Americans have never had a very clear picture of people from the Indian subcontinent. Dhoti-clad gurus? Characters out of Lives of a Bengal Lancer? Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book? Ersatz spiritualists like the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi? Even when Indians began immigrating in significant numbers to the United States in the ’60s, no one paid much attention. They were middle-class professionals out to make it rich, and they did so without attracting wide attention. Searching, therefore, for the heart of the San Diego Indian community is like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. This economically prosperous minority simply does not flaunt itself anywhere.
One could assume that Indians might congregate at spiritualist centers like the Vedanta Society on Upas Street in North Park. This is the local temple of the world mission launched by one Sri Rama Krishna, who died in 1886. I went there to meet the Swami Atnapuranda, the only saddhu or Hindu monk in the San Diego area, assuming that this Indian holy man would be intimately in touch with the culture he quietly represents.
The Vedanta center is housed in a Spanish Revival villa on a silent suburban street. Small Hindu devices gleam in the stained-glass windows, but otherwise there is no overt sign that this is an outpost of enlightenment. Surprise awaits, however, in the person of the swami. He is not Indian at all; blue eyes and a dulcet Protestant manner greet you at the door. Inside, an American woman in a wheelchair is being pushed about by yet another American, all of them discreet, middle-class and, well, very white. Everything is appallingly hushed. And there is not the slightest trace of anything Indian anywhere, except stiff, sepia mug shots of the inscrutable Rama Krishna on the walls. The swami is all too happy, however, to share his thoughts on Indians in America.
“The Vedanta religion,” he explains, as self-composed as a country pastor, the great blue eyes fixed on my forehead, “which was launched at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, was always designed to be a world religion. It’s a universal Hindu philosophy begun in America. And most of our adherents are Americans. Indians like to cleave to their cultural origins, to remain very specific. Vedanta doesn’t really appeal to them. It’s too generalized. Too American, maybe. However, we do go to India to study. I was in a Bengali ashram and then one in Uttar Pradesh for six years, and I speak Bengali and Hindi fluently.
“Nevertheless, we don’t have a particularly Indian flavor at this center, although we do have connections with the Indian community. We celebrate some feast days together, particularly the one called Krishna puja, Krishna’s Birthday. There are others that are important too. The one called deepawali, the Festival of Light, which is celebrated all over India in honor of the l>ivine Mother. And then there are a host of days of ritualistic worship to a particular deity. What happens is that the deity is treated as a guest of honor; the worshiper identifies the deity, then projects it onto the altar. We at the Vedanta share that basic notion of worship with all Indians.
“As for what I think happens to Indians when they come here and what changes in them...l think some things are very obvious. For example, in India interracial marriages, and even interstate ones, are fiercely frowned upon. That changes here. Caste is also observed via the institution of marriage, and that breaks down quickly in America. And the nationalism disappears too. We all celebrate Indian Independence Day, and that’s as far as politics go.
“I would say that Indians all feel a common nostalgia, though, and in fact sometimes individual Indians will come to me because I’m a saddhu and just chat...what we call darshan, or ’seeing.’ Spiritual chats. You see, the Indian community doesn’t have any saddhus here, which is the main difference from life in India. I suppose many come here to get away from ail that, and then later they might feel a desire to recover their roots. It’s curious how Americans idealize the Indian spiritual thing, while actual Indians flee from it in so many cases. It’s a question of always running toward what you haven’t got.”
The Vedanta center must be one of the most eerily calm places in the city, but it is not an Indian calm. Rather, it’s a high-minded, New England Puritan disengagement, with its aloof disdain for the material, which few Indians would sympathize with. Before leaving, though, the swami recommends a visit to one Dr. Madhavan at San Diego State, the founder of the local Gandhi Scholarship and one of the pillars of San Diego’s Indian society. “He’s an expert in nonviolence,” the swami suggests softly. “And besides that, he knows everyone.”
We get up and walk back out into the vestibule, where the woman in the wheelchair is still talking in whispers to the woman wheeling her about. The place feels like a strange, murmuring recuperation ward at a Swiss clinic. “Peace be with you,” the swami says, and sends me on my way with the smile of an ethereal, world-renouncing widow.
