Thursday, August 11, 2011

Seva conference reflections... of a High Schooler...

Seva  conference reflections... of a High Schooler...
by: Shreekari Tadepalli

As a Hindu teenager in the Midwest, I have seen my share of ignorance, prejudice, and general antipathy towards the Dharmic religions – and a temple community that doesn’t always do its best at responding to society. I arrived at the Baltimore airport on Thursday evening, unsure of what to expect. A large gathering of Hindu-Americans – what exactly were we all hoping to accomplish? I’d heard names tossed about – Dr. Pankaj Jain of North Texas University, Phil Goldberg of American Veda fame, Gopal Patel of the Bhumi Project, and of course, Anju Bhargava, the visionary founder of Hindu American Seva Charities. I was interested to hear what they had to say, and not entirely sure what I had to offer. The following days provided me a snapshot of what Hindus across the country involve themselves in – I was overwhelmed.

One of the first things to catch my attention was the number of second generation Hindu-Americans who are involved in seva initiatives all over the country. From climate change projects to Bhutanese refugee support networks, youth are taking an incredibly proactive role as Hindus in seva.
One of the most exciting panels was the first one, on Friday morning – Youth: Ambassadors of Dharma, Hope and Seva. Moderated by Khyati Desai, the three panelists were Sonali Tatapudy, president of Dharma, Harvard's Hindu Student Association, Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell, director of the Center for Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships, and Vineet Chander, Hindu chaplain at Princeton University. Everything they said really resonated with me – about a generation redefining Hinduism, taking ownership of their faith and practices, and bringing Sanatana Dharma into the Western world with full force. Over the course of the next two days, I got to know some of the students better, and made friendships that I'm sure will last a very long time. We face common issues, share similar experiences, and our struggles with identity unite us as a generation. Despite the enthusiasm I felt from many, there was still something that bothered me – why was it that nearly every time the word “youth” was brought up, it was in reference to college students? As a junior in high school, I've wished on more than one occasion that at least some of the opportunities available to those in college were extended to my age bracket as well. Now that I'm back home in the Midwest, I'm determined to start something that centers around the efforts of my fellow classmates, because we should have a voice, too.

There were several initiatives launched at the White House during the conference, and many projects, groups, and coalitions were brought up in the course of the panels. While each cause had its own merit, two in particular had an exceptionally powerful impact on the audience, sparking numerous conversations and fresh ideas. Lt. Col. Ravi Chaudhary's talk on Friday about Hindus in the Armed Forces, followed by Capt. Pratima Dharm & Uma Chaudhary speaking on Saturday about military families reached many hearts. In addition, the final panel, on Sanatana Dharma & the environment, had a profound impact on all present. Whether it was two strangers meeting and coming up with a new seva plan to support Hindu soldiers overseas, or my returning home full of ideas and potential connections to make my temple greener – the repercussions were felt almost immediately, and I know that these two particular movements will continue to grow. 

There were two other panels that spoke to me, personally. One was the interfaith panel on Friday – with a number of layleaders and clergymen from various traditions (Evangelical, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu) – and the other was the interfaith panel of Saturday morning – with Philip Goldberg, Rev. Eric Shafer, and Kusumita Pederson. All the speakers encouraged Hindu-Americans to become involved in bridging gaps between religions by doing service work together, and while I see this as a worthy effort, something didn't quite fit. In my Michigan experience, most of the community service work is already being done by large, typically evangelical churches, who seek to proselytize. How then, I asked, can Hindus work with these Christians? They have all the resources, all the infrastructure – but they don't accept us or our beliefs. My question was posed to both panels, and the only solution given was to simply not work with those people. Or confront them, if they tried to convert me. I heard a similar question later Saturday, asked to the panel on college seva initiatives. The number of people who came up and introduced themselves after I spoke out told of how many see this as a major issue. It made me realize that we as Hindus need to bring the topic of proselytization out more often, because it is only in discussing the difficult questions that we find solutions. I hope to see more conversations about conversion – both in America and around the world – happen in the coming months. 
When it comes to conversations – there was no shortage of them! I met so many people, who had so much to say – and it wasn't all one-sided, either. Whether it was discussing Wendy Doniger on the streets of downtown D.C., or grappling with identity over dinner, or even crossing generations late into the night – the conversations that I had at this conference are unforgettable. It really struck me that despite the fact that we come from widely different backgrounds, there is a lot that we have in common, as Hindus in the west. I hope that these relationships are maintained and furthered, because we have so much to give as a community, both to each other, and to the world outside. I went in knowing that the important names would have a lot to share – and I came away realizing that we all have something important to offer, after all, even me.

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