A Crash Course in Keeping the Faith

By Richa Karmarkar, originally published by Religion New Service.

(RNS) — “Temples are built for young people,” said Uma Mysorekar, the president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America, to an audience of young Hindus gathered at the Sri Maha Vallabha Ganapati Devasthanam, a large temple spanning a full block in New York’s Queens borough.

The mix of college kids and young professionals had come to participate in Akshayam, a venture sponsored by HTSNA to keep the lessons of the faith in front of the next generation of Hindu leaders in the United States. Through community service and educational consortiums, Akshayam’s organizers are also aiming to regain a hold on a religion being pulled in multiple directions by India’s nationalist politics on one hand and Western influence on the other.

Sitting in the temple’s Parvati Hall, named after Hinduism’s archetypal mother goddess, these Hindus are here to discuss the Ramayana, an epic narrative that tells the story of God’s incarnations and their interactions with humans.

“To be Hindu is to read,” said Vishwa Adluri, a professor of philosophy at Hunter College in New York and one of the day’s panelists. Noting that children of other faiths have long had Sunday school classes, Bible studies and other avenues to have rich theological discussions from a young age, he said it is now time for young Hindus to incorporate the study of the faith into their identity. 

The young people in the room appeared more than willing. As religious scholars presented the importance of the steadfast relationships between Ram, Lakshman and Sita — the Lord, his brother and his wife — and Ram’s epic journey to retrieve Sita from the half-man, half-demon, Ravana, the young people were full of questions about passages that have long been seen as problematic. Why, for instance, did Lord Rama banish his pregnant wife Sita away to the forest, setting up her kidnapping by Ravana and her need for rescue?

The answers often related the ancient texts to the moral questions of the modern world. According to Adluri, villagers in Ram’s kingdom began speaking poorly of Sita behind her back by questioning her chastity. He banished her to maintain his own, and his kingdom’s, dignity. Adluri pointed out how this impulse manifests today in social media, he says, where gossip and slander about others “grows wings,” sometimes leading us to believe misinformation.

“This,” said Adluri, “is how ordinary people become asuras,” or demons.

While the Ramayana and Hinduism’s other main sacred text, the Mahabharata, have been exploited for many TV and movie dramas — most recently the controversial movie “Adipurush” — scholar Aditi Banerjee said reading the text yields so much more nuance to those willing to spend time with it. 

As English translations and online resources proliferate, Banerjee says, it is more important than ever for Hindus to fully embrace their sacred texts, rather than fall prey to shiny Bollywood films and TV shows that can obscure the Hindu narrative.

“The least we can do is read the Ramayana and Mahabharata to be practicing Hindus and good human beings in society — that is our duty to our ancestors,” she explained.

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This article was originally published by Religion New Service and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

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