Sociology Mind
2012. Vol.2, No.4, 428-434
Published Online October 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
The Changing of the Gods: Religion, Religious Transformation
and the Indian Immigrant Experience
Thomas W. Segady1, Swati Shirwadkar2
1Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, USA
2Institute of Public Law, University of Tartu, Tartu, Estonia
Received June 29th, 2012; revised July 28th, 2012; accepted August 16th, 2012
The Durkheimian notion that there is a close correspondence between the type of religion within a society
and the structure of the society itself is now taken to be nearly axiomatic. As societies become increas-
ingly dynamic and fragmented, however, the nexus between religion and society becomes far more com-
plex. With globalization and widespread movements of populations struggling to maintain their identities
within the contexts of both the old and new societies, changes of religion—including religious affiliation
and religiosity—are inevitable. Cultural and social aspects of these changes are explored with reference to
Indians migrating to the United States.
Keywords: Immigration; Identity Construction; Religiosity; Religious Affiliation
In his now-classic work, The Elementary Forms of Religious
Life, Durkheim staked out epistemological territory that soci-
ologists have taken as axiomatic since that time. For example,
In a debate with the “apriorism”1 of Kant, there are categories
of experience and reason that are universal. Thus, certain cul-
tural elements would also be universal. They are “facts in
common” that are inherited by all humans, as a consequence of
the common structure of consciousness. This position, accord-
ing to Durkheim, possesses the distinct advantage of avoiding
the possibility for the dissolution of all categories of experience
and understanding into a purely relativistic form of empiricism;
for example, that of Hume.
Durkheim’s Critique of Hume’s Skepticism
The debate between Kantian “apriorism” and Hume’s em-
pirical-based skepticism was one in which Durkheim was fully
prepared to engage and use as a foil for establishing a unique
sociological perspective. Against Hume, Durkheim stated his
position: “… to reduce reason to experience is to conjure it
[reason] away, for the universality and necessity that charac-
terize it are reduced to pure appearanceall objective reality
is removed from the logical life which these categories function
to regulate and organize. Classical empiricism verges on irra-
tionalism, and perhaps it should be labeled as such” (Durkheim,
2001: p. 16). One might surmise from this that Durkheim
would align his argument with the neo-Kantians, although not
in the same manner that Weber had done earlier in his famous
essays based in part on the work of Heinrich Rickert, first pub-
lished in 19042. However, Durkheim’s approach is far more
nuanced, as is seen in his characterization of what he terms the
“apriorists”. Durkheim praises those who adhere to this position
for not denying the role of logic and the necessity of some form
of organized perceptions—they cannot be merely randomly
acquired or expressed. But from where does this necessary
logic or organization come? It is here, Durkheim asserts, that
the “apriorists” overreach: as “rationalists”, they “believe the
world has a logical aspect that reason eminently expresses. To
do this, however, they must attribute to the mind a certain
power of transcending experience and adding to what is imme-
diately given; but they neither explain nor justify this singular
power” (Durkheim, 2001: p. 16). Thus, the empiricists have
experience without order or system; “apriorists” have order and
system but cannot explain the unique nature of experience.
Further, they have somehow “transcended” the need to explain
the source of the objectivity that they posit exists.
That Durkheim engaged in this argument early in the Ele-
mentary Forms demonstrates that he was still intent on estab-
lishing a rationale for a unique methodology for the social sci-
ences, even though this was nearly the last of his works. He had
addressed the need for a unique methodology in The Rules of
Sociological Method, written over fifteen years earlier. More-
over, Durkheim was using this classic debate between the posi-
tions of the Kantian a priori versus the skepticism of Humean
empiricism as a point of departure for outlining his own con-
ception of the relation of society to religion, and of the relation
of religion to the individual. The foundation for this conception
is stated in his introductory essay to The Elementary Forms:
“… if we accept the social [italics added] origin of categories, a
new perspective becomes possible that should help us to avoid
these contrary difficulties”3 (Durkheim, 2001: p. 17). Society
thus exists sui generis, and is irreducible to any collection of
individual experiences or beliefs. “Society has its own features
which are not found, or not found in the same form, in the rest
of the world” (Durkheim, 2001: p. 18). Society exists inde-
pendently of the individual, but also exists subjectively and
1This is the term that Durkheim ascribed to those who argued the Kantian
2Much of Weber’s neo-Kantian perspective was based on correspondence
with Rickert. See, for example, Weber’s The Methodology of the Socia
Sciences (trans. Shils Edward Shils and Henry Finch, 1949).
3i.e., the “difficulties” inherent in both classical empiricism and classical
apriori sm.
internally, in the sense that these experiences and beliefs are
shaped by the society. By inference, even for the individual to
think about the society is mediated, to a high degree, by the
society itself. This nexus is more than universal for Durkheim.
It is unequivocally necessary.
This approach, Durkheim claims, “preserves all the essential
principles of apriorism but is inspired by that spirit of positiv-
ism which [Humean] empiricism tried to satisfy” (Durkheim,
2001: p. 21). In a very real sense, individuals as humans and the
society in which they live are separate and distinct, but began
the process of their differentiation simultaneously. Only when a
shared sense of morality emerged could individuals become
fully human, distinguishing themselves from other forms of life.
But in this instant, the source of morality itself became exter-
nalized and was thus “set apart” from any one person who
shared this nascent social order. It became, Durkheim asserted,
“transcendental” (in the respect of being “set apart”) and inde-
pendent of the person. The first community was thus a moral
community that gradually formed rituals and rites to reinforce,
protect and celebrate new social forces that existed externally
to any one individual in the group. In fact, Durkheim referred
specifically to these emergent societies as forces that were not
only “real”, but possessed the capacity to shape the realities of
the persons in them: “When I speak of these principles as forces,
I do not use the word in a metaphorical sense; they behave like
real forcesthey are even physical forcesand in addition to
their physical nature, they have a moral nature” (Durkheim,
2002: p. 192).
The AnneeSociologique and the Durkheimian
In a series of essays with Marcel Mauss (1901-1902), Durk-
heim states this relationship between individuals and the exter-
nal entity they have constructed most succinctly: “Now the
classification of things reproduces this classification of men
(italics in original) (Durkheim & Mauss, 1963: p. 10). This is a
powerful statement, and it captures exactly the knowledge that
Durkheim believed could only be obtained through the investi-
gation of a small band of “primitive” peoples who expressed
only the fundamentals of belief. This classic statement implies a
very dynamic nature of society posited by Durkheim and his
colleagues (including Mauss) within the AnneeSociologique4.
The externalization of the moral beliefs of more “complex”
societies is, in principle, understandable in much the same way.
Cladis, in his introductory essay to the 2001 translation of The
Elementary Forms, provides an illustration that could have
been instantly recognized by Durkheim himself or, still later,
anticipated Bellah’s (1975) notion of civil religion:
“… imagine this: a fellow citizen—a French Jew named
Dreyfus—is unjustly accused and convicted of high trea-
son. It is clear to you and others that he has been scape-
goated by military and government officials: his rights
have been betrayed. Soon, many rally to his defence. With
marches in the street and flags and speeches in the air,
your society is stirred and the social ideals of liberty and
justice are renewed. You witness a moral community be-
ing forged: sacred rites and beliefs clearly emerge… You
begin to realize that the elementary forms of religious life
permeate not only traditional but modern societies as well
(Cladis, 2001: p. vii).
The ethnographic evidence marshaled by Durkheim and
Mauss—and the interpretation of that material—has undergone
severe criticism since the publication of essaysof 1912
(Needham, 1963). Perhaps the most forceful was the remark by
Evans-Pritchard (1960: p. 99) that: “It was Durkheim, and not
the savage, who made society into a god.” Most certainly, the
ideas expressed in this and later works are not entirely new or
unique. For example, IbnKhaldun, writing in the fourteenth
century, asserted that in large, sedentary societies, religion
would emerge as the primary basis for social solidarity, super-
seding in importance even the state5. And yet, the contribution
of the idea that religion forms the basis not only of social soli-
darity, but of individual identity , was semina l6. Durkheim, even
as late as the publication of The Elementary Forms, did not
intend to investigate in any systematic fashion the dynamics of
change inherent in the society or the attendant shifts in relig-
ion—his was a consideration of the formation of society, and
much less of the dynamics of the society itself. Later stud-
ies—for example, the classic survey of primitive religion by
Lowie (1924)—took the same approach, and Goode’s (1951)
functional analysis was heavily influenced by Durkheim’s ap-
The first empirically-grounded attempt to extend Durkheim’s
theory to the social dynamics of change and modernization
came with Swanson’s signal work, The Birth of the Gods
(1960). At the outset, Swanson identifies the “elementary
forms” of religion he will investigate:
We shall ask about the experiences from which seven
ideas might originate: the conceptions of a monotheistic
deity, of polytheistic gods, of ancestral spirits, reincarna-
tion, the immanence of the soul, the prevalence of witch-
craft, and the notion of gods who concern themselves with
human moral problems (Swanson, 1960: p. 2).
