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Hindu Groups Meet to Shape the Future of Dharma in North America

NEW BRUNSWICK, NEW JERSEY, USA, August 15, 2005: (Press Release from Dharma Summit 2005, prepared by Beth Kulkarni.) For the first time in North America, 400 participants representing more than 80 Hindu temples and religious organizations came together for a Dharma Summit on August 13-15, 2005. The most respected heads of various religious groups who addressed the summit held at Rutgers University over the weekend included Pujya Swami Dayananda Saraswati of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, Saylorsburg, PA, Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami of the Hindu Monastery in Kauai, and Gurudev Chitrabhanu ji of Jain Meditation Center, NY. Also, two of the most respected heads of religious orders in India - Swami Chidananda Saraswati ("Muniji") of Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh and Dr. Pranav Pandya of Gayatri Pariwar, Haridwar - came to attend and address the summit. Sri Sri Ravishankar sent his personal message that was displayed with a video clip.


The theme of the summit was: "The Future of Dharmic Traditions in North America." The concern that many young generation Hindus in USA are not learning and maintaining Hindu traditions was clearly evident throughout the conference that brought together presidents and boards of trustees of many temples, Devalayas, spiritual institutions, and organizations together with many intellectuals and committed volunteer leaders from throughout the USA. The rich mix of swamis, intellectuals, temple trustees and youth leaders provided a unique opportunity to exchange different viewpoints, thoughts and ideas and share experiences on how to impart spiritual and cultural education to future generations. They also discussed the serious problem of distortion and misinformation about Hinduism and India prevalent in schools, colleges, and in the media. The overall coordinator of the conference Dr. Ved Chaudhary was successful in bringing under one roof persons of various ages and backgrounds to discuss items of common interest. A workshop was organized by the Hindu University of America which is starting a program to train Hindu priests to meet the expressed needs of temples in the USA for priests who can communicate with the younger generation and with the interfaith community. Legal aspects, media and interfaith relations, successful temple management practices, and financial resource development were key issues discussed with much sharing of ideas.


One of the significant aspects of the Summit was the inclusion of the younger generation on various panels and in all aspects of the program. Dr. Ved Chaudhary referred to HSC as his right hand and his left hand. HSC General Secretary Nikunj Trivedi spoke about the ways in which local temples and religious organizations and HSC can work together to meet the needs of college students. The souvenir issue of the Dharma Summit, edited by Swami Jyotirmayananda Puri, was packed with messages from spiritual and religious leaders, insightful articles from intellectuals, and information of interest from sponsors.


Dr. Preeti Soni performed the inaugural prayer dance in classical Kathak style for Devi Saraswati. Heads of Sampradayas recited prayers for world peace before the tasty, all vegetarian food was served by the BAPS Swaminarayan temple in Edison. Talks and discussions among spiritual leaders, board members, youth and intellectuals and networking time made this a very activity-packed weekend. Perhaps most important aspect was the panel discussion on "The Path Forward: Actionable Recommendations for Follow-up Activities" moderated by Dr. Sudhir Prabhu. A plan of action was proposed to follow up on the insights and recommendations generated in the earlier sessions.


The positive experience of this conference resulted in overwhelming demand for a collective initiative that will allow all Hindu religious organizations to work together to shape the future of Hinduism in North America, raise awareness of issues, and provide a platform for a united Hindu voice. Together they will address issues such as promoting changes to enhance the participation of the new generation, correcting biased and distorted views of Hindu traditions in educational institutions and the media, improving temple management, developing resources, enhancing the role of the temple, and helping the temples and religious organizations to reach out to the larger community with voluntary services (seva) and education.

