A New Religious America by Diana L. Eck. Harper San Francisco: 2001
Diana Eck’s A New Religious America provides a map to understanding the complexity of accommodating religious diversity within a society ideally based on tolerance and freedom. The book draws attention to the issue of religious pluralism in America which provides both, a new definition of what America is becoming and a challenge to previously held notions of what this country is about. Eck teaches Comparative Religion at Harvard University, and is the Director of the Pluralism Project, a study of religious diversity in America, for which she received the National Humanities Medal in 1998 from President Clinton.
Born and raised a Methodist in Montana, Diana Eck became interested in non-Christian religions when she came to Harvard as an undergraduate during the 60s. She visited India as a student and was fascinated by India’s “many religious communities and their interrelations, tensions and movements over many centuries.” Her earlier book Encountering God: A Spirtual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras (1993), recounts her spiritual odyssey from west to east. In A New Religious America, she says that her return passage from India to America also started in Harvard when she started teaching comparative religion there.
According to Eck, ever since the Immigration Act of 1965, there has been an explosion of Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim communities in the U.S. The “easting” of America had begun much earlier in the nineteenth century when New England intellectuals like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau became interested in Hinduism and Buddhism. During the late nineteenth century, only philosophical Hinduism was known in this country. Vedanta and yoga were propagated by people like Swami Vivekananda, when he attended the World’s Parliament of religions in Chicago in 1893. These religions have now taken more concrete forms on the religious landscape in America. Temples and mosques have sprung up all over the country, in addition to the vibrant expression of these religions by way of rituals and liturgy, and the celebration of festivals.
What makes Eck’s book vivid reading is the fact that it is replete with historical ironies. She points out, for instance, that the Maha Vallabha Ganapati Devasthanam in Flushing, Queens, built in 1977, the first Hindu temple constructed in the U.S., is located in Bowne Street, where John Bowne, the first Quaker leader of an uprising for religious freedom, called the “Flushing Remonstrance” in 1657, had resided. There are other non-establishment houses of worship built in the area today: the English and Chinese Congregational churches, a Sikh gurdwara, a Korean Presbyterian church, and the Swaminarayan Temple.
According to Eck, the last 30 years have seen the rise of temple-based Hinduism in the U.S. The building of Hindu temples began as a mode of cultural expression for Hindu immigrants wanting to put down their roots in America. Hindu professionals, who had not been actively religious in India, became involved in temple building activities in the U.S., from groundbreaking ceremonies to the erection of the temple, bringing architects and artisans from India as well as priests to perform the ritual installation of the deities and the performance of daily rituals. Hinduism has also become a part of the cultural landscape of the U.S. The Hindu festivals of Ganesh Chaturthi and Diwali are celebrated with great gusto in major American cities.
Eck points out that Hindus have brought their sense of “sacred geography” to America. Thus, they have built their temples on hilltops at the confluence of rivers. The Sri Venkateswara Temple in Pittsburgh is atop the Penn Hills at the meeting place of the Alleghany, Ohio, and Monogahela rivers. Along with ritualistic Hinduism, the meditational tradition also flourished in America. The Self Realization Fellowship, founded by Swami Parahamsa Yogananda in 1920, and Transcendental Meditation started by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1959 are examples. The Hindu concept of what Eck calls the “ Manyness of the One Reality (Brahman)” was also in consonance with the idea of e pluribus unum, the foundational credo of America.
Buddhism first came to this country via the Theosophical Society founded in 1875 by Madame Blavatsky and Col. Olcott. They embraced Buddhism and sought to combine the spirituality of the East with the science of the West. They tried to create a unified version of Buddhism in the U.S., introducing some of the features of Christianity, but based on the Buddha’s teachings. Other Americans followed suit. Buddhism, particularly Zen, influenced the counter culture of the 50s whose leading representatives were Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Alan Watts. Buddhism has evolved in this country in a unique American way. There are more than 300 Buddhist temples in Los Angeles alone today. The Hsi Lai temple, built by Chinese Buddhists, is the largest Buddhist temple in the western hemisphere. There is pluralism within the ranks of Buddhism with Cambodian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Sri Lankan, Thai, Tibetan, and Vietnamese versions represented individually. The Vipassana movement, rooted in the Theravada practice of meditation, has become very popular since the 70s.
During the 1890s Muslims from the Middle East came to the U.S. for economic opportunities and settled in Massachusetts, North Dakota, Iowa, Michigan, and Seattle. One of the first mosques in North Dakota was erected in 1920 but was razed to the ground in 1948. The antipathy towards Muslims is rooted in the historical enmity between Islam and Christianity during the Middle Ages. In 1952, the Federation of Islamic Associations was formed to combat false and degrading propaganda against the Moslems. There is also the native tradition of Islam in the form of African-American Islam. The first group of African-American Muslims came to this country with the slave trade. Many of them were literate and could read and write Arabic. Steven Spielberg depicts these early Moslem slaves in the movie Amistad. Toni Morrison’s characters in Song of Solomon are drawn from these early African-American Muslims. In the 1930s, Elijah Mohamed founded the Nation of Islam. The movement inculcated discipline and self-respect among its members. Islam also provided an identity for African-Americans, since, according to Eck, Christianity had failed the blacks in America. Islam is not a monolithic tradition as it is wrongly conceived by non-Muslim America. There is enormous diversity among the Muslims: the Sunnis, the Shias, the Ahmadiyyas, the Bohras, the Nizaris, and the Ismailis, to name a few.
The followers of these religions have suffered persecution by mainstream America for a long time. The first response of most Americans to difference is suspicion followed by fear. There is a great deal of ignorance in America, says Eck, of the religious and cultural traditions of the rest of the world. The acceptance of religious diversity is the greatest challenge America faces in the new millennium. Diana Eck’s book is a fine guidebook for understanding the religions of the minorities, and respecting diversity as an enrichment of American democracy.
Lakshmi Mani is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.