Desh-Videsh Congratulates the HAF 2013 NextGen Essay Contest Winners
Young writers participating in the 2013 NextGen Essay Contest, sponsored by Hindu American Foundation (HAF), were asked how this quote inspired them to be Hindu American advocates. Contestants, in three categories based upon their age — 14-17, 18-22, and 23-27 years — were judged on their creativity, style, and focus by a six person panel consisting of HAF Executive Council members and staff. First and second prize winners were selected in each of the categories and awarded a prized gift check from HAF.
Desh-Videsh congratulates the winners on their thoughtful reflections. The next generation is our future, and these essays are a testament to their awareness and understanding. Over the next two months, we will publish the three first prize-winning essays.
This month, first prize winner in the 14-17 age category Preethi Bhat, a sophomore at Davis Senior High School in Davis, California, reflects on her upbringing. Sandhya Devaraj, winner of the 23-27 age category, was a 2011 HAF Congressional Intern.
A Voice For My Faith
by Preethi Bhat
I have often listened to my parents tell inspiring stories, and one that shed light on my culture happened at Chicago in September, 1893. The Congress at the Parliament of Religions had unceremoniously placed the Bhagavad Gita, the holy book of Hinduism, on a table, and spectators watched as many other religious texts, such as the Bible, Torah, and Quran competed against each other to be on top of the pile. Without giving much thought, everyone proceeded to share spiritual ideas amongst one another. As high noon came, it was Swami Vivekananda’s turn to educate others on civil rights and represent his faith, Hinduism. He had sat quietly watching the debate unfold rather than arguing with the rest. Then, in a simple action to retrieve the Bhagavad Gita from the bottom, he caused all the other books to topple, falling down to the ground. The bottom did not represent the worst, but symbolized the first to be created. Through this unexpected demonstration, Swami Vivekananda showed how Hinduism’s basics are present in all religions; being the crucial foundation on which all the others were brought upon. His ideas of peace and unity have clarified my belief and role that I play in as a Hindu-American.
Although religion inspires hope and brings love to all, it has been misused as an excuse for unnecessary force and brutality. Time and time again, the world has divided into peril due to non-unity. The Crusades for example, when the Christians from Europe came to Jerusalem to drive away Muslims from their holy land, led to a 200-year war which caused bloodshed and fighting among brothers of the same God. Were these killings justified? I don’t believe so, but think religion had been used to mask the true reason for any war, fear and greed. For centuries, we have been taught to share our possessions and greet everyone with open arms. After all, we emerged from Mother Earth and are on our way to fulfill missions. Every person is a small part of the cosmos, somehow interconnected; so dharma is to aid others in their journey and be as hospitable as possible. While other religions preach this good deed; Hindus put it into practice in every aspect of life. Furthermore, the Hindu religion has also helped the people of India withstand harsh rules imposed on them by the British.
On August 15, 1947, India gained its freedom from Britain. Because the Muslim population refused to be a part of a government dominated by Hindus, a partition, Pakistan, was created to satisfy its religious politics. This is a clear example depicting disunity among nations. I understand that all religions want a ‘voice’ in addressing their views using the media, which can lead to losing religion’s key fundamentals and purpose. I feel that under all the hype and debate, all religions at their core are actually guiding us towards the same goal. While advocating this for my belief, Hinduism, it helped me develop universal acceptance and religious democracy. In Hinduism, or in any other religion, there is no encouragement towards violence and warfare; so such extreme nature is a shame to see for many devotees. As Swami Vivekananda said, “Desire, ignorance, and inequality- these are the trinity of bondage.” One can conjecture that these are the real motive of every war, and without banishing these from within, as Hinduism dictates, the human race can never truly make progress accepting each other’s differences and finding harmony with one another. The war separating India and Pakistan acted as a fresh start for India, a new life to rejuvenate the relations and economy.
Swami Vivekananda’s devout love for his country and Hinduism has had a profound impact on me. Studying my faith with passion to understand my heritage; it is now more than ever that I have valued acquiring Hinduism’s morals through my unique opportunity by visiting India every other year. My parents’ commitment to their values has allowed me to experience India’s rich culture, and it is these life lessons that my elders have lovingly given me that I bring back home to the United States of America. Furthermore, Swami Vivekananda said, “It is the same India which has withstood the shocks of centuries, of hundreds of foreign invasions, of hundreds of upheavals of manners and customs. It is the same land, which stands firmer than any rock in the world, with its undying vigor and indestructible life. Its life is of the same nature as the soul, without beginning and without end, immortal; and we are the children of such a country.” The unity and strength of such a pure primordial religion in such a nation makes me truly appreciate being an Indian-descent youth in America. Questionable ideals surround us daily, which further reinforces my decision to remain mindful of the Hindu lessons throughout my life, from my parents, my relatives, and my Hindu community. I strive to remember that even though people throughout the world might have different beliefs, they lead to the same God that we all love, and we are all working towards the same enlightenment with our lives. I hope to share this idea with countless others while applying it to myself as I move forward in my life. In the bhajan “Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram”, there is this line: Ishwar Allah teronam, sabakosanmati de bhagavan. These lines melodiously utter how even though we use different names for God; the same holy one will receive our love and give us all affection.
