Becoming “Hindu European”
Living in a new land presents challenges and opportunities and requires civic engagement
WHEN WE TRANSPLANT OURSELVES to a foreign land, we naturally seek to make our new neighbors feel comfortable with us. We also seek to preserve our own cultural and religious traditions, and we hope the next generation will carry them forward. We find various ways to approach the cultural blending that naturally takes place, but it is never without its challenges and an ineluctable sense of uncertainty.
Marriage is one way in which immigrants blend with a local community. In Portugal and Italy, overall rates of intermarriage are low, but those immigrant communities are also young. In Spain and Germany, we were told that boys marry outside the faith far more than girls do. Mr. Krishnamurthy described the approach that the Sri Ganesha Tempel in Berlin is taking to this phenomenon: “To my knowledge, ours is the only temple in Europe hosting interfaith marriages. We know we are living in Germany, and if our children are going on a different path, we want to catch them and bring them back again. So we encourage them to marry here. Then their children grow up with us as a part of our community. If we say ‘no,’ we push them away.”
Luh Gede Juli Wirahmini Bisterfeld seemed to have arrived at a balanced perspective about her daughter’s future: “I think if she marries a Balinese I would be happy about it, but if she doesn’t, it’s no problem. What is important is that Hinduism is already in her. I think my duty as a mother is to bring her into the awareness of Hinduism.”
In the Netherlands, 80 percent of extended families have at least one interracial marriage, but Bikram Lalbahadoersing cautioned that the divorce rate among Hindus there is estimated at between 20 and 40 percent. “Here, the women have more education, freedom and money than they did in Suriname.” This, he said, creates a clash with men who maintain a more traditional perspective.
The Second Generation
Parents have extra decisions to make. Dr. Satish Joshi explained that he and his Swiss wife gave their children a choice. “My son and daughter have grown up Christian, not Hindu—not because of my wife’s influence, but because of the atmosphere. The situation which we cannot change is that we are not in India, we are in Switzerland, which is a Western, Christian civilization.”
Nitharshan Sharma Kurukkal, 19, is a priest at Frankfurt’s Sri Nagapooshani Amman Kovil. “The younger generation doesn’t come to temple, and the parents don’t seem to care. They think, ‘We’re in a foreign country now. Education is what’s important. We can teach them religion another time.’”
The priest of the Sanatan Dharm Mandir in Arzignano, Italy, said their young people are active because they are put in charge of seva (service activities). “They explained that because we give them freedom, they don’t feel they want to escape from something.” They are fluent in Italian, and when they go to school they dress like the other children—but at home they speak Punjabi, and when coming to the temple they dress in Indian clothes.
Ram Pratap Thapa, Consul General of Nepal in Cologne, Germany, shared, “As long as their parents are alive, there’s no problem. But once they are alone and they have no attachment with Nepalese culture, then it may be a problem.”
For the Sri Lankan Tamils in Switzerland, Mr. Ramalingam, who manages the temple in Trimbach, explained that even though the civil war in Sri Lanka ended, the political and fund-raising apparatus established across Europe to support it remains more or less intact. This effort causes strain in the community. “We don’t want to be involved,” states Ramalingam. “We are a religious and cultural organization. We have left Sri Lanka; it’s finished there. We are working well with the Swiss government, but if we don’t stay politically neutral that will become difficult. This is very important for the future of the second generation, because their life is here.”
Vivek Ojha said of the Czech Hindu community, “The main challenge is to form a temple here, and for that we need international support. We also need moral support, because we had communism here for a long time, and we couldn’t engage in any religious activities.”
Progress Toward Legal Recognition
Of the nine nations we visited, only the Netherlands and Italy have given Hinduism full legal recognition as a religion—Italy only since February 2, 2013. The Italian Hindu Union had worked with the Italian government since 1996 toward this end, and its persistence paid off: Hindu marriages are now recognized by law, and Hindu organizations are given the same legal protections, state funding and other advantages as those of any other recognized religion. In addition, the law now requires that employers allow Hindus to celebrate Diwali as a paid holiday.
Sri Paskara Gurukkal of Hamm, Germany, has made significant progress toward legal recognition of Hinduism in his country. On June 17, 2013, his Sri Kamadchi Ampal Tempel was granted full status as a religious organization—placing it in the same category as a Christian church. “I have been working on this court case for ten years, and finally it was heard,” he rejoiced. Hindu weddings performed at his temple will now be legal as well. Other temples wishing to obtain the same status, he said, “have to apply pressure to their local courts.” They will surely benefit from his pioneering work.
