A Conversation with Anju Bhargava, Founder, Hindu American Seva Communities, Washington, D.C.
March 1, 2018
Background: In March 2018, undergraduate student Shilpa Rao interviewed Anju Bhargava as part of the Doyle Undergraduate Fellows Program. Bhargava is the founder of Hindu American Seva Communities (HASC) and a former member of President Barack Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. In this interview, Bhargava discusses her perspectives on the Hindu identity and social justice and describes the HASC’s work.
Could you talk about what motivated you to get involved in this work?
My daughter inspired me to question differences, inequalities, and identity. It started when she was 2 years old and asked me why she looked different. This prompted me to start understanding who I am in America and asking questions about my daughter’s identity. As an immigrant, I recognized that I am an ancestor to an American of Indian heritage. I felt it was important for my daughter to understand her roots, or where she comes from. Equally important, it was important for her to understand her American identity. As a Hindu, I think about religion as a way to answer that question: who am I?
Indian culture today includes all religions that have become part of India in the last 2,000 years, and Hinduism is a major core of that. So, trying to educate my daughter became a personal journey for me to learn about Indian culture and Hinduism through many mediums—readings, Bharatanatyam dance, etc. Fortunately, I lived close to New York, so I had a lot of diverse perspectives of these traditions. I saw that Hinduism, which is generally not structured as an organized religion, when understood in the way it was intended to be, is a way of life and a means to find the divine within.
I learned and shared my learnings through different venues. For example, in the 1990s, Columbia University hosted a conference on the figure Sita and her impact. They asked me to present Sita from an immigrant perspective. I generally knew about Sita, but needed to bring out the contemporary aspects of her influence. Fortunately, I got access to research that helped me understand the inner meaning of Sita. I connected with her as a strong role model and wrote my first essay on Sita—“Sitayanam—A Woman’s Journey of Strength.” As a woman, wherever you are in your journey, you can connect with her story of strength.
Professionally, I was a banker. I became responsible for diversity. With my peers, I helped to create a Corporate Diversity Network and augmented Governor Whitman’s leadership initiatives in New Jersey. The bank that I worked for got sold, and I saw the underbelly of corporate America, of being a minority. I explicitly experienced consequences of white privilege and understood what it meant to be a minority. That made me realize that it wasn’t enough to learn and adapt—I had to do something about identity issues.
So, I joined the government. I became part of the Community Building fellowship program that Congress approved, which was administered through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1998 through 2000. At that time, the White House had started recognizing faith-based organizations as important partners of the government that helped to promote social services. For example, Catholic Charities has been the largest receiver of federal grants.
As I became aware of that fact, I turned to my community to encourage them to be part of this American tradition. I went to mosques, temples, and new immigrant community organizations. I talked at Hindu gatherings and said that temples should be used to serve, and I encouraged leaders to organize and coordinate these activities. They told me to write a strategy paper, but I did not know where to even begin at that time.
In the meantime, I had become an ordained priest and joined Livingston’s Interfaith Clergy Association. I was engaged in considerable interfaith work as the Hindu representative—and only non-Judeo-Christian representative. I also got a lot of exposure to how other faiths (primarily organized religions) work. As part of the collaboration, I participated in interfaith dialogues and worked on service projects.
From the early 1980s, I had started working to meet the needs of the Indian community at different levels. My work started with the organization Asian Indian Women in America (AIWA) in New York, where later I served as president. My work with AIWA was more on the secular side. It was the first Indian women’s organization in America—we held the first job fair in the 1980s for the community and started a women’s shelter. In 1983, the White House (during the Reagan administration) recognized Asian-American women as a constituency for the first time, and AIWA (including me) attended the briefing. Early on in my adult life, I observed how organized other Asian-American communities were and realized Indians/South Asians had so much developmental work to do. Eventually, in the late 1990s, with the Asia Society in New York, I started a leadership initiative for South Asian-American women.