The various Hindu temples and religious groups that participated in the conference included: Arsha Vidya-Vedanta Gurukul, PA; Arya Pratinidhi Sabha America, BAPS-Swaminarayan Temple, Barsana Dham, TX; World Gayatri Pariwar; Greater Baltimore Temple; Hindu Monastery, Hawaii; Hindu University of America; ISKCON; Sadhu Vaswani Center; Sringeru Vidya Bharati Foundation; Sri Venkateshwara Temples in Bridgewater, NJ and Pittsburg, PA; Sri Meenakshi Temple, TX; Sri Ganesh temple in NY; and Vraj Dham, PA. Other Hindu groups included: Educators Society for the Heritage of India, Gayatri Pariwar, Hindu American Foundation, Hindu Intl Council against Defamation, Hindu Society of NE Florida, Hindu Students Council, Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, Hindu University of America, Jain Associations in North America, Swadhyay Pariwar, US Hindu Alliance; VHP America., American Institute of Vedic Studies, The Vedic Foundation, Vedic Friends Association; and others.
[Dharma Summit 2005: Press Release (August 15, 2005): Prepared by Beth Kulkarni, with input from others. (Contact for further information: Dr. Ved Chaudhary, 732-972-1489,
Email: [email protected]) ]
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(HPI note: This report was prepared before the above press release arrived, so there is some overlap in the information.) After initially wondering if anyone would attend, Dr. Ved Chaudhary finally had to close enrollment in the Dharma Summit 2005 when it reached capacity at 400 (including representatives from 80 Hindu institutions), in the process turning away scores. Under the inspired and personal direction of one of today's most dynamic spiritual leaders. Sri Swami Dayananda Saraswati, who turned 75 on the final day of the New Jersey event, Dr. Chaudhary organized the Summit to "bring together heads of all Devalayas, spiritual institutions, and Dharmic intellectuals in North America to exchange thoughts and ideas, and share experiences on how to impart spiritual and cultural education to our next generation and remove misperceptions about our faith traditions from the society in order to maintain our Dharmic traditions with dignity." Quite an ambitious set of objectives. The conference included Hindus, Jains and Sikhs.


Organizer Ved Chaudary told HPI, "The conference exceeded my expectations in the number of attendees and organizations that participated, and the quality of presentations from many speakers. The conference met the highest professional standards. What I consider the most important outcome of the conference is the spirit of unity that the conference fostered among the attendees, the awareness and acceptance of contemporary issues facing the community and an overwhelming desire to undertake a collective initiative to shape the future of Hindu Traditions in North America."


The days were long throughout the sessions: a 7:30am breakfast gathering, 9 am starting of the formal session which went on to 9:30 or 10 pm, with breakfast, lunch and dinner (provided free by BAPS volunteers) served at the conference venue at the Student Center at Rutgers University (one of the oldest colleges in America, founded by none other than Benjamin Franklin in 1766, a red brick college near a river, in a 350-year-old town.)


Major spiritual leaders graced the conference, including Swami Dayananda Saraswati of Arsha Vidya Gurukul, PA; Swami Chidananda Saraswati (Muniji) of Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh, India; Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami, publisher of Hinduism Today magazine and HPI; Gurudev Chitrabhanu of Jain Ashram, NY; Dr. Pranav Pandya of Gayatri Pariwar, Haridwar, India, Swami Jyotirmayananda of Vivekananda Center, Mangalore, Swamini Janeshwari Devi of Barsana Dham and others. Also many intellectuals spoke in various sessions including Dr. Ved Nanda, Prof. Bhudev Sharma, Dr. David Frawley, Dr. Piyush Agrawal, Sri Kanchan Banerji, Dr. Rakesh Shreedhar, and many others. At Bodhinatha's request, Parmacharya Palaniswami, editor of Hinduism Today, and Sannyasin Arumugaswami, managing editor, attended the entire event and filed this report.


We could report on the contents of each speech, but it is more useful to outline the overall concerns and issues, many of which were touched on by several speakers. We should confess that we missed several speeches and may therefore not be reporting some of the important issues brought up by speakers. We also admit that our notes are not so complete as to include names with every idea and discussion.


