Fifth Annual Human Empowerment Conference (HEC) Explores Key Hindu Issues

via published on October 18, 2007

DALLAS, TEXAS, October 14, 2007: What happens when 200 men and women, all sharing a profound love of Hindu dharma, meet for three days in East Texas, site of John Kennedy’s assassination deep in the Bible Belt? The fifth annual Human Empowerment Conference (HEC) concluded here today. The 200 spiritual and community leaders, scholars, academicians and activists attended the intense, three-day conclave, examining some of the most pressing issues facing the Hindu community today. Sponsored by the Sanatana Dharma Foundation of Dallas, (click here), the conference’s name comes from the Vedic dictate, Krunvanto Vishwam Aryam, “Ennoble all humanity.”

Hinduism Today magazine and Hindu Press International editors, Paramacharya Palaniswami and Sannyasin Arumugaswami, flew in from
Hawaii for the event and filed this report. The conference had dozens of parallel sessions, so the report covers the ones they were actually present for, while giving only an brief mention of the rest.

The sessions began midday on October 12 with a welcome address from Kashi Viswanathan, president of the Sanatana Dharma Foundation, followed by overviews of the ten major sessions:

1. Hindu Americans–An Inquest: Challenges and Prospects for Generation Next
2. Traditional Knowledge and Integral Healthcare System
3. Chronology in Indian History: Identifying Characteristics of the Indic Civilization
4. Pacifism as a Civilizational Dogma
5. Hindu Dharma and Media
6. Dharmic Youth Leadership
7. Organizational Networking and Leadership Development
8. Religious Freedom in
9. Kerala Awareness Workshop
10. Education for Resurgence of Indic Consciousness.

The major presentations of the first afternoon included the
California textbook controversy given by Paramacharya Palaniswami of Hinduism Today (click  here for a short version of this presentation). This was a broad overview of the contentious adoption of sixth grade social study texts in California in which Hindus fought for parity so that Hinduism was presented in the same positive manner as the other religions. It was followed by a presentation of the educational initiatives of the India-based Shruti Foundation given by Ms. Shruti, a remarkable attempt to inculcate pride in Indic genius, particularly Hindu methodologies of integral living, education, scientific thought, societal organization, ethics and work dynamics. She pointed out that following India‘s independence, the communist parties sought and were given control of the education system in the early 1950s. The long-term consequence of this control is that academia in India is, even to this day, permeated with Marxist philosophy which is extremely antagonistic toward any religion, and Hinduism in particular. One aspect of this communist domination is what she terms “Sanskritphobia,” with a diminishing of Sanskrit studies which she regards as a major reason for the decline of Hinduism. In January, 2008, her foundation will hold a major conference in Delhi as part of their efforts to rebuild pride and the knowledge base that was India‘s in the past.

The evening sessions were focused around the life’s work of Sita Ram Goel, one of the great Hindu thinkers and activists of the 20th century. The main lecture of the evening was by Dr. Valerie Tarico, a
Seattle psychologist specially invited by the organizers to speak on Christian fundamentalism and evangelism. Her talk was riveting, as she herself came from a family of evangelists and early in life was a “true believer.” She explained that it is these evangelists, the fundamentalists of Christianity, who are trying to convert the people of India. They are driven in their attempts by a belief in the Great Commiss ion, the idea in the New Testament that Christians are obliged to preach and convert all the peoples of the world.

Dr. Tarico did a scathing analysis of evangelical beliefs, beginning with the monotheism/Trinity of God conundrum and ending with their belief in Biblical inerrancy, that every single word of the Bible is true, even the most horrible punishments and genocide ordered by God. “These beliefs are not rational, not coherent,” she boldly asserted.

She warned Hindus that evangelicals have the power of American innovation behind them, marketing their product, Christian fundamentalism, with all the savvy of the most sophisticated Western corporation. She said Hindus should regard the belief system of these fundamentalists as a force as deadly as drugs. In her conclusion, Dr. Tarico urged Hindus to “be more evangelical about what you do and know, especially your religious pluralism.” “Right now, Hinduism is thought of as an antiquated bunch of people who think statues are God. But I think Hinduism offers a path, a power to sow the seeds of wisdom that we need. You need to evang elize the ideal of dharma to counteract the existing stereotypes of Hindu belief.”

There was an intermission for fundraising by the organizers, which in a kinetic ten minutes succeeded in raising pledges of over $15,000, matched by an anonymous patron to bring it to $30,000.

Sannyasin Arumugaswami, managing editor of Hinduism Today, followed with a presentation on “Proselytization and Religious Freedom” (click  here for a video version) which complemented Dr. Tarico’s lecture with specifics on the methods of the evangelists.

Next came Dr. David Frawley’s address on “The Need for Pluralism in Religion.” In explaining that Hindus from India often do not understand Christianity in the West because, “The Christianity found in India is much more backward than that found in the West.”