The contrast with Dr. Madhavan, professor of economics and a real Indian, could not be greater. Madhavan’s office sits in one of the grimier concrete blocks of SDSU — one of those long, whispering corridors reminiscent of a Third World bureaucracy. Madhavan, however, a ’50s-generation intellectual who started out in just such surroundings, seems quite at home. Bald and bright-eyed, proud of the French translations of his economics papers, he sits pasha-like behind his minutely organized desk, answering questions with the merry slowness of a provincial Indian administrator.
“And please, may I show this, sir!” He waves an article of his in the air, translated for the French economics magazine Hommes et Migrations, entitled "Les Indo-Americains, un Groupe en Pleine Expansion, par Murugappa C. Madhavan."
“I am the expert on Indian populations in the United States. And I come myself from a family that's been emigrating and immigrating for literally centuries. The Madhavans were bankers all over the Far East during the colonial period. We started in 1806, lending to small farmers. We had banks all over Indo-China. And that wasn't exceptional. Under the Raj, 100,000 Indians ran the entire Indo-Chinese banking sector. We were always very mobile. My father constantly moved around, commuting from India to Burma, two years here and two years there, and I’ve done the same all my life.
“Normally I would have gone into the banking business, perhaps with my paternal grandfather in Saigon. But World War II destroyed all that because our lands were nationalized in Burma, and that spelled the end of our international banking trade. So we had to do something else. My father sent me to Annamalai University in South India, and I became an economist. The first Madhavan to be an academic.
“Anyway, certain Indian families could cross cultural frontiers very easily, as they did in the Caribbean, for example, or in Africa. Where commerce drives the immigration, Indians find it rather easy to adapt to alien surroundings. So the Indian migration to this country is not an exceptional event from our point of view. On the contrary. It’s in the nature of history. My grandfather had a small oil business in Burma which flourished for a hundred years. If he was alive now, he’d probably be running the same thing in Texas.”
He suddenly reminds me, with his supreme unconcern over these large connections, of a “holy man” I once went to see in Mysore who had advertised himself as making available “a hot line to God.” In a dingy hotel bedroom, he sat naked on a bed with an empty soup can attached to a piece of string. When you handed over your rupees, he picked up the can, pressed it to his ear and shouted “Hello, God? Is that you? Ah...very well, and yourself?” Madhavan talks in the same way, as if everything is perfectly obvious if you just look at things long enough.
“There are four groups of Indians who do well in business all over the world. The Chettiars from the South, which is my group, the Gujaratis, the Marwaris, and the Sindhis. The Sindhis in particular migrated everywhere. They’re dominant in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Nigeria, and they’re very strong in the U.S., too. The largest importer of clothing in the U.S. is a Sindhi in San Diego, Arjun Waney. Action Instruments here is also owned by an Indian, though I don’t know if he’s a Sindhi.
“What tends to happen actually is that racial and industrial groups which are dominant in India are usually dominant here, too. The Chettiars, for example, own three of the biggest banks in South India. And what also happens is that Indian economic groups tend to be multinational and interdependent. An exception are the Patels, a group of Gujaratis, who are completely self-contained. As a rule, all the Indians here have financial backing and support from the mother country, and that’s what makes them so resilient. Let’s remember that in San Diego, 4000 Indians have created 1000 local jobs.
“Of course, the history is not all pleasant. Until 1947 there were restrictions on Indians marrying white women. And we weren’t allowed to buy property either. Think of Dulip Saund, the first Indian senator. He got his Ph.D. in math in 1927 but couldn’t get a job. He supported himself by working as a farm laborer in Imperial Valley when all the Punjabis were moving there. And that’s a story in itself..."
Enthusiasm to tell the Indian story gets his big, square gold ring emblazoned with the letter M waving about as he makes his points. “Indians came to the valley in droves in the ’20s because they liked the climate. They settled out there in the desert, particularly the Punjabis, and married a lot of Mexican girls because they couldn’t marry Americans. That’s why out in Calexico you’ve got so many Mexican kids named Singh. Eventually, they ended up having big farms. And some of them, like Harry Singh, who is the biggest tomato producer in the U.S., have become powerful figures. Nixon went around with him during his campaign, as did Reagan. Singh is, I believe, one of the biggest donors of money to Republican Party funds.
