(CHAKRA) The Chakra team got a chance to speak with the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) and discussed some of their campaigns, challenges and what they plan to achieve. Below is an interview with Sheetal Shah from HAF.
1. You are heavily involved in religious and spiritual activities within the USA. Please explain what your goal is?
The Hindu American Foundation is not a religious or spiritual organization. We are a non-profit, advocacy group dedicated to providing a credible and professional voice for the Hindu American community. For HAF, advocacy is a three step cycle:
1. Educating others – be it the media, public policy officials, academia, or the public at large – about Hinduism.
2. Speaking up about issues that affect the Hindu American community and Hindus worldwide.
3. Building and maintaining strategic relationships with leaders in government, journalists/reporters, interfaith activists, and academics.
2. Media campaigns you are involved in have a lot of emphasis on ‘interfaith relations’. Do you see much progress in this area between Hinduism and other religions?
Interfaith dialogue is important and one that Hindus need to be involved in. Until recently, interfaith dialogue has been largely dominated by the three Abrahamic faiths – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – with little to no involvement by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and others. That is beginning to shift, but slowly. There has been an substantial increase in the dialogue between Hindus and Jews, as well as between Hindus and some branches of Christianity, especially Episcopalians.
One of the largest interfaith gatherings is the Parliament of the World’s Religion, which takes place every five years. HAF representatives attended the last one in 2009 and had the opportunity to discuss complex and diverse issues with religious and spiritual leaders of all faiths. More information on that event can be found online at http://www.hafsite.org/media/pr/haf-prw.
3. You recently came under the spotlight during your ‘Take Back Yoga’ campaign. Have you faced any such resistance and hate from other groups related to this campaign?
I would not categorize any of the resistance as “hate,” but rather spirited debate and dialog – some of if enlightening and some steeped in intentional or unintentional misunderstanding. We will always find individuals and groups who will disagree with us on any number of issues, and we welcome to the opportunity to debate and discuss. Take Back Yoga was successful in generating a far-reaching discussion about the Hindu roots of yoga, and it touched all corners of the yoga world – from publications like Yoga Journal to authors such as Deepak Chopra to newspapers such as the New York Times to the everyday yoga practitioner. Some agreed, others disagreed. But we were successful in getting people to talk about yoga and Hinduism in the same breath.
4. Do you think there is a growing shift in the acceptance of Dharmic faiths within the USA and other western nations?
There is a growing acceptance of many of the concepts inherent to Dharmic traditions, and the popularity of yoga has greatly aided that. Karma – although not always correctly understood – is perhaps the most widely cited of Dharmic beliefs. But the concept has only been superficially grasped as “what goes around, comes around.” In reality, a belief in karma assumes a belief in an undying, everlasting soul (or atman) which accrues karma over lifetimes – and thus, also assumes a belief in reincarnation, which is still not as popular of a concept in the West. But, yoga has highlighted the concept inherent behind the greeting “Namaste” – the idea that the Divine resides within all of us; the idea that we can look inward to find enlightenment.
About two years ago, an article in Newsweek entitled “We Are All Hindus Now” examined the growing acceptance of the core Hindu ideal of pluralism, the idea that there are multiple paths to the Divine. The article can still be found online at http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2009/08/14/we-are-all-hindus-now.html.
5. If there was one single campaign that you feel people are ignoring and would want media to highlight it, what would it be?
One of the largest issues faced by Hindus in India is coerced, forced, and unethical conversion or what we at HAF call predatory proselyzation. Underhanded tactics used by missionaries to prey upon the most vulnerable of society – the poor, uneducated, illiterate – have been ongoing for years in an effort to convert Hindus. The poor are offered money or jobs, the uneducated are offered schooling, and the sick are offered medical care. But most of the time, missionaries provide these services with the stipulation that the recipient must convert. These conversions break apart families and communities.
As Aseem Shukla, member of HAF’s Board of Directors, stated in the Washington Post, “The violence of conversion is very real. The religious conversion is too often a conversion to intolerance. A convert is asked to repudiate his sangha (community), reject the customs and traditions of his family passed down for generations, and refuse to attend religious ceremonies that are the very basis of daily life in much of the world. A person’s conversion begins a cascade of upheaval that tears apart families, communities and societies creating a political and demographic tinderbox that too often explodes.”
Unfortunately, billions of dollars are flooding Christian missionary organizations in India whose purpose is to “harvest souls.” It’s a tragic reality that has been ignored by the media for far too long.