Growing quietly in Indianapolis since the 1960s, Hinduism became a far more visible religion in Indianapolis in the first decades of the 21st century through the establishment of two temples and other Hindu religious organizations in the city and its suburbs.
Hinduism is an ancient religion originating in South Asia, with scriptures called the Vedas dating back to at least 1,500 BCE. The Vedas, like other forms of Hindu scripture that emerged later (e.g., the Upanishads, Puranas, and Epics), represent the cumulative knowledge and wisdom of inspired rishis (seers).
Guided by myriad priests, ascetics, and gurus, and with no single religious authority, Hinduism is a diverse religion, comparable in its internal variety to global Christianity. Because of this, one cannot speak of a single set of “Hindu” beliefs. There are, however, many beliefs that are common and widespread among Hindus of all stripes. There is a divine presence (known as Brahman, Ishvara, Paramatman, etc.) that manifests in many forms, both male and female and both transcendent and immanent, including as incarnations or “descents” (avatars) into human form. Life is cyclical, and individuals are propelled through life after life until they strip away illusory attachments and attain spiritual perfection and oneness or communion with the divine in blissful consciousness or a heavenly state. Individuals achieve this goal through various spiritual disciplines (yogas, including but extending far beyond the postural yoga popular in America today) and by conscientiously carrying out our religious duties (dharma) to improve karma.
Hindu worship also varies from community to community, but usually involves honoring one or more forms of the divine through chants or songs (bhajans) of praise accompanied by symbolic gestures of love, devotion, and hospitality directed at images of the divine (usually painted or sculpted). While some Hindus think of these images, or murtis, as symbolic representations of the divine, many believe that after consecration, the divine presence inhabits these images, such that devotion shown to the images is devotion shown directly to the divine.
The history of Hinduism in Indianapolis parallels the history of Indian immigration to the U.S. While Indians migrated to the U.S. as early as the 19th century, large numbers arrived only after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removed bans on Asian immigration that had been established in the early 20th century.
The numbers were small at first, particularly in the Midwest. The India Association of Indianapolis (IAI) reports that in 1967 there were only around 15 Indian families in central Indiana. Nevertheless, they gathered to celebrate Diwali (the “festival of light”) and then established the IAI in 1968. From 1968 until the founding of the region’s first temple in Avon in 2004 (see below), public expressions of Hinduism in Indianapolis were largely limited to events sponsored by the IAI and held in multi-purpose buildings like the Association’s India Community Center.
Family worship at home shrines has always been an important aspect of Hindu religious life, and such worship took place in Indianapolis long before the emergence of public Hindu spaces. Rituals of worship organized by small groups of Hindu families in their own and neighbors’ homes also occurred. Priests from other cities in the U.S. were invited to perform weddings, naming ceremonies, and other rituals.
In 2004, when estimates suggested there were around 3,000 Hindu families in the Indianapolis region, several Gujarati American families who had been informally meeting for worship and fellowship banded together to purchase a church property at 350 N County Road, 900 East, in Avon, and renovated it as the site of Indianapolis’s first temple, the Bochawanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) Shri Swaminarayan Mandir.
Unlike the, which serves Hindus associated with geographically and theologically diverse forms of Hinduism, the BAPS temple is associated with one particular sect, or sampradaya (“spiritual lineage”) of Hinduism that is popular in the Indian state of Gujarat, and therefore also among Gujarati Americans: the Swaminarayan Sampradaya.
The temple in Avon follows a particular branch of Swaminarayan Hinduism known by the acronym of BAPS. BAPS Hindus believe that a 19th -century ascetic, Swaminarayan, was God, and follow his teachings as passed down by a succession of six gurus, including the sixth and current Mahant (chief priest), Swami Maharaj. BAPS now has over 100 temples in North America and is a truly transnational movement, with over 1,000 temples worldwide. The sampradaya’s adherents are known to be particularly active in interfaith dialogue, youth development, de-addiction work, and community outreach.
The BAPS community continues to grow in Indianapolis, and plans are underway to move the temple (in 2021 or 2022) to a church building that will be renovated to house the new temple.
In 2006, two years after the founding of the BAPS temple, Hindus gathered upon completion of the first phase of the Hindu Tempe of Central Indiana (HTCI) at 3350 N German Church Road. Other than a sign on the road, there was little, from the outside, that identified the original building as a temple. Inside, however, supporters erected an elaborate shrine upon which they placed images of various forms of the divine, and then began gathering for regular worship, bhajan, scriptural study, festivals, cultural programs, community service initiatives, and Sunday school services (mostly on weekday evenings and weekends).
Ten years later, in 2015, a crew of Indian temple architects and builders who had lived on-site for more than a year completed the second phase of the temple, and Hindu families from the broader central Indiana region (now numbering perhaps as many as 10,000) gathered to consecrate it. From this point on, the HTCI fully looked the part of a Hindu temple, inside and out, with multiple, ornate towers (gopurams) reflecting temple architectural styles from all over India.
This architectural diversity represents the diverse forms of worship that take place inside. While Hindus in India tend to worship in styles and with people associated with their own region or sect (as with the BAPS temple), the relatively small number of Hindus in most American cities, and the diversity of their Indian regional origins, encouraged the development of American temples, like HTCI, that serve Hindus from different regions and/or adhering to distinct sects of the Hindu tradition. Inside the temple, visitors encounter 17 different shrines, many of which are modeled upon famous sites of pilgrimage in India and representing the divine in a variety of forms. There is even a shrine dedicated to the tirthankaras (“stream-crossers,” or spiritual guides) of the Jain religious tradition (which, while also Indian, is distinct from Hinduism).
While temple worship is a common feature of Hinduism, so too is the practice of following a particular guru. Some gurus, like those of Swaminarayan Hinduism, are associated with particular temples or monasteries and recommend the worship of the divine in a particular form. Others focus primarily on the path to self-realization, which may include religious practice or may not be associated with any one religious affiliation. For instance, the HTCI temple also includes a shrine dedicated to Shirdi Sai Baba (d. 1918), a guru who is revered by devotees of many faith traditions. Shirdi Sai Baba, and a figure many consider his second incarnation, Sri Sathya Sai Baba (1926-2011), have many devotees in Indianapolis who gather at the temple and in private homes for bhajans and to put their study of the principles of nonviolence, love, and peace to practice in community service. Other famous gurus, like Sri Dayananda Saraswati, Srila Prabhupada, and Swami Chinmayananda, also have followers in the region.
The number of Hindus in Indianapolis remains small, relative to that of larger cities like Chicago and Atlanta, or coastal metropolises like Los Angeles, San Francisco, or New York. Nevertheless, Indianapolis hosts Hindu institutions representing the full range of public Hindu expression in America.