Of paramount concern, as mentioned, was the transmission of Hinduism to the second and third generation Hindus now growing up (or grown up) in the US. Generally speaking, there were few organizations who felt they had adequate programs for teaching the youth, though some, such as the Swadhyaya Pariwar found by Sri Athavale, did in fact have fully developed programs of weekly classes and summer youth programs. Several temples directors and managers (and there were dozens there) talked about the need for effective programs. Bodhinatha in his talk emphasized the need for the temples to educate the parents in Hinduism, along with the youth. He also explained the importance of the parents' setting the example in religiousness, beginning with maintaining a strong home shrine where the family worshipped daily. Passing on the faith has its strongest promise in the home, supplemented by other programs such as temple classes, summer camps and cultural training.


Youth education and guidance were foremost on most speakers' minds, with a secondary issue being the treatment Hinduism receives in the dozens of textbooks used in American schools and colleges. In was only in the 1980s that any religion at all was allowed to be taught in US schools. Prior to that it was forbidden, however a court case permitted that, if all religions were taught equally, then students could have classes in religion, or cover religion in their history or social studies courses. Textbooks were rapidly prepared to cover these new courses, which have been incorporated in most schools. However, the books have given shabby treatment to Hinduism. Different speakers explained how to approach the local school board at the time the books were up for adoption, how to influence the selection and even future editions of the books. There was, many noted, a lot of room for improvement! Rajiv Malhotra explained at length the way in which the American and European academics had thoroughly distorted the understanding of Hinduism and ways Hindu communities and leaders can correct this situation


A related issue was treatment in the media, also addressed by several speakers. The temples were encouraged to learn how to deal with their local press through press releases, inviting the press to events and making themselves available to respond to questions and express opinions on subjects that arise. Improving community relations depends on the good understanding that the public has, and this is enhanced by thoughtful media communications.


Many of the speakers associated with temples touched on the subject of integration with the majority community, pointing to the need to be more actively engaged in their neighborhoods and communities. It was observed that a number of Hindu communities are living a rather insular life in America, unaware of the religions of their neighbors and not really trying to join into the mainstream or be part of their town or county. Various speakers encouraged the temples to reach out more, to study the philosophy, history and practices of the faiths they are surrounded by, get to know the leaders of other religious communities, participate locally through charitable programs, free clinics, free feedings and the like. There was a strong youth presence from the Hindu Students Council and the Hindu American Foundation. It can also be said, however, that the youth presence was not as strong as it should have been, nor was the participation of women.


On the third day, a new series of presentations began with a smaller group who were focused only on the management and administration of Hindu temples in North America. Swami Dayananda Saraswati, whose presence was inspiring to all and who patiently sat through the entire conference, began the day proposing the formation of a Hindu Collective Initiative. Swamiji outlined a basic organizational structure for continued cooperation, envisioning a steering committee which would be formed to implement the goals of the Dharma Summit, supplemented by hired, not voluntary, full-time staff.


On August 15th, which happened to be India's Independence Day (and Swamiji's birthday), talks and discussions turned to a constellation of Hindu temple issues. One is priest training. This came in two aspects. One, the specific duties of priests with regard to the temple ceremonies, and the duties with regard to home ceremonies, especially funerals. Traditionally in India, these are handled by two different groups of priests. One performs the temple ceremonies, the other performs all the home ceremonies. In the absence of adequate priests, many temples have priests from either tradition performing both tasks, one of which they are not often trained for. The second is the recognition of the need for both teachers of Hinduism and counselors to deal with personal problems of devotees. Priests are trained to perform neither of these functions, though some priests have done both successfully. Participants debated whether community members should be trained to fulfill the role of spiritual counselor, or if the priests should be so trained, with the general opinion favoring the former. Some temple leaders recognized the "disconnect" between temple priests and youth, and recommended they be trained in American cultural ways and language, even while they are in India. It was reported there are 50 massive temples in America and over 700 smaller ones.


