A Life of thinking globally, acting locally, and seeking peace internally.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Remembering Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami

On Nov. 14th, 2009, they celebrated the life and work of Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, founder of the Kauai Hindu Monastery and the wonderful magazine and resource HinduismToday. Almost two years ago, I wrote a reflection on this interfaith hero who speaks to me through the legacy he left this world. While I have received so much from my father and my Uncle Ralph, I rely also on the teachings of this guru, and recently discovered yet another of piece of his wisdom: http://www.himalayanacademy.com/resources/books/lws/lws_ch-41.html. (I was preparing for a Forgiveness Symposium at University of MI Dearborn).

"To stop the wars in the world, our best long-term solution is to stop the war in the home. It is here that hatred begins, that animosities with those who are different from us are nurtured, that battered children learn to solve their problems with violence." So said Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, when he addressed the UN's Millennium Peace Summit of World Religious and Spiritual Leaders in 2000.

Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami founded the first Hindu Temple in the USA and a magazine, Hinduism Today, which seeks to unite all Hindus, regardless of nationality or sect, and inspire and educate seekers everywhere. As an American (and Caucasian) Hindu leader, he ministered for 52 years around the world, strengthening ties within the Hindu community, while helping his local community in Hawaii, engaging in activities such as the futuring process, Vision Kauai. He was an articulate spokesperson for Hinduism in the West:

in 1988 in Oxford, England, he was at the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders for Human Survival, joining hundreds of religious, political and scientific leaders from all countries to discuss privately, for the first time, the future of human life on this planet;

in 1990 and 1992, he was at the Global Forums of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders for Human Survival; and

in 1993, in Chicago, at the centenary Parliament of the World's Religions, he was elected one of three presidents to represent Hinduism at the Presidents' Assembly, a core group of 25 men and women voicing the needs of world faiths.

Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami's legacy includes precepts such as "Ethics must be established among all the religionists of the world. They must nurture an appreciation for each other, not merely a tolerance. Religious leaders, above all, must remain fair, despite their enthusiasm," and "It is our past that colors and conditions, actually creates, the future. We purge the past in the present, and we fashion the future in the present."

My involvement in interfaith activism is relatively recent, although I have "lived interfaith" all my life, growing up in university communities in the Northeast and as a young adult and college student in India. Gurudeva's teachings and spirit are an inspiration, as I seek to be a Hindu voice in the interfaith dialogue that we must nurture to work together in our current war-torn world. As a founding member of the Troy Interfaith Group, whose mission is "to invite all faith communities to gather, grow and give for the sake of promoting the common values of love, peace and justice among all religions locally and globally. We believe that peace among peoples and nations requires peace among the religions," Satguru Sivaya Subramuniya Swami is my interfaith hero. Read more Entry>>

Friday, November 6, 2009

Fighting Poverty with Faith.. Can there be an End to Poverty?

Last month, I attended a lunch meeting on behalf of WISDOM (interfaithwisdom.org). We were about 25-30 people across diverse backgrounds, (the most well-represented faith was Jewish) that came together to discuss fighting poverty. It was part of a series of nationwide events to highlight a path to poverty reduction and economic recovery, which was led by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Catholic Charities. We (WISDOM) are now part of an alliance of at least 34 organizations, which include Hindu American Foundation (hafsite.org) of which I am a member, and Hindu American Seva Charities, (www.hinduamericanseva.org) of which I am on the Board.

Rebecca Salminen Witt, the director of Greening of Detroit, greeningofdetroit.com, came and talked about the past, present and future of the organization. The Greening of Detroit, is a 501 (c)(3) not for profit organization, established in 1989 to guide and inspire the reforestation of Detroit (the primary form of urban agriculture when she started there a few years ago). Their latest strategic plan reflects commitment to a clear sense of direction that will guide the organization's development over the next five years. A new vision was established, expanding The Greening's mission to guide and inspire others to create a 'greener' Detroit through planting and educational programs environmental leadership, advocacy, and by building community capacity. Their new motto - "Growing our future: from peas to trees."

Greening has tree planting programs, educational programs (e.g., how to extend the growing season - currently 51 weeks), serve as a human network (about 6K volunteers a year), a source for materials (tool banks), a source for empowerment (85 gardeners sell their produce under the "grown in detroit" label and 100% goes back to the gardeners). They help over 1000 gardeners produce 200 tons of food annually. Greening also has a pilot program that provides 2 oz of fresh fruit per week in school lunches - this is indicative of the fact that the demand for locally grown produce is much more than what is available. The "grown in detroit" folks have even been contacted by Walmart. At Romanowski Park, they have a farm that works with OW Holmes elementary school which incorporates cultural diversity to grow some of the foods from the home countries of the community. They have a workforce development program in partnership with Proliteracy, and a Garden Resource Program with MSU, DAN and Earthworks Garden.

Greening currently has 24 professional staff, and thousands of volunteers. While there is currently of lot of (vacant) land, some people are committed to rightsizing the city. They are currently seeking help in the following ways:

* Call your congressional representatives about the clean energy bill
* Donate
* Volunteer
* Hire a team from their workforce program 313 237 8733 - more info at Greeningofdetroit.com

Someone from DTE Energy Gardens was there with a brochure - much of the info is here: www.dteenergy.com . DTE Energy in partnership with Gleaners Community Food Bank, is helping feed the hungry with produce grown at the DTE Energy Gardens - more than 100 acres are being held for future sites to Gleaners for farming and community gardens that supply food to the hungry. There are 8 DTE Energy Gardens located at DTE facilities in Allen Park, Auburn Hills, Birmingham, Detroit, Farmington Hills, Plymouth Township, South Lyon, and Southfield. So far this year, the gardens have produced over 17,500 pounds of food.

More info on the national initiative can be found at www.fightingpovertywithfaith.com

This initiative ties in to a movie recommendation I recently got from my "famous Uncle Ralph" - The End of Poverty, www.theendofpoverty.com

Both the sites and the movie are definitely worth checking out as we head into the Thanksgiving season...

Faith can be a solution to the problem. We need to make it happen. Read more Entry>>

Monday, November 2, 2009

Cultural Identity and Immigrants - Part II

Have you seen Ocean of Pearls? If you haven’t, I definitely recommend it, although not necessarily because I enjoyed it.

In fact, I am not sure I did… Of course, it was wonderfully made; the story, casting, music and cinematography are awesome; it shows Detroit in a positive light. It brings up challenges that we need to confront and will definitely play your hearts strings even while it ends on a hopeful note. There will be those who don’t acknowledge the difficulty of the cultural generation gap or the racism that the movie depicts. There will be those who may not be able to handle the issue-(over)load: romance, career choices, generational conflict, acculturation/assimilation, racism, and religious identity struggle.

The movie's subtitle - It is in the collision between the old ways and the new that we find out who we are - is so relevant to the immigrant story and especially to development of identity. There are uncomfortable places that the movie takes me to, as an immigrant straddling many labels and cultures, and seeking balance.

The one scene that replays in my mind is typical of the movie’s sadness and reality: the protagonist Amrit (a heart transplant surgeon who is held back due to race and religious identification) and his new potential love interest are discussing the hospital board’s denial of a promised position to Amrit. She suggests that Amrit take up the issue openly and legally, and he pushes that option aside. At times, I feel the same – why does the minority have to take an (antagonistic) stand? I guess the answer is that history repeats itself, and this is the film’s ultimate story – the story of taking a stand and being true to oneself, and this is not just true in the immigrant context. Read more Entry>>

Monday, October 26, 2009

Cultural Identity and Immigrants - Part I

I got a book entitled Destination America from my local library and then went to this website as it relates to a PBS program of the same name: www.pbs.org/destinationamerica/ - the book tells the stories of various ethnic communities that have made America their destination. There is a wide range of reasons for people to have come here - Destination America delineates this into five Freedoms - to Worship, from Oppression, from Want, from Fear, to Create.

While the book and program website are wonderfully illuminating and fascinating, I was surprised and disappointed about what info was provided in the book regarding India and Indian Americans. In almost every state listed in the appendices, foreign-born (FB) people from India are in the top ten, and yet a mere *two* pages are given to the topic of immigrants from South Asia and the Middle East. This is in significant contrast to the number of people in those regions and the number of immigrants from those regions that come to the US. The number of pages that are devoted to understanding other immigrant communities/countries is not proportional to their representation in society. Why is this important? Knowledge - and not misinformation or misconceptions - helps us live together more harmoniously.

Knowing the stories of the peoples who make up America is critical to our future - the individual threads need to be woven together through a deeper understanding of each other to develop a fabric that is strong and resilient. While we are all "going global" around the world, there is a challenge that technology and ease of travel bring to the story of America. I appreciate the Ethnicity in Michigan series - the first one is a slim volume by Arthur Helweg and Jack Glazier which so clearly underlines the challenges we face today. The authors lay out the stories of what ethnic communities make up MI and what the migration patterns are (yahoo, they start with the native people!). Many of the most recent immigrants are from South Asia and the Middle East, whose story Destination America doesn't lay out in much detail. The assimilation and acculturation (or lack thereof) of the recent immigrants as narrated by Helweg and Glazier underlines my favorite Diana Eck quote - Diversity is a given, pluralism is an achievement.