“As far as recent arrivals are concerned, though, what you have to remember is that although there are now between 800,000 and 1 million Indians in the U.S., they are the elite. The creme de la creme of professionals. That’s changing in the New York metropolitan area with the arrival of thousands of Pakistani working-class people. But in California, Indians are completely professional, middle-class. That’s why their educational level is so high. The average American educational background in number of years is 12.5; but for Indians it’s about 18. Sixty percent of us have a master’s degree. There is no Indian working class here. That’s one reason we’ve been reasonably well accepted in the U.S. and why we’ve prospered.
“Indians on the whole don’t have many complaints about this country, despite the racial attacks in New Jersey that got so much publicity recently. And that’s one reason that Indians don’t organize politically. That would take them away from making money, which is, after all, what they want to do here more than anything else. Nor do Indians unite in any way. There’s no real need for them to. So they stay in their own enclaves, which are mainly defined by language.
“The same is true of race and interracial marriages. Indians almost never marry blacks. I can think of only two such marriages, though there are plenty of Anglo-Indian couples. I think that’s a question of chance, not class or race, but at some point I suppose it’s possible that some Indian parents will take the view that if their girl can’t marry a good Indian boy, the next best bet is a respectable, middle-class white boy with a good job. That’s the tough way parents are.
“But, you know, they’re often the same with other Indian groups, despite the breakdown of barriers that happens naturally here.
A Muslim girl and a Hindu boy, for example, are not very likely to get married here, any more than they are in India itself. That’s just the way it is. America can’t make that happen. All it can do is make the killing and animosity irrelevant. And I think it has done that already. There has not yet been a single incident of ethnic violence among Indians in the U.S. And that, I think, is just how it is going to stay.”
One of the largest Hindu associations in San Diego is the Bengali Association, which was founded and is run by Mr. Shabda Roy, who works for the San Diego Port Authority. We meet in the common room there, and I find a plump, middle-aged fellow with a shiny pate and slow, serious manners. Like Madhavan, he is one of those Indians who migrated to the U.S. in the ’50s and ’60s, drawn by the image of America in that era as the land of milk, honey, and lustrous, fish-tailed automobiles.
“Sure, that was the image. All the Indian intellectuals and professionals of that generation were obsessed with getting to America. We could speak English because of the British, so that was our way out. But we didn’t want the British version of the English-speaking world. We wanted the American. For obvious reasons. So I came here in 1967, after spending nine years as a civil engineer with a government agency in India.
“Although the philosophy behind the civil service is the same in the two countries, everything is different in India because of the public corruption and bribery. A chief engineer over there has real power. He has a peon outside his door who takes bribes for the privilege of being granted an interview with him. I wanted desperately to escape from all that. And then, basically, I wanted what was then considered material luxury. Car, TV, house. The Indian impulse toward America is primarily material. And Indians are very materialistic, like everyone else.
“Everything here lived up to what I wanted, except that I couldn’t get used to the nine-to-five thing. Bang, bang, bang, the god of punctuality! We like to break the day up, take a siesta, work late, not worry too much about fixed hours. It’s infernal, getting used to the American obsession with homogeneity in matters of time.” He looks around cautiously, as if not wanting any of his colleagues to hear him bemoaning their worship of the pugnacious god of punctuality.
“But, naturally, you leave most things behind. Except language. I'm a Bengali, but I grew up in West India, so I speak quite a few languages. That’s unique. Most Indians here stick to their language group, irrespective of religion. The real divide among us here, I think — and it’s not an acrimonious one — is the one between North and South Indians. That is, between northern Aryans, who are basically Caucasians, and southern black Dravidians. The divisions of caste really get lost. I mean. I’m a Brahmin, but .. I don’t think that confers any particular privileges upon me. Besides, the caste system is really misunderstood by outsiders.
“As you may know, we have four castes: the Brahmins, or ‘priests’; the Kshatriyas, or ‘warriors’; the Vaisyas, or ‘merchants’; and the Shudras, or Untouchables. But these divisions began simply as a division of labor. Practical and inevitable. I mean, some people had to be toilet cleaners, so they became ‘untouchable’ because, well, they smelled bad. That’s how it began. There’s nothing sinister in it. And anyway, in America it breaks down. I don’t think many people here have much sense of there being any Shudras here to avoid. Of course, the Untouchables in India are not the kind of people who can ever afford a plane ticket to Los Angeles.”
