My family has a tradition: if we are all in India on New Year's Eve, we go to evening arti at Triveni Ghat in Rishikesh. We purchase tiny boats made of leaves, heaped with flowers, incense and a small earthen lamp. You can hold the whole thing in your cupped hands. We trek down to the water, roll up our pants and wade out into the cold water of the Ganges. Lamps are shielded against the wind and finally lit, prayers are said, and we place our tiny lights onto the water. The current takes them. We stand with our arms around each other and watch our wishes merge into the mass of little bobbing lights. After awhile, you can't tell which one is yours.
On the way back to the car, we always make a donation to the temple.
At nearly every temple in India, you will find an area where people are eating a meal provided by the temple through donations made by pilgrims. Some of the people eating will be pilgrims themselves, but there are always a large number of hungry locals. Feeding the hungry is part of the responsibility of a pilgrim, a temple, and society as a whole. This social awareness and engagement is integral to Hinduism. During a recent pilgrimage to Kalighat temple in Kolkata, one of the priests solicited a donation by asking me: "How many people do you want to feed?"
I am only a visitor to India. I was born in the United States and have lived most of my life here. Being Hindu in a country where, growing up, it was an oddity, meant that my family had to find new ways to express our Hinduness. Putting flowers and lights in the Mississippi on New Year's isn't feasible in Minnesota, since the river is frozen. While I love my country and enjoyed my childhood, I often felt cast adrift, as if my family and I were alone on a bright but tiny boat of Hinduness. It was often isolating, and I sometimes felt like a visitor in my own nation. As I grew older, and the Hindu-American community grew with me, it was exciting every time I identified another Hindu. If that Hindu was a public figure, I was astounded and thrilled. Look! I would think. We're really here!
We really are here. Pew Research recently released a study: Asian-Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths. Rather than restate the findings here, I recommend Khyati Y. Joshi's article which summarizes the high points of the data on Hindu-Americans, and addresses some of the concerns regarding the format of the study. I think the study is a great start. It's hard to overstate the feeling of inclusion one experiences as a minority that is finally noticed by the larger society in a matter-of-fact way.
One question that is not addressed by the Pew study is the myriad forms that religious expression takes in the Hindu-American community. Seva (social and community service) is embedded in and an expression of Hinduism. As Hindu communities become more established in America, seva is rapidly becoming a way that Hindus engage with their community and society as a whole. Seva work is also a keystone in the encounter between our traditional religious heritage and the way our community finds its place in and contribution to American life.
In the same way that Hindu-Americans have had to adapt traditions of worship to accommodate being in a new culture, traditional forms of service also have to be adapted. Our temples don't have hundreds of thousands of pilgrims donating funds to feed the hungry. It can be hard to figure out how to start social service work without traditional support structures in place. Yes, one can volunteer at a secular organization (and many Hindus do just that) but developing structures within the Hindu community to support social service projects have to be envisioned, designed, and built from the ground up. It can seem daunting.
This is the work of Hindu-American Seva Charities (HASC).
Founded by my friend and colleague Anju Bhargava, HASC uses Hindu principles to design and implement social service projects. (You can read about what inspired her here.) This does not mean that we try to convert people to Hinduism, or that we only work only within the Hindu community; we form reciprocal partnerships with other faith, interfaith and social service organizations, and many of our projects are intended to help those in need, regardless of their faith (or lack thereof). Social equity, environmental problems, economic concerns and the work of forming a stable and pluralistic society are issues that cross all boundaries.
As part of this mission, HASC is co-hosting a conference at the White House on August 3: Dharmic American Future: Seva, Innovation and Tradition, with The White House Office of Public Engagement, Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. The second day's activities on August 4 will be held at Georgetown University and co-hosted with Georgetown University's Hindu Student Association and Campus Ministry. The purpose of this conference is to celebrate seva, and introduce the Next Generations Seva Leaders program (NGSL). Each NGSL applicant will design and implement their own service project, with an emphasis on sustainable local action. We will track the projects for one year, and invite them back in 2013 to present their progress and discuss any challenges. Each project on its own may seem small, but combined, they are part of a movement that transforms individuals, communities and our country.
This initiative reaches out to the entire Dharmic (Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain) community. Speakers include Joshua DuBois, Executive Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships; Vineet Chander, Coordinator of Hindu Life at Princeton University; Valarie Kaur, founder of Groundswell Movement; Varun Soni, Dean of Religious Life at University of Southern California; Brenda Girton-Mitchell, Director of Department of Education's Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, representatives from The Bhumi Project, GreenFaith, Ashoka Foundation and many other organizations that focus on improving our world.
Service to our larger communities through projects, dialogue and civic engagement enriches immediate communities and society as a whole. Through HASC's mission, I have found a way to make my Hinduness part of my American life, and to see that my religious heritage inspires innovative solutions for issues and challenges of the society I live in. I feel less isolated. I've realized that the light cast by Hindu-American lamps travels beyond our own small concerns and community, and that we are not adrift, but rather carried by currents of our own time and place, our own country. America needs us as much as we need her.
I still hear the priest asking me: How many people will you feed? I did make a donation that day, but my real work starts now, and here. My contribution is small: I can hold it in my cupped hands. But the currents bring many efforts together, and their combined light will help see us through.