Read more Entry>>

Friday, October 23, 2009

How to be more informed...

...about the Afghanistan war. Attending this event on Nov. 14 at Royal Oak First United Methodist Church would be one way.
Eight years of war. No end in sight. Mark your calendar and plan to attend the following special event:
Confronting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda
The Good War or American Quagmire?
featuring Professor Juan Cole
U.S. State Department representative (invited)
in a dialog on American foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan
Saturday, November 14 from 1:30 - 3:30
Royal Oak First United Methodist Church
320 W. Seventh St.
Admission: $5.00
This event provides an excellent opportunity to hear about the issues that are rarely discussed in the media or by the administration.
About Juan Cole
U. of M. professor of history and author of Engaging the Muslim World. A regular guest on PBS's Lehrer News Hour and has also appeared on ABC Nightly News, Nightline, the Today Show, Charlie Rose, Anderson Cooper 360, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Democracy Now! and many others.

He is one of the country’s foremost experts on America’s troubled relations with the Islamic world. His Informed Comment blog at juancole.com is among the most widely read blogs on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Cole is fluent in Arabic, Persian and Urdu, and has lived in various parts of the Muslim world.
Read more Entry>>

Monday, October 19, 2009

Faith and Politics

Today is my father's birthday. I write this in honor of all he taught me about faith and politics, in relation to my reading of Faith and Politics by John Danforth, and to encourage my fellow citizens to participate in the city of Troy's upcoming elections.

Some basic background on my pater - a writer/philosopher and poet/author, Dr. K. Srinivasa Sastry was born in pre-independence India, losing his father when he was two, and completing his masters (BA Honors) when he was just about twenty. He's published many books and writes copious diaries. He was generally the source of my knowledge of the Hindu faith, until I had to go find faith for myself and in myself (this is when it gets complicated, as did our relationship). Anyway, he is one of the first people I call to discuss theological and philosophical issues with, and sometimes my writing (he often reciprocates). He also loves to talk politics, and had a lot to say about the Emergency back in India when we lived in America in the '70s.

Some background on John Danforth - a former three-term Republican senator from Missouri and an ordained Episcopalian minister, he wrote a book called Faith and Politics, where he quotes from the Sermon on the Mount, and Paul's Epistle to the Romans. In his book, he suggests that Christianity as a reconciling faith can be used as a way of engaging in politics, encouraging our leaders to focus on pressing problems and not on wedge issues. Danforth was a peace envoy to Sudan for G W, and highlights how we can help alleviate suffering in the world, as well as move forward together as a nation. The book, subtitled "How the 'Moral Values' Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together" reviews key divisive issues of the day: public religion (like me and Troy's 2005 NDP story), the case of Terry Schiavo, abortion and judicial restraint, stem cell research and gay marriage.

In the book, Danforth talks of the need to speak out and act, reminds us that "blessed are the peacemakers;" his concluding chapter is "Paul's Primer for Politics." He questions not whether people of faith should be engaged in politics, stating instead that we should not bring a certain faith-based agenda to our politics. As we could with most religious scriptures, he shows how we can use different texts from the Bible to support conflicting propositions. Danforth however, focuses on the primacy of love, humility and the guidelines for reconciliation as found in the Bible, to move forward. "If we believe we know God's truth and that we can embody that truth in a political agenda, we divide the realm of politics into those who are on God's side, which is our side, and those with whom we disagree, who oppose the side of God....We are seekers of the truth, but we do not embody the truth. And in our humility, we should recognize that the same can be said of our most ardent foes."

This reminded me of Gustav Niebuhr's statement in his book, Beyond Tolerance, about his great-uncle Reinhold Niebuhr's call to humility: "An acknowledgment that even when one professes an adherence to religious truth, one doesn’t fully know God’s mind." Danforth says we need a latter-day Reinhold Niebuhr - and I agree, given what this Niebuhr said about religion and politics, like this: "absolutism, in both religious and political idealism, is a splendid incentive to heroic action, but a dangerous guide in immediate and concrete situations. In religion, it permits absurdities, and in politics, cruelties." Much of this corresponds to what my father taught me.

My hometown of Troy - which is home to almost sixty (yes, 60!) houses of worship - has an important election coming up on Nov. 3, so faith and politics are very relevant. We are a community struggling like many before us, and many around us, especially in Michigan. The Troy Clergy Association wrote an open letter to the current Council about these issues. We need to elect officials who will lead us through these difficult economic times. We have many in our midst whose political strategy sets out extreme positions, people whose approach is black and white, and leaves no room for compromise. Twenty second sound bites and catchy phrases like "Tax Fighter" may help win elections, but where there are no new ideas, no basis for convergence of differing opinions, we will have no progress. We need public and elected officials to focus on reconciliation and compassion, identify and save the community's important services, realizing that they bring varying perspectives to the table and are open minded in their approach. I encourage my fellow-citizens to take action - to speak to the need to solve our community's problems by casting their vote for those who are willing to work with others who may not always agree with them, and who realize that they may not be the sole Truth-tellers. Read more Entry>>

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Finding Friendship and Faith at the Fourth HMEC

I just received a call from Raj Manickam, a friend I made at the HMEC last month. He was in town for a professional conference, and called to say hello. Raj is affiliated with Hinduism Today's monks, and at HMEC, we shared stories about our common inspiration - the work of the wonderful folks at the Kauai monastery (hinduismtoday.com).

What is HMEC? The fourth Hindu Mandir Executive Conference, which was attended by over 250 delegates from about 115 temples who all came to Linthicum MD on Sept. 11-13.

The website is here http://mandirsangam.vhp-america.org/ and will soon have information from the presentations and possibly videos of them as well. This year's conference was focused on engaging youth in mandirs, and began with deep prajwalan by MI representatives (myself and Sri Vishnubhai Patel who came as a delegate from the Flint Paschima Kasi Temple), and words of greeting from the host mandirs. Mythili Bachu of Durga Temple reminded me of how our Temples seek to be replicas of the wonderful architecture in India. I realized that we should plan our HMEC trips so we can visit the houses of worship in the region. Kumar Nochur talked about the “Why and How of Mandir Worship” and spoke of Ganesha not being just a remover of obstacles but also the union of shakti and shiva – energy and consciousness, which together represent Brahman. Then came a couple of critical presentations. One was by Shivi Chandra, who is a junior at John's Hopkins Univ. and affiliated with Gayatri Parivar. She spoke about youth and their involvment in mandirs being more social and less spiritual, as illustrated by a couple of her slides. She compared a Hindu student group's campus flier that invited people to aarthi where there would be free Dunkin Donuts and coffee, with a Christian flier that asked "do you make time in your life for god?" And she quoted a Hindu student's response to what are some significant aspects of the Hindu faith, that "we have garbha and bhangra!" Sri Swami Mukundananda senior disciple of Jagadguru Kripalu Maharaj of JKYog, spoke to the application of management principles to mandir management. He is an IIT and IIM grad, who said management is maya (illusion), that we should consider both paravidya (spiritual) and aparavidya (material) matters in temple management. He spoke of Kirthan, Shravan, Smaran and is the first one who convinced me that we should have (Sunday) prasad without strings attached. He also recommended that we distribute copies of aarthi when we sing it, that we invest in expansions, and establish a Hindu Credit Union. Again, his powerpoint, like Shivi's and many others' who were part of the conference, is worth being presented to entire Temple

The opening speaker on Saturday was Sri Dayananda Saraswathi who spoke of many things and was phenomenally inspiring, and reminded me of my father. Some key points from his presentation were: that mandirs are forms of passing tradition, our ancestors paid taxes to stay Hindu, that forms of passing the tradition are very important, that body is a moving temple, and that we have to understand, not just practice the rituals. On engaging the youth to be active in mandirs, he said that teaching our tradition to them is a responsibility and that we should not worry about the youth becoming involved, but that we as Temple execs and leaders need to change ourselves. In yet another session, someone pointed out that many churches were sold to temples, and as we are proliferating the structures and not able to engage the next generation, asked if will temples be sold in 30 years in a similar way.

A key speaker on Saturday morning was Anju Bhargava, on the President's Council of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, who along with several people across country, including myself (I was recommended to her by folks at Harvard University who know of my outreach work on behalf of the Hindu community), has formed the Hindu American Seva Charities as a nonprofit. The mission of HASC is here, http://www.hinduamericanseva.org/home, and Anju spoke to the ongoing seva projects and partnerships we have around the country, and collecting the Hindu American service projects into a database to leverage a Hindu voice at the table.

Saturday afternoon's concurrent workshop sessions included a youth breakout session with no "adults," a session on "are we inward looking?" in which I was a panelist, another on management and administration of mandirs, and one on interracial marriages. I had been a panelist and moderator at last year's conference in MI on interfaith issues and the Outreach Committee I chair is organizing an Interfaith Family Forum on Nov. 8, so I was disappointed that I could not attend the interracial marriage session. I believe that discussions got a bit heated and there were some things I heard from several youth - who I was able to connect with quite well due to my upbringing in the US - which were quite illuminating.