While conceding that these “ideas” lack complete precision
and may in fact be overlapping in some respects, his general
purpose converges with that of Durkheim. In an elegant passage,
Swanson states: “… behind natural events lies the supernatu-
ral—a realm of potentialities and purposes of which natural
events are but concretions or expressions even as human be-
haviors or artifacts are expressions of the potentialities and
purposes held by the men who express them” (Swanson, 1960:
p. 8). Thus—to retain Durkheim’s language—the invisible
sacred becomes manifest in the highly observable activities of
daily life. And even though these activities might not be viewed
by their practitioners as “sacred” in some fashion, having been
incorporated into the natural attitude that constitutes their per-
ceptions, values, intentions, and actions, the true foundations of
these lie in that invisible realm.
4The Annee, according to Coser (1977), was a closely-knit intellectual
community, unlike the neo-Kantian group with which Weber is associated.
5See, for example, Khaldun’s writings in translation by Duncan R. Mac-
Donald, A Selection from the Prolegomena of the IbnKhaldun. (Leiden: E. J
Brill, 1950).
6Parsons, for example, states that: “Durkheim opened up an entirely new
line of thought by suggesting that… [there] was in fact no common intrinsic
quality of things treated as sacred which could account for the attitude o
respect. In fa ct, almost everything from the sublime to the ridicu lous has
in some society been treated as sacred… At this point, Durkheim became
aware of the fundamental significance of his previous insight that the atti-
tude of respect for sacred things was essentially identical with the attitude
for moral auth ority (Parsons, 1949: pp. 5 2-66).
Religiosity and Social Dynamics
However seminal this insight, it begs several questions re-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 429
lated to the nature of social change. Echoing the static, Durk-
heimian view, religion is by definition a culturally conservative
force, reinforcing and in fact celebrating existing traditions. The
gods are the transcendent representatives of these traditions In
Swanson’s argument there is the additional implicit assumption
that a given social order is seen as natural and the gods who
embody that order possess distinct, well-defined qualities: “…
insofar as a group has sovereignty, it is likely to provide the
conditions from which a concept of spirit originates. The pur-
poses of sovereign groups, like their special sphere of influence
[and hence, their representative gods], tend to be distinctive
and clear” Swanson, 1960: p. 21).7 The ancient Hindu god
Indra serves as one example. First identified in the oldest Veda,
the Rig Veda (perhaps as ancient as 1450 B. C. E.—cf. Witzel,
2005), Indra was the god who led the invading Aryas into battle
over the non-Aryan population of the Punjab (Dandekar, 1997),
surpassing even Vishnu and Shiva in importance. He was, in
fact, the leader of the Hindu pantheon of gods. For believers, he
was seen as the creator of the world and the god of fertility, and
was credited with having battled the powerful demon Vritra. He
exemplified, in Swanson’s conceptual framework, a “superior
god” who is at once “more abstract’ in the respect that they “…
affect the lives of all men engaged in activities relevant to the
gods interests in all times and places” (Swanson, 1960: p. 83).
But how can such a “superior god”—the “King of the Gods”
(Cutler, 2003) lose his power, lose his exalted place in the pan-
theon of gods, or even become forgotten altogether? Much of
this has been the fate of the unfortunate Indra. One clue to the
decline, if not the demise, of Indra is found in the epic Rama-
yana. In the early books of the Ramayana, the exceptional
qualities and high position of the great warrior Rama himself
are compared to Indra—the great upholder of dharma8 (Brock-
ington, 2003). By the sixth book of the Ramayana, however,
Indra’s decline is reflected in the shift from Rama’s comparison
from Indra to the comparison with Vishnu, who remains to this
day at the apex of the pantheon of Hindu gods, together with
Shiva and Brahma.