Hindus in other countries are just beginning the process of seeking legal recognition. Mukundrabhai Joshi noted that in Austria, Hinduism currently has the status of a “registered” religion. This differs from full recognition, which is presently given to fifteen religions, including Buddhism and Islam. For Hinduism to achieve full recognition, the census must show at least 2/10 of one percent of the population—roughly 16,000 people—belonging to the religion. Joshi pointed out that the various isolated groups of Hindus must come together to make this happen.
Community Integration and Outreach
Once established, a Hindu community has a choice: to engage with the population in meaningful ways, or to remain apart. Groups involved in community projects earn respect, acceptance and good will.
At the Templo de Shiva in Lisbon, Pradeep Lalit Kumar told us, “Our temple is open for everyone. We are using our pavilion for various sports, and the facilities are available for all to use.” The Portuguese government, in turn, offers classes in computers, language, even hairdressing, to promote employment.
In Spain, on the other hand, there is no help from the government; in fact, officials look upon Hindus with suspicion, thinking them odd and cultish.
Italians respect the Hindu work ethic and even join in temple bhajans. Oddly, it is the Hindus there that are divided. Svamini Hamsananda Giri explained, “There is this mentality to divide, divide, divide. Strangely, Hindus are friends with Italians but not friends among their own.”
Berlin’s Sri Ganesha Tempel works with the local high schools, inviting students from as many as 30 schools each year to learn about Hinduism.
In conservative Switzerland, Hinduism is perceived as foreign—and therefore suspect. The Omkarananda Ashram works to counter this, providing language studies, career training and counseling—a model for others to emulate. Dr. Joshi divulged one of the unspoken problems: “There is what I call optical pollution.” Immigrants from the subcontinent visually stand out in a region where the local people are quite fair-skinned. “Because of the color, there is an uneasiness when half a dozen Hindus get together somewhere like the Bern train station.”
Language is frequently the biggest barrier; but as language skills evolve, community relations improve. This is dramatically seen in the second-generation Hindus born in Germany: they are accepted and fully engaged in society, something that was impossible for their parents.
Of all the Hindus in mainland Europe, the 200,000 in the Netherlands are the most fully integrated. They enjoy their government’s largesse. Radio and television broadcasting services are provided to Hindu groups at no cost. Even in prisons, satsang is provided, and flowers and incense for puja. Prisoners are encouraged to have shrines in their cells. Hindus have become part of the social and political network and now have access to the corridors of power.
Andras Sukub, the president of the Prague Hindu Society, offered that the Czech people are open to all things Indian. Vivek Ojha described his family’s seva: “My wife runs a hostel for indigent mothers with children. We provide clothes, food, education and computer classes for about 200.” Despite all this, the Czech media are critical of Hinduism, so more work remains to be done toward full acceptance by the community.
The vast majority of Hindus in Europe are living peaceably and amicably. A basic challenge for immigrants is to fully adopt their new nation as home, to self-identify as Hindu Europeans rather than as Hindus living in a foreign land. It takes two or three generations for a new group to become an intrinsic part of society. In the decades to come, with wisdom and the knowledge of its incomparable culture and philosophy, Hinduism will become recognized as a precious gem in the multi-colored mosaic that is Europe.
Portugal Takes the Lead
World Yoga Day in Lisbon has depth and breadth
YOGA IS BURGEONING ACROSS THE GLOBE, a wildfire that is part fad, part the offspring of the new health consciousness and part genuine awakening of mankind’s spiritual aspirations. Tens of thousands meet for yoga in New York City’s Times Square. Worldwide, major yoga festivals are blooming like wildflowers in spring. All of this brings yoga spas, yoga copyrights, yoga lawsuits, naked yoga, yoga championships, yoga raves, chocolate yoga (it’s true)—yoga everything.
In Europe, yoga is a common portal into Hinduism. As elsewhere, people are attracted to hatha yoga, to the well-advertised classes and social events. There they are exposed to new ideas, to deeper perceptions of their identity, to mystical possibilities or perhaps to a charismatic teacher. They engage in simple worship and bhajans. Wanting to learn more, they soon find themselves at the well from which all yogis drink—Hinduism.