From the summary of the workshop sessions, we came up with several action items, which were sent as part of a powerpoint to the attendees (I believe that these will also be available for download from the website above). Some of these are: to provide premarital counseling to interfaith couples, to contact Dr. Bapineedu Kuchipudi with issues related to priests, that we should draft a letter regarding dietary restraints for Hindus that can be used by temples to provide to local public schools, to create a list of all really successful projects that are going on at specific temples around the country (eg., the Siva Vishnu Temple in MD provides food to Martha's kitchen every month and has a great volunteer coordinator for this project!). Specifically from the youth session, it was determined that in order to retain/engage youth, we need to have them become leaders in temple activities, not participants, that we need to have seva (to the community we live in) as a critical component of mandir activities, and that we should create a youth network.

One of Sunday morning's sessions was related to the representation of Hinduism in the media and how it is important for us to become involved to correct these. Both USINPAC (usinpac.com) and HAF (hafsite.org) were there to do presentations, USINPAC being a political action committee for Indian Americans, and Hindu American Foundation, a nonprofit org advocating for American Hindus, including human rights issues for Hindus around the world impacted by
America's policies, and working with media, government and think tanks to better represent the Hindu community. The American Jewish Committee's local representatives, a Board member, the Director of the Baltimore chapter, and the staff member on Indo-Jewish Relations were a panel on Sunday morning as well. While all three spoke to our common ground and how we should build partnerships between Hindu and Jewish communities around the country, Nissim Reuben was quite memorable as he is Indian-born and Jewish. He said that India has been hospitable to all faith communities because of our principle to treat guest as god, athithi devo bhava.

Reporting on action items from past mandir conferences, there were a few significant items: the production of an antyeshti samskara (end of life sacraments) book, the initiative taken by several mandir executives to create a temple management software application, called HOMA, and a health care pool for temple employees (priests and staff). Dr. Vishnubhai Patel also gave me a free reign to buy books for the Bharatiya Temple which I did (asking me to buy books can
be a dangerous thing). One book I highly recommend that everyone take a look at is Invading the Sacred: an Analysis of Hinduism studies in North America. This is one of the challenges we have as a faith community - overcoming what is presented to our youth who take courses in college about Hinduism from non practitioners who often have misconceptions, an "outsider" perspective on our faith, some of whom look down on our practices - particularly because they may be looking at some remote or outdated beliefs.

I was honored and happy to be the Bharatiya Temple's representative, and very glad that the organizers asked me to present a topic this year also. Next year's conference will be hosted by the Meenakshi Temple and folks in Texas. All temples should send at least two delegates and we should find ways to get the other temples in MI to be part of this annual gathering. I made several other friends, such as Fred Stella from Grand Rapids MI who has the title Outreach Minister from the Temple Board, who was first exposed to Hinduism in Detroit at the ISKCON Temple as a youth. Fred is a practicing Hindu and is president of the Grand Rapids Interfaith Association. We have already begun corresponding on our respective interfaith initiatives and how we can create synergy - beginning with our common connection to Kryssis Bjork of Muskegon's interfaith network. I continue to have faith in expanding circles of friendship... Read more Entry>>

Monday, October 12, 2009

Oakland School of Business Admin's 40th Anniversary Conference

I was at an international business conference on the global marketplace, ethics, health care and education, at Oakland University here in Michigan. Again and again, I am impressed with the people that Dean Mohan Tanniru of the School of Business Administration brings together, and the vision of the SBA and Oakland in meeting the needs of the thoroughly downtrodden MI community. The two-day leadership program was held on October 8-9, and commemorated the school’s 40th anniversary.

On Friday, the sessions all related to the “The Future of Business Leadership,” and featured a diverse set of topics including ethics, health care reform, education and global leadership.

I had an opportunity to network with people looking for new direction in this dull job market of ours, and listened to several speakers on relevant topics for today. The first session was on Ethics and Social Responsibility, where Ken Janke, a Senior VP of Aflac Inc. spoke of how executive leadership sets the tone from the top, where people get accolades for doing the right thing, and shareholders vote on executive pay. He spoke of Aflac’s corporate citizenship and responsibility in supporting pediatric cancer programs and other community giving, how their corporate governance and internal systems support ethics and compliance. Next in the group was Betsy Bayha, a Senior VP at Blue Coat and their general counsel. She spoke to defining events in corporate ethics: Watergate; Enron & corporate scandals, the stock-option back-dating, and stockholder activism. I had to agree with Bayha that ethics is inherently a gray area, and while the world is flat, cultures are not aligned, there is a cost to being ethical and there is human greed to contend with. She concluded by listing three main things of what works to maintain corporate ethics – tone at the top; open door policy and raise your hand – which to my interfaith mind is ethics through action. The triangle was completed by Mike Houghton who came not representing GM, where he has been employed for decades, but to speak about ethics from Catholic social teachings. He talked of rights and responsibilities and the greater good, which prompted me to pose a question – how do you ensure that in seeking the “Greater Good” you are not lured to the “Dark Side?” I wonder how many got my obvious reference to the Harry Potter seventh book and Star Wars? I am not convinced I received an answer – nor am I sure that you can actually get one, since ethics is inherently a gray area…

While the break afforded me some networking opportunities, the next session really peaked my interest since my current consulting focus is on diversity training and global understanding. Richard Corson, the Director of Pontiac US Export Assistance Center, spoke to the need to be geocentric and not ethnocentric. Greg Garrett, Chief IT Strategist of VW of America, provided a lot of statistics for thought – over the next 20 years, 80% of the world’s growth will occur where it can’t be supported, by 2030, 25% of Europe will be over 65, and by 2025, 60% of the world’s population will live in cities. What better reason to support mass transportation here in MI! Go TRU! He said that we should focus on market differentiating forces, not how many people but how much content they generate and to focus ahead of the curve. My favorite quote of the day came from Joe Tori, who quoted Alvin Toffler, "The illiterate of the future are not those that cannot read or write. They are those that can not learn, unlearn, relearn." I was disappointed in the responses to my question (asked as we ran out of time), about the impact of the $165 per pupil cut in the State’s K-12 education budget passed the prior night, and the dropping of a diversity workshop that my business partner and I had planned to provide, and what I as an individual or as a corporate entity can do to counteract this.

However, these sessions, the lunch lecture, the post lunch lecture and the tone of the SBA’s conference left me with hope that there are people in Michigan who do have a vision, who are thinking to the future. I just wish that some of these people were interacting with local governments… Troy City Council sure could use some of this forward thinking in developing our tax base so that we residents are not burdened as we currently are.

Here is a link to the official Oakland University news release about the event:
http://www.oakland.edu/view_news.aspx?sid=131&nid=5952 Read more Entry>>

Friday, October 2, 2009

Passivism or Pacifism

It’s Gandhi Jayanthi (his birthday). Gandhi’s Be the Change quote is everywhere - even on my fridge, thanks to my good friend and peace activist Rich Peacock. I take this mantra seriously; Gandhi is one of those interfaith heroes who inspire me and my actions… In the past few weeks, I participated in the Fourth Annual Hindu Mandir Executive Conference, the Troy Interfaith Group’s Book Discussion Group on the International Day of Peace (Sept. 21), the Hindu American Foundation’s DC Day, and celebrated the International Day of Peace at a Potluck Peace Picnic with diverse foods and discussion at the Community Interfaith Labyrinth in Troy. My reflections on Gandhi today are about what I am going to be doing next week, on Oct. 7 in particular - http://www.11hour4peace.org/images/Oct_7_Flyer.pdf …

Gandhi was a believer in passive resistance, but he also worked toward a world without violence. Was he a passivist or a pacifist? Am I a passivist or a pacifist? Lets look at the (Random House) dictionary first:

pronunciation: pas-uh-viz-uhm
1. the quality of being passive.
2. the principle or practice of passive resistance.

pronunciation: pas-uh-fiz-uhm
1. opposition to war or violence of any kind.
2. refusal to engage in military activity because of one's principles or beliefs.
3. the principle or policy that all differences among nations should be adjusted without recourse to war.

Gandhi said “Each one has to find his peace from within. And peace to be real must be unaffected by outside circumstances.” I meditate and walk the labyrinth, and am reminded of the need to find my inner strength by the button on my handbag that says “Let PEACE begin with US.”

Gandhi said “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?” I go to peace rallies and call/write to politicians about my stance opposing war and military funding.

Gandhi said ”If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.” I take my children to peace rallies and teach them to be pluralists.

Gandhi said “Peace is its own reward.” I work to find the balance between passivism and pacifism. Read more Entry>>

Monday, September 28, 2009

Back after summer vacation...

Why I took the summer off will be in another post. But I am BACK! Why? Because I like to nudge people with words. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword...

