I recently saw that the latest issue of the Vishwa Hindu had a copy of my article. So why would the Vishwa Hindu have my article? Because I met many people from VHP-America at the Hindu Mandir Executive Conference, where I was a panelist on interfaith...
Reflections on HMEC 2008
I am just recovering from the experience of attending the Third Annual Hindu Mandir Executive Conference. This 48-hour event was held in Romulus, Michigan, and enabled representatives from about 115 mandirs (temples) around the USA and Canada, along with swamijis and other devotees and practitioners of Sanatana Dharma to meet, exchange ideas and create synergy.
You may wonder why I was there, since I am no Temple Executive. I was asked to moderate a session on why temples should be involved in interfaith activity. I was part of a panel of four, and we each presented our story of interfaith involvement and explained the need for dialogue within our respective regions with those of other faiths.
I spoke about the Outreach Committee of the Bharatiya Temple: why and how we got started, and the different things we do to engage ourselves in the wider community. I talked about our mission, (The Outreach Committee will take the lead to represent the Bharatiya Temple in interfaith and intra-faith activities in the Metro-Detroit area. The committee will accomplish this by working with many different wisdom traditions, groups, specific audiences or the general public) and our goals. I talked about our participation in area organizations, such as the Macomb County Interfaith Volunteer Caregivers, the Interfaith Alliance for Health and Hope and Michigan Roundtable's Interfaith Partners Board, as well as our annual representation in Habitat for Humanity, the annual metropolitan-wide services for the World Sabbath for Religious Reconciliation, National Day of Prayer, International Day of Peace and Thanksgiving. The Q & A part of the session got a touch heated, since someone was concerned about the symbols used and the statement Ekam sat vipraha bahudha vadanti. It translates to "Truth is one, but the wise call it by many names" but someone thought the panelists were saying all religions are the same. We were even asked why we should be involved in dialogue with those of other faiths, when at times, these other faiths don't respect ours, and their philosophy may be that theirs is the only way to salvation. Each of us clarified our position, but I was intrigued by the idea from Ravi Joshi of Toledo, who suggested that we should take the person and sort of separate him from his theology, so that we can enter into a dialogue, and then, after establishing a friendship, we can enter into a discussion about the differences in theology.
I made many new friends, including Simi and Hina, who are next generation Hindus, and like me are working for a balance in their lives between the East and West. Hina told me the story of her college roommate, an evangelical Christian, who decided that since she loved her like a sister, wanted to "save her." She also refered to me as part of the Lost Generation – those of us who grew up in America in the early '70s when there was no significant Indian community and temples were yet to be established. Simi told me of the experiences she had, meeting Swami Dayanand Saraswati when she was thirteen, and later, how she spent time in India to learn classical music and stayed in an ashram. I found a spiritual advisor in Pandit Ramadheen Ramsamooj, the bearded leader of the Saraswati Mandiram community, which has been evicted from their premises in Epping, NH, because of predatory and illegal lending practices. Panditji came from Trinidad, and I asked him how Hindus there have maintained the tradition for over five generations. His answer – that the people who came to the Caribbean in the mid-1800s were simple village people who kept the tradition alive through storytelling from the Ramayana, and whose memories enabled them to paint a pleasant picture and even extol the glories of Bharat. A common thread I heard from Panditji and Hina was the importance of language to the cultural context.
I learned of the seva provided by Barsana Dham in Texas to the people who suffered displacement because of Hurricane Ike, and the gratitude of the Greater Houston area Hindu community expressed in material ways with the presentation of a $5,000 check to Swamini Jnaneswari Devi of Barsana Dham. I learned of the work across the country to correct the information about our faith tradition in textbooks and other materials used by educational institutions. I spoke with Sant Gupta of the greater Washington DC area; while learning of their efforts to ensure that Hinduism is not reduced to "karma, caste and cows" (as reported by the Washington Post in April 2005), exchanged my initiatives related to teaching of sacred music in Troy Schools. I learned about the book "Invading the Sacred," which contains concerns raised about the academic study of Hinduism in the United States. I also became concerned that in this process of trying to present a unified view of Hinduism to outsiders (and sometimes even to ourselves), we may end up losing the very richness of Sanatana Dharma, which contains multitudes, where every individual has his or her own path to the eternal Truth. As Abhaya Asthana, one of the organizers said, it is not what Mark Twain said (that there are two million gods in India), nor is it that there is One God, it is simply that there IS God.
The main feeling I came away from HMEC with was that we are indeed ONE family, as expressed in Vasudaiva Kutumbakam. I felt proud to be connected to the host family – Bharatiya Temple of Metropolitan Detroit, and appreciated the efforts of everyone from metro-Detroit who worked so hard to make it happen. And I realized that, like any family, we have contrasting ideas and common ground, leading to friction and friendship. The latter will deepen with time, as we seek to understand one another and work together, and especially continue to participate in and support such gatherings as the Annual Hindu Mandir Executive Conference.
So, I sent my friends from HMEC an article about sacred music in public schools, which got into a recent issue of Vishwa Hindu. I am pleased that it will be read by many parents and young people around the country, who can take the experiences I have had and the ideas I present and put them into use in their own context. One of these days, maybe I will reflect on that!