Sunday, July 24, 2011

Seva reflections... and learning to come....

Seva reflections... and learning to come....    by  Ramaa Reddy Raghavan

As I prepare to attend the first HASC Dharmic Seva conference on July 30th at Georgetown University,  I am impressed by the variety of speakers who will be making presentations in the fields of religion, heath, well-being and the environment. My goal for this conference is that we each leave with practical, simple seva plans than can be instituted within our communities - be it in schools, places of worship or workspaces.

Seva, is a term I have greatly admired. In one of Vivekananda’s speeches ‘Secret of Work’ he speaks of Karma-Yoga: the practice to serve without asking questions, without expecting gratitude but rather to be grateful to them for giving you the opportunity to practice charity. Many great men like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and more recently Anna Hazare have used these principles to improve the lives of the downtrodden.Using simple, cost effective methods Hazare transformed his drought ridden village, Ralegan Siddhi into one that today is self-sufficient and thriving. For his outstanding civic service, Hazare was  awarded the Padma Bhushan by the government of India.

Selfless love given without any expectation of reward is the secret to making this country and world a better place. Let us set forth with this spirit and activate change.

Ramaa is a broadcast multimedia journalist and has just graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism. She covers lifestyles, especially areas relating to yoga and immigrant education. Her pieces have appeared on Huffington Post, Feet In Two Words and

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Niki Shah's Letter of gratitude to his grandfather

Dear Dada

I am very grateful to you for what you have taught me-the basics of life. You taught me to be respectful towards women, children and elders; to care for everyone; pursue and share knowledge without arrogance; and remain satisfied and content with what has been provided to me in life.  And those teachings have been the foundation of my life upon which I continue to prosper spiritually, socially, and economically.

For example, while teaching me math and English when I was in 5th standard, you asked me, "Niki, if you were make a difference in the lives of ordinary people, what would you do?"  I replied, "Dada, I would make sure that the population was healthy and better educated so that a more peaceful and prosperous world could exist-where people have access to the economic opportunities they desire and dream of.

Reflecting back on that conversation today, I had an opportunity to impact 10 children, 8 girls and 2 boys at school # 3 in Passaic, NJ by sharing with them the benefits of healthy eating and living  and then doing hatha yoga. I immediately thought about the example you have set for me.  You respected and cared for each individual that crossed your life.  You practiced a  holistic life by rising early, engaging in yoga and physical activity,  eating healthy and exact portions at the proper time, working hard, always reading and writing, and then, going to bed early to rise early.  You  understood your role as a grandfather and the aspects of child development. 

You explained my shortcomings and mistakes, lifted me up when I was down,  coached and mentored me every day of my life and made sure I was physically  active and eating healthy.  And today because of those teachings, mentoring  and coaching, I am successful in learning and educating, and successful in  most tasks I undertake.

I felt grateful for your teachings and your example as I was interacting with children at School # 3 in Passaic, NJ.  As an AmeriCorps VISTA working  for the Hindu American Seva Charities (HASC), I had the opportunity to lead a yoga and nutrition class with these 10 children.   All of us introduced ourselves.  We talked about the fruits and vegetables we ate, our lifestyle and diet, how much playing time we had in the streets, to the food (both good and bad) that was being provided in the school.  Collectively, we spend one hour together fixing ourselves in to the various yoga asanas from the Surya Namaskar to the Bhastrika Pranayama.  We started the class with laughter and joy and then filled with serenity and focus only to write in
our journals about our experiences, feelings and lifestyles we all had.  I wrote about mine.  I said:

"Today, I am glad that I spent one hour of my day with the children at School # 3.  I appreciate the positive attitude and joy that children exhibited, I enjoyed learning and sharing knowledge, I am grateful to know that children are focused on eating a balanced diet focused on fruits and vegetables.  I feel relaxed and happy to see the smiles on the faces of these 10 children and burdened by the fact that 1 girl does not eat dinner and that the  peach a girl ate was "rotten."  Next week, I want to do more yoga and see more smiles.  I am committed to noting in my journal the physical activity and reading and writing exercises I conduct with my friends at School # 3 in Passaic, NJ."

From the perspective of HASC, it is important to take the teachings of faith and philosophy to bridge gaps between communities and then address those gaps-whether it is through yoga and nutrition on the health front, or encouraging a child to read books and playing with him or her in a park, or meeting the needs of the senior citizens, or empowering a recent immigrant to conduct their lives in the United States and become prosperous-or just putting up a smile to encourage and motivate others.

With this day behind me, I look forward to continuing this journey to continue making a difference in the lives of every individual I cross-whether it is through physical activity and nutrition, or bringing a smile on someone's face and making individuals feel good about their life. But in making that impact, I am grateful, again, for what you have taught me and the legacy you have left behind.