Although I don't point it out, in the light of his comment on the North/South divide, it occurs to me that, after all, the caste system is a racial system also, operating along Aryan/Dravidian lines. The Brahmins and Kshatriyas were, in reality, the light-skinned Aryan nobility in the wake of the Aryan conquest and invasion of India in the second millennium B.C. The tall, white Indo-Europeans poured over the Kush mountains and subdued the black Dravidians, forming a new civilization, which we now call “Indian." The Aryan masses were known as Vaisyas, and the black, non-Aryan underclass were the Shudras. The Hindu word for caste is vama, which means “color.” “Well,” Mr. Roy continues, “I think that all people are the same. And only the really strong Hindus here make any pretense about caste. In America, Indians tend to nationalize their customs, doing things they wouldn’t do in India. We share our pujas, for example. At a funeral puja, you’ll see everyone, including Muslims. And at a housewarming, you’ll see all the groups, regardless of the fact that every housewarming has its own religious character. The antagonisms of India get defused in a place where the significance of, say, burning a temple is absolutely nil.
“I take the attitude that we all believe in Krishna and — it’s like Fiddler on the Roof — certain traditions can’t be broken down. Even if they’re transplanted. Hinduism for me is a philosophy, pure and simple, which embraces everything. I married a Mormon American girl, but she also can exist within Hinduism, as it were. And so can my children, however Americanized they are. I want us to be strong, like the Jews! The Jews are both integrated and unintegrated. That’s the ideal.
“For example, before it would have been impossible for a Bengali like me to marry a Gujarati. Not to mention a Mormon! But now all my brothers have married Gujaratis and Catholics. I have a friend who has a daughter whom he wants to marry to a South Indian, and a South Indian only. But it’s absurd now, totally unrealistic. Indian children just won’t submit to arranged marriages in the U.S. I personally go along with that. Why should they? Let’s face it. We’re not going back. We don’t burn mosques, and we don’t marry off our children to people they don’t like! Things move on.”
He takes me down to the Port Authority lobby, with its rows of portraits of forgettable public servants. He has a merry, rolling gait that makes him instantly recognizable. “Mr. Roy!" people call out, as if he has no first name. It must come more naturally to the lips than shouting, say, “Shabda!” We stroll into the sunshine outside, and he sends me on my way with an invitation to one of the monthly Hindu prayer meetings. And to play with the San Diego Cricket Club, manned heavily by Indians.
“Are you a bowler or a batter?" he asks.
“I don’t play cricket,’’ I say.
He looks amusingly appalled. “Ah, you English...” He shakes his head. “What would you do without us?”
The Muslim Indian fraternity in San Diego is something of a community apart. Its principal place of prayer is the Abu Bakr mosque on Eckstrom Avenue, in Clairemont, a simple blue-and-white structure with mirhab-shaped windows and a single, slender minaret. Inside, the Friday 1:00 p.m. prayers are in full swing, and today’s date, 4 Halali, is posted in big letters above the notice board. The latter bears a cluster of admonishing commands for the faithful. Donations for Bosnia, the Holy Land, Allah’s Cause, Mercy International, and the library. Across one wall: “O Muslims, unite!”
I have come here to meet Mr. Salim Shah, prominent Muslim businessman and leader, and one of the few Muslim Indians in a community for the most part led by Arabic speakers. In the lobby, the murmurs of prayer can be heard, the scuffling of little bands of girls and women making their way through the females’ entrance. The looks from the Arab attendants are not ones of universal brotherhood, though they are studiously polite.
The notice board also carries a letter from the Atonement Lutheran Church, with whom the Abu Bakr mosque shares the parking lot. With undisguised vehemence, the Lutherans protest in the strongest terms the “abuse and misuse” of the aforementioned facility, regretting the “failure to regulate your people," which is to say, the double-parking, faithless Muslim youths who fail to use the lot in a “safe and sane manner.”
“Actually,” says the suave Mr. Shah, who suddenly appears, casting an eye over the same document from over my shoulder, “the Lutherans do have a point. I don’t blame them. Some of the Arab kids are, shall we say, not too civic-minded. And they do double-park.”
