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Growing Pains for BU’s Hindus

Increasing recognition, but where to gather?

16

The first sign of reverence is the shoes left outside the School of Theology room. Inside, their 50 owners sit on the carpeted floor as incense perfumes the air near a table draped in white and splashed with colorful murtis (icons) of Hindu deities, including Ganesh, dispatcher of obstacles. (Traders chant his many names at the start of business each day on the Bombay Stock Exchange, according to Stephen Prothero, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of religion.) To the side of the table sit a married Hindu priest and priestess from nearby Lexington in robes, brought in to lead this late-February celebration of the festival of the god Shiva.

They open by leading the group in a gentle chant, accompanied by tambourine and hand drum. Each worshipper has a plastic plate and bowl with ritual items. They will sprinkle themselves with water, anoint the person next to them with vermillion powder, and braid that person’s wrist with thread. “All these props that we are using for puja [ritual practice]—these are meant to focus our mind and focus our hearts on a particular line of thinking,” the priest tells the crowd. “You can think of it as an experiment in which we can connect our mind to the supreme consciousness. At the end of the hour, when you have done this puja, you will find that your energy levels are elevated, your mind is more positive, you’re feeling happier.”

Hinduism boasts the oldest scriptures of any religion, the most worldwide adherents after Christianity and Islam, and a burgeoning BU presence, estimated at more than 350 students. The University has taken notice: this year, it appointed its first Hindu campus minister “because of the strong participation and size of the Hindu Student Council,” says Robert Hill, dean of Marsh Chapel. Meanwhile, an on-again-off-again campaign to find a designated prayer space is on again. Currently, students bounce between the School of Theology and a borrowed basement room in Marsh Chapel for Saturday prayer.

BU Hindu Student Council, Maha Shivratri puja, Boston Hindu community worship

“I don’t think it’s going to happen before I leave,” laments Pratik Desai (CAS’12), copresident of the University’s Hindu Student Council. A rail-slender South Carolinian born in Zimbabwe, Desai says that without space to spare now, BU likely will need two or three years to pin down a permanent location. That’s frustrating to former council officer Prady Tewarie (CAS’13), who says students have sought prayer space “for at least a decade.”

Regular worship attendance is dwarfed by special events; last fall’s rasa lila, a festival of dance, drew more than 1,000 people from BU and nearby to the Metcalf Ballroom, says Desai. Such community outreach won BU’s Hindu students the best chapter award last year from the New Jersey–based Hindu Students Council, which promotes Hindu culture. BU’s Hindu contingent is the largest of that council’s 60 campus members.

Yet with growth comes growing pains. Marsh sometimes needs its basement for special events, and the students must scramble for an alternate venue. “Sometimes, we don’t know where we’re going to be that week,” Desai says. Even if Marsh is available, the largest turnouts, which can hit 100, stretch the basement’s seams. Then there’s the theological problem: the opportunity for the faithful to view icons is a central tenet of Hinduism that’s affronted by the current need to store them in a locked basement closet. “We’ve broken a lot of them in transport, and the fact that they’re in a closet is sacrilegious,” he says. “If you go to a temple, they’ll be on an altar, and they’re treated just like people. So the priest will put them down to go to sleep every night.”

“Hindu worship…is first and foremost about sight,” Prothero notes in his book God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World. “Whereas Protestants go to church to hear the gospel reading and the sermon, Hindus go to temple to see and be seen—to gaze at their beloved gods and to be gazed at lovingly in return.” His book describes Hinduism as “the least dogmatic and the most diverse” of religions. Most believers agree that humanity’s central need is to escape our never-ending cosmic rut of birth, death, and reincarnation. Scriptures offer various routes to escape, Prothero writes, but the most popular today is loving devotion to a personal god chosen by the believer.