Media and community relations were covered, as was participation in interfaith groups. Kathy Nanda of Denver spoke on the legal aspects of temple management, including financial and fiduciary responsibility, with a strong emphasis on liability, libel and defamation, even hate crimes. She urged temple board members to clearly understand their legal duties and responsibilities. She also urged the temples to stay out of courts and incorporate arbitration clauses in their by-laws.


Paramacharya Palaniswami followed up on her talk with an explanation of the difference between a religious organization and a "church" under the 501(c) 3 rules of the American Internal Revenue Service which govern nonprofit organizations (click here for those rules). He stressed the legal and social reasons for achieving the more difficult church designation, which is not at all restricted to Christians. There are Buddhist, Muslim and Jewish "churches" under this designation, as well as the Hindu organizations of Saiva Siddhanta Church (ours), Chinmaya Mission, Sringiri Peetham of Pennsylvania, Barsana Dham of Texas and Swami Satchitananda's IYI in Virginia.


Board composition was discussed, with the recommendation from one participant that all board members be required to actively work for the temple. That led to a discussion about what to do with wealthy donors who wanted a seat on the board for their donation, but weren't willing to do any of the work. One participant of a large temple said the issue of "selling" seats on the board always comes up, but directors and managers should resist with knowledge that money will flow abundantly in a temple that puts Ishwar first. To assure a future based on the founding principles, stress was given to making sure the constitution of every temple is strong, for that is the primary guide for future management boards. Constitutions are difficult to change, it was noted, while by-laws can be easily altered by a simple majority.


The Bridgewater Temple of New Jersey, which is just a 15-minute drive from the venue, outlined an interesting program called the "Traveling Mandir." The motivation here is to keep college-age children involved in Hinduism. Their parents organized a one-hour temporary temple at the local college, Rutgers in this case, on Sunday during the same time others are going to Christian services. The short program includes a puja, prayers-meditation and scriptural study. The youth reportedly appreciate this creative effort to give them access to religious observances, and it should be duplicated by other temples to help college students in their region. The importance of volunteer help, especially under the leadership of women, was acknowledged. In fact, it was said more than once that a strong contingent of selfless volunteers is more essential than abundant finance to the health and dynamism of a temple.


Future financial security was addressed in discussions about wills and endowments. Devotees should be encouraged to include a donation to the temple in their wills, "even if it's just 2%." The Salvation Army, America's richest nonprofit by far, receives a majority of its donations each year in the form of bequests from wills, the result of decades of effort on the Salvation Army's part to encourage people to include the Army in their will.


One director of the Bridgewater temple explained how they have created an endowment for their temple the capital of which cannot be touched. Only the revenue from investments can be spent. Other temples have set up similar funds, usually in the form of a "quasi-endowment." A quasi-endowment is one set up by a board with a decision to set aside money in a special account. A better arrangement, explained Paramacharya Palaniswami, is to set up a formal endowment under a separate corporate structure, the funds of which are managed by third-party professionals. The difference is that the quasi-endowment can be changed or even revoked altogether by any future board, while a true endowment cannot be changed.


Bodhinatha had written up a presentation for the temples encouraging them to clearly define in their literature and on their website six aspects of their temple: mata (their sect or denomination-- Vaishnavite, Saivite, Shakta, Smarta, etc.); murthi (the temple's main Deity); archaka (the temple's formal priestly lineage authorized to perform the worship); agama (the scriptures used for the worship); darshana (the philosophy followed by the temple); and anubhava (the vision or other divine inspiration which sparked the temple's founding). If more temples described themselves in this careful manner, devotees and the wider American public would have a clearer picture of who they are and what they represent.

Overall, it was a successful three days, as Hindus from many parts of the country came together to share their thoughts on issues of mutual concern. For those who would like to know about and participate in future plans, please contact Dr. Ved Chaudhary at [email protected] You can also find photos of the event and Bodhinatha's participation at our website, Today at Kauai Aadheenam, http://www.himalayanacademy.com/taka/past/2005/August/August_15_2005/index.shtml starting part way down the page.
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