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Hindu Student Council hosts National Conference at Emory University

February 2003
Hindu Student Council hosts National Conference at Emory University

The Hindu Student Council (HSC) at Emory University hosted the national conference for HSC to explore and celebrate what it means to be a Hindu growing up and living in the United States.

This was the first national conference organized by the HSC. There were over 120 participants, with close to 40 who had traveled from outside the Atlanta area. Students were represented from schools around the nation such as University of Miami, Medical University of South Carolina, University of Florida, Youngstown State University, Northwestern University, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Texas in Austin, and Harvard University.

Seema Shah and Aparna Raj from Northwestern University, Chicago, came down to ponder on Hinduism. For Shah, ?Being a Hindu means a lot of things. Personally it means being a good person and understanding what values I have been taught and trying to put to practice. Overall it?s making the best of what you have. Obviously there are a lot of philosophy, teachings and scriptures that are involved but that?s what it boils down to.?

The conference kicked off Saturday morning with a Keynote address from Dr. Arvind Sharma. Prof. Sharma, who is also a scholar of Sanskrit, is currently engaged in promoting the adoption of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the world?s religions. Dr. Sharma also led a workshop later that day with the most inquisitive and provocative titles, ?Let?s do away with the Caste System?.

Two sets of workshops followed the Keynote address. There were numerous options for the attendees making it difficult for them to choose. ?They all seem to have such fresh and creative topics,? quipped one of the attendees from Chicago. There were discussions on religion, spirituality and music, secularism and Hindutva. The emphasis was on making Hinduism relevant for those living outside India by looking at how migration is shaping American Hinduism and even one on ?How can the Gita help you get through Medical School? which was let by Dr. Laurie Patton who serves as Chair of the Department of Religion at Emory. Dr. P. Venugopala Rao, who teaches Physics at Emory University, took a look at Hindu Astrology and Astronomy. There were session on Bhajans, yoga and mediation and a panel discussion on ?What it means to be a Hindu in the 21st Century.?

There was even a workshop on Kuchipudi led by Ms. Sasikala Penumarthi whose recent presentation of the dance-drama ?Srinivasa Kalyanam? was sold out in Atlanta. She entranced the audience with her depiction of the characters and the smooth transition to rhythmic dance and finally ending with dancing and moving on a brass plate.

This tying up of art, religion and spirituality continued at the jam session, when all the attendees from various workshops gathered at Cox Hall at Emory to listen to a melodious Carnatic flute concert. Local artists Dr. Ram Sriram on Mridangam and Deepak Murthy on Violin accompanied Dr. Mukund Vijayaraghavan on flute. They weaved the audience through pleasant and short pieces, finally reaching to a beautiful Thyagaraja composition. This piece allowed Dr. Vijayaraghavan to more fully share the sound and the bends of the flute with the audience, striking the notes beautifully.

The concert was followed by a keynote address by Dr. Vashudha Narayanan on how the concepts and symbols of Hinduism, idols and temples are being neglected in Cambodia but flourishing here in the US. Her talk was titled, ?Angkor to Atlanta: Patterns in the Diaspora.? Saturday night ended with a Garba dance for the students with live music provided Alaap, a band from South Carolina.

The last big event of the conference was the banquet on Sunday at Zyka, ?A Celebration of Unity?. This celebration started with an address from the award-winning author and poet, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni who talked about her personal journey that started with fear and finally moved to a belief in Vendanta. She defined the concepts that are close to her: Ahimsa (non-violence), Satyam (truth) and Brahmacharya (self-discipline).

?I have always thought of Ahimsa as being physical but Chitra Divakaruni pointed out how thoughts -even if you don?t verbalize them, thoughts that are negative towards other individuals can be considered violence,? reflected Viraj Patel who graduated from Emory last year and came down from University of South Carolina for the conference.

The students ended the night dancing to DJ Harry who took them in and out the various cultures that influence these students.

As the conference came to a close, Nabeel Ahmed, a sophomore at Emory University, who also played the role of a sculptor in one of the creative blends of classical and popular dance observed, ?I have definitely learned more about Hinduism [while attending the conference] because I wasn?t really all that familiar with it and I have learnt that it is not a religion that?s very isolated to one region or ethnicity. It?s open to a lot of different cultures and it?s a very open-minded religion.? He captured the common message floating around the entire weekend: the need for attendees to explore and celebrate diversity in Hinduism. The countless ways that Hinduism can be understood and practiced gives it a strength by allowing individuals and cultures to make it uniquely their own but also poses a big challenge for those growing up and living outside India who are trying to define, explore and examine what it means to be a Hindu.

- Alka Roy

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