Hinduism Today Magazine Issues and Articles
Youth: Students Jump Ahead
Category : October/November/December 2014
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Togetherness: At an annual Gateway Camp, students leap into the air for an inspired, unique group photo
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For college students and young professionals, the Hindu Students Association has become a fount of religious learning, life-long connections and fun

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BY HARI VENKATACHALAM, TAMPA, FLORIDA

TERE WAS A TANGIBLE ELECTRICITY within the room as I walked in. At first glance, the meeting seemed an ordinary congregation of college students in business casual attire, appearances crisp and professional, marred only slightly by the varying levels of fatigue in their eyes from their trip to Austin.

This was the Dharma Initiative: a retreat for young professionals of the Hindu Students Association (HSA) that took place September 20-22, 2013. Its attendees are the face of the young, rapidly growing Hindu American community. Crafting a brand of Hinduism that is true to its roots, yet essentially American is a task that they all accept, and a goal that the Hindu Students Association aspires to achieve.

Hinduism in the US

The Pew Research center released an article in December, 2012, entitled “The Global Religious Landscape,” tracking adherents of various faiths across the world. The report noted a key fact about the distribution of Hindus: “Hinduism is the most geographically concentrated of the eight religious groups analyzed….” Indeed, 97 percent of Hindus live in three countries where they form the majority: Nepal, India and Mauritius. This fact plays greatly into the social experience of Hindus; the vast majority are accustomed to a religious environment wherein individuals are supported and strengthened by a strong surrounding community.

Naturally, the experience of two million Hindus in the US spread across 3.7 million square miles differs greatly. The lack of a large Hindu community deprives many of the social elements of their faith, including the celebration of large festivals and the resources provided by local temples.

Bridging the Gaps

Ramya Ravi, National President of HSA and an MBA candidate at the McCombs School of Business at UT Austin, who has lived in India and the US, explained the key differences. “In India, you are less aware of people of religions other than Hinduism. Here in the US, I found myself being asked questions about my faith. When I turned to my parents and my grandparents for explanations about certain customs, they gave the usual response: ‘That’s what we’ve always done.’ I found that I had to search for proper answers from texts. The whole process was scientific, involving having a question and searching for a possible answer.”

Many Hindus have to deal with incorrect notions found in the greater American mind. Ramya described a situation in which she had been asked to draw a Hindu temple. In her drawing, she included a swastika, a Hindu symbol of good fortune. The drawing incited fear, anger and confusion in her classmates. Ravi was surprised by these reactions. “It does not make sense to have anger towards a symbol without recognizing the meaning behind it,” Ravi insisted. This sentiment is what prompted HSA to sponsor a Swastika Awareness workshop at Texas A&M.

Bridges need to be built within the Hindu community as well. Although temples are sprouting up in cities across the country and many colleges offer coursework about our faith, the growing gap between those who immigrated and those who were born here is a hindrance to the stability of the faith. “Look at the older generation of Hindu immigrants,” offered Ramya. “They’re spending money to build temples to preserve the culture and the faith. They are organizing festivals, pujas and cultural events. But where are the younger generations? We are not there.”

As the Hindu faith grows in the US, Ramya, and others like her will need to bring together these two factions of Hindu Americans. “It rests upon our shoulders to create that voice and to build that network.”

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Playing an ice-breaking game demonstrating the interconnectedness of all
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Art and Devotion

Sonny Mehta, a member of HSA’s board of directors and a hospital and healthcare strategy consultant, described his experiences as a Hindu transitioning to life in the US. Music helped him stay connected to his faith after being uprooted from India. “My musical background goes all the way back to when I was in India singing bhajans and ghazals. When my family moved here, it was the first thing we did. We went to Sai Baba bhajans and got heavily involved.”

The use of religious music including bhajans is central to the Hindu experience all around the world. “Often we think that we don’t know how to do something as well as someone else. However, with their simplicity, bhajans take that pressure away and bring each of us closer to God,” notes Sonny.