The faith aspect of service came into play as I realized the connection of seva, or service, to Dharma. That realization eventually led me to apply for the White House Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. I happened to be the right person with the right background at the right time. My credentials were presented to the White House people, who were looking for a Hindu (President Obama was the first person to include the word “Hindu” in his inaugural speech). People who had seen my work, especially the Indian people who were part of the Obama administration, vouched for me when my name came up. So, I became the only Hindu (and person of Eastern tradition) on the council. Since I was in transition, I had available time. I was able to attend the briefings given by all federal agencies and got exposure to many issues. That gave me the content I had lacked earlier to do a strategy paper.
This strategy paper, “Hindu American Community Building through Seva—Call to Serve Briefing Report for President Obama” was the first of its kind for the community. In the paper, I outlined who Hindus and the broader Dharmic community are as a people, our history, our strengths and weaknesses as a community, and value we could add to this country. I shared it with the administration, all major Dharmic leaders, the Congress, and the Senate. With the guidance of the White House, I started Hindu American Seva Communities. I was fortunate enough to have a national platform. When you have the White House name behind you, doors open and people listen. So, I met with many religious leaders and gave them my strategy paper. They all agreed that we needed to bring the service component to the forefront of our Hindu and Dharmic places of worship. We tackled many issues, which led us to host five conferences at the White House. It was the first time that Hindu representation, along with Buddhist, Sikh. and Jain representation, was present as part of the American experience. We, as an empowered community, addressed our issues directly with government officials at the White House.
So it truly was a journey, starting from trying to make my daughter comfortable in this country. At that time, we didn’t have many role models, but we have evolved since then. We have now built institutions and given a platform to our culture. From there, we have begun to enter the mainstream community and understand what inclusion requires. I have been very fortunate to have a voice and seat at the table from practically the beginning of the Indian-American integration journey.
What is the value of working with faith-based organizations, as opposed to working with secular organizations?
Hindus and people of Eastern faiths are relative newcomers. Our migration started primarily after the 1965 Civil Rights movement. In 1977, there were only two temples—one in New York and one in Pittsburgh. People would instead gather together and worship in their homes. The temple movement only started in the 1980s, and it took time for us to build temples, because we had to earn and donate to purchase the land and construct the institutions. The temple movement of seva could only happen when the places of worship were built with regular congregations.
The slow adoption of seva at the temples is a reflection of the heritage we brought with us. The traditional culture of the Hindu temples in India was socially re-engineered so that the community development aspects such as seva were removed by rulers. During British rule, all Hindu temples were under the jurisdiction of the government, and this has continued after independence. The income of temples is revenue for the government, so Hindu worshipers do not have control to use it for community development. So, in the early days in the Hindu-American journey, we built structures to bring in worshippers to attend priestly services. As the community has become more integrated, they have recognized that temples can play a bigger role as a community hub.
Temples are seen as safe havens. They are the sanctuaries where people in need turn to in prayer. Often, the holy environment brings out the best in people. It is here that givers and those in need can be fulfilled. For example, say a woman is in a situation of domestic violence. When the temple management and volunteers help her, it gives a woman more confidence that her faith has accepted rather than shunned her. It gives her the courage to deal with her situation. Temples across the country are in various stages of accepting the changing role. Today, most have some component of seva. However, acceptance of dealing with social justice issues has been slower.
We have tried to influence the temples to expand seva and explicitly deal with social justice issues. Trying to show by example, we have worked to make temples more inclusive.
What are the strengths of temples?
We need a place of worship. Temples have become the go-to place from a cultural perspective—classical dances and music performances take place there, and festivals are celebrated there. Temples have become community centers, and many of them are giving space to educate and develop youth leaders. Management of some temples is more liberal than that of others, but all temples are doing some service now. More and more people are looking at how they can serve. I hope temples will evolve to not only deal with social justice issues but also to assist people going through difficult times.
What aspects of Hindu scripture or mythology have inspired your work in social justice?
I have studied Hinduism from the Vedantic perspective, and I have studied some of the Puranas and learned about archetypal role models such as Sita. In addition to Vedantic studies, I have learned from Jewish, Christian, and Sufi teachers. I have learned to analyze scriptures, pujas, and Puranas (with mythology) from a metaphysical perspective, to look at the inner meaning of teachings. My teachers told me that what I was learning was a way of thinking and that I could apply this metaphysical perspective to reinterpret Hindu scriptures/Puranas as seva and service. Seva was a seed that got planted in me very early on—while in school, I did national community service and went to hospitals and served the poor.
