Celebrating Shakti – Embracing Diversity of Belief

Celebrating Shakti – Embracing Diversity of Belief October 13, 2015

Today is the start of Navaratri, a nine-night festival that honors the Feminine Divine – Shakti, Devi, Goddess. Hinduism Today’s Festival one pager explains how it is celebrated, and more importantly, its significance. Hinduism is one of the few living religions where the Divine is She, Shakti. Shakti is the Divine Mother, the personification of primordial energy, that which is the source of all and controls all, the power behind divine and cosmic evolution, and exists in each of us. On these nine nights, Hindus around the world worship Her nine manifestations or incarnations. It is one of the most important Hindu festivals, during which many people – especially women – fast daily. The stories and celebrations around Navaratri are as varied and rich as the land where they are most vibrant – India. In the Western hemisphere, the Hindu community – largely the Indian diaspora – also have religious rituals, raas garba and other social events. I will be heading to my local temple to participate and having a bommala koluvu in my home. This year I will be doing something more: watching Belief, on Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) on Oct. 18 at 8 pm, in order to share with friends and family the experience I had a month earlier, and discuss more ways to promote pluralism.

I had the opportunity to attend a preview of the first two episodes of this unique series that will premier during Navaratri. Suhag Shukla, the Executive Director of the Hindu American Foundation, whose Board I serve on, Tanvi Jhaveri-Meghani, friend and long-time HAF supporter, and I attended this  event in Santa Barbara.  We were the representatives of the only Hindu organization in attendance at this special evening that culminated in a dinner at Oprah’s home. Invitees were a cross-section of faith and interfaith leaders – administrators and educators from seminaries, priests, imams, activists, writers, and of course, a few celebrities, like Kris Carr and India Arie.   We were all shuttled from an initial meeting point to The Riviera, a theater in Santa Barbara, where Oprah came and greeted us, along with OWN network staff and people from Values Partnerships involved in organizing the event, such as Joshua DuBois. After viewing the two episodes, we went to Oprah’s home, the “Promised Land,” and broke bread after a series of prayers from several religions were offered, prayers that connected all of us.  Reverend Dr. James C. Perkins, pastor of Greater Christ Baptist Church in Detroit and President of the Progressive National Baptist Caucus, provided me a link to my home in Michigan. My Hindu spiritual roots were evoked by Suhag’s prayer, an ancient Hindu verse, which was accompanied by an explanation that traversed both Hindu belief and the American context. Oprah was a host in the spirit of the Hindu emcomium, Athidhi Devo Bhava (Guest is God):  visiting each table even if just for a moment, sharing stories, being funny, being real, being Oprah. The token of appreciation we gave on behalf of HAF, a statue of Saraswati, was in the spirit of her efforts – educating people through telling compelling stories laced with compassion, creating empathy, promoting pluralism.

We broke bread together – a significant aspect of many interfaith events I have organized – because it encourages conversation at each table.  I met Reshma Thakkar, the young Hindu woman whose story is in the first episode.  Her journey to the Kumbha Mela, described in the episode as “the largest peaceful gathering in the history of the world as a group of believers seek redemption along the banks of a holy river” – followed one about Cha Cha, a young black college student going to a Christian youth camp to be healed after a traumatic experience. Each episode had about four such vignettes: Reshma’s started with a simple introduction to the complexity of Hinduism, and the Kumbha Mela, as well as to her, the “star” of the story. She was followed by Oprah’s cameras – resulting in some pretty phenomenal cinematography – which captured her desire to find meaning and purpose in life. One scene was a dialogue between Reshma and a sadhu (monk/spiritual man) who had vowed to keep his right arm lifted straight up, all the time (even when he was sleeping), for fourteen years.  As I watched, I wondered if people would see the sadhu as someone who was trying to achieve discipline and control over his body and go into the spiritual beyond, or see the exotic, the weird, the way that Hinduism is so often perceived or presented. After more than a decade of interfaith activism, I find myself one of a few amidst the Abrahamic majority, still having to explain stereotypes and misconceptions about the billion Hindus on our planet.

Even at Oprah’s, we were just a few Hindus, embodying the pluralism that is foundational to being Hindu, engaging in conversations that hopefully draw us to a place of deepened intercultural understanding. I know that this Navaratri, I will be energized to issue yet another call to action: engage in interfaith dialogue and increase multi-cultural understanding, by organizing events around the screening where you can discuss what you have seen and experienced.  As the Belief Team Engagement Guide states, “BELIEF is an exploration of the power of our diverse belief systems, faith practices and cultural traditions that connect us to ourselves, sustain us through the most challenging times and bind us closer together in community with one another.” This Navaratri, I will celebrate media-goddess Oprah’s Belief and her ability to share stories that connect people with the intention to lift people up, as I believe in the Shakti within each of us. What do you believe?

Questions to use for discussion:

  • How does faith and belief tie you and your community together?
  • What faith practices do you engage in to sustain yourself and community during the most challenging times?
  • What are steps we can take to embrace the diversity of beliefs within our community?
  • What is your hope for the future of belief around the world?
  • What is your hope for the future of intercultural understanding in our community?

Other helpful links can be found at the Belief Team Resources page, and at Belief in 3 words.

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