A Conversation with Dr. Ved Chaudhary, Co-founder, Hindu American Seva Communities, Washington, D.C.
March 1, 2018
Background: In March 2018, undergraduate student Shilpa Rao interviewed Dr. Ved Chaudhary as part of the Doyle Undergraduate Fellows Program. Dr. Chaudhary is the co-founder of Hindu American Seva Communities (HASC), president of the Educators Society for Heritage of India (ESHA), and a retired assistant commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. In this interview, he describes his background in faith-based social justice work, discusses the work HASC engages in, and explores the importance of interfaith activism.
What inspired you to get involved with this work?
I have been in this space for a long time. I have served on the New Jersey State Advisory Council of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1992 through 2004. Before that, I had started an New Jersey chapter of the Indian American Forum for Political Education (IAFPE) in 1987.
In 1987, there was a huge problem in New Jersey with a youth gang who called themselves the Dotbusters. In Jersey City, new immigrants from Africa (of Indian heritage) had come because Idi Amin had expelled Indian people from Uganda. Some of these people had money, and they came to the United States and bought property. The local people resented that the immigrants became landlords while they were tenants, and they might also have disliked some Indian mannerisms. So some high school kids formed this gang called the Dotbusters. The dot, or bindi, is the mark of the Hindu religion that many women put on their forehead. Many of the Indian women in New Jersey at the time walked around wearing saris and bindis. The Dotbusters thought they could intimidate these people to leave Jersey City and their properties, because they believed that Hindus were a nonviolent, peace-loving people. So they beat up many people, and at least one individual was killed.
I lived in Central Jersey, but I took a ride to go through Jersey City and see what was happening. On my way there, I heard people hurl slurs like, “You Indian, go back to India,” and other things along those lines. Hearing this was terrible because I had come to the United States in 1965 as a graduate student at Rutgers University and during the 1960s to 1980s, I felt that Indian students and professionals were generally well accepted and respected. I was married and had decided to live in this country and raise my children here. I had applied for citizenship and had become a naturalized citizen in 1974. I thought people here were very inclusive and accepting; I had not seen any firsthand discrimination up to that point. I wanted to live and raise my children with dignity, wherever we lived. But after the Dotbuster incident, we became very concerned that this climate of hate and harassment towards the Indian community would spread from Jersey City to other places. I didn’t want my children to grow up in a society where this kind of racial bias and discrimination were growing.
That’s when I started the New Jersey Chapter of the IAFPE, to induce the Indian-American community to participate in the democratic process and become citizens and register to vote. Most Indian immigrants were happy once they had received green cards and could live here permanently and raise their families. Buying a car and a house was their idea of a good life in America, until the Dotbusters, when they realized that it was important that they become part of broader society. The IAFPE encouraged them to get involved with the political process.
Also due to the escalation of the Dotbusters’ aggressions, the mayor of Jersey City established a commission to enquire into the police not handling the cases of many of those injured. However, before the enquiry progressed too far, the police chief of Jersey City committed suicide (the son of the police chief was the head of the Dotbusters group). However, luckily, with the help of the mayor and former assemblyman Bob Menendez from Jersey City, IAFPE worked with many other New Jersey legislators to raise their awareness of the issue and got a law passed against the racial harassment of minorities, signed by former Gov. James Florio in 1990. Going through that experience, I’ve been very aware of the need to be proactive for all minorities—especially Asian-Americans—since we’ve been around for many generations, but people still ask us what country we are from. Racial discrimination and intimidation still exist, so we need to be watchful.
I am also aware that Indian immigrants don’t want to associate with their religion openly. They think that religion is something that should be practiced at home or in the temple and otherwise not spoken of. I became acutely aware of this phenomenon when I attended a large interfaith conference organized by the head of public safety at Rutgers University after 9/11. They had on stage Catholic, Protestant, Baptist Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh speakers, but no Buddhist or Hindu speakers. As soon as I saw the agenda, I talked to the head of public safety and asked why there were no Hindu or Buddhist speakers on the agenda. He responded embarrassingly that he didn’t know any Hindus. I told him that Rutgers had at least 2,000 Indian students and staff and asked why couldn't he find one speaker. He agreed there were many Indian students and professors, but he said he didn’t know if any of them were Hindus. It then became clear to me that there is a tremendous lack of information about our religion, which became a source of inspiration for me to think and form ideas about how to establish the Hindu community as a clearly visible and vibrant piece of the mosaic that is the interfaith community in the United States. Anju Bhargava, who was appointed a member of Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, was also very interested in this same issue. So, we got together and founded the Hindu American Seva Communities with a special emphasis on social justice.
