Asian Americans and Religion: Pew Study Highlights Hindu, Buddhist Diversity

In a report on Asian America and religion published today, the Pew Research Center offers new data that illuminate the complexity and richness of our pluralistic democracy. Pew's national survey is providing one of the first detailed glimpses into how Hinduism is practiced in the United States.

While temples representing many strains of Hinduism have sprung up across the U.S. since 1965, the Pew report offers the first data on where American Hindus locate themselves on the broad and diverse field of Hindu belief. More than half (53 percent) identify as simply "Hindu," but of the other half, about twice as many (19 percent) identify with the Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism as with Shaivite Hinduism (10 percent). Smaller percentages identify with the Hare Krishna tradition (3 percent) or with Vedanta philosophy (2 percent).

The Pew report also indicates how Hinduism is lived in the U.S. -- how it plays out in the daily lives of individuals. This chance to go beyond encyclopedia definitions and scriptural analysis is priceless to a social scientist like me. The Pew report tells us that nearly half (48 percent) of Hindus engage in daily prayer, and another third (32 percent) pray weekly or monthly. More than three quarters (78 percent) keep a puja (altar or shrine) in their home. A similar number (73 percent) believe in yoga as a spiritual practice, and more than four in 10 meditate daily (44 percent) or fast during holy times (41 percent).

To make the most of the Pew report, we need to bear in mind how the framing and phrasing of the survey can affect not only the data but also the conclusions some readers could draw from it. For example, Pew writes that "Asian Americans tend to be less religious," supporting this conclusion by noting that "fewer Asian Americans say religion is very important in their lives" (39 percent of U.S. Asians vs. 58 percent of all U.S. adults), and Asian Americans are less likely to say they pray on a daily basis. Pew also notes that just one-fifth (19 percent) of Asian American Hindus say they attend a house of worship regularly.

These measures apply a lens of Christian normativity -- treating biblical practices like weekly organized worship as the model for what constitutes "religious" behavior. As a result, they are inadequate indicators of religion's role, particularly among Hindus (who comprised 10 percent of the survey population) and Buddhists (14 percent). Applying them can leave us with a skewed understanding of how non-Christians live and practice their faiths.

For example, consider the large majority of Hindus who have an in-home puja, where devotional activities can be carried out without being "affiliated" with a mandir (Hindu temple) or attending group worship. Researchers who measure religious engagement in Christian normative terms will inevitably under-estimate the religiosity of Hindus: Hinduism doesn't have a weekly Sabbath like the Abrahamic faiths, and Hindus are as likely to worship at home or visit a temple to do darshan (the act of seeing and being seen by God), which they may not identify as attending a "service."

Likewise, Pew found fewer Hindus (17 percent) than any other religious group felt "living a very religious life" was "one of the most important things in life." But the number of Asian Americans who prioritized "being a good parent" (67 percent) and "having a successful marriage" (42 percent) outpaced the general public substantially. For Hindus, these are religious principles. Hindus recognize the concept of dharma -- the obligation one has to family and community at various stages of life. In India, where most of Pew's Hindu research participants grew up, one speaks not of religion or religiosity, but of dharma. Being a good parent and spouse are among the quintessential dharmic duties of a Hindu; to prioritize them is to "live a very religious life."

To best understand a report like Pew's, we need to understand the lens through which the data are collected, and how religious activity is seen and understood. For example, nearly a third (30 percent) of the Hindus Pew surveyed say they sometimes attend services of "different religions." That does not necessarily mean that they are worshiping outside Hinduism. Hinduism is no more monolithic or unified than any other religion. Vaishnavites and Shaivites may see each other's houses of worship as a "different religion." Also, Hindus of one type may attend another's mandir simply because it is the only geographically convenient temple.

Pew found 73 percent of Hindus and 76 percent of Buddhists surveyed "celebrate Christmas." As Pew notes, "holiday celebrations can ... entail religious, secular or a mix of both practices." But even assuming that for most Hindu Americans, "celebrating Christmas" is more about trees and gifts than the Baby Jesus, this is a striking figure. The framers of the Constitution could not have imagined America's religious diversity today, but they would surely rejoice to see different religious groups celebrating with one another.

These data also provides a window on the American diversity of faiths by illuminating some of the distinctions among non-Christian faiths. Whereas Jewish Americans probably don't "celebrate Christmas" at a similar rate, this isn't because Jews are more sensitive or "stronger" in their faith or because Hindus are weaker in theirs or are "assimilating." Rather, it's about a theological distinction between the two. For a Jew, "celebrating Christmas" could imply accepting the Christian idea that Jesus was the Messiah sent to fulfill the prophecies in the Tanakh (Hebrew sacred texts). By contrast, the Christmas story does not contradict any similarly central tenet of Hinduism or Buddhism. In the absence of a need for theological exclusivity, Hindus can indeed "celebrate Christmas" without negating their own beliefs.

Pew concludes that Asian American religions are being transformed in the United States. Of course, they are. The development of American Hinduism is being influenced by the dominant culture and shaped by the experiences of young Hindus raised in a Christian milieu. And Asian American religions are also transforming the United States.

In order to advance religious pluralism, the normative nature of Christianity must be acknowledged. We need to stop judging or understanding our neighbors' faiths based only on what we understand as "religion."

Perhaps someday, the number of American Christians "celebrating Diwali" (a holiday celebrated not only by 95 percent of American Hindus, but also by 45 percent of non-Hindu Indian Americans) will match the number of Hindus "celebrating Christmas."

In the meantime, let us relish these new data, while recognizing that avoiding Christian normativity in social science research can help us better meet and discover America's other religions on their own terms.

Khyati Y. Joshi was an external advisor to the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life. She is a professor of education at Fairleigh Dickinson University and the author of the book 'New Roots in America's Sacred Ground: Religion, Race, and Ethnicity in Indian America.'