- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 26, 2001

A world "pilgrimage" of Hindu leaders to bolster Indian identity completes its five-city U.S. tour in Los Angeles today at a time when few American understand the ancient religion.
The "Yaatra Route," or pilgrimage, to 47 cities in 38 countries, found in an opinion poll it commissioned that 95 percent of Americans are "not familiar" with Hindu belief or culture.
"Low levels of familiarity were found across all demographics," said the report, based on a telephone survey of 1,000 adults early this month.
Of the U.S. respondents, 26 percent "had contact" with a Hindu believer, with a slightly higher rate in the Northeast. Residents in the West were most likely (12 percent) to report a "close contact" or friendship with a Hindu.
The pilgrimage, which held a Washington-area event at Gaithersburg High School on Wednesday night, ends in December in Japan and Thailand.
"When Christopher Columbus went in search of India, he found America," Indian businessman and organizer B.K. Modi told the Gaithersburg assembly.
"The Yaatra started in the capital of India," he said. "We are looking for direction from the people of Washington and Maryland how to work together."
The other U.S. stops were Miami, Atlanta and Chicago.
The pilgrimage, which in Maryland featured a media event at a hotel, food and a festive atmosphere and evening talks by a five spiritual teachers, or swamis, is the third such U.S. effort since 1999.
An estimated 80,000 Hindus live in the Washington area, many of them part of the influx of skilled workers serving high technology industries.
To build solidarity among the U.S. Hindus, a 1999 pilgrimage targeted 11 American cities.
Then last August, Hindu leaders paid local U.S. visits after the United Nations' Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders.
This year, the world tour is backed by a new Hindu Leaders Forum, funded by businessmen in India. It was hosted here by the Association of United Hindu-Jain Temples of Metropolitan Washington.
"Hinduism is a way of life" made up of culture, traditions, religion and devotions, said Anjlee Pandya, a coordinator of the U.S. tours.
Pilgrimage literature defines Hinduism as "a Sanskrit [cultural] concept of unity and interdependent freedom [and] an instrument for social equality, justice and to practice any faith."
Western scholars, who coined "Hindu" for Indian culture, define it as belief in many gods, reincarnation, an illusionary material world, and a caste system. It is the third largest religion after Christianity and Islam.
On the Washington visit, speakers portrayed Hinduism as a unifying spiritual force that is tolerant of myriad beliefs.
"Hinduism is a philosophy that has no enemy. It accepts all," Mr. Modi said. "And when it is accepted in the USA, we will move toward a peaceful world."
The Opinion Research survey also found:
Half of U.S. college graduates are familiar with Hindu culture or religion, compared with 18 percent for high school graduates or less.
Twenty-six percent agreed that Indian Hindus have made a "significant or positive" contribution to U.S. society.
Hindus are most often associated with the medical profession and very little with the computer industry.
The term Hinduism brought nothing to mind for half of Americans, while roughly 5 percent thought of either "cow worship," "many gods and temples," a particular costume, or of India.
A tenth of Americans have "an interest in learning about Hinduism," with younger people more inclined that way.
At the Gaithersburg event, India was linked to America by a shared democracy and tolerance, and speakers cited the perennial concern of teaching children their religious tradition as immigrants.


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