HOW TO ENGAGE YOUNG HINDUS?
Social activities held by youth groups can unite the youth and encourage them to form bonds of friendship from within the mandir
BY SHAWN BINDA
IWISH TO TELL YOU MY STORY OF GROWING UP in Canada as a Hindu where Hinduism was not the dominant religion and where Hindi was not the language spoken at home. Hopefully, it will encourage change needed to ensure that today’s young Hindus are proud of who they are and where they come from—proud of a religion and way of life that has been passed down since the dawn of time.
My parents were born in Trinidad and moved to Canada in the 1970s. After my siblings and I were born, my parents decided to send us to Catholic school, believing that Catholic schools had better discipline and educational values. I led a double life as my friends at school did not know I was Hindu and I certainly did not want that secret coming out. In 1989 my father and a group of dedicated families established the Devi Mandir in Pickering, Ontario. In 1998, the mandir construction was completed and we moved our services from the small house to the temple—a common scenario throughout North America. During these years, life went on as usual with school pressures, finding a career and establishing myself in society.
I accepted the double life, but never rejected my Hindu culture. From childhood, then school through university graduation, the mandir was always central to my life. Why? Later I realized that it was because of my parents. They taught me everything. Having parents who dedicated their time and effort to maintaining a mandir meant that as a child growing up mandir culture was instilled by default—if they went to the temple, we went also as we were too young to be left at home. But we weren’t forced. My siblings and I were deeply involved in music. Performing regularly during services and other programs as we grew up meant that we also wanted to be there. Music was our hook, our attraction. Having friends there was also a reason to attend. I looked forward to spending Sunday afternoons after service playing sports or other games. Some days we spent hours just talking and hanging out in the mandir. But the temple was plagued with the usual pattern of older teens dropping out. Once they had car keys and other interests, they could go anywhere and stopped coming to the mandir.
Music was my own connection that kept me involved in mandir life, but not everyone is a musician. Hinduism in North America will flourish if we take action today to create more “hooks” to attract youth. The mandir must be recognized as a central pillar in every Hindu’s life, especially since we live in a society where Hinduism is not the dominant religion. Hindu teachings, science and beliefs have so much to offer; and it is important that we create an environment that encourages youth participation in a manner that is attractive and fun. This involves work and action. Simply writing “feel good” articles does nothing. The days of going to mandir and being actively involved just because your parents said so are over. We have a duty to act and make the future we envision.
Education must play a primary role in ensuring that children and youth are equipped with the knowledge that has been passed down from the ancient rishis. We are not just born a Hindu, rather, we have to choose to be Hindu. Hinduism has much to offer the world and we need to inspire the next generation to start carrying the torch of Sanatana Dharma.
In 2004 we established the DM Youth group to address the challenge of engaging youth. The creation of DM Youth went against the established norms. Administratively it was completely independent of the mandir. We regulated ourselves without interference from mandir management or the adults. We opened our own bank account and raised money to run our own events without asking anything from the mandir management. Our aim was to bring youths together through social activities and outreach, to unite the youth and encourage them to form bonds of friendship from within the mandir. We hosted events, arranged anniversary dinner and dances, went on field trips, arranged seminars and workshops. We also gave back to the community through service at the mandir such as dishwashing after weekly satsang, volunteering to help with Diwali and Holi festivals and various outreach activities such as food drives, sponsoring children in India, as well as establishing a yearly scholarship for any high school graduates who attend the mandir.
DM Youth is still strong today, but numerous Hindu youth groups have been launched and failed. One main cause is the style of adult involvement. Though well-intentioned, adults usually end up dictating the youth agenda, forcing them to be fund raisers or a work force for temple activities. While volunteer service is a cornerstone of Hinduism, this should not be a youth group’s sole focus. At a time when youth need inspiration and are already faced with so many external pressures and outside influences, turning them into a labor force deters participation. It is a recipe for disaster.
DM Youth has led to many opportunities to teach youths about teamwork, volunteerism and management skills from an early age. These skills have helped me in dealing with a variety of situations in my professional life. Being involved also gave me a sense of purpose as I felt the need to give back to the community that I grew up in. It was about moving away from a selfish life to one where I have a duty to the society that I live in. Attending mandir and being part of a youth group has led me to seek more knowledge of Hinduism and, in turn, educate those who are younger in the hopes of inspiring them to do the same.
SHAWN BINDA, 32, is a radiation therapist at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, Canada, and an active member of the Devi Mandir located in Pickering, Ontario, Canada.