When I returned to MI from a brief trip to Baltimore on Sept.13, I discovered that my hometown's looming budget crisis was something I could share with others. (Yes, join my nightmare). I sent hundreds of emails to friends with the City Manager's proposed 6-year budget, and a few were to religious leaders from the Troy Interfaith Group. Here is perfect example of how words can get us out of our comfort zone, and get us to take a stand for social responsibility The link below will take you to words that will - hopefully - get you to think and find ways to work towards a "safe and healthy community."


The sun shone on the Troy Interfaith Group's Potluck Peace Picnic yesterday, where we celebrated the International Day of Peace with discussion and diverse cuisine at the Community Interfaith Labyrinth on the grounds of Northminster Presbyterian Church. We generated new ideas - like "let's create a cookbook," even giving it a title (A Recipe and A Prayer), and generated enthusiasm for existing ones - like ongoing dinner discussion groups that can continue the peace- and community-building conversations which were started yesterday. Read more Entry>>

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

On Torture

As a Hindu, I was raised in the tradition of Advaita philosophy, where individuals are all part of the cosmic continuum Brahman. There is no duality: we are all God’s family (Vasudaiva kutumbakam). Thus, torture is an issue is of profound moral and religious concern since violence – himsa – that I inflict on another being is as much violence on myself.

The Sanskrit word ahimsa, where the negating prefix “a” is placed before the root word himsa, is the act of abstaining from causing harm or injury. Ahimsa is a central tenet of several religious traditions of India – my Hindu beliefs as well as Buddhism and Jainism– and was at the core of Gandhi’s concept of Satyagraha, meaning “holding to the Truth.”

In my search for Truth, I can look to so many Hindu scriptures… In the Manusmruti, which can be considered the Hindu religious rule book, ahimsa is considered the foremost amongst the five restraints (yama) necessary in personal behavior. I can run through many quotations from the ancient Hindu epic, the Mahabaharata, such as: One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma. Yielding to desire and acting differently, one becomes guilty of adharma. Mahabharata 18.113.8. or Ahimsa is the highest dharma. Ahimsa is the best tapas. Ahimsa is the greatest gift. Ahimsa is the highest self-control. Ahimsa is the highest sacrifice. Ahimsa is the highest power. Ahimsa is the highest friend. Ahimsa is the highest truth. Ahimsa is the highest teaching. Mahabharata 18.116.37-41.

In yet another text I read that “harming others, even enemies who harmed you unprovoked, assures incessant sorrow. The supreme principle is this: never knowingly harm anyone at any time in any way,” and that virtuous conduct “is never destroying life, for killing leads to every other sin.” And I can tell you of many shlokas (verses) in the scripture I refer most often, the Bhagavad Gita, which speak to the importance of ahimsa in attaining the Divine or moksha – freedom from the cycle of rebirth - chapter 10, verse 5; chapter 13, verse 7; chapter 16, verse 2.

But as a mom of a sixth grader and a ninth grader (all three of us are bookworms, by the way), I can also find my philosophy against harming another human being - for whatever reason - in Harry Potter. Torture is something acutely different from self-defense: Harry’s signature use of the spell “Expelliarmus” to disarm his opponent, as opposed to the unforgiveable killing curse “Avada Kedavara” that is used by the villain and his supporters, the Death Eaters.

Consider the horcrux, which Tom Riddle, aka Voldemort, creates by splitting his soul into pieces by committing unspeakable violence. The horcrux is analogous to the evil that is torture. How devastating to one’s soul not to be able to find compassion and forgiveness, and how blessed is the hero Harry to be marked by love. If only more of humanity could find love and forgiveness in their souls instead of committing torture and splitting our world into pieces… As Paramahansa Yogananda wrote: "Let nations ally themselves no longer with death, but with life; not with destruction, but with construction; not with hate, but with creative miracles and love." Read more Entry>>

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Thunder and Lightning

I totally miss being in class at ETS and having a reason to read Hindu theological writings. I was searching my mail for something recently and found a story about thunder and lightning from the Upanishads that I love.

Some background on the Upanishads: Since the Upanishads form the concluding portion of the Vedas, they were called Vedanta or "the end of Vedas." However, the term Vedanta now refers to a school of philosophy based on the Upanishads. There are 108 generally accepted Upanishads, but according to different sources, the number varies upto 200. The oldest of these works dates back to 600 BC. They contain a freedom of thought unknown in any of the earlier works, except the Rig-Veda. The Upanishads are more universal and can be read by all. And these are the ten principal Upanishads:
  • The Aitareya Upanishad of the Rig-Veda.
  • The Brihadaranyaka, Isha, Katha and Taittiriya Upanishads of the Yajur Veda.
  • The Chandogya and Kena Upanishads of the Sama Veda.
  • The Prasna, Mundaka, and Mandukya Upanishads of the Atharva Veda.
It is in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad that a typically value-based story appears: 'What the Thunder Says'. Prajapati, or Brahma, the All-Father, having created the three races of gods, men and demons, appointed each to their own realm - heaven, earth and the netherworld. All three begged him for advice to live by. So, to each race, Prajapati gave counsel.

When the world was still young and the newly created beings—the Divas, the Asuras and the Manusas—were groping to understand their place in the world, they all meditated for true knowledge from their creator Prajapati.

After a long time had passed, the Divas went to Prajapati and asked for His wisdom. "Lord, please tell us what we should live by."

Prajapati looked kindly at the Divas, who were endowed with great character and who had God-like intentions, but He simply uttered a single letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, "da."

The Divas pondered over what they had heard until Prajapati gently asked them, "Divas, do you understand the meaning of what I said?"

The Divas stated, "Yes, Lord, we understand. 'Da' stands for Damyata—control. You want us to live a life of restraint."

Prajapati said, "Yes, you have understood it. Be self-controlled."

Next, the Manusas, who were humans, went to Prajapati and reverentially asked for His wisdom. "Lord, please tell us what we should live by."

For a few minutes Prajapati observed the Manusas, who had great intellect and passion but who were weak in body and petty in their dealings with others. He again pronounced the same letter of the alphabet, "da." Prajapati paused, allowing them time to reflect over His answer. Then he asked them, "Manusas, do you understand what I said?"

The humans grasped the meaning quickly. "Yes, Lord, we fully perceive what you said. 'Da' symbolizes Datta—give. We should be generous. There is great joy in sharing."

Prajapati was pleased with their answer, "You have understood. Go and live accordingly."

Lastly, the Asuras went to Prajapati and asked him for His wisdom. Although the Asuras were created in darkness, they were still His children. Prajapati looked at them carefully. The Asuras were strong in body and in their determinations. They were the rivals of the Divas. But once again Prajapati stated only "da."

The Asuras mused over what they had heard until Prajapati inquired, "Asuras, do you understand what I said?"

The Asuras clearly discerned the message of Prajapati. "Lord, when you said 'da' you meant Dayadhyam— compassion. You want us to be compassionate."

Prajapati smiled, "Yes, you have understood it. Live a life of compassion for others."

Prajapati rose up and vanished in the clouds in the midst of a loud thunder—"da," "da," "da." And the three races repeated, "damyata," "datta," "dayadham," and went their separate ways. The divine message is often repeated by the clouds as they thunder, "da," "da," "da," as if to remind all beings of the lesson learned by the three races at the very beginning of their journey—be self-controlled, be generous, be compassionate.

Prajapati did not instill wisdom, nor did He offer to show the right path. Prajapati accepted the three different interpretations of His message because the Divas, Manusas, and Asuras recognized their own frailties and interpreted His Message accordingly. One can perceive wisdom only at a level of one's cognizance and consciousness

* Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Book Five, V.ii.

If you like music: MS Subbalakshmi sang Maitreem Bhajata, which includes the three Da's at the UN in 1966 - listen to her here:
or watch her here:

If you like poetry: TS Elliot's Wastland includes reference to this story and ends with these words:
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih Read more Entry>>

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Mother's Day reflections

I had an amazing Mother's Day. I snuggled with the kids in the morning, had a great homemade brunch NOT prepared by me, and went to see the latest Star Trek movie (in IMAX, my first time!) released on Friday. And someone dear to me sent me these words proclaimed on the first Mother's Day. And through all these activities, I discovered that I need to find balance between contemplation and activism in my search for peace...

Mother's Day Proclamation
by Julia Ward Howe*, 1870

The First Mother's Day proclaimed in 1870 by Julia Ward Howe
was a passionate demand for disarmament and peace.

Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or tears!

Say firmly: "We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have taught them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the bosom of the devastated earth, a voice goes up with our own. It says, "Disarm, Disarm!"

The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail & commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesars but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

Biography of Julia Ward Howe

US feminist, reformer, and writer Julia Ward Howe was born May 27, 1819 in New York City. She married Samuel Gridley Howe of Boston, a physician and social reformer. After the Civil War, she campaigned for women rights, anti-slavery, equality, and for world peace. She published several volumes of poetry, travel books, and a play. She became the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1908. She was an ardent antislavery activist who wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic in 1862, sung to the tune of John Brown's Body. She wrote a biography in 1883 of Margaret Fuller, who was a prominent literary figure and a member of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Transcendentalists. She died in 1910.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

To Read or Not to Read

Reviewing the Reviews - THE HINDUS: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger

In Passages From India By Michael Dirda, a book review that appeared in the Washington Post on March 19, 2009, it says, “In tracing the evolution of Hinduism, the author has a specialized focus unsuited to readers seeking an introduction to the subject.”