Although bhajan groups are common in urban areas in the US, they may be inaccessible for many Hindu Americans living in rural and suburban communities. This prompted Mehta to lead the HSA’s Mantra Project. The project takes traditional Hindu mantras and slokas, sets them to music and makes them accessible from anywhere via the Internet. “Temples are a place that you have to go to at a certain time. By the sheer fact that you have to attend, it makes it hard for everyone to participate. We make this our strength.” Accessing religious music from anywhere at any time helps connect Hindus across the country.

Mehta envisions people using online platforms to create music together from anywhere. His endless list of possibilities includes bhajan karaoke tracks and broadcasting religious music over the radio and other media channels during holiday seasons. “The Mantra Project is only step one,” Mehta commented. “Young Hindus need to create forms of artistic expression with a true heart and with goodness. It will be welcomed by many people, even people who may not consider themselves artists.”

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ALL PHOTOS COURTESY HINDU STUDENTS ASSOCIATION

Making offerings into the havan together
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Evolving and Strengthening

Saumya Saran is focused on helping Hinduism make an impact in the fast-paced, technology-driven digital age. Saran, the National Secretary for HSA, and a graduate student in robotics and autonomous vehicles at the University of Michigan, heads the project that creates animated movies for YouTube to explain various Hindu concepts. “College students,” Saran laughed, “don’t really have the patience to listen to lectures from gurus that are 15 minutes or longer. That is the main reason we keep the presentations under five minutes. The animation draws the interest of the viewer.”

Upon viewing the “What Is Yoga?” animation, I immediately saw its effectiveness: short but thorough. With over 60,000 views, the video has drawn attention from all over the world. “A professor as far as the UK,” Saran confessed, “emailed asking permission to show the presentation as part of his course to help his students understand the concept of yoga on a wider scale.”

When I asked Saran about the importance of these videos, he explained that they revitalize the spiritual meaning behind concepts that have been lost to the general American population. “Yoga is a perfect example. Here in the West, it has come to mean exercise. When you think of yoga as just exercise, you lose the spiritual meaning, culture and philosophy.”

Sagar Vira, HSA’s CTO and a finance major at Emory University, chips in by providing short links of the monthly newsletter he edits for the organization that can be Tweeted, Facebooked and texted. The universal presence of tablets and smartphones throughout the room of young professionals, coupled with the YouTube and Mantra projects, told me that a space for Hinduism on the Internet will be the glue that binds Hindu Americans together.

Faith in Service

While worship can surely help enrich a devotee’s experience, many also turn their daily experiences and interactions outside of that context into acts of devotion. Roshni Patel, an executive branch president and a biochemistry student at the University of Arkansas, described the significance of expressing her faith through social service. Throughout her high school years, she committed herself to seva, the Hindu concept of selfless service. Her offerings ranged from volunteering at the hospital to picking up trash in parks to helping clean backyards for neighbors.

Recently Roshni seized the opportunity to get her HSA branch involved in a school-wide “Make a Difference Day,” in which they did a home makeover for a disabled individual in the community. She also organized a bone marrow drive, focusing on donors from the South Asian community. “Personally,” She comments, “Seva is a part of life. That’s how I was raised. Doing seva is a way of life and part of one’s dharma. We receive a lot every day, and we take that for granted. Giving back helps us grow spiritually.”

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ALL PHOTOS COURTESY HINDU STUDENTS ASSOCIATION

Activities: 2014 Holi celebration at UT Austin; presenting one of our culture’s elaborate and kinetic dances at a university cultural event
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Different, Not Worse

While the experience of growing up as a member of a minority faith may have some difficulties, many of the youth at Dharma Initiative were keen on reminding me that there are some benefits to the experience as well. Within Hinduism there is already a diversity of traditions and sects that have been shaped by the culture of the region they were practiced in and which exist independently of one another.

