The Sri Lakshmi Temple is a popular center for the worship of the goddess Lakshmi, known for her graciousness and generosity. Tamil-speaking Hindu priests perform the daily and festival rituals while Hindus young and old come from neighboring towns to beg her favor and celebrate her glory. To Lakshmi’s left is her spouse Vishnu, Lord of the universe; to her right, the popular elephant-headed god Ganesh; around the temple’s central space stand Shiva, the mysterious and gracious destroyer of illusions, the loving and playful Murugan, the welcoming Ayappan who is child of both Vishnu and Shiva, and the beloved monkey god Hanuman. Downstairs there are regular lectures, concerts and weddings.
But what is probably most striking about this temple is that it is located about 30 miles west of Boston, just past Shoppers World and the Natick Mall, right on the path of the Boston Marathon. Explanations, schedules and directions are all available on the Web. Dedicated in the early 1990’s, the temple has flourished as the premier Hindu worship site in New England. Although most visitors are Hindus of Indian background, almost every time I’ve been there with my students we have seen people not of Indian origin and probably not Hindu by birth.
In fact, though, it is no longer extraordinary to find a Hindu temple in a New England townor a Sikh gurdwara (temple), a mosque, or a Tibetan, Burmese or Zen meditation center. Although people of other faith traditions have been coming to America since the 19th century and even before, changes in immigration laws in the 1960’s made it possible for people of more diverse cultures and backgrounds to immigrate in larger numbers. Religious diversity is here; it is American; it is us.
Probably no one is more attentive to this diversity or better positioned to interpret it than Harvard University’s Diana Eck. A scholar of India’s Hindu traditions, for more than a decade she has been exploring and mapping American diversity and articulating what it tells us about ourselves. The fruits of her Pluralism Project include a 1997 CD-ROM Common Groundand now the book A New Religious America. This vivid, enormously informative and necessary volume describes this new diversity in detail, with innumerable anecdotes and personal experiences that bring pluralism to life. Key chapters summarize what Eck has found regarding Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, and to a lesser extent other traditions. (Judaism and Christianity, though frequently mentioned, are not the object of study here.)
For instance, Chapter 5, American Muslims: Cousins and Strangers, includes the following: the first mosque in North Dakota, opened in 1920; the ups and downs of the Muslim community in Iowa during the Depression; the Islamic Institute of Knowledge in Dearborn, Mich., founded after Henry Ford enticed Muslims to come and work for him; the more than 1,400 mosques frequented by American Muslims, who now play a growing role in the international Muslim community; the origins of the Nation of Islam in Newark in 1913, its growth up to the time of Elijah Muhammed, Malcolm X and the Black Muslims, and the maturing today of an African-American Muslim community; the celebration of Ramadan in Sharon, Mass., and Islam Awareness Week at a local college; Muslim women at prayer in Silicon Valley; Muslim teenagers growing up in Chicago. Other chapters take us on similarly dazzling tours of Hindu and Buddhist America.
Honest to her data, Eck also faces the political tensions, stereotypes and violence against individuals and places of worship, the anxieties of settled communities when newcomers are suddenly neighbors. Indeed, much of the volume is about the rest of us who are not newcomers, who are Jewish or Christian (Eck is Methodist) or secularized. It reminds, invites and challenges us to learn about and with our new religious brothers and sisters rediscovering ourselves in the process. Fear of the other is increasingly nothing but fear of ourselves, for it is we, not they, who are religiously diverse. To think otherwise cuts us off from the great religious festival of America today. The great task of the 21st century is to create a positive multireligious society out of the fabric of a democracy, without the chauvinism and religious triumphalism that have marred human history. Precedents for cooperation are realthe Parliament of Religions of 1893 and 1993 stand outand Eck is confident we can work together, because we must.
The book sheds much light, and while it raises and answers many questions, some remain unanswered. In this new religious America, what does it mean to be American, to be religious? Most of us tend to think of democracy as rooted in biblical and European values. If this is true, what is the message to immigrants who are not Jewish or Christian or European? If democracy’s future vitality comes to depend on other religious and cultural values, might that fabric of democracy begin to tear?
Nor can all of us share Eck’s intelligent, lively and extroverted engagement with each and every religious neighbor at each and every festival, temple or meeting. Sometimes religious openness is costly, enthralling, harder to process. When we go to the Lakshmi Temple we stand before the image of a powerful goddess whom people have loved, worshipped and praised for thousands of years; and now we are faced with a possibly all-consuming invitation, not simply to respect Hindus at prayer, but also to worship Lakshmi as if no other deity existed. At a mosque we are summoned to cast aside everything and surrender to the will of Allah; in Buddhist meditation we are drawn into a luminous silence where no words of God need be spoken. Should we say no or yes to such invitations?
We may delight in the idea of the world’s most religiously diverse nation, but Eck’s wonderful book still leaves us wondering what exactly God is trying to say to us today.