Category Archives: Modern Hinduism in the Diaspora

Hindu Diaspora (Western Canada)

The Hindu diaspora in western Canada can be traced back to the migration of South Asians during the early nineteen hundreds. The earliest known Hindu immigrants were a small group of Punjabi men that arrived in British Columbia between 1900 and 1908 (Botting and Coward 35). Upon their arrival the immigrants were granted full British citizenship by the federal government which enabled them to vote and aided their ability to find work. This was significant as the first immigrants had left their homeland and families in search of work to provide funds to purchase farmland in Asia (Ibid. 36). With this intention the early immigrants had only planned to stay in Canada temporarily. However, within a few years the initial plan changed as the temporary settlements the first immigrants had built in Canada became permanent.

By 1907 the population of south Asian immigrants had grown substantially. The men had started to use their income to bring their wives and children permanently from south Asia to British Columbia and had begun to create their own lives in Canada. As the population of immigrants grew the Anglo Saxon inhabitants began to perceive them as a threat. The Anglo Saxons came to believe that the south Asians would overwhelm their population due to the immigrants cultural and religious diversity and began to pursue a means to ban south Asian women from entering the country. The Anglo Saxon population believed that if the south Asian women were denied entry to Canada the men would have no way to start a family and set down roots (Gupta 61). The Anglo Saxon inhabitants started to raise their concerns nationwide through newspapers, petitions, and rallies. The issue drew to the forefront in 1907 when the federal government voted in favor of revoking all the British citizenships they had granted to south Asian immigrants (Ibid. 60).

By 1908, the provincial government had followed suit by suspending the right of all south Asian immigrants to vote in municipal and provincial elections. At the same time, the provincial government denied the same immigrants the ability to serve as school trustees, on juries, in public service, holding jobs resulting from public work contracts, purchasing crown timber, as well as practicing the professions of law or pharmacy (Botting and Coward 36). However, this was not enough for the Anglo Saxon inhabitants as the immigration of south Asians had yet to be deterred. Later in the year, the demands of the Anglo Saxon community were met with the immigration policy known as the continuous journey stipulation which required immigrants to purchase a ticket from one’s country of origin through to Canada (Ibid). At that point there were no shipping companies with the capability to cover both the Indian-Hong Kong and Hong Kong-Canadian portions of the trip making the purchase of a continuous ticket impossible. The continuous journey stipulation succeeded in cutting off the immigration of south Asians for decades to come.

In 1919 amendments were made to the immigration policy in an effort to allow legitimate wives and children to join their husbands and fathers in British Columbia (Ibid. 37). The Canadian government demanded that the legitimacy of the wives and children be proven by certificates of marriage or birth. However since no formal records of such a nature were retained by the south Asian governments prior to 1924 only a minority of women were able to immigrate on these grounds. As a result, between 1920 and 1940 only 144 women and 188 children arrived in Canada leaving the south Asian immigrant population in British Columbia static until 1950 (Gupta 61). South Asian immigrants were not openly welcomed into Canada again until the 1960’s when Canada experienced a shortage of qualified professionals and blue collar workers. In response the first large group of Hindus immigrated to Canada from the north Indian province of Uttar Pradesh. This initial movement started a new wave of Hindu immigrants to Canada from former British colonies. Over the next decade Hindu professionals immigrated mainly from East Africa, South Africa, Fiji, Mauritius, and Guyana; while a number of blue collar workers came from Trinidad (Buchignani 212).

The current problems faced within the Hindu diaspora in Canada no longer center on immigration issues but on the retainment of the traditional practices of the Hindu religion itself. By 1991 the Canadian census stated that the Hindu population in Canada had risen to 157,010, of which the greatest concentrations were found in greater metropolitan Toronto and Vancouver (Botting and Coward 35). The majority of the population in the two centers were separated into two distinct age categories, below the age of 15 or between the ages of 25 and 44. With these demographics the diasporic family structure has become different from the traditional structures found in south Asia. Conventionally the grandparents and parents would share the role of educating the children in the customs and traditions associated with the Hindu tradition. In the Canadian diaspora grandparents usually do not live with the family (if they even reside in the same country as their family) which has left a rift in the religious education of the younger generations (Ibid. 45). The second and third generations of Hindu immigrants in Canada have three primary sources for the attainment of education surrounding their traditional languages, culture, and religious knowledge. The first of which is their immediate family, the second is their participation in heritage and cultural programs, and thirdly on trips to India (Pearson 438). As heritage and cultural programs are not widely popular and trips to India are not always possible, Hinduism in the diaspora has come to rely heavily on the family home devotions of its followers as well as the guidance of the guru to transmit the religion to younger generations.

