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Spiritual growth

Religious center helps families to spread Hindu values

Email|Print| Text size + By Irene Sege
Globe Staff / November 6, 2007

ANDOVER - Dozens of children, some in traditional tunics and others in jeans and T-shirts, sit in neat rows on Indian rugs in the multipurpose room of the Chinmaya Maruti Hindu center. Adults, most of the women wearing saris, sit in chairs behind them. Facing a shrine to Hanuman, the monkey deity, they chant hymns of praise in Sanskrit and Hindi.

Thus starts another Sunday of study for the Indian-American families who come from as far away as Rhode Island to this copper-roofed, white-columned, light-filled building that opened in 2003. What started in 1989 in the basement of principal Shashikala Dwarakanath's nearby home has become the area's largest religious education program for Hindu children.

The enrollment of 300 boys and girls is twice what it was just two years ago and strains the four-year-old building. The Bala Vihar, or children's program, runs in double session. Classes meet in the corridor, in the kitchen, in the library, and in rooms destined to become bathrooms for an addition with eight classrooms and an auditorium expected to go into construction next spring.

"It's a great feeling, to be around all these people," says Iha Kaul of Andover, who turns 16 this month. "In America, you've got different groups of people. If you know who you are it makes you a person."

"I like learning about all the traditions we have in India because I don't get to experience them a lot," says Sid Palaniappan, 12, of Andover. "Today, we talked about the five senses - like how God gives us the tongue and if we bad-mouth people we're not returning the favor."

Like most of their classmates, Kaul and Palaniappan are the born-in-America children of Indian immigrants looking to instill old country values and connections in a new country that has been good to them. Massachusetts is home to 56,000 people of Indian descent, according to the US Census Bureau, up almost 30 percent since 2000. With many pursuing careers in high tech, their per capita income of almost $32,000 is higher than other Asian-American groups, which fuels Chinmaya leaders' optimism about raising $2 million for the next phase of construction. Next Sunday's banquet for Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, doubles as a fund-raiser for the project.

The center is part of the worldwide Chinmaya Mission, founded in India in 1951 by Swami Chinmayananda, to spread Vedanta, the philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of Hinduism. There are now 43 Chinmaya centers in the United States and Canada. One of the largest, in San Jose, Calif., enrolls 1,500 students. Photographs of Chinmayananda, with a flowing white beard, hang in the Andover center. Adults who study scripture together while the children attend class watch videotaped lectures by the swami.

Sycamore Networks chairman Desh Deshpande, head of the Andover center's advisory board and a major benefactor, was introduced to Chinmaya as a child. "When we were kids growing up in India, it was all around us," he says. "Here we had to make an effort to make sure the kids have the culture and the value of the philosophy."

The program is a mixture of Hindu ritual and guided journey to self-awareness and cultural preservation. A priest swathed in orange, with a dot of red powder and stripes of ash on his forehead, rings a bell and lights a candle as he leads prayers to deities draped in garlands of fresh flowers. Those gathered recite the Chinmaya pledge. "We serve as an army, courageous and disciplined, ever ready to fight against all low tendencies and false values, within and without us," they declare. "Devotion to the people is devotion to the Supreme Self."

Iha Kaul's parents are drawn as much to the way of life preached here as to the religion. In the foyer of their Andover home, as in the center's lobby, is the elephant deity, Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. "If my children learn how to do puja, or prayer, the Hindu way, that's good," says Dr. Sharda Kaul, 43. "What I really want to transfer to them is good values. I want my children to be good citizens."

Mahalakshmi and Venkateshwara Rao Pula found Chinmaya after their 14-year-old daughter asked for a Christmas tree a decade ago, and they complied with her request. "We were losing touch with the Indian festivals," recalls Venkat Pula, 39. "We couldn't get her to look forward to any of the festivals we enjoyed as kids."

"We didn't have a noble motive. We thought it would be good for her to be around kids of her own background," says his wife, who is 38. "It's more like a treasure hunt we went on without knowing what the treasure at the end was. It turned out to be much more than we expected. For ourselves, we have been exposed to spiritual depths we never would have been."

As much as the message may be Indian, the context is upwardly mobile American. "This is the only country where you can keep your own culture and assimilate into the general culture," says center president Gopala Dwarakanath.

Adults milling in the lobby mention grown children in such prestigious schools as Brown and Bowdoin and Middlebury and the University of Chicago. Teacher Latha Sainath, talking to seventh-graders about the practice of accepting food that had been offered to the deities, expands the concept to accepting what life throws you, such as not getting into your first-choice college. "Is that the end of life? No," she says. "Accept. We start with little physical actions. We build up when we try to accept everything." After finishing a round of yoga poses, high school students discuss the difference between spiritual and material happiness.

"My favorite part is the discussion. It helps you focus your thinking and put you in the mind to better help the world," says Iha Kaul, a sophomore at Andover High School. "Not just to get money."

Her 13-year-old brother, Hemang, calls studying Hindu myths "really interesting" and "kind of like reading a good book," but he is less enthusiastic than Iha about spending his Sunday mornings here.

"Later on in life, I'll be really thankful I did it, probably," he says. "The Hindu religion explains your duties in life, but it's not telling you you have to be Hindu. It's more you have to be a good person in life. You have choices."

That's enough for his father.

"If you go to a garden, some kind of fragrance will chase after you," says Sanjay Kaul, 45. "You might not pluck a particular flower, but when you come out of the garden you have that kind of fragrance."

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