Recent comments by presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann have stirred up the discussion about gay marriage once again. While speaking to a group of high school…
Padma Kuppa, a Hindu woman from Troy, Michigan, was born in India. Her family moved to the United States where they remained until the 80’s when her family moved back to India. It wasn’t easy adjusting to being uprooted and moving back to mainstream Indian culture, since she was a teenager when her family moved.
Padma attended engineering school in India, which is an extremely competitive program. In an article for Metro Parent Magazine, she said, “I was at the highest levels in math and science when I returned to India after 10th grade, but that was the norm for students there.”
The National Day of Prayer
Padma’s story of living her faith in the public square begins in May of 2005, when she heard about a National Day of Prayer event being put on in her area. She volunteered to help organize the event but was denied. A year later, when the next National Day of Prayer was coming up, Padma approached the overall coordinator for the National Day of Prayer to ask again if she could help organize the event and participate. She was denied a once again, but this time she found it was a specifically Judeo-Christian event.
This caused a stir in local media. To prevent people like Padma from interfering again, the National Day of Prayer Task Force tried to get the city of Troy to declare the holiday to be a strictly Christian observance. The city exploded into controversy with threats of lawsuits in violation of the First Amendment. “I was not used to my faith being such a public thing before that. Faith had been so private to me, but then overnight I was on the front page of the Free Press,” she said.
Padma then decided to join forces with a few other people and begin the Troy Interfaith Group. On May 4th, 2006, the Troy Interfaith Group held its first National Day of Prayer celebration at St. Anastasia Roman Catholic Church in Troy, Michigan. As a result, Harvard University approached Padma about using the National Day of Prayer situation a case study for The Pluralism Project.
Padma was born into the Hindu faith. She grew up in a family with a lot of religious variety with close family members who were Catholic, Jewish, and Hindu. She and her family had appreciation and respect for people of other faiths, so her involvement in the interfaith arena was natural. “When I went off for college, my father sent me with the Gita,” (one of the Hindu scriptures) “the Bible, and Shakespeare.”
In 2008, Padma lost a close friend and began a blog called “Seeking Shanti” in her honor. Her blog was eventually moved to Patheos, where she is an advocate for Hinduism online. In 2009 she also began work with WISDOM (Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in Metro Detroit). Additionally, Padma is a part of her local Hindu Temple’s outreach committee and works with the National Temple Organization.
“Hinduism isn’t a religion for us; it’s a way of living,” Padma said.
Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world with around one billion followers. It’s a religion that does not fall into one category as it is monotheistic, polytheistic, and also pantheistic. It’s monotheistic because Hindus have a belief in an ultimate being called Brahman, but it’s polytheistic because they believe in multiple deities, whose numbers range in the thousands and beyond who all express different aspects of Brahman. Hinduism is also pantheistic because they often worship spirits and believe that all people and nature are of divine nature.
“There’s a lot of misinformation about Hinduism in this country,” Padma told me while we sat at a table in Starbucks. There was an egregious error in one of her son’s textbooks from school. “It said that ‘Hindus worship cows.’ Right there in his book! Hindus do not worship cows,” she said. “We revere cows; just like we do all of nature because we believe that the divine is in all things.”
As it has with Sikhs, cross-discrimination has affected Hindus since 9/11. She told me, “One time when I was at an airport I was approached by someone and was asked, ‘So, are you Shi’ite or Sunni?’ And he was a well-educated man!”
In an article in the Detroit Free Press Padma said “What happened on 9/11, and in any instance where religion is called into play, teaches us that faith is something that has the potential to divide or unite. It is in us to choose the latter to make a more peaceful world for ourselves, by learning more about our neighbors and examining our own belief systems. To that end, 9/11 had a domino effect on my life.”
She said that the misinformation is not without reason: “I admit that we as a Hindu community have not done a good job of educating the public as to what we are about, and I’m trying to help change that with my work with the HAF [Hindu American Foundation].” The Hindu American Foundation is an advocacy group which offers education resources about Hinduism that works for the interests of Hindu Americans across the country.
While the specific beliefs and practices of the Hindu faith vary wildly between individuals, families, and geographic areas, it can be understood through 5 main principles and 10 disciplines as taught by Dr. Gangadhar Choudhury.
5 Main Principles (Beliefs)
The first principle is that God exists. According to Wikipedia, Brahman is “is the unchanging, infinite, immanent, and transcendent reality which is the Divine Ground of all matter, energy, time, space, being, and everything beyond in this Universe; that is the one supreme, universal spirit.”