From the perspective of the relationship between religion and
society posited by Durkheim, this change in the status of Indra
is quite predictable. The explanation (and even more impor-
tantly, the prediction) for the changes in religion parallel the
changes that occur in society. The shift in identification with
the mythic figure of Rama with Vishnu could reflect a trend in
ancient Hindu society away from war and conflict to one of
preservation, which is the province of Vishnu. Other authors,
however, have offered alternative interpretations. Ganeri, for
example, argues that Indra expressed powers of reason that
could jeopardize the growing hegemony of the Brahmin caste
in India. Obedience to religiously-based authority becomes
paramount. He provides as evidence an episode in the Ma-
harashtra, in which Indra appears as a jackal and relates this
story about his transformation:
I used to be scholarly, a reasoner, a scorner of the Veda.
I was pointlessly fond of critical inquiry and the science
of argument. I used to make declarations on the basis of
logic: in assemblies, speaking with reasons, I harangued
the Brahmins and was rude during the Vedic recitations. I
was an unbeliever, skeptical about everything, and though
stupid, I thought myself wise. The status of a jackal that I
have obtained is the result (Ganeri, 2005: p. 411).
Thus, there is no true “invisible reflection” in this account:
The transcendent power of religion is directly invoked by the
immanent power of the religious in this world to reinforce per-
sonal and group status and security. It is an ironic reversal of
the adage: “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make ri-
diculous.” Here, it is a god—and the former “king” of the
gods—who is made to look ridiculous. Moreover, it points to a
dimension that Durkheimiam theory largely fails to explore: As
religion and society become more complex, and as individual
and group power can become manifestations or reflections not
of other-worldly forces but can be consciously manipulated and
reinforced for advantage, the religious is dominated by the so-
cially and politically dominant. This is, of course, much closer
to the Marxian position than the Durkheimian, and this does not
refer to fully industrialized, Western societies alone. In the case
of Hinduism, Waghorne (2004),—taking a neo-Marxian ap-
proach—likens the transformation of goddess temples in
Chennai to the sort of “bourgeoisification” of the museum; a
celebration of culturally-embedded institutions at the expense
of the formerly sacred: … such public institutions [i.e., muse-
ums]…also form the middle class [and] give a clue to the god-
dess temples in Chennai as sites that may validate the middle
class as a rising group (Waghorne, 2004: p. 146). Religion from
this perspective becomes a mechanism for legitimating and
sustaining power, and if personal identity is at issue, then the
identity derived from religion is inherently conservative (in the
sense of reinforcing existing social institutions), this-worldly,
alienating, and productive of false consciousness.
However, this position does not seem to capture the full
range of religion, which has historically been an agent of social
change and even revolution, as well as constituting a force for
social repression and strictly-enforced maintenance of tradition
(Armstrong, 2004). Religion remains a powerful force, both in
more traditional and modernized societies. The fact that there
are various levels (personal and societal) and functions of re-
ligion is articulated by Berger (1967), who recounts the forms
legitimation has taken historically in China, Greece, Israel, and
Rome, and concludes:
“… the historically crucial part of religion in the process
of legitimation is explicable in terms of the unique capac-
ity of religion to ‘locate’ human phenomena within a
cosmic frame of reference. All legitimation serves to
maintain reality—reality, that is, defined in a particular
human collectivity. The inheritantly precarious and tran-
sitory constructions of human activity are thus given the
semblance of ultimate security and permanence… the
humanly constructed nomoi are given a cosmic status”
(Berger, 1967: pp. 35-36)9.
7”Nonsover eign” g roups , accord ing to Sw anson , may po ssess a sens e of t he
“spirit” that is less well defined, reflecting the instability of their own social
8”Dharma”, while possessing several subtle shades of meaning,might be
most generally conce i ved as being the performance of sacred duty.
