Are there too many Hindu temples in America today?


A brief count of Hindu-temple websites and the number of temples listed with the "Council for Hindu Temples of North America" reveal a conservative estimate of about 80 temples.

Far too many, in my opinion.

Every community of Indians that settles in Anytown, U.S.A., follows the classic immigrant boom-and-bust cycle by building temples. You can almost plot their milestones on a graph: Come to America with a suitcase and $200, breeze through graduate school, claw through a pool of applicants for the first job, buy a Honda, get a promotion, marry a woman from India, have two kids, buy a house, swell into middle-aged prosperity, and ponder the next move. What to do now to enrich a life? Ah! Build a temple, of course.

A decade ago, Indians in several communities reached this very point in their lives. The kids were in school, the job was no longer challenging, and they were financially comfortable. Like simultaneous explosions, Hindu temples sprouted all across America. With the fervor of exiles who had left their Holy Land, Hindu Indians donated money in vast numbers to build these temples.

As Indian communities grew more affluent, they each wanted their own temple. They didn't want the hassle of getting up early on Sunday morning and driving a hundred miles to worship the Almighty. So they build their own temples, which served tiny communities with a few hundred Indians. There are now at least three temples serving the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area, four or five temples in Silicon Valley within a radius of hundred miles, and three in the Greater Chicago area and the Metropolitan New York area.

By some estimates, there are at least 200 such temples serving a Hindu population of merely 3 million.

Hindu temples in America, unlike their counterparts in India, don't have a presiding deity. The Shiva-Vishnu temple in the Washington, D.C., area, for instance, includes not only Lord Shiva and Vishnu but also Ganesh, Devi, Hanuman, and numerous other gods. This inclusive approach has paid off. While Indians in India only visit those temples that host their favorite deities, Indians in America can pretty much visit any temple anywhere in America and be assured that their favorite god will be present.

As a result, Hindu temples in America are packed on weekends and boast a strong attendance even during the week. Hindu women in colorful silk saris and men in Indian attire chant mantras, sing Sanskrit hymns and participate in the activities and events of the temple. Bored Indian-American teenagers in baggy pants stand on the periphery, having been dragged to the temple by their parents. At least, that is what it is like among my 24 nieces and nephews who grew up in America.

While some teenagers are involved with Hinduism, it would be a gross exaggeration to say that they share the devotion of their parents. Religion is not a priority for young Hindus, just as it is not a priority for many teenagers of any faith.

One of the first temples to be built in the United States was the Hindu temple in Flushing, Queens. Hindu Indians from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut contributed to the temple, and made weekend pilgrimages to Flushing. In its mission statement, The Council of Hindu Temples of North America states, "To fill the spiritual void, we are constructing the Temples in several towns in North America, which will enable us to sustain, promote and practice" Hinduism.

Caught in the throes of spreading their spiritual culture and establishing a Hindu community, the one thing that Indians haven't thought about is the future.

Last year, I took a car trip through South India. Everywhere I went, I saw magnificent temples languishing without the funds to support them. The intricate sculptures that populated these temples would be priceless pieces of art had they been placed in a museum. Instead, these carved walls, stone sculptures, ancient paintings, and geometric pillars are eroding to a shadow of their former glory. Neither devotees nor conservationists are interested in them. The government is in a quandary when allocating funds toward their preservation. There are simply too many temples in South India to maintain, said a dour government officer. How to choose which to preserve?

Some of these temples are 5,000 years old. They were built by the empires of Chola, Chera and Pandya, who wanted to stamp emblems of their reign on the countryside. With every invasion, with every new king, came more temples. These temples still remain in pristine Indian villages, their deities standing in small dark rooms, without even the money to light a lamp in some cases. I encountered one wizened old man in a tiny village near Madras, who was single-handedly trying to save a temple. "Look at these sculptures," he said. "They are so clever. If you look one way, it looks like a bull. If you look from the opposite direction, it looks like an elephant."

He was right. The sculptures were marvelous. They were also victims of the monsoon rains and fierce winds. In a decade, they would be unrecognizable. This particular village, Patteeswaram, wasn't on the tourist route and wasn't a beneficiary of foreign dollars. Local villagers took it for granted and did scant little for its upkeep, and it was far down on the list of the few preservationists in India.

You would think that we would have learned our lesson from 5,000 years of history. But no, each community of Indian doctors, engineers, and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs continue to build temples as if (forgive the cliché) there were no tomorrow. Having achieved material wealth, they all want a repository for their faith and spirituality.

What will happen to these temples a decade from now when the aging baby boomer Indians have passed on? Who will maintain these temples, or even visit them? After all, the second generation of Indians is far less religious and committed to Hinduism than their parents. Many young Hindu Indians are marrying Christians or Jews, naming their kids Neil because it sounds vaguely Indian, and assimilating completely into American culture. It is logical to assume that they wouldn't have the same visceral attachment to the sprawling Hindu temples that their parents have built.

Don't get me wrong. I love Hindu temples. If there were a Hindu temple in my neighborhood, I would go to it every weekend. I just think it is socially irresponsible to keep building Hindu temples without thinking about what will happen to them in the future.

Here is one solution. Build fewer temples. Instead of a temple for every community, two or three neighboring counties could join together to build and maintain a temple. After all, God and religion don't require monolithic temples, do they? Good karma can be earned by saving existing temples instead of building new ones.

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