Spanish Speakers Learn Hinduism At Hollywood Vedanta Society
To Antoni Subirats, "clemencia," as the Sanskrit word was translated into Spanish, implied a formal pardon from a king or a soldier. It was not a quality easy emulated today, in his opinion. The English translation, however, used "forbearance." He turned to his follow classmates—two Indian Americans, a Mexican American, a Filipino man, and the Argentinean nun running the class—to explain what the English word meant.
Sunday at 11 a.m. is known as the most segregated hour of the week, as races and language groups separate for their own religious services. Sister Jayanti's bilingual Bhagavad Gita class, however, is a unique experiment in integrating the practice of Hinduism in the United States. The philosophically oriented Vedanta is both a help and a hindrance in that effort, but the Argentinean nun has founded that working across the lingual divide is a spiritual exercise in itself.
Sister Jayanti joined the Hollywood convent in 2005 because there were no Vedanta convents in her native Argentina. Born Yanina Olmos, she was baptized Catholic, but both her parents also practiced Vedanta, which sees all religions as communicating the same underlying truth.
In Hollywood, Jayanti quickly saw a language divide. The English- and Spanish-speaking groups at Vedanta Society were "interacting on a business level, but this is a spiritual space," she said. "The spiritual and philosophical dimensions were superficially explored."
While Hindu temples in the United States generally are built by and for Indian Americans, some cater to a Western audience, spreading Vedanta philosophy or the spiritual practice of yoga—rapidly growing in popularity among Latinos, according to the Self Realization Fellowship—to new audiences.
Swami Vivekananda, a disciple of Ramakrishna, first brought Vedanta's inclusive spirituality to the United States when he came to the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Today the Ramakrishna Order of India operates 17 Vedanta Societies across the United States.
Vedanta centers generally reflect the population around them. Santa Barbara's temple, for instance, attracts mostly white Americans, while the urban Hollywood temple attracts a more diverse crowd—including white, Latino, African, and Indian Americans—to its regular religious talks.
The spread of Hinduism is better likened to business than proselytism, according to Philip Goldberg, author of American Veda. Teaching and practices are laid out for the taking, but no conversion is necessary. The emphasis on philosophy means that people come to Vedanta regardless of their cultural, lingual, or racial background.
In this sense, Spanish-language programming would be "consumer driven," Goldberg said. "One of the critical features of teachers that came here [is that] they are all very skillful to adapting to the culture. So it doesn't shock me that in Southern California that they'd have Bhagavad Gita classes in Spanish."
Still, language and culture pose difficulties. Francisco Garcia, a Mexican American from "a radical Catholic family," discovered Vedanta through yoga, but he has only been able to find Spanish-language resources on Hindu philosophy in the past five years. He can speak English and follow most of the conversations in the Bhagavad Gita class, but he will occasionally turn to Sister Jayanti to translate, especially when trying to share complex ideas.
Subirats, who grew up in a secular family in Spain, is more interested in ideas than devotion, but that means every word—clemencia or forbearance—carries great meaning.
The ideas also attract Sunil Vernekar, an American-born Indian, to Vedanta. He appreciates the Bhagavad Gita class not just for the insights into the text but also for the opportunity to meet Latinos. "A lot of the things we are told about a minority community [are] usually the complete opposite," he said.
Vedanta Societies in other urban areas—New York, Chicago, San Francisco—do not provide resources in Spanish, even if they have some Latino members. Sister Jayanti’s effort to bring people together across a lingual divide is "a very humble contribution," she said, but one with a spiritual benefit.
"It feels really good seeing the happiness of the students realizing the deep transformation taking place within when one is able to leave all cultural, religious and personal concerns behind and simply listen to the other's point of view, feeling oneness in the human level," Sister Jayanti said. "And even most beautiful is to see how they pass this understanding on to others."
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