9”Nomoi”, for Berger, refer to the ordered meanings that individuals create
engendering norms, habits, and a personal Weltanshauung (cf. Kurtz,Lester
2007. Gods in the Global Village, 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA:Pine Forge
While echoing the theme of Durkheim’s work that religion
serves both to shape and legitimate social reality, there is also a
significant shift in emphasis toward religious belief and indi-
vidual identity. In Berger’s account, it is not so much the ten-
sion and symbiotic relationship of society and religion that is
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
important, as the role that religion plays in the lives of persons
in the society. Berger constructs a three-part process of inter-
nalization, integrating the social and the personal. The first,
externalization, refers to the continually production of human
activity, which become tangible in material form as various as
tools, weapons, art and literature, or in cultural form such as
myths and social networks (Griswold, 1994). This notion, ad-
umbrated by Durkheim, begins to take on individual expression
in the next stage, objectivation, as the forms, once produced,
begin to take on the cast of an external reality that is recognize-
able (and expected) the individual. This again has much in
common with the established Durkheimian theme. The differ-
ence in theoretical emphasis occurs in Berger’s final stage of
internalization, in which the objectified “reality” becomes fully
internalized. The individual then becomes the focal point for
the production of social reality, which is reproduced subjec-
tively but experienced objectively.
Berger illustrates this operating in the central belief of
dharma operating in Hinduism: “the violation of [ones indi-
vidual] dharma is not just a moral outrage against society, but
an outrage against the ultimate order that embraces both gods
and men and, indeed, all beings” (Berger, 1967: p. 40). That
this perspective is still fundamentally Durkheimian is demon-
strated in Berger’s contention that the individual who rejects or
is somehow cut off from religion faces the prospect of the loss
of the “nomos” and resulting state of anomie (Berger, 1967: p.
50). In traditional societies, in which religion was either the
undisputable dominant or even constituted the single dimension
of social life, separation from religion was tantamount to sepa-
ration for the community.
With increasing differentiation and complexity, there is no
overarching “social canopy”, as Berger’s metaphor suggests.
Identity may be captured and expressed in any number of insti-
tutions, organizations, and groups apart from religion. From at
least the 1960s, sociologists were proclaiming an inevitable
trend toward secularization. As Harvey Cox, author of The
Secular City proclaimed:
The world looks less and less to religious rules and rituals
for its morality or its meanings. For some, religion pro-
vides a hobby, for others a mark of national identification,
for still others an aesthetic delight. For few and fewer
does it provide an inclusive and commanding system of
personal and cosmic values and explanations (Cox, 1971:
p. 3).
Oddly, however, the inevitable secularization trends pre-
dicted from at least this time onward have not occurred, even in
the United States, arguably the most highly differentiated,
postindustrial society (Gorski, 2000; Stark & Finke, 2000; Hout
& Fischer, 2002; Sax et al., 2004). Individual identity still finds
expression in religion and, as Wuthnow (1998) suggests, the
trend toward secularization may have been misunderstood by
sociologists, as the forms which religion now take often differ
significantly from those taken by earlier established (and easily
identifiable) denominations10.
As a result of these recent investigations, several preliminary
conclusions obtain: 1) the general Durkheimian model still
retains theoretical power in explaining the emergence and so-
cial significance of religion; 2) religion, as society becomes
more differentiated and complex, also becomes increasingly
differentiated; 3) religion as practiced by individuals takes on
differing forms that are increasingly difficult to identify or
categorize; and 4) these new expressions of religion, in tandem
with more established forms, retain significant influence in
shaping individual identity in differentiated, complex societies.
But perhaps neither “society nor “religion” can remain the
fundamental units of analysis. With respect to religion—a
highly transportable belief system that crosses national borders
with its believers, globalization has increasingly rendered “so-
ciety” to the status of analytical artifact. Thus, new questions
arise regarding the “transnational” character of religion, with
the accompany tranformations this change effects in the lives of
individuals. To what extent does the person come into a new,
globalized locale (but one that is “dis-locating” in terms of
identity), with a specific religious perspective, and how does
that perspective work to shape his or her self in a new social
milieu, and what, in turn, are the reciprocal effects of the new
milieu on religious identity over time? And even religion in the
sense of “religious affiliation” cannot be conceptualized in the
same manner as previously—it too has become less meaningful
as an analytic category. A recent (2008) study of American
religiosity by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, for
example, finds 25% of American Adults have left their original
faith, and that if movement between Protestant denominations
is included, 44% have changed their religious affiliation at least
once. Further, the number of native-born Catholics has declined
most sharply, and the Pew report concludes that “roughly ten
percent of all Americans are former Catholics.” Moreover,
while the Pew Report finds that if those who claimed “no af-
filiation” were counted as a religious group, this group would
be the fourth most populous in the United States. The Pew re-
port also cautions that this decline does not necessarily corre-
late with a decline in religiosity, and that “private religion” may
reflect the added dimension of privatized “seeking” over public
“dwelling” that over.