In Another Incarnation by Pankaj Misra, a book review that appeared in the New York Times on April 24, 2009, it says, “As Wendy Doniger, a scholar of Indian religions at the University of Chicago, explains in her staggeringly comprehensive book, the British Indologists who sought to tame India’s chaotic polytheisms had a ‘Protestant bias in favor of scripture.’”

I tend to agree with these statements, as well as Doniger’s words in March 2009 in the Newsweek blog, On Faith: “And so I tried to tell a more balanced story, in "The Hindus: An Alternative History," to set the narrative of religion within the narrative of history, as a statue of a Hindu god is set in its base, to show how Hindu images, stories, and philosophies were inspired or configured by the events of the times, and how they changed as the times changed. There is no one Hindu view of karma, or of women, or of Muslims; there are so many different opinions (one reason why it's a rather big book) that anyone who begins a sentence with the phrase, "The Hindus believe. . . ," is talking nonsense.

“My narrative is alternative both to the histories promulgated by some contemporary Hindus on the political right in India and to those presented in most surveys in English--imperialist histories, all about the kings, ignoring ordinary people.”

But in linking to the book excerpt, I took issue with this parenthetical sentence:

“(The gambler's wife who is fondled by other men reappears in the Mahabharata when the wife of the gambler Yudhishthira is stripped in the public assembly.)” Draupadi, Yudhishthira’s wife, is not stripped, there is only an attempt to do so. Any child who has heard this Mahabharata story can tell you this Draupadi’s faith in Krishna – love incarnate – is rewarded by Krishna’s protection. Dushshasana, the person who attempts to strip her, becomes exhausted as he pulls and pulls at her clothing, and it is he who is shamed as he collapses on the ground, while Draupadi retains her modesty.

In the Post, Dirda writes, “Although Sita proves and proves again her innocence, Doniger underscores the crassness of Rama's jealous-husband behavior but also notes certain textual hints that Sita is more sexual than she appears and that her feelings for Rama's brother Lakshmana might well be more than familial. As Sita is the classic model of Indian womanhood, such sacrilegious speculation once led to Doniger being egged at a London lecture.” I wring my hands at this simplification of Indian womanhood, and am left speechless at the implications of a relationship between Lakshmana and Sita.

My friend John Maunu, who sent me the link to the NY Times review, understood EM Forster to be anti-Hindu and Euro-centric, based on what Misra says: “Forster, who later used his appalled fascination with India’s polytheistic muddle to superb effect in his novel ‘A Passage to India,’ was only one in a long line of Britons who felt their notions of order and morality challenged by Indian religious and cultural practices.” Forster said in 1915 in “The Mission of Hinduism” that “it preaches with intense conviction and passion the doctrine of unity… these two contradictory beliefs do really correspond to emotions that each of us can feel, namely, ‘I am different from everybody else’ and ‘I am the same as everybody else.’”

I too have completely contradictory emotions – I should read this book and I should not read it. I don’t know the complete history of Sanatana Dharma, but as a practicing Hindu, I wonder whether I can rely on this book as the source for it. These concluding thoughts from the April 2009 review by Prof. V. V. Raman, Emeritus Professor of Physics and Humanities at Rochester Institute of Technology, helped me decide that I should read it (some day)…

Every Non-Hindu, whether scholar or lay person, who has any interest in the Hindu world is likely to read and benefit from this book. Many English-educated Hindus may also skim through the book, even if only reluctantly. Wendy Doniger who has devoted a lifetime to the study of Sanskrit and to (her own) elucidation of Hindu culture has written a semi-popular, but erudite treatise on aspects of classical India, drawing largely from original texts. The book is certainly a solid contribution to a global understanding of the Hindu world from interesting perspectives, tracing, as it does, the roots of Hindu worldviews to the vast corpus of literature, lay and religious, oral and written, in Sanskrit and in Tamil, ranging from Vedic hymns and the great epics to the Upanishads, Puranas, and more that have breathed life into Indic culture. Though interspersed with tongue-in-cheek comments which are not likely to sit well with all readers, the book is a delight to read. It brings together the many strands that weave traditional Hinduism into a rainbow richness, with its dichotomies and marvelous contradictions. There are not too many social histories of classical India, certainly none of this sweep and subtlety. What is sorely missing in the book is a narrative on the independent India of the past six decades and more, which has become oh so different, for the good and for the bad, from the purana India she has painted so well and in such detail.

Not all Hindus will be thrilled by the tone of the book here and there, but it is difficult for any objective reader to deny that Wendy Doniger has worthily executed the task she had set for herself: to capture the evolution to Hindu culture with emphasis on the perspectives of the underclass. In the process she educates everyone, or at least enriches the eager reader in countless ways. Read more Entry>>

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Reading Poetry, Writing Prose

I am working on my Sapna stories again. They need to be completed, especially since the kids in my son's fifth grade class continue to ask me about them. They were my critics when they were in third and fourth grade and obvously my characters found friends and my stories (about an Indian immigant family) an audience.

Since I found myself struggling with metaphor and language, I went looking for advice from my favorite English professors. Uncle Ralph said to read poetry, and my father suggested reading Chaucer.

As I began to read, Virginia Woolf "spoke" to me: "I want the concentration and the romance, the words all glued together, fused, glowing: have not time to waste any more on prose." Well, as I wound my way through the various volumes of poetry I have, I went to Vemana, the famous Telugu poet.

Vemana is one of the four foremost Bhakta Kavis (poets) who had devoted the whole of their lives for writing on subjects of Bhakti (Devotion), Gnana (Wisdom) and Vairagya (renunciation). The other three great kavis are Thyagaraja, Pothana, and Ramadasu (not sure of the order being chronologically correct).

Vemana was an 18th century social reformer, prophetic even. His poetry was simple, in the vernacular Telugu which was easily understood and the rhtym and meter helped people to memorize them easily. My parents published Vemana in English Verse, in 2001, where they presented 116 out of the 3253 available verses with translations “as close to the original as possible without distorting the meaning of the original.” When I found this translation online, I called them to help me find the original verse.

Why provide colorful dress to the deity,

Bowlfuls of food and fabulous temples?

Does God want food, clothing and shelter?

Forget fiction, prose and poetry - all roads seem to lead to theology. :)

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Congratulations to the Hindu American Foundation!

Hinduism Today annually awards the "Hindu of the Year" and Renaissance award to individuals who have "inspired, strengthened and reinvigorated Hinduism and its hundreds of millions of followers on a global basis." I was so happy to hear that the Hindu American Foundation became the first organization to receive the "Hindu Renaissance Award" on March 28, 2009. The award's inscription recognizes the Foundation "for its outstanding service in the Hindu cause through educating policy makers, defending religious freedom, joining interfaith efforts and bringing a professional approach to all that it does in advancing the core beliefs and values of the Sanatana Dharma [Hinduism]." Hinduism Today is published by the Himalayan Academy and was founded by the late Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, an interfaith hero according to the Michigan Roundtable’s Interfaith Partners Board.

I first came into contact with the Hindu American Foundation when Suhag Shukla called me – out of the blue, I thought, when I was in the midst of a controversy over the exclusionary nature of the City of Troy’s National Day of Prayer event in 2005. I didn’t mean to cause any trouble, being simply a soccer mom and Hindu American seeker. Suhag, a lawyer and pro-bono legal counsel for the organization at the time, wanted to make sure that I had the support I needed as I advocated for acceptance of all faiths at an event where I was not welcomed.

As my interfaith efforts have deepened, as Troy Interfaith Group has matured (we approach our fifth annual inclusive National Day of Prayer event), so too has HAF. The award is a tribute to their consistent efforts and their commitment to being Hindu and American. I am happy that they are being recognized for the inspiration they provide me and countless other pluralistic Americans to stay engaged even when things are difficult. Read more Entry>>

Monday, March 23, 2009

Choices in a Topsy Turvy World

There was once an ezine which I wrote for - desijournal.com - and the article below was in response to Dr. M. Vidyasagar's article about India vs. America. Obviously, Bangalore-based Vidyasagar (who is now - I think - a VP at Tata Consultancy Services, aka TCS) came down in favor of India. In light of several families of Indian origin in the region - and possibly around the US - returning to India, I thought I would reexamine the issue. After all, we are living in a topsy-turvy world.

Who knows what choices lie before us in 2009 and beyond? I am quite surprised at my insight of 5 years ago, when I said: "My current situation directs me to choose the US - who knows what the future holds?" And my ignorance in saying that "We in America have everything in plenty." :(

Choice. It is the critical issue in the article by Dr. M Vidyasagar. He considers careers and the job market, the rupee and the standard of living, the economy and the entrepreneurial opportunities - and finds the choice of living in India a more viable option than immigrating to the US. He concedes that the US has the best universities in the world, but doesn't point out how that translates into a choice.

