Hindu Awareness Community “Athma” Teaches Spiritual Principles

Posted 01/15/08
For the past three years, College of Social Studies and French double major Anand Venkatachalam ’08 has studied South Asian culture, history, language and the Hindu religion. What was lacking, however, was the opportunity to practice Hinduism on campus.

“I found it very odd that a campus so greatly endowed with an interest in Asian art forms did not have even a student group that provided a community for Hindus on campus,” says Venkatachalam, a native of Chennai, India. “College is a time of ethic formation, and questioning norms and values. Hindu students, or students who were raised by practicing Hindu parents, go through this period of soul-searching.”

Venkatachalam, pictured at right, and his Hindu peers used to meet twice a month to pray, consolidate their thoughts and partake in Hindu rituals at the Connecticut Valley Hindu Temple Society in Middletown. But now, the Hindu students, and those curious to know more about the religious tradition, can partake in regular meetings through the newly-formed Hindu awareness community, Athma.

Athma means “soul or spirit,” and appeals to Hindu spiritual principles.

“Since Hinduism advocates for the realization of the Self through meditation, good works and service to others, the betterment of the spirit (Athma) becomes the main objective,” Venkatachalam explains. “The spirit also transcends caste, creed, religion, race, gender, and sexuality, which is analogous to our mission to provide a gathering for those interested in Hindu philosophy regardless of their background.”

Venkatachalam co-founded the organization with Kumar Sarkar ’09 and Meera Dave ’08, backed by support from the Chaplain’s Office, administration and faculty.

Already, Athma has 40 members, which includes students who identified themselves as Hindus, and students from other religious and ethnic backgrounds who are interested in Hinduism. Venkatachalam estimates that five or six self-identified Hindus join the undergraduate class every year at Wesleyan.

“Our society serves as catalyst amongst the Hindu community to rethink the value of our cultural practices and evaluate our values knowing what it means to be a Hindu in depth,” says Sarkar. “We will work with religious groups on campus to promote spirituality beyond the lines of religion and faith, to realize the ‘athma’ of all beings.”

Athma’s mission as a spiritual community is to recognize the common existence, diversity and plurality of Hinduism in its various rituals, practices, and forms of worship; acknowledge the unique nature of all religions in their pursuit towards truth and spiritual consciousness; identify the universal truth, called “Para Bramhan” and spiritual consciousness; and gain awareness of the historical, intellectual and spiritual heritage that has grown from the tenets of “Sanatana Dharma,” or a spiritual path or philosophy.

Athma is open to anyone from any religious background. During the meeting, or satsang, the students recite slokas, or prayerful verses, participate in Om chanting, and have monthly guest speakers and festivals. The discussions are aimed at understanding and realizing the universal love and devotion that underlies Hinduism and its culture in a less academic environment.

Venkatachalam says Wesleyan is more open to religious and spiritual communities than others he has encountered, although he still gets his fair share of questions.

“Western society looks for concrete answers to questions such as ‘why do you have so many gods?’ and ‘why do you deify cows and animals?’ The answers to which stem from multiple mythologies, traditions and practices. So no one answer is the same, but no one answer is completely wrong either,” he explains.

Discussion and debate topics include the study of the history of Hinduism and its evolution, the life and message of various Gurus, understanding the Hindu Pantheon, homosexuality and Hinduism, misconception of Hindu practices and religious institutions and Hindu spirituality.

The group already has support from the Chaplain’s Office and some faculty, however it is seeking additional sponsorship and donations from the Wesleyan community. Funds will be used for Athma events, speakers, campus-wide festivals, presentations and services to reeducate members and teach others.

Athma meetings, or satsang, are held from 5 to 7 p.m. every Friday in the Chaplain’s Lounge. For more information e-mail Anand Venkatachalam at vtharakad@wesleyan.edu.

By Olivia Drake, The Wesleyan Connection editor