The Vedantic thought that has influenced me the most is that there is only One and that we are all One; everything else is a manifestation of that One and the divine within everybody is just that One. This thought has been my motivator in everything.
The other principle that has influenced me is from the Bhagavad Gita, the core essence of Hindu philosophy. The Bhagavad Gita says that the ultimate goal of life is moksha, or salvation, and freedom from the bonds that tie us. One of my teachers in Chennai explained clearly that the first step to moksha is compassion. Without serving, you cannot really think you can aspire to be free.
I presented this philosophy at the 2012 Democratic National Convention meeting at a session called “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” The answer to that question is yes. Our scriptures say that we are our “brothers’ keepers.” Hindu scriptures always talk about one’s own development, but in order to do that, one has to serve others.
The interesting observation that I have made is that the Hindu approach to social justice is different. Western approaches to social justice often ask individuals to correct wrongs. But I see Hinduism as encouraging one to do the right thing first. For example, Vedantic Hinduism says that the divine is within everyone and focuses on honoring individuals at all levels. In regards to health and wellness, the focus is on prevention of illness through yoga, Ayurveda, and meditation.
What is a Hindu identity?
There is no one ideology we have. For me, Hinduism is connecting with Vedic philosophy. What we see outside, social injustices, are customs and that have morphed and been practiced blindly, not core Vedic philosophy. Vedic tradition always encourages one to question. Most of our scriptures are written in a question-answer format. For me, it all comes back to knowing that there is only One.
Can you talk about the work HASC has done?
HASC has attempted to promote seva through a wide spectrum of activities. We have tried to show how Hindu thought and self-development towards moksha can be further amplified through service.
Our focus has been on youth development, largely through workshops. Our five White House conferences gave exposure to hundreds of young people as to how to actively engage as servant leaders.
We have created an innovative program called “UtsavSeva,” which was based on the idea that every Hindu festival should be connected with its Vedantic, philosophical meaning, and seva, or service. The strength of the Dharmic culture is the multitude of ways in which the Puranic (ancient traditional) stories and epics are brought to life through colorful festivals and selfless service (seva). These stories and epics bring to surface the deep philosophical truths of the ancient Hindu scriptures, known as the Vedas. Festivals often express the common Vedic tenets of Hinduism, and of other Dharmic cultures, making them accessible to people from all walks of life.
We have emphasized that festivals are not just to “eat, drink, and be merry.” A festival is a joyful synthesis and expression of spirituality, religion, philosophy, culture, service, and social values. The spiritual aspect is founded on human instincts of joy and happiness. The philosophical aspect is grounded in the struggle between the forces of good and evil with the ultimate triumph of the former. This struggle and ensuing victory of good is to be celebrated and used as a reminder to us, and future generations, that selfless service and giving are an interwoven part of our traditions.
Festivals form a lifeline that bind the Hindu and Dharmic cultures to family, the community, and the country in which they reside. Hindu festivals also reflect and sustain pluralistic values for diverse people to coexist harmoniously. We stress that festivals are a time to donate and help those in need. For example, seva during Diwali means bringing in light, especially in the life of those less fortunate than us. The Diwali message of victory of light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance can unify everyone, by advancing community service and values of pluralism and collaboration.
Our tradition has often been taught with high-level thoughts and aphorisms. Young people often do not know how to connect this philosophy to everyday life, so we used UtsavSeva to bridge that gap. UtsavSeva has resonated well with college students—especially those who attend universities without Hindu chaplains. Often, students say they are not religious, because they do now know how to practice Hinduism (for example, through pujas). UtsavSeva shows them a way to connect with Hindu philosophy, spirituality, and practice in a way that aligns with the service activities other faith communities do on college campuses.