Hinduism has a Great Trinity, the Trimurti, which consists of Brahma (creator), Vishnu (the maintainer or preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer). These three deities use their various manifestations to keep the cosmos in balance.
The remaining four principles are:
- All human beings are divine – Because Brahman is the divine matter that makes up the universe, the divine is in everything.
- Unity of existence through love
- Religious harmony – This principle is greatly evidenced through Padma’s life and her work to unify the hearts and celebrate people of different faiths in metro Detroit.
- Knowledge of 3 Gs – Ganga (sacred river), Gita (sacred scripture), Gayatri (sacred mantra)
10 Disciplines (Ways of Living)
- Satya – Truth, which includes social justice and environmentalism
- Ahimsa – Non-violence, including towards animals, making Hindus vegetarian
- Brahmacharya – Celibacy, sobriety, self-control, non-adultery (also one of the four stages of life)
- Asteya – No desire to possess or steal (also a main principle of Jainism)
- Aparighara – Non-corrupt, living simply and not being obsessed with material acquisition (another main principle that Jainism and Hinduism share)
- Shaucha – Cleanliness, purity
- Santosh – Contentment, gratefulness, happiness
- Swadhyaya – Gathering and reading of scriptures
- Tapas – Austerity, perseverance, penance, discipline, spiritual enlightenment
- Ishwarpranidhan – Regular prayers
As far as worship on a daily basis, devout followers observe at home through things like: chores and food preparation for the family shrine, lighting lamps, meditation, recitation of scripture and mantras, and singing hymns.
Additionally, there is an emphasis on celebration special events and periods in one’s life in Hinduism, with rituals and rites to boot. Among others, Hindus celebrate birth, first feeding, marriage, and death.
One of the practices that the world has picked up on from Hinduism is the tradition of yoga. In Hinduism, yoga simply means “path” or “way of knowing God”. There are several paths or approaches to learning about God:
- Bhakti – Path of devotion, which includes Asana, among other things, which is what the physical activity of Westernized yoga is derived from.
- Gñāna – Path of knowledge
- Dhyana – Path of meditation
- Karma – Path of action
Padma had an equal representation of all of the paths while she was growing up. “I used to tell people that my mother was Bhakti, my father was Gñāna, my aunt was Dhyana and my uncle was Karma.”
Another piece of Hinduism that people seem to misunderstand is reincarnation. One of the beliefs of Hinduism and other Eastern religions that came out of India is that we are all trapped in the cycle of Samsara. Samsara is the cycle of life and death. The way to escape Samsara is through karma, dharma, and yoga.
Once you achieve purity and spiritual enlightenment you can finally escape Samsara (and attain liberation), but you are perpetually reborn until you reach that point. How you are reborn is linked with karma, which is the idea that your actions create ripples through the universe, also described as “each action has an action and a reaction force”.
My time with Padma Kuppa was wonderful. She was very well-spoken and was very passionate about her work. I appreciate her taking time out of her busy schedule to sit and talk with me to tell me about her work in interfaith and beautiful heritage. I look forward to getting to know her better.
The thing that really stood out during my time spent with Padma was a sense of her passion because it was utterly contagious. She wasn’t doing these things in her community and devoting countless hours to these organizations out of obligation; no, she was doing them because she believes in them deep down in her soul. It was stunning.
It was incredible to talk to someone from a completely different walk of life who expressed with her every breath her desire to bring people together, show love, and celebrate diversity through unity. This is one thing that everyone I have interviewed has had in common with Padma: they all have heart.
Padma finished our conversation with the following statement, which sums up her way of life perfectly: “Forget what you don’t believe, live what you do believe. Learn a little, but act together,” meaning, don’t spend so much time bickering over the little things that you never actually live what you claim to believe.
Thank you to Padma Kuppa for meeting with me and to Dr. Bob Cornwall for introducing me to her. If you want to hear more from Padma, read her blog at Patheos.
Zen Buddhism is more than just about sitting on cushions and humming. Hear from three lovely Zen Buddhists living in Ferndale, Michigan next!
Photo credit: Flickr / mckaysavage (Top image: Batu Caves), Tejal Patel (Hindu woman and boy), Auswandern Malaysia (Batu Caves statues), ahisgett (Hindu temple), ahisgett (Hindu symbol), chem7 (Hindu god statues), Tejal Patel (Hindu bride)