As I watched the vice presidential debate last week I saw how comfortable we, as a nation, are about religion as part of the political and personal life. Both candidates discussed the impact of their faith in their life. How it shapes their policies. It was clear their faith identities played a significant role in the minds of the voters.
And again, today, faith and politics will matter in the presidential debate. In this election, women's issues matter. Coincidentally, today, the Hindu American community will begin the nine-day celebration of navaratri. We will honor the strength of the woman through ShaktiSeva exemplified by Major Arti Puri, a Hindu American Air Force officer: "Shakti" in the trenches.
I find our traditions (yoga, meditation) and values (non-violence) have played a major role in shaping America as Phil Goldberg has so aptly highlighted in "American Veda."
And the people of eastern tradition and those inspired, such as yogavotes.org and sevavotes.org, are working hard to bring it to the forefront. And we should as our acceptance has increased, especially in the last FOUR years.
More than any other administration, President Obama has included not only the Hindu community and the entire Dharma community but also the yoga community. The inclusion started with the President's inaugural speech, "For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers."
This inclusion continued through the appointments. The Advisory Councils and Commissions had Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu and Jain voices. Through the three conferences we at HASC (Hindu American Seva Charities) co-hosted with the White House, at the Democratic National Convention, the Hindu, Dharma and Yoga community got an opportunity to see how the seva and dharma values impact America positively through yoga, meditation, energy, education, environment and so much more.
Recently, Odyssey Networks, a leading interfaith media organization, conducted a short interview at the DNC that highlighted our effort to bring the Hindu faith and dharma values to the forefront -- in the public arena -- with the White House.
My heritage is of modern, post-independent India, which has taught its people, particularly the Hindus, to be secular, especially in the public and political arena. "Keep religion out of politics" is the common mantra.
As immigrants, we brought that thinking to America. Our collective political life is largely developed through our secular identities. As we have imbibed the American ways we have adapted, yet we have seen most Dharmic places of worship uncomfortable bringing any political presence, be it voter registration or meeting the candidates or addressing politically charged social justice issues.
In April 2009, I became part of the President's Inaugural Advisory Council on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and saw closely the role faith, service and politics play in our nation. Often I have been asked, why are you involved in religion and politics; "Why the emphasis on seva, why SevaVotes? After all, Seva (service) is a humanitarian value, beyond religion. Does social advocacy need a religious connection, a Hindu identity?"
I believe we can and must be fully engaged in the political process and reshape our political faith expression through our faith values, an American political reality. Then Seva is an important vehicle through which to develop our public engagement platform and express our dharma values. Seva is a bridge builder across all denominations.
Acceptance of our traditions and values is not new to this country. Starting with Emerson, Walt Whitman, Thoreau, Joseph Campbell and now the yoga community, America has shown willingness to practice our dharma values in so many fronts. The first Hindu monk to come to America, Swami Vivekananda, to address the Parliament of World Religions, is attributed to have influenced the notion of "spiritual, but not religious" into the America consciousness. So what about acceptance of the people of Dharma values, whose migration started with the changes in the immigration quotas, following the Civil Rights Movement, influenced by dharma values of Mahatma Gandhi?
We saw the many ways in which the Dharma community is connecting with America, has given and has much to give. But, we not have adequate infrastructures as the established faiths have to be fully engaged. Our communities need to build this capacity in collaboration with all our neighbors at the local, state and national levels.
We see seva, community service, the social justice voice of compassion finding a common ground not only with the Dharma community but with America. I believe seva an integral part of our sadhana, of our spiritual practice is an important compassionate voice bringing awareness of our dharma values into the political public arena.
We start our seva with a namaste, where we recognize there is a Divine spark within each of us and salute the divinity within. Seva transforms our inner self. And externally, we have the potential to express the spiritual transformation through ethics and values in our civic life, locally, nationally and even in the presidential campaign.
October is Domestic Violence and Breast Cancer awareness month, and for us at HASC, it is ShaktiSeva month. As we celebrate Navaratri, honor the Shakti during these nine days let us not take women's rights for granted. Let us give voice to them in this election.
I often wonder, what if we all, those of eastern tradition and those inspired by it -- like the YogaVotes and SevaVotes community -- infused politics with the values, the dharma values that matter to all of us, help bring the practices of inclusivity, pluralism, valuing the divinity within all beings, compassionate action, non-violence, collaboration and unity to our country's highly partisan politics?