The virtual seva centers concept was another program we created for temples to engage in community development and service. Temples have adopted these concepts in different ways across the country. For example, in the greater D.C. area Siva Vishnu temple, we placed domestic violence awareness flyers in bathrooms, held interfaith dialogues, prepared care packages for the military, and coordinated yogathons across the country. At the SBAT temple in Maryland, we held youth leadership workshops. In the Vedanta Center in Washington, D.C., we encouraged a health fair. In fact, many temples in the United States have volunteer physicians who come in and hold health fairs and clinics, as the Indian community has a large percentage of physicians.
In New Jersey, we coordinated a workshop with Homeland Security in the Bridgewater Balaji temple to help temples and gurdwaras to better protect themselves. We have also promoted wellness and balanced nutrition through an initiative called MyThali. This is closely aligned with My Plate, which we see as the traditional Indian thali, with a carbohydrate, protein, vegetables, and a milk product.
In terms of environmental efforts, we worked with the Environmental Protection Agency to promote energy conservation and create training material. We also partnered with GreenFaith to promote learning about the environment among the youth from an interfaith perspective. For Hindus, worshiping and honoring Mother Earth is integral to the practice of faith. It is connected with the rhythm of nature. Even today, some homes make decorative rangoli patterns outside their houses with rice flour, which also helps to feed small creatures.
We also worked with Bhutanese refugee youth to augment their adaptation to the new homeland. Overnight, after their arrival, they had become marginalized. We introduced them to minority children in a school in Newark, New Jersey. They not only connected on similarities of the minority experience, but also exchanged cultural perspectives. The native skills they had brought, such as knowledge of organic farming, became a common ground for a collaborative project.
We have partnered with Georgetown to host several events. For example, our first White House conference held in 2011 was called “Energizing Dharmic Seva.” It was a multi-day event, with the first day at the White House, followed by two days at Georgetown of in-depth discussions on strengthening youth leadership through faith and interfaith focuses. For example, the youth showcased the Newark collaboration and crosscultural understanding of faith traditions.
We have done interfaith work in collaboration with groups such as the Interfaith Youth Core, Catholic Charities, We Repair, and many other organizations. The youth came together to work on service projects such as creating food package for the homeless. One of our current interfaith projects is working with organizations such as United Way to provide solar lanterns to people in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, in areas affected by the hurricane. The project has expanded beyond lanterns, and our team is now working to get solar cooking ranges to feed people in need.
What are some challenges faced by the Hindu community in pursuing social justice?
Many immigrants have not grown up thinking that they need to function with an explicitly Hindu identity. When you say you want to do social justice, many Hindus ask why you want to do that with a Hindu name. Often, when Hindus start working on social justice issues with the Hindu identity, they have to individually piece together scriptural narratives to understand connections, and that takes time and effort.
Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey are some prominent celebrities practicing Hinduism in a new way—Vedic Hinduism, packaged as New Age. Many people are practicing New Age Hinduism without connecting with Hindu thought. It has been infused in the literature of other religions as well. Hence, aspects of Hinduism have been appropriated, and people are marketing it. That affects identity, because you do not need to call yourself Hindu while you are practicing the faith only through meditation, yoga, Ayurveda, etc.
In America, on college campuses, students are searching and developing their identities, especially faith and religious ones. In my work with colleges, I have found that many college students are struggling to find the Hindu identity. There is not enough infrastructure to support them and help them navigate Hinduism from an American perspective. It is necessary to first discover what it means to be Hindu, and then connect it to social justice. For an 18- or 20-year-old, the task of understanding scriptures and connecting with seva can become monumental. I hope that one day, there will be many more Hindu chaplains on campus, beyond those we currently have in just five universities.
When people ask why “Hindu” is incorporated into HASC’s name, I say that I want the word included because Hindus don’t have many organizations focused on conducting seva while explicitly connecting with Hindu principles. I feel it is important for Hindus to understand the advaitic and metaphysical meaning behind the symbolism and to connect it with seva and social justice. We also need to inculcate our youth with the servant leader concepts taught in the Bhagavad Gita to equip them to handle social justice issues
Many Hindus do not understand that in the American political landscape, the Hindu identity is relatively unempowered, compared to other religious identities. Serving on President Obama’s council showed me what it was like to be an empowered Hindu American. I feel I have gained insights into the interplay of faith and politics and the need to connect seva with practice such as festivals, and I want to pass this knowledge on.