We repair outside to the contested parking lot and to a large, plush Mercedes sedan. Mr. Shah, who is in his 50s, immaculately turned out for prayers, tunes in to the classical station and we sail off into the suburbs with C.E. Bach blasting from the car’s four speakers. We are going for a spin, nothing else, and a talk.
“The Abu Bakr mosque,” he explains, “is the largest on the West Coast. Fifty thousand square feet, holding about 1500 worshipers when it’s full. There aren’t that many practicing Muslims in San Diego, about 10 percent out of 50,000 to 100,000 nominal Muslims. The Black Muslims have their mosque on Imperial Avenue — that’s the original Elijah Muhammad sect, who follow traditional Islam now — and there’s another place, I think, on 43rd Street.
“The thing is that most of the Iranians and Turks who live here came here, so to speak, to escape Islam, and so they don’t practice, not even privately.
"I suppose you could say that Islam presents very different problems for us than Christianity does for Westerners as far as these issues of adherence and rebellion go. You see, there was no reformation in Islam. No Aryan heresy.
"The word ‘schism,’ it is true, comes from Arabic, and there are schisms in Islam. Notably the Shia revolt. But otherwise there is no tradition of internal rebellion. So you are either in or you are out. And so religious dogma carries a different kind of weight with us. And then again, Islam is, I would say, 50 percent culture and 50 percent dogma. Muslims can stay in the 50 percent of culture and out of the 50 percent of dogma. And that’s what most of them here do.”
We are in a quintessential American commercial landscape of interminable strip malls and sun-drenched car dealerships, and Mr. Shah seems quietly delighted with the whole thing. He suggests, a little hesitantly, that we go for a milkshake at Denny’s. Is this mischief or wholesome and effortless integration? It’s difficult to say, though there is indeed a certain unmistakable gusto in the use of that big, striped straw.
“Ah, this thing about Muslims hating America...it’s such total rubbish. Most of us who came to consciousness in the ’50s loved the place from the start. Arriving here, seeing the mass of huge jets in the airport — an unbelievable thrill for an Indian kid in the ’50s. I guess my story is pretty typical, too. A lot of us were given scholarships and grants to go to school here, which is why the Indian community has such solid educational roots in the U.S. We laid the basis for a vibrant community.
“I come from a movie family in Bombay, so I first went to UCLA to study film. Then I went to Milwaukee to study broadcasting in the University of Wisconsin’s engineering department. And from there I went to Marquette, a Jesuit school, where I graduated. So there was I, an Indian Muslim, graduating from a school founded by a French Jesuit in the United States. It seemed fine to me. Later I realized I couldn’t stay in broadcasting because my voice wasn’t American enough. I wasn’t going to correct it like some of my Indian friends did, and I got a bit of a chip on my shoulder about having to.
“I went to work for a stockbroker managing investments, and that’s what I’ve done since 1966. The unit was moved to San Diego after six years and I came with it. Intellectual migration. Have brains, will travel. It’s the Indian story all over. Before 1969, only 100 visas were given out in any one year to each country, India included. Now it’s 20,000 a year. The establishment simply opened the door to us. Before, preference for those 100 visas was given to spouses and to professional people. Many of the doctors and engineers who came here were sponsored by hospitals, companies, and so on, and that’s how the U.S. got a professional Indian class. Unlike England, for example, which got mainly peasants.
“The American sponsorship system was a very smart one. By making an effort to get specific kinds of people and spending money to do it, Americans got the best deal possible from its immigrants. Of course, that isn’t true now. But the meritocratic nature of this country isn’t in question for us. We don’t go to cities like Boston or San Francisco, where there’s a lot of old money and vested interests. But L.A., Houston, San Diego, New York, Dallas...they’re wide open, believe me. Race is unimportant. And if America is so racist, why are we so rich?”
I ask him then about what it is the Indian immigrant is escaping from. From a class system? From poverty? From, in the case of Hindus, caste? Or from simple provincialism?
