Hindus landed in America for the first time in the latter part of the 19th century. There are only limited records of early Hindu immigrants. One Hindu catching the attention of America was Swami Vivekananda. Hailed in the Hindu World as the father of the Modern Hindu Renaissance, Swami Vivekananda, came to America to attend the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 at the Art Institute of Chicago. For the first time in the history of religion, representatives of various religious traditions from around the world had come together to share the fundamental tenets of their individual traditions with an audience of scholars, religious figures, and prominent socialites from all over the United States.
Swamiji (as he is respectfully addressed by Hindus), spoke at the Parliament on September 11, 1893. On that historic day, he called upon the major religions of the world to promote tolerance and mutual understanding and renounce narrow sectarianism, fanaticism, fundamentalism, and religious hatred. The address that began with five words (“Brothers and sisters of America”) lasted for five minutes. After concluding, he received a standing ovation for his brilliant presentation and its universal message. Newspaper after newspaper reported the speeches of the Hindu monk, and America realized for the first time that the word ‘Hindu’ represented a world vastly different from what they had been told through different sources in that era (e.g. the print media, the church, and various scholars). When America heard what Hindus represented first-hand, their fascination knew no bounds. Thus, began a new era for Hindus and Hindu Dharma in America.
The positive experiences and impressions Swamiji carried with him after his tour of America laid the foundation for the future migration of Hindus to America. Many other prominent Hindu religious leaders visited America in the early part of the 20th century. However, America changed course and established a new policy that barred the entry of Hindus to America. The draconian immigration law of 1914 was abolished only after the election of President John F. Kennedy. The immigration and naturalization act of 1964 allowed the legal immigration of Hindus. While Hindus came mainly from India, a large number also hailed from other countries such as Trinidad, Guyana, Surinam, Fiji, United Kingdom, Nepal, Bangladesh and various African countries. There were even Hindus from Thailand, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. During recent years many non-Hindu Americans have accepted the Hindu way of life. Although Hindus do not believe in religious conversions, they have accepted those willing to embrace the Hindu way of life with open arms.
Today, more than 100 Hindu ashrams (i.e. centers of religious learning under the guidance of a monk or a religious teacher) operate throughout the US. In the last three decades, Hindus have also built several hundred places of worship and assembly in the form of Temples, Gurdwaras, and cultural centers throughout America. Since Hindus accept all paths towards God as valid and legitimate, they have a rich variety of spiritual practices, ideas, forms of worship, customs, traditions and scriptures. This inherent diversity of beliefs and traditions shows the basic outlook of all Hindus – Acceptance of All Paths, Unity in Diversity, and Freedom. What makes these diverse paths part of the Hindu World is their acceptance of five basic principles:
- Dharma: a code of conduct for all human beings to protect and preserve the harmony that exists in nature
- Universal Family: a belief that all of creation, including all other living species, is one big family, despite of the differences
- Unity of Truth: a belief that truth is one, although the sages and the learned may call it by various names
- Welfare of Creation: a belief that all human beings have an obligation to be the well-wishers and protectors of everyone and everything in the entire creation
- Ennoblement of the world: a belief that all human beings should strive to ennoble the world – in other words, make our world more refined and cultured than it is at any given time.
Most Hindu Americans have white collar jobs. A higher percentage of Hindus are entrepreneurs than members of other communities. Hindu Americans own more than hundred-thousand small and medium companies and make a significant contribution to the American economy. The statistics tell the truth: Of the more than 4 million Hindus, 80,000 are physicians, 500,000 are engineers, 600,000 are in the high-tech industry, and 500,000 are small business owners. The result is that Hindus constitute one of the most affluent communities in America.