Is religion seen as an ancient textbook or can it be a progressive way of life? And what can Hindu mandirs do about it?
It was an afternoon that grew to be an evening of powerful introductions, intellectual discussions, and thought-provoking questions. This past Sunday, January 15th, Sadhana “A Coalition of Progressive Hindus”, formed in October of 2011, launched its first event in the decorated walls of the Shri Trimurti Bhavan mandir located at 101-18 97th Avenue in Ozone Park, Queens.
Sadhana was founded by Sunita Viswanath the co-founder of Women for Afghan Women, a grassroots organization supporting women in Afghanistan, along with several other members including two members of the Indo-Caribbean Hindu community, Rohan Narine and Aminta Kilawan.
For Sadhana, the mission statement on Sadhana.org shows the organization’s focus on social values and social justices worldwide on a progressive Hindu platform with opposite ideas from right-wing Hindu nationalist groups like RSS. But deciding what exactly is a progressive Hindu was left up to the people, starting with the Indo-Caribbean Hindu community.
The town hall meeting, advertised as “What is a Progressive Hindu?” on Facebook and email threads, featured three panelists from the Sadhana coalition, the author of Peace Inc. Vijay Balakrishnan, Queens Public Television (QPTV) television producer Nivedita Chandrappa, and first generation Indo-Caribbean law student Aminta Kilawan. Moderated by Rohan Narine, the panel (hosting an engaged audience of about twenty members) addressed the meaning of progress and issued a question, “What does being Hindu mean to you?”
When describing what being a Hindu meant to her, panelist Aminta Kilawan noted progress is action and that she often felt connected to Hinduism as a college student through non-profit organizations and serving other people through good works. She stated, “A lot of social movements clearly show progress is action.” Her idea was to promote Hinduism as not just a religion but a way of life that encourages faith in action and she interprets this action as works that promote social justice.
Panelist Vijay Balakrishnan stated an aspect of progress being,” Freedom to create an open space, inclusive of people of different orientations, lifestyles, sexual preferences, and marital statuses.” One member of the audience, Rohan Sooklall, also a leader of a new organization called SANGAM, was encouraged about the idea of equality and liberty for all sexual orientations. He stated, “It’s very good to hear this in the temples because it does exist in our society and our community. Many people say this is not Hindu or Indian culture and this is something alien. But it is good to hear this is something you are talking about.”
Nivedita Chandrappa stated her idea:
Using temples to discuss is progress. Progress to me is to throw open temples to people. Why do we have temples? Not just for worship
In her experience of implementing grassroots work for her non-profit Wishwas, temples generally have not been open to programs for women’s issues. Chandrappa stated, temples are especially important for Hindus who spend a large part of their lives there. For many immigrants, even those undocumented, temples are often safe spaces to congregate. According to Chandrappa, having temples be open to female social issues would therefore create progress.
However, it was made clear that the Indo-Caribbean Hindu community in particular do have some resources for women. Pandit Ganesh Ramsahai of Shri Trimurti Bhavan stated at Shri Surya Narayan Mandir in Jamaica, Queens they hold weekly services of Shakti Sangham which is a safe space for females to gather. Yet the issues of domestic violence and suicide still loomed over the audience as an undeniable subject to be answered.
Having children and the youth be more engaged in Hinduism was also of premiere importance to the discussion. Chitra Singh of the Rajkumari Cultural Center stated, while relating to a personal experience teaching youths, “Instead of talking at them, we must talk to them.” Sadhana founder Sunita Viswanath noted “We need to make it cool.” The “it” I understood being Hinduism transformed from an “ancient textbook” to a logic that youths would be able to apply in their daily lives.
However, when locating the Indo-Caribbean Hindu community in all of this discussion of promoting social justice, it became clear that not all members of the audience agreed with using Hindu temples as the starting point. A leader of the Federation of Hindu Mandirs, Naidoo Veerapen, stated,
Mandirs should not do social work. Mandirs do not have the resources, support, staff, infrastructure, or setup to help kids who have questions about their sexuality or women who are abused. The state or city government will have funds for that.
He noted Indo-Caribbean Hindus are “Just about 79,000 in NYC. We may look like a lot, but when it comes to comparing other religions and groups we are a tiny group of people. Immigrant survival comes first. Mandirs are just a place to worship regularly.” His statements proved to be controversial as the members of the audience became aroused at the inability of mandirs to help with social justice issues.
Yet the goal of the town hall meeting was to encourage a project for the Indo-Caribbean Hindu community and it soon came to be the alliance building of Indo-Caribbean non-profit organizations with Hindu mandirs so that mandirs may refer their members to community services. With such a large population of the community being part of Hindu temples, various non-profits have had their eye on reeling in these temple members to utilize their services.
In a symbolic point of the discussion, Deputy Director of non-profit Indo-Caribbean Alliance Faudia Baijnauth, proposed to Veerapen, “Are you willing to open up your space [temple] to raise money for these organizations?” In an effort to be more civic-minded, Veerapen’s answer was in the affirmative as he nodded his head and it became evident that more organizations like Indo-Caribbean Alliance, Jahajee Sisters, Operation Dreamcatchers, and the Rajkumari Cultural Center would hopefully be brought into religious discourse.
Veerapen’s affirmative answer certainly shows a move towards building relationships with local Indo-Caribbean non-profits and Hindu mandirs. It’ll be interesting to see a well-connected Indo-Caribbean community both in its religious and social discourse. But one thing to remember: Progress is always in the eyes of the beholder.