Many paths to God: Challenge and change for South Asian religions in northern Virginia
| By Jessamine Price |
Vibha Chawla of Ashburn, Va., wonders how to explain Hinduism to her teenage son and daughter.
“They have a hundred questions,” she says. Although she grew up in India, she isn’t sure how to answer them. Hinduism doesn’t have creeds or pillars to summarize the faith, in contrast to Christianity or Islam. Understanding Hindu ideas takes study, even for those born and raised with the religion. So Chawla researches her kids’ questions in ways familiar to Americans of all faiths: “I Google. I call my Mom.”
Chawla wears an elegant blue dress in an Indian style as she stakes out a table for her parents in the empty community hall at Rajdhani Mandir, a temple in Chantilly, Va. It’s a cool Saturday evening in mid-April. The prayer hall upstairs is busy with music and blessings for Mata Jagrans, a celebration of the Goddess Durga, just one of the many forms God takes in Hinduism. Priests and worshippers gather around a creamy, polished, life-size icon of Durga, a serene, smiling Goddess with a thousand arms, each grasping a weapon, riding a lion into battle to save the world.
In a few minutes, temple volunteers will serve a spicy vegetarian dinner to hundreds of worshippers. The tables in the community hall fill up quickly. A few families end up sitting cross-legged on the stage used for occasional cultural performances. Chawla, who has lived in the United States for 22 years, knows it will get crowded and is wise to claim a spot early for the sake of her elderly mother’s knees and back.
New immigrants in old Virginia
Forty miles outside of Washington, D.C., in western Fairfax County and Loudon County, Va., the past three decades have seen rural, predominantly Christian, horse-farming communities replaced with busy, ethnically diverse, new mega-suburbs like Ashburn, Va. Modernist office buildings, shopping centers, and apartments, townhouses and subdivisions cater to tens of thousands of new residents, many of them highly-educated immigrants working nearby in the technology sector.
The 2010 census found that in Loudon County today over 20,000 residents trace their roots to India—a 5000 percent increase since 1990. Not surprisingly, religions that originated in India—Hinduism, Sikhism and even Jainism—are flourishing in the Washington, D.C., area, which recently overtook Los Angeles to have the third-largest South Asian population in the United States.
The region supports 13 Hindu temples, 7 Sikh temples, known as gurdwaras, and at least 2 Jain organizations. The rapidly rising number of worshippers has led to unexpectedly large crowds at the area’s small temples, occasionally causing parking and zoning disputes for worshippers, their neighbors and county officials. The influx of immigrants has also demonstrated the flexibility of Indian religions, as communities adapt to the Virginia suburbs and create distinctly American approaches to worship.
At Rajdhani Mandir, parking has been the community’s greatest challenge. Rajdhani Mandir, which is Sanskrit for Capital Temple, was founded in western Fairfax County in 1985. The current temple opened on a two-lane country road in 2000, with a prayer hall that reaches out to a broad South Asian community by including statues of Sai Baba and Mahavir, the founder of Jainism, alongside Hindu deities.
Thanks to its broad outreach and the late-nineties surge in South Asian immigration, the new temple rapidly found its small parking lot overflowing, in violation of its zoning permit. The resulting 2008 dispute with neighbors led county zoning officials to threaten to close the temple if one more worshipper parked at the side of neighborhood streets. For all major events since then, the temple has paid to run a shuttle bus to satellite parking, leading to an uneasy peace with neighbors.
Chawla says she finds the shuttle bus inconvenient. She’s looking forward to the opening of a new temple in Sterling, Va., closer to her home in Ashburn. Driving to Rajdhani Mandir takes at least half an hour, plus shuttle-bus time. She continues to come here because her parents like it, but like many Americans, she is flexible. She also sometimes attends the gurdwara in Sterling with her husband, who is Sikh, and she praises the peaceful atmosphere there.
For Kuldip Kalra, of Sterling, Va., the challenge when he arrived from Punjab in 1981 was adapting his religious practices and finding work. Before immigrating, he and his wife lived in Amritsar, the city of the Golden Temple, the center of the Sikh faith, a monotheistic religion distinct from Hinduism.
Standing behind the counter at Shingar Boutique, a Sterling, Va., shop selling Indian clothing, videos and music, Kalra shows me a faded photograph of himself in the seventies. He’s wearing a tan suit and a maroon turban. He stopped wearing the turban—an important sign of the Sikh faith—in the United States because no one would hire him with it, he says. He shrugs philosophically.
“Wisdom is you have to go with the flow,” he says.
