Although there are over 800 million Hindus worldwide, Hinduism is still not considered a heavyweight religion in the United States, a predominantly Christian country where both Judaism and Islam are accorded what I would call "first division" status. Jews have been part of this country's mainstream for decades now. And Muslims, while not part of the mainstream, have a strong hold on America's consciousness for internal and external reasons. Ever since black activists turned to Islam, America has had an articulate, and controversial, Muslim presence in its midst; and a series of conflicts with Muslim countries in the Middle East, most still unresolved, have taught Americans to live with a substantial global counterculture steeped in Islam. In any case, both of these religions have had a long and intimate relationship with Christianity.

Yet Hinduism is still, in America, deeply exotic, alien, and uncomprehended. The most obvious reason for this is that it has been a religion "of America" for a very short while. It wasn't until the 1970s that Hindu immigrants began to settle in this country in noticeable numbers. Indian immigration to the U.S. galloped along in the mid-1980s, and there are now estimated to be about 500,000 Hindus here. But this is still a smallish cultural mass in the wider American context.

The second reason for the low place accorded to Hinduism in America's multicultural hierarchy is that its practitioners--especially the elite professional immigrants who came in the '60s and '70s--are largely self-effacing folk who have, on the whole, placed greater emphasis on "fitting in" that "ghettoing out." Although many of these people are practicing, even devout, Hindus, they tend to believe that their religion is a private affair, to be pursued at home. They don't take out religious processions, or take on adherents of other faiths. They don't evangelize or proselytize. As a result, Americans--and this, crucially, includes American politicians--have not really seen Hindu rituals or observances, or had reason to educate themselves in aspects of the Hindu religion.

The third, and most contentious, reason why Hinduism is brushed to one side in this country--or treated often as low-grade, even offensive, pageantry--is that its tenets, beliefs, structure, theology, conceits, texture, and scriptures are totally at odds with monotheistic, book-based Christianity. For Christian fundamentalists, Hindus are heathens living in darkness. Jews and the Muslims each have their book and their one God. But the Hindus have "330 million gods and goddesses created by the imagination of men and women"--to quote a bilious little booklet published recently by the Southern Baptist Convention.

The booklet, entitled "Prayer for Hindus," was published last month to coincide with the Hindu festival of Divali, perhaps the most auspicious day in the Hindu calendar. It called on Christians to pray to Christ to save the Hindus from their apparently benighted state. It described the Hindu gods as "demonic powers," "false gods." In one memorable, risible line, the booklet said that "Satan has retained his hold on Calcutta through Kali and other gods and goddesses of Hinduism." This unprovoked assault on Hinduism by the Southern Baptist Convention has led to much soul-searching and hand-wringing among Hindus in America. How does one counter this sort of poisonous nonsense, they ask. What can one do to stop it?

There are no easy answers, only complex ones. For a start--and as a trite observation--this is a free country. The Baptists can say what they like. The only way to stop them from doing this is to raise the cost to the Baptists of making such utterances. To this end, Hindus need to cultivate the American political process. To date, not one elected politician of note has been enlisted by the Hindus in support of their outrage. Why not? Because the Hindus in America have no power base, no organization, with which to impart pressure on governors, senators, congressmen. But why was there not a single full-page advertisement taken out by Hindus in The New York Times, or The Washington Post, or even the New York Post--one that said, "Shame on the Southern Baptists" or "Our religion is older than that of the Southern Baptists, but it is not in our nature to say that it is better"?

American Hindus should start to learn a few lessons from American Jews, a group with which they have much in common. Shouldn't there be an incisive and intelligent Hindu anti-defamation league too? There is already a body called the American Hindu Anti-Defamation Coalition, but to my mind this group is bumbling, ineffective, and intolerant. It launches inane attacks on rock groups like Aerosmith, for alleged insults to Hinduism; and it is affiliated to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or "World Hindu Council," a Hindu fundamentalist organization that hopes to turn India into a Hindu theocracy. We could do without it. Shouldn't there be a body that takes up cudgels on behalf of Hindus whenever a major slur is directed at the Hindu religion? Please note: I wish to stress the word "major" here. It's no good getting steamed up about television episodes of Xena that are set in a mythical Hindu land, or pictures of the comedian Mike Myers in which he's dressed up as a Hindu "god."

Hindus should focus, instead, on high-profile religious supremacists like the Southern Baptists, who question the very basis of Hinduism. If we pick our foes wisely, we'll need to fight fewer battles, now and in the future.

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