Presidential Call to Serve Report

 Hindu Inclusion in Contemporary America

Community Building through Seva[1]

The Hindu and Dharmic[2] community is coming of age in America.  It is connecting with America.  Professionally these Americans are excelling in many fields. Millions volunteer to serve and do so regularly. They have the talent to assist our country during this difficult economic period.  Many Hindu Americans enthusiastically responded to President Obama’s clarion call to serve in summer 2009. Though not bound by any one particular central authoritative governing body, Hindu Americans came together and conducted over 1,300 small and large service projects in over 120 “Seva Centers” across the country.  They are ready and poised to serve the country both domestically and globally.

 This report, the first of its kind, is a compilation of our learning and analysis in light of the knowledge imparted by the Office of the Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the senior Administration officials and the Council members as well as our research based interaction with the Hindu American faith based and Indian American secular communities. The research helped us identify areas of our community’s strength to partner with the Administration in the country’s fight against poverty.  The research also highlighted areas of concern within the Hindu American community.

The “Call to Serve” report provides a road map for a new era of partnership. It is meant to educate the Administration and interested parties about a new community, relatively unknown in America. It is also meant to educate the Hindu American community about the Administration’s inclusionary social justice agenda, areas where the community can partner and areas where the community can further develop with the right knowledge. 

 We hope our suggested prototype of “Seva Centers” will encourage the Hindu Americans to develop faith-inspired community space in temples or standalone, as a destination places for comprehensive services for their own community and for the community at large.  We believe more sustained social service conduits, “Seva Centers” will augment leveraging this untapped talented resource to strengthen America.

The New Americans

 Throughout the history of America, waves of immigrants have come, settled and transformed the cultural and religious landscape.  They uproot from their country of origin, establish new roots and become the New Americans.  The American story is the story of the children and grandchildren of these immigrants.

 Migration brings with it its own sense of loss and, of course, gains. For the newly transplanted community and their faith-based institutions, traditions and culture provide the comfort, and the sense of security needed to manage change.  Like previous immigrant waves, we are now witnessing a similar phenomenon by today’s New Americans, the post 1965 immigrants.a

Following the Civil Rights Movement, the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 eliminated highly restrictive "national origins" quotas. These were designed, among other things, to exclude "undesirable" immigrants, including Asians. The new system was based on skills and family connections.

 America had a shortage of technical skills (scientists, engineers, doctors et al). India’s new technical schools (such as IIT) began producing new graduates. American Universities provided necessary scholarships to attract these skilled students who came from many countries representing many faiths.  They settled, had families and built their faith-based institutions. From 1,700 people in 1900, the Hindu population grew to approximately 387,000 by 1980, 1.1 million in 1997, 2.29 million (mainly of Indian and Indo-Caribbean descent) with as many as 1 million practicing American Hindus, not of Indian origin[3].

 At first, these New Americans worked towards transplanting culture and religion and establishing the temples as a necessary first step in the adaptation process.  Their first temple, the Ganesh Temple in New York, was established in 1970s followed by Venkateswara Temple in Pittsburgh. Today, Harvard’s Pluralism Project records about 1,000 Dharmic (Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists) organizations, with a conservative estimate of 400 to 500 active temples.[4].  (Earlier presence was established by Swami Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda and others).

 So, in a remarkable spirit of preserving the Vedic Hindu traditions and Hindu inspired cultural heritage, the Indian American community made strides (in a relatively short time) in addressing various religious and cultural needs through temples and regional associations.

  Service which is given without consideration of anything in return, at the right place and time to one that is qualified, with the feeling that it is one’s duty, is regarded as the nature of goodness.                             - Bhagavad Gita 17.20

Hindu/Dharmic Americans recognize “Seva” as a means to address social needs and as an inherent and integral part of their traditions, culture and faith.  As these New Americans mature and root themselves further in the sacred and secular landscape of America, they find they need national and local organizations to mobilize talent and resources to address contemporary needs to serve all – both their own ethnic community and the community at large.[5]

Seva projects are supported by both immigrant Hindu Americans, and many non-Asians in America who have taken initiation from Hindu teachers or are influenced by Hindu teachings.  The philosophical influence of Hinduism and other Dharmic traditions in America started with American thinkers such as Emerson, Thoreau, William James, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, will Durant and more recently people like former Harvard professor Ram Das, Columbia professor Robert Thurman, Dr. David Frawley, Dr. Steven Rosen, Professor Graham Schweig, Hawai’s Ramdas Lamb and many learned scholars and acharyas at Ramakrishna Mission, Self Realization Fellowship and Hinduism Today.

 Yesterday’s immigrants addressed the social needs of their community through the churches and synagogues by developing faith inspired social service organizations. Catholic Charities was established nearly 100 years ago to help poor Catholic orphans resettle in America.  Today, it is the largest private network of social service organizations in the United States. At its core are the Catholic principles, despite the variety of people – of many faiths and none at all – who make Catholic Charities a reality. In a similar manner, the National Council for Jewish Women, inspired by Jewish values, is striving to improve lives of women, children and families. 

 The people of Dharmic traditions provide ethical, cultural and theological teaching through their temples/ashrams, but generally lack the ability to address social issues. As a community in-flux, internal generation gaps are exacerbated by large acculturation differences as well as the issues typical to recent immigrant.  While many have begun to engage with their neighbors and are learning how to describe their identities and experiences, they are not yet fully engaged and actively participating within local community governance structures to address social service issues.

[1] Seva is generally defined as Service with love, dedication and devotion

[2] Dharmic in this document refers to people of Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh traditions

[3]  Hinduism Today (

[4] Harvard University’s Pluralism Project

[5] WSJ Article US Community Building in Dharmic Institutions by Anju Bhargava