For many of us, there is no choice on the India vs. America issue. Once you have kids here, is it really feasible to ask them to pick up and move to a country to which their connections - through typical biannual visits - are, at best, tenuous? The difference in treatment they will face as residents, not visitors, is radical. I experienced this first-hand, when my parents moved our family to India in 1981 – and find it a no-choice issue given my American pragmatism.

Let us, for a moment, assume that there is a choice about whether to live in India or America. Let us also accept all of Dr. Vidyasagar's contentions. Now, look at the decision from other viewpoints - not from solely economic perspectives. As a parent, I want to provide my children the best opportunities in life. By my typically desi standards, this means the best education money can buy.

People in India tell me that secondary education is much better there. Having been schooled in the United States, I feel that education is fostering the love of learning in our children. For them, I am willing to forego the negatives of living in the US - that they don't have their grandparents nearby, that they may encounter racial prejudice, that we are not mainstream Americans, and that education is going to cost a lot of money. I see people like Governor (of Washington state) Gary Locke, and I believe in the American dream – and strive to help my children make the right choices.

As a person, I am concerned with tangible living conditions. I read Elisabeth Bumiller's book May You be the Mother of A Hundred Sons and felt validated. She points out that physical resources in India - mainly water - are in shortage, and there is no solution in sight. We in America have everything in plenty.

Last week, my father told my daughter in our weekly phone call to Hyderabad, "Don't let America spoil you." How can I disagree? But I get simple satisfaction from a long, hot shower, and choose the comforts of the USA.

As a woman, I am also concerned with intangible living conditions. In the US, I worry about teenage pregnancy, the rising popularity of reality shows and the related voyeurism. But is the sexual suppression that occurs in India acceptable? What about the lack of governance and the corruption inherent in the Indian system? Again, here is a choice - we in the US have freedom, and the responsibility to choose wisely.

As an immigrant of color, I am worried about the current racial climate in the US. There are prejudices one faces in every human situation – Bollywood is still so full of nepotism, the caste system is still cause for concern, there are still inter-religious tensions all over India. So this time it is a tradeoff - one kind of racism for another.

Although my choices seem so black and white on paper, the boundaries are blurred. My current situation directs me to choose the US - who knows what the future holds? Given the political climate here, I may have no choice. As long as my favorite premise on which the US stands - liberty and justice for all - holds true, I will stay an Indian American.
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Monday, March 16, 2009

A Parent's Struggle for Balance - part II

I wonder if my struggle with language and words will be handed down to my children? They love books and reading as much as I do, and each is developing interest in different genre(s). Again, I share a piece from years ago - a letter to myself on the inner struggle with parenting children who live with(in) more than one language.

Dear Myself,
You have a decent command over English and Telugu, but how is it that your preschool son’s question about language left you inarticulate and introspective?

His simple question about his friend Sahil’s “Indian language” and if he knows Telugu was the beginning of a complicated dialogue with him as well as within you.

Your mother tongue is Telugu, because your mother’s tongue is Telugu. You have been raised in the US but you are bilingual – your parents provided an environment so that you can now speak both Telugu and English fluently. You have desi and ABCD friends with whom your poor Hindi is the only way to make the Indian connection. Your primary mode of communication is English, since it’s the language of the land you live in. You make an effort to teach them your mother tongue but they are not bilingual.

You feel you are to blame. That you are not providing your son the proper language connection through the cultural exposure you give him. Do you feel justified that you are unable to teach him Telugu because your Indian cousins who grew up outside Andhra Pradesh speak to one another in Hindi. Or do you feel guilty that these same cousins can speak to your parents and others of that generation in fluent Telugu?

Celluloid is a great desi link. Didn’t a second generation guy you know once tell you that he learnt Tamil by watching movies? And you love your quota of Bollywood and Tollywood flicks, from which you selectively provide the kids their share. Now you are thinking of sending them to language classes. Learning how to read and write Telugu at a first grade level didn’t help you gain command over spoken Telugu. But hey, you already knew how to speak it when you took language classes. Doesn’t your son have enough to contend with, learning the English alphabet and being exposed to three or four spoken languages (if you add the school district’s weekly Spanish classes to Telugu, Hindi and English)?

So you wonder what the next generation “Indian language” will be. And how your kids will share desi culture concepts, with a multilingual Indian-American community and friends like Sahil (whose “Indian language” is Gujarati). While you may have lost the “acchu (pure) Telugu” your parents speak, you gain so much from living and communicating with people here – not just “Indian” language.

Your second grader is learning Spanish as part of the school curriculum, and has learnt some Chinese from one of her classmates. She’s picked up Tamil, Hindi and Gujarati words from her desi friends. Your kids know teeku and khaaram are both hot – the spicy version of hot, that is. Sahil and your son, like your daughter and her friends, will help each other spice up the Indian-American vocabulary, and also what makes up the American melting pot. Enjoy the results!



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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Parent's Struggle for Balance - part I

This is a blast from the past... An article I wrote for India Abroad years ago, about parenting American-desi style. Things haven't changed that much.

Finding the Balance
What's the best way to get your children to learn about Indian culture?

Dear Myself,

I know you missed reciting shlokas with your son at the Temple last Saturday. But what can you do? He was at swimming class with his father - a recent addition to his extracurricular activities and a change from your weekly ritual. Your mind was preoccupied with thoughts of this when your daughter started clamoring, "Ma, are you paying attention? I learn a new adavu today! Can I show you when we get home? Can I, can I, please?"

She loves the Saturday Bharata Natyam classes, her friends from class, her teachers; you want to encourage her interests. So as you drove out of the temple parking lot, you had to let go of your thoughts of him, and listen to her.

Life's gotten to be an even more difficult balancing act since you became a parent, hasn't it? The Hindu-Indian heritage, the American-pop lifestyle you are acculturated into - it can be a constant struggle, can't it.

With your daughter the dancer, it was easy - weekly dance classes compel you to the Hindu temple. She has a guru, someone who doesn't simply teach the basic adavus and dance movement but also the background of Bharata Natyam, Sanskrit shlokas, mythological stories and their underlying principles, and even yoga. The mythology she learns from reading Amar Chitra Kathas is reinforced by the stories her teacher tells through dance. She wears Indian clothing both to class and for dance performances. The girls in the class have a chance to share thoughts, feelings and experiences with others of similar background. The all-inclusive package deal involves a weekly visit to the local Hindu temple - a convenient venue. She hears the priest chant the daily prayers - better than hearing the tape-recorded voice of the priest reciting the annual pujas you do at home.

But getting a child (especially a boy) to learn classical dance is difficult unless s/he has a natural interest. There is no obvious role model for boys to learn classical dance - no Madhuri Dixit or Hema Malini who have formal training. Even in the West, ballet is not a popular art form for boys. Your [five year old] son would rather "jump as high as Hrithik Roshan" or "do the pee-pee song" like Amir Khan in Dil Chatha Hai. You could choose another performing art, either Hindustani or Carnatic, instrumental or vocal. But these don't have the same crowd appeal, flavor or robustness of dance - not to mention his indifference.

So now you are searching for something for your son to do to feel connected to his Indian and Hindu heritage. Why not an India trip? But you don't think that someone can really learn about Indian heritage as a young child visiting India.

The last time you went, you were flooded with Western images on television and in the movies - and no one wanted to talk to the children in your native tongue. Instead they were interested in testing their English out. There was no grandmother around to tell stories from the Ramayana or of days gone by - the way your grandmother had both the time and inclination decades ago. So the children must absorb what they can from the Indian ethos. They get a few weeks of the exposure that most Indians who immigrate here as adults have gotten over a lifetime.

Since, mainstream in the US is Caucasian and Christian, not Indian and Hindu, you do what you can. But how often have you taken the day off for Sivarathri or Ganesh Puja? You want a more consistent option... You plod on, teaching him a few shlokas, taking him to the Temple when you can, telling him stories. And in between, you continue to have doubts. Are you stressing about the whole Indian thing too much? Is it so important for him to learn about his heritage, when he - like you - will adapt and find his own balance? A few generations down the line, will our desi background become another "dx by dy" slice of the pizza pie that is America?

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Book about Children's Struggle for Balance

I recently read a book borrowed from my friend Michelle Haight, who is an educator par excellence in my book. She showed me The Inner World of the Immigrant Child by Christina Igoa, which I immediately asked if I could look at. It moved me deeply, reminding me of my own struggles...

“If there is one characteristic of the uprooting experience that appears to be shared by all immigrant children irrespective of nationality, economic status, family stability or any other factor, it is the silent stage when the children experience the school culture as different from their own and when their inability to communicate with their peers is cause by a language or cultural difference.”
- Christina Igoa in The Inner World of the Immigrant Child

The Inner World of the Immigrant Child by Christina Igoa tells the story of one teacher's journey to understand the inner workings of immigrant children, and to create an educational environment which is responsive to these students' needs. Christina Igoa, a second language/bilingual educator, helps the reader understand that academic achievement can not be divorced from the child’s context. The book captures the voices and artwork of many immigrant children, and portrays the immigrant experience of uprooting, culture shock, and adjustment to a new world. The author chronicles cultural, academic, and psychological interventions that facilitated learning as her immigrant students made the transition to a new language and culture.

