It was also a wake-up call to Hindus that their faith is among theleast understood. This lack of awareness became glaringly apparent afterSept. 11, when Hindus around the United States discovered they wereoften the unwitting victims of backlash crimes.
"Sept. 11 has been a catalyst for everybody to know about everybodyelse in this country," said course conductor Paul Mehta, dean of theCollege of Education at Prairie View A&M University. "The Arabs andMuslims in Houston have been conducting sensitivity seminars, and weneed to, too."
He pointed to the scant coverage that Hindu and Indian culturereceive in textbooks as indicative of a larger social problem. "All theyhave, probably, is two pages on India in their whole world historybook," he said.
Prior to attending the seminar, Lt. Milton Jones of the HoustonPolice Department was fairly frank about his understanding of the faith."Sad to say, it was pretty much a blank slate," said Jones, who acts asHate Crimes Coordinator for HPD. "I knew next to nothing about the Hinduculture."
For Jones and other police officers, the seminar was timely and animportant step toward understanding the lives of Houston's 60,000 to80,000 Hindus.
"We're also there to say, 'We're your police department, and we'rethere to help you,'" he added.
While Arab-Americans and Sikhs have been the most prominent victimsof hate crimes following the World Trade Center attacks, a number ofviolent crimes against Hindus have also been reported, as well asproperty damage at several Hindu temples.
"I'm not sure how helpful it'll be to preventing such incidents,"conceded Jones. "The people that perpetuate those crimes, you're notgoing to find them at these seminars."
But in terms of developing a system that resonates well beyond itsthree-hour limitations, the Houston model of educating the educator mayjust prove to be effective.
"If you inform teachers it'll be much faster," said Anita Gupta, whohelped organize the seminar. "One teacher can reach 30 kids. Multiplythat by a hundred and you get 3,000."
As a community service director and teacher of world religions atEpiscopal High School in Houston, course attendee Scott Poteet has thetask of presenting lesser known cultures to high school juniors.
Although he has traveled to India, Poteet acknowledged that much of whathe saw there was difficult to process without an adequate understandingof the social and religious context. By the end of the seminar, however,he was far more confident, pointing to the ample question-and-answertime and knowledgeable speakers, as well as the clear-cut textbook,"Explaining Hindu Dharma: A Guide to Teachers."
"It goes into specific things that you can introduce to thecurriculum," said Poteet. "It's very matter-of-fact."
As the president of the Infinity Foundation, based in Princeton,N.J., Rajiv Malhotra has made it a mission to promote Hindu scholarship.
"Hinduism is exceedingly misunderstood," said Malhotra. "There are alot of stereotypes and at the same time a lot of positive contributionsthat are not being acknowledged. For instance, the fact that 20 millionAmericans are doing yoga."
He rattled off a list of American writers -- Emerson, Thoreau,Whitman, Eliot -- all of whom were heavily influenced by Hindu thought.
"Much of T.S. Eliot's poetry was influenced by the Upanishads andGita," he said, referring to two principal scriptures. "The influence onthe West is undeniable, but the question is why don't they want tomention it?"
One national organization, the Hindu Students Council, went on apublic relations offensive immediately after the World Trade Centerattacks, issuing a release condemning the attacks and highlighting thatHindus have also been victims of Islamic terrorism in India.
"We also decided that we will use Diwali, a major Hindu festivalcelebrated at college campuses across America, to highlight thetraditions of Hindus that set us apart from other religions andcultures," said Rajiv Pandit, a HSC member from Dallas. "This serves toeducate Americans in a positive, proactive atmosphere."
It remains to be seen how Houston's Hindu community will follow upon the seminar, but locals increasingly feel that interaction with thepublic is essential to interfaith harmony. Plans are being made toconduct regular tours of the area's largest Hindu structure, the SriMeenakshi Temple, which stands in nearby Pearland, Texas. When it wasconstructed by Hindus in the late 1970s, the temple stood in oddcontrast to the mobile homes and tin sheds of the area. At the time,recalled longtime Mayor Tom Reid, Pearland's population was just 8,000,but it has since grown to 41,000.
"I expect that by 2010 we'll be close to 100,000 people," he said.
Rather than remain closeted from its surroundings, the temple hasmanaged to open itself to the community, holding job and health fairsand most recently, a prayer and fund-raiser for those affected by theWorld Trade Center attack, at which the mayor, police chief andpresident of the chamber of commerce spoke.
"I think this is a merging of cultures that's not available in otherparts of the world," said Reid. "This is what I feel the world of thefuture should look like."