This past Saturday was Hindu Unity Day, and I was invited to speak at the celebration at the Ganesh Temple in Flushing.  I was honored and humbled to share the stage with a number of eloquent and well-respected speakers, including the president of the mandir (and the only other female speaker), Dr. Uma Mysorekar, and the keynote speaker, Dr. Subramanian Swamy.  I was asked to speak on Hindu unity, and as a representive of the Hindu American Foundation, I used this as an opportunity to discuss the importance of advocacy.  Below is the text of my speech:

Namaste, and thank you for inviting me to speak on behalf of the Hindu American Foundation, a non-profit advocacy group that I have been a part of for about seven years.  I’ve spent the past few weeks wondering what to say about Hindu unity, because we are in serious need of some.

Despite the absence of any single prophet or creed, centralized religious authority, or manifesto to convert others, a diversity of traditions and practice have not only survived, but flourished under the Hindu umbrella. Yet, even in this often staggering diversity, there is a sacred thread which unites us.  There are the eternal and universal laws of karma, dharma, samsara, and moksha that not only let us spiritually evolve as individuals, but also guide us in building peaceful and just societies. There is the teaching that all beings are vessels of the divine.  There are our beautiful Gods and Goddesses, with rituals steeped in symbolism and captivating stories that offer valuable life lessons.  And we have the wisdom of our ancient Rishis who transmitted through the Vedas the message that though the paths may be many, the Truth is One.  Yet, despite this sacred thread that unites us not only in belief, but as humans, Hindus have found ways, even where there are none, to divide — age, gender, community, language, sampradaya — you name it, we’ve found it.

In fact, we have even found ways to divide in the terms of how we refer to our way of life — Hindu, Sanatana Dharma, Vedic, Yogic.  How do we begin to unite if we can’t even agree on a name? We at the Hindu American Foundation use advocacy as a tool to find unity and as a first step, treat all of these terms are synonymous.  We accept them all as words that describe our way of life while acknowledging that the term “Hinduism” is the most well-known around the world.  Yet after many of our events where we describe the plight of Hindu communities in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Malaysia, where we explain how we are working to correct misrepresentations about our tradition in the media, and where we share our efforts to uphold the separation of church and state in this country – after all of that, mixed in with the “Good job, beta” comments is always at least one person whose sole comment is, “You should change your name to the Sanatana Dharma American Foundation.” Why do we miss the forest for the trees?

About seven years ago, a team from HAF went to Capitol Hill to meet with our elected officials.  One of our board members introduced himself and said “I am from the Hindu American Foundation.” To which the Congressman asked, “Are you Hindu Sunni or Hindu Shia?”

Shouldn’t we be more worried when one of our elected officials – an individual who is responsible for passing laws that affect us living in this country – doesn’t recognize that Hinduism and Islam are not the same?

Thankfully, as HAF has continued its advocacy efforts on the Hill, these types of comments are rare to hear.  It’s taken a lot of time, effort, and sacrifice on the part of all the team members to educate elected officials, journalists and reporters, interfaith colleagues, teachers, and others about our community and tradition.

But the work is far from over.  Despite continuous outreach,  we still struggle with papers like the New York Times whose India-based reporters seem hell bent on blaming any and all of India’s woes on “the Hindu caste system.”   We struggle with the media’s positive coverage of countries like Malaysia – which is upheld as a model Muslim democracy – and Bhutan – which supposedly ranks highest on the happiness index.  Yet in reality, these are countries are ones that have perpetrated serious human rights violations on their minority Hindu communities.  We work to change the stereotypes that Hinduism is nothing more than a superstitious faith with multiple gods that have multiple arms and heads.   Because how will our next generation of Hindu Americans want to be a part of a tradition that has been boiled down to caste, superstition, and multi-armed gods?   If we can’t transmit appreciation for our tradition, then we can’t unite as a community.  If we can’t unite as a religious community, we cannot ensure Hinduism’s survival in the generations to come.

Each of us has the power to build bridges to unity.  At HAF, we see advocacy as such a bridge.

What is advocacy, you may ask.  HAF views advocacy as a three step cycle.  The first is to educate both ourselves and others about Hinduism, its philosophies, traditions, and diversity.

The second is to speak up about issues that are affecting us.  It’s important to reach out in a professional and intelligent manner to the media and academia when they misrepresent Hinduism because they are influencing the minds of readers and children alike.  As Hindus, the onus is on us to ensure our tradition is represented accurately and fairly.

Finally, the third step is to build lasting relationships to ensure the change is permanent.  Continued and consistent contact with reporters, Congressmen, and academics is vital to advocacy.

Yet, while groups like HAF can advocate our hearts out, the community must plant the seed of advocacy at home.

First it has to start with the basics: educating ourselves.  Parents need to teach their children about Hinduism, its philosophy as well as the manner in which it is visually represented.   How many Hindu children know why Vishnu is depicted with blue skin?  What kid growing up as a minority surrounded by Abrahamic traditions is going to proud of worshiping a blue god?  But when we learn that blue, being the color of the sky and the oceans, symbolizes the infiniteness of the Divine, something “weird” is suddenly transformed into something both beautiful and logical.

Second, we need to utilize our knowledge to become proud Hindu advocates.  I happen to very fortunate to have grown up in a household where the value of advocacy was fully acknowledged.  My father has been an advocate for Hindus for as long as I can remember  and instilled in me his passion of advocacy.

I left a career in consulting to join the Hindu American Foundation full-time five years ago.  My father was obviously proud.  But what I found most interesting was the reaction from other adults in our community.  Those who were into Hindu advocacy were impressed, but secretly thankful that it was me taking the pay cut and not their children.  Others were dismissive as if I was out of my mind to leave a “stable” job to do some “Hindu thing.”

To my Hindu peer group, I have to explain what advocacy is and why I’m doing it.  And even then they don’t get it.  I have one friend who still asks me, good-naturedly, “How is the cult doing?  Got any more converts?”

Compare that to my Jewish friends. I can say, “HAF is an advocacy organization,” and they nod their heads.  No explanation needed.  They get it because advocacy has been ingrained in their community and instilled as a value from a young age.  And they are phenomenal at it. Granted their community came to America long before ours, so they have had more time to hone their advocacy skills.

But we are the most educated and wealthiest community.  So it’s time that our advocacy efforts catch up.  We need to reach a point where a career in Hindu advocacy is considered to be as prestigious as becoming a doctor, lawyer, or engineer.  They are all respectable and important career paths, and so is advocacy.  Yes, making money is important.  Artha is one of the four goals of life.  But let’s remember that it is not the only goal.

There is much that divides us – Vaishnavas and Shaivites; Advaitins and Dvaitins; Gujaratis and Tamilians — but it all adds to the richness of our heritage.  But if each division continues to view or act as if they are separate or different from our larger Hindu family, that is when Hinduism as a whole suffers.  And so, today, I hope you will see advocacy as a tool for unity.  I hope you will see advocacy as a worthy path for younger generations of Hindu Americans. I hope you will make advocacy part of our collective dharma.  

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