Posted on November 16, 2007

Immigrants Keeping Traditions Alive

Irene Sege, Boston Globe, November 15, 2007


“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.”

Worldwide mission

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 U.S. 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. A banquet for Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, doubles as a fundraiser 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.”

‘A treasure hunt’

“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 7th 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.