How the diversity of thought within our own religion can teach us to be tolerant of others



THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA (USC) is one of the most religiously diverse campuses in the US. With 90 student religious groups—and around 1,200 Indian students—it promotes interreligious understanding and harmony. As the director of Hindu Student Life at USC, I am a contact and point of interaction for Hindus or anyone who wants to know about Hinduism.

We have a dedicated Hindu prayer space on campus, and I’ve been performing the pujas at USC for almost ten years. We do the pujas with an explanation before every chant and will often ask people to repeat them back. It culminates with an arati which everyone can do and is then open for singing. We also organize well-attended events and popular festivals.

I’ve often heard those of older generations say that younger people don’t really know or care about religion. But students here love the pujas and listen intently. If you come to one of our events, you can see how many people stay through them. You’d think someone might get bored and start looking at their phone, but it never happens. I think it’s because they feel so involved and are able to understand what the priest is doing.

There’s a great deal of information out there for these and other Hindus, but I don’t think it’s as important to educate them about their faith as to inspire legitimate curiosity about core aspects of it. This way they can discover its meaning for themselves. In this regard, it’s the responsibility of elders to answer the questions of our youth, and if they don’t know the answers, they should educate themselves. Elders shouldn’t expect our youth to follow traditions without explanation.

Explanations are what this generation looks for. For a lot of students who come to USC from India, it’s the first time that they are away from Hinduism. They’ve never even had a reason to ask questions, because everyone around them was doing the same thing. In the US, they are suddenly responsible for upholding their own religious life. This doesn’t just mean understanding Hinduism, but a little about other faiths as well.

Because Hinduism is so broad, there is no single person or dogma to follow. Each Hindu family can have a different tradition; and yet, Hinduism accepts everyone. You could be from a different community and have different beliefs and practices, and that’s okay—you’re all still Hindus. This can be an important model for how we treat other faiths. If you’re a Muslim and I’m a Hindu, we’re both still part of the human race.

There are recent surveys which show that some young people are giving up on religion. Youth are seeing so many wars and controversies caused by opposing faiths that they disassociate themselves from their religion in an effort to distance themselves from these controversies. In my opinion, people follow varied traditions because that’s just who they are. Some people change their religion in their lifetime because that’s what they’re here to experience. You can’t say that they’re wrong. There’s no wrong. After all, our scriptures say you have to come to know all the different experiences human life has to offer in order to attain enlightenment.

I believe that if we do things right there will be a point where people who have given up on religion will begin to admire the different faiths, which ultimately advise us to be loving and peaceful. Ideally, people will begin to find strength in their own religious traditions, while at the same time loving and appreciating the similarities and even the differences between other traditions.

BHARATHWAJ NANDAKUMAR, 30, is the director of Hindu Student Life at USC. He has a masters in computer science and is currently a video game developer in LA.
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