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Ancient Dharma in the New World: A Very Brief History of Hindus in the United States

Ancient Dharma in the New World: A Very Brief History of Hindus in the United States

  • The philosophy of opportunity and the generous hearts of Americans has allowed Hindus to contribute to their betterment and the betterment of all Americans.

Many immigrant Hindus including me have stood outside U.S. consulates in India hoping for the approval of their student visa and consider it a heart-wrenching experience. After I started graduate school in the U.S., my life drastically changed. Instead of living in an upper-middle-class family household with servants in Mumbai, I was scavenging used furniture from student housing dumpsters, selecting kitchenware from donated items in church basements, and transporting secondhand mattresses to my apartment from the donation place by carrying it on top of our heads with three other friends. This was my introduction to the American Dream. However, this was a tremendous improvement compared to my cultural ancestors who came to the United States before me. 

Beginning in the 17th century, Indians were brought to the American colonies as servants by members of the East India Company. There were also some East Indian slaves in the United States during the American colonial era. The Naturalization Act of 1790 made Asians ineligible for citizenship, and the associated rights. 


In 1913, the Alien Land Act of California prevented non-citizens from owning land. However, Asian immigrants got around the system by having their Anglo friends or their U.S.-born children legally own the land that they worked on. But since Hindus were not permitted to bring women from India, procreation within the culture was not possible. In some states, laws even made it illegal for Indian men to marry white women. However, it was legal for “brown” races to mix. Hence, many Indian men married Hispanic women. 

All the discrimination ultimately culminated into large-scale violence. On Wednesday, September 4, 1907, a mob of more than 500 white men attacked the 250 Hindu (predominantly Sikh) lumber mill workers in Bellingham, Washington. As you know, occasional individual violence sadly persists to date. 

The contribution of expatriate Hindus in America towards India’s freedom struggle is immense but not well-known, neither in India nor in the U.S. Great revolutionaries like Vishnu Ganesh Pingle, Kartar Singh Sarabha, and many other Hindus who returned to the U.S. tried to incite revolt among the Indian troops of the British Army, as well as start an armed revolution. They learned to shoot guns and manufacture explosive devices in the U.S. Their Ghadar Party, initially called the Pacific Coast Hindustan Association, was formed on July 15th, 1913, in San Francisco to support India’s freedom struggle. Many such heroes sacrificed their young lives in this struggle. 

On the educational front, Anandibai Joshi is believed to be the first Hindu woman to set foot on American soil, arriving in New York in June of 1883 at the age of 19. She graduated with an M.D. from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania on March 11, 1886. This tradition continues with American Universities now (2021) having 24,813 Indians at the undergraduate level, 90,333 in graduate programs, and 2,238 in non-degree courses. 

The Vedanta Society was responsible for building the earliest temples in 1905 in San Francisco, but they were not considered formal temples. The earliest traditional mandir (temple) in the United States is Shiva Murugan Temple in Concord, California, also known as Palanisamy Temple, and was built in 1957. 

One of the first major discussions of Hinduism in the United States was Swami Vivekananda’s (B.A. in Fine Arts) address to the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. In 1902 Swami Rama Tirtha (Master’s Degree in Mathematics) visited the U.S. for about two years lecturing on the philosophy of Vedanta. In 1920 Paramahansa Yogananda (B.A. in Arts) came and settled in the U.S. These great philosophic geniuses had a secular education in addition to their mastery of the Hindu ancient wisdom, which made them effective communicators to Western audiences. On June 4, 2013, Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami became the first Hindu monk and only the third Hindu in history to deliver the opening prayer before the U.S. House of Representatives. I was fortunate to be a witness to that historic event in the visitors’ gallery on that day. 

The Vedanta Society was responsible for building the earliest temples in 1905 in San Francisco, but they were not considered formal temples. The earliest traditional mandir (temple) in the United States is Shiva Murugan Temple in Concord, California, also known as Palanisamy Temple, and was built in 1957. 

In the political arena, the first Hindu Sikh Congressman Dalip Singh Saund was elected in 1955. We now have two Congressmen who are declared Hindus, and multiple politicians including the current Vice President raised in a Hindu household.

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Finally, the Immigration and Nationality Services (INS) Act of 1965 was passed and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. This opened the doors to Hindu immigrants who wished to work and start families in the United States. One of those, yours truly, arrived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa via JFK Airport New York on August 3rd, 1993 with an Indian medical degree, $500 in hard currency, and bright starry eyes at the age of 23 years. 

Today there are approximately four million Hindu Americans who make up 1.2% of the U.S. population. Their impact is felt when you step into a doctor’s clinic/hospital, enter an engineering department of any top-ranked University, stay in a motel, or buy a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. What you may not know is the slowly increasing number of Hindus in the armed forces, including my son, increasing charitable contribution in innumerable local communities, as well as the massive amount of volunteering and charitable contribution of Hindus in response to the Covid crisis.

In 2016, the Diwali forever stamp was launched by USPS to commemorate the joyous Hindu festival of Deepavali celebrating the victory of good over evil. 

The philosophy of opportunity and the generous hearts of Americans has allowed Hindus to contribute to their betterment and the betterment of all Americans as well as lead a life according to the eternal Hindu principle of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam — the whole creation is a family. 


Mandar Pattekar is a radiologist by Profession. His service interest is in the basic education of children in underserved urban areas of America as well as improving urban food deserts. He likes to share the universally applicable Hindu Dharma principles with interested people.

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