In India the guru plays a pivotal role within the Hindu tradition. The guru was given the responsibility of interpreting the scriptures for the community. As Hinduism places an emphasis on the sacred experience rather then the sacred text, the guru became a driving force for the movement. The guru allowed for the continuation and adaptation of the tradition within the growing postmodern world (Botting and Coward 41).

As many Hindus are involved in Canada’s fast paced culture, time constraints have affected their ability to fully carryout daily devotional practices. In order to provide the worshiper with the ability to carry out their daily devotions family gurus have simplified the devotional practices. One new aspect of devotional worship known as the guru-mantra was brought about to replace the traditional practice of chanting Sanskrit texts (Botting and Coward 44). As the younger generations have not had the chance to memorized sacred texts and languages the same way their parents had, gurus have replaced this with the practice of chanting the guru-mantra 108 times 2 to 3 times a day (Ibid. 46). The institution of the guru-mantra has proven to be effective in Canada however it does raise questions regarding the simplification of the tradition. With such dependence on the guru one may find Canada’s future form of Hinduism to more closely resemble that of India except with a greater dependence on the priestly cast (Botting and Coward 46). It has also been argued that without the second and third generations learning the sacred languages and texts as deeply as their parents they may have lost their ability to see the importance of the devotional lifestyle outside of Hinduism’s major rituals such as naming, marriage, and death (Pearson 430). However, it is important to note that the third generation has exhibited the most interest in rediscovering and restoring the practices of their grandparents (Botting and Coward 38).

While individual practices held within Hinduism have been more easily carried over in the Canadian diaspora public rites have not. One such case can be found in the Hindu death rite. Often Hindu communities in Canada do not have their own temple equipped with the means to carry out such a ritual to the standards of law (Ibid. 42). In Canada family and friends of the deceased are often forced to perform the death ritual at a funeral home with the necessary facilities for cremation. At the start, an invocation to Visnu may be offered followed by a mantra from the Upanisad. Next ghee will be placed on the body, a drop of water will be put in the mouth, and flowers are offered while the body is being placed in to the casket. Funeral homes in Canada will not allow for the eldest son to fully perform the havan as it requires offerings to be made to the fire God Agni who bears the dead to the eternal realm. However, the mantras for the havan are said even if the fire offering is unable to be made (Ibid. 42). The funeral pyre has become the cremation furnace which requires a mechanical lift to place the body into the furnace. In India the family and friends of the deceased would have traditionally placed the body on top of the pyre. As the furnace has its own ignition mechanism the ghee no longer plays a role in the actual ignition of the pyre. The restructuring of the death ritual to fit Canadian standard’s has left it abstract, removed from the mourners, and at a loss for its great symbolic and theological meaning (Ibid. 43). In an effort to reclaim some of the portions of the death ritual lost when it is held in a funeral home Hindu communities in western Canada are building their own crematoriums to allow them the ability to properly carry out the ritual (Ibid. 44).

Within the last century the Hindu diaspora in Canada has evolved to fit its ever changing environment overcoming political and social pressures to find its place in the fabric of Canada. With the movement currently in its third and fourth generations removed from its initial immigrants, its ongoing success in Canada will center on the traditions ability to reach individuals and families in a meaningful way while maintaining the sacrality of the tradition. The continued growth of the movement will also depend on the tradition’s ability to maintain the interest of its younger generations with the threat of secularization and consumerization in Canada.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Albanese, Catherine L. (1999) America: Religions and Religion. California: Wadsworth Publishing Company

Bennett, Lynn (1983) Dangerous Wives and Sacred Sisters: Social and Symbolic Roles of High-caste Women in Nepal. New York: Columbia University Press.

Botting, Heather. Coward, Harold. “The Hindu Diaspora in Western Canada.” Rukmani, T. S. (Edited) (2001) Hindu Diaspora: Global Perspectives. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal publishers Pvt. Ltd.

Buchignani, N. (1977) A Review of the Historical and Sociological Literature on East Indians in Canada. Canadian Ethnic Studies, 9: 1.

Choquette, Diane. (1985) New Religious Movemetns in the United States and Canada: A Critical Assessment and Annotated Bibliography. Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Gupta, T.D. (1994) Political Economy of Gender, Race and Class; Looking at South Asian Immigrant Women in Canada. Canadian Ethnic Studies 26:1.