In asking these questions of Hinduism, one is instantly con-
fronted with the same truism that applies to any analysis of
Indian culture: That to describe any one aspect is to call into
being its contradiction. However, it might be safely posited at
the outset that Hinduism possesses qualities that are highly
syncretic (Fellows, 1998)11. Babb (1986: p. 1) remarks that: “…
the Hindu religious imaginationis expressed as the Hindu
traditions ability to generate multiple and various interpreta-
tions within a common frame of reference. It is not static but
endlessly protean and full of creative possibilities.” In turn, this
syncretism has produced, despite the perceived conception of
Hinduism as insular and traditional, structures and beliefs that
facilitate change and productive of new avenues for the expres-
sion of identity. As a “decentralized” religion, Hinduism itself
may have harbored seeds of rebellion against caste. For exam-
ple, the doctrine of bhakti12 frees, at least to some degree, the
practicing Hindu from the imposition of doctrine imposed by
10Wuthnow (1998) suggests that there has been a movement away from
religious “dwelling”, or practicing religion in established spaces (e.g.,
church, synagogue, mosque or temple), to religion “seeking”,which leads
the person on a religious quest that includes more private practice of belie
and even ritual.
11MacKenzie (1994: p. 102) writes that: “The history of Hinduism is the
history of a continual struggle between the devotees of folk religion and the
expounders of Forest Books produced by the speculative sages who,in their
quest for truth, used primitive myths to illustrate profound doctrinal teach-
12“Bhakti” may be defined as the emphasis on devotion and love of God,as
opposed to “jnana”, which is an emphasis on wisdom or knowledge as a
path to understanding the nature of God.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 431
the dictates of doctrinal knowledge alone. Fifty years ago,
Singer (1958) found that even Brahmins were often joining and
even leading the movement toward bhakti (devotional love)
even though it was inimical to the religious control long attrib-
uted to their caste. And yet, the gradual erosion or blurring of
caste lines has let to a contrary trend: that of Sanskritization. As
Luce (2007: p. 125) states: “This term describes a trend in
which the lower orders are now copying the culture of the up-
per orders by following the same gods, attending the same tem-
ples, and celebrating the same festivals.” Interestingly, Mar-
riott’s fieldwork, in a study now nearly sixty years old, con-
cluded that the process of Sanskritization has proceeded quite
slowly, which he found surprising in a religion and culture so
ancient. However, since that time, Sanskritization appears to be
proceeding at a pace that is accelerating, and brings with it an
interesting contradiction. On one side, Sanskritization was
made possible by the legal strictures and social erosion of caste.
Without these, it would be impossible for lower castes to mimic
the beliefs and behaviors of the higher castes. On the other side,
Sanskritization reinforces in some measure the legitimacy of
class through imitation. Politically, the lower castes may be
acting in the opposite direction13, but socially and religiously,
their beliefs and practices are becoming more similar. As Luce
(2007: p. 125) states: “… attributes, such as dress or dietary
habits, have become increasingly general to all castesIf you
enter an urban home in todays India, it would be hard to tell
the caste of its occupants. The gods depicted in the small
household shrine are the same. The people follow the same
traditional upper-caste rituals.”
A second, more radical shift in Indian religion is that of the
neo-Buddhism of BhimraoAmbedkar, who, as Luce (2007: p.
