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Mainstreaming Hindu and Dharmic Americans and Values

Reflections on the Obama Impact

by Anju Bhargava

What a year! 2012...

As it ends, it brings a closure to the first term of President Obama’s administration. Having worked closely with the Administration from its early days, as a community builder, now I pause and reflect on the Obama impact to the Dharmic community. When I first got appointed, my community wondered about what government supported faith-based activities meant. We learn in America that faith and politics are inseparable, and the Hindu and Dharmic communities’ national infrastructures are underdeveloped. We created Hindu American Seva Charities and worked hard to bring our voice, through seva (community social responsibility), to the forefront and positively “Impact Change in America and Abroad.” Much has been done. Now a foundational path of engaging with the government is laid, but so much more needs to be done to build capacity for community development.

Seva Leaders - HASC Seva Conference at The White House

Seva Leaders - HASC Seva Conference at The White House

In this changing American landscape, we have seen a paradigm shift of inclusion occurring. Starting with the president’s first inaugural speech, the inclusion of Dharmic Americans to significant posts in the Administration, inclusion in the Faith Based Advisory Council, increased outreach by the White House Office of Public Engagement, and now with Tulsi Gabbard and Mazie Hirono’s election to the Congress and Senate respectively, the faith glass ceiling has shattered in America and is resounding around the globe. The doors for the people of eastern traditions, not only the Hindus but the entire Dharmic Americans – Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists – have opened! Collectively we have demonstrated how we strengthen this country we love and call home.

During the last four years the White House has recognized the contributions and traditions of our pluralistic Indian-American communities. It understood our philosophy of nonviolence, self-reliance, and self-governance. Our Dharma values, largely propagated by the Bhagavad Gita and Dharma scriptures, have found an expression in addressing issues important to us, Dharmic Americans.

Together with the White House we have laid a strategic road map to bring the values of transformative seva, of social justice and karmic empathy, to the forefront. We have connected the community with many federal agencies. Our first Hindu American chaplain was appointed and we honored the South Asian and Dharmic military members. Together we are promoting the values and benefits of yoga, nutrition, meditation, and Ayurveda. We are greening our temples and bringing increased national focus on environment. We are addressing social justice issues such as Bhutanese refugees and supporting re-authorization of the Violence Against Women’s Act (VAWA).

Xenophobia, bullying, and hate crimes are important issues for our community. Within 24 hours of our August conference, the attack on the Milwaukee Gurudwara took place. Our discussions on “your pain is my pain” became prophetic as we found common ground and came together in solidarity. The recent hate-crime attack on the New York subway of a Hindu highlights the xenophobic undercurrents in our country. It becomes even more imperative the Dharmic community plays an even more visible role in the public landscape and brings our values to the forefront.

Our collective national seva helps those in need and we are working to find ways to reduce poverty, build our economy, and increase civic engagement across the country. Our seva shows we are ready to tackle difficult tasks facing our country, every step of the way. Dharmic places of worship came together at the White House to understand how these institutions can play a larger supportive role in their communities for Community Building and Social Justice.

We are encouraging our community, the New Americans, especially our youth, to volunteer and participate in the American discourse through public service, for example, by advocating increased access to the AmeriCorps VISTA Program. We are strengthening the Next Generation Seva Leaders, a program established under the vision of the president’s Interfaith Campus Challenge.

Invocation by Bhutanese Youth - HASC Seva Conference at The White House

Invocation by Bhutanese Youth - HASC Seva Conference at The White House

We have succeeded in creating a national Hindu and Dharmic voice where there was none. Our Diwali celebration with family and friends exemplifies the awakening and awareness of the Inner Light and compassion for all humankind through selfless service. The festival of lights is important to all of us Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhist Americans. Through UtsavSeva, Festivals of Service, we honor those in service. President Obama’s Message of Service aptly captured the inspiration behind UtsavSeva.

This lamp symbolizes the victory of light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance... Diwali is a time for celebration, but it is also a time for reflection - a time when we must remember that there are always others less fortunate than ourselves. This holiday reminds us all that we should commit ourselves to helping those in need. For many, this is also a time to gather with family and to pray...

Recently, at the Diwali celebration at the White House I witnessed the importance of Gita for a Hindu American soldier, a warrior, and I was truly moved by it. Lt. Colonel Ravi Chaudhary showed his well-worn Gita to Vice President Joe Biden. Lt. Colonel Chaudhary said this book was given to him when he first joined the academy. He took the Gita with him even to Afghanistan. He said it helped him keep focus in doing the right thing. In fact, Lt. Colonel Chaudhary had brought this Gita to the first Hindu American Seva conference we had at the White House last year. The Bhagavad Gita was on the podium the entire day, a first time at the White House. It was a moment of inclusion for us and now Tulsi Gabbard’s swearing in on the Gita is a matter of pride for the community.

In spite of our advances there remain the humble reminders that much needs to be done to continue to integrate our community in the American narrative. Our “Call to Serve” Report and Council recommendations submitted to President Obama, the three conferences co-hosted with White House, as well as efforts by many South Asian and Dharmic activists highlight the various struggles we face as a nation. These include uniting American families – aged parents with their children and siblings--immigration reform, increasing access to government programs for Dharmic American people and newly emerging Dharmic institutions, leveraging the strength of our community for the common good, countering xenophobia, or educating the public about the diversity in America and about Dharmic traditions. Significant challenges remain and we hope our voices of concern will continue to be heard and appropriate action taken on issues important to us. Through these effort we hope to bridge the acceptance and knowledge gap while enhancing security for our community, our temples, and gurudwaras.

Collectively, we need to build capacity and develop our communities. Our name change to Hindu American Seva Communities (from Charities) reflects this journey.

Dharmic inclusion has strengthened America, and will only continue to do so. Our values have resonated well with many in the country for decades, with President Obama and Vice President Biden, and now our first Hindu Congresswoman, Tulsi Gabbard, who serves as our SevaVotes.org ambassador.

It is well known that the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita are natural to the American narrative and have greatly influenced the country, including the Civil Rights Movement. For thousands of years it inspired the common man, kings, statesmen, philosophers, intellectual thinkers not only in India but across the globe. From Adi Shankaracharya to Swami Vivekananda, from Gandhi to King, from Emerson to Joseph Campbell to New Age Gurus, the Gita teachings and philosophical concepts of Sanatana Dharma (Universal Order) illuminate the Truth within the individual. As this knowledge of Truth removes ignorance, the individual is guided by the moral compass to take right action. We find the moral struggle toward the path of righteousness is an eternal American phenomenon.

A path to inclusion has been created. Now it is up to the community to take it forward; to continue to engage with our many communities by addressing priority issues facing our nation and make more visible our evolving needs and strengths as we the New Americans weave our professional skills, traditions, and culture in the pluralistic tapestry of America. Together we can build pluralistic communities and strengthen America.

This article was originally published on January 2, 2013, by the HuffPost Religion.