Your Loving Grandson,


Dharmic digressions—a little bit of everything

Dharmic digressions—a little bit of everything 
by Pankaj Kumar

The main goal of HASC conference is to promote pluralism, tolerance, social justice (gender/race/class equality), and community service/seva. This journey made me ponder how my Vedanta philosophy and its subsequent interpretations contribute to the same. Hence, I have tried to address such topics as tolerance, role of women, caste and seva from vedic prism.This note intends to illustrate some of the interesting aspects of vedic philosophy, emphasizing its relevance in the modern world. Hermeneutics as propounded by Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey is to be invoked to understand the essence of vedic literature, wherein not only the literal grammatical meaning but also the holistic context is taken into account.

Namaste/ Namaskār—utmost form of respect for others

All religions unequivocally put others before themselves when it comes to greeting strangers. Be it the Christian greeting of "May the peace of the Lord be upon you” or the Jewish greeting of "Shalom Alekum (peace be with you)" or the Islamic greeting of “Assalamu alaikum (peace be upon you)," peace wins hands down.
Sanatana dharma has its own uniqueness in that it greets others as if they were parts/representatives of the Almighty. The followers greet with Namaste/ Namaskār. Namaste is composed of Namah, a Sanskrit verb meaning “to bow” and te, meaning “you.” Namaskār literally means "I bow to your form/shape", which in turn may be  interpreted as “I bow to the spirit/consciousness/divinity within you.” This is why when one greets by saying namaste he/she bows slightly.
Another illustration of this respect for others is the  case when one's foot accidentally touches another person's leg. In such cases, the “offending” person touches another person’s leg with finger tips of his/her right hand, and then using the same hand touches his/her own forehead and/or chest.
Varna/Caste System—division of labor or discrimination?
Originally, the varna system was based on individual’s merit and aptitude. Bhagavada Gita says, "Of Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaisyas, as also the Sudras, O Arjuna, and the duties are distributed according to the qualities born of their own nature." “We were all Brahmins or all Sudras” –mentions Brhadaranyaka Upanisad. According to Apastamba Dharmasutra, every human being is Sudra by birth. It is by education that one becomes Dvija (literally means “one who is born twice”, a synonym for Brahmin).
Varna had nothing to do with birth and lineage. Members of the same family had different varnas as evidenced in the Rig Veda (IX, 112) which says: "A poet I am, my father a physician,/ And my mother is a grinder of corn,/ Diverse in means, but all wishing wealth,/ Equally we strive for cattle.'' Chandogya Upanisad talks about Satyakama Jabala, who though unable to give his father's name, was yet initiated into spiritual life. Aitareya, son of a sudra woman, authored Aitareya Upanisad. Välmiki, a hunter was considered brahmin after he penned Ramayana. Ved Vyäsa, a brähmin sage and the author of Mahabharata, was son of Satyavati, a fisher woman. Much later, Chandragupta Maurya, from the Muria tribe, became emperor of Magadha. Such venerated saints as Sura Dasa, Kabir and Tukaram belonged to the lowest strata of the society. Dr. Radhakrishnan aptly points to the inner cohesion of different varnas despite the divisions.
Tolerance—Freedom of expression
Tolerance is deeply ingrained in Sanatana Dharma. “Truth is one; the wise call it by many names,” proclaim the Vedas, thus acknowledging the difference of opinion on any given subject. Rig Veda says that good thoughts come to us from all sides, exhorting us to have an open mind. Ramakrishna Paramahansa, the spiritual guru of Swami Vivekananda suggested, “As many minds so many paths to God”.  
Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam, the “Global Village” concept is mentioned in Panchatantra. To summarize, toleration is the homage which the finite mind pays to the inexhaustibility of the Infinite (Dr. Radhakrishnan).
Women in vedic culture

"Yatra naryastu pujyante ramante tatra Devata (Where women are honored, God resides).”--Manusmriti 3.56. Sanatana Dharma venerates womanhood as source of learning (Goddess Saraswati), wealth (Goddess Laxmi) and power (Goddess Durga). Infact, shakti, the only word for power in Sanskrit, is feminine. There is no masculine word for the same.

Education: Several hymns of Rig veda are attributed to as many as 30 female saints (rishikās) such as Apala (the daughter of Atri), Ghosa (the daughter of Kaksivant), Paulomi, Vac (daughter of Ambhrna), Shashwati, Sri, Laksha ,Rathir Bharadwaja ,Lopamudra, Romasha,Sarama Devasuni, Yami Vaivasvathi and Indrani ( the wife of Indra) and many others. The Upanishads mention  women philosophers such as Gargi and Maitreyi.