BU Hindu Student Council, Maha Shivratri, Boston Hindu community worship

Helping search for space is new campus minister Pandit Ramadheen Ramsamooj. A lecturer at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and headmaster of a New Hampshire private school, he’s at BU part-time, serving students as needed for counseling and worship (he estimates that he made four visits to campus during autumn). Yet as the first minister, he knows he’ll define the job and says he has “very ambitious plans.” Besides a designated worship spot, he’d like to start a scholarship fund for Hindu students from poor nations to attend BU, financed by the University’s Hindu alumni. American interest in India, home to most of the world’s Hindus, runs high now because of that country’s growing economic importance, he says. (A final fact from Prothero: Hindus operate 40 percent of Silicon Valley’s high-tech firms.)

“I also want to help network with not only other Hindu student chapters, but with the greater Boston community,” Ramsamooj says.

He’ll get a chance during the spring festival of colors, Holi. Although it falls in March, BU Hindus celebrated it April 14, when the weather was nicer. A joyous event in which people from all walks typically toss water and colored powder on one another, Holi is observed in the same spirit here, according to Desai–students gathered at the BU Beach and “threw around paint at each other.”

16 Comments
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

16 Comments on Growing Pains for BU’s Hindus

  • Paresh Desai on 03.01.2012 at 10:53 am

    Bravo !! For fighting to keep the aspirations,traditions and culture of your Motherland and ancestors alive so as to pass on this precious heritage to your offspring and the generations to come.

  • Niki on 03.01.2012 at 11:20 am

    I hope their prayer space need gets filled as soon as possible!! This is very discriminatory toward Hindus on campus that they do not have a prayer space.

  • Ethan Hopkins on 03.01.2012 at 11:24 am

    I am disappointed that this is happening at BU.
    In the past few weeks, I have been hearing a lot about this issue from people speaking about it. I hope the BU Community does something about it. Is there a way to help out?

    • Levy Jeston on 03.01.2012 at 11:34 am

      If this is really happening since a decade, why has nothing happened? It says more about the Hindu Club than it does about BU. Figure why the Muslims and Jews are getting their space but not the Hindus? something smells lazy

      • Rina Sethi on 03.01.2012 at 11:40 am

        Yeah, I am not sure why they haven’t told anyone about this earlier.
        Makes me wonder if the Hindu Students Club are just lazy or don’t care about it enough.

  • Shaivi Sukhadia on 03.01.2012 at 12:34 pm

    BU HSC has been doing a lot about this for the past 6 years but it is till now that our voice is getting heard and the need for it is growing. Its definitely a joint effort with HSC and the student body to show administration that it is an important need that must be met. Please reach out to buhsc@bu.edu if you’d like to personally help out with the efforts!

  • BU Alum on 03.01.2012 at 3:05 pm

    The BU Hindu Students Council has attempted to acquire a prayer space on campus multiple times over the past decade. They have met with school officials and prepared countless presentations on the matter. However, it is difficult to get changes like this made especially without the proper connections and financial backing. Obtaining a prayer space on campus is not an easy task; the group has been given a list of things that they must do in order to obtain such a space and they have been working as hard as they can over the years to reach this goal. It is important to keep in mind that these students are just that – STUDENTS. They are volunteering their time and energy so that their peers can be able to celebrate the same Hindu festivities they have grown up with, while also managing their academic and other extracurricular commitments. I think for a group of 8-10 students, the HSC E-board is doing a great job planning and putting on events (with attendees ranging in number from tens to hundreds).

    It is also important to understand the circumstances in which the other religious organizations acquired their spaces so unless all the facts are known, we should not just assume that HSC has not made similar efforts as those organizations. There is definitely some bureaucracy involved as well as other issues that can only be understood if we have all the facts. Instead of criticizing, I think we should appreciate HSC’s efforts and show whatever support we can.

  • Jeena Rao on 03.01.2012 at 4:09 pm

    I hope they can get this going. My sister goes to BU and she told that BU’s HSC chapter has never brought this to the member’s attention during the prayer services. I wonder why? I find it quite offensive that the BU community has not done anything about this.