This book is especially useful because it deals with multicultural and bilingual education, foundations of education, and literacy curriculum and instruction. It is highly relevant to anyone who works in today's school environment. Igoa speaks from experience as she lays out the stories of her students, “Immigrant children long to blend in… emotions, fears hold them back…[so] an immigrant child adopts the mechanism of silence. In that silence they develop listening skills… They do not take language for granted… and experience the sheer joy of breaking that silence.”

Igoa defines “culture shock” to be anxiety from losing all familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. “Every culture has subtle signs by which people evaluate what they say and do. Losing these cues produces strain, uneasiness, and even emotional maladjustment if the person is received badly, because there is no longer a familiar foundation on which to stand.” Her statement was right on target in describing my experience of relocating to Hyderabad, India at the end of tenth grade in 1981 from the northeastern US where I had spent all my school years.

Igoa speaks prophetically, by saying that “one should stay connected to one’s own culture and also learn the cues of the new culture – a ‘both/and’ experience, not ‘or.’” This approach is critical to having a world view that is more accepting, moving beyond tolerance, and remembering that we all live together on one planet.

Igoa defines the uprooting stages where a child feels: 1) mixed emotions; 2) excitement/fear in adventure of new journey; 3) curiosity; 4) culture shock – depression and confusion; and 5) a need to assimilate/acculturate into the mainstream. She speaks to the cultural gap between the two cultures of the children she teaches, who often could not find support at home, and were left with a feeling of personal inadequacy. There are many differences in the experiences of immigrant children, but she shares many stories and reconnects with them in closure. She qualifies the students into three groups – those whose inner world is unintegrated, those whose inner world is culturally split and those who have an integrated inner world. Igoa explains that the students whose world is culturally split often close off their cultural selves and reawaken to them later – and begin a process of “regaining what had been lost… like a wound wanting to heal.” One point to be remembered is that a child maybe outwardly successful, but inwardly secure. Whatever the category, these children are all in need of support and counseling from the community in which they live and learn, as they struggle to find a balance and find a place at the table. Read more Entry>>

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

What I am learning as a Hindu Seminarian - part 3 - Revelations

Reading James Evans Jr.'s We Have Been Believers: an African-American Systematic Theology, which starts with the poem of the same name by Margaret Walker, I recalled the words of my friend Woody Adams who spoke about the connections between those of us who are brown and those who are black. One can take this partial passage from Evans and replace the black reference with one to the Hindu immigrant: Black religion was shaped in the midst of a profound cultural conflict between the inherited cosmology, value systems, and philosophical constructs that African slaves brought with them to the New World, and the protean culture of the colonies..." In Evans' evaluation of classical Protestant theologian Joseph Washington's analysis of black religion, he refers to "the interdependence of faith and practice in black religion" - I could again replace "black" with "Hindu" or probably any color or faith that makes up the rainbow of humanity. And below is my contextual reading assignment on revelation where I find more common ground...

A Black Theology of Liberation

by James. H. Cone

Chapter 3: The Meaning of Revelation

According to Cone, every community must ask “How do we know that our claims about God are valid?” In introducing the concept of revelation, he says that in our world with so many sharply divergent perspectives, it is not possible to know what constitutes superiority. He warns that the gospel offers no assurance of winning – and questions what winning really means. He maintains that the only real question for Christians is whether their actions are in harmony with their knowledge of God, and that one can know that their assertions of God are valid only because of revelation.

Quoting Tillich, Cone says “every epistemological assertion is implicitly ontological.” He chronicles the interpretations of revelation from the 20th century to African-American theological perspectives. He begins with the Protestant Christianity, the Barthian school and the radical reinterpretation of the idea of revelation. According to Barth, there is a “wholly other God descending on humankind,” and revelation is disclosure of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Prior to this, Schleiermacher, one of the most influential religious thinkers of the 19th century, said that theology was “an explication of the meaning of communal self-consciousness.” Cone points out that European theology of revelation didn’t help the American context, and that white theology ignores liberation. He says that revelation must mean more – where revelation is God’s self-disclosure in the context of liberation, a radical encounter with structures of power.

Considering the Bible, Cone points out that revelation is inseparable from history and faith, and that the God of the Bible makes divine will known through participation in human history. Revelation is inseparable from those with faith to perceive it. Cone differentiates between general and special revelation, and says that a theologian’s task is to point to God’s revelation in current events. According to black theology, to say that all persons know God means human oppression is contradictory to the idea of the holy. Barth defined the idea of special revelation, taking a stand against natural theology – Jesus is the revelation of God, and through Christ – but then his stand changed as the times changed: after WWII, Barth wrote [of the] Humanity of God. Black theology offers a different perspective on revelation: through Christ, blacks are able to perceive the nature of black being and destroy forces of non-being (white racism).

Cone then brings in Bultman’s form-critical school and his view of New Testament revelation, which made Jesus relevant for today, abandoning all attempts to find the historical Jesus. Revelation is “an occurrence that puts me in a new situation as a self,” where we know our authenticity and our limitations. Revelation is, to Bultman who was influenced by existentialism and the work of philosopher Martin Heidegger, a “personal address.” Again, Cone’s difficulty with this is that it fails to express the idea of liberation. He quotes Tillich, “the courage to be… is the key to self-understanding.” Revelation in black theology is both “my own individual self-understanding and self understanding of community which sees God at work in history… the courage to be black in spite of racists.”

I found harmony with this perspective on revelation from James Cone not only within my own belief and understanding of revelation but also in what Evans has to say in We Have Been Believers: that revelation is dynamic and multidimensional. Evans, of course, speaks to the biblical witness, and says that the revelation – where God has revealed Godself to the black community - is inseparable from the historic struggle of black people for liberation. Evans speaks to the call of Moses (Exod. 3:1-17) and the missiological declaration of Jesus (Luke 4:16-30) – the covenantal relationship between God and Israel, and the existential situation of the enslavement of Israel.

My own belief of revelation may not be found in Evans’ scriptural basis, but I fully agree with his statement that “God’s revelation is also contingent, partial, and incomplete… as human history is yet unfolding.” Revelation is not what I possess, but what possesses me, and there is dynamism in the revelatory moment. I also found agreement with Cone, when he states that the only real question is whether [our] actions are in harmony with [our] knowledge of God.

While revelation for me with my Hindu advaita (non-dualistic) perspective is a peeling of layers to Self-Realization, Evans lays out the differences in my understanding of revelation from that of African Americans. Evans states that “African-American Christians have consistently resisted the tendency to divorce the fact of God’s revelation from the identity and social location of those to whom it is given.” God’s revelation is a personal encounter, often with a date and time stamp. However, I couldn’t completely reconcile what I read about black theology of revelation and liberation from either Evans or Cone, to my experience of it in class. Some of my classmates in the group project on Revelation felt that revelation is an intervention, and in Marcia Bonds’ words, “Any revelation... comes from outside of oneself.” Revelation as multidimensional and dynamic includes my understanding of revelation as immanent and internal, unlike this viewpoint. Possibly this comes from a dualistic perception of God, but as Evans says, “God’s revelation is multidimensional because it is essentially a personal encounter.” So while we may not agree on what we perceive as revelation, black theology, like Hindu theology, accounts for all our views to be valid.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

What I am learning as a Hindu Seminarian - part 2

I just read some of the work of Prema Kurien, a professor at Syracuse University, and specifically, some excerpts from "A Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American Hinduism 2007." The unresolved tensions between Christians and Hindus, and the lack of resolution of between dialogue and evangelization, as I chronicle below, echoes in Kurien's perception and presentation of Hindu Americans and her identification of them as non-progessive. I sincerely wish that she came from a better place. It is easy to point a finger, or to interpret and present something in a negative light. I often wonder who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed, and why the other is so often villified. It is easy to tear something or someone down, but much harder to be a builder - I want to be in the latter category so I won't say any more about Prof. Kurien's writing. As my Systematic Theology teacher, Anneliese Sinnott, has said, it all depends on the lens with which we see things. Thank goodness that my lens allows me to envision Siva's dance of creation choreographed referencing the biblical story of creation - I love Sudha Aunty (www.hindutemplerhythms.com) and Tandav!

The Emergent Gospel: Theology from the Underside of History
Edited by Sergio Torres & Virginia Fabella, M.M.

