Faith in America
It's as important as ever, no matter what you believe
There are subtler indications that Sri Ganesha Temple--named for an elephant-headed deity known as the "remover of all obstacles"--rests squarely on American soil. Cradled in Paruchuri's lap during the Durga puja is her 2-month-old granddaughter, whose mother is not Hindu. "My daughter-in-law is a Catholic from Louisiana, but she's more devout than my son," says the Indian-born Paruchuri, a political science professor at Tennessee State University. "I bring my grandchildren to the temple to ensure that it will be different for them."
Attracted by jobs in medicine and academia in the late 1960s, Nashville's first Hindu arrivals (many already fluent in English from colonial-era school programs introduced by the British) met little resistance in the Bible Belt. White-collar jobs placed many Indian immigrants in the company of well-educated, broad-minded locals. "By the time we built the temple, most of us were well established," says Buntwal Somayaji, the temple's first chairman. "And from the beginning, we explained that Hinduism never preaches conversion, that there's no evangelistic zeal."
In fact, many local Hindus credit their faith's recognition of diverse religious traditions with easing their transition to a city with two Bible Factory Outlet stores. "Say God is Nashville," says Radha Reddy, who leads frequent tours through the temple, often for local Christian groups. "Some people are going to take I-40 east and others will take I-40 west, depending on where they're coming from."
That kind of tolerance hasn't always been reciprocated. In 1999, a prayer book issued by the Southern Baptist Convention instructed its followers to rescue those "lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism." Nashville's Hindu community responded with silence. "I feel sad that God is so misunderstood," says Reddy. "But we'd rather work with people who understand us than go out and scream at the ignorant."
Some say the move to America has actually strengthened their ties to Hinduism. "In India, we'd take religion for granted," says Paruchuri, who started chanting and meditating daily several years ago when she realized that her fast-paced lifestyle was causing undue anxiety. "Because we're in an outside setting, we raise questions and try to answer them rather than falling into rituals." Many younger worshipers agree but see the temple as more a cultural conduit than a religious center. "Being born and raised in America, we're pulling at the threads of our culture," says Manish Jani, 23, a medical student at Nashville's Meharry Medical College.
Many first-generation American Hindus find that one of the wider cultural gulfs between their own and their parents' lives involves the role of the traditional arranged marriage, which is often dropped or significantly altered in the United States. Still, most young Hindus here say they want to marry someone of the same faith. "I don't like the concept of an arranged marriage," says Srikanth Ambarkhana, a 27-year-old computer engineer from Atlanta who, like many attendees at the temple's anniversary celebration, drove hundreds of miles to Nashville. "But I can't find many Hindu girls. Right now," he says, "I'm banking on my parents." -Dan Gilgoff