By Beth Kulkarni
Houston, TX: From the smallest Hindu temple in Houston, located in an apartment complex where many refugees from Nepal reside, to the only temple for Goddess Meenakshi in the West, to the beautiful white marble BAPS temple, many local Hindus came and joined with Hindus involved as executives and active volunteers of over 90 Hindu Mandirs (temples) from various parts of the US and Canada this past weekend. It took place in northern Houston at the Fifth Annual Hindu Mandir Executives’ Conference (HMEC) from October 22 to October 24. As one of the speakers with a military background, Harnek Singh from Austin Gurudwara said: “The entire event went so smooth from beginning to end that it was like a military drill.” Delegates were already looking forward to next year’s conference in the Ohio area, which would be hosted by several temples from the upper mid-west.
Addressing the conference by video, Swami Dayananda Saraswati of the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam (AVG), emphasized that the Hindu Mandirs needed to work together to stand up to external forces trying to interfere with their activities and goals. He suggested several concrete steps, which were accepted by the conference.
Other prominent speakers, included Swami Tattvavida-nanda Saraswati of AVG, and Swami Nikhilanand of Barsana Dham, who appreciated that “HMEC is helping to foster a spirit of fellowship and cooperation amongst the Hindu religious leadership in America.” Paramacharya Palaniswami of Hinduism Today spoke about using festivals to inform others about Hindu traditions. A special gift to all attendees was a CD of ready-to-publish layouts for various festivals throughout the year. Vishal Agarwal, a scholar from Minnesota and Jignesh Patel of BAPS-Houston — both were inspiring as they spoke of ways to involve the younger generation in Mandirs, including establishment of Youth Clubs for teenagers for whom traditional classes no longer appeal.
The conference was enhanced by the participation both of large organizations like Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, Arya Samaj, BAPS Swami-narayan Sanstha, ISKCON, and Kauai’s Hindu Monastery as well as small to large multi-campus Hindu temples from throughout North America.
A feature of the program, for the first time, was a gala night to which all local Hindus were invited, not only those who were temple executives. This included a delicious meal and talks by Krishna Maheshwari, a second-generation Hindu; and Gaurangbhai Nanavaty, who is the respected Acharya of the local Chinmaya Mission-Houston, who provided some very practical guidance. A special award was given to Ramesh Bhutada, a businessman, who devotes much of his time and resources to community work, including donations to NGOs involved in health, education and youth activities. There were extraordinary dances by Rathna Kumar’s Anjali Center of Dance and a very colorful and energetic folk dance by the young men of BAPS. Girish Naik, representing Hindus of Greater Houston, which organized the Gala night, relinquished his time so that the Jiv Jago group from ISKON-Houston could take the stage and present their bhajans and devotional dances in which the audience joyfully joined.
The national and local volunteers from VHPA and host Mandirs had worked shoulder to shoulder for over nine months to organize the conference. Dr. Umesh Shukla, the convener of the conference, remarked: “With the fifth HMEC, we have reached a milestone in establishing co-operation among the Hindu Mandirs and Hindu organizations to nourish and sustain Hindu Dharma in North America.” The attendees, many of who had been involved in the earlier conferences, were in agreement that the fifth conference was one of the best. They were appreciative of the many local volunteers, both youth and adults, who worked hard behind the scenes, helping with food, airport transportation, “goody” bags and more. Nirav Patel, a young volunteer, said: “Not only I had fun volunteering in different departments, but I also learned more about Hinduism and I also learned the importance of time management.”
Due to massive efforts by many volunteers, there were more than 250 delegates from nearly 100 temples and Hindu organizations. The temples and Hindu organizations represented included those from as far away as Hawaii and California, Massachusetts and Florida, as well as from Canada. Delegates ranged in ages from teenagers to those in their eighties and also came from a variety of ethnic and career backgrounds.
As conference host, Dr. Sharma Tadepalli, extended on behalf of the six host temples and the other 19 participating Texas Mandirs a “Texas-size” welcome. Sri Meenakshi Temple, which had accepted the hosting of this year’s conference, was joined by VPSS-Houston, Shirdi Sai Jalaram Mandir, Hindu Temple of The Woodlands, Dallas/Fort Worth Temple, and Barsana Dham. As a “by-product” of hosting the conference, Texas Mandirs, of which 25 participated, have become more united and able to work cooperatively, benefiting all.
One of the aims of the HMEC is to assist in the development of networks and relationships between Mandir executives so that a cohesive and focused Hindu-American community is created with Mandirs as its nucleus. The participants were focused on developing programs to provide leadership to nourish, protect and sustain Hindu Dharma in North America. There was also an emphasis on service to the broader community through blood drives, health fairs, school supply donations and tutoring projects.
A special feature of this year’s program was the inclusion of more young people and more women and topics of special interest to those groups. Preya Dave, one of the youth leaders, said: “After hearing speakers and having our own youth sessions, I was empowered and ready to be the change in our Hindu community.” Another youth participant, Hirsh Shukla, appreciated the “opportunity to connect with fellow Hindu youth.”
In the concluding session of the conference, the delegates agreed on a several action items and projects which emerged:
• Invest and train future leaders and facilitate this by developing a formalized application procedure which can be used by various Mandirs and other Hindu organizations.
• Publish an HMEC book which includes history of Hindu Mandirs in North America and profiles of both spiritual guides and other key volunteers.
• Provide help from established and well-performing Mandirs through a resource pool, assisting new and struggling Mandirs in the areas of operation and leadership.
• Encourage the networking of Hindu youth through the recently established Coalition of Hindu Youth (CHY).
• Provide informational resources for Hindu individuals and organizations through newsletters and books currently in progress, including a prayer book for hospitals, and supplementary educational materials for schools.
• Join together to promote distribution of copies of the Gita in motels and elsewhere.
Continue to give scholarships based on essays written by students on a topic concerning Sanatana Dharma as was done this year for the second time jointly by Om Temple, Tej Tanden, and HMEC.
By Beth Kulkarni