Gaustad, Edwin S. (1983) A Documentary History of Religion in America since 1865. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Paranjape, Makarand. (2001) In Diaspora: Theories, Histories, Texts. New Delhi: Indialog Publications Pvt. Ltd.

Pearson, Anne E. “Mothers and Daughters: The Transmission of Religious Practice and the Formation of Hindu Identity among Hindu Immigrant Women in Ontario.” Rukmani,T. S.(Edited) (2001) Hindu Diaspora: Global Perspectives. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal publishers Pvt. Ltd.

Richardson, Allen E. (1985) East Comes West: Asian Religions and Cultures in North America. New York: The Pilgrim Press.

Rukmani, T. S. (Edited) (2001) Hindu Diaspora: Global Perspectives. New Delhi:Munshiram Manoharlal publishers Pvt. Ltd.

Waghorne, Joanne P. (2004) Diaspora of the Gods: Modern Hindu Temples in an Urban Middle-Class World. New York: Oxford University Press.

Related topics for further investigation

Intergenerational issues

Burial and ritual ethics

Human rights

Religious Identity

Personal Identity

Transmission of Religious Practice

Evolution of religious practice

Noteworthy website related to topic

Article written by: Lindsey Skakum (April 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Modern Hinduism and the Diaspora

On the Hindu Diaspora

Burghard, R. (ed.) Hinduism in Great Britain: The Perpetuation of Religion in an Alien Cultural Milieu. London: Tavistock.

Coward, Harold, G. et al (1998) The South Asian Religious Diaspora in Britain, Canada, and the United States. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Eck, D. (2002) On Common Ground: World Religions in America. New York: Columbia University Press.

Fenton, J. Y. (1988) Transplanting Religious Traditions: Asian Indians in America. New York: Praeger.

Jackson, R., and E. Nesbitt (1993) Hindu Children in Britain. Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books.

Knott, K. and R. Toon (1982) Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus in the UK: Problems in the Estimation of Religious Statistics. Theology and Religious Studies Department, University of Leeds.

Knott, K. (1986) Hinduism in Leeds. Leeds: University of Leeds Press.

Lal, C. (1961) Hindu America. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Majumdar, R. C. (1963) Hindu Colonies in the Far East. Calcutta: Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay.

Rukmani, T. S. (ed.) (1999) The Hindu Diaspora: Global Perspectives. Montreal: Concordia University Chair in Hindu Studies.

Vertovec, S. (1992) Hindu Trinidad. London: Macmillan.

_____ (2000) The Hindu Diaspora: Comparative Patterns. London: Routledge. Williams, B. (1988) Religions of Immigrants from India and Pakistan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hindu Diaspora

When compared to migrants of other religious denominations, Hindus have had a varied past with respect to dispersion from India. The British Empire and their subjugation of India allowed Hindus to migrate to Britain, the Caribbean, Europe, and eventually North America. Waves of Hindu immigrants arrived in various countries throughout the nineteenth century creating a global Hindu Diaspora. Today, there are Hindu communities in over 150 countries (Shepherd, 2) with a significant concentration in India.

Utilized as slave labour, Indians (including Hindus) were originally shipped to numerous regions under British rule (e.g. Fiji, Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad, and Malaysia). Hindus in these regions would later fuel a “secondary Hindu diaspora” in places such as Western Canada (Rukmani, xiii). During the colonial period, lack of formal immigration policies slowed the arrival of Hindus into Britain. The small numbers that did arrive were sailors, or those considered to be high-caste Hindus, such as students and professionals. Systematic exploitation of India continued for several decades until the voices of independence gained momentum. India regained its independence in 1947, and a subsequent labour shortage in post-WWII Britain opened the gates for mass immigration from India. Members of the Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu faiths migrated to Britain in large waves during the 1950s and early 1960s, with the Hindus being the “last to open proper places of worship” (Rukmani, 61).

The Netherlands and Portugal also have Hindu populations which resulted from colonial implications. Surinam, previously Dutch-Guyana, gained its independence from the Dutch in 1974 and “80,000 to 100,000” Surinam Hindus subsequently migrated to and settled in the Netherlands (Rukmani, 62). Hindus from Sri Lanka (Tamil) and various Indian states also have a presence in Netherlands, but their populations are paltry when compared to the Surinam Hindus whose Caribbean style of Hinduism dominates the Netherlands. Portugal, a country which had direct connections in India via Goa, saw large populations of Indian Christians (approximately 20,000) arrive after the Portuguese mandate ended in 1961. However, the earlier presence of Hindus in Portugal can be linked to Mozambique, which was a colony of Portugal from 1507-1974 (Rukmani, 65). Mozambique gained its independence in 1974 and the “Africanization Policy” which followed brought approximately 5,000 Hindus to Portuguese shores (Rukmani, 65). Other significant Hindu populations in Europe can be found in Germany and France. Hindus in Germany and France are mainly Tamil Hindus who had fled from Sri Lanka due to the civil war from the mid-1980s and 1990s.