The final talk of the evening was “Hinduphobia” by R ajiv Malhotra. His wide-ranging and provocative discourse began with the thesis that the California sixth grade social studies textbooks deliberately hide the positive aspects of Hinduism, such as yoga, vegetarianism, music, etc., in order to “demonize the culture.” The whole of South Asian studies today in the West, he stated, were divisive, emphasizing, and in some cases, creating, division between Dalits and brahmins, Dravidians and Aryans, women and men, minorities and Hindus. “India’s problems are not seen as historical, or economic, but the result of a flawed culture, a flawed DNA.” He explained how his analysis found three specialties in Hinduism: caste, minorities and women, all of them negative. He complained about the tendency toward deconstruction by scholars who claim ” India is not even a nation state at all.” Those same scholars turn this same strategy against Hinduism by claiming it is a product of 19th century British scholars and not a religion at all. ” India is the only major civilization whose study has been controlled from the outside,” he lamented, and compared the situation to that of China, whose government has sponsored hundreds of Confucian institutions which are the main force in scholastic investigation of China.

Malhotra pointed out that “to fight for our rights is the American way,” and encouraged Hindus to become more active in supporting positive study on India and countering pervasive foreign interpretations. “Once we were knowledge producers and exporters throughout Asia,” he said, “now we are consumers of knowledge about ourselves.”

The Hinduism Today team in attendance made presentations on conversion to Hinduism with special attention to the situation of mixed religious marriages between a Hindu and a non-Hindu. The point made was that in such marriages the children tend to grow up with no religion at all, unless the non-Hindu spouse agrees to convert to Hinduism, or at least to raise the children as Hindus. Too many couples, it was pointed out, leave the choice of religion to the child, which usually results in the child’s choosing “none of the above.” Intermarriage is a common issue for all religions, with 40% of Catholics and Jewish children marrying outside the faith (both of which actively discourage intermarriage). The children of those marriages commonly growing up without religion.

A second presentation by Hinduism Today was in the session on pacifism, the primary point being that the dharmic ideal of ahimsa does not mean the individual Hindu or the Hindu state should be pacifist. It is our duty to actively assure protection of the home and the country. Participants in the session were deeply concerned about what they consider a pacifist attitude in the conduct of Indian foreign and domestic policy, which has result in the country’s being threatened by internal rebellions and external threats along her borders. The ideal of individual nonviolence was affirmed by most present, while acknowledging that force may be necessary to defend the homeland, and such force is not outside of dharma.

Palaniswami offered a graphically-rich presentation on “Religion and the Media,” explaining the pragmatic realities of how the media works and how Hindus can best interact with it. (Click here for a video of an earlier presentation given in Montreal, Canada). Hindus were encouraged to understand the media, what it considers news, what its biases and pressure s are, so as to be able to work with the media and not fight it. A proven and proactive approach is getting to know the religion editor of the local newspaper, slowly creating strong relationships and making inroads with the media. This can be amplified by a constant, low key, benign presence of Hinduism in the local media. A fascinating aspect of this presentation showed the covers of Time magazine from the 1930s (Gandhi) to the present day, and how they reflected the good, the bad and the ugly of Western attitude toward India.

Dr. Ramdas Lamb of the University of Hawaii followed with a presentation on media and academia. He explained that the professors of religion in the West are either Christians or Marxists. “If you say something positive about Hinduism, you are immediately marginalized and branded ‘Hindutva.’ The academic is as biased as the media.” He explained how academia is driven by funding, and how an academic study that would put Hinduism in a positiv e light will simply not get funds, whereas one taking a critical Marxist approach will. Because of this, he added, a lot of young Hindu scholars either abandon Indology, get co-opted by the secular and Marxist academics or, as he put it, “go into the closest,” ie, hide their Hindu personal life. As a result, he noted that hardly five percent of the people who teach Hinduism in the West are practicing Hindus — a situation completely different than that of Jewish, Catholic, Black or woman’s studies, where nearly everyone is part of the tradition or community they study. Dr. Lamb, who is openly Hindu, pleaded with the community to fund scholarships and university chairs in Hindu studies. Asked if there is any school in America where a practicing Hindu can get a PhD in Hinduism, he offered, “No, but at my school you can get a master’s.”

On Saturday, the general session centerpiece was a brilliant talk by Rajiv Malhotra, founder of the Infinity Foundation, who unveile d his “U-Turn Theory,” the phenomenon whereby Western academics or scientists study something from India, and ultimately claim it as their own. For example, there have been recent studies on the effect of breathing techniques and meditation upon health and well-being. These techniques were developed centuries ago by India’s gifted yogis. But what happens today is that a Western scientist studies such techniques in laboratories, determine they work, publish a report and receive personal fame and glory (and money) as if he had discovered the technique in the first place. The true genius, the yogi who perfected the practice, is unnamed and unknown. “It is like the referee holding the stopwatch at the Olympic 100 meter dash receiving the gold medal because he timed the winning runner,” quipped Malhotra. He went on to inventory a massive list of such “discoveries,” from techniques of yoga and meditation to ayurveda. The catalog of inventions, processes, techniques and wisdom insi ghts that have been appropriated from India was impressive, even startling.

As with all conferences, much of the real action took place in crowded halls, fueled by animated discussions between (and often during!) the general and parallel sessions. Over all, the conference seemed to fulfill its mandate which is described as:

“The intersection between academicians, scholars and activists represents a unique and potent combination that is probably the most important distinguishing characteristic of the HEC conference. It is not merely a place where ideas are shared, written into papers and published into a magazine. Nor is it a convention of any specific activist organization, which celebrates its internal victories and deliberates its challenges. The confluence of ‘Thought Leadership’ and ‘Activism Orientation’ allows for the germination of new ideas, their fructification into real world projects and eventually into a measurable impact on the community at large.” That’s what happened in the Lone Star State, land of the Cotton Bowl.

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