“Well, I don’t think Indians are simply escaping from, so much as being attracted to somewhere. Look at me. I was rich in Bombay. My stepfather was a powerful movie producer, and I had a lifestyle under his wing. I came to this country with plenty of money. Enough to buy a new car, anyway. But I suppose in a way I was escaping from something. I felt guilty about the amount of privilege I had. To be rich in Bombay is a lot more harrowing, I can tell you, than it is in any American city. And I couldn’t lie and cheat the way you have to to stay on top in the entrepreneurial world there. I just couldn’t.
“And then there was the religious aspect. My mother was Muslim, but my stepfather was a Jain. So my situation as a teenager was that I felt uncomfortable in both religions. I felt most at home at the Catholic seminary where I was educated. But of course, Bombay’s that kind of city. Utterly eclectic. A good training for American life!”
As we drive back to the mosque later, he shows me an image created by his son, a graduate scientist at Scripps, which is to be used in an upcoming cover of Scientific American. The Indian young, he notes, like those of most Asian communities, go heavily for the technical and scientific subjects. Mastery of science they see as the key to social ascendancy, a notion that seems quaint to their American counterparts. Then, as we turn back into the mosque parking lot, Brahms blaring out of the Mercedes’ speakers, he lowers his voice — as if even out here in the car, under the Brahms, he might be heard — and raises his eyebrows.
“I was thinking about that letter from the Lutherans,” he says, “and how I thought they had a point. But my Arab brothers wouldn’t say that at all. They are much more suspicious of Westerners. They have a much more developed sense of conspiracy. They see conspiracy against them in everything. And that’s what separates them from us. Indians don’t see conspiracies in anything. We don’t have an ‘Us and Them’ paranoia. Indian Islam is totally different from Arabic Islam in that respect. And that’s why we integrate in very different ways from them. In short, we kind of disappear into America and get what we want from it. You see, from one eclectic culture to another is not a big step. But Saudi Arabia, say, is not eclectic. It’s one language, one race, one religion. Us and Them. And Americans forget something. The epicenter of the world Muslim population is not Tunisia, Egypt, or Iraq. It’s Pakistan and India. There are more of us than there are Arabic speakers. Many more.”
So far, the Indian community in San Diego seems homogeneous in one vital respect: its social and economic standing. Not for Southern California the swarming hordes of New York’s Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, with its raucous curry soup kitchens, frenzied sari shops, and tribes of lawless cab drivers. Here, sobriety and middle-class ambition set the tone. Wanting to know why, I took myself to the campus of USD to ask San Diego’s foremost academic observer of the local Indian scene, Lance Nelson.
It is very noticeable that Anglos who concern themselves deeply with any facet of Indian religion or custom acquire almost by default a peculiar slowness and deliberation of speech. Dr. Nelson is no different. In his small office packed with commentaries on the Indian sacred texts, he has a swami-like calmness that is in excess even of the academic campus norm.
“You’ve been to India?” is his first question. “You have. Then there’s much in Indian life here that you’ll recognize. I know, for example, that it’s often claimed that Indian barriers come down in the adopted country, and of course that’s largely true. But arranged marriages and caste still exist here, very much so. You’ve seen the ‘brides-to-be’ columns in Indian newspapers — well, they have them here too. Not nearly as much. But they exist.
“It’s the same with caste. The problem is, you can tell a person’s caste from his surname. That makes for a problem because however much caste ceases to exist on the surface, people are still aware of it residually. And there’s the race question. Light-skin/dark-skin antipathies are powerful within Indians themselves, and this is reflected in caste and marriage preferences. But that’s not unique to Indians. It’s pretty universal.
“On the other hand, India itself is profoundly capitalistic and profoundly free-enterprise. Because there’s no social net, if you fail, you end up half dead on the street, and that gives Indians a phenomenal work ethic. The price of failure is just too terrifying. And that makes them good transplants in a place like America.
“As for the East Coast-West Coast difference. I suppose it’s really that a place like San Diego has cutting-edge medical technologies that attract a lot of doctors, and it’s not big enough to be attractive to an urban proletarian population looking for opportunity, but also for large kinship networks. New York has that. I don’t know what the situation is in LA. Maybe it’s changing already. I wouldn't be surprised.
“The complexion of the Indian community is in a state of flux nationwide — it’s just that you won’t find that flux reflected in San Diego. All you’ll find here is the usual Indian ethnic and religious diversity, but all within one socio-economic class. Take the Jains. They’re different from anyone else in India; but if you go to meet a Jain here, you’ll see that they live in America in exactly the same way that a Muslim or a Hindu or a Catholic Goan does. That’s what’s interesting.”