Women scholars indulged with their male contemporaries in scholary debates. Sulabha, a female authority on Vedas entered into vedic arguments with King Janaka. Vacaknavi, a female philosopher debated with her male counterpart Yajnavalkya. Much later, Manadan Mishra’s wife, given her superior knowledge moderated the theosophical debate between Shankaracharya and him. Scholar Panini  mentions the names of several noteworthy women scholars of the past such as Kathi, Kalapi, and Bahvici, providing evidence that women used to teach.

Military: Queen Vishpala is mentioned in the Rig Veda. She is said to have lost her leg during a battle, and was given a prosthetic leg of iron so that she could return to fight. Additionally, Ramayana talks about how queen Kaikeyi helped King Dashrath in the battlefield. Megasthenes (5th  century B.C.) writes about heavily armed female warriors guarding the palace of emperor Chandragupta.

Marriage: Women enjoyed remarkable freedom in marriage affairs through "swayamvara" wherein they chose their soul mates from among a group of eligible suitors. Marriages of Sita and Draupadi are cases in point. Occasionally, social gathering called Samanas were organized to help young boys and girls meet each other. Moreover, a woman, if she chose, could marry in older age. Gosha, a well known female sage, married late.
None of the ceremonies after marriage could be performed without the presence of the wife (Rig veda 5.102). Women chanted mantras along with their husbands during rituals (Grihya Sutras).
Furthermore, marriage was not compulsory in the vedic period. Shrutavati, daughter of Rishi Bhardwaj and Shrimati, daughter of Rishi Shandilya remained bachelor throughout her life.
Seva—Corporate/human social responsibility
The word seva originated from sev, a sanskrit verb meaning “to attend." More and more prestigious universities such as Harvard and Wharton have taken up creation of social value by businesses, but I want to give credit to some of the immortal universities of mankind who knew the concept of corporate/human social responsibility long ago. Since the lines are succinct and self-explanatory, I will directly quote them from scriptures.
Christianity: In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ (Acts 20:35); Giving sets us free, while hoarding entraps us (James 5:2); Giving changes the lives of others (John 3:16). Giving brings blessing back to us (Luke 6:38); Giving allows us to store up treasures in Heaven rather than here on the earth (Matthew 19:21).
Judaism: "Tzedakah" derives from the Hebrew root Tzadei-Dalet-Qof, meaning righteousness. In Judaism, giving to the poor is considered an act of justice, righteousness and the performance of a duty. The Talmud details various level of charity ranging from the least recommended “Giving begrudgingly” to highly recommend “Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant.”
Islam: In Islam, “Sadaqat al tatawwu” means voluntary alms-giving. “Sadaqat” literally means ‘righteousness’ and is derived from the root word Sadaqa, which means “to speak the truth”. Alms-giving is called Sadaqat to indicate the veracity (sidk) of the giver’s religious belief and looses religious merit when the act is other than voluntary. (Akham al-Quran, 2/946-7)

Sanatana Dharma: The name of God in itself symbolizes the twofold “virtuous” implication, - of always giving out help and never accepting help. (Rig Veda: II, 28, 9 - Varuna Sukta);"Everyone is only a trustee or custodian for the wealth lying with oneself (from God); he cannot enjoy all of it". (The Upanishads: Ishavasya Upanishad, 1); Not by great deeds nor by great progeny but just by a single virtue, namely relinquishing all possessions one acquires immortality (Maha Narayana Upanishad IV, 12); The Divinities rejoice in that when somebody's happiness owes to another's sacrifice given voluntarily (Maha Narayana Upanishad IV, 78).

To summarize, it may be too extreme to say that “Religion is as helpful as throwing a drowning man both ends of a rope.” Dharma tries to catalyze the self, atman, from dormancy to consciousness. When seen through logical prism, it calls for generic inclusiveness and equality.

(Recommended Nice reads: Dr. S. Radhakrishnan-The Principal Upanishads; Will Durant - Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage; Stephen Knapp- Women in Vedic Culture; R. C. Dutt - The Civilization of India and works of Thoreau, the American thinker and Arnold Toynbee, the British historian )

Monday, July 18, 2011

HASC Supports SAALT's America For All of Us Community Hearings

HASC supports SAALTs America for all of US

Hindu American Seva Charities is pleased to support the efforts of SAALT in bringing fairness for all Americans. The impact of 9/11 has been felt by Hindus, Muslims Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Bahais and other faiths of South Asian diaspora. SAALT is hosting a community hearing to discuss the impact. If you are not coming to HASC conference in DC on July 29 - 31st, we encourage you to participate and even cosponsor the event. .

HASC is a national, non-partisan, not for profit organization formed in response to President Obama's "Call to Serve" with the support of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and in partnership with the Corporation for National and Community Service.  Our goal is to mobilize the Hindu American community around "seva" (public service) in order to advance interfaith dialogue, collaboration, pluralism, social justice, and healthy living.