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

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Losing Libraries, Banning Books... Abandoning Saraswathi

An ad campaign was used to help Save the Troy Public Library in the summer of 2011 – one that was reminiscent of some horror stories in history books. The idea of holding a book burning party when the millage required to keep the library open failed to pass did not appeal to people. There were more votes the third time around in the battle to keep our library funded – and the residents of Troy, MI still have a (partially-funded, partially-open) library. Not far from Troy, another book-related controversy was reported on NPR in January 2012 in the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools, a middle-class school district in Western Wayne County. Canton and Troy, located in nearby Oakland County are similar for their ethnic mix – especially in their public schools: we have many people of Indian origin and our school districts reflect the high academic achievement of many immigrant children. While these are seemingly disconnected – book-burning and book-banning – I found a common thread: few from the Hindu community are actively engaged in protecting Saraswathi.

The Indian community here in southeastern Michigan is largely Hindu. The Hindu community regards the Divine as both formless (Nirguna) and beautifully-formed (Saguna). Saraswathi is a deity, and symbolic of the beauty found in knowledge, learning and the arts. She is depicted wearing a white sari, holding the veena, a stringed instrument, and in one of her four hands is a book. While most non-Hindus may find the four arms curious (or downright strange), I would not have complained – but they are symbolic of different things, such as the four aspects of the human personality (mind, intellect, vigilance, and ego), or the four Vedas (the Hindu scriptures). The book, likewise, is representative of multiple things – Saraswathi’s mastery of the Vedas, the scriptures themselves, or literature particularly in the form of prose. A book can also represent Saraswathi herself, and thus my children – like many other Hindu American kids – have been taught never to step on, kick or move a book with their foot. They touch it in reverence if they do something accidentally. Books are sacred, as symbols of knowledge and learning – required on the path to realization or moksha – and worthy of one’s protection.

But I am an actively engaged member of the Hindu community - and visibly (and loudly) protested our public library’s closure. For the tiny part I played in its survival, I even made it to the front page of our local Troy Times’s Year in Review issue, megaphone in hand, surrounded by children who would feel the impact of shutting down a community space serving our need for exchange of information, borrowing books and much more. Perhaps it is the interfaith activist in me that brought me to a City Council meeting to quote 20th century Roman Catholic Cardinal Terence Cooke, “The reflections and histories of men and women throughout the world are contained in books.... America's greatness is not only recorded in books, but it is also dependent upon each and every citizen being able to utilize public libraries.” Or perhaps it’s just that I am an American and protest the banning of a book. “Congress Shall Make No Law Respecting an Establishment of Religion, or Prohibiting the Free Exercise Thereof; or Abridging the Freedom of Speech, or of the Press; or the Right of the People Peaceably to Assemble, and To Petition the Government for a Redress of Grievances.” When we stand for freedom, we should also stand for the freedom to hear opposing ideas. America was built on a stage of clashing ideas - the Constitution was hammered out only after different voices were heard. Laws that supported pluralism came into being, and eventually led to my activism, seeking to build a life devoted to its protection.

From the Bible, “In the beginning there was God and... the word was God.” From the Vedas, “Let noble thoughts come from all directions.” Across faith traditions, we value not only scripture but also the written word. Keeping faith means supporting public libraries, and objecting to book bans. Let us not abandon the wisdom and knowledge of Saraswathi.

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