Recently, a map put together by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies showed which religious traditions have the second-highest number of followers in each state. What surprised a lot of people is that Hinduism took the second spot in Arizona.
University of Arizona religion professor Caleb Simmons said the increasing number of Hindu followers in the state will be reflected in the culture, especially in larger cities.
“Overall, it’s starting to not only be represented within the culture, but it’s starting to shape it more broadly,” said Simmons. “Terms like dharma and karma now have — they’re part of the American vocabulary. And I think it also adapts the Hindu tradition. And so as Hindu Americans who are born here, they also incorporate those American values back into the tradition.”
To learn more about Hinduism and its traditions, I visited the Ekta Mandir Hindu Temple in west Phoenix.
When I got there, I was greeted by Uma Raman, a 20-year-old woman who has been volunteering at the temple and in the community for some time. Once I took off my shoes and she showed me through the front door, I immediately noticed the strong smell of incense and the sound of chanting prayers.
The temple is gorgeous and opulent. The floors appeared to be made of smooth, light-colored stone. Beyond the entrance is a large, open room with chairs in the back and a raised section starting in the middle. That’s where two priests were leading rituals, or puja. Sitting on rugs around them were a few dozen devotees who are getting ready to make a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash, a Hindu holy site in Tibet. Nearby was a plate of ritual offerings including bananas and rose petals.
Just beyond where the rituals were taking place were a number of shrines that featured different deities, which are statues of the Hindu incarnation of God, in different forms.
Uma and five other community members who worship at the Ekta Mandir temple and are part of the Indo American Cultural and Religious Foundation met with me in a room just behind this area. They talked with me about what Hinduism is to them. Uma’s younger brother Kailash Raman explained that a common misconception of Hinduism is that there is more than on God.
“The ultimate core belief of Hinduism is that there is one ultimate, supreme formless God,” he said. “And this God is — pervades throughout the universe and is in every living being in all matter and to represent this formless, abstract God we worship these several different forms of this God as different deities that you see in the temple.”
“Hinduism is not really any religion,” said Amrish Bhargava. “It is the name that is there for Hinduism is dharma. Dharma means duty. And the duty of any human being, that’s what the principles of Hinduism give.”
The concept of dharma, or duty, came up a lot in our group conversation. Uma Raman said that, more than anything, dharma is for personal benefit in order to reach God.
“I think dharma is not set up in the sense of there being an external — external good or external bad or external reward,” Uma Raman said. “Dharma is the idea that if the goal is to reach God, the goal is to become one with God. And so the idea is that if you don’t perform dharma you’re moving away from God and then you are the one who suffers for it.”
“Every person, if he follows the principles of Hinduism, is a Hindu,” Bhargava said. “You don’t have to convert to Hinduism. It’s a way of life.”
“Based on your karma, your actions, you know, you’ll go through this life and death and this cycle, and what you wanna do is break,” said Mahesh Shah. “So by continuing to do that good deeds and conducting yourself in the dharmic way, you want to attain that moksha and nirvana to become part of God and then break the cycle.”
As Shah said, that idea of working toward enlightenment by acting in accordance with Hindu principles is central to Hinduism. But Uma Raman said that for younger generations, figuring out exactly what that means can be very individualistic.
“The rebellion that is often seen in Hinduism I guess, or rejection of Hinduism amongst our generation is that a lot of this stuff is not explained to you explicitly,” Uma Raman said. “We don’t have someone that tells us exactly what Hinduism is. Personally it has very much been a journey of self exploration throughout the religion, which is a conscious effort you have to make. If you don’t, you’re sitting in a temple seeing these rituals being done and it’s hard to connect to it because you haven’t been brought up with everyone doing that and you can’t just take it for granted that that’s how it is, so then a lot of people lose sight of it.”
Vikram Shah also mentioned that even though many people go to a temple to pray, Hinduism is flexible, and can by practiced anywhere.
“You don’t need to go to the temple. A lot of people do have a small temple in their own home where they can pray and do the same rituals at their home,” Shah said.
“God could be in you, in me, in our parents, teachers, and in the different forms,” said Nate Bhadriraju.
I also spoke with two priests at the Ekta Mandir temple about the many different rituals they perform. Priest Hari Joshi said priests are responsible for leading worship and prayer with a variety of activities, including things like marking a child’s first haircut.
One unique thing about the Ekta Mandir temple is that it includes people from all different parts of India and incorporates different customs that often vary regionally. In fact, the two priests I met, Hari Joshi and Sudharshana Bhatt, were from different regions and chanted a mantra in the way that each of them is accustomed to.
Ekta Mandir is one of around a dozen Hindu temples in the Phoenix area that collectively serve the growing number of Hindus in the Valley.