Encyclopedia of Appalachia
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Hindu Families and Communities

Hindu communities in Appalachia, as throughout North America, are comprised of diaspora Hindus and western followers. The Hindu diaspora is comprised of immigrants and their descendants from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the South Pacific. Western followers, who began to coalesce in the late 1960s, constituted the earliest manifestations of organized Hindu religion in Appalachia. Unlike diaspora Hindus, many Western converts and followers live in monastic communities called ashrams, while others either live in or visit lavish resort communities for a mix of Eastern spirituality and Western luxury.

A continuous Hindu presence has existed in the United States since the 1890s, when Swami Vivekananda, a proponent of Hindu universalism, toured the country as a missionary. Restrictions on immigration from South and Southeast Asian countries kept the number of diaspora Hindus in America small until the late twentieth century. The diaspora community within Appalachia has been based around large population centers that draw immigrants because of employment opportunities and the increasing size and relative stability of the ethnic communities in those centers and in rural retreat centers. While many diaspora Hindus are physicians, engineers, and educators, their ranks also include shopkeepers, restaurateurs, and other small-scale entrepreneurs. Temples and cultural centers serving Appalachian residents exist in Pittsburgh and Zelienople, Pennsylvania; Moundsville and Charleston, West Virginia; Lexington and Louisville, Kentucky; Charlotte, North Carolina; Birmingham, Alabama; Atlanta; and other population centers within or near the Appalachians. Although temples often serve as cultural hubs for Asian immigrants with Hindu backgrounds, a significant number of these immigrants are not active practitioners of the religion.

Two of the three major Hindu communes in Appalachia— Gita Nagari in Port Royal, Pennsylvania, and New Vrindaban in Moundsville, West Virginia—are operated by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON, popularly known as the Hare Krishna movement), which has maintained a presence in Appalachia since 1968. While the society’s ashrams are large farming communities, smaller centers are located in various population centers throughout Appalachia including Pittsburgh; Morgantown, West Virginia; and Mulberry, Tennessee. The sect was brought westward in 1966 by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who planned to retire to New Vrindaban. ISKCON advocates agrarian simplicity to commemorate the mythological life of its deity, Sri Krishna, who is believed to have lived more than three thousand years ago as a cow herder in the town of Vrindaban in what is now northern India. Society members attempt to revive and perpetuate earlier farming practices that place a heavy reliance on dairy cattle, nonmechanized plowing, and the use of cow dung as fertilizer and fuel. Protection of cows is a central tenet of the sect, as it is of Hinduism, and the farms sustain large herds on extensive acreage. Prabhupada had hoped that cheap, rural farmland would enable each member to maintain four acres and a cow, as well as provide temples and places of pilgrimage for Hindus in the West. In the mid- 1980s, Kirtananda Swami Bhaktipada, the leader of New Vrindaban community, began to dissociate his commune from ISKCON and Americanized its rituals and theology. The community was scandalized when Bhaktipada and other New Vrindaban community leaders were indicted on charges of racketeering; the leader was incarcerated in 1996. The community subsequently sought to reaffiliate with the society. Meanwhile, the remaining New Vrindaban residents provisionally abandoned the model of agrarian selfsufficiency and found employment in the surrounding Appalachian community.

The third large Appalachian community guided by an Indian spiritual leader—the Heavenly Mountain—was founded in 1993 by the followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, famous for his association in the 1960s with British rock group the Beatles and the Woodstock generation. The residential resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Boone, North Carolina, is designed to attract well-heeled Westerners, who mostly come from other parts of America as well as from other continents. The Heavenly Mountain is a gated residential community and resort and is located adjacent to the Maharishi Spiritual Center of America—where men and women are trained in Transcendental Meditation, "yogic flying," and other spiritual principles—and the campuses of the Maharishi’s Purusha and Mother Divine programs, the latter including the Heavenly Mountain Ideal Girls’ School for grades seven to twelve. The resort covers more than seven thousand acres and features single-family dwellings with a minimum of two thousand square feet and an average value of six hundred thousand dollars; condominiums; boutiques; a hotel, golf course, and swimming pool; tennis courts; and other recreational facilities. Buildings are constructed in accordance with the ancient architectural science of Sthapatya-Veda. The Maharishi Open University, the world’s first satellite-television university, also moved to the Heavenly Mountain in 1999 and broadcasts live to all continents twenty-four hours a day in fifteen languages from three studios. Like other Hindu spiritual sects that have found success in the West, Mahesh Yogi’s programs do not emphasize conversion, and in that sense the Heavenly Mountain is not a Hindu community but a "spiritual" one. See also: SECTION OVERVIEW (RELIGION).

—Christopher B. Stewart, West Virginia University, and Deborah J. Thompson, University of Kentucky Surinder M. Bhardwaj and Madhusudana N. Rao, "The Temple as a Symbol of Hindu Identity in America?" Journal of Cultural Geography (Spring–Summer 1998); Gurinder Singh Mann, Paul David Numrich, and Raymond B. Williams, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs in America (2001); Thomas Tweed and Stephen Prothero, eds., Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History (1999).

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