The Hindu American Foundation, still cannot contain its elation over President Barack Obama's inclusion of Hindus in his inaugural address--a first by a US president.
In his inaugural remarks, immediately following his swearing in as America's 44th and first African American president, Obama said, "For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength not a weakness. We are a nation of Christian and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers.We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth," he said.
Suhag Shukla, managing director and legal counsel of HAF--an organization comprising second generation Indian American professionals--which had earlier written to then President-elect Obama and his transition team urging them to make a sustained effort to broaden the religious dialogue in the United States, said, "This was the first time I heard the inclusion of Hindus in a speech of such monumental proportion."
"It really topped off an already surreal, dream-like day--I would witness in my lifetime, the inauguration of a president who was of an ethnic and racial heritage that was different from that of our Founding Fathers," Shukla told rediff.com.
Shukla said, "And, the specific mention of Hindus, along with Jews, Christians and Muslims in the inaugural speech, in addition to the fact that several Hindu Americans, including Sonal Shah, Sanjay Gupta, Preeta Bansal and Neal Katyal, have been appointed and are being considered for prominent positions in the Administration, really demonstrates that our community is finally coming of age."
She predicted that "under the inclusive vision of President Obama, we now have the hope and opportunity of having our perspectives, our visions and our voices not only heard, but considered and respected. And, to this end, HAF will continue to deliver a Hindu American voice and a message of understanding, tolerance and pluralism to the halls of Congress and the public at large as it has been for the past five years."
Shukla argued that "the religious pluralism inherent to Hinduism in its recognition of multiple paths and the existence of the Divine in all things is so necessary in this time of conflict and misunderstandings between religions."
"And, in his own words, President Obama's personal theology recognizes this as well," she said, and recalled, "In April of 2004, shortly before he was sworn in as a US Senator, he said, 'I am rooted in the Christian tradition, (but) I believe that there are many paths to the same place, and that is the belief that there is a higher power, a belief that we are connected as a people. That there are values that transcend race or culture, that move us forward, and there's an obligation for all of us individually as well as collectively to take responsibility and to make those values lived.'"
Shukla said HAF was so impressed that throughout his campaign Obama had continuously echoed this belief and then in his inaugural speech and overjoyed to hear him include Hindus too along with the other major faiths that make up the mosaic that is America.
She said that "the power of this pluralistic perspective cannot be underestimated," and added: "If President Obama's stated belief in religious pluralism pervades his policies and style of governing, no longer will one particular religious perspective hold special privilege or enjoy exclusive access to the inner halls of government."
"We are all, as Americans, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, etc. about to enter a new age where government is truly representative of this great and diverse nation we call the United States of America," Shukla said.
Her sentiments were echoed by Ishani Chowdhury, HAF's director of public policy, who is based in Washington,DC and interacts with members of the US Congress and policymakers pushing HAF's agenda.
Saying, "It was indeed great happiness to the Hindu American community that our faith tradition was acknowledged in the President's inauguration speech," particularly since Hindu Americans have "so richly contributed to the fabric of this nation, by way of professional, academic and economic achievements, as well as the building of temples that serve as the cornerstone for our community." Thus, Chowdhury said "President Obama's understanding of this truly makes us proud."
She also said that "the choice of appointees and members, first in his transition team, and now in his Administration, who are of such diverse backgrounds, including members of the Hindu American community, only shows the President's commitment to include a multi-faceted and multi-ethnic group, each of whim will bring a unique viewpoint to this Administration."
Chowdhury said that "through our work and interactions with members of Congress and the Administration, we hope to continue to bring this consistent voice to the Hindu American community," and noted that when HAF wrote to then President-elect Obama and his transition team was the beginning "of one of the steps we have taken to ensure that our issues are addressed and our message heard."
She also said that while former President George W Bush had started the tradition of hosting a White House celebration of Diwali "it was of great disappointment to the Hindu American community to not have had the honor of the President's presence in any of the celebrations."
Chowdhury said, "We hope that President Obama continues the tradition of hosting a white House Diwali celebration and considers attending as well, much like that of Presidents Bush and Clinton attending Eid dinners at the White House."
Shukla and Chowdhury spoke of how Hindu temples across the US had marked Obama's inauguration with the ringing of temple bells, lighting of sacred lamps, burning incense, and by the recitation of Hindu scripture to bless his success.
They said that besides urging leaders of Hindu temples across America to participate in a national inaugural prayer service, HAF had also organized special pujas and prarthna to invoke blessings for peace and prosperity with the advent of the new administration.