Around the world, this week, Hindus celebrated Maha Shivaratri. Shiva symbolizes removal of negativity of life (Shiva in reverse is visha which means poison). The ashes of Shiva imply that in the end all differences end, they burn and we become equal. Tremendous energy (shakti) is required to burn the negative tendencies to become yogically equanimous, "Shiva."
This festival observes the legend that Shiva drank poison (food insecurity, poverty, bullying, violence, etc) churned by the ocean to save the world from its poisonous effects. In today's parlance, we interpret this allegorical metaphor as community service (seva) to the world; a way to remove social ills and address social justice issues with great strength (shakti). Utsavseva -- Festivals of Service - in action!
Community Transformation in Wichita. Kansas
Maha Shivratri is transformative constructive destruction in the cycle of life. As we celebrated the transformative principles of Maha Shivaratri this weekend, I witnessed the coming together of faith and interfaith social cohesion in one of the many communities in which Hindu American Seva Charities have been active: Wichita, Kansas.
For the first time, in the basement of the only Hindu Temple intensive discussions took place between the leaders of Hindu and Dharmic (Eastern) traditions, secular Cultural Association of India, the Indian student organizations, Association of Hindu Students in America (Ahinsa), the interfaith community, the Mayor's office and the Leadership Development educators with the objective to empower this new group of Dharmic Americans to find their voice and work at being a valued part of the civic landscape in Wichita.
Community and Social Justice Challenges addressed through Seva Intervention
Post 9/11, Wichita, like many communities across the country experienced a backlash; against "brown" people, including Hindus. This backlash was especially painful for younger children when bullied in schools. For example, some students were called Osama's children, ridiculed for being vegetarian or for their ways of worship. The Hindu temple in Wichita itself faced challenges with fears of being targeted. The idea of engaging Hindu Americans in community service (working with the poor and homeless) was rejected by some in the mainstream and also by some in the Hindu community for fear of being harmed. The students at Wichita State University and Hindu Student community saw an increase in burglaries. The Hindu community, like many Asian Americans, did not voice their pain but kept it under cover. Nor did they think their voice would be heard. There seemed to be a disconnect between the various stakeholders.
Since its inception in 2009, Hindu American Seva Charities has been working to explicitly bring the social justice voice, the seva voice (connected to selfless service and the Hindu and Dharmic festivals/ traditions) to the forefront. Working in partnership with HandsOn Network and the Corporation for National Community Service, HASC experimented with AmeriCorps VISTAs, to expand civic engagement and develop seva center prototypes across the country. The hope is that these prototypes will act as catalysts to transform and empower the communities to address their own needs and serve the community at large. Seva will serve as an intervention tool to break down cultural barriers, strengthen the Hindu American identity and showcase the best of our Dharmic traditions as solution providers (such as yoga, Ayurveda et al).
Expanded faith-based capacity to serve by Energizing Dharmic Seva: Impacting Change in America and Abroadhttp://www.hinduamericanseva.org/events/seva-conference was the core strategic principle at HASC's conference co-hosted at the White House in summer 2011. The upcoming White House conference in 2012 will build upon the transformative change and social innovation underway.
Building Faith and Interfaith Bridges With Key Stakeholders
For over a year and a half, Hindu American Seva Charities worked with many stakeholders in Wichita to develop the capacity for Hindu Americans to serve and connect by building bridges. The effort was led initially by our dynamic AmeriCorps VISTA Rema Venkatasubban, with Lakshmi Ravi and Soumya Bhatt and many student, faith and interfaith volunteers.
For example, in partnership with Global Faith in Action, HASC organized new volunteer groups, the wives of outsourced employees whose visas do not allow them to work, cooked and served Indian vegetarian food to the homeless at the Interfaith Inn. Student groups organized annadaanam (serving food to the homeless) and for some it was their first interaction with the homeless. The Bal Vihar children (aged 4 to 13) made festive cards for those serving in the military. Students have also begun to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity.
This weekend the silence was publicly broken with HASC intervention. The Wichita team organized a key stakeholder "Townhall meeting". I explained HASC's seva journey and community social responsibility strategy. Discussions focused on a myriad of issues facing the community. We found the many stakeholders energized and ready to work together to be part of the pluralistic mosaic which is America. Today, the small team of volunteers has expanded exponentially.
The many stakeholders have understood how seva is a strategic tool in paving the way for creating a more integrated and cohesive community.
HASC is working with the Kansas Leadership Center to bring civic and leadership education to the Hindu and Dharmic stakeholders. Now, the Mayor's office in Wichita has pledged to work with the community. We anticipate the town will commemorate and recognize the most important religious holidays such as Diwali for the people of eastern faiths. In these two days we saw the best of America, its community spirit and interfaith collaboration, coming to the forefront. We hope the collaborative leadership of the diverse community leaders will strengthen the community and promote pluralism through interfaith service.
Shiva a Transformative Principle for Social Justice and Change
In our tradition, Shiva as Dakshinamurty is a guru (teacher) of all knowledge (meditation, yoga music, wisdom, explaining scriptures/shastras), personifying ultimate awareness, understanding and knowledge. Dakshina in Sanskrit is south, direction of death, hence of change; murti is the image. On this day, through fasting a seeker attempts to remove the negative "poison" within and through meditative contemplation be immersed in the sacredness of the event.
By embracing the principles of transformation this UtsavSeva, we will remedy the poison of many kinds (poverty, discrimination, alienation) as we all work together to strengthen our communities and build our pluralistic nation of the 21st century.