A Note to Erika Menendez
To Erika Menendez,
The names of the 9/11 hijackers are: Mohamed Atta, Waleed al-Shehri, Wail al-Shehri, Abdulaziz al-Omari, Satam al-Suqami, Marwan al-Shehhi, Fayez Banihammad, Mohand al-Shehri, Hamza al-Ghamdi, Ahmed al-Ghamdi, Hani Hanjour, Khalid al-Mihdhar, Majed Moqed, Nawaf al-Hazmi, Salem al-Hazmi, Ziad Jarrah, Ahmed al-Haznawi, Ahmed al-Nami and Saeed al-Ghamdi. They are no more. The mastermind Osama bin Laden is not alive either.
The average Hindu or Muslim had nothing to do with 9/11. So enough of “beating up” Hindus and Muslims. Sunando Sen (may he rest in peace) should never have died the way he did.
However, the real mastermind of the 9/11 attacks was not even Osama bin Laden. It was hatred — a vile hatred of people who are different. Unfortunately, that is alive and well in our community. I see that in you. I see that in people who bomb our places of worship. I see that in people who denigrate others for being who they are — a particular religion, ethnic group, nationality or sexual orientation.
I have devoted my life to inter-religious reconciliation. I think we can do better than hatred. Are you with me?
There is so much to be grateful for. I am spending Thanksgiving in Omaha, NE. My uncle, aunt and cousin live here and I usually spend my Thanksgiving break here. This time, my parents and sister are here as well, and we’re having a wonderful time together. We have been here for spent three days now. So much family time, eating and shopping! It’s been absolutely wonderful, even though I’ve also (kinda) had to work for the past few days. Some highlights from the past few days include:
1. Visiting the Bob Kerry pedestrian bridge on a very windy afternoon.
2. Dinner at Hu Hot, a Mongolian grill.
3. Thanksgiving dinner at a family friend’s home with more than six types of dessert. Yummy.
4. A visit to the Hindu temple at Omaha. This is the certainly one of the most fascinating, inclusive temples I’ve been to that included all the major deities in the Hindu pantheon.
I’ve been to Omaha several times and I always enjoy my time here. As much as I love NYC, it’s great to come here to just relax and be with family. At the same time, I’m looking forward to returning to NYC tomorrow with my parents and sister, and showing them around the city, and eating some fine food together.
P.S. I realize that my last update was more two months ago, and I promise to be more consistent.
A Religion Nerd’s Dream Week In NYC
For someone passionate about religion and interfaith engagement, last week was almost like a dream. In the same week, I was able to hear interfaith activist Eboo Patel, Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan speak, see Christian activist and scholar Cornel West. To top it off, on Friday I went to jumu’ah in the afternoon at the ICNYU, and in the evening went to Shabbat services (my first?) at Romemu with friends (more on that later). Wow.
In his talk, Eboo Patel recounted that when he was growing up and studying theology, he was very inspired by reading progressive Christian social activists. At that time, Islamic theology put great emphasis on interfaith growth, but not sufficiently on social action. For him, Islam was about social activism, and was manifest in the work of progressive Christian social activists. Today we see many progressive Muslim voices (along with Christians and Jews) at the forefront of social justice issues in America. Eboo’s experience deeply resonated with me. When I had my “religious renaissance” in college, I studied Hindu texts and read a lot of Christian theology, and while my mindset was shaped by Hindu values, I found himself more inspired by the lives of the great Christian prophetic figures. Can Hinduism be about social justice and activism? Today we lack the theological framework to determine what the “Hindu response” to social justice issues of the day should be, but I am hopeful. If Islamic theology in America has advanced, I am sure that Hindu theology can as well.
Tariq Ramadan’s talk was really insightful in helping me understand the Arab awakening, the role of the United States, the challenges that lie ahead, and what role Islam is going to play in region.
To end a great week, I am now on my way to Baltimore to spend time with some friends.
Jumu’ah at the ICNYU
Thirty years down the line, what will you remember as the impact that others have had on you, and what will others remember as the impact that had on them?
This was the crux of the khutbah (Friday sermon) delivered by Khalid Latif at the Islamic Center of New York University last Friday (Sept. 7, 2012). That Friday was the third time I went to jumu’ah at ICNYU and each time I went I heard a profound message that struck a deep chord (admittedly Khalid’s khutbahs are better than the guest khateebs’). I started going to jumu’ah after I discovered the ICNYU during Ramadan and fell in love with the progressive, young, diverse community (blog post on why I fasted during Ramadan to come soon).
Last Friday’s message really hit home and forced me to reflect on the amount of time I invest in developing and nurturing relationships. When I was a student at Princeton, I spend significant amount of time with my friends and mentors, meeting new people, and learning from them. However as a young professional in New York City working in a pretty demanding job, I don’t spend as much time either meeting new people or deepening relationships with my friends. Unlike Princeton, I also don’t belong to a particular community in New York, though I go to a few on a regular basis. The khutbah jolted me back to reality and made me re-think how I spend my time as developing human relationships is very important to me.
