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Hinduism had spiritual influence in the United States long before any appreciable number of Hindus actually arrived in the country from the Indian subcontinent. In the 19th century, American philosophers and writers, beginning with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (who was deeply influenced in his own philosophy by the Hindu Upanishads), took inspiration from Hindu thought. In the 1960s, even before the liberalization of immigration laws in 1965, a growing number of native-born Americans began to become interested in Hindu practices, largely through the entryway of the Hindu discipline of yoga. Hinduism hence has a “counter-culture” association.

Once the immigration law changed in 1965, the first meaningful influx of immigrants from South Asia began, including many Hindus. Hindu temples now exist in at least 40 American states, with dozens in New York City alone. The Hindu population of the country is at least one million.

Hinduism is the world’s oldest organized religion. In number of adherents, it is third worldwide after Christianity and Islam. In contrast to Christianity, Islam and Judaism, Hinduism is more a way of life than a religion. It came together as an amalgam of diverse beliefs with no single founder. Today’s Hinduism encompasses a wide variety of beliefs. One central tenet is Dharma, relating to a person’s appropriate place in the world. Another critical element is Samsara, the eternal cycle of birth, death and reincarnation. Moksha is an important goal in Hinduism, representing the ideal liberation from Samsara.

Hinduism’s most well-known concept is, of course, Karma, popularly thought to be synonymous with fate and destiny, but in Hinduism more a concept of cause and effect in human actions. The word, in its less-theistic sense, has become a part of everyday American English. The Hindu practice of yoga is much more than a physical exercise as practiced in the west, but rather a path to spiritual enlightenment. Hindu worship involves a great number of representative images, icons, and shrines designed to connect the practitioner with divinity on an everyday basis.

The Hindu concept of Ahimsa calls for non-violence and respect for all living things. The concept leads some Hindus to refuse to eat meat. Those who do eat meat usually avoid beef, since the cow is a sacred mother figure in Hindu society.

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