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Hindu students faithful at Elon, even without formal organization

by Bonnie Efird,
  • Freshman Opal Patel (top left) with her family. Photo submitted.

  • Raj Rawal’s cousin is pictured above in the traditional Hindu wedding. The wedding ceremony is one of the most celebrated rituals in the Hindu faith. Photo submitted.

Nine-hundred million people practice Hinduism, according to hubpages.com. That is 14 percent of the world's population. But despite Hinduism's large global following, there is only a handful of Hindu Elon University students.

Although Elon University was founded with the United Church of Christ, the school aims to embrace diversity in both race and religion—there are plans in the works to build a multi-faith center.

There is not a formal Hindu club or organization equivalent to the large Christian groups like InterVarsity.

To Elon junior and practicing Hindu Raj Rawal, though, this does not matter. He said he remains devoted to his individual practice despite Elon's lack of Hindu fellowship.

"I've practiced every morning since I was 5 years old for five minutes and do a prayer to the sun (Suriynarayan Puja)," Rawal said. "Wherever I am when I wake up, I always do this," Rawal said.

Elon freshman and Hindu Opal Patel said she does not have the time or outlet at Elon to keep up their practice. Patel said she grew up in Cary, N.C. in a strongly united Hindu community.

"I haven't been good with keeping up with my religious practices here, but I do have my parents to call me so that they can remind me when something is going on," she said. "My family is very religious, and this time of the year is filled with a lot of pretty important days pertaining to our faith."

Despite the small numbers and lack of a formal campus organization, the Hindu students at Elon said they generally feel they are accepted here at Elon and have not had any problems with the Judeo-Christian dominant society.

"Everyone is supportive and curious of my practices," Rawal said.
In Sept. 2009, Rawal held an Aarti ceremony throughout the week of the Navratri holiday.

"Many people came to my room to participate in the Puja and wrote their world religion papers on it," Rawal said.

The Navratri holiday (Navratri means nine nights) is nine nights and 10 days of worship and dance dedicated to nine forms of Shakti/Devi. (Shakti and Devi are synonymous. They are referred to as The Great Divine mother in Hinduism, which represents the core form of every female Goddess.)

Even though there is no on-campus Hindu temple to practice in at Elon, there are Hindu temples in the area.

"Cary (N.C.) just built an all new temple, and it is beautiful," Rawal said. Rawal typically sticks to individual practice in his room, however. "I practice in my room with my little statues," he said.
Elon may embrace religious diversity, but it is not flourishing on its own here by any means, according to Rawal.

"It is in no way near strong, it needs tons of help," Rawal said. "This is not anyone's fault, though, people just do not know about the school (Elon) who are Indian."

Rawal emphasizes that larger state schools have a higher Indian and Hindu population.

"The Indian community is much more popular at state schools such as UNC, Rutgers, UCLA, UT, UGA and UMD," Rawal said. "In high school, I was the president of South Asian Student Society of America, where we did many dance events."

For this reason, Rawal said he misses his involvement in the Hindu community.

Patel and Rawal said the most important aspect of their faith does not rely on strength in numbers. Rather, they all acknowledge what they think is the deeper purpose of any faith—guiding principles that enrich life and give it meaning.

Patel said she gains moral strength and respect from her faith, and that is what Hinduism is to her.

"I think the main thing that I've been taught growing up is the morals that lie in Hinduism," Patel said. "I guess just respecting other people's faith, but also maintaining my faith by respecting nature, books and knowledge."

To Elon senior and practicing Hindu Neha Sampat, Hinduism can sometimes be misunderstood.

"Hinduism teaches that 'God' can have many characteristics and many traits and can reveal himself in many different forms," she said. "This is why we give him different names and physical embodiments. Given this, we also believe that Jesus or Allah or other important religious and secular figures can be considered "God," but this is a hard concept for many people to accept."

Although Hinduism may be misunderstood by some, Rawal, Sampat and Patel agree that Elon strives for religious respect.

Although he said he recognizes the religious respect here at Elon, Rawal also aknowledges that not having an on campus organization is unfortunate. Rawal said he does not expect a Hindu organization is in the near future.

"In reality, this will not happen for a while, but I would love for it to happen," he said.

Those like Patel, Rawal and Sampat said they look forward to the possibility of the multi-faith center strengthening the Elon Hindu community.

"I think the multi-faith center is a great idea for people who have very strong beliefs — it will help educate everyone about other people's faith," Patel said.