12) accurately states: “… to millions of Indians he is a more
important figure than Gandhi.” Ambedkar’s message to Dalits
and to India generally is tightly woven into the cultural fabric
of that society. He was a primary author of India’s constitution
(written in 1950), which provide voting rights for all adult In-
dians, including the Dalits, who now number over two hundred
million14. It was Ambedkar’sbelief that only religious conver-
sion could alter the status position of the lowest castes (Koen-
raad, 2008) since his own conversion in 1956, some six million
converts follow the path of neo-Buddhism, and most of these
were formerly members of Ambedkar’s own Mahar caste and
those related to that caste, geographically. There are two strik-
ing features related to this religion conversion that may have
implications for all Hindus who immigrate. First, this may sig-
nal the possibility that Hindus—particularly those who are of
lower caste—are willing to leave a religious belief that their
families and their social groups have followed, quite possibly,
for millennia. Secondly, as Ambedkar and the subsequent con-
verts came, to a large degree, from both educated and urban
backgrounds, this may further indicate the possibility for reli-
gious change and conversion in the United States, in which
Indians share those two characteristics.
Conclusion: Immigration, Identity, and
Patterns of Belief
Indian immigration to the United States tends to be a rela-
tively recent phenomenon. Even though the first south Asians
began to arrive in 1820, as Williams (2004: p. 220) remarks,
“… but not until the beginning of the twentieth century did
more than 275 persons arrive from India in a single decade.”
With the Immigration Law of 1965, the doors were finally
opened to large numbers of Indians, with the stipulation that
only those with needed skills would be included, creating an
upper-middle to lower-upper class of professionals, including,
doctors, engineers, software specialists, scientists and nurses
(Gimpel & Edwards Jr., 1999; Williams, 2004). Families of this
selected group were then allowed to immigrate, increasing the
population of Asian Indians in the United States to over one
million, with a projected rate of growth of over 16% between
2000 and 2004, establishing it as one of the wealthiest ethnic
groups in the United States (2000 Census Bureau: Population
Thus, several highly significant indicators suggest that the
patterns of religious belief and even affiliation among first- and
second-generations Indians in the United States would change
radically. These in clude:
Geographical distance from the native society.
A religious belief system that is highly syncretic and ac-
Dynamic changes in the religious fabric in India, including
Sanskritization and neo-Buddhism.
The rise of a highly educated, professional class, indicating
a trend toward secularization.
Entry into a society with an established and increasing his-
tory of change in religious belief and affiliation.
Possessing the language of the new culture.
Moreover, it is like ly that there would be a cumulative effect
brought on by the presence of all of these factors operating
together. Willams (2004) suggests that Hinduism in the United
States has followed two separate lines of development. The first
he relates to community size and population density. Hinduism
practiced smaller groups would tend to be ecumenical in nature,
with a common language of English accompanied by a high
degree of cultural assimilation. For example, Williams suggests
that pregnancy rituals would translate into “baby showers”. The
second line of development is the length of residence. As im-
migrants move from the immediate pressures of adapting to
new cultural traditions, and achieving a satisfactory measure of
social and economic security, they can reinvest time once more
in their religious traditions. With time, prosperous Ameri-
can-Indians may even be able to reshape religion in India to
some measure, thus compl eting what he terms the “transnation-
alism” of reli gion.
Both these lines of development are predicated on the as-
sumption that Hindus will remain within the sphere of Hindu
belief and practice with exposure to a society that is highly
dissimilar. In an attempt to answer the question of the stability
or “transnationaization” of Indian identiy, Joshi (2006)—in a
penetrating set of case studies combined with interviews with
second-generation Indians (she defines these as being born
between 1979 and 1992) who are the children of immigrants,
having been born in the US or having arrived by age six. The
second generation experiences a social milieu markedly differ-
ent from the first generation in the respect that a critical mass of
13Luce (2007:125) remarks: “… in the political world, India
lower castes
move in the opposite direction fromSanskritization’,” which many now
follow in thei r children’s schooling.”
14This does not mean, however, that Indians no longer vote independently
of their caste interest. Communalism has become such a significant aspect
of Indian democracy that the joke: “In India you do not cast your vote,you
vote your caste,” retains a high degree of truth.
15Of course, this Indian immigrant population is not all Hindu; of the billion
Indians, over two hundred count themselves as Muslims, making India the
second most po pulous Muslim nation in the world.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Indians may now attend the same schools, live in the commu-
nity, and being identified by others as less ethnically marginal.
