Dr. Frank Morales silent revolution in US- More Americans Adopting Hinduism

published on March 31, 2008

Hindu convert a spiritual teacher at temple in Omaha


Authors : By BOB REEVES/Lincoln Journal Star

OMAHA — When Frank Morales was only 10 years old, growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., he developed a strong interest in spirituality.

“I started reading the various scriptures of the world,” he said. He read the Bible, the Quran, ancient Buddhist texts. Finally, he read the Bhagavad Gita, a short book that is one of the most revered of Hindu scriptures.

“I felt I’d found what I was looking for,” he said.

The Gita tells the story of Arjuna, a warrior in India, who is caught up in a battle between members of his own family. In a crisis of conscience, he turns to Krishna, an incarnation of God, for advice. Krishna gives Arjuna instruction and answers his questions, providing
a clear and logical explanation of the three paths of yoga, or union with God.

The three paths — karma yoga (action), gyana-yoga (knowledge) and bhakti-yoga (devotion) — form the basis for the practice of Hinduism. As a young boy discovering them for the first time, Morales felt that they gave the most understandable explanation of the human situation and human beings’ relationship with God.

“I was searching for a truth that was universal, not just sectarian,”he said. “I wasn’t looking for faith; I was looking for philosophy.  It had to be universally applicable.”

He went on to study more Hindu scriptures and soon discovered that there are so many Hindu texts that probably no one person has read them all.

“They were written over many hundreds of years. They’re older than the Bible. They’re considered the oldest collection of writings known to humanity.”

At age 14, he made his first visit to a Hindu temple — in Queens, N.Y. The temple was filled with beautiful artwork and statues representing many Hindu deities, each of whom is considered a different expression of God.

“It was absolutely stunning; I was overwhelmed,” Morales said. “I felt I was leaving the world behind, entering a spiritual world. I finally sat down in front of a statue of Krishna, and in my own mind I said, `I’m home. This will be my religion for the rest of my life.'”

Morales went on to study philosophy and theology, eventually receiving a doctoral degree with an emphasis on Hinduism and Asian culture from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He made several trips to India, and in 1986, after living as a celibate monk for six years, he was initiated as a Hindu priest.

Back in the United States, he became an acharya, or teacher of Hinduism, and adopted the Sanskrit name Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya. The word “dharma” means natural law; his name literally means “one who sets the dharma in motion.”

Morales has become a widely recognized Hindu teacher, especially through his Web site, www.dharmacentral.com. He is president of the International Sanatana Dharma Society.

Last fall, he became the resident acharya (spiritua l teacher) at the Hindu Temple of Nebraska in Omaha. He teaches several different classes, including introduction to Hinduism, a study of the Bhagavad Gita and a youth class. He gives a spiritual talk prior to Sunday
worship at the temple and also leads satsang (meditation and religious discourse) sessions weekly in Omaha, and once each month in Lincoln.

Most of his students are people of Indian background who want to learn more about their religion. But a growing number are people who come from other religious traditions who want to learn about Hinduism. A few of those have decided, like Morales did, to become Hindus themselves.

“Hinduism does not look for converts,” Morales said. “But we do like to teach. Anyone is welcome to come and learn.”

Heather Mortensen is one of his students who considers herself a convert to Hinduism. She grew up in an evangelical Christian family, but said she had many doubts about the God of the Bible, who often is depicted as angry and judgmental. She went to www.beliefnet.com to
learn about other religions. “I was super impressed with the Hindu quotes,” she said.

That led her to read the Bhagavad Gita and felt it answered her questions about God and human destiny. “I was in bliss the entire day while I was reading it.”

Mortensen said she found the Hindu concept of reincarnation most appealing, because it gives people a chance to keep striving, through successive lives, to learn and grow closer to God.

She began studying with Morales in Wisconsin, and when he came to Nebraska last fall, she moved to Omaha to continue taking classes from him. Mortensen goes to the Hindu Temple regularly to meditate and participates in Sunday services there with the Hindu community.

The temple serves about 1,000 families — predominantly immigrants from India and their children — but there are a few converts, like Mortensen, who regularly attend services.

“I’m getting to know them (the Indians),” she said. “They’re usually surprised at first — but I remind them I’m Hindu by telling them my Hindu name.” Mortensen took the Sanskrit name Tulasi in a ritual in which she vowed to follow Hindu teachings and practices.

On May 29, Morales will lead a ritual in Council Bluffs for 20 or more people who are becoming Hindus. He estimates that about 1.5 million Americans nationwide have converted to Hinduism.

Stephanie Guilfoyle, another of Morales’ students who lives in Omaha,was raised Lutheran and converted to Catholicism when she got married, but about 10 years ago began studying different forms of Buddhism.That eventually led her to Hinduism, since the Buddha was himself a practicing Hindu.

“I was searching for the truth — I was searching for the root of all the traditions I had studied,” she said. “When I read the Bhagavad Gita, I felt, `This is what all the other religions are saying, but it’s in the purest form, the most undiluted.'”

In the Gita, Krishna teaches Arjuna about the nature of the soul and about the difference between eternal reality and the changing world of sensory experience. The ultimate destiny of all people, Krishna says, is union with God.

She described Morales as a gifted teacher who helped the meaning of the text come alive.

John Granger, who grew up in a Catholic family and attended a Jesuit high school, became an agnostic at age 17 and didn’t become a believer again until he discovered Hinduism at age 44.

“Hinduism seems to fit my spiritual path, but it was a path I was on anyway,” he said.

Granger enjoys the richness of the Hindu tradition, which is reflected in the many different deities represented in the Omaha temple. The temple has 12 separate sanctums, or altars, each with one or more statues representing different incarnations of God. People from
various parts of India have certain deities that they honor, so Hindus of all backgrounds feel comfortable in the Omaha temple.

Ram Bishu, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineering professor and chairman of the temple’s religious committee, said the temple was created primarily as a center of worship and teaching for people from India who live in Nebraska and Iowa. But, he added, “We’re totally comfortable” with people of other religious backgrounds visiting or participating in prayers and rituals.

“Hinduism is not a proselytizing religion,” he said. “We have no formal way of converting someone to Hinduism. It’s a very individualistic religion.”

Bishu noted that many Americans practice yoga as an exercise technique, or a way of calming their mind, but most are not aware of the spiritual side of yoga as taught at the temple. Some people may go to the temple because they’re studying yoga and want to learn more
about its origins and deeper meaning, he said.

Many church groups visit the temple seeking to learn about Hinduism and promote inter-religious understanding.

“Hinduism is a religion of tolerance,” Morales said. His goal as a teacher, he said, is not to preach but to explain the religion and offer “a supportive environment” for individual spiritual growth.


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