Deciding to see whether this might be true of that least known and most mysterious quasi-Hindu sect, the Jains, I decide to visit Dr. Kokila Doshi, a well-known Jain economist. She lives in Poway, in the sparkling-new, spread-out, semi-desert kind of suburb that the Indian middle-class seems to love.
It’s a big but compact unit at the end of a cul-de-sac. As I enter her comfortable, deep-pile living room decorated with Egyptiana and the odd little stone Ganesh (the Hindu elephant god also worshipped by Jains), I cannot help asking if she really feels at home in such a setting, about as different, one would assume, from what she has come from as it is possible to imagine.
“Ah, but that’s it,” the small, grave woman says, but with a little nudge of irony. “This is about as un-Indian as it gets anywhere in the world. I suppose that’s why we like it. Sometimes, though, I still do look out that window and think, ‘Oh, God...no!’ But that’s a rare occurrence now.”
We sit, and the sofas are so deep that I keel backwards. The Indian notion of comfort...carpets, cushioning, softness, yielding surfaces. The Egyptian murals were a gift from an American friend and have nothing to do with Jainism, a neo-Hindu religion thousands of years old, which has survived as a minority religion in India despite the numerous assaults against it. Jainism and Buddhism, in fact, are the principal “heresies” that rose to challenge Hinduism in the 6th Century B.C. These sought, first, to undermine the dominance of the Brahmin class and, second, to find release from the eternal cycle of rebirth imagined by Hinduism.
The Jains accepted the reality of the material world, in all its dualism and adopted an almost atheistic and animistic cosmology that may, like the similar strain in Hinduism known as Sankya, date from the pre-Aryan age. Their first prophet is Mahavira, born in 599 B.C., died in 527 B.C.
Today the Jains are popularly known in the West for their habit, in India, of covering their mouths with gauze to prevent the inhalation, and therefore accidental death, of insects. Mahavira preached extreme asceticism and withdrawal from the world and the inviolability of all living things. This latter practice is called ahisma.
“It’s all about saving one’s soul from evil,” Dr. Doshi says, smiling sweetly and sinking, too, into her pneumatic sofa. “Mahavira believed that was impossible without the severest asceticism. Of
course” — we look around the high-tech room, with its glimpse of a luxury kitchen filled with gadgets — “that’s a bit difficult in America. I mean, we don’t walk around with pieces of gauze over our mouths either. We all hope for moksha, deliverance, but we can’t be ascetics, realistically.
“Mahavira became known as Jina or Conqueror because he conquered his body, his desires. And that is our ideal. So we have possessions in this country, because that’s why we come here in the first place. But we don’t ‘own’ them in the usual sense. We maintain distance from what we own. But of course. I’m not going to starve myself to death like Mahavira.
“We do, though, have a different idea of karma from everyone else. We believe that the consequences for every little action are literally deposited in the soul. The soul gets contaminated like a rusted pipe and has to be scoured clean. And when we’re liberated from sin, we rise to the top of the universe in a state which we call Isatpragbhara. That’s when the soul ceases to have qualities. It just has consciousness, nothing else.”
Before the metaphysical discussion gets too tangled, though, we head upstairs to see the family shrine in one of the bedrooms, a simple glass cube aff air with an image of Mahavati and more minuscule Ganeshas. The family prays here together every week, usually on a Sunday. “You know, in India we’re known for walking around naked, too. But that actually is only practiced by very strict adherents of the sect known as Digambaras. The other principal Jain sect is the Shvetambaras, or White-Clad, who allow clothing. Like any religion, we have liberals and extremists. Besides, the Digambaras are in the south, where it’s much warmer. In the north, which is where we’re from, going about naked wasn’t an option.” The Jains have all the contradictions between material prosperity and asceticism that most Indians are caught in. Witness the great Jain temple in Calcutta, a city in which the Jains are very rich. On the one hand, there are massive Corinthian columns, symbolizing their trade with the West; on the other, a pavilion in which figures of elephant-borne monks symbolize the necessity of poverty. But their asceticism is, after all, strikingly similar to the Christian-Puritan kind, reflecting a common Eastern origin. And the accommodations that the lains have come to in the West are very much like those reached by mercantile Puritans.
