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US Senate opens with Hindu prayer

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC | July 12, 2007

History was created in the United States Senate at 9.30 am on Thursday, when Rajan Zed, the Hindu chaplain of the Indian Association of Northern Nevada, opened the Senate with a Hindu prayer.

This is the first such instance since the formation of the powerful Upper House in 1789.

A few Christian fundamentalists protested and began screaming, while holding the Bible aloft, "Lord Jesus, protect us from this abomination."

Officers from the Sergeant of Arms' office ejected one after the other (three were taken away) from the Senate gallery which looks down on the floor.

The  president pro-tem of the Senate, had to beat the podium with his gavel thrice. He requested Zed to halt his prayer just as he was about to begin, and called on the Sergeant of Arms to restore order in the Senate Chamber.

A Senate aide said these people probably had gotten visitor's passes to the Senate gallery through a Senator's office and noted that "disrupting a Senate in the chamber is a criminal offense and they can be arrested."

A few minutes later, Zed delivered his prayer which took no more than 90 seconds, which as per the instructions from the Office of the Chaplain of the Senate had to be delivered exclusively and entirely in English.

 "Let us pray," Zed began, "We meditate on the transcendental glory of the deity supreme, who is inside the heart of the earth, inside the life of the sky and inside the soul of heaven. May he stimulate and illuminate our minds.

"Lead us from the unreal to real, from darkness to light, and from death to immortality. May we be protected together. May we be nourished together. May we work together with great vigor. May our study be enlightening. May no obstacle arise between us."

Seeking the blessings of god on behalf of and for the Senators, Zed declared, "May the Senators strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world, performing their duties with the welfare of others always in mind. Because by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. May they work carefully and wisely, guided by compassion, and without though for themselves."

"United your resolve, united your hearts, may your spirits be at one, that you may long dwell in unity and concord!" he added, and ended with, "Peace, peace, peace be unto all."

Before stepping away from the podium, Zed also said, "And, Lord, we ask you to comfort the family of former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson," wife of the former and late President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who died at age 94.

Speaking to rediff.com immediately after he delivered the prayer, Zed said, "I sprinkled some Ganga jal -- the water from the Holy Ganges [Images] on the podium before the prayer."

He also bemoaned the protests, saying, "I believe dialogue is always better," and profusely thanked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who had arranged for him to deliver the first Hindu prayer in the US Senate.

"The Senator was a very courageous man for standing up and giving us this opportunity. He was very courageous and I appreciate what he did very much," he said.

A few minutes later, when this correspondent accompanied Zed, his wife, Shipa, and four of his friends from Virginia, who were the only Indians present in the gallery to witness this historic chapter in the US Senate, to Reid's office, Zed told Reid, "We appreciate your courage, you stood up to them. We appreciate it very much that you went through with it."

Reid, seeing the conspicuous tilak of Zed's forehead, asked him what it was about, and the latter, who was wearing the saffron robes synonymous with Hindu priests, explained that it is a sign of auspiciousness.

Earlier, before the prayer, Reid told rediff.com, "There has been some criticism that I arranged this, which is true."

Asked if these protests were from other denominations, Reid said, "From other people," and noted, "The Senate Chaplain's office got hundreds of people protesting, by phone, mail and e-mail for allowing this."

But he asserted: "It shows what America is all about. Having real big arms to put around everyone and this is a religion that has been around a long time, which has brought peace and contentment to people over the generations and we are happy to have a (Hindu) prayer."

Before the prayer, Zed told rediff.com he felt honored, humbled and thrilled that he was creating history. "It's a great honor for me, my family, for the great state of Nevada, for all Americans and for us all Hindus. It's is indeed a historic occasion for all of us Indian-Americans also."

Zed said the fact that a Hindu prayer was opening the US Senate for the first time, was a clear indication that there is an acceptance of Hinduism as part of America today. "Slowly we are becoming mainstream. Yoga is very popular already, and through yoga in America, Hinduism is becoming more known. I teach Hinduism classes also in the community colleges (in Reno, Nevada) and I get a very favorable reception."

Each day, when the Senate is in session, the Senate chaplain delivers the opening prayer, before the Senate gets down to the business of lawmaking, which it shares with the US House of Representatives, but occasionally, on the urging of one community of another, particularly those from minority religions, guest chaplains are invited from across the country to deliver a prayer from their faith.

Zed, an alumnus of the Panjab University, from where he received his bachelor of journalism degree, is also the public relations office of the India Association of North Nevada.

After coming to the US for higher studies, Zed received his master of science and master of business administration from San Jose State University in California and the University of Nevada, Reno, respectively.

Text: Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC | Photograph: Paresh Gandhi







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