York in 1894 by Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902). Vivekananda emphasized both Vedanta phi... on St. Botolph Street and a Vedanta Society Retreat Center in Cohasset. In 1941, Swami Akhilananda of the Providence Vedanta Center established a permanent center in Boston at 58 Deerfield Street in the Back Bay where the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society is located today.

Another Hindu teacher who, like Vivekananda, came to America for a conference and stayed to found a religious movement was Paramahansa Yogananda. This Bengali religious leader resided in Boston until 1924 while giving lectures and teaching meditationMeditation is the disciplined practice of quieting and focusing the mind or cultivating the heart’s attention. Different meditation practices commend focusing attention on a word, a prayer, a form, or the breath as a way of practice. Meditation is commo... techniques to a growing number of students. He and his students met in Davis Square in Somerville, Copley Square in Boston, and in students’ homes in Arlington and Brookline. Residents of Somerville, including Alice Hasey and Dr. and Mrs. Minot Lewis, were among the first members of the Boston Meditation Group in the pioneering years of Paramahansa Yogananda’s worldwide mission. After four years’ stay in Boston, Yogananda left the East Coast to head westward, eventually establishing the international headquarters of the Self-Realization FellowshipYogoda Satsang Society was founded in India by Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952). During the 1920s when Yogananda settled in Los Angeles, the American organization became known as the Self-Realization Fellowship. Yogananda was the first Hindu teacher of y... in Los Angeles, California. The Boston chapter of the group, located in Waltham, has a diverse membership belonging to various countries, languages, religions, races and ages. They continue in the footsteps of Yogananda through meditation practice and studying his teachings.

New Streams

From the late 1960s through the 1970s, new streams of Hindu religious life came to Boston, including gurus and swamisSwami means “master” or “lord.” In the Hindu and Jain traditions of India it is used as a title of respect for deities, gurus (spiritual teachers), and sadhus (ascetics). and the groups of seekers and followers they attracted. One such group was the International Society for Krishna ConsciousnessThe International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), often referred to as the Hare Krishna movement, was founded by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977) who brought his tradition of devotion to Krishna to the United States in 1965. Thi..., or ISKCONThe International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), often referred to as the Hare Krishna movement, was founded by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977) who brought his tradition of devotion to Krishna to the United States in 1965. Thi..., known more popularly as the Hare KrishnaThe International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), often referred to as the Hare Krishna movement, was founded by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977) who brought his tradition of devotion to Krishna to the United States in 1965. Thi... movement for its public chanting of “Hare KrishnaKrishna is one of the most beloved of Hindu Gods, sometimes called an avatara of Vishnu, but widely worshipped in his own right as the Supreme Lord. The stories of Krishna gather together the ancient and heroic cowherd god of India, the adviser to Arjuna ..., Hare RamaRama is the virtuous king and hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana. He is also considered the seventh avatara of Vishnu. He is often worshipped flanked by his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana, with the faithful monkey Hanuman kneeling before him.!” This distinctively devotional style of Hinduism was brought to the US by an Indian teacher, A.C. Bhaktivedanta PrabhupadaFollowing the instructions of his teacher in India to carry the message of Krishna to the West, Swami A.C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada (1896-1977) arrived in New York in 1965 and launched the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), one of t..., who began singing Lord Krishna’s name in a storefront on the lower East Side in New York. In 1968, the first ISKCON temple in the Boston area opened in an old house in Allston. After a few years, the community moved to a brownstone at 72 Commonwealth Avenue, where it continues today with a daily round of pujasFor the religious traditions of India, the term puja simply means “worship.. For Hindus, puja is the sequence of hospitality rites through which worshippers honor a deity with offerings such as water, fruit, a coconut, cloth, incense, and an oil lamp, a... in which the images of Lord Krishna and his beloved Radha are honored with incense, bells, oil lamps and flowers. Over 300 people attend services regularly, and the upper floors of ISKCON’s building are inhabited by monasticA monk is a man who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully ord... residents who are responsible for the upkeep of the building, administrative work, and liturgical services including Deity worship, kirtanIn the religious traditions of India the term kirtan refers to singing the praises of God in communal worship., and food preparation.

There has also been a strong move among the Hindu immigrant community toward providing educational programs for immigrants in order to retain the rich cultural heritage of the Hindu tradition. In 1978, a center called The Shishu Bharati School of Languages and Culture of India was established for children of Indian immigrants. Today the school operates in Lexington and Norwood, where students learn songs, Indian languages, history, geography, religion, and culture. Concern for the education of the next generation is also one of the primary concerns of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHP), which maintains a chapter in Boston. The chapter sponsors a youth camp called Bal ViharA Bal Vihar or Bal Vikas is a program or center for the religious education of Hindu children., a program to educate children about Indian culture and heritage. The chapter also organizes family summer camps to provide an opportunity for the youth and their parents to learn about and practice Hindu values while engaging in activities sponsored by the organization.