The presence of a Hindu Diaspora in North America has been somewhat slow-coming due to heavy immigration restrictions. Between 1907 and 1922, approximately seventy Hindus had been granted citizenship to the United States (Chandrasekhar, 30). In Canada, East Indians had been arriving at the rate of “2,000 per year,” but these immigrants were mainly farmer Sikhs from the state of Punjab who had been brought to Canada by companies who had advertised the positions overseas (Chandrasekhar, 30). Among these Sikh immigrants were small populations of South Asian Hindus who settled mainly in California after encountering racial antagonism. In 1909, the Canadian government aimed to limit Indian immigration through a multi-pronged strategy which involved the implementation of a “continuous voyage clause,” reprimanding Canadian companies for advertising positions overseas, and charging immigrants exorbitant taxes to remain in Canada (Chandrasekhar, 29).

Similar movements in the United States arose around this same time and a handful of cases with significant importance were presented to the U.S. Justice Department. Two specific cases were the U.S. v. Balsara (1910) and U.S. v. Mazumdar (1913). Balsara and Mazumdar argued that they were Caucasians and were therefore allowed citizenship under the Naturalization Legislation of 1875 (Chandrasekhar, 33). The Naturalization Legislation allowed “those to be considered white persons eligible for citizenship to the United States.” A major centre of argument was the interchangeable definitions of “Caucasian” and “white person.” The Supreme Court allowed for Balsara and Mazumdar to be considered “white persons,” and subsequently opened the gates for immigration. However, in the infamous case of U.S. v. Thind (1923), the Supreme Court upheld the “understanding of the common man” in the belief that the East Indians could not be associated with Caucasians (Chandrasekhar, 31). Several thousand Hindus and Sikhs returned to India in the period following the Supreme Court decision regarding the Thind case (from 1920-1940). Chinese immigrants in this period were also subject to similar discrimination due to the military efforts of China, but were granted naturalization privileges in 1943 which set quotas for Chinese immigrants allowing them to enter the United States. After Pearl Harbour, Indian assistance in the military operations against Japan provoked similar arguments in favour of easing regulations on East Indian immigrants. Under Harry Truman in 1946, a “modest quota” of 100 immigrants per year was allowed, and further American liberalization of immigration policies were to follow. In the period 1947-1965, approximately 6,000 East Indian immigrants (a small proportion being Hindus) entered the United States under the quota system (Chandrasekhar, 33). However, mass immigration into the United States did not begin until 1965 when immigration laws were sharply revised.

Over 1.8 million immigrants entered Canada in the 1990’s, 7% of whom were Hindus (Statistics Canada 2001). A majority of these immigrants settled in Ontario, where 73% of Canada’s Hindu population resides. In total, there are 292,200 Hindus in Canada (growth of 89%, 1991-2001), and somewhere between one and 1.3 million Hindus in the United States (growth of 105.87%, 1990-2000) (Anand, 12). With the anticipated retirement of the Baby Boomers in North America, Hindus are in a unique position. In comparison with the median ages of other religious denominations in Canada, Hindus are one of the youngest and most educated religious groups in the country. While the median age of Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Jewish, and Greek Orthodox populations are well above 40 years of age, the median age of Hindus in Canada is 31.9 years (Statistics Canada 2001). The median age of the total population in Canada is 37.3 years of age. In the United States, high-school and post-secondary completion indicators show that Hindus show a focus towards education. Over 87% of Hindus have completed high-school and 62% have attained post-secondary education compared to 20% for the total U.S population (Anand, 11). Young and educated Hindu professionals are found all over Canada and the United States, and their buying power is increasing. The average household income in Hindu communities is 54.5% higher than the average U.S. household income. Hindu households earn an average of $US 60,093 compared to the average U.S. household income of $US 38,885, a difference of well over twenty-thousand dollars (Anand, 11).