Embracing change and diversity
But today, Hinduism and Sikhism are more common here. Turbans, too. Kalra’s friend Gurpreet Singh Brar of Ashburn, Va., is wearing a turban in bright marigold orange one Saturday afternoon as he stops by the shop where Kalra works. Accompanying Brar are his two daughters. The teenager wears a graceful white dress decorated with a narrow orange scarf and the youngest is kitted out in a soccer uniform from a local youth league.
The three just attended the local Punjabi school for a celebration of Vaisakhi, which Brar describes as a joyful spring holiday as well as the anniversary of the first formal initiation of Sikh adherents in 1699. Orange and white are good colors for Vaisakhi, he says: orange symbolizes vibrancy and standing up against injustice, while white stands for peace and purity. Brar, who immigrated in 1998 and runs an information technology business he started in 2009, owns turbans in a rainbow of colors from green to pink to brown, as part of his “journey” to better follow Sikh principles.
Today, Sikhs also have “many options” when choosing a gurdwara, according to Brar. Sterling alone offers two Sikh places of worship. Ten years ago, Kalra says he began attending a Sterling gurdwara that was originally founded by white American converts to Sikhism.. He sounds impressed when he adds that the white Sikhs know all the prayers and rituals. Even the music during the Sunday service uses familiar instruments like the harmonium and tabla. The gurdwara has welcomed immigrants and the Sunday services attract a mix of “everyone from all over,” Kalra says.
Similarly, Hindu temples in the region welcome Indians with widely varying socio-economic backgrounds, geographical origins and even languages. Dozens of languages are spoken in India, at least 15 of them widely enough to be considered official languages for government business. English has long been a common second language for the educated classes. But many immigrants speak only one language—people like Vibha Chawla’s parents, who speak only Hindi. According to Kalra, the boutique’s customers speak languages that include Gujarati, Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi. Kalra himself speaks Urdu and Punjabi as well as English.
In Herndon, Va., the movie theater offers multiple daily showings of two films in Telugu along with the regular Hollywood fare. And at Rajdhani Mandir, though most of the priests are from northern India and speak mainly Hindi, two of the six priests are multilingual. Pandit Moti Lal Sharma speaks Nepali; he says his father was from Nepal and he himself spent two decades in Kathmandu as a Sanskrit professor before coming to the United States three years ago. Pandit Subba Visveswara comes from southern India and speaks Telugu, Malayalam and Tamil as well as Hindi. The priests switch between languages as they greet worshippers from various regions.
Hindus even vary in their attitudes towards temples themselves. “In the population I come from—a more educated, middle-class, urban family—going to temples was never a thing for us,” said Pradeep Rau, who teaches business at George Washington University.
Rau’s family practiced Hinduism at home, with simple observances such as lighting candles or incense in front of a picture or statue of one of God’s representations (these varying representations of God have led many Christians to mistake Hinduism for a polytheistic faith). Growing up in India just after independence, he saw religious festivals taking place in the streets, but middle-class families didn’t take part in them; they marked these holidays and festivals at home. A particularly observant family might use an entire room as a shrine to a favorite deity, he says.
Not surprisingly, a recent survey by the Pew Center shows that 78 percent of American Hindus have home shrines, while only 66% report that they attend a temple monthly or yearly. Rau, who has lived in several parts of the United States since 1977, notes that Hinduism, unlike Christianity, does not have congregational worship or a weekly Sabbath. Most Hindu worship takes place alone, as an interaction between a worshipper and God, even if it takes place in a temple. A worshipper can ask a priest for special blessings or prayers, but it isn’t necessary.
For example, on rare occasions, Rau says that he visits a temple in order to mark the anniversary of the passing of someone who has departed. He describes it as “a very private observance.”
Rau also notes that different parts of India observe different holidays. Holi, he says, which is popular with Hindu Americans and is sometimes called the “festival of color,” is “strictly north Indian.” Rau, born in the southern city of Mysore, doesn’t celebrate it. Likewise, he doesn’t celebrate the festival for the Goddess Durga that is popular in eastern India. Diwali, the “festival of lights,” which celebrates the hero Rama’s defeat of Ravana, comes closest to a nationwide Hindu holiday, in Rau’s opinion. Even then, he insists that “Hinduism, and India, is too diverse to describe.”
That diversity makes it hard for Vibha Chawla to give her children answers. She worries that kids born in America may stop caring about Hinduism when they become teenagers. Maybe it will be easier to keep her kids interested once the temple in Sterling opens and they don’t have to drive so far.
Vibha’s mother says something in Hindi and Vibha translates. “My mother says the new temple is built by south Indians so the statues will be made out of black stone instead of white stone like ours.” Chawla doesn’t know why north and south use different materials for the icons or if it is even significant. She asks a priest, who explains that the tradition grew out of variations in geology and costs, not theological differences.
But Chawla still has plenty of questions to work on. Her 13-year-old daughter Jasleen recently asked her the meaning of life.