As a counterweight to the sometimes eccentric ways in which yoga is taught today, Portugal gives us World Yoga Day, the inspiration of Jagat Guru Amrta Suryananda, a native of Portugal trained and initiated in India and now head of the Yoga Portuguese Confederation. World Yoga Day has become a popular annual gathering, combining hatha yoga with the deeper levels of practice and research. Held on the summer solstice, in 2013 it was celebrated on June 22-23.
The first full day of the event was held in the Forum Lisboa theater from 8am to 11:30pm. Experts from all over the world gathered to give dozens of 15-minute talks ranging from medical research to philosophy, educational initiatives and “how yoga changed my life” stories from the trenches. There were entertaining skits, dramas and world-class hatha yoga demonstrations.
From these talks a single voice emerged: that yoga is spiritual, yoga is Hindu, yoga has to be understood beyond asana, yoga should be a part of every nation’s health care.
Jagat Guru Amrta Suryananda gathered the crème-de-la-crème of yoga experts and researchers for this event. His shishyas did an amazing work, and their care of all who came was touching, filled with the spirit of service and guru bhakti. This team is dedicated, talented and deeply immersed in traditional sadhanas—a rare group in the world and one which will clearly make a difference in yoga’s future in Europe.
HINDUISM TODAY interviewed Jagat Guru Amrta Suryananda at his rural ashram:
HT: You have placed great emphasis in developing the shishyas and instilling in them the values of sadhana, of serious, transformational work. You seem to have done that better than most. How have you achieved that?
AS: We practice yoga every day. We have a practice of four hours that is called “maha sadhana,” with all the fourteen technical disciplines. It starts with puja, kirtan and so on, and in the end dhyana, samadhi and then manasika (visualization). Through visualization we can build a better humanity.
We don’t believe in types of yoga. For us, there’s only yoga. In the beginning yoga was called samkhya. So, we follow a path of correct action, giving us twenty hours of practice in addition to those four of sadhana. Shishyas, the disciples, must perfect themselves constantly. We stress excellence in training and excellence in action.
HT: What are the requirements to study with you?
AS: My training lasts for six years, about 6,500 hours, followed by four more years of teacher training. Yoga masters take their first steps after another four years, so fourteen in all. I ask disciples to be a light, but a light that makes no shade and no shadow. That’s the disciple’s model, an initiatic model based on diksha, initiation. They must do all that without stress.
HT: You mentioned Siva puja earlier. How is that expressed in the life of the shishya?
AS: Everything I do, I do for Lord Siva. In all our ashramas we have Siva Nataraja, and sometimes Siva Shankara. We offer incense, flowers, fire and sometimes kirtan, keeping Siva in our sight. We are here to do exactly what has never been done.
HT: Some Hindus have a distaste for the word Hinduism. You seem to embrace it fully.
AS: Everything I know I learned in Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh. My gurujis were Krishnananda and Chidanandaji of the Divine Life Society. Chidanandaji asked me not to invent, not to make up anything new, to follow strictly the shastras, to study and practice them profoundly. And never forget that Bharat is the motherland of yoga. I have followed that.
HT: What are the principal service goals? What do you hope to achieve?
AS: Our main goal is to show the world that we are one planet and one race. We must all live here. It would be good if we could live healthy, peaceful lives and with a sense of enlightenment. We strive to show man that the planet Earth is not disconnected from all that is around. It has water, green from the trees which give life, the millions of animals. We live in a place that’s full of life. Let us protect life and do no harm to the cosmos. All human beings are allies because no one likes war. Everyone likes the love and peace they feel in their hearts. In all my travels not even one person has stood for war, defended war. No one ever said, “I am in favor of war.”
We know that yoga is an extraordinary philosophy. Anyone who comes and practices yoga from any religion, even those who have no religion, if they start practicing, in just a little time they will change. Even those who don’t believe will start feeling God.
Of course, yoga should always start on a foundation of yama and niyama, not otherwise. Another goal is that all the world practices yoga, and therefore we have created World Yoga Day and are working to get it recognized by the United Nations.