As I sat there listening to Khalid, I reflected on the people who have made me who I am. There are many people on that list starting with family to childhood teachers, professors, spiritual mentors, friends and most importantly, my college years in Princeton. I would not be who I am today if I did not go to Princeton and meet all those brilliant, caring people who challenged and loved me very deeply. Tears welled up in my eyes as I felt an intense surge of gratitude towards those people. I can only hope to keep meeting people who challenge and transform me in radical ways.
A Visit to Broome Street Temple
Yesterday, I visited the Broome Street Temple in New York City with an American-born South Indian friend I met in college. The last time I visited the temple, which describes itself as a “traditional South Indian Hindu temple” on their website, was about six months ago, (as Foursquare conveniently informed me) and so I was excited to return there for the Shiva Abhishekha (a ritual worship of Shiva, the Hindu god of cosmic destruction).
For 90 minutes, I sat there listening to the priest chanting ancient shlokas, some familiar and some unfamiliar, watching as he poured milk, yogurt, honey and later offered flowers, incense and camphor (light) to the deity manifest in the Shivalingam.
I left the temple with mixed feelings.
On the one hand, I was honored to participate in a ritual that goes back thousands of years and connects me to so many people. I was reminded of my time at Princeton University where I was an active member of the Hindu community. (Remarkably, I co-led a Ganesh puja there a few years ago.) Albert Raboteau, a Religion professor at Princeton University who had a big impact on my academic and spiritual growth once told me about the importance of belonging to a spiritual tradition that goes both backwards and forwards in time. That stuck with me, and since then, every time I participate in a religious ritual I am more cognizant of being part of a community and that elevates the meaning of the ritual.
On the other hand, I left frustrated not being able to understand all the verses in Sanskrit that the pujari (person who conducted the puja) chanted. I took a semester of Sanskrit in college and while I can read and write in the language, I still don’t know enough to understand ancient shlokas. This is not the first time I have been frustrated about not being able to completely understand Sanskrit verses. Given that most people don’t understand Sanskrit anymore, I wonder if we will see a move towards conducting prayers in languages understood by the common man? But then I worry. Will ancient <em>shlokas</em> said in English or Hindi or Assamese resonate the same way with me? I’m not sure. Probably not.
Curiously enough, I also lamented the lack of a sermon. In the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time in churches and at the Bhakti Center (an ISKCON temple), and more recently I’ve regularly attended prayers at the Islamic Center at New York University (ICNYU). Given that worship at each of these places features a sermon, or at least a lecture based on readings from scripture, I’ve begun to feel that one of the main elements of worship is a sermon. That’s mainly because if the prayers are recited in languages I don’t understand, I can still take away something valuable and meaningful if the main teachings are summarized in English. Should I attribute this desire to take away a message from a religious ceremony to my years attending chapel at Princeton University?
The combination of enchanting Rumi poetry and soothing music is lifting up my spirit right now. Immensely grateful.
Is It Necessary To Belittle Others To Preach Your Own Religion?
It’s not often that I have such a bad experience at a place of worship that I feel compelled to write about it. But this morning, I went to the Bhakti Center in New York City’s East Village and caught about an hour of the Sunday morning program, which consists of readings from the Bhagavatam, a talk based on the readings, kirtan (devotional singing and chanting) and prasadam (a blessed meal). I’ve been to the Bhakti Center several times, and while I’m not a core member, I consider it to be one among my many spiritual homes in the city.
This morning the guest teacher was Jayadvaita Swami, a senior disciple of Shrila Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON. I did not catch the beginning of the lecture, but was there for about 30 minutes towards the end, and a few things that I heard really bothered me:
1) The countless attacks on advaita and other schools of Hinduism that emphasize liberation from the material world as the primary goal.
2) A few attacks on what he understands Christianity to be about, that it is a religion about comforting people, that Christians go to church with prayers for their son to perform well in exams, etc.
3) Finally, what bothered me most was that most of the congregation laughed when he spoke disparagingly about other religions.
Given that this comes from a senior disciple of Shrila Prabhupada and someone widely respected in ISKCON circles, I have to ask — is this the sorry state of preaching in ISKCON? I understand that there are major disagreements between Gaudiya Vaishnava theology and other Hindu schools of thought, what to speak about other religions. But is it necessary to degrade the sanctity of a sacred space by making jokes at the expense of other people? It is not funny and certainly not inspiring in any way. This is not the first time that I’ve heard swamis at the Bhakti Center belittle other religions, but definitely the first time it has disturbed me so much.
This is not to say that my experiences at the Bhakti Center have mostly been negative. I’ve been blessed with friendship and enlightening conversations with many of the wonderful monks there. I love the beautiful singing and dancing that is always a part of services at the temple. In fact, it is because I love going to the temple that I feel compelled to write this.
I hope that in the future, I’ll see less attacks on other religions when I visit the Bhakti Center.