Chapter 12: The Indian Universe of a New Theology by D.S. Amalorpavadass (India)

The author, Director of the National Biblical Catechitical & Liturgical Centre of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India in Bangalore, examines the two main realities and sources of theology in India, as part of this report from the Ecumencial Dialogue of Third World Theologians, held in Tanzania in 1976. He says that India is “the cradle of great religions that are ancient, alive and have a long following,” pointing out also that the nation is in the process of liberation and development, to create a just and human society and a well-integrated nation. He attempts to articulate how the church must fulfill its prophetic mission given this background. He quotes mainly from the Declaration of the 1971 Nagpur Theological Conference, which he finds “comprehensive and creative,” saying that the “religions of the world and realities of the temporal order must be viewed as including in God’s universal saving plan,” and that confrontation must yield to dialogue. According both to Nostra Aetate and the DNC, other religions also reflect a ray of the Truth, and recognize them as paths to salvation, but this recognition “does not in any way lessen the urgency of the Christian mission.” Believing that missionary activity remains necessary, he takes up the question whether the church’s mission in India could be of dialogue and/or evangelization, since the Nagpur Declaration did not fully settle the relationship between them. Since “genuine dialogue requires a spirit of openness and humility, and a willingness to learn and receive from one another,” he points out that it is “through common searching and sharing that we come closer to the truth.” Laying out the aspects of Indian reality – the presence of ancient and living religions, and the process of development and liberation – he points out that the division in the world is between the oppressors and the oppressed. The main points he reviews are: 1) the Indian scene, where there is a daily increase in poverty and suffering; 2) the various approaches (and confusion) in the minds of the Christian leadership with regard to the relationship between evangelization and development; 3) the view of Christ as the liberator in the India of the seventies; 4) the church as the living sign of Christ’s liberation for today – where evangelization and development “compenetrate each other in one redeeming movement of human progress and salvation”; 5) the notion of [an integral human] development, whence the church must join forces in the struggle for liberation, contributing to humanization and community building; 6) a call for political action, so that one can hope to bring about change in the economic system; and 7) the roles of ministry and the laity – where the priest should keep to the spiritual, and laity should should be involved in development.

Finally, the author concludes that no genuine commitment to development and liberation is valid until there is conscientization, a method and strategy of liberation in the context of a society divided into oppressors and oppressed. The goal of evangelization is to “unleash the power that is in the oppressed masses to change their situation and to convert the oppressors themselves by a process of love.” In this context, evangelization is meaningful and necessary, as long as it calls for a correct understanding of the religious traditions of humankind, such as the “age-old spiritual quest for moksha and mukti, a process of self-realization through the discovery in the depth of one’s being to identification of one’s self with the self of the universe.”

I began to read this chapter with trepidation, wondering how a Catholic Bishop from India would treat evangelization in the framework of liberation and development. My context is based on churches today in the US, in my own neighborhood which go to India to “graciously save people out of Hinduism,” (Kensington Community Church: http://www.kensingtonchurch.org/global/missiontripsdetail.php?id=9). My knowledge of Christian evangelization is colored by acquaintance with missionaries who have little understanding of the culture and spirituality that are inherent in the region. The theological presentation of the issues by the author filled my heart with hope that there are people who understand that the spreading of God’s love must be done consider the true liberation of the oppressed and suffering masses. I fully understood and appreciated how he explained evangelization as the way to “unleash the power that is in the oppressed masses to change their situation and to convert the oppressors themselves by a process of love” and the respect he holds for the ancient religions of the region. However, I didn’t feel that this fully addressed how the relationship between dialogue and evangelization is “and/or” and especially didn’t feel that the message has reached the churches in India, where the reality is that the tensions and violence between the Hindu and Christian communities have increased from what they were decades earlier, and the gap between the oppressors and oppressed seems even worse. Read more Entry>>

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What I am learning as a Hindu Seminarian - part 1

I have read the wonderful work of the theologian Raimon Panikkar, and never knew his background until I took a course on God and Humanity at Ecumenical Theological Seminary. The assignment began as something I had to do, because of my discomfort with current Hindu-Christian relations in India, and the context of proselytizing that seems to be part of the landscape here in my own neighborhood. The chapter I discuss below is from a book published decades ago, before the Hindu-Christian clashes of recent times colored my world dark, and it makes for an illuminating read.

The Emergent Gospel: Theology from the Underside of History

Edited by Sergio Torres & Virginia Fabella, M.M.

Chapter 13: Development of Christian Theology in India by J.R. Chandran (India)

The author, the Principal of United Theological College in Bangalore, examines reformation theology in India, as part of this report from the Ecumencial Dialogue of Third World Theologians, held in Tanzania in 1976, with a view to “understanding how…Christian theology can serve the renewal of the church for its mission.” He believes that theology must interpret the Gospel to both deepen understanding of the faith and to communicate the faith in a way that calls for response, and says there is no “perennial theology.” In discussing the contribution of missionary theologians, he says that many Western missionaries realized that they needed to change the totally negative approach to other faiths and cultures with which they had started.

The historical review of theologians starts with the early 17th century Roman Catholic Jesuit Robert de Nobili, who said that “it was unjust to require people to change their national customs, to give up caste and other forms of social and cultural life,” and even sought to replace Latin with Sanskrit (the language of the Hindu scriptures), but whose approach was focused on getting the natives to accept the external forms of Christianity. Bartholomeus Ziegenbalg, the first Protestant missionary who arrived in India in 1706, who changed his attitude of prejudice after studying Hindu scriptures, and wrote, “I do not reject everything they teach, rather rejoice,” that there was a light in their teachings also. He even said that they put to shame many Christians “by their upright life.” However A.H. Francke (1663-1727) said “The missionaries were sent out to exterminate heathenism in India, not to spread heathen nonsense all over Europe,” echoing the sentiments of the general population. Rethinking of this sentiment came with the discovery and interpretation of the Hindu, Buddhist and other scriptures by great Orientalists like Max Miller, Paul Deussen, Berridale Keith and others.

Then, the article turns to Indian theologians, both those within and without the church. The theological doctrines of two followers of the Brahmo Samaj movement, which stood for a radical reform of the Hindu religion and society, Ram Mohan Roy and Keshab Chandra Sen, are presented first. Others like Swami Vivekananda and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan responded to Christ from the context of their advaita Vedanta theology, interpreted Jesus as one form of the universal reality. The author states that Mahatma Gandhi “approached the person of Jesus Christ from the ethic of love” which he found to parallel the Hindu concept of ahimsa, and that Gandhi believed all religions had love as their common goal. The first Indian Christian theologian mentioned – who tried to reformulate theology for an Indian context – is Brahmabandhav Upadhyaya (1861-1907), who combined the nationalist hopes of his times with a commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ, in a “manner indigenous to India.” He felt the Vedas should be recognized as part of the Old Testament for the Indian church, and felt that the Thomistic idea of God as pure being was the same as the Vedantic absolute, the Brahman. Another Indian Christian theologian, AJ Appasamy, respected the Bhakti [faith/devotion] tradition, and wrote Christianity as Bhakti Marga, particularly as the union of the human and divine in Christ. Appasamy reflected on visishtadvaita, (qualified non-dualism) where Brahmabandhav’s frame of understanding came from Shankara’s advaita philosophy. P Chenchiah (1886-1959) felt that loyalty to Christ did “not involve the surrender of a reverential attitude towards the Hindu heritage,” and wanted to free Indian Christian doctrine from Greek philosophical language and western categorization and thought.

In the next section, the author issues a call to dialogue, saying that displacement of indigenous faiths by Christianity has proved inadequate and superficial, and that there should be a realization that there is a presence of reality in other faiths. He speaks of PD Devanandam, who was influenced by Barth and part of the Rethinking Group, which gave importance to understanding contemporary religious and cultural movements and those of other faiths. Another great theologian profiled is Raimundo Panikkar (1918-), who was born of a Hindu father and Catholic mother, understands Hindusim from within and says that Christ is already present in Hinduism, although not known as Christ. His focus is on “common ground of the interiority of the religious experience.” Finally, in discussing the theology of liberation and humanization, MM Thomas (1916-) whose role in the ecumenical movement shaped his focus on the gospel as a tool for justice and liberation. Thomas spoke to three aspects of dialogue: 1) studying the contribution of each faith to man and society; 2) seeking to understand the central theological issues in each faith; and 3) the dialogue “in the cave of the heart” of which Abhishiktananda [the French Benedictine monk who served as a bridge to Hindu and Christian theology]. Thomas focused on the first, where Hindus and Christians could come together in the context of modernity and secularism, and take action for the good of the nation as a whole. In conclusion, the survey reiterates that there is no pattern or model for Indian Christian theology, and that it is not important to concentrate only on doctrinal formulation. It is important to take “a stand for righteousness, peace and justice in human affairs” that would not lead to polarization, and not create an abstract theology. It is when the process of doing – grappling with the suffering of the oppressed and the totality of the Indian religious, social and cultural situation – becomes the real basis of Indian Christian theology, that it will become part of universal Christian theology.

When I began to read this chapter, I was absolutely floored as I read about so many theologians to whom I could relate. I felt a sense of enlightenment at how many other people have preceded me in the understanding of the issues central to being an Indian American, since I had heard mostly of the work of Ram Mohan Roy and Swami Vivekananda and not of many of the others. Although I had read Raimundo Panikkar’s and Abhishiktananda’s work, I didn’t know how critical they are to the development of Indian Christian theology. However, knowing the reality of human nature and the contemporary situation in India, I felt that there is still a long way to go – that people are still grappling with the suffering of the oppressed and the totality of the Indian religious, social and cultural situation, and am glad that my journey has led me to ETS.

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