As in America and India, yoga teachers and students in Europe are mostly women. We asked one Portuguese yoga teacher why this is so. “Yes, there are more women than men in Portugal’s yoga community. I would say 60 percent women and 40 percent men. I really don’t know why. Maybe more women want their lives to change. Maybe women are more connected to the spiritual side of their lives. I do know that as the classes get more advanced, it is the men who drop out. Some Portuguese men think of it as not manly.”
HINDUISM TODAY sat with a leadership group of nine shishyas of the ashram (SH) to ask about their life:
HT: What sacrifices do you make to follow your guru’s path?
SH: Everyone can join him, each according to how fully you want to give up your life and just follow the guru. Some choose to keep their jobs in the world. You can also do that.
HT: If you choose to be 108 percent with the master, then you quit your job?
SH: You do. Those of us who are deeply committed do everything in the ashram. The ashram takes care of us, the ashram feeds us, the ashram puts clothes on our back. It’s a wonderful life.
HT: Share one principle you all live by.
SH: In our school we have a principle—don’t judge others, judge only yourself, and to others be compassionate. See the best in others and only the best. That’s the only way. The other way is war, and war is mad. Guruji often says that all wars are civil wars because we are all brothers.
Precious little is known about yoga demographics in Europe and no serious studies or polls have been published. While yoga schools and classes in institutions provide a portal into Hinduism for thousands of Europeans, those who have been immersed in it for decades tend to find or create small satsangs that support their practice. Typically, these smaller groups are more advanced and far more serious about their spiritual work. They are loosely knit and may have followers of several gurus among them.
One such group can be found in and around Barcelona, Spain. They follow the teachings of Baba Muktananda and his initiated renunciate Swami Satyananda Saraswati, a Spanish sannyasin who spent three decades of intense solitary spiritual sadhana and study in India, mostly at Tiruvannamalai. The group, called Advaitavidya, has several hundred members from different parts of Spain who come for teachings and seminars on Hindu dharma, studying traditional texts under Swamiji’s guidance. A thirty-strong core group follows deeper sadhanas and provides needed seva for seminars and retreats in the countryside. These are small, not like the massive Yoga Vidya center in Bad Meinberg, Germany.
In Switzerland, one Hindu elder noted, “Yoga is accepted by everyone and it is upcoming, but the Swiss don’t connect it with Hinduism. Yoga here is very important, almost an industry. If you take a newspaper, you can find 20 or 30 advertisements for practicing yoga. Before, it was solely about relaxing after a day of professional stress. Now, yoga students really want to translate it into their day-to-day life. So, yoga takes over more of their day. There is also the argument, (expressed well in Letters, here), that Hinduism is the religion most similar to the ancient pagan faiths on the Continent.
Besides yoga, events and music in Europe provide windows into Hinduism. Thousands attend musical concerts showcasing bhajans and sacred music, some of which, to the Hindu’s chagrin, are Bollywood style productions. Others are more traditional and inward. Some of the best kirtan groups in the world tour the Continent, drawing large crowds. A few, like Deva Premal’s, have a spiritual increment, including traditional mantras such as the Gayatri, and others are purely entertainment. In Spain, concert goers believe that the spirit of bhakti aroused by bhajans can make their meditations easier.
Recently, Holi revelries are spreading their colorful, fun, free-for-all festivities among the young, who not infrequently become enamoured of India as a result. India’s many cultural tonalities resonate with Europe’s new generation, who find these well-honed cultural fetes charming, different and socially engaging. Yoga’s future in Europe seems decidedly in the ascendent.
FROM OCTOBER, 2013 TO JANUARY, 2014, Brussels is presenting a lavish, multi-dimensional exhibition called europalia.india. It is Europe’s largest expo of its kind—600 events held in over 300 locations. India’s Minister Pranab Kumar Mukherjee and 1,000 VIPs came to Brussels for the launch, which was inaugurated by none other than Belgium’s new King Philippe. The expo covers India’s take on a wide swath of subjects: death and birth, the nature of the cosmos, asceticism and ecstasy, water, theater, literature, sculpture, photography, fashion, architecture, music and movement (dance) and cinema (ok, Bollywood).
Om Tat Sat
(My humble salutations to Sadguru Sri Sivaya Subramuniyaswami ji, Satguru Bodhianatha Velayanswami ji, Hinduism Today and Articles writers for the collection)
(The Blog is reverently for all the seekers of truth, lovers of wisdom and to share the Hindu Dharma with others on the spiritual path and also this is purely a non-commercial blog)