The VHP-linked Hindu Students Council based at MIT brings Hindu students together from other area colleges. DharmaDharma means religion, religious duty, religious teaching. The word dharma comes from a Sanskrit root meaning “to uphold, support, bear,” thus dharma is that order of things which informs the whole world, from the laws of nature to the inner workings ..., Harvard’s Hindu student organization, became firmly established in the late 1990s. Today, Dharma holds frequent pujas in the university’s first-ever dedicated Hindu prayerPrayer is the vocal or silent address to the Divine. It may consist of fixed words, spontaneous words, or rest in silence with no words at all. Some forms of prayer are accompanied with specific postures or gestures, while others are not. space. Other Hindu student organizations in the area include the Organization of the Hindu Mind (OHM) at Bentley University, the Hindu Student Association at Northeastern University, and DarshanaIn the Hindu tradition, darshan is the “auspicious sight” of a deity or even a holy person. Darshan includes both beholding the deity and receiving the gaze of the deity., the Wellesley College Hindu Community.

Hinduism in Boston Today

There are many Hindu temples with diverse memberships in the Greater Boston area. The Sri Lakshmi Temple is the largest, focusing on the traditional South Indian form of Hindu worship. The Ganeshe Temple in Dorchester serves as a meeting place for Hindus from Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, and Suriname. The temples of the International SwaminarayanThe Swaminarayan Hindu movement began in early nineteenth century Gujarat with a religious and social reformer named Sahajanand Swami. It is a devotional bhakti movement, focusing on Vishnu in the form of Krishna and Radha and also on Sahajanand Swami him... SatsangSatsang literally means the “community of the good,” and refers to those who gather together in a religious community for chanting, singing devotional songs called bhajans, study, or community worship. Organization (ISSO) and the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan SansthaBochasanwasi Swaminarayan Sanstha is a worldwide organization under the leadership of Shri Pramukh Swami Maharaj. It is one of the two major branches of the Hindu Swaminarayan movement, honoring Swaminarayan, a 19th century Gujarati teacher who is seen to... (BAPS) in Lowell demonstrate a strong focus on the North and Western Indian Hindu traditions of worship. The Chinmaya Mission located in Andover has had a long tradition of bringing spiritual leaders to the Boston area; Swami ChinmayanandaSwami Chinmayananda (1916-1993) was a Vedanta teacher and disciple of the influential guru Swami Sivananda. He founded the Chinmaya Mission in India in 1953 and the Chinmaya Mission West in 1975 to teach the wisdom of the Vedanta tradition in the context ... lectured in Boston often during his lifetime. His week-long summer lecture series held at Harvard or MIT in the 1980s attracted hundreds of area Hindus.

In recent years, a number of smaller satsangsSatsang literally means the “community of the good,” and refers to those who gather together in a religious community for chanting, singing devotional songs called bhajans, study, or community worship.—or groups that gather for meditation, songs, and study to follow various Hindu teachers—have been established in Greater Boston. For example, a satsang of Mata Amritanandamayi, also known as Amma has been established in Waltham. Each year, thousands of people come to Amma’s summer program to hear her speak and receive darshanIn the Hindu tradition, darshan is the “auspicious sight” of a deity or even a holy person. Darshan includes both beholding the deity and receiving the gaze of the deity. in the form of a hug. Another prominent satsang in the area is that of the Vrindavana Preservation Society (VPS) which is dedicated to the preservation of the holy land of Braj Mandal and mainly focuses on GoddessGoddess is a term used to refer to the female deity, either in the singular as the supreme divine reality, or in the plural as one of many particular or localized feminine deities. In the Hindu tradition, the Goddess refers to the very powerful, even supr... worship. VPS organizes weekly kirtans in the homes of its volunteer members where it also serves free vegetarian meals after the services.

A century after Swami Vivekananda, and nearly twenty years after the first Hindu temple was consecrated in Greater Boston, expressions of Hindu thought and practice are evident and vibrant. Here, we find various active yogaYoga is a Sanskrit word, deriving from a verb meaning “to yoke” or “to join.” Body and consciousness are joined together in the discipline of yoga. Yoga practice involves ethical restraints, the mastery of bodily postures (called asanas), the cont... and meditation groups, practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine, a temple youth choir learning Sanskrit chants and Hindi devotional songs, famous universities teaching courses on Hindu scriptures and traditions, and various student organizations focused on preserving the rich Hindu traditions among the American-born children of recent immigrants. These are but examples of the richly complex Hindu landscape in Greater Boston today.

Religious Diversity News: Hinduism in Boston

Read more »

Resources for Hinduism in Boston