“I agree. And the attitudes to sex are very similar, too. We have a concept of sin that is familiar to Christians. In India, our paradox is that our world-renouncing creed has won us a certain amount of economic advantage, particularly in Bombay, where most of the 2 million Jains live. We like to be parsimonious and economical. We’re a bit like Christians in that respect, too. Self-denial, ironically, gets you a long way in the material world!"
As I leave what has come to seem a calm, sober, and slightly bestilled house, she calls out her three young daughters, and they stand shyly at the top of the stairs, reluctant to come down and talk. The two youngest are in Indian clothes, the 15-year-old in jeans.
“They’re Americans,” she says, opening the door and seeing me out (going so far as to make sure I actually get into the car without falling over and breaking my leg). “American Jains. It seems like a total contradiction in terms, but it works. As long as they worship their Mahavati, they’ll be all right in this world. Even in Poway!”
On the first Thursday of every month, many of San Diego’s devout Hindus gather in a small house in Mira Mesa, set among a labyrinth of small semi-rural roads named after the Arabic appellations of stars: Mirfak, El Nath, Analnim. As dusk falls, the lighted windows and soulful accordion music emanating from the household of Mr. and Mrs. Premanand Trikannad give the cul-de-sac a strangely unreal air, as if at any moment the three Magi might turn up to water their camels outside. But inside, the Thursday prayer meetings held in honor of Indian cult leaders Swami Ramdas and his one-time lady companion Mother Pujya Mata ji Krishnabai is a down-home affair held in a typical California living room. The latter is merely altered to accommodate an ornate shrine to the aforementioned swami in one corner.
Mr. Trikannad, a local Hindu businessman, plays the accordion while his son and wife accompany him on the drums. Above them hangs a rectangular box fixed to the ceiling around which the major religious faiths are represented to remind the gathering that all faiths are equivalent. The congregation, all of whom sit cross-legged on the floor, chants along with the sacred hymns while the children sit on cushioned benches. On one wall, the mantra of Swami Ramdas is emblazoned for all to see: SRI RAM JAl RAM JAI JAI RAM.
Reciting these words, the swami, who died in 1963, had a vision of Krishna and then left Mangalore to wander around India with three books: the Bhagavad Gita, the Light of Asia, and the New Testament. In an “ecstatic state,” he roamed over the Himalayas until he reached Siddharudh Mutt at Hubli. In a cave there, he tamed wild tigers and had visions of Truth. Founding the Anandashram in 1931 with his spiritual companion Mother Krishnabai, in Kasargod, he became known as BELOVED PAPA to his followers, and these words cover the shrine at the Trikannads’ house.
As they light incense, Mr. Trikannad tells me that singing hymns is what keeps him attached to the cultural womb he has left. “The physical act of singing, along with the memorizing of the words...the playing of music...is what keeps it all together for us. We don’t have formal churches as such, so we have to organize our worship ourselves. I’m not a priest, as you can see. I’m just someone who knows the hymns. A ceremony held every month, though, is a spiritual valve through which everything can pass. And these meetings are always packed because it’s almost the only worship that Hindus have open to them here. Sometimes we have people sitting all the way out as far as the front door. And they go away feeling reconnected to the Hindu cosmology.”
Tonight it is the same. The whole ground floor of the house is filled with people sitting shoeless on every available square inch. And so I listen to the dirge-like hymns while the congregation hums along, swaying with closed eyes, repeating the mantra when called to do so. And Mr. Trikannad sways, too, at the electric accordion. An hour passes, and suddenly feeling numb and somewhat lost in a meditative rhythm that is not even remotely mine, I rise to make my own secretive exit on bare feet and creep toward the door with my shoes dangling from one hand.
No one sees me go. The Indian world is effortlessly capable of turning in upon itself and forgetting the Other. Whether the latter comes or goes is of little importance one way or the other. And outside, on the quiet little cul-de-sac, the moan of worship, the plaintive chords of the accordion, follow me down the street, rapidly becoming as unfamiliar and strange as anything could be. The Indians would say, and without a smile, that it is nothing less than a whiff of the Beyond.