  • Lindsay Smith on 03.01.2012 at 4:15 pm

    WOW. Just what the P/R BU needed this month. From robbers running into CAS to sexual predators taking pictures in showers and incidents in the hockey team. Hope they resolve this soon, because this is the type of P/R BU needs the least right now!
    Time for another petition? Sign here please!

    • Elija Walker on 03.01.2012 at 5:11 pm

      Is there one we could sign? I have signed like 10 petitions this week but this is one worth signing! Hope they get the space!

  • Nikunj on 03.01.2012 at 6:31 pm

    Great job BU! Keep it up!

    To the folks who are saying that these guys are lazy, why don’t YOU jump in to help out instead of doing mouseclick criticism from your computer or phone. I went to Rutgers and we had many a times created petitions and had meetings with the representatives and Deans of the college. Still, nothing came about.

    Hindu Dharma is a minority religion on campuses and it faces an uphill battle because other groups are well funded from outside while HSC and other Hindu organizations struggle in raising funds.

    Having said that, it CAN be done. So, keep up the fight. If you guys have a petition, please circulate it college wide and also within the community!

    • Gabriella May on 03.02.2012 at 1:51 am

      Having done some reseaech, my biggest issue with this is that on the Hindu Student Council Facebook wall it says that they don’t want to associate themselves with any petitions about a prayer space( which is apparently circulating the web) because it is slanderous. If they don’t care to support a petition why should the BU community care? I think all of BU will stand up for them, but the Hindu Council must stand up for itself first. That being said, I think that is shameful that such a big group has no space! This school needs to change this asap!

  • Prady T on 03.02.2012 at 1:34 am

    Great read!
    As some comments have mentioned, this is a complicated issue and requires a combined effort. That said, greater efforts must be done in the community as a whole and cannot be done by entities such as HSC completely alone. They have tried for several years to get this passed, nevertheless it is important that we stand together to resolve this issue in BU’s community to make a greater impact.
    Signing this petition is a start
    http://www.change.org/petitions/boston-university-administration-allow-south-asians-to-have-a-dedicated-prayer-space

    • Jesse Putnam on 03.02.2012 at 1:45 am

      As someone who isn’t familiar with this issue, I feel for the Hindu Community. I think that BU needs to address this issue RIGHT AWAY! I can’t believe this has been going on for 10 years and no one knows about this? They might not be lazy, but they sure as hell suck at P/R.

  • BU Hindu Students Council on 03.07.2012 at 11:04 pm

    BU HSC would like to thank everyone for their support with this issue. For those of you concerned about BU HSC not reaching out to our members about the prayer space, at our general meetings this year, attendees were informed of the current efforts being made to secure a prayer space on campus. We also asked our members that were interested in helping us to let us know so we can get them further involved. However, if our efforts to publicize did not reach a wider audience, we apologize for that miscommunication.

    To clarify the confusion about BU HSC not supporting the petition currently circulating the web (and posted above), our intention was not to hide the issue from anyone. The reason we did not support the petition posted above is because it initially portrayed false information about both BU HSC and the BU Administration. The administration has in no way denied BU HSC any space in the past. In fact, we are currently working with the administration to obtain a permanent space on campus and the administration has been extremely helpful.

    We work on a daily basis to inform our community about issues affecting Hindus on campus and we welcome constructive criticism and suggestions on how to improve our organization. Please be reassured that we will continue to update the BU community as developments happen.

    If anyone has any further questions, BU HSC would gladly answer them. You may e-mail our account at bostonuhsc@gmail.com. Thank you!

    Best,
    BU HSC

  • AP on 07.03.2012 at 12:14 pm

    BU has publicized the inclusion of ritual footbaths in new construction to accommodate Muslim students in prayer. Yet they are proud of the inability to accommodate the worship of another major religion- such that they are forced to sacrilegiously store their deities?

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