Religion, Identity, Diaspora
Religion has always been bound up with migration, identity and the cultures of diaspora communities. Some religions have spread because of the desire of a few committed people to take their beliefs and practices to those in distant towns and cities and in other countries. Before the rise of mass media and global electronic communications this generally depended on individuals and small dedicated groups migrating with mission in mind. The early Buddhists, for example, travelled from Northern India to China and Japan, spreading stories of the Buddha and his teachings and practices as they went.
Spread of Buddhism from India to the rest of Asia
Although digital technology now allows religious ideas to be communicated quickly through websites and video, personal interaction remains the most effective means of dissemination. Christian Pentecostalism spread successfully in the 20th century from North and South America to Africa and Asia chiefly as a result of travelling missionaries who brought their Gospel message to new communities. Radio, television and, latterly, the Internet then provided them with an appropriate platform to reach a wide audience with their preaching about Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Although some religions, notably Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, offer universal teachings that are intended to appeal to people irrespective of their geographical context and culture, others are bound to particular places or people. This second group of religions – which includes Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism and native or indigenous traditions – are not spread by mission and conversion, but by the migration of their adherents. The early Jews who were exiled from their homeland in Israel – the first ‘diaspora’ – took their religious traditions, practices and beliefs with them as they travelled to new lands. It wasn’t their aim to convert others to Judaism, but the religion spread with them as they migrated and settled.
Religions of Indian migrants
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Indians migrated to East Africa and South Africa, the Caribbean, Fiji, Mauritius, the UK, Australia, Europe and North America in search of work. In the process of settling in new places and bringing relatives to join them, they established religious as well as social, cultural and commercial organisations and practices. Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims cultivated their ethnic and religious identities, often gathering and pooling resources with those from the same place of origin, caste and religious group. As well as maintaining transnational links with distant relatives, they established local cultural organisations and global religious networks.
Gujarati Hindus, for example, opened temples in many cities in East Africa, the UK, Canada and North America. One sect – the Swaminarayan Sampradaya – developed a worldwide institution. Retaining its headquarters in the state of Gujarat in India, by 2011 it had 700 temples across 45 countries, including landmark sites such as Akshardham in Delhi, India, and the Swaminarayan Hindu Temple in Neasden, London. Its members are Hindu by religious identity and Gujarati by ethnic background: some are recent migrants; others have been settled over several generations.
The Swaminarayam Hindu Temple in Neasden, London