As the Hindu population continues to grow, a major source of concern is the preservation of Hindu culture. To combat the dilution of Hindu traditions, many temples have been constructed as a result of Hindu-community lead initiatives. Many reasons exist for the construction of temples. These include the religious needs of a growing Hindu population, the availability of capital within the Hindu community, and a concern for the first generation of American born Hindus. The first Hindu temple in the United States was constructed in San Francisco in 1906 by the Vedanta Society (Anand, 13). As of 2003, there were 1,000 temples in the planning or construction stage of development, with approximately 200 operational temples throughout the United States (Anand, 14). Architectural designs of the temples being constructed mimic the designs of temples in India. The Hindu Jain Temple in Monroeville, PA and the Sri Venkatesvara Temple in Penn Hills, PA respectively demonstrate the architectural differences between northern and southern Indian temple structures. Furthermore, Hindu temples function as a link between Hindu communities in North America and India. Activities such as fundraising for social development and welfare projects allow American Hindus to remain central to the development of India. Total foreign contributions to India in 2001 totalled $955 million, with $315 million coming from Hindu donors in the United States. It is predicted that the global Hindu Diaspora has contributed over $97 billion through “social and economic non-profit organizations” (over 25 years, 1975-2000) (Anand, 5).

Several theories have been developed with respect to the “process of transplanting” Hindu traditions. In the wake of a growing Hindu Diaspora, a three step process has been theorized by T.S. Rukmani, Hindu Studies Chair (Concordia University). Rukmani identifies the process of religious and social modification that Hindus undertake when living outside of India. The first step in the process is a heightened awareness of religious belonging. Many non-resident Indian Hindus who comprise minority populations in Europe and America report a greater awareness of their religion. Step two is institutionalisation, or the building of temples. Temples create a “collective solidarity and common identity” for Hindus and appease concerns regarding the loss of Hindu traditions. The final step in the process is religious and social modification. India is a very different world than those of developed Western countries and may be more conducive to the practise of certain rituals and beliefs. For example, external factors in Canada such as weather may postpone the celebration of an astrologically important day, and local belief systems in Canada do not frown on women working outside the home. As a result, religious beliefs and social structures are modified to reflect the environmental stressors, but overall traditional beliefs tend to be upheld (Rukmani, 67-70).

As world events create downward pressures on immigration regulators, the global Hindu Diaspora is expected to continue its growth. India is gaining a reputation for its strong professional English-speaking workers. Furthermore, a growing concern about the state of Islam has highlighted the relatively non-abrasive beliefs of Hinduism which some believe is much more cohesive with American traditions.

References & Further Readings

Anand, Priya (2003) Hindu Diaspora and Religious Philanthropy in the United States

New York: Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.

Brown, Richard H. (1987) Migration and modernization : the Indian diaspora in

comparative perspective. Williamsburg, VA: College of William and Mary.

Chandrasekhar, S. (1982) From India to America : a brief history of immigration,

problems of discrimination, admission, and assimilation.

California: Population Review Publications.

Jensen, Joan M. (1988) Passage from India: Asian Indian Immigrants in North

America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Rukmani, T.S. (2001) Hindu Diaspora. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

Sheth, Pravin (2001) Indians in America: One Stream, Two Waves, Three Generations.

New Delhi: Rawat Publications.

Shepherd, Harvey (1997) "Focus on Hindu diaspora :Conference at Concordia will 
             discuss expatriate communities aroundthe world" The Gazette [Montreal, Que.]
26    Jul 1997 

Statistics Canada (2001) Religions in Canada: Growth in Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, and

Buddhism. Accessed March 2nd, 2006.


Vertovec, Steven (2000) The Hindu diaspora : comparative patterns. New York, NY :


Further Research Topics

“Africanization Policy”

Asian Exclusion League (AEL)

California Alien Land Law

Caribbean Hinduism

Chinese Exclusion Act (1887)

Hindu American Foundation

IACFPA (Indian-American Center for Political Action)

Immigration and Nationality Act (1952)

Indo-Canadian Society

Komagatu Maru (name of ship)

Luce-Cellar Bill (1946)

Non-Resident Indian (NRI)


Tarakanath Das

Vedanta Society

World Hindu Congress

Notable Websites

Consulate General of India (Vancouver)

Dr. Bhagat Singh Thind- “Teacher of Purest Spirituality”

Hindu Business Line

Hinduism in the United States

Hindu Jain Temple (Monroeville, PA)

Non-Resident Indian (NRI) Worldwide

Vedanta Society Network

Article written by Ricky Nariani (Spring 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.