What is the relationship between Hinduism and social justice?
The Hindu religion is one which is different than many Western religions in that it always allowed freedom of religion, thought, speech, and inclusion. India is the only country in the world where Jews came and lived in communal harmony and faced no discrimination. Even today, there are still Jewish synagogues in India. Similarly, many Parsis (from Persia) also came to India, as a result of their religious persecution, following the Arab conquest of Persia. Their community still follows everything of their faith, and they are the richest community in India.
Religion is something which is personal to oneself and one’s personal connection to a supreme deity, whichever deity that may be. In Hinduism, there are many deities, and I give freedom to my children to worship whichever deities they want. For example, if my daughter likes Krishna, she can worship Krishna; if my son likes Shiva, he can worship Shiva; they can worship Hanuman, or whoever else. On our altar at home, we have all these deities, and we go to any temple we want. Our only preference may be the language spoken at the temple, but we do not choose on the basis of color, or faith, or caste. We respect that the equal treatment of people has been a part of Hindu fabric for thousands of years.
A quotation from Hindu texts illustrates the idea of equal treatment: “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” means that “the whole world is one family.” In other words, the whole world is made of brothers and sisters, irrespective of our skin color or faith. Another example of equal treatment is that Hindus say “Namaste” when we meet each other. “Namaste” means “I respect you,” “I accept you,” or “I bow to you,” all of which represent the highest levels of respect. We do not say “I merely tolerate you,” which is rather condescending. We focus on respect, not toleration, because we believe we are all children of one God and we all have the same souls. This entails equality.
There is a book by Professor Alok Kumar of SUNY titled Sciences of the Ancient Hindus with the subtitle Searching for Truth in the Pursuit of Salvation. In that book, you find that great Hindu mathematicians were actually conducting search for truth, for that leads to salvation. The idea of salvation in Hinduism is not that you follow a particular name of God (that’s what the fight is all about these days). Spirituality entails a search for truth, and science also entails a search for truth. So there should be mutual respect and acceptance. Therefore, no scientist was ever prosecuted or killed in India—rather, they were held in the highest esteem and supported by all Hindu kings. We come from a tradition where no one should be harassed in the name of God.
What is the work of Hindu American Seva Communities?
At some point after she was appointed by President Obama, Anju contacted me, as I was heading the Hindu Collective Initiative of North America at the time. Anju shared her thoughts about launching an organization—something like Hindu seva. Everyone else on the interfaith council came from major faith backgrounds, and their organizations were doing so much community service. Thus, we started thinking about compiling and projecting what seva activities the Hindu community was doing. We initially talked to Catholic Charities, and they suggested that we start an organization and call it Hindu Seva Charities. However, as we talked to other people in our community, they suggested we call it Hindu American Seva Charities, so we first incorporated the organization in that name. Later, as we progressed, we wanted to include community service and social justice, which is more than charity.
I think of charity as offering basic necessities (food, water, shelter, clothing, blankets) to the poor and needy round the year, and especially during disasters. However, I think of social justice as what Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. worked for their entire lives and what their legacy stands for. That is, to help disadvantaged communities receive education, security, police/Department of Homeland Security protection, government services, environmental protection, and financial services, business contracts without bias, prejudice, harassment, etc. We wanted to be in the social justice arena rather than in the charity arena, so we included “communities” in the name of our organization.
I retired in 2010, and that is when we got HASC set up. We established contacts with the National Corporation for Community Service, which supports Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a program which allows young people who have just graduated from college or just retired to take a year off and do community service. I applied to get three to four volunteers for HASC through VISTA, and we have since had a few different volunteers. For example, Niki Shah, a graduate student from Rutgers, became one of our VISTA who mentored Bhutanese refugee children in Trenton, New Jersey. He also mentored and taught yoga to school children (who could not afford to go to a camp during summer recess) in a local school in Bergen, New Jersey. As part of HASC, he also worked with an organization called Women for Afghan Women, based in New York, and helped to teach English to Afghan refugees. He also worked with various Hindu organizations to collect and donate blankets to these refugees.