Joshi’s case study of “Neha” clearly reveals a dramatic shift
from the religion of her parents, toward a more secular identity.
This may have emerged partly as a realization, in school, that
she was more marginalized for her religion than for her ethnic-
ity. When questioned about her identity, Neha responded: “My
parents emigrated from India, but I was born here” (Joshi,
2006: p. 167). Consistent with Joshi’s findings with other sub-
jects in her case studies, Neha identified two central compo-
nents to remaining “Indian” in the United States: language and
religion. Neha did not speak her native language (Punjabi) and
spoke only English with her parents, even at home. She did not
identify with Hinduism as a belief system, while she did state
that she “believed in God”. Joshi concludes that: “… this dis-
connection from her home religion has developed [into] an
alternative worldview in the American civil religion of indi-
vidualism. She rejects Hinduism and Indian culture as such
because they are toocollectivisticin the philosophical ap-
proachShe cannot fit them into a Christian boxthe West-
ern, monotheistic norm that defines in her mind that which is
worthy. Hinduism [in her view] is unsophisticated by compari-
son” (Joshi, 2006: p. 169).
Joshi also employs a variety of innovative techniques in her
interviews with second-generation immigrants. For example,
each respondent is invited to assemble a personal “pie chart”
that allows them to identify central components of their identity,
but also to indicate the magnitude of that component. She asks
them to assemble this chart in terms of their current perceptions,
as well as retrospectively; i.e., how do the respondents believe
that their identities have changed over time? This is significant:
it allows for self-expression of the loss (or recovery) of impor-
tant components of identity such as religious belief. With spe-
cific reference to the role of religion, Joshi (2004: p. 202) asks
these questions:
Religiously, how do you identify?
Where did you (your family) worship?
Was religion your primary reason for participating in group
worship? Was it to preserve tradition? Was it for social rea-
sons? Was it to celebrate home culture? Was it to streng-
then local community? Was it for fun? Was it to speak the
How often did you attend religious events?
Did you attend “Sunday school” classes? If so, for how long?
How well did you understand the rituals and traditions of
the religion?
Were you aware of your caste, jati or nat (for Hindus)?
How religious were you? Did you perform individual acts
of worship in college?
How often did you attend religious events? Did you attend
“Sunday school” classes?
Were you more or less religious as a college students com-
pared to as an adolescent ?
What kind of knowledge did you have about your religion?
How well did you understand the rituals and traditions of
the religion?
How did you practice your faith?
What was your main reason for participating in group wor-
ship? Was it to preserve tradition? Was it for social reasons?
Was it to celebrate home culture? Was it to strengthen local
community? Was it for fun? Was it to speak the language?
How important was it for you to go to a temple, mosque,
church, or gurdwara?
Are you still religious? How religious are you?
Are you more or less religious when you were in college?
Do you have a shrine at home (for Hindus)?
How much knowledge do you have about your religion?
How well do you understand the rituals and traditions of the
How do you practice your faith? Where do you worship?
Do you perform individual acts? Or do you participate more
in group worship?
Is religion your primary reason for participating in group
worship? Is it to preserve tradition? Is it for social reasons?
Is it to celebrate home culture? Is it to strengthen local
community? Is it for fun? Is it to speak the language?
How often do you attend religious events?
What do you need to retain the religious traditions and ritu-
How important is it for you to go to a temple or mosque?
How does belonging to _________________ faith make
you feel about your Indian identity?
What Joshi discerns from this study does not parallel We-
ber’s (1958) somewhat grim prediction that “the gods are irre-
trievably fading” and that our identities are haunted with the
“ghosts of dead religious beliefs”. Joshi finds, in contrast, that
the gods and the religion itself are changing, rather than fading.
She concludes that “… Indian roots have been planted in
American soil, soil tempered with unique cultural norms and
saturated with ideations of God. The nutrients and pests of this
American soil will bend the roots and shape the trees, creating
shapes and forms unlike those found in India or the Indian
diasporas of the Caribbean or the United Kingdom” (Joshi,
2006: pp. 13-14). Thus Durkheim’s thought, though thoroughly
an “organic modernist, finds expression and resonance in a
postmodern, national world. As soc ie ti e s mi ng l e, so do the gods,
and their forms echo the social milieu into which they are
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