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This week’s Faith Inspires highlights the work of Hindu American Seva Charities (HASC), an organization whose mission is to engage in “seva, interfaith collaboration, pluralism, social justice and sustainable civic engagement to ignite grassroots social change and build healthy communities.” Seva, which means “service” in Sanskrit, is an important aspect of the Dharmic traditions, which include Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.
In 2009, when President Barack Obama issued a “call to serve,” Anju Bhargava, a Hindu American resident of Livingston, NJ, was appointed to the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. HASC is a result of that collaboration, and was designed to strengthen and put a spotlight on civic engagement and community service efforts in the Dharmic community.
Despite the White House’s support and guidance, HASC did not have the easiest start, and their success over the past two years can be attributed as much to creative theological thinking, as to the Dharmic community’s desire to be fully accepted in the American community.
“The Hindu community didn’t have a faith-based infrastructure [to perform community service],” Anju Bhargava, the founder of the HASC told The Huffington Post. Even though many Hindus were engaging in community service through informal means, Hindus did not have access to sustainable community service programs that were faith-based. If the goal was to bring seva to the forefront and make it relevant in the American context, the challenge was that the Hindu-American community was so fragmented because of its varied religious and philosophical beliefs, Bhargava told The Huffington Post.
WATCH: The meaning of seva explained by many world leaders:
Over the past two years, much of Bhargava’s work has revolved around connecting with temples, yoga centers, and Sikh, Buddhist and Jain groups and explaining HASC’s model of seva to them. There was widespread interest and enthusiasm. But what is perhaps HASC’s most innovative concept is the UtsavSeva that connects the celebration of traditional festivals to community service. Each month revolves around a central festival that is connected to a social justice-related theme. For e.g. -- October, when Hindus usually celebrate Shakti or the Divine Feminine on Navratri, is about women's empowerment. “We know how to have a good time [during festivals]. How do we connect to the community? That is the social justice movement,” said Bhargava.
HASC has seen encouraging response in its seva efforts over the past two years. Across college campuses, temples, yoga studios, community centers and ashrams, in the United States, HASC volunteers have promoted interfaith dialogue and service, and have engaged in community service efforts related to health, education, economic development, refugee resettlement, energy and environment, women’s empowerment, and fatherhood among others.
Ultimately, HASC is about connecting Hindu-American culture and community to America. “How can we help you, America?” is a question that motivates much of HASC’s activities, Bhargava said. In the end, she hopes that America will realize that the Hindu-inspired community is working alongside them at the forefront of social justice issues.
The Dharmic community in America is yet to witness a “social gospel” movement, but with HASC’s pathbreaking effort in re-vitalizing seva, are we going to see a shift a consciousness soon?
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Click through the slideshow to see photos of HASC volunteers teaching yoga to children in the community: