Sunita Viswanath, Co-founder and Board Member of Sadhana, a New York based group representing progressive Hindus stood at JFK airport with a sign that said “We Are One” The accompanying post read, “If any Indian American thinks they are superior to immigrants from Yemen, Iraq, or other Muslim countries, they are in for a rude awakening.” This article and photo splashed across our Facebook feeds and I could not ignore or look past this statement. Her words hit home and I immediately contacted her for an exclusive interview.
Sunita chatted with me about her recent stance, her personal goals and the work done by her organization Sadhana in New York. “When it comes to racism, there is no racism that is directed only towards Muslims – racists don’t care about the differences about Muslims and Hindus – this is absolutely about all of us! A few of us conduct a Balavihar class in Brooklyn for young children. The day after the election, when parents waited on the curb outside the class, a man walked up to the parents and told them that he is against Hindus and Muslims. And he spat at some of them too.”
For years, Sunita has worked with women’s organizations in the area of social justice and over time, this has inspired her to be counted as a voice representing progressive Hindus. She says, “Sadhana members have definitely been witness to a prevalent Islamophobia in our community – within our families, in the midst of casual conversations, and as part of very organized, dangerous political manifestation. Over the years, my work took me to many interfaith social justice conversations, and I acutely missed seeing a Hindu voice represented in that dialogue. I never thought that I would be contributing to that collective voice representing what it means to be a Hindu. But, here I am, building a progressive Hindu platform!” Working with likeminded citizens, she helped launch the organization ‘Sadhana’ a non-profit designed to advance the ideals of Hinduism in the sphere of social justice and peace.
It is clear from her statement and everything that we have seen in the media recently that what is at stake is the concept of “otherness.” And, this “otherness’” is immediately reflected not in my long last name or the fact that I pray to Hindu idols inside my home. It is reflected in my brown skin – a fact I have become hyper-aware about these past few weeks since the election.
It is this identity that Sunita wishes to represent at its best. “We wanted our organization to represent the best of what we were taught as kids growing up in the Hindu faith. We are passionate about the path of dharma as a path of active justice. We chose the name for the organization very carefully because it involves purposeful action,” she says.
She is most proud of an ongoing project Prithvi, which involves a beach cleanup at North Channel Bridge in Jamaica Bay. “We gather dozens of Hindu volunteers in an effort where we partner with the National Park Service. Together we clean up the beach where Hindus worship, and where their puja offerings wash up. We regularly go to many temples and partner with priests and talk to devotees about our religion’s emphasis on worshipping Mother Earth. If we truly follow this principle, then, we should not be discarding offerings in the ocean waters. And, really, there is not one person who disagrees with us when we lay out our case.”
Talking to Sunita leaves me with the sense that she is a passionate doer; a person of faith who attempts to live out the best ideals of Hinduism in her work everyday; a person who stands for humanity and empathy. “Vasudaiva kutumbhakam: the world is one family,” is her guiding principle. And she invites us to join her.
Please visit www.sadhana.org to learn more about her work.
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the current Managing Editor of ‘India Currents’ magazine.