In Minnesota, Dr. Kumud Sane, a retired physician, served as a VISTA. She worked very hard to support the Bhutanese refugee community there. They were new immigrants, not knowing the language and culture of local communities. For a knowledgeable VISTA to be there to help and provide information to them was a big service. She also helped them to see what kinds of services were available from other government agencies. They also had children who were going to school and needed help with English, Standardized Achievement Tests, college admissions and financial assistance, so she tried to help with all that.
Anju was very interested in having our faith as an integral part of the seva that we are doing, so she started the UtsavSeva. Utsav means festival, and Hindus have more than one utsav every month. Some people say Hinduism is a way of life rather than just a religion, something I have seen practiced at the South Indian temple in my town in New Jersey. The temple, other than being a spiritual place, acts as a community center. Understanding this, Anju worked on how to combine our holidays with aspects of social justice appropriate for the occasion.
In terms of other initiatives, the Sikh community has been the target of hate crimes, even though it has the strongest organizations of communities from India. Sikhs, with their beards and turbans, essential marks of their faith, are often mistaken for terrorists. So, there was a need to relate the problems of Sikh communities to the Department of Homeland Security. Anju took the initiative to work with Homeland Security to hold sessions around temple safety for gurdwaras (Sikh temples), as well as for Hindu, Sikh, and Jain temples in general. Those sessions were very well attended by people and were very beneficial for the community.
Anju also collected data for a year about all the various service activities done by Hindu, Jain, and Sikh communities. She published a comprehensive report that she presented to President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and others. These reports helped many people to understand for the first time that there is an aspect of seva as community service that is specifically Hindu.
As I said before, many Hindus do not want to identify their religion outside their homes or temples, but Anju and I felt that we should have an organization that brings the Hindu concept of seva into the public forum and heralds the message that our faith stands for community service. This is the space we had found lacking, and HASC was our effort to promote and showcase our concept of seva as social justice and to involve the Hindu community, especially the young generation, in community service. Many in the young generation have found spiritual inspiration in the sevaaspect of our tradition.
What is the importance of interfaith work, and what interfaith work does HASC engage in?
There have been many Hindu temples that have been built across the country. Now, there must be more than 1,000, which is great. But Hindus are still not part of the larger community. The best way for a new seva organization to get involved in the community is through the interfaith network. Before we had a lot of infrastructure, we could work with them. So, HASC has gotten to know other faith groups who have had facilities and working systems for a longer time. If we asked how we could help, they were happy to accept us and put us to work. Interfaith groups became aware and interested that Hindus were engaging in community service initiatives through HASC, which helped us, them, and the local community. Through interfaith, we could show our presence and be productive from day one.
In Kansas, Rema Venkatasubban, one of our VISTA, did a lot of interfaith work. The interfaith groups were providing services in a few places, in neighborhoods where disadvantaged communities lived. Temples are generally not in those neighborhoods, but Rema made arrangements with the interfaith groups that one day a week, there would be a Hindu group from HASC who would provide services to people from that community.
In northern New Jersey, there is a big Hindu community associated with the Sadhu Vaswani center in Bergen County. The center is very much focused on providing services and reaching out beyond the Hindu community. Bergen also has a large interfaith association, which holds various events throughout the year. One of our volunteers, Niki Shah, worked with them to collect resources from Hindu groups and help other groups provide needed services.
In Minnesota, Dr. Kumud Sane, our lead volunteer, who used to be the chair of the board of trustees of a large Hindu temple, also worked with the interfaith groups there. She was helping Bhutanese refugees, who were also provided services by other faith organizations. She tried to reach out to heads of other places of worship and convey to them what she wanted to do. Because she had access to the temple, she got many refugees to come there for Diwali, the Festival of Lights, which was a big attraction for them. Thus, we always try to work with interfaith groups to cross-pollinate services and ideas, develop better understanding, and improve communal harmony.
The mission of HASC is unique. It is needed for the community, and I hope, gradually, more young people will come to work with us. Young people find working with others in the community very rewarding. They know that they are minorities, but they have certain advantages such as education. This is just bringing that awareness. The space seva occupies is very much needed, and I hope more young people will get involved.