Posted on November 4, 2022

Push to Create Hindu School in Sydney as Migration Fuels Growing Population

Declan Bowring, ABC, October 23, 2022

After school on Thursdays, Sion Chakalabbi attends classes in Sydney’s south west where he learns Sanskrit — the mother of many of India’s languages.

Sion learns how to write, how to speak, and how to chant in the foundational language that underpins many of India’s diverse languages.

His parents, Prashant and Sangeeata, migrated from Bangalore in India’s south west to Australia nine years ago when Sion was just a year old.

They wanted to be sure their son did not miss out on learning about where he came from.

“All our traditions and rituals come from Sanskrit,” Prashant Chakalabbi said.

“We want to continue our tradition. We want our kids to get rooted to the Indian culture.”

Divya Nataraj and Natraj Ramdas are also from Bangalore, and they send their daughter, Shradha Rao, to the same Sanskrit school.

They also want their daughter to be steeped in her heritage, but also want her to learn the values of respect.

Ms Nataraj says by learning Sanskrit the students learn about “love, respect, and tolerance”.

An ancient language

The Sydney Sanskrit School that Sion and Shradha attend is run by Meenakshi Srinivasan.

Dr Srinivasan co-founded the school in 2006 and now runs weekly classes in Glenfield, Wentworthville, and Liverpool.

She says there has been a growing demand for Hindu schooling.

After moving classes online because of the pandemic, she says admissions rose by 40 per cent.

Dr Srinivasan says all the important texts about history, science, and art from India cannot be read without knowledge of Sanskrit.

Population booming

In recent years, Australia has experienced a rise in the number of migrants from India and people identifying as Hindu.

The latest census says there are more than 680,000 people who identify as Hindu in Australia, up from around 440,000 in 2016. Hinduism has also overtaken Buddhism to become the fifth-largest religious affiliation in Australia.

Hindi and culture are taught in many of the state’s public schools through the Special Religious Education program.

Madhu Arora teaches Hindi language at North Parramatta Public School and has also noticed the rise in demand.

However, she says schools struggle to find teachers. Ms Madhu changed careers from a science teacher to a Hindi language teacher in 2016.

A new school on the horizon

Merrylands-based engineer Arunesh Seth is leading a push to create the first Hindu school.

“Hindu culture has got a [big] contribution to make in Australia,” Mr Seth said.

“There is no [Hindu] school and the population is growing.”

Mr Seth is happy with the public school education he gave his children, but says he would have preferred to send them to a Hindu school.

He stressed that a Hindu school would not be a religious school, but one grounded in the Hindu culture.

Lessons from a false dawn

Mr Seth’s project is not the first time the community in Sydney has tried to set up a Hindu school.

A project called the Hindu Education Centre was announced in 2019.

Land was donated to a site in Riverstone and several local councillors attended the launch.

Surinder Jain, from the Hindu Council of Australia, was part of the project. He says complications put the project on hold.

“Bringing it to a level where it’s providing education that can be compared to other fee-paying schools is no small task.”

Mr Jain says there is plenty of demand for a Hindu school in Sydney.

“Even though most parents want to give the best secure education to their children, they also want to give it to them in a Hindu environment,” Mr Jain said.

One of the first challenges for setting up a Hindu school will be for the community to agree on what constitutes Hindu education, Remy Low from Sydney University’s education school says.

Dr Low says, as a faith-based school, they will need accreditation through the Department of Education. This also includes getting policies and a curriculum approved.

To get through these bureaucratic hoops, proponents of the school will require a lot of political will, Dr Low says.

Community interest

Shradha’s parents are confident a Hindu school will not be a religious school, but one where Hinduism’s religious teaching forms part of the curriculum.

“For example, Shradha goes to a Catholic school, right? So religion is also a part of it,” Ms Nataraj said.

Sion’s father says he would like to know how good the school will be and what will be on the curriculum.

A chance to connect to culture

Mr Seth says they have been offered land in Western Sydney but the project is in its infancy.

He says they plan to send their proposal to the state government in March next year.

If all goes well, the school could be open by January 2024, starting with a primary school for about 100 students.

Despite the bureaucratic challenges, Mr Seth says there is plenty of demand for the school and he is positive they can get their project approved.

“Whatever culture they are brought from, they want them to be connected.”