Ruchita Naik, vice-president for the HSA and undergraduate in hospitality management at the University of Houston, discussed her experience growing up. “My family practices Shaivism,” she explained. “I learned from my parents about what we followed. I didn’t know specifically what I was doing though; I was just going to events such as Garba and Janmashtami. Being a part of HSA made me realize that I don’t know a lot about my religion. It filled that void.”

Similarly, Shivang Shah, a student at UT Austin, described previously understanding only a portion of the larger Hindu faith. “We are Pushti Marg and worship Gokul Nathji. It is a small community in my city, and we all are very familiar with each other. We go to the same functions and have classes on Sundays. After I joined HSA, I participated in many discussions and learned so much more about Hinduism that I hadn’t known before.”

Both Shivang and Ruchita explained how much they appreciated being introduced to the different strains of Hinduism. Ruchita helps each year to organize HSA’s Gateway, a weekend retreat for students and young professionals, including young people from all across the US from different linguistic, religious and ethnic backgrounds. “Gateway provides a way to see what we can all bring to the table.” Ruchita insisted. “It’s a mixture of everything. It changes depending on who comes, who speaks and who organizes it. We invite professional speakers, for example, Jason Tengco from the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, to help attendees develop professional skills and to spread awareness of current political and socio-economic issues. At the same time, we invite knowledgeable Hindu priests and experts to explain traditions and answer spiritual questions that we may have.”

Similarily, Shivang helps organize his HSA branch’s Hinduism Awareness Week. “The simple thing,” he reiterates, “is that we all come from different backgrounds. When you go to temple or mandir, there is a similar way of practicing among similar people. However, at events such as these, you have people from different parts of the US, the world, and from different walks of life.” The kaleidoscope of traditions that forms the American identity has always perpetuated the idea of unity through diversity. Young Hindus are taking a page from this book to clarify and strengthen their faith within the American context.

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Mrs. Obama graces a Diwali event at the White House; performing individual archana at a Diwali event
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Fighting Discrimination

Mrinalini Vijalapuram, an international relations and global studies major at UT Austin, brought up one of the biggest challenges faced by the Hindu minority: discrimination. In the post-9/11 era especially, the news seems to be overflowing with stories of violence against minority communities. “Minorities are always targeted for discrimination and bullied in school. I can vouch for this,” Mrinalini regretted. “I would be picked on during school. But kids today are constantly connected through the Internet and phones. Some can be driven to suicide. There is no reason for this to be happening.”

Mrinalini represented the HSA at “Dharmic Seva: Transforming Our Self, Our Community, Our Country,” a conference at the White House focused on bringing awareness to Hindu faiths and developing dialogue between Hindu and other religious communities. A presentation about violence and harassment faced by Hindu students in the DC area deeply impacted her. “I think the kids who led that presentation have huge hearts and a lot of bravery to be able to stand up and speak on behalf of kids who are bullied because of their religion and race.”

I asked Mrinalini how she feels organizations such as HSA can end bullying. “Education is the best way to end bullying and any acts arising from ignorance.”

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Performing individual archana at a Diwali event
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A Glimpse of Things to Come

As I sat absorbing all the ideas, experiences and projects that these delegates had presented, I was startled by how young my fellow attendees were. They are only beginning their paths of leadership, but have already taken the reins and are guiding the development of the Hindu faith in the US. The assuredness I feel for my faith in this country is rooted in the ingenuity and creativity of the attendees and the support that HSA provides. No one need worry about the future of the Hindu faith as a minority religion here.

Shaping the Hindu faith in the US is a challenging endeavor that these young adults have boldly undertaken. I can only assume that the confidence to engage this kind of a task must come from the same spirit that inspired First Lady Michelle Obama’s words at the Diwali celebration at the White House last year: “We want to honor and embrace all of the many cultures and faith traditions that make us who we are as Americans.” Away from the strongholds of Hinduism throughout the world, these youth are drawing from their identities as Hindus and as Americans to shape the future of their faith and their lives within this country. This conference was only a glimpse of the many great things to come.

Visit www.hindustudentsassociation.org