Among Asian religious traditions, those introduced by Indian immigrants—including Hindu, Jain, and Sikh groups—have probably had greater impact on South Carolina’s religious landscape.
In 1965 the United States Congress passed laws that liberalized existing statutes regarding the entry of Asian immigrants. This had significant effect on the religious landscape of South Carolina. By the 1980s the state had become home to emergent communities of Asian migrants–East Indians and especially Cambodians, Vietnamese, and Laotians from Southeast Asia– looking for educational, financial, and professional opportunities. In the beginning, most religious practices centered on home worship. As the communities grew, more effort was given to the construction of temples. In Spartanburg County, Southeast Asian immigrants introduced forms of Theravadan Buddhism and by 2001 had established three temples–one by Laotians, two by Cambodians. These temples provided a location for annual festival events, such as Visakha (“Buddha Day”) and New Year ceremonies, and for special family ancestral rites. For the ceremonies, the Cambodian communities, which were made up of only lay members, relied on visits from itinerant monk priests from the Northeast.
Among Asian religious traditions, those introduced by Indian immigrants–including Hindu, Jain, and Sikh groups–have probably had greater impact on South Carolina’s religious landscape. Prior to the 1960s, the most notable Hindu presence in South Carolina was the Meher Baba Spiritual Center at Myrtle Beach founded in the late 1950s. Interest in the center, however, came largely from persons with no East Indian background. The arrival of Indian families made more evident the importance of ritual and social components of Hindu religious experience. Indians moved into small towns throughout the state, but the majority lived in cities along the corridor of Interstates 85, 26, and 20. By the late 1990s the Indian community from the upstate to the Columbia area had grown to about seven hundred families.
In the 1980s Hindus, who represented the largest group among Indians, founded temples in Greenville (Vedic Center), Spartanburg (Hindu Society), and Columbia (Hindu Temple). The majority came from Gujarat, in northwest India, but in the 1990s increasing numbers arrived from south and central India. They worked in a variety of professions and occupations, from medical to retailing, from hotel management to engineering. Though much of religious life for Hindus revolved around the home, the temples provided space for important ritual and social events. Members sponsored regular pujas (prayer services) and Balvihar (Sunday school) classes and scheduled throughout the year a variety of annual religious fes- tivals. Probably the most popular festivals among South Carolina Hindus have been Diwali, the traditional New Year celebration, and the Navaratri (Nine Nights), a special puja for the Goddess Durga. These rites facilitated links among members with different regional, ethnic, and devotional backgrounds and became an effective venue for social networking among Hindus throughout South Carolina. Consequently the ecumenical character of temple life has become one of the striking features of Hindu practice in the state.
Among Indian migrants, Jains were among the first East Indians to come to South Carolina. At both the Vedic Center in Greenville, where they were among the founding members, and the Hindu Temple in Columbia, Jain families maintained close relations with area Hindus. The altar of both temples included a murti of Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, among the murti of other Hindu deities. Throughout the 1990s Jains sponsored workshops on ahimsa (nonviolence) and observed festival events, often in conjunction with their Hindu compatriots. Their most important ritual observance happens every spring with celebration of the birth of Mahavira.
The fourth Indian religious group of note in the state has been Sikhism. Most Sikhs live in the Columbia area, where they founded a Gurdwara (temple) in 1994. Among major ritual events, the one most widely celebrated among South Carolina Sikhs has been the observance of the birthday of their founder Guru Nanak, which usually takes place in November.
McKever-Floyd, Preston L. “Masks of the Sacred: Religious Pluralism in South Carolina.” In Religion in South Carolina, edited by Charles H. Lippy. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.
Williams, Raymond Brady. “Sacred Threads of Several Textures.” In A Sacred Thread: Modern Transmission of Hindu Traditions in India and Abroad, edited by Raymond Brady Williams. Chambersburg, Pa.: Anima, 1992.