Youth Outreach with the Kaua’i Adheenam

My parents and I are spending the first two weeks of 2017 in Kaua’i, Hawai’i. A large part of my identity which is masked in my daily life is visible here—my Hindu identity, that is. Each time my family returns to the island, it’s a pilgrimage of sorts.

The Kaua’i Adheenam, or the Kaua’i Hindu Monastery, is located in the hills of Kapa’a, and it is absolutely a different world. I could spend hours (and I have) on the 400 acre premises: walking around, picking fruit, attending pujas, conversing with the swamis (monks), and immersing in nature. Perhaps my favorite part is the ability to sing each morning following the 9 am puja; this incredible opportunity gives me a chance to feel the immensity of the atmosphere, to gain some peace, and to rejuvenate—all of which are difficult to come by in the bustle of our daily lives.

I was brought up Hindu. I’ve spent countless hours at temples over weekends, we’ve hosted rudrams each year in our home, I spent a summer interning for the Hindu American Foundation, and we visit the Kauai’ Adheenam nearly every year. I started singing Carnatic vocal at the age of three, and since then, it’s been my central form of worship. It’s how I’ve connected with Hinduism and spirituality, and it’s how I relax and calm myself. Singing at the monastery is ethereal, bringing me a joy that I can’t explain. So, being here is a wholesome experience for me— allowing me to absorb the spiritual and emotional ambiance emanating from the premises and to feel a peace that I have yet to find in myself and elsewhere.

However, outside this bubble, it’s not that I hide this identity, but that there’s no place or reason for it to come up. My childhood was sectioned—I was Indian and Hindu at home, but these identities rarely meshed with my school life. In high school, we learned about religions, with little to no discussion on Hinduism outside of the caste system. Because of this narrow-minded view of Hinduism, I’ve received a number of ill-informed questions about my religion, comments that I practice paganism and that my religion isn’t real, and furthermore, my Hindu peers are unable to explain the tenets of Hinduism in order to fix these misconceptions. Additionally, I have a number of Christian friends who post about their faith openly, but my Hindu friends feel unable to do the same—our religion isn’t widely acknowledged as a positive faith, and that perception affects our abilities to affirm ourselves.

I sat down with one of the swamis this week to discuss the growing gap between the elders and my generation of Hindus. One of the most compelling—and also most hindering— facets of Hinduism is its flexibility: as a Hindu, you choose how you worship, you choose the path you follow. However, this has caused a large hole to form in my generation’s knowledge. Though we may have attended (sometimes, forced to attend) temple for years, we never actually learned why we gave certain offerings, why we put pranam, why we believe in reincarnation, etc. And because of this lack of understanding, often times, students will go off to college and return as nonbelievers. Bible study and other organized forms of religious discussion, which are present in other religions for youth members, are sparse in Hinduism. Though Balvihar and related programs do exist, attendance is disproportionate to the number of Hindus in the United States, and as such this number will continue to dwindle over generations.

The swamis of the Kaua’i Monastery are hoping to address this problem and to find mediums through which to teach and attract younger generations. They have written a number of books to share Hindu teachings with all ages, made movies on the history of Hinduism (click here to view- there are 4 parts),  and created mobile applications such as Spiritual Workout for us to engage with daily practice. Still, this application requires a basic understanding of Hinduism and also need to be advertised in order to gain popularity. How do we attract generational Hindus who are only Hindu by association and how do we make them interested in learning more? A rift already exists, and filling this gap is going to take an immeasurable amount of effort on our parts. I’ve been thinking about this a lot over this first week here, and I wonder what we can do to better educate and interest young Hindus across the country. Technological outreach certainly seems a viable path, but if this lack of knowledge has already caused widespread disinterest, can an easily accessible application intrigue this audience?

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Shawn Binda says:

    Hi Manu – I share the same sentiments of you. I wrote an article on this that was featured in a Hinduism Today. I am doing what I can to reach out to a younger generation and will be launching a YouTube channel focused on understanding the Hindu experience.

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  2. Chamundi says:

    I think the most effective outreach is still person-to-person. Arm yourself with the pamphlet “Ten Questions People Ask About Hinduism” (which contains a brief but beautiful discussion of yama-niyama) and the later pamphlet “Fourteen Questions…” (which unfortunately does not include yama-niyama). The swamis created these pamphlets to address the most common questions and misconceptions about Hinduism. Memorize the answers, and be ready to respond immediately to any derogatory or misinformed comments or insinuations that you hear, read on Facebook, etc.

    Be bold and unafraid—but be tactful. As Gurudeva has taught us, “Seek points of agreement and none of difference.” You want others to see what they have in common with Hinduism, so express yourself using terminology they understand and are comfortable with. For instance: “Like you, we believe in one Supreme God. Just as Christians understand that God created angels and archangels as well as humans, we understand that God has created great unseen beings, much greater than ourselves. Even though these are also called Gods, we do not mistake them for God.”

    If you encounter other questions and misconceptions that you have trouble answering to your satisfaction, email the swamis for advice. Your Hindu friends will eventually take courage from your example. Usually people are most timid about speaking up when they are unsure of how to respond in a clear, effective way.

    It also helps to explain that the word Hinduism was applied by foreigners to four related but distinct religions—Saivism, Saktism, Vaishnavism and Smartism—occupying a huge geographical area. They share certain scriptures and key beliefs in common, but otherwise vary widely. Similarly, Christianity, Judaism and Islam all revere the Old Testament as scripture and hold certain religious beliefs & worldview in common—yet it would be very confusing to refer to all three under one name. And I’ve heard there are some 35,000 distinct sects within Christianity alone—so Hinduism is certainly not the only religion which can be perplexing to the outsider!

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  3. Chamundi says:

    Likewise, when visitors come in to the Minimela and ask, “Um… what is that… thing… that looks like a swastika?” I answer, “That is a swastika. It’s an ancient Hindu symbol for auspiciousness, good fortune, similarly used by other ancient cultures. It was terribly misused by the Nazis, but we’re not giving it up—any more than the Christians would give up their cross on account of the Inquisition.”

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