Swami Vivekananda’s teachings, alongside Hinduism, have been practiced for ages and have continuously led followers toward righteous living and enlightenment. His teachings have stirred compassion in people and have stimulated the mind to discover new hidden values. He served as a leader and voyager into the spiritual world, and his words will continue to guide many towards non-violence and human dignity.
Preethisiri Bhat, 15 yearst old, is a sophomore at Davis Senior High School in Davis, California. She has primarily focused on academics and enjoys visiting India with her family. She is compassionate about animals and loves drawing, painting, and anything craft-related. Her goal is to work in a field where she can help make the world a better place.
Why Sanatana Dharma Found A Place In My Life
by Sandhya Devaraj
I have long struggled with the diametrically opposite feelings religion inspires in me, which Swami Vivekananda aptly captures, feelings of inspiration and revulsion. My greatest challenge in coming to terms with my religious identity was not simply that I am a minority in the Abrahamic west but that my own religion seemed to inspire very little good since the end of the Vedic age. Religion is governed by a code it seems, and successfully partaking in a religious community means you follow it, pray per its injunctions, and uphold the time honored customs that give your community order and purpose. At the depths of my religious existential crisis, I concluded that “religious folk” get their drive and enthusiasm from the thing we Millennials are taught to distrust most: group think and maintaining status quo. Religion, I said, was pure dogma.
Now that I have painted a picture of the hole and emptiness I fell into, let me tell you how I climbed out.
“Nothing makes us so tender as religion:” We are hard wired to survive, and our instincts to survive and thrive drive many of our decisions, making complete compassion a truly utopian concept. But compassion and forgiveness are abundant in families so we know we are capable of it. Extending this nature to outsiders and strangers demands a much broader perspective and a unifying cause. Our spirituality and cannon of literature provide a compelling universal view of “vasudhaiva kutumbakam”, or seeing the world as our family. The continuous abidance of our forefathers to this universal view has been carried forward to this day as Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma, which is more so a way of life than a religion. This way of life, like many others, has awesome power to move people to do unbelievable things, including putting communities and a heritage before individual priorities. We embody this ideal through advocacy, whether on a large organized scale or on a personal one. Those of our sisters and brothers that continue to embrace their heritage in the far corners of the world where lawlessness has given way to terror and forced conversions are worthy of our gratitude. Advocacy is possible only when we really believe in the cause, and this can be fostered by a good understanding of the basic elements of our heritage and spirituality. This understanding perpetuates the continued survival of Sanatana Dharma. We are advocates of our ancient past and for a promising future every time we dispel one small false belief about our traditions or values. And likewise, when we accept our civilization’s flaws and acknowledge areas that need improving, we display humility that makes our tradition great. Thus, by being connected to a larger humanity, accepting all living things as co-inheritors of this tradition, religion encourages us to be invested in others’ wellbeing and be conscious of our impact on the world.Selfless service, noble ideals and the galvanization of a generation- these are all good things that stem from Sanatana Dharma. But simply doing Sandhyavandanam or following Ekadasi is meaningless if we do not understand the benefits of these practices. We must be knowledgeable and articulate when we speak of our spirituality, even among ourpeers, because that is how we instill common values and goals. “No other human motive has deluged the world with blood so much as religion” and this is why understanding the core tenets of our faith is so crucial. Given humanity’s tendency to spill blood over religion, we must understand the very stuff that evokes us to react so emotionally. I have grappled with caste, the impurity of women and the belief that we are pre-destined at birth for the years. And now that the doors of Vedanta are starting to open to me, I see the misconceptions and misinterpretations that led to these erroneous outcomes. It still upsets me that Hindu women today aren’t more prominent stewards of their faith. The female intellectuals Gargi and Maitreyi are as real as Vyasa and Shankaracharya but we, the Hindus of today, are responsible for making them count in the annals of history. We must advocate not only on behalf of those Hindus struggling in Pakistan and Bangladesh now but also on behalf of those brilliant thinkers, many stellar women, who achieved feats worthy of our collective awe.
And this is how Sanatana Dharma and the whole Hindu tradition became relevant and important to me. I saw in it the values I esteem: a sense of duty, service to country, respect for animals and the environment, all without allegiance to a book, man or god. This “Hinduism” as we have decided to call it, is a faith for the 21st century and beyond. It does not believe that only one path leads us to realization or that God is a force to be feared. It strongly enforces the thinking that the world is one family, places the elderly at the forefront of our concern and puts education above all other conquests. And finally, I’ll return to my fear of dogma. There have been great leaders in the Hindu tradition that I love and wish to emulate such as Vivekananda, Ramana Maharishi and Chinmayananda. But these men, just like the scriptures and the Gita, represent a view point. No man, book or god are the sole custodians of our religion though they all point in the direction of truth. We must remember this when we interact with our peers and the world. In myopinion, the most I can do to proliferate Sanatana Dharma is to cherish it and dispel its misconceptions among peers and friends. I will defend it peacefully and study it diligently. Thus, through quiet introspection and the goodwill to defend those in harm’s way, both within and outside my community, my advocacy will embody the simplest ideals of Hinduism.
Sandhya Devaraj, 23, is a May 2012 graduate of the University of Maryland. She is currently serving with AmeriCorp’s National Health Corps in Chicago for a year. She was a 2011 HAF Congressional Intern with Congresswoman Donna Edwards of Maryland.